Philippines: Elizabeth Camantilis

Elizabeth Camantilis was part of the small generation of Filipinos to take a first breath in an independent Philippine Republic, making her a citizen of a land, at long last, governed by its own people. But Camantilis' Philippine Republic citizenship went unrecognized by the outgoing and incoming colonial powers. To Spain, she was born a Spanish subject; to her people, she was a full-fledged citizen of the Philippine Republic; to the United States, she was neither. Within just a couple of years of her birth, the U.S. would brutally annex the Philippines—an action that would legally make Camantilis and all Filipinos "non-citizen U.S. Nationals." But against great odds, Camantilis made the most out of the uneasy times to which she was born into, becoming the first fully-educated and trained Ibaloy nurse.

Almost exactly one year before Camantilis' birth on 28 August 1899, both the Philippine Revolution and the Spanish–American War had concluded, actions which would end over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule, while opening the door to almost 50 years of U.S. colonial rule. The Spanish Empire was collapsing all across the Pacific, just as a less-famous but equally ambitious Greater America was steadily incorporating pieces of the crumbling Monarquía Hispánica.

The Philippines and its people were in the midst of one of the most tumultuous periods in its history.  As if a revolution (1896-1898) and a war (1898) weren't enough for the people of the Philippines to contend with, before the U.S. wrested complete control over their land, it would provoke the brutal three-year Philippine–American War (1899-1902), which was already raging by the time of Camantilis' birth.

Spain and the United States' refusal to recognize the Republic's independence crushed the hope of millions of Filipinos like Elizabeth's parents who endured life under colonial rule and a revolutionary war. Despite initial promises otherwise, the U.S. undoubtedly had something other than independence in store for the Philippines as it sunk deeper and deeper into its affairs. Prefiguring the inevitable, the U.S. had already claimed legal sovereignty over the Philippines and other territorial possessions after Spain's defeat. $20 million in "compensation" was transferred to Spain after concluding the Treaty of Paris of 1898, ceding control to the U.S. For Filipinos, this was a staggering betrayal, but few foresaw the inevitable exchange of one colonial power for another in the making. The articles of the treaty would take effect just four months before Camantilis' birth.

After the bloody Philippine–American War concluded in 1902, a war which claimed some 250,000–1,000,000 Filipino lives and dissolved the Philippine Republic, Filipinos like Camantilis once again were made subjects of an imperial state; their subjugation was simply disguised by a new, abstruse classification: non-citizen U.S. National. Though born on Philippine soil, as were countless generations of her ancestors, Camantilis' nationality and citizenship would now require an asterisk and lengthy footnote to explain the entitlements and limitations the classification brought. Things would remain murky for the rest of her short life, but not before she undertook a series of progressively ambitious endeavors that would take her far away from the remote and mountainous settlements she knew as a child. In a life filled with defying considerable odds, the course of Camantilis' life was shadowed by incredible irony. It was literally because of the U.S., the country that voided her Philippine citizenship and subjugated its people, that she now had chance to attend school, learn English, develop her skills, and study for a much needed profession. This was an irony born not of altruism but of colonial ambition.

By the early 1900s, the new colonial masters of the Philippines were realizing imperial aspirations that focused on the exploitation of the archipelago's vast resources and the subjugation of its people through what President William McKinley termed "benevolent assimilation." Concurrently, a less well-know byproduct of the United States' imperialism was opening new geographic routes for Filipinos to explore. As their homeland was being remade to suit U.S. interests, Camantilis and thousands of other Filipinos now had the opportunity to venture across the Pacific as Citizens of the Philippine Islands, one of a then growing class of "non-citizen U.S. Nationals." It was an opportunity that quickly drew seamen, nurses, doctors, students, and agricultural workers to the United States. Many of those that left were ostensibly filling labor demands, but they were also (unwittingly) serving a longer-term agenda to secure U.S. hegemony, by helping to remake the Philippines in the United States' own image.

By age 23, Camantilis would be set to further expand some of her hard-fought gains and travel to the land that had colonized her and its people. She had already passed every test before her and won the goodwill and trust of her benefactors, who were destine to recommend her for further study in the U.S. It would prove to be a hopeful beginning brutally interrupted by personal tragedy.

The most promising among the fifteen probationers

...Elizabeth Camantilis (our fourth girl) entered the school [St. Luke's Hospital] in April, 1918, as a member of the class of 1922, and if her work continues to be as good during the remaining three years as it has been until now, she bids fair to be the best nurse who has ever been graduated from St. Luke's. She is an Igorot, who has had the advantage of American teachers for several years of her school life, which undoubtedly accounts largely for her ability in the classroom and the high standard of excellence that characterizes all her work. Her eagerness to learn, thoughtfulness about many little things, and winning manner give constant joy to the American nurses whose privilege it is to watch all the Filipino nurses develop from day to day, and she is easily the most promising among the fifteen probationers.
Charlotte G. Massey1

Elizabeth Camantilis was born in Dalupirip, Itogon in the Benguet Province on the island of Luzon. Although the western style of clothes she wore in her passport photo above might appear to indicate otherwise, Elizabeth was not an urban Filipino. She was an ethnic Ibaloy [Ibaloi], an indigenous people that at the time and to this day primarily inhabit Luzon's Benguet Province. Ibaloys are one of several sub-ethnic groups that belong to a larger family of peoples collectively known as Igorots. Living primarily throughout the north and central parts of Luzon, Igorots and have a long history with to the United States, a history that, if one observes at how Igorots (and other Filipinos) were featured in the US press during the early 1900s, runs 180 degrees from Camantilis' life.2

Although Igorot is a Tagalog term that literally means "people from the mountains," it should be noted that for some the term carries negative connotations and its use today can be contentious without proper contextualization. The contention is largely the result of the extensive and only recently acknowledged legacy of exploitation Igorots faced during the early 20th century—not in the Philippines but in the United States and Europe. Although the term was used more or less benignly for centuries, the fact that hundreds of Igorots (most from Bontoc, Mountain Province) were brought to the U.S. for "living exhibitions" and "colonial exhibits" at the 1899 Greater America Exposition, the 1904 St. Louis World's FairConey Island in 1905, the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, as well as at side shows and circuses for decades, made the term Igorot synonymous with an unchristian and uncivilized people. At the same time Igorots and other peoples of the Philippines were being exploited in the U.S. as performers, they were being ridiculed in the popular press

Ironically, the intense Christian missionary activity in Northern Luzon that started during the early 1900s would be key to helping the U.S. achieve the Igorots' physical, cultural, and spiritual transformation. But the disconnect between the United States' official civilizing mission and its popular perception would prove impossible to bridge, and thus the racist stereotypes persisted for decades—with reverberations even to this day. The U.S. government clearly propagandized such "transformations," even going so far as to promote the process as the inevitable outcome of its civilizing mission in "our islands, and their people.3"

Over the course of hundreds of years, Spain's drive to dominate the entire Philippines had kept this ethnic group entrenched in remote areas, giving them a reputation as a people that wouldn't assimilate culturally, linguistically, or religiously. Igorots retained their independence by inhabiting places where Spaniards weren't prepared to traverse, let alone settle. When Spain abandoned its colonial project in the Philippines, their U.S. successors would prove more tenacious in efforts to dominate Philippine lands.  It wouldn't be long before an industrious American civilian government would seek to upturn the millennia-old traditions of local inhabitants, no matter how remote they were situated. They quickly dug deep into the periphery, bringing military engineers, missionaries, and entrepreneurs that put them in direct contact with a "wild, pagan people." The roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, churches, mines, new judiciary and monetary systems, and urbanization efforts that followed in their wake would put the largely agrarian-based communities of Igorots in an impossible position: assimilate or face an oppressive economic and social isolation.

Bua Industrial School for Igorot girls

Camantilis' path out of Itogon was remarkable, and her journey to become the first fully-educated and trained nurse of her people would be closely watched and supported by missionaries from the Episcopal Church. Without the backing of missionaries—who lobbied within their own networks as well as with U.S. government officials on Camantilis' behalf—her trajectory would most likely have been far more modest.

Non-Catholic denominations were eager to establish themselves in the remote lands of Luzon, for it would be easier to convert Igorots from their pagan ways to an Episcopal or Methodist version of Christianity, rather than from Catholicism. From a young age, it was clear that education, religious instruction, and vocational training would go hand-in-hand with each step of Camantilis' future. It's no coincidence that the broad network of missionaries working from remote parts of Luzon had motives that were in alignment with the colonial ambitions of the United States. Margaret M. Kilburn, an Episcopalian missionary stationed in Bontoc, Mountain Province during the 1920s, wrote of the ultimate goals for their missionary work, nonchalantly inserting her own prejudices:

Some day when Igorote land ceases to be a land of wild, pagan people, and has become a land of clean, honest Christians who no longer enjoy taking heads, the G.F.S.A. [Girls' Friendly Society in America] may well feel it has had a large part in bringing about this change. We must train the girls in order to help the community...4

Camantilis was part of the inaugural class of the Bua Industrial School for Igorot girls, which formed in 1906. She and countless others wouldn't have to pay for their education through tuition, but would end up sacrificing a great deal in order to become the kind of useful, "clean and honest Cristian" that Kilburn had in mind. Camantilis was just 7 or 8 years old when she entered Bua and this action would be of tremendous consequence for the young girl; it would literally set the course of her adult life. The school was founded and run by Episcopalian missionaries who left no doubt that they aimed to Christianize the local inhabitants. In order to enroll, Camantilis would first need to be baptized—which meant accepting the Gospel and renouncing the religious tradition she was born into, long before she probably understood either. In the process, her Ibaloy name "Itang" would be discarded for the Christian "Elizabeth," just as her native tongue would give way to English to facilitate her studies. Like all the girls, she would need an impeccably clean uniform and eventually adopt Western clothing. Needless to say, her family relations would require significant adjustment.

But how and why did Camantilis end up at Bua? Unfortunately, we don't have any first-hand accounts, but a contemporaneous example of how another "Igorate boy" was transformed (i.e. assimilated) through his contact with missionaries and U.S. government support, is illuminating:

At first women and children fled at the sight of a white stranger, but soon curiosity won the day, and Father [Walter C.] Clapp wrote, 'here is no trouble about getting in touch with the people. I sometimes wish they, or I were not so tangible, when they swarm about me as they have, literally by scores. I must say that I know hardly any other kind of people whom I would rather have swarm thus, if it must be. To be sure they are mostly naked but that precludes the dirt of clothes.' Through giving medical and surgical aid where he was able, through teaching in the public school just opened by the government, he won their confidence. The picturesque, bright-eyed children soon began to play around his house, singing, looking at scrap books. Then when the Holy Communion was celebrated, or Evensong said in the little 'Chapel-room,' they would perch themselves on the broad ledges of the windows and peer in at the 'Melikano' with his peculiar ways. Then one day after almost two years of patient waiting, there happened what they had hoped for from the beginning, a little Igorote boy, Pit-a-Pit, stepped over the threshold of the chapel and asked for Baptism. This first product of our Igorote work is now Dr. Hilary P. Clapp, intern in St. Luke's Hospital, Manila, P. I.5

Founded by Alice McKay Kelly in 1906, the Bua School was located in the barrio of Antamok, just a few miles outside of Baguio.6 Like Hilary Clapp (Pitapit), it's conceivable that as a seven-year-old, Camantilis was drawn to Bua and reached out to the missionaries, who welcomed her to join. From Bua, she studied at the Baguio High School, where an instructor "had found this girl to be so full of promise that upon her graduation from the Baguio High School, wrote the director of the bureau of education, Manila, asking him to intercede with the Daughters of the American Revolution in her behalf.7" The intervention was successful; she would need four more years of study but was on her way to becoming a nurse.

Leaving Itogon

Camantilis enrolled in the nursing program at St. Luke's Hospital in April 1918, completing her studies in spring 1922 as the "honor graduate of a class of eleven, therefore receiving the Cathedral prize."8 Against all odds but achieved through her own perseverance, grit, and intelligence, a promising career was clearly in store for this young Ibaloy woman. She moved quickly on to attaining her next set of goals, inconceivable without her "non-citizen U.S. National" status nor without the support of the well-connected missionary network. Just before graduating, Camantilis received a one-year scholarship from the Daughters of the American Revolution for travel to the U.S. and post-graduate study at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston; she would later study Public Health Nursing at nearby Simmons College. She would be the only Filipino at Simmons.

Camantilis was issued a passport for travel to the U.S. on 11 August 1922; it would be for visiting purposes only but was valid for two years. Less than 10 days later, she left Manila on the S.S. President Lincoln on a voyage to took her from Manila to Hong Kong, China, Japan, and finally the United States. After nearly a month at sea, she arrived at the Port of San Francisco on 13 September 1922. A long journey by rail, alone, would put her in Boston before winter's chill—one of the many new things she's have to get used to during her studies.

Sometime between 1923 and 1924, Camantilis contracted tuberculosis while in the U.S.  It's likely that her practicum work as a nurse put her in contact with tubercular patients at the hospital, exposing her to this highly contagious disease.  William Cameron Forbes, former Governor-General of the Philippines, later recorded in his journal that for her recovery, Camantilis "went to the Sharon Sanatorium. She did not gain, returned to the Islands, and died there soon afterward."9  Forbes was personally acquainted with Camantilis and had helped her secure her studies in the U.S. 

As Camantilis' condition deteriorated and it became clear there was no good prognosis on the way, it is assumed she desired to return to her homeland for recovery, or simply to die peacefully in her native land. With help from her still active support network, she made arrangements to leave the U.S. for her homeland on what must have been a long and harrowing journey. Camantilis was now a tubercular Non-citizen U.S. National traveling across the full length of the U.S. by rail, then across the Pacific by ocean liner; such a journey would take at least six weeks to complete. She reversed her trajectory, but instead of leaving the U.S. with newfound skills, experience, learning to share with her people, she would be returning with something very different. The same institutions that facilitated her travel to the U.S. in 1922 would most likely arrange the logistics and cover her return fare. Was there any chance for recovery? We don't know, but no doubt she never abandoned hope.

By 1924 Camantilis had made her way back to the Philippines.  She died in Itogon on 27 December 1924 at the age of 25 and was buried in Supang. Just prior to her death, Episcopalian missionaries reported on her condition for The Record of the Girls' Friendly Society in America:

From one of our workers in the Philippines comes the following comment on an Igorote girl who became a Christian through her training in Easter School, Baguio : 'We made a strenuous trip down to Itogen to see Elizabeth Camantilis last week. There is no hope, I suppose, for her recovery, but sad as the situation is, I cannot help being impressed with the great good she is doing even confined to her bed in that poor little Igorote hut.10

Though Elizabeth Camantilis never married or had children of her own, she is remembered to this day by distant relatives and community elders in Benguet Province. Her short life proved to be both progressively eventful but full of unrealized promise.

The photo included in the header at the top of this webpage is of Benguet Road, a 20-mile long mountain highway that was the first and only direct route from Baguio to Manila. It was built at the behest of the U.S. government and eventually renamed "Kennon Road" after Col. Lyman Kennon of the U.S. Army. Kennon was a commander during the Spanish–American War and was put in charge of the road's construction between 1903 and 1905. Elizabeth would have traveled this road during her trips to school in Manila—and it would have been the road she'd taken to return to Itogon, one final time.

Twenty-two years after Camantilis' death, the Philippines finally had its independence recognized.


1 Massey, Charlotte G., Letter to C.E. McWilliams Holt, Chairman of of the Philippine Scholarship Endowment Fund. Report of the national society of the daughters of the American revolution. 1920. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Gov. Print. Office. 114-115. Massey was a Deaconess at St. Luke's Hospital in Manila.

2 For an extensive (and bewildering) overview of how Filipinos were depicted in the U.S. press, government documents, and widely distributed photographs, see MIT's “Photography & Power in the Colonial Philippines l-II” developed by Visualizing Cultures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014.

3 In an essay on how "transformation" sequences were used to support U.S. ambitions in the Philippines, Christopher Capozzola states: "Putting images in a sequence creates a narrative—with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In an era that cherished progress, uplift, and evolution as keywords of civilization, photographic sequences told persuasive stories to Americans about the nation’s new imperial endeavors in the Philippines." See MIT's “Photography & Power in the Colonial Philippines II - Dean Worcester's ethnographic images of Filipinos”.

4 Kilburn, Margaret M., Letter to the Girls' Friendly Society in America (G.F.S.A.) The Record of the G.F.S.A. (April 1924) v.32, p. 46. Available via HathiTrust.

5 Girls' Friendly Society in America. April 1924. The Record of the Girls' Friendly Society in America. [Philadelphia, Pa.]: The Society. 45.  Available via HathiTrust.  Hilary Clapp (Pitapit) was eventually appointed governor of Mountain Province.

6 Delos Reyes, Charita. (2017). Educating Mokimok and Chainus - The Ibaloys at the Bua Schoool, 1901-1940. in Chiva : A Reader on Ibaloy History and Culture. Edited by Jimmy Balud Fong. Baguio City, Philippines: Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines Baguio, 2017, 35-64.

7 Holt, C.E. McWilliams, Chairman of of the Philippine Scholarship Endowment Fund.  Report of the national society of the daughters of the American revolution. 1920. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Gov. Print. Office. 113.

8 Daughters of the American Revolution. Vol. LVI, No. 8; August 1922. Daughters of the American Revolution magazine. Washington: National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. 502.  Available via HathiTrust

9 Journal of William Cameron Forbes V, August 8, 1911-November 22, 1913; 259. Quoted in Delos Reyes, Charita. (2017). Educating Mokimok and Chainus - The Ibaloys at the Bua Schoool, 1901-1940. in Chiva : A Reader on Ibaloy History and Culture. Edited by Jimmy Balud Fong. Baguio City, Philippines: Cordillera Studies Center, University of the Philippines Baguio, 2017, 48.

10 Girls' Friendly Society in America. December 1924. The Record of the Girls' Friendly Society in America. [Philadelphia, Pa.]: The Society. 154.  Available via HathiTrust.

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