Community members gather at the King County Superior Court on March 9. Photo by Carmen Hom.

Last Thursday, March 9, community members gathered at the King County Superior Court for API Chaya’s 28th annual vigil, “Kapwa: Pieces of the Whole.” After convening virtually due to COVID-19, this year’s event marked the organization’s first in-person assembly in three years. 

“This is actually my first time in the courthouse,” said former API Chaya volunteer and therapist intern Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano. “Being able to be together, eat together, do activities together. That ‘kapwa,’ that interconnectedness – seeing ourselves in others and others seeing themselves in you – can be felt more intimately when we’re together.”

API Chaya, an organization which provides free, confidential, and language-accessible wraparound services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking, hosts this annual vigil to honor the lives of Susana Remerata Blackwell and her unborn baby Kristine, along with friends Phoebe Orbiso Dizon and Veronica Laureta Johnson, all of whom were murdered by Blackwell’s abusive husband at the courthouse on March 2, 1995. 

“I see this vigil as an honoring of women who depended on each other, you know, thinking about how Susana relied on Phoebe and Veronica for support rather than systems or institutions,” said Romano. “It can be very isolating being a survivor and just knowing that [API Chaya] exists and is a resource is something I want the community to know.”

Evalynn Fae Taganna Romano and Alice Ryan overseeing the creation of the vigil’s ‘KAPWA’ community mosaic. Photo by Carmen Hom

Now fast forward nearly three decades to the same spot, where dozens of people, some who were old enough to remember the events of that day and many who were not, came to reconnect and share space with one another. In one corner of the courtroom, guests were invited to add small mosaics to a larger community art piece “to honor, remember, and uplift survivors in their lives.”

Tables were set up at the front of the courtroom with resources, information, and organizational history commemorating API Chaya’s past and ongoing work. The center table displayed black and white photos of the three murdered women, adorned with flowers, candles, and other items for paying respects. Paper plates, people, and purses populated the court’s spectator seating. 

“I was 21 when I went to my first vigil,” remembered Phoebe’s son, vigil organizer, and API Chaya program manager Derek Dizon. “I snuck in and told no one who I was. They talked about Susana, Veronica… people I’d known personally since my mother was helping Susana get out of her abusive relationship. Hearing complete strangers saying their names, being unashamed in talking about domestic and sexual violence? That was really impactful to me as a young person.”

Kapwa, Dizon explained, is a Tagalog psychological term meaning the interdependence among and between beings. “The root word of kapwa is puwang, or space, so kapwa can also be understood as the literal space we create to feel interconnected, to feel a sense of self and that of the Other. That’s also how we understand survivorship at API Chaya. No one is alone.”

API Chaya vigil organizer, program manager, and Phoebe Orbiso Dizon’s son Derek Dizon poses with a photo of his mom at Thursday’s vigil. Photo by Carmen Hom

Several speakers, including API Chaya’s Co-Executive Directors Priya Rai and Kalayo Pestaño, spoke during the program. “API Chaya would not exist today without the friendship and the feeling of kapwa between these three immigrant women and the fierce love from so many aunties, young people, and elders who came together to protect survivors in our communities,” said Pestaño. “We will always remember.”

“This is often tender and quiet work, holding people in their most vulnerable moments,” added Rai. “But it is also in this work that we can find belonging in small transformative moments that show us the new world that we’re building, that show us the change that we’re all making by choosing each other, by choosing to show up, choosing to say, ‘I believe you. I’m here for you.’”

The program also included a rendition of “Awit sa Bayani,” performed by members of API Chaya’s community partner GABRIELA Seattle, a political group of Filipina women advancing the anti-imperialist militant women’s movement across the globe. “Marami pang dapat imulat, kasama,” they sang. “Lipuna’y puno ng problema. Sa paghinto ng tibok ng puso mo. Kami ang magpapatuloy.” The translation goes, “We still have so much to learn, comrade. Society is full of problems. When the beat of your heart stops. We will take up and continue the struggle.”

Following a historical overview by one of API Chaya’s founding mothers, Emma Catague, the vigil concluded with another tune sung by Roger Rigor called “Hindi Kita Malilimutan,” a simple meditation on motherhood, loss, and grief. 

Donna Denya, a founding member of GABRIELA Seattle, said afterwards, “The throughline of what connects our different organizations is the common issue of capitalism and imperialism. They are the root causes of so much suffering and exploitation for women in a massive labor industry. That, in combination with patriarchal attitudes and behaviors.”

The crowd eventually began to thin, with lingering community members sneaking in last minute hugs, photos, food, and a few tear wipes. “What’s also significant is that Derek didn’t even know that these vigils existed until he started volunteering. I remember the first vigil that he helped to plan. It was so moving,” Denya recalled.

“He shared his story, what his mom was like, and how he had no idea we’d been honoring her life for all of these years. To have it all come together – now he’s on staff at API Chaya – there’s just so much to be said about how meaningful that is.”

Vigil guest browses some of API Chaya’s resources and history. Photo by Carmen Hom.

During a quieter moment outside of the courtroom, Dizon shared why people should consider participating in API Chaya’s Natural Helpers Program, which trains everyday friends, family, and community members on how to respond to domestic violence.

“My mother and Veronica helped Susana. They weren’t people with MSWs. They weren’t trained advocates. They were friends who came from the same culture, with similar ethnic backgrounds, and they spoke the same language,” said Dizon. 

“It doesn’t take so much to support a friend or to support someone experiencing violence. Just as my mom and Veronica supported Susana, so many of us in the community continue to support people like Susana. That’s why we’re here today.”

This story was produced in partnership with our media sponsor Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement of partners who believe every community can be a healthy, thriving community.

Previous articlePhotographer probes an American heart of darkness in ‘Insurrection’ photo book
Next articleFrom Paris with love, Miss Island Goddess crowned!