Josefina Guerrero: Leper, Leader, Soldier, Spy


When life gives you leprosy…

#BygoneBadassBroads is a weekly Twitter series run by author, feminist and history nerd Mackenzi Lee (@themackenzilee). Motivated by a desire to counteract the misuse of the term “historical accuracy” to exclude women and minorities, Mackenzi takes to Twitter each Friday at 1 p.m. EST to tell the life story of a forgotten badass lady from history in 140-character bites. The series has garnered millions of hits, been picked up by multiple news sites, and in 2018 the compiled essays will be published by Abrams Books.

We asked her to share an exclusive #BygoneBadassBroads story with our readers. Get ready to meet a Filipina you probably never heard of who changed the course of history.


It was 1941, and Josefina Guerrero was having a really sucky year.

Until then, Josefina — or “Joey,” as she came to be known — had a pretty swell life. Born in 1917, she grew up in the tropical countryside of the Philippines. Then, as a young woman in Manila, she caught the eye of a handsome physician and they married. They had a daughter. A home. Domestic bliss and a lot of happy family montages.

But the year she turned 23, two big things happened that changed Joey’s life.

leprosyGeneral Hideki Tojo, Japanese Prime Minister, arrives with his escort at the Manila airport where the Japanese Forces just established a new military government for the Philippines on May 5, 1943.

First, the Japanese invaded the Philippines.

And second, Joey contracted leprosy.

So let’s talk about leprosy for a minute. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, today leprosy is rare — more people read about it in the Bible than encounter it IRL. But in the 1930s leprosy was still home-wrecking millions of people around the globe. In the Philippines, contracting leprosy was not only a death sentence, but the afflicted became societal outcasts abandoned by their families and friends. In the Philippines, lepers were quarantined to filthy colonies where hellish conditions often got them before the disease did. In Manila lepers had to ring bells when they walked so that healthy people knew they were coming and could seek alternate routes to avoid them. Most lepers — including Joey — were abandoned by their families, who wanted to protect themselves.

So it’s 1941 and in less than a month, Joey had leprosy, no family, a major distrust of her country’s new invaders — and also the worst year ever. But Joey wasn’t the sort to throw herself dramatically on the ground, crank Taylor Swift and wallow.

After she bludgeoned a Japanese soldier with her umbrella when he propositioned her, some important people in the Filipino resistance took notice. This girl had spunk. She clearly was a fighter. And, mostly importantly, she had one quality that would make her a kick-ass spy — leprosy.

Because you know who makes a good spy? People considered so subhuman that no one will go near them.

Enter Joey.

Joey was an ideal spy because of her leprosy — the Japanese stigmatized lepers in the same way the Filipinos did. Japanese soldiers were so repelled by her that they usually crossed to the other side of the street when they saw her coming. Which made it super easy for Joey to cross enemy lines without question or inspection.

The Filipino rebels who recruited her made it clear that if she was caught, they didn’t know her. They wouldn’t come save her.


But Joey wasn’t planning on getting caught.

She started small — visiting American POWs and smuggling them messages hidden in her hair, scooped-out fruit, the hollowed-out heels of her shoes. She counted Japanese military forces going in and out of the city. In her downtime, she walked through bullets to care for wounded soldiers on the battlefield and to close the eyes of the dead.

Over the course of her three-year tenure, Joey’s missions became more complicated: hiding military diaries, mapping artillery locations, smuggling medicine and food to POWs, mapping Japanese gun placement, stowing away explosives in her home. All the while, she wore revealing clothing to show off her leprosy and make sure everyone who passed ran the other way.

leprosyJapanese troops capture a large American gun during the hostilities in Bataan / Getty Images

When the American forces came to the Philippines, Joey was given one of the most dangerous and critical missions to the war effort — to deliver crucial information about land mine placement so the soldiers could move safely. She had 50 miles to cover in three days. With the map taped between her shoulder blades, she passed through numerous checkpoints easily because as soon as the Japanese saw her sores, they let her pass. She ended up traveling 75 miles to the American outpost (narrowly avoiding pirates along the way) and delivered the map, for which she’s credited with saving the lives of hundreds of soldiers.

leprosyWounded soldiers being treated at Santo Tomas University. Photo by Carl Mydans / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images

When the Japanese were driven out of the Philippines, Joey might have taken a well-earned vacation, but instead she signed up to nurse the wounded soldiers. However, everyone quickly realized she was too sick to work, and she was sent to one of the aforementioned hellish leper communities. These communities had been awful before the war, and after three years in which the Filipinos had bigger fish to fry, they’d collapsed into a cesspit of suffering and disease where many died of starvation and neglect before their leprosy got them.

But Joey had never been one to take a passive stand on suffering.

Joey called in every favor she had, wrote to everyone she knew (and a number of people she didn’t know), and made the plight of lepers in the Philippines her new crusade. Thanks to Joey’s efforts, the treatment of leprosy was transformed. Modern medicines were brought to the Philippines. The government imposed new sanitation standards in leper colonies. Facilities around the country improved.

Joey herself was admitted into the United States for advanced treatment. She was greeted by a crowd of 400 people in San Francisco, including many of the soldiers her espionage had saved in the Philippines (pardon me while my heart grows three sizes). The US slapped a Medal of Freedom on her, then sent her to Louisiana for leprosy treatment.

leprosyJosefina Guerrero in 1970. Courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford, California.

With her leprosy at last cured, Joey became a citizen of the US, where she continued her work for years against the stigmatization of leprosy. In her free time, she got a master’s degree, worked as a Peace Corps volunteer around the world, volunteered as an usher at the Kennedy Center (girl’s gotta have hobbies) and never turned a blind eye to anyone’s pain.

Joey died in Washington at the age of 68, her work as the lady leper James Bond of the Philippines largely forgotten. end



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