Sr. Asuncion Martinez came from a rich family in Leyte where her father was once governor. She was born Esther Martinez, joined the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (ICM) as a postulant in 1934, and took her vows and adopted her new name in 1937. She became Sr. Ason to friends and colleagues.
From 1937 to 1950 she taught high school and college subjects in congregation-run schools such as the Holy Family Convent, St. Theresa’s College Manila and the Infant Jesus Academy. She was the Belgian-dominated ICM’s first Filipina superior in 1950, and first Filipina provincial councilor from 1959 to 1969.
She also served as superior of St. Theresa’s College in Quezon City. Under her guidance, the school opened its doors to poor students, allowing them to pay reduced fees through eleven years of pre-college education. The school became known for its courageous stance for the unfortunates in society and for exposing its students to social issues and shaping them to become advocates for the poor, and for justice and truth.
When she was nearing 60, Sr. Ason responded to Vatican II’s call for the establishment of a “church of the poor” by shifting from school work to community work. The bishops had called on nuns to take rural assignments, and Sr. Ason went to Janiuay town in Iloilo, where she lived among farmers and sugar workers and worked with the National Federation of Sugar Workers (NFSW) and the National Federation of Free Farmers (FFF).
She helped organize her fellow nuns who responded to the same call into the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP) and became one of its two first co-chairpersons.
She was 63 years old when she started mission work in Manila’s urban poor communities. She became a trusted friend of the workers at the La Tondeña Distillery, and in 1975, was among the first outsiders to be told of a plan by the company’s casual employees who were seeking permanent working status to defy a martial law decree prohibiting labor strikes.
It was to be a sitdown strike by around 800 casuals. Sr. Ason was among the churchpersons who stood at the picketline as a supporter. Barely had it began when the Metrocom, the elite constabulary forces, swooped down on the striking workers and started dragging strikers into a bus to be hauled to jail. The workers and their supporters tried to resist the arrest. The 65-year-old Sr. Ason, quite prominent in her habit, clung to the bus window and dared the soldiers to arrest her also. Only urgent urgings from strike leaders that she could be more helpful “outside” than if she were also arrested convinced her to let go.
Sr. Ason later wrote that La Tondeña was her second baptism: “I acquired a new mind, a new heart, a new vision, a new understanding of my country’s history and my people.”
Laborers in other factories were heartened by the strike and a series of other strikes hit Metro Manila. The Church-Labor Center under the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines and the Rural Missionaries supported these strikes as the Catholic Church’s way of expressing dissent against martial law. The Friends of the Workers and the Kapisanan ng mga Relihiyoso para sa Kalayaan at Katarungan were born, followed by the Urban Missionaries (UM). The workers organized the Kapatiran. Sr. Ason was involved with all these groups.
The La Tondeña experience is considered a turning point in the martial law period. It showed that martial law could be challenged and opposed. It broke the myth that there could be no strikes under martial law, and it opened the eyes of many to the potential of laborers and unionists as political activists and advocates for justice and democracy. Sr. Ason herself became a legend among Filipino church people taking the “option for the poor.”
At 68 years old, Sr. Ason went on to live in an enclave of the poor in Caloocan City, where she started organizing work. She officially retired in 1983, but she continued to manage a seminar house for her congregation. The Wooden House became a refuge and a meeting place for organizers and activists in the anti-dictatorship resistance.
She died of natural causes at the age of 84.