A Warrior Is Born: How Carmen Rosales, The Queen of Philippine Cinema, Became a Guerrilla Fighter and Sharpshooter
More than 100 years ago, the Philippines first real movie star Carmen Rosales was born on March 3, 1917. Known as Januaria Constantino Keller to her family and Mameng to her friends, Rosales was a half-Swedish, half-Filipino superstar who found fame on the big screen as the queen of Philippine cinema. A matriarch of show business, her contribution to cinema spans generations, stretching from before World War II to the dawn of the 20th century.
While she’s most known for her black-and-white classic films, it’s Rosales’ fearless rebel days that cemented her place not just in cinematic history but also Philippine history. Like many Filipinos, Rosales took up arms as a guerrilla fighter when the Japanese arrived and war broke out, proving that this star was a heroine both on and off the screen.
Philippine Cinema Royalty
Before the war, Carmen Rosales enjoyed a life of luxury in the spotlight as the Philippine darling of cinema. A dressmaker and wife prior to her acting career, Rosales made her film debut in the 1938 movie Mahiwagang Binibini, which would become one of her classics in later years. Rosales took the stage name “Carmen Rosales” after the municipality of Rosales, Pangasinan, where she’s from.
Captivated by her effortless grace on the big screen, the film industry flocked to her door, and Rosales’ career skyrocketed and she became one of the most famous and recognizable Filipino actresses in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. She starred alongside the likes of Jose Padilla Sr., Fernando Po. Sr., and Rogelio dela Rosa, the old guard of Filipino cinema. At one point, she was the most "bankable" star in Sampaguita Pictures and the highest-paid movie star when LVN Pictures gave her P45,000 for a project with dela Rosa—undoubtedly the highest offer of an actress at that time.
Before the war, some her best films, now Philippine classics, include Arimunding-Arimunding (1939). Senorita (1940), Lambingan (1940), Carmen (1941), Tampuhan (1941), and Lolita (1941). She was known for having a fierce work ethic and an even stronger personality, hating latecomers and scene-stealers despite the fact she unwittingly stole every scene she starred in.
Life was peaceful for Rosales, her husband radio personality Ramon Novales, and son Rene. But then the war arrived at their doorstep in the worst way possible when Novales was killed by Japanese forces when the empire arrived in Manila at the dawn of World War II.
With her husband’s death, Carmen Rosales was dragged into the grim reality of the war. But instead of resigning herself to grief, the actress took up arms to join the Hukbo Laban sa Hapon, the guerrilla force that launched a rebellion against the Japanese occupation.
For a few years, Rosales shed her career as an actress, donning a new title: guerrilla fighter and sharpshooter for the freedom fighters of the Philippines.
Toting a .45 caliber gun around the countryside of CALABARZON, Rosales disguised herself as a man and wore a false mustache during her guerrilla attacks to hide her identity. The cause to free the Filipino people from Japanese oppression took Rosales to the countryside of CALABARZON, particularly Santa Rosa, Laguna, where she was part of a mission that killed a Japanese collaborator.
Later on, Rosales was forced to flee to Silang, Cavite, to evade capture, but eventually, the Japanese found her, and a Japanese soldier by the name of Yamamoto persuaded her to star in a Japanese propaganda film. And by “persuade,” we mean that he gave her an ultimatum: agree to the film or else he would kill all the people in a village in Pangasinan if she refused.
But then MacArthur landed and the Japanese surrendered, ending the war and freeing Rosales and millions of other Filipinos. The people of Pangasinan couldn’t forget what Rosales did to save them, and it’s said that the towns of Carmen East and Carmen West were named after the hometown war hero.
Her time as a wartime fighter was immortalized in the film Guerilyera (1946), which was inspired by her experiences. The film is a dramatization of “the daring role she played in our fight for freedom.” It cast aside the stereotype of the Filipino damsel in distress, with Rosales starring as herself, one of the many heroines of the Philippines.
After the loss of her husband urged her to become a guerrilla fighter, Rosales later remarried following the end of the war. She had another son, Cesar, with her second husband, Jose Puyat, Jr.
A woman of duality capable of courage on the battlefield and vulnerability on the big screen, Rosales exemplified the fierce, heroic spirit of all Filipino women. Perhaps she was destined to be born on the month that celebrates women across the globe.
Carmen Rosales died on December 11, 1991 in Mandaluyong at the age of 74.