Tue, Sep 02, 2008 - Page 4 News List

Community Compass: PROFILE: Linda Arrigo: A permanent voice

LIVING HISTORY Arrigo is from a generation of expats that made a difference to Taiwan’s future. Society today may have moved on, but for her there is still work to do

By Richard Hazeldine  /  STAFF REPORTER

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When it comes to the foreign community in Taiwan, not many individuals are as well known as Linda Gail Arrigo (艾琳達).

Arrigo has been in Taiwan on and off for more than four decades since first arriving as a 14-year-old in the early 1960s. She is instantly recognizable to a generation of middle-aged Taiwanese as the ex-wife of former political prisoner Shih Ming-teh (施明德), and as one of the dozens of foreigners who helped Taiwanese in their struggle for democracy and human rights against the martial law-era Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime.

Becoming a human rights activist might seem an unusual path for the daughter of a US army major, but Arrigo says it was her father’s military connections that enabled her to come to Taiwan in the first place.

Retired from service, he returned here using military transport to be with his Chinese girlfriend — with young Linda in tow.

As well as being the last bastion of dictator Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) “Free China,” Taiwan at that time was also one of the major recreational destinations for US troops in Vietnam, and this brought a curious and impressionable Arrigo up close and personal with the grim reality of US foreign policy. This, along with her first-hand experience of the repressive nature of the Chiang regime, gave rise to rebellious feelings.

Attending Taipei American School, with its classes full of “military brats” and spending time with the cream of the privileged Chinese class — seeing “how they treated or viewed the local population” — further fueled Arrigo’s opposition to injustice in her adopted homeland, she says.

Marrying “a native Taiwanese” in 1968, she returned to the US, where she learned more about Taiwan’s history and the gruesome truth of the White Terror through books and meetings with dissidents and Taiwanese-Americans fighting for freedom and justice.

It wasn’t until she returned in 1975 to begin fieldwork on Taiwanese factory girls for her doctorate in sociology, however, that she became deeply involved in the fledgling human rights movement, swept along by a circle of new friends and acquaintances.

Asked what she rates as her greatest single achievement during her decades here, Arrigo says her “most important role was at the time of Formosa magazine,” a dissident publication, and during the aftermath of the 1979 Kaohsiung Incident. In the first half of 1980, her work helped to focus attention on the situation in Taiwan and pressure the government into throwing the trials of those arrested open to international scrutiny. This “kept people from being executed and changed the course of Taiwan’s political development,” she says.

But her life was not as romantic as it sounds. She does have regrets, the major one being that “I definitely did neglect my son, from an early age,” when she left him behind in the US with his father, her first husband, to become a full-time activist.

“When one enters into a struggle like this it is really overpowering,” she says.

But despite the damage done to her family, despite the fact that she has never been “economically well-off” and notwithstanding the lack of a personal life and career opportunities in her life-long involvement in Taiwan’s democratic movement, she still looks back on that period with a sense of satisfaction, saying that it was a “rare privilege to be a part of such an historic process.”

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