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Who was Maria Orosa, the Filipina war hero who invented Banana Ketchup? A New York Times series unravels her historical significance

By SAAB LARIOSA Published Sep 30, 2022 7:20 pm

Did you know that a Filipina war hero and the Philippines' first nutritionist is the reason we have one of the most famous condiments in the country?

Meet Maria Orosa, the war veteran who took a common Filipino ingredient and transformed it into one of the staples on our shelves to this day.

In the New York Times (NYT) series Overlookedauthor Seth Mydans took a deep dive into the life of Orosa and why inventing Banana Ketchup was just one of the ways she impacted the country throughout her lifetime.

Born on Nov. 29, 1893, in Taal, Maria was the fourth child of Simplicio Orosa y Agoncillo and Juliana Ylagan. At 23, the bright and young Maria obtained her undergraduate and master's degree in chemistry and pharmaceutical science at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"Here in America, it is very difficult to obtain the kind of job I have just been offered and accepted,” she wrote in a letter to her mother obtained by the NYT.

"Before they offer to a person of color, such as Filipino, Japanese or Chinese, the jobs are first offered to whites."

Maria Orosa / Photo via ladyscience.com courtesy of the Orosa family.

After graduating, she went back home to the Philippines to give pride to her mainland. Here, she went on to develop innovations in the field of food science, such as "wines and jellies from native fruits, flour from bananas and cassava, and vinegar from coconuts."

As the years went by, World War II pushed Maria to take on another challenge: serving as captain of the resistance group Marking’s Guerrillas. There, she used her degrees and years of expertise to provide nourishment for Filipino soldiers.

Healing from a foot injury in Remedios Hospital in Manila, Maria didn't know she would spend her last days doing what she loved: using her brilliant mind to feed the hungry. She, along with hundreds of people in the hospital, died from a bombing by Americans in February of 1945.

Although her remains were never found, a grave with the name of Orosa was discovered by a team of archaeologists from the University of the Philippines (UP) in 2020. The team had been digging up a former mass grave behind Malate Catholic School.

On Orosa's grave, it reads "Died in the line of duty."

Maria is now a quick Google search away, but her duty remained true even when there was no one around for her accomplishments and early death at 48. The marked grave serves as a reminder that she was—and remains to be—loved and remembered.

Orosa's marked grave. Photo from Isabel Picornell via National Quincentennial Committee

"The finding of the grave is significant, especially because she’s been forgotten," said military historian, Matthew Westfall.

"This is to remember her, and now, we know she was honored and commemorated at some point in the past."

Popular ketchup brand, Heinz, has also introduced its own Banana Ketchup variant in 2019 and dedicated it to its brilliant inventor: "During World War II, a bright food technologist by the name of Maria Orosa decided to put an end to a life without Heinz Ketchup in her country."

"In celebration of Heinz’s 150th anniversary and in honor of her, we are proud to introduce Heinz Banana Ketchup," they wrote.

Meanwhile Overlooked serves as the NYT's series of obituaries on significant people that were disregarded during their time. The series has covered Vera Menchik, the first female Chess champion, Puerto Rican composer Sylvia Rexach, and more.