Born Maria Josefa Gabriela Cariņo on March 19, 1731 in Caniogan, Ilocos Sur, a mestiza, she was adopted by a wealthy businessman who later married her at the tender age of 20, but left after three years. In 1757, she married again, this time to 27-year-old rebel leader Diego Silang. She became one of his closest advisors, a major figure in her husband's collaboration with the British and the brief expulsion of Spanish officials in Vigan, Ilocos Sur.
On May 28, 1763, her husband was assassinated by order of royal and church authorities in Manila. After her husband's death, she fled on horseback to the mountains of Abra to establish her headquarters, reassemble her troops, and rally the Tingguian community to fight. They descended on Vigan on September 10, 1763. But the Spanish garrison was ready, amassing Spanish, Tagalog, and Kapampangan soldiers and Ilocano collaborators to ambush her and rout her forces. Many were killed. She escaped, alongside her uncle Nicolas and seven other men, but later caught on September 29, 1763. They were summarily hanged in Vigan's plaza.
Her ferocity and death became a symbol for Filipino women, their pre-colonial importance in Filipino society and their struggle for liberation during colonization.