This piece was originally published in Newsbreak on August 29, 2005. It is being re-uploaded on the occasion of Nini Quezon Avanceña’s 100th birthday.
AN EXTRAORDINARY WOMAN OF RULING-CLASS ORIGIN
By Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III
Daughters of presidents attract publicity. They make good copy not just because they are daughters of presidents or because they come from buenas familias but because some of them live colorful, controversial lives.
Kris Aquino is perhaps the most popular of the lot. Smart and intelligent but garrulous and saucy, Kris is noted for her extra-marital affairs with showbiz cads. Imee Marcos, who has turned out to be a diligent legislator occasionally finding common cause with Marcos’s arch-enemy, the communist left, is also known for her turbulent romantic life. One of the most sensational, incredulous stories of the martial law period was the abduction of Imee and her lover—a dashing sportsman whose family was related to a leading Marcos oppositionist—supposedly by New People’s Army rebels. Eventually, Imee married the sportsman, defying her parents’ wishes, but the relationship did not last.
Controversy also hounds Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA). Her love life may not be as intriguing as that of other presidents’ daughters—though when asked once if she still had time for sex, she said “plenty.” Nevertheless, what will forever haunt GMA is the people’s overwhelming, deep distrust of her in the wake of the “Gloriagate.”
In times gone by, the president’s daughters lived less shocking but still interesting lives. They would typically appear in social functions and charity events, and the newspapers’ society pages would publicize their stories.
But one president’s daughter stands out for being quite different from the rest—Zeneida Quezon Avanceña, Tita Nini to friends, acquaintances and comrades of my generation.
Charming and articulate, the lady nevertheless is low-key and avoids the limelight. In the book launch of her late husband’s Memoirs and Diaries of Felipe Buencamino III (1941-1944), she was a reluctant speaker. She asked her eldest son to give the family response. Only when Boom and other siblings threatened to disappear did the mom oblige to give a terse but refreshing speech. On the occasion of the state-sponsored re-internment of her mother’s remains at the Quezon Memorial Shrine, she shied away from the publicity and let her son Ricky speak for the family. She is comfortable being in the background; that’s the way she seems to like it.
Tita Nini deliberately avoids public attention, even the type that puts her in a positive light. Family friends Maita Gomez and Baboo Mondoñedo, whose credentials as writers are undoubted, once offered to write Tita Nini’s biography. Tita Nini politely declined.
She is always referred to as the daughter of the great Manuel L. Quezon (MLQ). The Buencamino and Avanceña siblings are more known as the grandchildren of MLQ, not as the sons and daughter of Zeneida Quezon Avanceña. That she lives in the shadow of MLQ doesn’t bother her a bit. She’s proud of the Quezon legacy, and she has taken her parents’ sense of nationalism and social justice to heart.
The most painful, most tragic occurrence in her life was the violent death of her husband Felipe, mother Aurora, and sister Baby in an ambush perpetrated by the Hukbalahap in April 1949. She was married for only two years, and she was at the prime of her youth when this tragedy struck. The misfortunes in matters of the heart that befell Kris or Imee could not compare to those of Tita Nini’s.
A part of Tita Nini also died, with the loss of her beloved husband, mother and sister. But she picked up the pieces and moved on. She remarried. She and second husband Alberto Avanceña raised a big, boisterous family—the two Buencamino sons and the seven Avanceña children.
But she also had the energy to serve society, apart from rearing a joyful family. One of her earliest involvements was with the Philippine National Red Cross, whose founding chair was Tita Nini’s mother.
But it is Tita Nini’s resilient, painstaking, and unflinching activism that makes her an extraordinary woman of ruling-class origins. Although the communists were responsible for the death of her loved ones, she later embraced just causes for which communists bore the brunt of the struggle. She reached out to tenants in her province, encouraged them to organize, and gave them land to till.
She plunged herself into many causes—human rights, press freedom, release of political prisoners, removal of US military bases, nuclear disarmament, debt cancellation, etc. She was at the forefront of the open struggle to oust the Marcos dictatorship. She was at the frontlines during the EDSA I people power that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and during the EDSA II mobilization that forced Joseph Estrada to step down.
On the streets, she has marched shoulder to shoulder with what the Left calls the basic masses. She has become a friend to many revolutionaries, the likes of Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, Bobbie Malay and Fides Lim, at the same time that she has been closely associated with eminent reform-oriented politicians, such as Jose W. Diokno, Jovito Salonga, and Raul Manglapus.
Tita Nini was part of Ka Pepe Diokno’s Kaakbay, an illustrious grouping, which served as a moral and intellectual beacon during the dark days of the Marcos dictatorship.
She is still in her fighting element. While some of the elite have waffled on the issue that GMA manipulated the 2004 elections and committed other illegal acts, Tita Nini has stood firm in calling for GMA’s resignation. In her capacity as president of the Jose W. Diokno Foundation, she, together with Carmen “Nena” Diokno, wrote: “The issue is one of grave wrongdoing by the occupant of the highest office of the land. A president incapable of distinguishing between mere impropriety and grave wrongdoing should not lead. Mrs. Arroyo must step down from office.”
The positions she takes are consistently progressive, if not radical. But she always acts with grace and serenity. Friend and follower Rizalina “Saling” Boncan describes Tita Nini as a “quiet leader.”
Perhaps, among many affiliations, Tita Nini is most identified with the Concerned Women of the Philippines (CWP). The CWP was one of the few organizations from the middle forces that severely criticized the Marcos regime, mustering the courage to speak out despite the curtailment of basic freedoms. Tita Nini co-founded the CWP, and she together with Maring Feria. Bing Escoda Roxas, Saling Boncan, Charo Moran, Thelma Arceo et al. constituted the CWP’s progressive wing.
Yet, it was not difficult for her to distance from the CWP when she thought that the organization she founded was becoming irrelevant and was even being used by the ruling administration. She and her progressive friends in the CWP questioned the wisdom of its leadership’s decision to give special recognition to Fidel Ramos (FVR). In 1987, CWP cited Ramos for his human rights record. In October 2003, the CWP went to Malacañang to award Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and other honorees. Tita Nini declined the invitation even though she was among the honorees.
Tita Nini has been praised or criticized for her demanding standards and high principles. Even in electing public officials, she does not compromise. She is a tireless campaigner for principled and progressive politics. A joke emanating from her Gilmore compound is that the candidate that Tita Nini votes for president is sure to lose. (She did not vote for Marcos, Ramos, Estrada, and Macapagal-Arroyo.) At least, she votes wisely.
She may be caricatured as starry-eyed and quixotic. But in a failed society with a weak state and an irresponsible elite, it is a virtue to dream the impossible.
It would be incomplete to describe Tita Nini as a visionary, a spirited activist, and a discerning matriarch. Those who are close to her also admire her less-known qualities: her warmth and tenderness, her thoughtfulness, her sense of humor (being “punny,” the term she uses), her inquisitiveness, her spirituality.
Her Gilmore home is an open house. All sorts of people—from the rulers and politicians, the industrialists and bankers, the intelligentsia, the communists and socialists, the anarchists and hippies, the religious, the playboys and gangsters, the glitterati, to the nameless masa—have dined or slept at her residence. Leftists of various shades have sought refuge in her home. A classmate in high school and the barkada of Tita Nini’s son Ben made Gilmore his home for one schoolyear, confident that he would not overstay his presence.
Exuberant, curious and inquisitive at her ripe age, Tita Nini joins long conversations—sometimes serious, oftentimes hilarious and irreverent, at the family dining table. In light, humorous moments during and after dinner, she’s game and can even make fun of herself. In serious meetings, she listens and asks hard questions. In a group discussion about the anomalous PEACE Bonds, she tried to get a grip on abstractions like rent seeking and asymmetrical information. But even then, she immediately sensed what was wrong with the deal, which she boiled down to a question of delicadeza.
There is also a personal matter that connects yours truly with Tita Nini. She and my late mom-in-law, Cil Manalang, became close as comrades in their Kaakbay days and later as classmates in their progressive Bible study group conducted by Sister Helen Graham. We are touched that Tia Nini has fond memories of our beloved Cil. She says her own little prayers for Cil, and their Bible group commemorates Cil’s death anniversary.
Tita Nini regularly attends Sister Helen’s bible class, which has been ongoing for nearly two decades. This is a facet of Tita Nini’s spirituality, which is not separated from her activism. To borrow George Orwell’s words to describe Charles Dickens, Tita Nini’s “approach is always along the moral plane.” But unlike Dickens, Tita Nini believes in both “a change of spirit” and “a change of structure.”
In a 2002 letter to her Buencamino sons about their father, she wrote: “It is not how long you live that matters, but how you live: that you put at the service of God and country the many gifts ands talents you have been blessed with. And that when you go, you leave a legacy that your children can be proud of.”
Tita Nini, we pray, will have many more healthy years of fighting good causes, helping others, and having fun. Along with the Buencaminos and Avanceñas and the many people that she continues to inspire, we join everyone in declaring that we need not wait for her legacy to say that we are all proud of her.