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Zeneida Quezon Avanceña: Patriot, citizen and mother

Jojo G. Silvestre

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(Continued from 8 May)

The 1950s and ‘60s were a time when Manila Society was very small. Family background, breeding, refinement, and not one’s money in the bank, were the measures of social status.

People who mattered knew each other, so that even if people favored certain politicians over the others, respect and open-mindedness prevailed.

The same may be said of the Quezon-Avanceña home. Nini, for one, might have her personal sentiments for or against certain politicians, but it was always about principles and not personalities when she saw the need to speak. The people were fairly content in the second half of the ‘60s, having elected a popular president, although Nini herself had voted for Raul Manglapus because of his advocacy of Christian and democratic governance. It helped, too, that Raul was married to Pacita Lao, who belonged to one of Manila’s oldest families and who was known for her unpretentious ways. Still, Nini kept quiet and respected the voice of the people.

NENE and mom Nini Quezon Avanceña.

Espousing non-violent activism
It was an altogether different situation in the ‘70s and with the declaration of Martial Law, Nini chose to take a stand, even if she remained civil and polite, and stuck to the issues that mattered.

Long before the sheen that covered the defects of the dictatorship began to wear off, Nini, together with socially-aware ladies, among them, Maring Feria, Bing Escoda Roxas, Saling Boncan and Charo Moran, founded the Concerned Women of the Philippines, an organization that bravely articulated its stand against tyranny, even publishing their manifestos on the pages of the Martial Law press, this when some leniency was allowed to show the world a semblance of freedom.

Nini eventually would also become part of Kaakbay, or the Kilusan sa Kapangyarihan at Karapatan ng Bayan (Movement for People’s Sovereignty and Democracy) Organization founded by former senator and political detainee Pepe Diokno. As the group advocated for non-violent activism or “pressure politics” in achieving its intentions, including the end of the dictatorship, it most aptly jibed with Nini’s dignified approach to voicing out dissent.

Seated from left: Tito, Emil, Mom Nini, Nene, Noni Buencamino, standing from left: Gaye, Ben, Boom Buencamino, Ricky and Nolo.

Ayala rallyists
The heady days between the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. and the downfall of the Marcos regime saw Nini and Nene, mother and daughter, participating in mass action.

Nene’s own education, formal and her home upbringing, had instilled in the only Avanceña daughter a sense of freedom and social awareness. She first attended Assumption on Herran, then asked to be transferred to Assumption in Iloilo where she had a first-hand experience of rural life. She graduated from high school at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School which espoused progressive education. She then enrolled at UP Manila for a semester, after which, she travelled to Mexico. She finally landed in Paris where she stayed in the motherhouse of the Religious of the Assumption. “No, I didn’t study there under the nuns. It was a boarding house for me,” Nene clarifies.

After three years in France, she returned to the Philippines. She worked in institutions where her proficiency in the French language was an asset, specifically the French Embassy and the Banque Nationale de Paris. She was with Air France when she left for the United States in 1987 so she and her husband could be together.

Left to right, 1st row – Boom’s son Felipe, Emil’s son Javier, Boom, Emil’s son Jose; 2nd row – Emil, Nene, Mom Nini, Yael; 3rd row – Nolo, Noni, RIcky; Top – Gaye

Nene recounts, “I went to rallies. Mom and I were together in Ayala Avenue. We somehow felt secure. It was the safest place because it was Ayala Avenue. But then, once, we were dispersed and mom and I ran along with the others. We tried to cut through a building but they locked the door and wouldn’t let us get through. And then they brought down the rod iron gate and we were going to get pressed between the rod iron gates and the door to the building. And then those who were running after us took out their guns.”

During the snap election of 1986, “all of us went to protect ballot boxes. It was really dangerous,”she remembers.

Allowing her daughter to be exposed to danger was not above Nini Quezon Avanceña, obviously for the right reason — which simply follows her personal principle of prioritizing the country over one’s self. Of course, her daughter was free to mingle with activists and people with a cause.

Family historian Ricky with Mom Nini.

It was hardly a surprising attitude, Nini having always been inclusive, perhaps because her parents had ingrained in her and her siblings that the great and
Caucasian-looking Manuel L. Quezon himself came from the ranks of the poor, only that his sense of outrage against racism was strong enough to allow him to stand side by side any white man, whether American or Spaniard, and even stand up to them, good looks for good looks, smart dressing for smart dressing, prowess in tango for prowess in tango, and high bridge nose for high bridge nose.

Non-traditional mom
When it came to boys, Nene points out that her mom has always thought of herself as one of them. “Mom, in her heyday, preferred the company of men because she loved to talk politics, she loved to talk sports and she enjoyed business management.

“She has always been very non-traditional. That is why she’d always be more at home in the company of sons than daughters because she always had fun with her husband and my brothers. She has always been comfortable with them.”

Nene stresses, “My daughter is the fourth generation of Quezons who don’t know how to cook. My mother is very non-traditional. She doesn’t do interior decorating. She always said that it’s easier to talk to boys.”

ZENEIDA Quezon during her younger days.

Between Nini and daughter Nene, it is travel that has glued them to each other. They take turns visiting each other. “Every other year, she would join me in the United States and we would go to nearby New York to watch plays in Broadway,” Nene says. “We don’t go shopping but she soaks herself in arts and culture. No, she never wears jewelry so she does not go to swanky shops and ogle their displays. But she’d spend money on books. We go to the museum and we also watch ballet because she loves this dance form.”

Duty and simplicity
Nene sums up her mother’s essence by affirming that “my mom actually embodies the Assumption school spirit when it comes to love of simplicity. She has been the simplest woman I know. At the same time she possesses this strong love for duty.”

She recalls that Nini helped spearhead the establishment of the Assumpta Technical School in Pampanga at a time when social unrest was at its strongest in Central Luzon. “We have to do something,” Nini told her co alumnae in the Assumption Convent. She had proven herself right because in the years to come, many of the graduates of Assumpta would engage in lucrative livelihood, contribute to development through enterprise and even lead top multinational companies.

“Mommy knew then that given the opportunities, these young people would go far in life, and a great number did in various levels of success,” Nene says.

Optimistic all her life
Her strong faith is another distinct trait of Nini Quezon Avanceña. She lost most of her family, including her mother and husband, when she was 27 years old but, her daughter says, “Notwithstanding the tragedy, she had kept optimistic all her life. No wonder she fought for many causes because she knew there was hope.

Like her mother, Doña Aurora, who had hoped to be saved, counting on the inherent goodness of man and invoking the name she carried and all that it stood for, Nini, too, has not surrendered her hopes and become cynical about her country and her countrymen. No matter that she has seen defeat and failure in the country’s leadership, she likewise has seen her share of triumphs in the public arena.

That she  had spoken and stood against a wrongdoing or an evil person was victory enough.That many Filipino women have shed off fear and apathy, submission and acceptance of their lot, in favor of a more active, more responsive and braver stance was one step closer to achieving justice and democracy.

Where she realistically saw the impossible, she withdrew from the battlefield, resigned from a position, but still silently worked for causes while consistently refusing to lend the luster of her name to the wrong institution, organization or political personality. One writer noted in a progressive online paper. “You name it, Tita Nini was in the forefront of pushing every worthy
cause — human rights, press freedom, release of political prisoners, removal of US military bases, nuclear disarmament, debt cancellation.”

After the Mendiola Massacre, Nini resigned from the President’s Human Rights Committee to which she was appointed by another popular president. Another time, she questioned the decision of her own organization to honor a president who, she believed, curtailed human rights. She demanded the resignation of yet another president who had allegedly cheated to win her position. When she and the latter were both to be awarded at the Palace, once the home of her youth, Nini declined the invitation because the incumbent leader, she believed, was not worthy of the honor.

When her husband, Bert, died in 1981, her children were devastated. “My dad got sick. He found out he had cancer and died two months after,” Nene recalls.

“When they flew back with his remains, and we were waiting at the airport, we all could have fallen apart because of our grief, but seeing and feeling the strength of mom really kept us in check.
“When the family goes through deep sadness, we always look to her.”

No special treatment
And, of course, Nene says the obvious of her mom: “Her love for our country is on a patriotic level, but it goes down to the micro-level, to reaching out to the grassroots and making a difference. Her social responsibility does not end with theories and ideas. She actualizes them.”

One wonders how Nini regards her only daughter, if she has expectations of the granddaughter of the Commonwealth President and the Chief Justice.

“No, she never had any special expectation of me being an only daughter,” Nene says. “Mom was rather gender blind. There was no delineation between the boys and myself, the only girl in the family, when it comes to expectations.

“Instead, no matter our gender, she expected all of us to be humble, respectful and honest, and to have integrity.. “It is a simple life we have seen her live. She expects no special treatment. She joins the long line when she has to get herself a community tax certificate (cedula). People in the City Hall, recognizing her, go out of their way to serve her, but no, she would not agree to being given a special treatment.”

No, not even if the city where she resides was named after her father. In fact, it was her father who founded the city. But she’d join the line in the city hall. She believes she is citizen Nini, and she lives up to the identity as she foregoes the privileges of her stature. She also does a lot more than the citizen next to you and me.

This nation is richer because Zeneida Quezon Avanceña lives in our midst and continues to be an inspiration to those who have not given up on their country.

To have lived long and to have lived bravely, what better blessing can one have.

The Daily Tribune joins the nation in wishing our dear “Tita Nini,” presidential daughter, social activist, human rights defender and lady of courage and conviction a happy 100th birthday. This nation is richer because of your commitment to upholding the tenets of freedom and democracy.

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