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Nelia Sancho: A beauty with compassion, social conscience and courage

By Nikki Coseteng, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 11, 2022 5:00 am

Throughout the years I had watched Nelia Sancho at work, I could not help but admire her simplicity, passion and commitment, dedication and tenacity, patience and sincerity.

Often, I would wonder if she was for real. There was no envy or hunger for material comfort, no double-speak, no trace of frustration. Sometimes, perhaps, a tinge of regret, openly saddened by the callousness, indifference and arrogance of those who were insistent that “our system works for the people.”

I met Nelia Sancho for the first time in the University of the Philippines, Institute of Mass Communication, where my mother, the late Ambassador Alice Marquez Lim Coseteng, was a professor and I was then a sophomore in AB Journalism. She was calm, cool and collected and, unlike us, not boisterous at all.

Nelia Sancho, Queen of the Pacific 1971 and co-founder of Gabriela, was called “Guerilla Queen” by Time Magazine.

She was funny at times and was, to me, easygoing. And obviously a campus beauty and a head-turner as a Sigma Deltan and Queen of the Pacific 1971.

We didn’t become as close as I would have wanted to but somehow, after some time, as news reports revealed her having been arrested, detained twice or more times under martial law as a student activist, I asked myself: how could someone like Nelia be a victim of detention and torture? I began to question. Something must be wrong. Seriously wrong.

Having lived a rather sheltered, comfortable, maybe even privileged life, I could not understand many realities others had to undergo.

In the early ’70s, without cellphones and social media, parents could not track down their children when they were not home after classes were dismissed. My experiences in the protest movement then were limited to taking jeepney rides to Plaza Miranda from the Arts and Sciences Building in the UP and just sitting on the sidewalk, feeling, listening, observing, digesting and understanding what was going on. It made sense.

Fast forward to martial law and its horrors that could not be disguised. Many friends, acquaintances and even strangers fell under the iron fists that claimed lives and futures and extinguished the hopes of the youth.

Nelia and author Nikki during a UN conference on women in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985

The Ninoy Aquino assassination in 1983 was over a decade since I met Nelia. And by then the pain and suffering she went through only helped toughen and strengthen her resolve to work for change. To champion causes that, to her, were worth fighting for and, if needed, pay for with her life.

She remained the striking beauty she has always been with a wide, brimming smile, softly modulated voice, precisely and clearly articulating the issues, their background, and eventual call to action.

She was always deliberate and did not exaggerate when conveying messages and disseminating information.

Nelia was never a fence sitter. She took her position, defended it, and always with a smile. I admired her courage. And I told myself I’d be happy to have one percent of it. And yet people branded me matapang!

Nelia prioritized the causes she espoused over and above her own material comfort. She was not poor. She was not really in great want or need. She lived extremely simply. 

I felt very comfortable with her. It helped that we had no real disagreements. It’s hard to find issues we argued or quarreled about: out with the US bases and sovereignty, human rights, nationalist economic policy, women’s rights and empowerment, reproductive rights, mass actions when needed, organizing sectors and holding information forums, and many more. All these were logical and so easy to appreciate.

Discussions on the table were clearly laid out and they were simplified and very easy to grasp, the way Nelia would explain them.

Lahat naman tayo ay beauty queen,” Nelia told Gabriela members.

She never made anyone feel alienated or feel they did not belong. They would mark her as “kaliwa,” but that never bothered me. 

What actually saddens me, especially now, after her passing, is that over the decades, the people in the best position to change things chose not to listen, chose to silence contrary voices and chose to ignore and resist change. Hence, the struggle continues on many fronts.

I will always remember Nelia on the many occasions we found ourselves together: in Gabriela, activities and events where WOMB was a member of the women’s coalition, and the many mass protest actions, forums, rallies, lectures, and even in socials organized by other organizations.

One of the most important events we attended was Forum ’85, the United Nations Decade for Women Conference held on July 1, 1985, in Nairobi, Kenya.

We were part of the Philippine delegation that brought the burning issues of the day to the attention of the women of the world. Our issues then were the presence of the US bases, violence against women, political prisoners and human rights, reproductive health, and the environment, among others.

Nelia was very easy to get along with, extremely hardworking and disciplined. She stuck to schedules faithfully, was fantastic at networking and communicating. She wasted no time doing unnecessary things. She would be working while we would be out walking around the marketplace and exploring interesting sites and shops.

She was always deliberate and did not exaggerate when conveying messages and disseminating information. She was somehow able to say things politely even when discussing matters that could be hard to stomach and understand. She always made time to listen and was a valuable contributor to any discussions. She made me listen and learn.

When news of her passing was broken to me via text message, I felt a deep sense of loss. It took some time to process.

I must say her contribution to the women’s movement and peoples’ organizations in the Philippines is extremely valuable. She gave hope to those who felt there was none. She was able to drive home the messages that seemed to be worthless and insignificant and, indeed, I felt were important and crucial for us to think about and do something about collectively as a people.

During Nelia’s wake, Bibeth Orteza remembers vividly and shared an incident when, once, officers of Gabriela were asked to stand with Nelia for picture taking.They all agreed that it was a tough act because she was such a great beauty. Nelia responded reassuringly: “Kelan pa naging sukatan ang nakikita sa labas kesa ang nasa loob? Lahat naman tayo ay beauty queen.”

Her daughter Anna shared what her mother was like: “She did not want to feel queenly,” Anna started. “She always wanted to be of service to others, her children and grandchildren. I wish she had asked us for more, for herself.

Para siyang naghahabol ng memories. She tried to find more time to bond with her kids,” Anna added.

Towards the end, “she was always preoccupied with getting her things fixed and nagpapalambing siya. She worried about little things. She was concerned about my plans and if I would still pursue my law degree.”

Contrary to earlier reports, “grabe pala ang circumstances of Nelia’s passing.” Nelia died alone in her UP Bliss unit. One of her closest friends lamented: “Kaya ako malungkot for her. Useful when useful. Pero napabayaan at the end. Marami siyang sakit. Alam natin yan. But dying alone…” She had pulmonary TB on top of her diabetes that had gotten out of hand.

Cierlene Benipayo, a fellow member of WOMB, remembers Nelia as “soft-spoken siya, parang hindi makabasag pinggan but napakatapang niya.”

Liza Maza said: “Nelia lived a simple life. She liked wearing a simple blouse and skirt and sandals. She lived her principles in her family life. No trappings of glamour. She was even selling encyclopedias to earn a living.”

Tita Lubi, a sorority sister, recalled their first arrest on Oct. 28, 1973: “Nelia, Jing Baclig and I were arrested in a house of the Samahan ng Progresibong Propagandista in Malabon. That house was for the helpers of former Gov. Pascual, whose daughters were also Sigma Deltans. They borrowed that house for UP Los Baños activists who were being chased by the military. In that raid, I escaped and two were killed. And the three of us were detained in Camp Aguinaldo.”

She continued: “A cousin of Nelia’s father whom he had helped was a general who got them released after 19 days. Nelia then went to Davao and was employed by a sister company of Caterpillar.”

A few years after that, Nelia was arrested again. “And it was in that second arrest that she was made to suffer as she had been tortured by her captors,” Tita recalls.

A half-century of Nelia’s life was dedicated in the true sense of service to the people, to her country without financial or political gain. In Nelia, we all saw how beautiful women can be blessed with compassion and commitment, intelligence and a social conscience, courage, and the will to blaze on.

Anna, her daughter, shared:“My mom taught us to live without excesses. Sakto lang. Hindi naman kami mahirap. She always stressed upon us to share what we have with others. Sa Boracay, pag may nakita siyang basura, dinadampot niyaBasta sabi niya, just do something you can to improve the situation. Sabi niya, we don’t need sobra-sobra. Her clothes have holes, okay lang. She would even give away the good ones.”

It isn’t over yet. What the women before her started, Nelia continued throughout her lifetime. Where she left off, our youth must yet complete. 

Thank you, Nelia. You’ve shown us how to live a meaningful, selfless life. You’ve fought an awesome fight. You’ve inspired everyone along the way unselfishly. And you showed us how, indeed, a woman’s place is in the struggle.