Nelia Sancho: The beauty queen who didn’t choose the path of glamor, privilege

Her story should be passed on from one generation to another, not as chismis but a ‘herstory’ of true beauty, courage, and service to others’

Nelia Sancho at a mass action lived a life of purpose. (Photos by Romeo Mariano)

September opened with news of the passing of Nelia Sancho. What made the news doubly shocking was learning that she died alone last September 1, choking on her vomited blood like an operatic heroine.

Queen of the Pacific (Photo From Facebook)

But who is she that on social media, especially Facebook, there was an outpouring of grief and regret over what might have been if the woman had taken better care of her health? People in the know, particularly those in the social change movement, were aware that the former Queen of the Pacific title-holder had not been in good health since living in the underground during the anti-Marcos dictatorship years, and being held a political prisoner at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center in Taguig.

She had pulmonary tuberculosis and later developed a serious case of diabetes that necessitated frequent insulin injections. But all these, say those who regret her sudden leaving, were medically manageable. There’s an opinion forming that the Left, to which she had provided a voice and a face, had in a way neglected her and was partly to blame for her death in sad circumstances—alone in her house with not even a caregiver by her side.

Who is Nelia Sancho, and why are the feminists openly mourning her? What lessons did she leave behind through a life lived to the fullest, and with such ferocity of purpose?

With Maita Gomez. (Photo from Facebook)

New York-based novelist-essayist Ninotchka Rosca said, “Nelia was already in the universe of personalities even before Martial Law, first as one of two devastatingly beautiful beauty queens, the other being Maita Gomez. I was aware of her political evolution, and learned about the beauty queen squad and her capture in Malabon during Martial Law.”

Much later, Nelia went to the US in the early 1980s with a delegation. She and (journalist) Jo-Ann Maglipon were assigned to Ninotchka to host. “One day, Nelia asked me to accompany her on a dinner date at a posh restaurant. I said the host might be angered by her having a chaperone. She said she didn’t want to be seen alone dining with a good-looking man. At which I said, ‘Good-looking? Oh then, you stay here, and I’ll go dine with him.’ Which made Jo-Ann laugh. Nelia pouted, obviously not used to New York banter.”

Nelia, who was always late, made journalist Ninotchka Rosca wait for two hours—’But she would be so graciously apologetic, one couldn’t get mad’

In 1986, before the ouster of the Marcos family, Ninotchka was doing a piece for Ms. Magazine and asked to interview her. They set a date and time, but Nelia made the journalist wait for two hours. “But she would be so graciously apologetic, one couldn’t get mad.” Ninotchka said Nelia “was instrumental in my formal foray into feminism. She asked me in 1988, and it took me a year to study. In a way, she sent me down a different road.”

Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB, chair emerita of Gabriela, said she had already heard of Nelia since she was a beauty queen, second in the Miss Philippines Contest and first in the Queen of the Pacific. “But I met her personally when she joined Gabriela. I was then chairperson and she became secretary general after Lidy Nakpil in 1986.”

Sr. Mary John and Nelia “agreed wholeheartedly in our commitment to be on the side of the poor and the marginalized. Nelia is someone who thinks out of the box. One issue where I and most feminists did not agree with her was her endeavor to legalize prostitution and to accept prostituted women as legal sex workers. I knew where she was coming from. She had real compassion for the women. She believed that this would give them status. At that time, this was the view of Western feminists.”

For Sr. Mary John, women of the Third World did not have a real choice due to poverty and oppression, and regarded prostituted women as “victims whom we want to empower to transcend their victimhood, become survivors and advocates.”

She found it great that beauty queens like Gemma Cruz (later Araneta), Maita Gomez, and Nelia were at the forefront of a militant women’s movement. The Benedictine nun said, “It was like a ‘promo’ for the women’s movement. I was more overjoyed that as soon as they realized the commercialization and objectification involved in beauty contests, they themselves boycotted beauty contests later on.”

Teacher Feny de los Angeles, executive director of the Community of Learners Foundation (COLF), met Nelia in 1979. “Nel, at 27, was starting her journey as a parent with son AK, who was a toddler then. She had just been released from prison and was on her own. At 20, I was beginning my teaching career at the University of the Philippines Department of Family Life and Child Development (FLCD), as a fresh graduate with an FLCD degree. Nel enrolled in the summer workshop on Early Childhood Education that the department offered at that time as part of our Community Education Services. I was one of the teachers working with the group fulltime.

Political detainees in Bicutan. Nelia is seventh from the right. (Photo from Facebook)

“Nelia and other former political detainees were in the early stages of organizing Parents Alternative Inc. (PAI), which was to devote itself to supporting children of political detainees whose parents were still detained, just released, or restarting life outside or were cared for by extended family because they were orphaned. We worked together on setting up a day care center for them.”

Feny served as a PAI volunteer, her “after-work work” while she was teaching at UP.  “In the process of working in proximity, Nel and I quickly and easily became friends.”

Activist Liza Maza of Gabriela Women’s Party also met Nelia through the PAI route. “I was looking for a possible day care for my son. I heard that PAI accepted children of activists. I needed a day care, since I was active then in the anti-dictatorship movement. I also knew that Nelia was managing PAI and was an activist herself, so I was confident that she would understand our concerns. She eventually recruited me to Gabriela.

‘She could easily have led a comfortable life in this society, had she chosen the path of glamor and privilege’

“Her personal history as a beauty queen-turned-activist instantly earned my respect,” Liza continued. “She could easily have led a comfortable life in this society, had she chosen the path of glamor and privilege. As I worked with her directly in Gabriela, my admiration for her deepened because she was hands-on, hardworking, creative, and had genuine compassion for the poor. She initiated the various programs that offered direct services to women political prisoners and victims of human rights violations and gender violence. She was not just a beautiful, charming person, but she was a competent and skilled woman leader.”

Former Sen. Nikki Coseteng speaking at Nelia’s wake. Photo by Lito Ocampo

Former senator and street parliamentarian Nikki Coseteng recalled that she was barely out of high school when Gemma Cruz won the Miss International title. “She, Maita, and Nelia have shown that their conviction and dedication could not be dampened by threats, actual torture, and deprivation of material comfort. Indeed, they lived their convictions and paid the price.”

Nikki described her encounters with Nelia thus: “Most of my activities with her involved participation in fora where nationalist speakers shared historical facts and their relevance to the current situation in our country. We also managed to be in mass actions, in the Parliament of the Streets. I recall many instances when we would have to march in the rain or in the heat of the blazing sun for kilometers at high noon for sometimes as long as four hours or more to finally reach the rally sites. At times we were met with water cannons, and that felt like being hit with a paddle in the chest! We would get sick afterwards because we would be drenched and would have to walk several hours again to get to a ride back home.”

‘We would have to march in the rain or in the heat for hours or more to finally reach the rally sites—but Nelia never seemed to get tired’

She recalled how Nelia “never seemed to get tired. And truly, we never ever wanted to admit we were tired. Maybe, to us, ‘tired’ was not something we should feel.”

Ninotchka found Nelia “guarded, especially about her personal life. She always focused on her mission. People with underground experience are usually like this. Except at one point, she did say a few lines about her marital difficulties. We did clash once in Holland, at a conference where I represented a Philippine women’s organization.” Like Mary John, Ninotchka didn’t think prostitution should be legalized. “Nelia talked to me in private outside the conference, telling me that my position was old-fashioned Marxist and not feminist. I asked what the feminist position was. She said some women have such firm control over their sexuality, they could put it on the market without feeling disempowered.”

Like Ninotchka and Mary John, Liza disagreed with Nelia on the prostitution issue, “Gabriela did not agree with her on this since our position then, which we still maintain today, is that prostitution is a form of violence against women, and most of the women who go into prostitution were forced by poverty and were victims of patriarchal oppression. In spite of this disagreement, we were both open to hearing out each other’s views. This difference did not negate the work she has contributed to advance the women’s movement.”

Feny and Nelia agreed on almost everything. The teacher said, “I cannot recall any disagreements. I would say there were none. The mutual respect was always there.  Nel sought my advice as a parent. I was part of her village for AK and Anna. Later, she turned to me when she had concerns about her grandchildren.”

Their firm common ground was advocacy for children’s rights. Feny said, “The global movement was getting off the ground in the early ’80s with the lead-up to and the drafting of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that was eventually ratified in 1989 by almost all member countries of the UN.  Nel requested me to accept invitations to speak at international conferences and participate in working groups. She had a lot of faith in me and insisted I could contribute a lot, given my academic background and experiences as a progressive educator. I think I called her my ‘talent scout’ for the global NGO world of children’s rights.”

Lawyer Milabel Cristobal of the Free Legal Assistance Group said, “Nelia and I both agreed on general women’s rights advocacy and children’s rights, as she was the one who also got me into working on children rights. We agreed on common-sense issues, but I felt that on other matters, she would always defer to what I perceived were priorities and programs of the movement. Although she would have her own opinions on some matters, she generally kept them to herself or shared only with those close to her, but she did not go against the tide. She ‘toed the line,’ and I at that time admired her for it, as I have seen persons who were considered ‘personalities’ who, in my opinion, take advantage of their public persona in order to take a different stance or position, sometimes to the point of being out of tune.”

Nikki got a more intimate glimpse of Nelia when they became Philippine delegates to Forum ’85, the UN Decade for Women Conference held in July 1985 in Nairobi, Kenya. “Our issues then were the presence of the US bases, violence against women, the release of political prisoners and human rights, reproductive health and the environment, among others. Nelia was easy to get along with, was extremely hardworking and disciplined. She was a stickler for schedules and did a lot of networking and reaching out to women’s organizations worldwide. She would have a suitcase full of leaflets and materials she would hand out or post all over the venue.”

To her, “Nelia was always deliberate, and did not exaggerate when conveying messages. She was polite even with disagreeable people. She listened well and took what you had to say seriously.

‘No fuss, no pretentions, wala kahit katiting na yabang, considering that napakarami niyang dapat ipagyabang’

“As a friend, she always put herself last. No fuss, no pretentions, wala kahit katiting na yabang, considering that napakarami niyang dapat ipagyabang. She could have died in the hands of her torturers! And she was unbelievingly courageous! Always!”

Furthermore, the former legislator said, “Nelia was never demanding when she could have been. As a leader and an icon looked up to by so many, everything was a pakiusap from her to others. In fact, I have never heard her raise her voice or make ugly remarks about people. When I did, she managed to calm me down and even make me regret having said what I did.”

Nikki considered time spent with Nelia “time spent learning, realizing, understanding, reinforcing, and deciding to further spread the word. She had a way of explaining things I would never have been able to do. She was the perfect woman cut out for the work she had chosen to pursue. She did an excellent job with dignity and effectiveness. Nelia could do with the barest minimum. That to me was a tough act to follow—never anything more than what was needed. Anything extra that came our way was a ‘cause for celebration.’ She would express her gratitude and appreciation sincerely without fail.”

Nelia in the pink of health. Photo reproduction by Anna Leah Sarabia

She also said Nelia’s attitude was that “the world owed her nothing. That’s one hell of a rare quality found in someone who could have chosen to take a totally different, more comfortable path. She never thought of herself as someone who deserved more because of what she was able to contribute to the movement. Despite the stress, the hardships, the inconveniences and the harsh words from critics, Nelia stood her ground.”

Sr. Mary John found other attributes in Nelia that manifested she had faith, despite her ideological leanings. “I did not see a ‘religious side’ to her. But I knew her to be a compassionate woman who had a heart for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed, and acted unselfishly for them, to the extent of being arrested and imprisoned. She also had this aura of calmness, serenity, and gentleness, one would not think she was an activist—until one heard her impassioned speeches in rallies about social and political issues. For me, this is spirituality which is different from religiosity.”

Feny also found that Nelia had deep reserves of faith. “I met her at one of the most challenging stages in her life: being a single parent to a toddler and an infant while working hard to make both ends meet. She always had a very close relationship with the religious sector. She always recruited hardworking, progressive nuns in our work, starting with PAI.  She was genuinely comfortable with them. That comes from shared values and beliefs.”

She found Nelia to be “a thoughtful friend and comrade who was mindful of my welfare. She always asked if I was doing okay. She was patient in explaining things and was a good mentor, for she led by example. She could work for hours on end, but she also knew how to chill out with you. She was a warm and gentle person.”

‘She had this aura of calmness, serenity, and gentleness, one would not think she was an activist—until one heard her impassioned speeches’

Milabel looked upon Nelia as a professional activist and women’s rights advocate awhens the former was still learning the ropes, reading articles and books, and listening to women leaders. “Since I was the newbie, she would take time to talk to me, not only explaining the issues, the discussions, but would sharing the dynamics between political groups and forces, between the different views in the various international fora we would attend together.

“She would be patient, when dealing with the comfort women, listening carefully but also careful to pick out the inconsistencies in their claims and stories as we navigated through the different testimonies we had received, verified, and vetted, up to the point where we had to document in detail the different accounts of the lolas.

Sr. Mary John and Nelia were 12 years apart “so we were not friends as people of the same age or generation are. But we were friends in the sense that we worked harmoniously with one another, shared the same passion and compassion for those who are deprived, exploited, and oppressed. And we were quite honest and frank with each other. One weakness of Nelia is being late for meetings, personal or organizational. Once when she came very late for our national meeting, I joked: ‘You know, in the convent, when one is late, one has to kneel before the whole assembly.’ She just smiled apologetically.

“As a comrade, I have never seen a woman so dedicated, so focused, so untiring in her work, who had the courage to initiate new projects. One important movement she started was that of the comfort women. When she went to Korea, she listened to the sharings of the women kidnapped by the occupying Japanese army, forced into houses to sexually serve Japanese soldiers. She thought that since the Philippines was also occupied by the Japanese, there had to be such women here, but at that time, nobody had surfaced. So as Gabriela secretary general, she initiated a radio call to women who had been so coerced. And they answered the call. The first one to answer was Lola Rosa Henson. And so was born Lila Filipina, where comfort women recovered their self-esteem and became not only survivors, but advocates.”

On hearing of Nelia’s death, Ninotchka said, “It hit me as another inch of curtains closing. We are leaving early. The brilliant era of the archipelago—the social transformation movement’s first decades—ends. And as usual, the same question: what was it all about, Alfie? It’s been a long and arduous struggle, but if it did not change the world, it changed us.”

Nikki felt “sad and bad. One like her deserved more, and not just to die alone after living and serving the cause. We completely lost touch over the years. I regretted that. Then again, that was what she was like—not one to be a burden to others, not one to ask for personal favors. I suppose, she felt that she had given up so much and given her all to people and country and did not want to bother anyone in her last days. They just don’t make them in that same mold. I felt a great loss. It was an honor and privilege to know her and learn from her—lessons I would never have learned in school then and do not expect to learn in our schools now. I felt that Nelia’s passing is a great loss, as our youth will not have the opportunity to experience how to chart a different course for our country to break the curse that has befallen us.”

‘One like her deserved more, and not just to die alone after living and serving the cause. Then again, she was not one to be a burden to others’

Feny had just greeted Nelia online on her 71st birthday. Some days later, she was shocked to hear the news that “Nelia Sancho was found lifeless in her Bliss apartment.” “I felt saddened to lose such an inwardly and outwardly beautiful person who contributed so much to the women’s movement in the Philippines. But I know she lived a full life, a meaningful life that can be the inspiration of young women of our times.”

Liza was also shocked. “I knew that she was battling diabetes for a long time, but her

death was so sudden. She still had a lot to contribute, but even though she is not with us anymore, I hope that her life story will be passed on from one generation to another, not as chismis but a ‘herstory’ of true beauty, courage, and service to others.”

Milabel was equally “sad, and upset, to have found out that she died alone the day

after her birthday. I knew she had diabetes, that she was sick, and that she had retired to Caticlan, but would be in Manila every so often. I was upset that she was alone because she did not want family to live with her since she had TB, which is really ridiculous since TB is curable, and healthy people do not automatically succumb to it; that with all her friends and comrades, no one explained to her that she does not have to live alone if she has TB. It was really ridiculous that she was alone. I feel upset that for a person who is and was treated as an icon by the movement, by the Left, she died alone.”

Still, Feny felt that Nelia has left a profound legacy. “Her contribution is immeasurable—she gave of herself tirelessly, broke new ground in many ways, and I consider her a truly effective mobilizer and organizer of people. That multiplies the magnitude of her contribution. She could bring together people from the different parts of her life, and get them to work together so well.”

Relaxing. (From Nelia’s Facebook profile)

About author


She is a freelance journalist. The pandemic has turned her into a homebody.

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