Early in August, after watching “Katips: The Movie,” I was reminded of a friend from my days at the University of the Philippines. Nelia Sancho: Yes, the beauty queen and activist. I wondered what her reaction would be to the movie making waves among a woke youth.
As August was also her birth month, I thought of texting her, anticipating that she would spend her birthday with her children in Quezon City, as she had always done.
I met Nelia, then a mass communication sophomore, at UP Diliman in 1968, when we joined the sorority Sigma Delta Phi (the Greek letters stand for the Society of Dramatics and Fine Arts). She was a physical standout for her 5’6 beauty, notwithstanding a batchmate’s 5’10 (chemistry student Ruby Umali aka fashion model Dayang-Dayang).
Having these twin towers in our batch of neophytes worked fairly well for us less physically gifted ones; we felt safe, or so we thought, from the undue attention of our “masters” by staying in their shadow. But Inday Nelia was the natural queen of the pack: Her looks and gentle Ilonggo ways—she hailed from Davao but was born in Pandan, Antique—worked like a charm on both the nerds and the snooty cosmopolitans in our group of 18.
We forged a sisterhood that held up beyond graduation and to this day, despite the divergent career paths and life choices we made.
More than 50 years hence, Nelia would acknowledge the sorority as, in her words, “like my second family” that she could come home to sans baggage, where she could be at ease speaking of how “so much had happened to my life after being a Sigma Deltan.” She credited the sorority’s social network for opening doors for her, and was thankful to her mentors in the Upsilon Sigma Phi, director Behn Cervantes and fashion czar Pitoy Moreno, both also now gone.
She described herself as “a shy girl out of high school in Davao” who went from sorority girl to playing a chorus girl in the musical “Guys and Dolls,” to corps sponsor, Lantern Queen, Fraternity Sweetheart, then Binibining Pilipinas runner-up—all within the harvest year of 1969.
Nelia would lead Sigma Delta Phi as grand archon in 1970 and begin her awakening in student activism during the historic 1971 Diliman Commune. Still her good looks could not be denied: She was hailed Queen of the Pacific in the same year in Australia, besting 22 other international candidates.
And then martial law was declared in 1972. It turned her life around, driving her underground.
Last August, with time to ponder on her journey thus far, Nelia wrote a thoughtful response to the 50-year-old question: Why?
“Becoming an activist was not really a decision for me,” she said. “It was more like the historical circumstances of the period led me to it. My values led me to embrace it.”
My text messages last August found her in the same UP Bliss unit where she had stayed whenever she was in the city and where she raised her two young children, Anthony Karlo (or AK) and Anna Louise Liao, 30-something years ago. She had arrived in Manila by Ro-Ro bus from Antique a week ago, she said, adding that she was already sick when she left the province and thus proceeded to a medical checkup. From then on I would intermittently check in on her by text.
I’d catch her in lucid moments between rest and sleep, and she’d oblige with her thoughts on a project with which she was preoccupied, as if to put her mind firmly on healing mode.
When our conversation veered toward leaving a legacy, she turned upbeat on the advocacy closest to her heart: “There is a memorial that I set up in Pandan, Antique, of two women who were both sex slaves [during the Japanese occupation]—one, Lola Rosa Henson, the first Filipino comfort-woman survivor, and the other, my sister Agnes Sancho, who was a victim of rape during martial law.” (The younger Agnes died in 2013; another sister, Raquel, passed on in 2021 due to diabetes complications, a family issue.) “They are from 2 generations who were victims of rape but both in armed-conflict situations— [World War II] Japanese military sex slavery and … Marcos martial rule.”
In a text last June 2, Nelia excitedly informed me of the memorial’s successful transfer from their original site in Caticlan, Aklan, to Pandan, Antique. By then she had given up her business in Caticlan due to a slack in tourism brought about by the pandemic lockdown.
Going full circle
The transfer of the memorial to Nelia’s birthplace appeared to be written in the stars. “The memorial is meaningful to the people of Antique who know about the comfort-women issue,” she said. “There is a comfort-woman survivor who is from Pandan. In fact, there are several who are from the same island region. Lola Rosa is more like a representative of all the survivors as she was the first to come out to tell her story.”
She had embarked on putting up a memorial for comfort women on her family property after similar statues on Roxas Boulevard in Manila and in San Pedro City in Laguna were removed, amid supposed protests from the Japanese government.
Using her personal funds—reparations she received as a victim of human rights violations during martial law—Nelia had contracted sculptor Carlos Anorico of Angono, Rizal, to erect the statues in Caticlan in 2019.
She was clear on her vision: “Am still in the process of organizing it. … the entire memorial place is not ready yet. Am still constructing an … area for cooking and washing the dishes, which visitors can use. Also, a parking area. And a nipa rest area. And I still need to set up the pictures of other lolas, especially those from Antique, Capiz and Iloilo or the Panay area. I hope students from universities in Panay can regularly tour the [place] to learn about martial law and WWII history or the impact of any armed conflict situation on the civilian population, especially women and children.”
As early as November 2021, she had arranged to transfer her books and paintings from her former base in Caticlan and to include her collection of “500 books on women and other subjects from 30 years work with the women NGOs and the [United Nations] in Geneva.”
In a letter to her siblings, Nelia spoke of plans to build a reading center for local residents and students of Antique and Iloilo as well as international visitors, which, she said, “I will dedicate to Daddy, Rogelio Canimo Sancho Sr., and maybe also to the Canimo clan of Daddy’s parents and his siblings. I hope Daddy will be remembered as a teacher in Pandan and a proud citizen of Pandan.”
Pain and loss
Looking back on our conversations, I thought that it was Nelia’s feverish efforts to realize her vision under the strain of a pandemic lockdown that took a heavy toll on her fragile health.
I asked her, as she flitted in and out of conscious text messaging, if she was now dense to pain and loss—or was it part of her healing ways to not dwell on the past in order to move forward?
She was quick to dismiss the irreverent question, saying: “I don’t think I will ever be able to be dense to pain and loss … for example, hearing the stories of the Filipino comfort women about rape or sexual enslavement has given me more sensitivity to their pain … and it is due to my own political and personal experience of pain and suffering under martial law.”
On her birthday on Aug. 30, in behalf of our sorority sisters, I sent Nelia loving thoughts, in my mind wishing, “Long Life to the Queen.”
Her reply was brief but hopeful: “Thank you, Nette. I am still bedridden. Grateful to reach 71.” And she added: “Will contact you when I have gained my strength!”
Her daughter Anna and family brought their Nanay Nelle a cake, her favorite food, a bouquet of flowers, a sash and a tiara fit for a queen.
I thought we had always been ready to lose her, given the heroic path she chose. But when the end finally came, I didn’t know the vast extent of our heartache and sense of loss. Not for what she could have added to the pride of having a beauty queen-activist for a friend, but for what a beauty queen-activist could have done more for victims of political repression and the violence men inflict upon women and children.
Many heroes live a short life and do not survive their initial struggle against injustice. Nelia Sancho dealt with the challenges thrown her way: staring death in the faces of her comrades, surviving torture, imprisonment and hunger strike, overcoming hardships to raise her young children. She went through her journey with grace, not despair. There was something greater than life that moved her toward her Destiny. The only surrender she made was to her illness, a debilitating diabetes that she endured for 20 years. Even that, she may have reckoned, was a small price to pay for a lifetime spent fighting for her advocacies.
Yet she fought hard enough to reach her body age of 71, so that her two children and four grandchildren could celebrate her presence with love and cheer one last time, leaving on an emotional high for her bereaved family, to stay two days more until Sept. 1, ever true to her word.