Nelia Sancho:The beauty queen turned activist brings WWII comfort women to center stage
For a woman of her status, beauty queen and all with a bright future ahead of her to give everything up just to follow what her conscience dictated her to do to fight for justice in this world, I believe, borders on the saintly.#
In 1971, Nelia Sancho was on top of the world. She has just been crowned The Queen of the Pacific in a beauty pageant held in Melbourne, Australia where she bested 29 representatives of countries in the Pacific Rim. At the prestigious University of the Philippines, she was the Grand Archon of her sorority, Sigma Delta Phi, and a Corps Sponsor of the ROTC.
She was a much sought after fashion model and it seemed that the world was for her asking. All she needed to do was coast along, enjoy the adulation of the public, maybe do a movie or two, perhaps settle down with one of the rich eligible bachelors wooing her, and she got it made.
Four years later, however, she found herself languishing in jail, emaciated by the hunger strikes she and her fellow detainees staged; the dreaded communist label clearly stamped on her forehead. Time Magazine tagged her as the Guerilla Queen, with a picture of her clad in a bikini placed side by side with a file photo of a pile of guns. The guns, according to Nelia, did not even belong to her. She was lucky she got caught alive after two years of being underground at the height of the infamous martial law rule in the Philippines. Otherwise, she would have been killed. What went wrong? Or, as the other side would put it, what went right?
We interviewed Nelia Sancho, still very beautiful at 54, over dinner at Chevys Mexican Restaurant in Mission Valley in San Diego last Wednesday, November 16. She had just arrived from the Philippines and was in town to participate in the Global Womens Court of Accountability a forum sponsored by the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego, slated for November 17 to 18, 2005. She was invited because of her work as the national coordinator of Lolas Kampanyera, a Filipino Comfort Women survivors group and researcher for the case of Filipino Comfort Women victims of Japanese military sexual slavery in WW II.
She will also grace the affair of the Pagtatap Association, an organization of former residents of Pandan, Antique. Born in that town, Nelia however, partly grew up in Manila and in Mindanao where her lawyer and auditor father had been assigned.
Nelia belongs to a prominent and landed family in Caticlan, Aklan and Antique. Her maternal grandfather, in fact, donated the land where an alternative airport was built in Caticlan, Malay, Aklan, which is much closer to the world famous Boracay Beach Resort than the main airport in Kalibo, Aklan. The authorities named the airport after another prominent resident of the province, but the people protested and wanted it named either after Nelias generous grandfather or simply as Caticlan Airport. The Airport Transportation Office decided to put up a sign recognizing the lots donor, somehow placating the people in the area.
Nelias family is also related to former Philippine Chief Justice Calixto Zaldivar. One of Zaldivars sons is now a congressman in the area, while a daughter, Sally Perez, is the governor.
One of her cousins, Hector Canimo, a Central Bank of the Philippines retiree who is now based in Escondido, California, said that people would not believe that his father and Nelias father were brothers. This is because when Nelias father finished law school, he thought that his last name was too Visayan for a lawyer. He had it changed to his middle name, and from then on, his progeny, including Nelia, bore Sancho, quite unusual for a Filipino, as their last name.
Nelias father worked as an auditor for the Commission on Audit and was assigned in different parts of the country. This is why Nelia studied at St. Annes Academy, then at the Santa Ana Elementary School, Villamor High School all in Manila and ended up at the Catholic girls school of Immaculate Conception in Davao City.. Despite this difficulty, she managed to earn honors through the years.
She studied pre-med at the University of the Philippines for years but later shifted to Mass Communications.
Nagsusuka ako (I was throwing up), she confessed, whenever we dissected human and animal cadavers.
In 1969, she was enticed to join the Bb. Pilipinas (Miss Philippines) pageant. She ended up as first runner up to Gloria Diaz who eventually won the Miss Universe title.
In 1970, Pitoy Moreno, the top fashion designer in the Philippines who belonged to the Upsion Sigma Phi, a brother fraternity of Nelias sorority, recruited Nelia as his fashion model. In 1971, the Philippine Tourism Authority appointed her to represent the country in the Queen of the Pacific pageant. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This meant that she would have to miss a year of school, as she had to attend to the duties of a titleholder. After her stint was over, she realized that it was not a life meant for her. She was grateful for the experience, the chance to travel to different countries and be exposed to various cultures. But she found no meaning to being a beauty queen and a fashion model especially when she started to be influenced by the nationalism engulfing the student population during those years of protests against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War. In fact, Nelia ended up as a high profile and very credible leader of demonstrations against capitalist beauty pageants being held in Manila at that time for commercializing the womens body.
But the activists groups were not taking her seriously then. They must have thought that she was too beautiful and had so much at stake for her to sacrifice her privileged status and future for their cause. In fact, they may have been right because at that time, Nelia confessed that she had no nationalist or ideological lines.
Nag-jojoin lamang ako ng mga demo (I was just joining the demonstrations) she recalled, just like the rest of the U.P. students. I barely understood the political issues being raised, and had no deep commitment to any cause.
Some of her classmates, however, became so serious that they went underground in pursuing their nationalistic campaigns. They approached Nelia and her sorority sisters for material and financial help, and occasionally, the latter would give them rice or whatever they could spare. Unfortunately, however, the military caught one of her activist schoolmates in 1973. They found in her possession a list of donors and supporters, with the name of Nelia included. This forced Nelia to hide from the authorities, together with her other sisters in the list. One time when they were at a sorority sisters house in Malabon, the military came and raided the house looking for political/activists of the left underground movement.
They were not even looking for me, she recalled. They were after two U.P. professors from Los Banos.
What happened next was totally unexpected. It forever remained in Nelias memory and completely changed the course of her life. Right before her eyes, the two professors were shot dead. Executed without trial. Salvaged, as the common lingo would say. It took her a while to recover from the shock. What she could not accept was the fact that the military could get away with such a dastardly crime, without the rest of the world knowing about it. Looking back, she realized that it was her turning point. While before she was merely a bystander who was unwillingly caught in a web of unfortunate circumstances, this time, she became a willing participant in the struggle against the oppression of the people, transformed into a political activist who committed herself to human rights causes.
What made the matters worse was the fact that the head of the arresting soldiers was a distant uncle from Pandan. They were sent to a safe house for a while and she was eventually released to the custody of her father.
Broken-hearted and with the bright future of her daughter turning bleak and crumbling before his eyes, he sent Nelia to Davao where she eventually got a job as a collection officer for a big company.
I was very successful, she fondly recalled. Because of my beauty queen title and celebrity status, people would invite me, even pick me up in their helicopters, so that I could be in their office and collect money from them.
Any ordinary person would have been very grateful for that change of fortune, for being given a rare second chance to renew her life and career. But not Nelia. The memory of the brutal murder of the two U.P. professors right before her eyes remained firmly etched in her mind. She was restless despite the financial and material bounties she had been receiving from her job.
My conscience could not settle down, she said. I was very mad at the military. Finally, I decided to join the underground. In fact, I even had to look for them; not the other way around. They did not look for and recruit me.
Not a leftist
It was not a case of her embracing the communist ideology at that time. She was not a leftist, despite what the authorities labeled her to be. She said she joined the left because it was the only opposition at that time of Martial Law. She was being merely intensely humanitarian, propelled by her love for her fellowmen and the desire to seek justice for every man. And for a woman of her status, beauty queen and all with a bright future ahead of her, to give everything up just to follow what her conscience dictated her to do to fight for justice in this world, I believe, borders on the saintly. This I cannot, even in a thousand years, ever do. And here I am, right in front of Nelia Sancho as she fondly recalled her past with no regrets whatsoever, with peace and contentment in her eyes.
Did you ever think of what could have been? Would you do it again given another chance? I could not help but ask.
She smiled and answered: I have been asked that question many times over. Did I regret my actions? No I did not, because those were my decisions at those particular moments, dictated by my conscience. Would I do them again given another chance? Well, I have already experienced them, perhaps I might try another experience.
Actually, nasa city lamang ako sa Davao (I was only in the city in Davao), she recalled with amusement. The news said that I went to the mountains.
When she was arrested, she was brought to Manila and detained together with other human rights activists like lawyer and now Senator Joker Arroyo.
I got involved in the opposition movement for only one year, but I was detained for two and a half years, from 1976 to 1978, she said.
She met her husband, Antonio Liao, a leftist, in prison where they got married and had their first child. She was a single mother when she was released and was forced to be on her own and independent. She needed the money to survive so she ended up selling encyclopedias, pursuing a livelihood many decent people whose fortunes have dwindled fall back on. She became one of the top agents and quit when she earned a complete set for her childrens use within one year of sales work.
At that time, I read a blind item in an entertainment column in Manila about the encounter of two former beauty queens in Makati. The first one, who ended up as a mistress of a high-ranking politician, was said to be reprimanding the other, who was selling encyclopedia: What are you doing? Why are you not using your beauty to get the material things that you are used to and make life comfortable for your child?
I have a very strong suspicion who the columnist was referring to, and I believe that one of them, the encyclopedia-selling beauty queen, of course, was Nelia Sancho.
Nelia also got help and sympathy from unexpected sources.
There was this Malaysian business tycoon whom I met when I won the beauty pageant, she recalled. When he was told about my plight, he invited me and our other friends at a dinner at the Manila Hotel. By that time, he had extensive business interests all over Asia. He told me that he is not a communist but he fully understood and sympathized with my situation. I found out that his younger brother, whom he dearly loved and who died during the war, was himself, a communist.
In 1986 the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was ousted from power and Cory Aquino took over. One of those instrumental for Corys success was her close adviser and human rights lawyer Joker Arroyo. With the influence of some of her left-leaning and nationalist advisers like Arroyo, Cory ordered the release of political detainees imprisoned during the years of Martial Law, including the top communist Jose Maria Sison. At that time, I read an account of the husband of Nelia Sancho being released from jail. The writer described how he came out of the prison gate and what was on his mind on the bus ride home, amazed at the changes in the surroundings he had not seen for years while in prison. It was quite touching. Sadly, however, his relationship with his wife did not last long even after he returned home. Their long separation and their detention took a toll on their marriage, especially when Nelia got used to being on her own.
We were only together for two years after that, Nelia recalled. The next few years, we were together just for the sake of our children. We mutually agreed we were too young when we got involved and did not have the emotional foundation and experience to hold our marriage together.
Their marriage was formally annulled in 1998.
Their daughter, Anna, now 24 is working her way to Law School. But she had to work first in a Call Center to earn her keep. Their son, Karlo is a computer engineering graduate from the University of the Philippines. He has his own website business, with clientele based in the U.S. and Europe.
Nelias former husband is still involved in community work as an aide of a town mayor in the south, helping out in the development of barangay associations. Nelia, on the other hand, buried herself in work and sought to promote humanitarian causes. Before the Aquino government formally recognized the Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), she was already involved in some of them, like those that concerned the plights of the political detainees children and other human rights issues.
She co-founded Gabriela, named after the equally heroic wife of the Filipino revolutionary hero, Diego Silang. It was one of the first groups in the Philippines to advocate for womens rights. After steering the group into prominence because of Nelias name and reputation, she eventually left it to pursue other endeavors. Nelia is proud of the fact that Gabriela is already a party-list entity, being represented in Congress by Liza Masa.
Nelia declared out of the left movement since the mid nineties and is now espousing other, mostly non-political, causes. While attending a conference in Korea in 1991, she was introduced to the plight of the comfort women, women who were forced to slavery and prostitution by the Japanese Military during World War II to cater to the needs of its soldiers.
This led to the organization of Lolas Kampanera and the identification of Filipina comfort women. Sadly, however, out of the 450 that were accounted for, only 150 have remained as most had passed away because of their age. Through several activities, the group has finally elicited a public apology from the Japanese government for this heinous atrocity. Japan, however, refused to apologize to each individual comfort women victim because it might open a floodgate of lawsuits all over Asia. Asian Journal will publish a complete coverage of the plight of the comfort women in its future issues.
When asked how others could be of help, she said that she would appreciate if somebody could help them finance and maintain their website, which has become a rich source of information for students, legislators, researchers and even the general public. She needs at least fifty dollars a month to keep the website going. Of course she could use some donations to cover the medical and, sad to say, burial expenses of the comfort women. The Lolas Kampanera website is: www.lolasonline.org
Nelia has published several books, conducted researches, and has spoken before many forums in the promotion of her causes.
My wish for the moment is to have a sabbatical leave from my long years of activism work, which is from 1972 to present, and do some reflections and writing of my experiences and work, she said. I am searching for a scholarship that would allow me to finish my book on comfort women in the context of war and peacemaking issues.
After giving up her bright materialistic future and devoting her life helping her fellowmen, everyone will agree that Nelia Sancho, the beauty queen turned activist, surely deserves the fulfillment of her wish. – AJ