“You should hold on to your religious values, to your Catholic Faith. We are a joyful religion and you must always also do what you can for the people who need your help. Never turn your back on the needy, the suffering, the sick. Help them willingly and joyfully.”
These were the words of Zeneida Quezon Avanceña when she once accepted the position as the first elected president of the Assumption Alumnae Association (AAA), for her alma mater of Assumption College. Indeed, Tita Nini’, as she was lovingly called by her friends, relatives, colleagues and all those whose lives she has touched through her advocacies, has lived by these words for all her life. Though she came from the affluent lineage of former Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon, being his only surviving daughter, Tita Nini has never turned her back on her fellow countrymen, especially to those needing her help. She is proud of her Quezon lineage and displays the sense of nationalism and social justice many believe to be akin to the late Filipino leader.
Tita Nini, as observed by many who knew her, is very soft-spoken and reserved, often delegating speeches and appearances to her children, even in events celebrating her life and achievements. But to ascribe her reticence to subservience and weakness would be misguided, as Tita Nini is also remembered by her colleagues and comrades as a feisty fighter, championing many causes dear to her heart. Her life experiences may have played a role in galvanizing her spirit to fight. Having lost her father just a few years prior and having gone through the terrors of World War II, another tragedy befell Tita Nini in 1949 when, during a visit to Baler, her mother Aurora Quezon’s car was intercepted by members of the Hukbalahap, the militant arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines. At the time, her mother was accompanied by her husband Felipe Buencamino, with whom she had just been together for two years, and her sister, Maria Aurora “Baby” Quezon. They were all shot and killed by the rebels. In one cruel stroke of fate, Tita Nini tragically lost her mother, her husband and her sister.
Though Tita Nini lost a huge part of her life that day, she did not succumb to grief, but rather clung to hope. Her daughter, Nene, actual name Maria Aurora, whom she named after her late sister, said of her that, “notwithstanding the tragedy, she had kept optimistic all her life. No wonder she fought for many causes because she knew there was hope.” Indeed, Tita Nini did not give up on life and soldiered on. In 1951, she married Albert Avanceña and started a family while she began serving society. One of her earliest ventures was with the Philippine National Red Cross, which was once chaired by her mother.
Tita Nini began immersing herself more and more with grassroots movements, participating in campaigns such as those for the protection of human rights and press freedom, for the release of political prisoners, for the removal of military bases, and for nuclear disarmament. Though Tita Nini immensely suffered when communist rebels gunned down her family, she came to understand the bigger picture of the struggle, later helping out in the organization of workers, tenants and peasants, all of whom were to be commonly tagged by the later Marcos dictatorship as communist sympathizers or actual rebels.
In the 1970s, when Martial Law was declared, Tita Nini became more involved in the organized opposition to the Marcos regime. Together with Maring Feria, Bing Escoda Roxas, Saling Boncan and Charo Moran, Tita Nini founded the Concerned Women of the Philippines (CWP), which became one of the more vocal organizations in its criticisms of the repressive Marcos regime. She was also part of Kilusan sa Kapangyarihan at Karapatan ng Bayan (Kaakbay), an organization advocating for non-violent activism founded by former senator and staunch Marcos opponent Jose W. Diokno.
Tita Nini found herself fighting side-by side with the masses, allying with known figures such as Raul Manglapus, Jovito Salonga and Diokno. She dedicated herself to helping the release of political prisoners, most of whom were accused of being communist rebels. Had Tita Nini lived her life differently, she could have sympathized with the government’s supposed crusade against communism, given her harrowing past, but she knew the reality of the situation. Activist Satur Ocampo even recalled being visited while he was imprisoned in the 1980s by Tita Nini and Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma, both from the CWP, seeking to assist him and his fellow inmates in their protest action to seek out justice and for their immediate release. She and Muñoz-Palma zeroed in on the Presidential Commitment Order (PCO) and the Preventive Detention Action (PDA), which granted Marcos the capacity to arrest and detain anyone suspected of being rebels, as a major cause for concern. They promptly formed the Movement against PCO (MAPCO) and joined protests, echoing the rally cry of “Free All Political Detainees!” along with demonstrators in the streets. Tita Nini found herself marching with alleged communists, but she marched with them nonetheless against a bigger enemy of the country.
Tita Nini continued participating in the nationwide resistance to the dictatorship. She used her Quezon name to lend legitimacy to causes she championed and linked arms with the common people. She participated in demonstrations in 1983 following the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, and, with her daughter, helped guard ballot boxes during the 1986 snap elections. She was untiring in her efforts, continuing even after the ouster of Marcos, as she was fully aware that many of the societal ills during Martial Law would persist even after the end of the dictatorship. She was named part of the Presidential Human Rights Committee (PHRC) during the Cory Aquino administration, along with Diokno, Tanada, and Joker Arroyo, the founders of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) and allies she knew well.
Tita Nini is also among the rare ranks of those who value their principles above loyalty. As she lent her family name to legitimize movements, she promptly withdrew it if she found the cause maligned. When the PHRC failed to act on voiding many of the decrees used by Marcos to crack down on dissent, leading to the violent Mendiola Massacre in 1987, Tita Nini resigned from her position. When her own organization, the CWP, sought to give recognition to Fidel V. Ramos, she and her progressive colleagues questioned the move and cited Ramos’s human rights record as a Marcos henchman. She also refused to receive an award by the CWP because she would be honored along with then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whom she condemned for the controversy surrounding her 2004 electoral victory.
“I have tried to live up to be the best that I should be,” said Tita Nini. A brief glimpse of her life reveals that she indeed has. The calm and unassuming persona of hers hides a relentless and fearless warrior within. No matter what she struggled with, the tragedies she suffered through, and the elements she fought against, she never lost her will. Even in her old age, turning 100 last April 9, 2021, she continues to fight today.
Note: Tita Nini passed away on July 12, 2021, a month after this article was written.