Manolo Quezon is #TheExplainer Newsletter — Issue #19 (Nini Quezon Avanceña Memorial Edition)

Manuel L. Quezon III
13 min readJul 22, 2021


Zeneida Quezon Avanceña was my aunt, my father’s elder sister, who passed away at the age of 100. My column today is a farewell to her.

Leesburg, Virginia, May, 1942
Taken by one of her grandchildren

Nini | Inquirer

On the eve of her 100th birthday, which, since 1942, coincides with Bataan Day, Raffy Evangelista shared a story handed down by veterans of the war. They said that in Corregidor, in between the bombings and bombardments, they would see a girl combing the beach, looking for discarded cigarettes from earlier days of plenty, or perhaps by chance washed up on shore from the many ships already sunk in Manila Bay. That girl was Nini, and the soldiers were touched, because she was the daughter of their commander in chief, and because the cigarettes were for them, who no longer had any.

The first part of the story of her life spans many places, from the Pasay of her youth — the only child born at home — to prewar Malacañan Palace, then the hegira to America, by submarine, PT boat, and steamship — then the loss of her father while still in office, to their return home again to a shattered nation, and her becoming the young wife of an up-and-coming former journalist turned pioneer diplomat; vivid, with peaks of triumph and valleys more than enough for any single life; for hers was to be a life accompanied, more than most, by sudden death: the muffled drums of state mourning for her father, or the quiet shuffling of feet as the throngs paid their respects before the sealed coffins of her mother, elder sister, and her first husband, slain in a lonesome dusty road on the way to their hometown.

That was the first half of her life, but only the first stage. She would remarry; her first two children by her first husband would be followed by seven more by her second, though she was only 60 when she was widowed for the second time. It was also, after an initial interlude of domestic contentment, her second public life, in which the paths of the parliament of the streets had now become every bit as familiar to her, as the halls of stately homes and the palaces of state had been in her former life. Her white hair became as familiar to that generation of freedom-fighters, as her mother’s had been, to the wartime generation.

She’d been named after her maternal grandmother; a fierce lady with flashing eyes; her contemporaries in UST (she was summa cum laude in the Class of 1940), according to the Varsitarian, commended her “simplicity in spite of circumstances.” A fiery simplicity: just two facets, combined with a laugh and smile never being far away, proving there were many Ninis to many people, and they will have these things in common: her bluntness without cruelty or incivility; her deep faith without false piety or drama; her love of laughter and appreciation of wit; her uncompromising love of country and liberty, whether contesting dress codes for students, or visiting political prisoners in their jail cells, or lending her name to causes that counted.

To me of course, she was Tia Nini, the one who, in many ways, as a young widow also had to step in — or step up — to take care of her younger brother, my father. All her life she had an abiding compassion for him, who felt the burden of expectations so keenly; and when he passed she took me in, to help get me steady on my feet for adult life.

To the contemporaries of her father and his era that I still reached, she was the laughter-filled symbol of former golden days; to Filipinos from all walks of often cause-oriented lives, she was, before the term gained currency, an ally, and ever-respected because of that; to me she was a sharer of memories, the one who could tell a story about being mesmerized by seeing the Hope Diamond around a society hostess’ neck with as much humor as the moment she was arrested by a team that included Panfilo Lacson; a source of practical but never cynical advice; a principled idealist whose anguished conversations with Jose W. Diokno, as she and he discussed what they should do — they would all resign in protest over the Mendiola massacre — I overheard as she was visiting us in America; and who held me in her arms as I sobbed after we buried my father.

For every heartache she endured it seems she was given the consolation of a long life that gently ended surrounded by the family that was her vibrant, lively, loud, laughing rebuke to tragedy and loss.

Maria Zeneida Quezon Avanceña, April 9, 1921–July 12, 2021.

Email:; Twitter: @mlq3


Nini Quezon Avanceña, rights defender; 100 | Inquirer

Rage against abuses

During martial law, Avanceña cofounded the Citizens Organization for Political Detainees and served on the board of the Philippine Union for Human Rights and the Ecumenical Commission for Displaced Families and Communities.

She was one of the prime movers of the Concerned Women of the Philippines, which spoke out against the abuses of the Marcos regime.

“Tita Nini and I linked arms when I was a student activist during martial law. She lent her name and gravitas to difficult valuable causes, including those of political detainees. She made such an impact,’’ Pangilinan said.

After the 1986 Edsa People Power Revolution that ousted Ferdinand Marcos, Avanceña, together with opposition leaders Jose “Pepe” Diokno and Lorenzo Tañada, served in the Presidential Commission on Human Rights.

“What a classy lady — dignified, resolute, a patriot who deeply loved our country and always did what she could for her,’’ former Sen. Mar Roxas said.

“Born during the Commonwealth, witness to her father’s struggle for independence and thereafter carried on through every chapter of our nation’s ongoing journey. Quiet and retiring during the ups, righteous and vocal during the downs, she was always on the front lines when it mattered most. Truly, win or lose, it’s the Philippines we choose,’’ Roxas added.

Giving up family lands

Avanceña submitted the family’s lands in Arayat, Pampanga, and in Baler, Aurora, to agrarian reform in 1949 and after the 1986 revolution, respectively. For this, she received an award from the Department of Agrarian Reform as the first to submit to the land redistribution program.

She also served as president of the Philippine Tuberculosis Society (President Quezon died of TB) and as the first president of Assumption College Alumni Association in 1965.

She continued the family’s engagements with the Red Cross and the Young Ladies’ Association of Charity, among others.

From Activist daughter of Manuel Quezon, ‘Nini’ Quezon Avanceña, passes at age 100, BusinessWorld:

Mrs. Avanceña was born to then-Senate President Manuel L. Quezon and his wife and cousin, Aurora Aragon Quezon in 1921. Her father was the first president of that newly created body, and he went on to become president of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, a precursor to the independent Republic of the Philippines. Her mother, meanwhile, was the first First Lady to be known as such, the title having been unused prior to the Quezon administration. With the coming of the Second World War, the Quezon family lived in exile in the United States in 1942, her father dying in 1944.

Her mother returned to the Philippines with the rest of the family: older sister Maria Aurora (Baby), and younger brother Manuel Lucio (Nonong) and lived in the city that bore their name, a city spearheaded by their father, in an effort to create a new national capital. Her mother famously declined a pension from the Philippine government, and was known for her philanthropy. On April 28, 1949, Mrs. Quezon was assassinated by the Huks on her way to open the Quezon Memorial Hospital in her husband’s hometown of Baler. Traveling, and killed alongside her was her daughter Baby, and Nini’s husband Felipe Buencamino. Quezon City mayor Ponciano Bernardo and retired Armed Forces Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Rafael Jalandoni, sharing the family’s car, were also killed. Nini narrowly escaped the same fate, having stayed home due to her pregnancy with her second child. She went on to marry for a second time, to Alberto Avanceña, a son of Chief Justice Ramon Avanceña, who had sworn her father into office.

Nini Quezon Avanceña, along with her great-nephew Manuel L. Quezon III, have been devoted to preserving their family’s legacy in history. Mrs. Avanceña was present when her mother’s remains were reinterred in the Quezon Memorial Circle in 2005.

Despite of, or because of, her background, Nini Quezon Avanceña devoted her very long life to various causes: these included the Philippine Red Cross, the Concerned Women of the Philippines, Movement Against the PCO (MAPCO), and was named to Corazon Cojuangco Aquino’s Presidential Human Rights Committee in 1986.

During the Martial Law years, Mrs. Quezon-Avanceña founded the Concerned Women of the Philippines together with Maring Feria, Bing Escoda Roxas, Saling Boncan and Charo Moran, among others, to show their opposition to dictator Ferdinand R. Marcos’ rule. Her political activism saw her joining Kaakbay, or the Kilusan sa Kapangyarihan at Karapatan ng Bayan, which advocated non-violent activism.

As a 2005 Newsbreak article by Action for Economic Reforms’ Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III explained, “Although the communists were responsible for the death of her loved ones, she later embraced just causes for which communists bore the brunt of the struggle. She reached out to tenants in her province, encouraged them to organize, and gave them land to till.

“She plunged herself into many causes — human rights, press freedom, release of political prisoners, removal of US military bases, nuclear disarmament, debt cancellation, etc. She was at the forefront of the open struggle to oust the Marcos dictatorship. She was at the frontlines during the EDSA I people power that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and during the EDSA II mobilization that forced Joseph Estrada to step down.

“The positions she takes are consistently progressive, if not radical. But she always acts with grace and serenity.”

Former Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in a tweet: “A light has dimmed once more, the country orphaned by her passing. A pillar of strength during the dark days of martial law. She never wavered when the country needed a voice and spoke by marching with the youth, despite her age. Thank you Nini for your service to our nation.”

President Quezon’s daughter and rights advocate Nini Avanceña dies at
(1st UPDATE) Zeneida ‘Nini’ Quezon Avanceña is remembered as a human rights advocate, especially during Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos

Other readings

Nini Quezon Avanceña: An Overdue Tribute | Action for Economic Reforms (AER)

But it is Tita Nini’s resilient, painstaking, and unflinching activism that makes her an extraordinary woman of ruling-class origins. Although the communists were responsible for the death of her loved ones, she later embraced just causes for which communists bore the brunt of the struggle. She reached out to tenants in her province, encouraged them to organize, and gave them land to till.

She plunged herself into many causes — human rights, press freedom, release of political prisoners, removal of US military bases, nuclear disarmament, debt cancellation, etc. She was at the forefront of the open struggle to oust the Marcos dictatorship. She was at the frontlines during the EDSA I people power that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and during the EDSA II mobilization that forced Joseph Estrada to step down.

On the streets, she has marched shoulder to shoulder with what the Left calls the basic masses. She has become a friend to many revolutionaries, the likes of Carol Pagaduan-Araullo, Bobbie Malay and Fides Lim, at the same time that she has been closely associated with eminent reform-oriented politicians, such as Jose W. Diokno, Jovito Salonga, and Raul Manglapus.

Tita Nini was part of Ka Pepe Diokno’s Kaakbay, an illustrious grouping, which served as a moral and intellectual beacon during the dark days of the Marcos dictatorship.

She is still in her fighting element. While some of the elite have waffled on the issue that GMA manipulated the 2004 elections and committed other illegal acts, Tita Nini has stood firm in calling for GMA’s resignation. In her capacity as president of the Jose W. Diokno Foundation, she, together with Carmen “Nena” Diokno, wrote: “The issue is one of grave wrongdoing by the occupant of the highest office of the land. A president incapable of distinguishing between mere impropriety and grave wrongdoing should not lead. Mrs. Arroyo must step down from office.”

The positions she takes are consistently progressive, if not radical. But she always acts with grace and serenity. Friend and follower Rizalina “Saling” Boncan describes Tita Nini as a “quiet leader.”

Perhaps, among many affiliations, Tita Nini is most identified with the Concerned Women of the Philippines (CWP). The CWP was one of the few organizations from the middle forces that severely criticized the Marcos regime, mustering the courage to speak out despite the curtailment of basic freedoms. Tita Nini co-founded the CWP, and she together with Maring Feria. Bing Escoda Roxas, Saling Boncan, Charo Moran, Thelma Arceo et al. constituted the CWP’s progressive wing.

Yet, it was not difficult for her to distance from the CWP when she thought that the organization she founded was becoming irrelevant and was even being used by the ruling administration. She and her progressive friends in the CWP questioned the wisdom of its leadership’s decision to give special recognition to Fidel Ramos (FVR). In 1987, CWP cited Ramos for his human rights record. In October 2003, the CWP went to Malacañang to award Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and other honorees. Tita Nini declined the invitation even though she was among the honorees.

Tita Nini has been praised or criticized for her demanding standards and high principles. Even in electing public officials, she does not compromise. She is a tireless campaigner for principled and progressive politics. A joke emanating from her Gilmore compound is that the candidate that Tita Nini votes for president is sure to lose. (She did not vote for Marcos, Ramos, Estrada, and Macapagal-Arroyo.) At least, she votes wisely.

She may be caricatured as starry-eyed and quixotic. But in a failed society with a weak state and an irresponsible elite, it is a virtue to dream the impossible.

It would be incomplete to describe Tita Nini as a visionary, a spirited activist, and a discerning matriarch. Those who are close to her also admire her less-known qualities: her warmth and tenderness, her thoughtfulness, her sense of humor (being “punny,” the term she uses), her inquisitiveness, her spirituality.

Her Gilmore home is an open house. All sorts of people — from the rulers and politicians, the industrialists and bankers, the intelligentsia, the communists and socialists, the anarchists and hippies, the religious, the playboys and gangsters, the glitterati, to the nameless masa — have dined or slept at her residence. Leftists of various shades have sought refuge in her home. A classmate in high school and the barkada of Tita Nini’s son Ben made Gilmore his home for one schoolyear, confident that he would not overstay his presence.

Exuberant, curious and inquisitive at her ripe age, Tita Nini joins long conversations — sometimes serious, oftentimes hilarious and irreverent, at the family dining table. In light, humorous moments during and after dinner, she’s game and can even make fun of herself. In serious meetings, she listens and asks hard questions. In a group discussion about the anomalous PEACE Bonds, she tried to get a grip on abstractions like rent seeking and asymmetrical information. But even then, she immediately sensed what was wrong with the deal, which she boiled down to a question of delicadeza.

Nini Quezon-Avanceña, a feisty fighter, turns 100 |

I had the honor of meeting Nini Quezon-Avanceña for the first time in the early 1980s when I was a political detainee of the Marcos dictatorship. It was a memorable moment for me. It was the start of a long friendship, built upon her commitment to work for the freedom, rights and welfare of political detainees. The commitment later extended to the broader struggle of our people against the Marcos dictatorship — and for genuine peace, full democratic rights and against the continuing socio-economic inequities and political iniquities under successive post-dictatorship administrations.

Her warmth and humility immediately struck me, when she and former Supreme Court Justice Cecilia Muñoz-Palma came to visit us at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center. They were leaders of the Concerned Women of the Philippines. Nini’s close friend, Maria “Maring” Feria, was also a welcome visitor in Bicutan and sustained supporter thereafter.

“Satur, we were told that you called for us,”declared Nini in what I came to know was her straightforward manner. “What can we do for you?” So I briefed them about our prison conditions and the many protest actions we had done, and asked them to support our calls for justice. Subjecting ourselves to prolonged hunger strikes, we had already obtained the release of several imprisoned women, youths and elderly, but it was becoming more and more difficult to do so.

Moreover, even after he had declared a partial lifting of martial law in 1980, supposedly enabling civilian courts to operate, Marcos continued to issue presidential decrees. One of these was PD 1836, which enabled him to issue arrest orders or “presidential commitment orders (PCO),” even as civilian courts were already supposed to be operating.

Our meeting with Nini and Justice Palma led to the formation of a Movement Against the PCO (MAPCO), in which they and the entire Concerned Women of the Philippines took an active role. The MAPCO boosted the campaign, here and abroad, to highlight the struggle of political detainees in Bicutan and other jails throughout the country. “Free All Political Detainees!” became a standard call in the marches and demonstrations that were already filling the streets at the time.

Nini Quezon Avanceña — in the eyes of daughter Nene

The wonder, one realizes from listening to her only daughter Nene, is that Nini could be so relaxed and be consistently devoted to her country and causes.

Zeneida Quezon Avanceña: Patriot, citizen and mother

And, of course, Nene says the obvious of her mom: “Her love for our country is on a patriotic level, but it goes down to the micro-level, to reaching out to the grassroots and making a difference. Her social responsibility does not end with theories and ideas. She actualizes them.”



Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.