Nini Quezon Avanceña never failed to light up the room whenever she walked in with her irrepressible presence. In the period defined by the struggle against Marcos’ dictatorial rule, Jose W. Diokno, founder and chair of the advocacy group Kilusan sa Kapangyarihan at Kasarinlan ng Bayan (Kaakbay), regularly called meetings of the board to discuss the issues of the hour, explore options, take positions, and share the consensus with the broad alliance of organizations who confronted the martial law regime.
In Kaakbay’s board there were initially three women, all of whom were wise and feisty: Mamita Pardo de Tavera, Karina Constantino David, and Nini. In a group composed of the upright Justice J.B.L. Reyes, the historian Renato Constantino, the academics Dodong Nemenzo and Randy David, the firebrand Lean Alejandro, and the pragmatic Jun Factoran, Nini was a breath of fresh air. She spoke her mind, trusting her intuition and political instincts, listening to Pepe Diokno’s reasoned discourse, and abiding by the group’s common take on contentious issues.
Nini’s laughter was contagious, but her courage more contagious still. She could be impetuous, or at times dismissive; but she was never harsh, for in her heart of hearts she was truly caring and felt deeply for others. She struck me as a person who always stood her ground, for she knew no fear. Her northern star was the pursuit of justice, the protection of the rights of people, and the defense of the most vulnerable, including those who were held in prison because of their beliefs.
Kaakbay had taken the position of critical participation in the 1986 “snap elections.” Unlike the earlier Batasan elections, this time around “all the marbles on the table were at play,” as Pepe Diokno put it. As the opposition grappled with the decision regarding whom to field as opposition candidate against the president-turned-dictator, a convenors’ group was formed to come to an agreement around a unified candidate. Pepe Diokno became part of it, prefiguring perhaps the efforts of 1Sambayan today. As he prepared for the meetings, I recall discussions where Nini was adamant in ensuring that a progressive platform be forged, with an agenda that took on the issues that people in the “parliament of the streets” had taken up, particularly after the killing of Ninoy Aquino. Nini was a fierce advocate, undaunted always.
Even after the dictator had fallen, Nini continued to be engaged and formed part of the Presidential Committee of Human Rights (the precursor of today’s CHR). After the massacre of 19 peasants at the foot of Mendiola Bridge, I recall seeing Pepe Diokno at his sickbed in their residence in New Manila. I had taken time off from the plebiscite campaign on the new Constitution. Pepe Diokno was nearly in tears, outraged. He told me that he could no longer serve in government, and decided to relinquish his post. This was also the principled position taken by Nini, who resigned from the PCHR.
Soon after, Pepe Diokno passed from his lingering battle with lung cancer. But more than that, I believed his heart had been broken into pieces after all that he had endured in prison and out, and from seeing all the suffering that had befallen the country that he loved. His dream till his final days on earth had been to see “a nation worthy of our children.”
Nini lived on to a hundred years, in her death surrounded by the family she had loved all her life. Never for a moment did she doubt the righteousness of her struggle in the period of martial law and the worth of her sacrifice. Hers is an inspired example for future generations. We thank you and salute you, Nini, for a full life lived for country and for others.
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Ed Garcia was a member of the board of Kaakbay and a framer of the 1987 Constitution.