Nelia Sancho, beauty queen, activist, passes away

Nelia Sancho (R) at the statue of Rosa Henson in Caticlan in Aklan. Henson was one of the Filipino comfort women who made public their ordeal at the hands of Japanese soldiers during World War 2. Photo from the Facebook page of Dennis Gorecho

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 2 September) – Tributes poured for beauty queen-turned-activist Nelia Sancho after news of her death came out on Friday.

Sancho, who bagged the Queen of the Pacific title in 1971, was found dead at the UP Bliss House in Quezon City around 10 a.m. on Thursday, Dr. Jean Lindo of Gabriela Women’s Party said.

Lindo said it was Sancho’s son Antonio Karlo who informed them of his mother’s death. She was 71.

Lindo thanked Sancho for her great contributions to the women’s movement and empowerment of vulnerable communities as a queen who “struggled with the people at the grassroots level.”

“You were not just Queen of the Pacific. You were not the kind of the feminist defined by the corporate world,” she said.

Although vilified for her advocacies, Lindo added that people around the world praised Sancho for her work for peace and justice.

“I raise my clenched fist to the extraordinary human. Paalam at Salamat, Nelia Sancho. I am grieving yet I see purpose in you and it’s alive,” she said.

In 1969, while still a student at the University of the Philippines , Sancho joined Binibining Pilipinas and finished first runner-up to Gloria Diaz, who would become the country’s first Miss Universe titleholder.

Two years later, the Philippine Tourism Authority appointed her to represent the country at the Queen of the Pacific in Melbourne, Australia. She won the title and bagged the Most Photogenic Award. She was also a sought-after model for Pitoy Moreno, according to the Pageant Throwback Philippines Facebook page.

Sancho became a student activist and later joined the underground after Martial Law was declared. She was arrested during a raid in Cagayan de Oro City and spent over two years in prison, from 1976 to 1978.

In late1984, Sancho returned to Cagayan de Oro and reminisced her experience there during a meeting where leaders of progressive groups were planning to stage a Mindanao-wide welgang bayan or general strike.

Nelia Sancho (R) during a protest action against beauty pageants. Photo from the Facebook page of Lisa Maza

She founded Gabriela National Alliance of Women together with fellow beauty queen-turned -activist Maita Gomez.

The organization was named after Gabriela Silang, the equally heroic wife of revolutionary Diego Silang.
During the 1990s, Sancho was elected to the board of trustees of Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, a pioneering human rights group formed in 1974 by Church leaders.

Gabriela Women’s Party, in a statement, expressed condolences to the family of Sancho

“Despite winning the title of Queen of the Pacific in 1971, Nelia Sancho left the comforts of privileged life and became an activist at the onset of the First Quarter Storm and eventually joined the underground movement during Martial Law and became a political prisoner,” it said.

The First Quarter Storm refers to the period marked by massive student protests months before the imposition of martial law by President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

Sancho became active in advocating for women empowerment and campaigned for just compensation for Filipina comfort women during World War 2, Gabriela said.

“She is proof that women are not meant to be submissive and obedient, but have a crucial role in pushing for genuine freedom and human rights,” it said.

Gabriela added that Sancho’s life would continue to inspire generations of women who will continue the fight against the “worsening humanitarian crisis in the country.”

Award-winning writer Don Pagusara said he was sad to hear about the passing of Sancho, a “First Quarter Storm veteran, political detainee, a leader of the movement seeking justice for the women war victims of Japanese atrocities during WWII, and a champion of solidarity with the North Korean people.”

“Pagpugay at saludo kay Ka Nelia,” he said.

Writer and historian Macariu Tiu called Sancho “a true freedom fighter.”

“Beauty, brains, and genuine love for the Filipino people. A most beautiful soul, a hero of the Filipino people,” Tiu added.

Social media was also flooded with expressions of grief and admiration for Sancho.

Sancho was married to the late Antonio Liao, an activist who was also detained during martial law and released in 1986 after the ouster of Marcos. But their marriage did not last. (Antonio L. Colina IV/MindaNews with a report from H. Marcos C. Mordeno)