Nanay Mameng, Ka Bel: Choosing hope over despair in fight vs. poverty

Poor Filipinos have always been caricatured so badly, with some of the well-off and well-to-do deceiving themselves that the “masang Pilipino” are individually and collectively ignorant, pathetic, gullible, indolent and unproductive. They forever link the “masa” to Joseph Estrada, in an apparent bid to discredit them as no different from their idol who has been found to be a fraud and a plunderer.

Nanay Mameng (photo by John Javellana)

Enter Carmen “Nanay Mameng” Deunida, the outspoken leader of the urban poor whose emaciated body could barely contain the boiling anger of the masa over social injustice, as well as the boundless optimism that the masa themselves will take destiny in their own hands.

Nanay Mameng is no fluke. Her record of activism is already decades long but she still perseveres, offering the masses of rural and urban poor a paragon they can call their own.

Read about Nanay Mameng in this PCIJ special or listen to the podcast.

Listen to her words when she ran in the last elections as third nominee of the partylist group Anakpawis (Toiling Masses):

During one of the numerous rallies in Makati in the oust-Estrada campaign, a bank executive remarked, “Aling Mameng was the best speaker I ever heard in Makati. Delivery, logic, content, flow, choice of words – perfect !” (quoted from the book “Tayo na sa Edsa,” published by Stitching Migrante Europe).

These words best describe Nanay Mameng, one of the most endearing leaders to rise from the ranks of the urban poor and capture the nation’s imagination, particularly when she spoke irreverently against the corrupt Estrada presidency during the anti-Estrada rallies in Makati, Edsa and Mendiola.

Nanay Memeng’s articulate and powerful speeches may contradict her frail body and old age but the urban poor leader rationalizes this when she said “I grew up in poverty and this taught me to stand up and fight for better conditions.”

Nanay Mameng would best represent the poor and the oppressed as she practically grew up among them. She is the third of nine siblings of a former clerk and a street vendor. “I helped sell rice cakes and just to sell them all I walked through the streets of Malate and as far as the South Cemetery in Makati.”

She only managed to finish second year high school before World War II consigned her family into the quagmire of poverty.

After the war, Nanay Mameng worked as a labandera (laundrywoman) to sustain the needs of her nine children and her drunkard husband who often beat her up. Sick of her husband’s violent streak and drunkenness, she later separated from him.

Her active participation in the struggle of the poor started when she, at 50 years old, became the oldest member of the youth group Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyunalismo (Kadena). It was under this banner that she participated in the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.

Read more of this piece by’s Dabet Castaneda here.

(A personal note: I have known Nanay Mameng since my days in Bayan. (We actually share the same birthday!) She is normally soft-spoken and very shy. She does not want to be given all the attention by people. She does not harbor delusions that she’s important. She still lives in a rickety house in Leveriza where she takes care of her grandchildren.)

Nanay Mameng and Ka Bel (photo by Ilang Ilang Quijano)
Nanay Mameng and Ka Bel (photo by Ilang Ilang Quijano)

And who can forget Crispin “Ka Bel” Beltran who lived and died as a true workingman, falling to his death early this year while repairing the damaged roof of his house in a low-cost subdivision where no one would suspect that a congressman would dare live. Despite the pathetic rumors about living off from his pork barrel allocations, Ka Bel fought for the poor and lived their poverty even when he was serving as a Member of Congress.

Workers and activists here and abroad deeply mourned Ka Bel’s death.

Ka Bel brought to Congress the poor people’s demand for social justice — wage increases, reductions in the prices of oil and basic goods, job security — and even the lofty dreams of an industrialized Philippines which could provide sufficient employment and business opportunities for workers, the middle class and SMEs.  Like all the genuine “masa” leaders before him, Beltran never let go of the belief that only when the Philippines attains authentic independence could our people enjoy the benefits of democracy and prosperity.

No one foresaw decades back that Ka Bel would later seek a seat in Congress, what with his reputation as the most militant voice of Filipino workers. But Ka Bel did and he distinguished himself as a people’s legislator and garnered awards for his hard work.

On this Blog Action Day on poverty, I remember and pay homage to Nanay Mameng and Ka Bel, true champions of poor Filipinos and whose lives are worth emulating and remembering as we continue to work towards freedom from poverty. Indeed, when we discuss poverty, it is better to be hopeful than to be cynical. It is better to put our trust in our people, rather than perpetuate the thought that poverty will be here to stay and to oppress us forever.


Today is Blog Action Day in the Philippines and around the world.