Nanay Mameng: Champion of the Urban Poor

February 21, 2014


Street witticism, personal experience, and sharp tools of analysis blended into a fiery speech — these have become
the hallmark of Carmen Deunida’s public speeches.

Known to many as Nanay Mameng, this thin, gray-haired urban poor leader who stands just 4’9”, is a beloved veteran of the parliament of the streets.

A firebrand who usually elicits the most applause among speakers in street protest actions, she is highly respected
by her fellow activists and the public not only because of the agitating quality of her speeches, but because she best
represents the truly marginalized sectors in the country.

She is one leader who has already dedicated more than two thirds of her life to the people’s cause. She is now in her 80s.

Nanay Mameng’s journey as an activist began during the 60s — a time of social ferment. The struggle against the US-Marcos dictatorship was on an upsurge. The national democratic struggle found new blood in the ranks of militant students, workers, and peasantry who dared to struggle against the iron fist of the dictatorship.

It was during these turbulent days that the diminutive Deunida, then in her thirties, began to seek answers to
questions that bothered her: why many people, herself included, were poor and hungry, and what she as an
individual can do to change the situation.

Deunida tried to join various organizations and groups in an effort to answer these questions. She even joined the
Cursillo, a traditional religious movement . But this failed to give the answers she was searching for.

During those times, students from militant organizations went on integration programs to organize urban poor
communities. The community in Leveriza where the Deunidas lived was among those visited by these students.

Eventually, Deunida attended mass meetings, discussions, and teach-ins sponsored by the students. The discussion centered on the basic issues of the day: widespread poverty, government puppetry, and repression.

These discussions would drive Deunida to later on attend mass mobilizations. She recalls, that in the first protest
actions she attended, she insisted to be at the front lines, despite the hesitation of her comrades. She played a cat-and-mouse-game with them, with her comrades ordering her to stay in the middle or at the back of the lines, and her slipping away once they turn their backs to return to the front. She explains that she insisted on staying at the front because it was important for her to hear what the speakers were saying.

From merely being an attendee, Deunida slowly rose among the ranks, becoming a leader in her community.

By the end of the ‘60s, Nanay Mameng led her community in a barricade to prevent the demolition of their shanties in Leveriza. It ended triumphantly for them when the National Housing Authority consented to distribute the lots to the residents at a cost.

She earned the moniker that she is most known after becoming the oldest member of the Kabataan para sa Demokrasya at Nasyunalismo or KADENA at almost 50 years of age in 1978. Says Nanay Mameng, apart from being comrades, she also considered all her fellow members of KADENA as her own children

Five years later, amidst a backdrop of growing protests against the US-Marcos dictatorship, she would become a founding chairperson of the Samahan ng Kababaihang Nagkakaisa (SAMAKANA), an organization of women from the urban poor. SAMAKANA is a member of the well-known women’s organization, GABRIELA. It was during this period when Ka Mameng also became one of the well-known leaders of the Philippine women’s movement.

She held that position for eleven years and led SAMAKANA’s participation in the first people power uprising in EDSA in 1986. SAMAKANA also actively struggled against the liberalization, privatization, and deregulation programs of the succeeding administrations, which spelled disaster for the livelihood of the marginalized.

It was therefore almost inevitable that when urban poor organizations formed the alliance Kalipunan ng mga Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY) in 1998, she would be its founding head.

It was EDSA II, however, that catapulted Nanay Mameng to the consciousness of the general public. Then aged 72, Nanay Mameng, who only managed to finish second year high school, proved that she could hold her own and stand out even amongst the ranks of traditional politicians, academics, and everyone else who filled the streets of EDSA to call for the ouster of Estrada. Nanay Mameng was applauded by all for her fiery speeches that came from the heart and stirred the soul of those who listened.

Despite her achievements, however, Nanay Mameng remains a humble individual. She still lives in the community she grew up in, in a 50 square meter, two-storey shack that she shares with more than ten family members, including six grandchildren.

She still does not own a title to that patch of land where her home has been built, despite the victory of their barricade in the fifties and her paying P4 a month in amortization.

A mother of nine (two of whom died in childhood), and a grandmother to 30, Nanay Mameng supported her
family by taking in laundry work when her time and health allowed, even when she was already a septuagenarian.

Living up to her title as a Nanay, she has this advice to tell today’s youth: “Kayo ang kapalit namin. Isipin ninyo na
ang inyong ipinaglalaban ay hindi lamang para sa inyo, kundi para sa lahat ng mga Pilipino.” (Someday, you shall take our place. Remember that what you are fighting for is not only for yourselves, but also for an entire nation.)

Decades ago, she has freed herself from her own husband– a womanizer, alcoholic, and wife beater. Nanay Mameng said she never spoke to him again, even before he died a few years before.

Truncheons, water cannons, tear gas, gunfire, six administrations, her own family, and the challenges brought by poverty has failed to deter Deunida from stopping her work as an activist. It was only her age and health that would
serve as the biggest deterrent to her work. Last year, Nanay Mameng was diagnosed with vascular dementia, which causes difficulty in speaking and physical movement.A few months later, she had an operation to remove a clot in her

Because of these, Nanay Mameng can no longer attend protests as often as she used to. But she remains sharp-of-mind,
witty in discourse, and aware of the latest issues that confront the country.

But instead of being discouraged, Nanay Mameng continues to brim with hope. For her, the fact that there has never been a significant change in the condition of the poor is proof of the need for genuine change.

It is this need that continues to motivate Nanay Mameng. Four decades later, Nanay Mameng continues to ask the
questions that motivated many Filipinos in the seventies to act: “Kung hindi tayo, sino? kung hindi ngayon, kalian? (If not us, then who? If not now, then when?).

By choosing to carry the heavy mantle of struggle, of dedicating one’s life to a noble cause, Nanay Mameng has
earned what only very few has achieved — the love and respect of the people. A life lived well and full, which
shall inspire many young people to follow her footsteps and continue the struggle she, and others of her generation,