Women’s month: Keeping up with Princess Nemenzo

One of the things I learned from her is to be open to everyone, regardless of their political orientation

MENTOR AND FRIEND. Celebrating Princess Nemenzo's life on women's month

MANILA, Philippines – I count myself incredibly lucky for having Princess Nemenzo as a friend and mentor.

In 1990, I came to work for WomanHealth as a staff for the 6th International Women and Health Meeting (IWHM) which was being organized by WomanHealth and other groups. Prior to this, my interaction with Princess had been few.

I knew her then mostly as Ka Dodong’s wife and Fidel’s mother. (Ka Dodong was my professor in Political Science and Fidel, a good friend who pulled me into socialist activities.) At the time, I wasn’t sure how I felt about working with my friend’s mother or for a women’s group, for that matter. But I needed a job and WomanHealth seemed promising. 

The first task that Princess gave me was to write the history of the IWHM. But before proceeding, Princess sat down with me and gave me the most comprehensive background on the IWHM. How the IWHM came to be, what women and health issues it took on, how the different Philippine groups came together, what the vision was for the meeting, and so on. As briefings go, it was one of the clearest and organized. And based on this, I wrote the text for the souvenir program of the conference. 

In many ways, this is how I learned from Princess. For almost 10 years, she shared with me, in detail and lengthily, what she knew, and I listened and wrote things down. If you knew Princess, you also know how much of a storyteller she is.

She loves to share, for example, what happened in a meeting, from start to finish, and what everyone had to say. She has a strong historical sense and can say how things happened the way they did and why things are the way they are now. She has a long memory – and that helps in giving people she works with a perspective on things. It goes without saying that you need “patience” to let her finish a story. Because it is not enough that she tell you what happened; she also has to give you the whole back story.

I cannot tell how many hours I spent listening to her. It didn’t matter whether it was for a proposal, a letter, a position paper, or a meeting, Princess always shared with me all that she knew so that I would have a better understanding of reproductive rights and our political work. And because I had patience and genuinely liked listening to her stories, I guess it was a “match made in heaven”. 

But it wasn’t just information that got transferred in these interactions. It was knowledge, experience and insight accumulated through her many years of involvement in the feminist movement. In the process, I also absorbed her attitude toward people and relationships, and her approach to issues and politics. Unlike academic (or male-centered) models of mentorship, however, I never felt like I was a “disciple”; rather, I felt I was a younger colleague whose growth and potential she helped nurture. 

As a mentor, Princess is generous with her support, affirmation and praise. Even before I could submit my work, she already made me feel I would turn in something excellent. For someone who got burned out and whose confidence took a beating from her first job, I was grateful for her trust. And who wouldn’t thrive in such an encouraging environment? I know I regained my steadiness and blossomed under her guidance.

Also a listener

Looking back, I cannot believe that she gave me so much attention. I feel privileged to have been given those years of working closely with Princess. Until now, I listen to her stories and learn something new every time. Every now and again, we would both find ourselves on Skype and we would talk and she’d update me on her latest involvements. 

But to get things straight, I didn’t do all the listening in our relationship. Princess knew how to listen to me and always understood my language. Because I tended to be diplomatic, I sometimes understated things. But she would get my point and explain, “Ang ibig sabihin ni Dulce ay ganito…” I appreciated that kind of back-up from her. When I was in Manila last year, we were both in a meeting and I was surprised that she could still read me after all these years. More than this, she inspires many of us to confide in her, because when she listens, she doesn’t judge. 

Although Princess is political, she never allowed the ideological to determine her behavior. One of the things I learned from her is to be open to everyone, regardless of their political orientation. That openness also spilled into other aspects of her life. She is open to learning new things and is honest about the things she knows little about. This attitude allows her to get excited about the smallest discoveries. 

Friend and mentor

I know of no one who embraces life with so much energy and spirit as much as she does. To her, there is always time for everything – and I mean, everything! For attending lectures and forums, for work and meetings, for traveling, for singing and dancing, for shopping. I hope I would have the same passion, spirit and radiance when I reach her age.

I now teach at Wellesley College and last semester a student came to my office to talk about her volunteer experience with an NGO. My student, a budding activist, expressed disappointment with the NGO. When she finished talking, I asked myself how I should respond. That’s when I found myself reaching for Princess’s wisdom. I told my student there was a time I was disillusioned with someone I had respected, and this is what my mentor said to me: “Dulce, socialism does not have an answer to everything. It certainly does not solve matters related to personality.” I took it to mean that people are more complex than ideologies, and we should be kinder and less harsh in judging people. 

At this stage of my life, Princess continues to guide me. She is a great influence in my life. I feel privileged to have been trained by the best and I am proud to be her friend. Maraming salamat, Princess! – Rappler.com 

Dulce Natividad is a teacher, feminist, activist. She is a medical anthropologist and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.