Nuelle Duterte takes back her name

Pia Ranada

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President Rodrigo Duterte's niece is a full-on critic of the administration and is not afraid to take a stand, no matter what you think of her surname

MANILA, Philippines – Introductions can be an ordeal for Nuelle Duterte.

“Imagine when I have to introduce myself to colleagues, patients, and their families. I always hope they don’t pay attention to world events,” she admitted in a Facebook post.

She would have to explain that, yes, she is related to the Philippine President. She is his niece, daughter of the Chief Executive’s younger brother Emmanuel or “Blueboy.”

She can’t avoid introductions in her line of work as a psychiatrist in New York. She meets lots of Filipinos there.

“They like to tell me how much they admire him. I used to just cringe inside, but now I say he kills people, to end the conversation,” she tells Rappler.

They ask her what her uncle is like, and she often does not know what to say. But ask her about her views on the President and his policies, Nuelle has definite answers. They might surprise you.

A look at her Facebook account shows she’s no blind follower of her uncle President Duterte, whom she’s uncomfortable calling “tito.”

Her page is no collection of Mocha Uson reposts or unflattering memes of Vice President Leni Robredo. You won’t find fist-bump photos, nor a flurry of #TunayNaPagbabago hashtags.

While Duterte supporters use the Bong Go selfie frame for their profile photos, Nuelle once used the “Chel Diokno sa Senado!” frame for her profile photo. She had described the opposition senatorial bet as “the best one out there.”

Nuelle doesn’t share posts of rabid Duterte followers Thinking Pinoy or Sass Sasot. Instead, she shares posts of journalist Inday Varona and writer Ninotchka Rosca, outspoken Duterte critics. 

Nuelle has reposted the hashtag #FreeLeilaNow and described Rappler CEO Maria Ressa as an “amazing woman” after meeting her in person in New York. 

She doesn’t mince words when commenting on pressing issues back home.

“Talk about incompetent. And dumb,” she said about Malacañang’s “ouster plot matrix.”

“These people think they can just make up stuff as they go along, because the die-hards and sycophants will swallow anything they’re fed,” she added.

“What a liar,” she called Duterte after he claimed his mother (her grandmother) left him and his siblings lots of money, ostensibly an explanation for his wealth.

Nuelle is completely open about her support for Otso Diretso. She let forth a flurry of angry posts when she found out that Davaoeños are voting mostly pro-Duterte candidates.

“Hi, Davaoeños who are considering voting for the SAP and the stone (referring to Bong Go and Ronald dela Rosa)! Deserving is not the word that comes to mind when I hear their names,” she said.

Growing up in Davao City

Nuelle hadn’t always been vocal about her views, and for a good reason. There’s nothing like a family connection to bring you too close to an issue.

Growing up in Davao City where her family name is synonymous to local politics pushed Nuelle to lie low rather than embrace the limelight.

“I grew up invisible. Or so I thought. Quiet, shy, awkward, and a total nobody. I didn’t like being noticed, and I especially didn’t like being singled out because of who I was related to,” she wrote in her blog back in September 2018, which she has allowed Rappler to use.

She poured herself into excelling at school and at work, until she achieved her dream of “slipping away” from Davao City and being free to make her own life, her own mark, her own name. 

Things were going well, until her uncle won the 2016 presidential elections. Her last name was now making international headlines and some people began asking about her connection to the new firebrand Philippine president.

But Nuelle kept her views to Facebook accounts that hid her identity, or did not speak about them at all. But when she heard about South Korean businessman Jee Ick-Joo’s murder in the Philippine police headquarters and the hero’s burial for dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she could not stay silent.

Everything was going nuts. American colleagues were beginning to ask me about Rodrigo, while some Filipino colleagues were way too happy about the killings. It didn’t seem right anymore to be fading into the background like I did when I lived in Davao,” she told Rappler.

She started a blog to vent her emotions, her guilt, and frustrations. But when she saw her friends sharing Facebook posts of die-hard pro-Duterte personalities, she knew she had to be more vocal on that platform too. 

At first, she went by a username that dropped the “Duterte” surname because she wanted nothing to do with a name she felt was “tainted.”

“Then after a while, it occurred to me that I made Nuelle Duterte a name to be proud of in Davao, in Manila when I was there, and everywhere else I studied and worked, and I was going to take it back because it’s my name, and nothing Rodrigo can say or do will change that,” she said.

Challenging assumptions

Her fierce views means she and her family avoid talking politics. She thinks her father, the President’s brother, disapproves of how she sees the Duterte name, a name he takes pride in. 

She’s recently spoken to her other uncle, Bong or Benjamin Duterte. It’s been some time since she last spoke to her Aunt Jo and her children.

Nuelle speaks of a family feud between the Duterte siblings while she was growing up. Her father had even joined a different Davao City political party from Rodrigo’s back in the 1990s.

“I think they either don’t know, or ignore what I say. I’m not really sure. I do know my dad pays attention to what I write. Don’t know what he thinks about it now. We don’t talk about politics anymore either, not since 2017,” she said, wickedly adding, “No disowning yet, as far as I know.”

That such a division can exist in the President’s own family shows how widespread the polarization is. 

Elsewhere, you hear of fathers and sons not on speaking terms, one side of the family avoiding the other, grandparents and grandkids unable to get through a meal without arguing – all because of differing views on the Duterte presidency. 

Philippine politics has become so divisive that it has now torn apart once close-knit groups. People block friends on Facebook for sharing a post they don’t agree with.  

Many put their acquaintances and friends in boxes labeled “pro-Duterte” or “anti-Duterte.”

That kind of labeling hurts Nuelle, who, more than most, have to deal with people’s assumptions about her because of her family name and hometown.

“It still pains me to know that the name is now equated with ‘killer’ all over the world. But I want people to know that not every Duterte and not everyone from Davao is like that,” she said.

It was Nuelle’s surname that piqued the curiosity New York-based curator Carina Evangelista as she scrolled through her Facebook feed.

Carina, also critical of the President, was surprised to see someone with his family name openly castigating the government. 

Wanting to know if Nuelle was the “real thing,” Carina reached out to her and arranged a casual meeting in a restaurant. 

“She’s soft-spoken and reserved but you also know she’s no pushover,” said Carina, who also described Nuelle as “kind” with a “wicked sense of humor.” 

She admires how Nuelle works for a public hospital, with many homeless as her patients.

Hoping for perspective, Carina asked Nuelle about how peace and progress in Davao City is often cited by Duterte supporters as proof of his effective leadership style.

“Her answer was quick and unblinking, reminding me that Davao was not unique for that ‘rehabilitation,’ that so many places across the nation were extremely violent during the Marcos years and that reforms were made possible in those places only after the ouster of the Marcos family,” recalls Carina.

But more than anything, speaking with Nuelle gave Carina hope.

“What was heartening in having gotten to know her better in the past year is seeing the humanity of a Duterte, giving a face to a Duterte when the monolithic family can only appear to a certified critic like myself primarily as a gaggle of choleric caricatures catastrophic to the country,” she said.

Nuelle regrets not speaking up sooner. But one other thing the intense political environment has done is to force people to define their values and to make a stand.

She wonders if being more vocal earlier could have changed things. Finding her voice, she says, has been a “liberating” and “cathartic” experience.

If there’s one trait she might share with her uncle, it might be stubbornness. And stubbornness is what it takes to stay true to yourself when so many others are trying to define what that is for you.

President Duterte may be redefining Philippine democracy, rewriting rules of the game, and challenging what Filipinos assumed about governance. But Nuelle Duterte is in charge of her own destiny, and her own name. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.