MANILA, Philippines—Ate Mameng, popularly known as Carmen Planas, would have turned a hundred today.
I was 7 years old in 1937, when Carmen, our eldest sister, gained national prominence in the first Philippine elections participated in by women candidates and women voters.
This feat might not sound impressive to today’s generation, but 1937 was a historic year for half the country’s population who had campaigned long and hard to finally be given a voice in the nation’s affairs.
I remember how excitement was palpable everywhere: in Folgueras (now Carmen Planas Street), Tondo, where we were then staying, and in the colleges and universities where youth involvement was unfolding, as did a budding feminist movement particularly in the fields of politics, education, leadership, business and a vast spectrum of civic and social life.
The image of the modest and timid Maria Clara who quaked under the eyes of her watchful mother and autocratic father was now gone, with the so-called weaker sex demolishing what had long been accepted as male superiority.
It was curiosity that led Ate Mameng to attend the convention of the newly organized Young Philippines Party headed by Wenceslao Q. Vinzons who, upon seeing the co-ed known for publicly criticizing then President Manuel L. Quezon, immediately nominated her as standard bearer to head the party’s lineup for councilors. The lone woman candidate also became the first woman elected to the Manila City council.
Only 23 at the time, Ate Mameng became the official candidate of the opposition party and the youngest candidate elected to public office. She was still a third year law student at the University of the Philippines (UP) then.
It was at the UP that Ate Mameng first gained notice for her being an outspoken student who criticized then President Quezon for interfering in the Cuervo-Barredo case which involved a laborer at a logging camp. True to form, President Quezon invited her to Malacañang as he was wont to do to critics and dissenters. He later asked her to be his labor secretary, an offer that she politely refused. She wanted to continue serving her constituents as a Manila councilor, she said.
Looking back at her initial campaign for public office, I remember my Ate showing indefatigable energy as she went house to house, while I tagged along to serve as her eyes since she preferred to go without her eyeglasses. Once, during a public rally, it started drizzling and people began scampering away. In a self-assured voice, Ate Mameng told the crowd to stay, “the rain will stop.” Miraculously, it did.
At another public rally, a rabble-rouser started making trouble. In a stern and firm voice, she said: “Stop that; why don’t you come and tell me what is bothering you.”
From my elder sister, I learned valuable lessons on how to be a servant of the people. She was never a swivel chair official. Instead, she would visit factories and observe the working conditions in them, which later became the basis of several city ordinances she sponsored while in office. Among her proposals were for factories to have cross-ventilation and day-care nurseries for babies. She was also the first to conceive of pedestrian lanes in the city and the “no smoking” rule inside movie houses. She saw to it that selling at public markets remained a job only for Filipinos.
She was also a consummate student who learned to speak Spanish and a little French, and studied painting with National Artist Botong Francisco. She took voice lessons as well under Felicing Tirona of the Philippine Women’s University and the late Pacita Nolasco.
During the Japanese Occupation, on our property in the mountains of Tanay, my sister and I visited longtime journalist Yay Panlilio, and a friend, Agustin Marking, a guerrilla leader. While traveling on horseback along a narrow road, we met a Japanese soldier who had wanted to search her. But my sister gave him a sharp look and the soldier left, looking sheepish.
Because she fed American prisoners of war interned at the University of Santo Tomas and because of her association with Vinzons who headed another guerilla group, Ate Mameng was briefly incarcerated in Fort Santiago.
Around the world
After the war, my sister traveled around the world, something she had always dreamt of doing. She visited India, Germany, Italy and France. She also went to Chicago in August 1964 with a niece, Alicia Planas, to be a judge in the Miss International contest in Long Beach, California. She had diligently prepared a brochure about our candidate, Gemma Cruz (now Araneta), and had included the information that the beauty queen is the granddaughter of national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. After crowning the Philippines’ first Miss International, my Ate collapsed. She had suffered severe hypertension and had to be brought to the hospital. She never recovered. She died on August 25, 1964. She would have celebrated her 100th birth anniversary last March 23.
She may no longer be around, but her life should be an inspiration to the youth on how public officials should behave. In fact, nothing could describe her better than the touching and affectionate eulogy delivered by then Foreign Undersecretary Librado D. Cayco on Sept. 1, 1964: “She outpaced her time, as it were, guiding it by sheer force of purpose, toward a new dispensation that would see the Filipino woman emancipated and placed on equal footing with men. Because she rebelled against the self-effacement imposed by tradition and public opinion upon her sex, Carmen Planas justified, by her acts, what propelled the irreversible grant of suffrage to Filipino women.”