31 Days of Revolutionary Women, #02: Donna Denina

In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women: a series of daily essays documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond. 

by Jill Mangaliman

In 2010, my friends were introducing me to the community. They brought me out to a queer dance party on Capitol Hill called MELANIN, organized by Pin@y sa Seattle (now GABRIELA Seattle). There, I met Donna Denina and she invited me to an educational discussion.

At the time, I was really happy to meet other queer Filipinx in Seattle, but I didn’t know what I was getting into. Through Donna I learned about the National Democratic  (ND) movement which is the mass movement for the Philippines to become truly free from foreign political and military powers, such as the US, and to ensure human rights for Filipinxs here and abroad. She followed up with me, invited me to go to events, and gave me my first orientation to the movement.

This year, Donna turned 40 years old. She is a queer mother of two young children and a community organizer. A member of Filipina women-led grassroots organization, GABRIELA Seattle, she’s been involved for the last 14 years and has mentored and lifted up other pin@ys in the movement.

I had the opportunity to interview her about her story and how she became the wonderful person and leader she is today.

Jill Mangaliman: Can you tell me how you became politicized and organized?

Donna Denina: Growing up I wasn’t really involved in school, except sports. I didn’t have to think about my Filipino identity. As a transfer student at UW, I didn’t know anybody here and wanted to make friends. The friends I met by joining the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) would later become my kasamas (comrades).

In my last year I learned about Pinoy Teach, a program that allowed undergrads who wanted to be teachers to learn about pedagogy, connecting history with people. I discovered my love of Filipino history and teaching. I wanted to pursue grad school and become a teacher. But I had to drop out because I’d maxed out on student loans and couldn’t afford it. I needed to work full time, and was really sad that I couldn’t pursue teaching.

During this time I felt stuck. I was doing contract work and odd jobs to get by. In 2003, I ran into my old friend from FASA at a Blue Scholars show. I noticed the difference in her from 3 years ago. She just got back from her exposure trip to the Philippines and invited me to her reportback. At the reportback I learned about her visit to the red light district and the conditions of the women there. I was like: Wow. I believed that I knew everything about Filipino history. And then I was exposed to the ND movement and it opened up my eyes to issues I’d never heard about and to the struggle of our people.  

JM: What has the ND movement taught you?

DD:  When I was 18 years old, I went to visit the Philippines for the first time since I was little. It felt so familiar and so foreign at the same time. I felt this land that I called my homeland had been ripped away from me. How could this place be so beautiful and so ugly [with the poverty] at the same time? My own family, my young niece and nephew had to go to palenke (market) on their own because their parents had polio. I was crying at the thought why am I not here? why am I not in the Philippines helping my people? It was the intensity of this experience that made me want to learn about it.

As I became involved, all of these questions started to get answered. Through collective study and discussion, I saw that there were concrete problems (Landlessness, Foreign Exploitation, and Government Corruption) and concrete solutions (True Agrarian Reform, National ownership of resources, a government that serves the people). I started to develop an understanding of the political landscape and about class struggle, that were based on material conditions, on facts. This is how we are going to actually move forward, by organizing and being engaged in solving the root problems.  

JM: What is some advice you would give to new folks who want to get involved?

DD: Now is the best time to be involved, because of the state we’re currently in. I think without really too much effort, people are becoming more aware and conscious by the blatant racism, misogyny and the heightened conditions of this administration. It’s forcing people to take action instead of standing by. Like we say in the ND movement: repression breeds resistance.

To people looking to do something and get involved, I would start by asking: what are you interested in?  what are the issues you care about? how do you want to contribute and plug in?  There is plenty to do and many ways to get involved.

JM: What keeps you motivated?

DD: When I see newer folks stepping in leadership that excites me. When I see young people being really bold and daring in confronting the enemy, that excites me. When I see light bulbs go off, like at during an ED [educational discussion] and they start to become conscious, that excites me. Seeing any progression— someone getting woke, someone getting agitated..  a mass mobilization.. People taking action. There are days when you feel tired and demoralized, but then you see others taking on roles and carrying the torch. You see you’re not alone, there’s a collective, the revolution is going happen inevitably, and there are millions of people who care.

JM: Anything else you wanted to add?  

DD: At the time when you were getting organizing, I was living in Renton because I couldn’t afford to live in Seattle. In Renton, it was challenging to get connected because most of the community I know is in South Seattle. Now, I’m able to live here again, I’m close to the Filipino church, the Community Center, and I see my people all the time. When I ride the light rail, I see Filipinos coming off work. I knew this is where I wanted to be, rooted in place where my people are living, working, and struggling. I feel pretty privileged right now that I have a job and a roof over my head. South Seattle will always be where I want to be, with the people I care about.

For more information about GABRIELA Seattle visit www.gabrielaseattle.org or find us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GABSeattle


Jill Mangaliman is a Queer Fil-Am community organizer and writer from Seattle. They are the executive director of Got Green, a POC-led environmental justice organization, and a member of GABRIELA Seattle.

featured image courtesy of Donna Denina