Nanding Mendez opens up about wife’s final moments, the future of Fiesta

Fiesta in America CEO with pet poodle: 'No time to get lonely.'

Fiesta in America CEO with pet poodle: ‘No time to get lonely.’

By Cristina DC Pastor

Nearly two years after his wife passed away, Nanding Mendez still speaks of Mila like she is just in the next room — the kitchen, perhaps, making his favorite beef with olives dish — and very much a part of his life.

“I am writing a book about her,” said the president and CEO of the Fiesta in America (FIA) trade expo and cultural festival. “She has so many friends who want to know more about her and her legacy. I want her to be remembered not forgotten.” Nanding, 60, spoke while slumped on a leather couch his arms draped around his frisky poodle Makee as he gazed seemingly into a far distance.

He has taken so many photos of his bubbly and popular wife and has actually collected enough material for the book. He needs to find the time to sort them out and choose the best photos that would chronicle a life she lived amazingly well as executive vice president for Marketing & Community Relations of FIA.

“She loves to cook,” said Nanding who spoke to The FilAm in an interview at his office near the Grand Central in Manhattan. “No matter how busy she is, she will find the time to cook for me, for the family.”

But two years ago, Mila fell seriously ill. That did not stop her from performing her duties at the FIA, which she co-founded with Nanding in 1991 as the erstwhile Philippine Fiesta. She invited performers, networked with exhibitors and advertisers, graced community events, judged contests, traveled.

In spite of her illness, she continued her duties up until her final appearance in FIA’s People’s Ball. Wearing a resplendent gown that sparkled with embroidered florals, she and Nanding danced till the wee hours, till the last guest had left, then surrendered to her failing health. Mila had been quiet about her illness, as her close friends privately applauded her spirit. Mila had no time for sympathies. Nanding and his two sons, Nathan and Mervin, saw how she struggled to the very end.

On September 29, at 2:09 a.m., Milagros Beltran Mendez died at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan. She was 61.

To Nanding, Mila was his 'best model.'

To Nanding, Mila was his ‘best model.’

These days, Nanding manages FIA with help from a core group of about 10 people who have been with PF almost from the beginning. He also works as an art director consultant and manages real estate property for rentals and other business ventures.

But the artist in Nanding also knows how to succumb to his many passions: photography, drawing, graphics design, and singing. He has a three-man band for whom he plays acoustics and is lead vocalist. They play Beatles and other ‘60s music at friends and family gatherings.

“I’m also a comedian,” he declared. For the first time since we sat down for this interview, he smiled broadly.

It was tough growing up. Nanding and his brother were raised by his grandparents after his father died; he was 6 years old. His mother raised his three sisters. “That’s how I really learned to live on my own.”

When he left the Philippines in 1982, Nanding was already an accomplished art director in the advertising industry. He left Mila and their two young boys behind, promising to come back for them when he finds his good fortune in America.

“(The reason) was more economic,” he said. “I felt there was no more future for me there. I can’t go up anymore.”

His first stop was the mountain state of Montana, land-locked and at the time not as diverse. There’s not too many Filipinos in sight. “I ventured on my own, no one sponsored me,” he said.

His talent as a graphics illustrator would not be slayed and so Nanding joined an art contest to design the seal for Billings, Montana – and won! Nanding was widely hailed by the local press, saying “it took a Filipino” to come up with a design that brought out the essence of Billings as an upwardly mobile city with a fast-growing population and a strong economy.

He amassed a lot of awards from design and art competitions in the Philippines. Joining contests became a way to survive “because there’s money in it.” From his winnings, he was able to buy camera equipment to pursue his love of photography.

Mila and the boys joined Nanding in New York some years later. Mila found a job with the media company, Knight Ridder. “She had a high-salaried job on Wall Street,” he said. “She reported to the president of Knight Ridder.”

The idea to organize a Philippine Fiesta came from what the couple felt was an urgent need in the Filipino American community. There was no trade expo promoting Philippine and FilAm businesses in the U.S. In their travels abroad, especially around Europe, they attended expos and took note of the success stories.

Philippine Fiesta took off to a promising start. The succeeding years have been good and PF continued to grow steadily. In 2001, after the 9/11 terror attacks, PF saw record attendance. Nanding said people just wanted to shake off the dismal feeling after the tragedy and get back to enjoying life.

“It’s just who we are as Filipinos,” he said.

PF has evolved and recently welcomed into its fold Asian and Latino businesses to celebrate entrepreneurial diversity. Hence the new name, Fiesta in America, an event where the Filipino ‘tinikling’ shares a stage with Hispanic and Korean folk dances and multicultural businesses.

FIA is 50 percent business and 50 percent entertainment, said Nanding, who was the brains behind PF, with Mila the driving spirit. Although a non-profit organization, PF has managed to be sustainable after five years.

“I have no time to get lonely,” said Nanding. “I’m so busy. I need to focus.”


  1. Congratulations…Nanding, keep it up you have gone a long long way to reach Mila’s vision as well as yours of bringing Filipinos together to celebrate our proud heritage.From the very first year when we started Philippine Fiesta leading to this year which will mark our 16 years the bond of friendship between you and Mila and myself is very much strong and Mila’s untimely demise is still very much felt in our hearts. I missed her so much and I will never forget her. Mabuhay ang Fiesta In America!
    Ogie B.Afable
    Production / Cultural Director
    Philippine Fiesta Inc. aka Fiesta In America

  2. I congratulate Cristina DC Pastor for being able to get Nanding Mendez tell his story about his
    wife’s final moments. The story is well written and only Cristina can do that! I never had the courage
    to ask Mr. Mendez about Mila’s absence even if I see him a lot in the Office.Now he has recovered
    and wants to focus on the coming Fiesta in America 2014 – which is now his delight!

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