Flamboyant fundraising and the story of Nena Lozada Smith

Consul General Mario de Leon Jr and his wife Eleanor surrounded by a Sea of Red: He was named Man of the Year at the Red Poinsettia Ball. Photo by Boyet Loverita

Consul General Mario de Leon Jr and his wife Eleanor surrounded by a Sea of Red: He was named Man of the Year at the Red Poinsettia Ball. Photo by Boyet Loverita

"No one can stop me from helping people.' Photo by Gilda Legaspi Stiefel

“No one can stop me from helping people.’ Photo by Gilda Legaspi Stiefel

By Cristina DC Pastor

‘Filipinos love to dress up.’

Not all, but somehow, events organizer Nena Lozada Smith manages to find those who do and bring them together for elaborate fundraising dinners.

The Glambassadors of Hope and the Red Poinsettia balls are just some of the grand events Nena, 65, has conceptualized and organized over the years. In the recent Red Poinsettia Ball, Consul General Mario de Leon Jr. was proclaimed Man of the Year and given a masquerade waltz in a Sea of Red, women dressed in their stateliest red gowns.

“The Congen cried,” she shared in an interview with The FilAm. “It was emotional.”

That party had the Filipino American community buzzing, some in awe of Nena’s exceptional ability to organize a coup of a festivity, others concealing their disgust over the display of “shallowness and superficiality.” Unworried, she said, by “envious” (‘inggit’) critics, Nena said her success did not happen overnight. It began slowly and from the bottom. “My success is hard-earned,” she stressed.

Azucena Lozada grew up dirt poor in Surigao to parents who were “ordinary people who worked hard to send us to school.” She was so impoverished she could not even afford slippers to go to school, she said. She did manage to reach third year Law until she married Emmanuel Migriño, who comes from the prominent Migriño-Chatto political family in Bohol. Her schooling stopped as she raised their four children – three daughters and one son.

As early as 14 years old, she had been organizing, she said. She remembered gathering young girls to promote camaraderie among teenagers and fed them coconut juice and mashed bananas. “I had no money to buy chicken,” she said.

She joined the Jaycees in Tagbilaran and from the Chocolate Hills Lady Jaycees learned the tricky balance between leadership and organizing.

She came to the U.S. in late 1990s initially as a tourist, her decision to stay for good, according to her, was motivated by a desire to send her children to college.

In New York, she worked as a babysitter and a domestic helper. After about three years, she met and married Henry Kaufman, and they lived in Manhattan. That union also paved the way for Nena to become a legal immigrant.

She started becoming involved in the FilAm community by attending events organized by people from Bohol, the province of her husband. She organized a couple of fundraisers, until she herself founded the Tagbilaranons of Eastern USA, which gained her entry into bigger gatherings. “I was just regional, not mainstream yet,” she said.

A friend and active leader in the community introduced her to the Philippine Pastoral Center, where she became a regular. By this time, word of her little fundraising parties had gotten around and so she was invited to chair the Invitation Committee of a PPC event honoring NYC Cardinal John O’Connor. Unfortunately, on the night he was to be bestowed with tributes from the FilAm community, the Cardinal died. The year was 2000, Nena recalled. It was also the year she met community leader Loida Nicolas Lewis.

A friend of Nicolas Lewis introduced her to PIDC, or the Philippine Independence Day Committee group that organizes the yearly Independence Day parade on Madison Avenue. At the time it was not yet incorporated. Nena became the chair of the fundraising committee. She organized a dinner gala honoring all the past Grand Marshals and presidents held at the Astoria World Manor. It was reported to be well attended and became the benchmark for formal galas in many other FilAm organizations: big ballroom; black tie; floor-sweeping gowns.

“At the time I didn’t know what PIDC was, but I know the parade. Nanonood ako nun,” she said. “I never dreamed I would be part of it.”

There was no better platform for Nena to debut her “talent” and go mainstream than the Independence Day Parade. “Diyan, nakita nila yung talent ko,” she said.

By this time, her circle of friends had grown and many were urging her to become full-on leader. In her heart, she knew she could do any job that she put her mind to. And her mind ran in many exciting directions.

She became Overall Chair of the parade in 2003. Part of the celebration, as engineered by Nena, was an Independence Day Ball at the Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. More than 600 people paid the $120 ticket to attend.

“It was the first time I introduced the presidential table,” she said. The privilege of being seated at an exclusive table reserved for guests of honor came with a higher price, but some FilAms went for it. “It was the talk of the town!”

Confident of her rising capability to bring in a crowd, she decided to be on her own. Around 2005, she formed the non-profit group called Friends Indeed USA and got together some of her closest friends as co-founders: Lito Pernia, Cora Reyes, Linda Pelayo, Roger and Connie Quiambao, and Roger Alama. The organization imposed a $500 membership fee.

“Many wanted to join, mostly well-off people, Filipinos. We turned down several people,” she said.

She also founded the Philippine Hearts & Hopes Society (PHHOSO), a charity organization created in honor of her mother. The name is apt because she wanted to be known for events that promote “glamour with a heart.” (The Filipino word for heart is ‘puso,’ rhyming with PHHOSO.)

PHHOSO and Friends Indeed became her platform to create more swank fundraising galas that imposed strict dress codes. One of them was the Glambassadors of Hope Ball, which she described as a ‘terno and barong’ affair. The other is the Red Poinsettia Ball, usually held during the holidays, hence the women came in formal red. Word that she turned away socialite Luchie Vivas because she came to the Glambassadors Ball dressed in a Maria Clara gown, instead of a terno, was confirmed by Nena.

“Some people, including Congen, told me, hayaan mo na, papasukin mo na, but I explained attire is strictly monitored. I kicked out nine people already,” she pointed out. She quickly added, “We’re OK. Hindi kami nag-away (ni Luchie).”

Her third husband, Raymond Smith, a retired U.S. Navy man, has been an encouraging spouse. They met at an Applebee’s where, by her account, she was entering the restaurant with friends looking for a table while he was on his way out. They bumped into each other by accident, he apologized, and was quickly smitten. It was not exactly love at first sight, but as Nena got to know him she found Raymond, a widower, to be a generous soul and very kind to her children. The 13-year age difference set aside, they married about three years ago. Nena calls him “my awesome wingman.”

In the community, Nena is both famous and fable. Many aspire to be in her guest list, a mark of prestige for those who relish being seen in the pages of the Filipino Reporter and in the company of consular officials, local celebrities, and doctors. Nena has a loyal network of friends and followers she described as “Filipinos who love to dress up, have a good time.”

How does she do it?

“I have this kind of magic,” she said simply.

There are some who are wary that for Nena, fundraising has become a ‘cottage industry.’ Said one community leader interviewed by The FilAm: “I will never give to her charities; I don’t know where the money goes.”

Nena responds to questions about ‘where the money goes’ with references to her many causes ranging from fighting drugs, medical missions, helping youth in difficult situations, and rehabilitating disaster-stricken provinces in the Philippines.

On Facebook, she reports that “Red Poinsettia…was able to raise a gross income of more or less $65,000. We are expecting our net income to be more or less $30,000 including the collectibles. We will post the financial report in the Filipino Reporter and here in FB for transparency purposes.”

Nena is aware her critics are working full-time, but has learned to block out the background noise. She welcomes 2016 as “another exciting journey.” On her plate are the Mrs. Philippines America and the Miss Teen Philippines USA, two projects she will unveil this year.

“There will always be people who will talk behind my back,” she said, “but they will not stop me from doing what I do, which is helping people.”

Nena and husband Raymond Smith: ‘My awesome wingman and partner.’

Nena and husband Raymond Smith: ‘My awesome wingman and partner.’

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