In 1993, I joined a group of artists to exhibit at the Fort Pilar, in Zamboanga City, for the October festival of the city’s patron Our Lady of Pilar. The Fort Pilar or Real Fuerza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza (Royal Fort of Our Lady of the Pillar of Zaragoza) is a Spanish stone fortress built in 1635.
After the exhibit, I stayed a little longer to explore the city and its outskirts. I tried snorkeling in Sta. Cruz Island, which I also a known burial site for the nomadic Badjao people.
I went to a Yakan village, where I met a young Yakan selling his 150 year old clan sword for 2000 pesos, because of dire poverty. Although I was tempted to buy the piece, as I am an avid sword collector, I couldn’t allow myself to take away his family’s heritage.
I visited the mansion of the Southern Command military base, which was originally the mansion built for Moammar Gadhafi, when he visited Zamboanga to help broker a peace agreement (the Tripoli Agreement) between the Philippine government and the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front). Although time has taken its toll on the building, it was still stunning as it showcased the best of Maranao and Tausug art and craftsmanship.
The Climaco Park was a quiet place to relax and sit amidst the green, which is quite an iron since the place was named after the former mayor, Cesar Climaco, who was assassinated in 1984 for his opposition to the Marcos dictatorship.
In this photograph (the only souvenir picture I have), my fellow artists and I pose at the beach terrace of the Lantaka Hotel. The lantaka is the bronze cannon produced by the local Tausug people, which was used for and against the Spanish colonizers.
In the photograph are Dodo Defeo, Mulong Galicano, Gus Albor, Remer Tawasil, Joe Noel Dionision, Sandra Jamiro, Icelle Borja, Dale Borja Lagonera, Cony Borja, and myself.
I also had the chance to go to the home of then mayor María Clara Rafols Lorenzo Lobregat (who later ran for congress). The very interesting thing about her home was her very extensive collection of anything that had to do with roosters. Since she was born in the year of the rooster, she started collecting different types of live fowl, miniature sculptures and toys with a rooster motif, tapestries, plates, and much more. Another marvel was her huge wardrobe filled with the hundreds of the traditional dress called the Maria Clara, which is also her name. Mayor Lobregat would wear nothing but a Maria Clara.
One thing that struck me was the underlying tension from the continuing clashes and terrorist acts with the MNLF. The moment I stepped down the plane, I felt like a fight was about to erupt. In fact, just before we arrived at the mayor’s home, someone had just tossed a grenade at her house. Later, another person tried threw a grenade at the Fort Pilar while people were celebrating. Good thing no one died during both incidents.
Despite that tension, I loved Zamboanga city, with its parade of diverse cultures and friendly people. I remember every now-and-then; I would sit at the beach drawing portraits of the local fishermen, as they would engage me with stories of the city. And as the sun began to set, I would give them the drawings and bid them goodbye.