You know that things are back to normal in Zamboanga if the daily onslaughts of unannounced power outages are back. The curfew is down at ten from eight during the “crisis.” But at seven in the evening no more jeepneys. So every other night after supper I walk the stretch from my room at Canelar to Orchid Garden where I have free wifi connection without the embarrassment of ordering coffee or tea. At a little before or after ten I would be walking home to find the gate to where I live double-locked and my neighbour a chief of the police and nephew to my landlady would be sniffing my backpack for explosives. I strain myself from too much smiling through it all but it’s daytime I dread more when I have to go to the shops, with guards in full gear at the door, Muslim terrorist sensors a-bristle, alert against every oncoming buyer of their wares.
“Why did you choose to settle in Zamboanga? It’s Moro country.” Toni once asked Karen, seven, maybe eleven years ago, when she got married and got herself some low-cost housing in the outskirts of the city. The asker, a poet and a fictionist, was himself a native of Siasi, who had chosen to make a living elsewhere, away from Chinese-Tausug ancestry.
It is being repackaged as Asia’s Latin City, Karen would later speak of the city admin’s denial phase policy. I did try searching for resemblances, and for the life of me, but for the ayers and the mananas, and the scant putas, I couldn’t see anything Latina. (Manilenyos are more brazen and more assiduous in accentuating their every sentence with putanginas, but that’s Tagalog swagger, not Espanyol.) The jeepney drivers are dismally so Pinoy; they alternately speak to me in Bisaya, Tausug and Chavacano, and if I tell them, No comprendo, speak to me in English or Filipino, pleeez, they get lost like chicken in someone else’s chicken yard.
Neither is there anything Latina with the dancing dragons on Chinese New Year; nor in the mall and food court habitués in their hijabs. The edifice of the renovated Immaculate Concepcion Cathedral at Purisima Street does look like a Spanish fortress against Moroccan invaders, but I couldn’t get it; if anything, it is very contemporary and very Zamboangueno in its phobic height, so bereft of post HR/IHL sensibility. Maybe Latin are the cross-dressers, the cholos behind black shades and baggies, or the gyrating at Paseo del Mar to the tune of some Spanish ditty. But gyrating fountains are not Latinas, and they consume a lot of electricity, like the walls of the City Hall covered with Christmas lights from inch to inch every December, which is better saved for the month of Ramadhan, or yes, for its true-to-itself 24-hour anti-terrorist surveillance.
But what is in Latin America, anyway, that you wouldn’t find anywhere in the Philippines? The Catholic processions? The chapels and the cathedrals, the not-quite-extinct-yet priests and the nuns, the banana plantations, the soap operas, the whores plying their trade, the macho dudes?
The Chavacanos, as Tausugs like to say, were Subanens whose grandmothers fucked with the infidels the Spaniards. (Now doesn’t that sound very Catholic and very Latina?) But voluptuously fair-skinned curly long hair and round big beautiful eyes Karen would inform me that in the family sitting room, if they feel uppity, it is their Chinese aristocratic bloodline they claim. Or, if they feel ironic about their buena familia status, it is their Sama side they call on. Spanish miscegenation is out of the picture, out! you slut!
But Samas are supposed to be the slut. So mothers with Tausug ancestry in their blood would castigate their daughters who had sex before they were eighteen, or who were getting on with their third marriage (across tribes and interfaith dialogue), “You whore, baisan kaw tuud. You really took after that aunt of yours, in Samal yan.”
But you see, nowadays, with what they did to Rio Hondo, ancestral omboh territory, you do not bash a Sama for being anything. Their oppression is your oppression, too. Their displacement your displacement. Put that into good patriotic use, sisters.
Patriotic calls aside, the Sama Dilaut have actually long left their bancas, their ag-omboh (ancestor worship), their five hundred to five thousand pesos housing units in Siasi, in Jolo, in Rio Hondo. They have taken to the cities, the streets, and have not really left their occupation: anarget, with Lahat Bisaya as fishing ground.
In Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi and other agar-agar plantation areas, Tausugs who were displaced from their farms in Sulu are now the migrant labour. They farm the sea, alongside Bisaya workers who man the warehouses. Some of the boys have Bisaya housemaid girlfriends wives sluts. Some upwardly mobile Sama households even have Bisaya and Chavacano daughters-in-law and labanderas.
In Zamboanga and “Christian cities”, intermarriages between elite tribes is common. More so among slum dwellers. In Jolo, however, street-bound dykes who do errands for politicos’ sons would say that rapists would be choosy enough not to go so low so as to pick a Sama girl. For one, their virginity is always suspect. They prefer Tausug lasses, because they are fair-skinned, clean, malanuh. They also would not rape Bisaya girls, them of the slave progeny; them who don’t wash up and who wipe their asses with toilet paper.
A year in Zamboanga is enough encounters in cross-dressing and border crossing. You meet workaday Tausug girls who got through college, thanks to some Catholic scholarship intended for Sama indigents back in Jolo, now going to Catholic service and disowning Tausug polity and society, if not ancestry. They would say their kamaasan converted to Christianity during Spanish colonial rule, or around the time the Spaniards set up Notre Dame of Siasi. At the tiangge, old women would tell you, No, they are Lannang, Chinese, not Tausug, but had been residents of Jolo since after the war and so they speak Tausug which makes them Tausug-Chinese, and so they are Muslims now and go to Friday worship.
Then you don’t speak against Tausugs who the Tausugs themselves would call Bisayah Bagu (nouveau-Bisaya), having taken on the garb of the oppressors, ashamed of the sins of their tribe, the ones who have become paid servants and loyal defenders of majority chauvinism and Christian establishment.
And how about Bisayas who were brought over by piracy and slavery, who later blended into the tribe and the territory, some earning their freedom and citizenhood early on, others bought to pad up the shrinking population of local lords’ subjects and armies, where are they now?