The saga of the Teduray sisters | Inquirer Opinion

The saga of the Teduray sisters

NEARING the end of the 19th century, three Teduray sisters, Juana, Servanda and Nicolasa, surnamed Borromeo, abandoned their hometown of Tamontaka on the banks of the Rio Grande de Mindanao near Cotabato town. They braved what was then a long and dangerous journey to Zamboanga on the far western side of Mindanao. In a Mindanao Cross column by Cotabato resident Edita A. Tugbo, the sisters were described as “buyo-chewing, were short and curly-haired … and could neither read nor write.”

In Zamboanga, the sisters established residences in three separate areas—Juana in Sta. Maria, Servanda in Buenavista, and Nicolasa in Tetuan. Juana married a Chinese migrant, Lu Utih, who subsequently changed his name to Jose Climaco. They were my maternal great-grandparents, making me one-eighth Teduray and one-eighth Chinese.


I have often wondered what made the Borromeo sisters risk leaving Tamontaka for an unknown destination. And why, if they were Teduray, did they have Christian names? One of the mysteries was unraveled when I read Jesuit historian Miguel A. Bernad’s “The Tamontaca Experiment in Southern Mindanao: 1861-1899” (2004), Nicholas P. Cushner’s “The Abandonment of the Tamontaca Reduction” (1964) and Jose S. Arcilla’s “The Return of the Jesuits to Mindanao” (1978). Tamontaka was the first of the Spanish garrisons established in the 1860s, when the Manila government decided to permanently occupy strategic areas in Mindanao. Later Jesuit friars arrived and began converting the Teduray who lived on the outskirts. That explained the Borromeo appellation, as well as the sisters’ given names.

A farming community soon arose around the Jesuit mission that came to own “a large tract of land planted to various crops like rice, corn, coffee, cacao, coconut and fruit trees, and had a herd of carabao.” Bernad does not disclose the relations of production or the mode of production in Tamontaka, only that it was definitely “not a commune.” In all likelihood, it was similar to the prevailing oppressive socioeconomic system of share tenancy in Luzon. The farm surplus supported the mission’s activities, including an orphanage of ransomed slave children.


By 1866, there were 667 Teduray in the mission; as late as 1879, there were only 160 former slave children. In any case, it was unfortunate that the Teduray were made to abandon their native names because this prevents us, the descendants of the Borromeo sisters, from tracing our lumad lineage and linking with fourth- or fifth-generation relatives who may still be living in Teduray areas in the Cotabato provinces.

As for the other mystery, I had initially thought that Bernad and Cushner solved this when they narrated the Jesuits’ abandonment of Tamontaka in 1899 to escape increasing harassment by Muslims emboldened by the transfer of Philippine sovereignty from Spain to the United States. The friars were also aware that the American southward expansion would first target Cotabato, as this was the Mindanao headquarters of the Spanish military command. The deteriorating situation and the impending dismantling of the Spanish garrisons convinced the friars to immediately evacuate Tamontaka. The Jesuits’ decision to uproot the Teduray from their ancestral lands was self-serving: It was meant to preserve the gains of their evangelizing mission. Zamboanga had a well-fortified Spanish garrison (Fort Pilar) and a Jesuit presence to ensure that the conversion of the “pagan” Teduray would not be reversed.

But my initial theory that the Borromeo sisters were part of the 1899 evacuation was disproved when a cousin, Greg Climaco Alvarez, informed me that Juana’s son and our grandfather, Gregorio Borromeo Climaco, was born on March 8, 1890. Since our grandfather was the second of seven children, this means that the three sisters left Tamontaka as early as 1887, or 12 years before the exodus. In contrast with the organized and planned withdrawal backed by Spanish troops in 1899, the sisters’ intrepid journey was made even more perilous and fraught with untold hazards. That second mystery is thus yet unsolved and open to conjecture.

Within two generations, the Borromeo-Climaco union produced one of the country’s democracy icons—the maverick Cesar C. Climaco, twice city mayor, former Macapagal Cabinet member and an uncompromising opponent of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law regime. His assassination in 1984, wrongly blamed on a Muslim rebel, is unsolved to this day.

Cesar’s father, Gregorio B. Climaco, was a municipal councilor. His older brother, Rafael, was a classmate of Marcos at the UP College of Law, placed fourth in the bar exams (Marcos was first), and later became a Court of Appeals justice. He could have easily made it to the Supreme Court had he not been with the anti-Marcos opposition. A sister, Leticia Climaco Alvarez, became principal of a prestigious city high school. Another brother, Benjamin, was a World War II hero who died in the infamous Death March. Cesar’s son, Julio (or Rini), also a UP law graduate, was appointed OIC city mayor by Cory Aquino in 1986. Jose “Jolly” Climaco, Cesar’s younger brother, was both city councilor and vice mayor. Jolly’s daughter, Maria Isabelle “Beng” Climaco Salazar, a former congresswoman and city councilor, is the current city mayor who recently won reelection by a landslide.

Other kin have been prominent in their chosen fields—education, medicine, nursing, law, entrepreneurship, agriculture, social services, international development work, local sports, and NGO work. A Zamboanga landmark, the charming Hacienda de Palmeras Hotel, is run by the Climaco-Alvarez family. The Borromeo-Climaco clan thus appears to have benefited from the 19th-century adventure of the three fearless Teduray sisters. Regrettably, its members remain largely incognizant of their lumad heritage.

Eduardo Climaco Tadem, PhD, is professorial lecturer of Asian studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman and president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition. For advice on family history, he is grateful to Marisa Climaco Alvarez Williams. He says this piece was motivated by President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s disclosure of his own indigenous roots.

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TAGS: Borromeo sisters, Commentary, opinion, Tamontaka, Teduray, Teduray sisters, Zamboanga
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