It all started with my desire to see a vinta, a traditional paddleboat with multicolored sails. The most recognizable cultural icon of Zamboanga City often seen in postcards, I assumed it was an everyday sight, but after having visited the city a few times I realized that one could only see it on special occasions, most especially during the Zamboanga Hermosa Festival – also known as Fiesta Pilar – held every October. Unlike most other Philippine festivals which occur over a single day or weekend, Zamboanga Hermosa is celebrated throughout the entire month of October, centering around the feast day of the city’s patroness, Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar), on the 12th. I finally got to visit the city during festival time, looking forward to finally see these colorful vessels.
One of the most awaited events of the festival is the Regatta de Zamboanga, a government-sponsored vinta race, along the seaside thoroughfare of Cawa-Cawa Boulevard (presently known as R.T. Lim Boulevard). It’s usually held on the Sunday before the feast day. The vinta or lepa-lepa is the traditional sailboat of the Moro and Sama-Bajau peoples of western Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Sadly, this vessel has become obsolete with the introduction of fuel-powered motors in the late 20th century. They have become an uncommon sight in the region, but fortunately still remains the highlight of the Zamboanga Hermosa Festival, when the sailboats gather along the boulevard for a big race. This year’s regatta was the biggest by far with 244 sailboats competing!
One of the first things you’ll notice when visiting the city is the strong Spanish influence, especially in the local tongue of Chavacano, a creole language derived from Spanish but peppered with various Philippine languages. It’s no wonder Zamboanga – a vital colonial outpost in the Spanish period – has dubbed itself “Asia’s Latin City”. Embracing its rich Hispanic influence, Zamboangueños claim ownership of the mascota, a Spanish-inspired evening gown of aristocratic women. Contemporary interpretations of this lavish dress by local designers are presented during the Mascota de Zamboanga pageant, held a few days after the regatta.
While minor events like dance parties, trade conventions and sports competitions are held until the end of the month, the festival climaxes on October 11 and 12 during the street dancing competition and religious procession, respectively. Contingents parade down the streets towards the main performance area at Paseo Del Mar, near Fort del Pilar. While the street dancing focused on the city’s patroness, it also showcased city’s diversity, incorporating the attires and dances of Moro and lumad (non-Muslim indigenous peoples) like the Subanen, together with the Hispanized cultures of Christian settlers from Visayas and Mindanao. Finally, a religious procession was held the following day – the feast day of the patroness – from the cathedral to the city’s most important landmark, Fort del Pilar, where a mass was held for all attendees. In spite of a sudden downpour, the procession was attended by thousands accompanying the carozas with candles and lighting them at the shrine in the fortress grounds. More than a celebration of faith, the Zamboanga Hermosa showcases the city’s culture and history at its finest and most vibrant, unfurling its multicultural fabric like the sails of its iconic vintas.
This blog post was made possible through the assistance of the tourism office of the Zamboanga City government.