Interview With Monica Portugal

Monica Portugal discusses the conflict between Muslim and Christian groups in Mindanao, her experiences living undr Martial Law as well as her involvement in the smuggling trade in the Philippines.

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Born in 1943, Monica Portugal was orphaned very early in life, and raised by her aunt away from her many siblings. In 1950, her aunt moved her to Cagayan de Oro, and raised her amongst 22 orphans she fostered. Monica began working as a smuggler in 1963, selling smuggled Japanese goods in the city, and married a fish seller 4 years later.

    Her family was re-settled in Wao, Mindanao, under President Magsaysay’s program, and her husband began farming while she did tailoring. However, religious conflict broke out in Mindanao. The Christian settlers and local Muslim community lived in separate enclaves consisting of only their ethnic group, at first encountering one another only at the market. While Monica acknowledges that there were friendly Muslims, and her husband even befriended some, there was still significant tension between the communities. Armed Muslim fighters would demand food from Christian civilians, becoming threatening if nothing was given, and returning repeatedly if a household gave them supplies. It was a Muslim tradition to sacrifice water buffalo at weddings, and if the host family could not afford their own, they stole it from the civilians. Monica’s husband’s Muslim friends gave them early warning to hide their buffaloes.

    2 years into their stay in Wao, the conflict intensified, requiring military intervention. Monica recalls hearing gunshots and discusses the military’s storming of the municipal center to arrest the mayor, who was believed to be protecting the rebels. They then returned to Cagayan de Oro, by which time Martial Law had been declared. Her husband began working in construction. Given the increased military presence, Monica ceased her smuggling business. She switched to legally selling goods at the harbor to sailors from the Del Monte company, which was more profitable than smuggled goods. However, she encountered some abuse of power by the Filipino soldiers under Martial law, as they had confiscated the food she had been given as payment for her goods by Japanese sailors. Yet, she believes that similar abuses do not occur under President Duterte’s regime.

    Monica’s husband left for Manila and never returned, leaving her to raise two children by herself. In the 1990s, she joined the Blue Army faith healing group, which then had many women members, of whom she is one of the few remnants.

Interviewee: Monica Portugal, born in 1943

Interviewer & writer: Kisho Tsuchiya                Interpreter: Marjorie Lucagbo Tsuchiya

Date: August 8 and August 27, 2019

Location: Puerto, Misamis Oriental

Language: Bisaya


My name is Monica. I was born on October 10th, 1943, in San Carlos City, Negros Occidental. My parents died when I was a child, so I managed to finish only until grade 2 elementary school there. After that, my aunty brought me to Cagayan de Oro City in the year 1950. I heard that I have 12 siblings, and I am the youngest. But I was raised separately from my family, so now I don’t remember anything about my siblings. [After saying this, she cried.] Among my relatives, I know only my nephew (and an aunty).

I don’t remember much about my childhood in Negros. In my aunt’s house in Cagayan de Oro, there were 22 children who were orphans. I was very happy growing up with them. When I moved to Wao in Lanao later, some of these friends were also there. 

 I moved from my aunt’s house when I started working as a smuggler sometime in 1963. My work in Puerto in the 1960s was smuggling products from Japan such as televisions, bicycles, and plastic mats.

I got married to a man from Bicol in 1967. He came to Cagayan de Oro to sell fish.

After a while, we moved to Wao in Lanao under President Magsaysay’s resettlement program, and stayed there for 2 years until a war broke out in Wao. My husband became a farmer there, and took care of rice and corn. The seeds were from the government. I sewed clothes there. At first, our (Christian migrant) community was ok. I joined small religious groups that visited house to house there. There were no Muslims in the community that I lived. 

In Wao, people resided in locations according to their original places such as Cebuanos with the Cebuano group, Ilocanos in with Ilocanos, Batanguiño with Batanguiño, and the Muslims lived in the upper part.  I met Muslims only in the market at the city center. Some were good Muslims, but some are not. My Muslim friends sometimes gave cautions that “Something dangerous can happen soon”. In the market, usually Christians did not show their back to the Muslims because they used to say that “the Muslims could backstab you”. The Muslims did not show their back to the Christians either.

There were times that Muslims with arms visited Christian houses asking for food or money. If the resident couldn’t give them anything, they got angry. And, if they gave anything, they often came back again and again. So, often Christian migrants were irritated with them. I didn’t have any Muslim friend there, but my husband had. They were nice people. They informed us whenever a Muslim wedding was about to take place. Why so? In Muslim marriage in Wao, they sacrifice water buffaloes for the feast. If they couldn’t afford to do so, they used to steal water buffaloes from the commoners there. Our Muslim friends informed us beforehand so that we could hide our water buffaloes.

Then we began to hear gunshots occasionally. Any time we heard gunshots, we had to hide. We were afraid because even Muslim women had firearms. Then, the army “rangers” from Manila came to Wao. They attacked and bombed the mayor’s house (or office) at the municipal center. The rangers believed that the Muslim mayor was protecting the Muslim gangs. But, after living there for 2 years, we left Wao because of frequent conflicts. And I preferred to stay in Cagayan de Oro because I made a living here and liked to be with your [the translator’s] mother.

 When we came back, it was already the Marcos’ Martial Law time.

After coming back to CDO, my husband became a construction worker. He went to Manila and maybe other places. Then, he disappeared. Never came back. That time, I already had two children. I continued to work as a tailor, and raised the two children myself. It was very hard. But it was ok. God was with me when I prayed. 

In Martial Law CDO, I stopped my earlier work as a smuggler. There were a lot of army soldiers and policemen here. I couldn’t get arrested for my children. Instead, I sold cigarettes, whiskey, etc. (in a legal way), each time a ship came to Del Monte’s harbor. I also sold dolls made of coconuts leaves and skins to Japanese sailors. I realized that I could earn more than when I was a smuggler. That time, a lot of people from this town frequented at Del Monte’s harbor to sell their products to the sailors. 

During the Martial Law time (in the 70s), some bad local policemen abused their power. For example, they just came here and there, and grabbed common people’s property. If they resisted, they just shot and took everything. I myself experienced such abuse of power by the police. I was selling my products to Japanese sailors. The Japanese people gave me noodles. Some policemen came and just grabbed all these noodles. After Cory Aquino became the President over there (in Manila), the army soldiers and policemen disappeared from here. Now under President Duterte’s Martial Law, such abuses of power do not happen: Policemen are calm and not abusing the commoners. I think President Duterte knows how to use military and police in a good way. 

I continued to sell products to sailors and tailors. But recently I stopped working as a seller, only continue to sew cloths. And one of the two children died. 

I joined the Blue Army (or the Fatima group) in the 1990s. There were a lot of women in this group. [She was laughing.] Now we are very few. My life has been very hard: Being poor, losing my husband and a child, and raising another child alone. 


Interviewer: Kisho Tsuchiya

Interviewee: Monica Portugal

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Transcript Notes


  1. Consider the impact of forced migration in shaping the lived experiences of the Cold War in the Philippines for individuals like Monica?

  2. How does Monica’s experiences with both the Muslim rebels and the national military challenge the official state narrative of the conflict in Mindanao?