YES, QUEENS

Sunny af­ter­noons, a tape recorder, two his­toric queens. Let’s eaves­drop

Cebu Living - - Cover Story - By JUDE A. BA­CALSO Images by ER­WIN LIM

Their crowns were won 32 years apart.

Jan­ice Banez Mi­nor won hers in 1984 when the com­pe­ti­tion was still known as Miss Cebu Tourism, tak­ing her place in his­tory as the first ti­tle holder of the sto­ried pageant spear­headed by the Cebu City gov­ern­ment. Two years later, she started her epony­mous fur­ni­ture ex­port com­pany with hus­band Paul, later on win­ning sev­eral Katha Awards for Prod­uct De­sign from Manila FAME and the pres­ti­gious Golden Shell Award for ex­cel­lence in ex­port from the Philip­pine gov­ern­ment. Her pieces em­body good de­sign, in­cor­po­rat­ing her sig­na­ture re­cy­cled glass with wrought iron and pet­ri­fied wood, all proudly made in Cebu.

Gabrielle Raine Baljak was crowned Miss Cebu in 2016 ( the com­pe­ti­tion had been re­named in 2002), barely out of high school. Of Croa­t­ian, Span­ish, and Chi­nese des­cent, her Ce­buano roots are teth­ered to the Katipunero Abel­lanas. She is also the daugh­ter of a beauty queen: Her mother Merce Abellana was Miss Man­daue in 1984 and was in the top 10 of Binib­in­ing Pilip­inas in 1990.

The first and 32nd queens of a pres­ti­gious com­pe­ti­tion come to­gether for an un­prece­dented dis­cus­sion on how win­ning the ti­tle changed their lives and what it means to stand for Cebu.

Jan­ice: So Gab, how did you like your year as Ms. Cebu? Was it fun?

Raine: It was a re­ally busy year. I feel like I grew a lot within that span of time. A lot of dif­fer­ent activities helped me dis­cover not only my­self but also Cebu, which is re­ally grow­ing and chang­ing. There are so many peo­ple who are pas­sion­ate about their ca­reers, and ev­ery­thing is so fast- paced. The dif­fer­ent sec­tors and groups that I got in­volved with helped me dis­cover how much po­ten­tial there is here, how much more the world has yet to dis­cover about Cebu.

Jan­ice: I re­ally grew also. When I won the crown, I was 23 years old. I had no idea, re­ally, what it was go­ing to be about. I was just pushed into it by friends and teach­ers, but once I got into it, I en­joyed my­self. “Since I’m here, I’m go­ing to have fun.” I used it for the pur­pose that it was set [ for]. At the time, it re­ally was pur­pose­ful be­cause Cebu was strug­gling as far as tourism was con­cerned. We al­ready had tourists, but [ we were per­ceived with] a wrong im­pres­sion that Cebu had noth­ing to do with. Sex tourism was hap­pen­ing in other parts of the coun­try; the Philip­pines was be­com­ing a desti­na­tion for that. At the time, Cebu had a num­ber of Ja­panese tourists, and the prov­ince needed to break away from that wrong im­age. That was the pur­pose of [ the creation of ] Miss Cebu then. It was ac­tu­ally called Miss Cebu- Ja­pan at first to di­rectly es­tab­lish a re­la­tion­ship with the Ja­panese tourism mar­ket. As a re­sult of the first Miss Cebu Tourism con­test, we be­came sis­ter cities with Tokyo, and we es­tab­lished the first Tokyo- Cebu flights. That was cool. That started the ball rolling for Cebu to have an im­age [ in­de­pen­dent from the rest of the coun­try’s].

Raine: Sim­i­lar to your ex­pe­ri­ence, I worked with the Good Shep­herd Foun­da­tion, a con­vent run by the Good Shep­herd. I learned of these young ladies who came from back­grounds of phys­i­cal abuse. Af­ter work­ing with them, I learned that we haven’t moved far from that [ so­cial prob­lem]. But at least there are peo­ple try­ing to do their part to up­lift peo­ple and give them hope, and at the same time give them op­por­tu­ni­ties, be­cause a lot of these girls are bril­liant. They’re schol­ars, and

some of them grad­u­ate from [ top Cebu] uni­ver­si­ties like the Uni­ver­sity of San Jose Recol­letos and Uni­ver­sity of Cebu. They have de­grees in busi­ness, medicine, and teach­ing, so it’s quite won­der­ful. [ The foun­da­tion] hit its 30th year dur­ing my reign, so it was very nice to cel­e­brate their 30th an­niver­sary with them. I de­vel­oped a close re­la­tion­ship with these ladies, like younger sis­ters.

Jan­ice: I re­ally think the Miss Cebu ex­pe­ri­ence did not only af­fect us but the pub­lic— the Ce­buanos. We be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate what we’re about, be­cause that’s what the queens would talk about: what’s in Cebu [ and] what to love in Cebu. That re­ally worked. We can be proud about that be­cause we made a dif­fer­ence. But hav­ing said that, I don’t think you [ and] I should ever think of it as the end. [ It was] just a sea­son in our lives where we were able to do this. [ Then] we move on and ex­plore things.

Raine: But it’s still with you. You carry the eti­quette, the man­ners, and the knowl­edge you gained about his­tory and cul­ture. You bring it with you ev­ery­where you go. You’re al­ways some­how still an am­bas­sador be­cause when­ever some­one asks you what’s there to do in Cebu, you al­ways have an an­swer.

Jan­ice: You’re ready! ( Snaps fin­gers) Don’t get me started or I won’t stop! ( Laughs)

Raine: Be­cause the ex­cite­ment is still there, no mat­ter where we go.

Jan­ice: I’d like to think that ev­ery­one who be­came Miss Cebu re­ally be­came a good am­bas­sador, not only for that one year— one year is too short. [ The ex­pe­ri­ence] molds you and pro­pels you to a life­time of pro­mot­ing Cebu. I never thought when I was in the con­test that I would ever be in man­u­fac­tur­ing, but when I got into it with my hus­band who, of course, taught me ev­ery­thing [ I know] about the in­dus­try, it gave me a plat­form to talk about Cebu [ when­ever I went to] in­ter­na­tional shows, bring­ing peo­ple here to see the craft and to meet the ar­ti­sans. Raine: We’re a creative hub. Jan­ice: Yes! Dur­ing my time, 1984, it was re­ally a hub of the ex­port in­dus­try. Jew­elry, rat­tan, stones, shells, a lot of ex­port was com­ing out of Cebu.

Raine: I was 18 when I ap­plied to com­pete so I re­ally grew [ with] the

I re­ally think the Miss Cebu ex­pe­ri­ence did not only af­fect us but the pub­lic— the Ce­buanos. We be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate what we’re about, be­cause that’s what the queens would talk about: what’s in Cebu [ and] what to love in Cebu.

ex­pe­ri­ence. A month af­ter the coro­na­tion, I joined Creative Cebu, an or­ga­ni­za­tion built on cul­ti­vat­ing, pro­mot­ing, and shap­ing the arts scene. They work with Qube gallery and HoliCOW ( Holis­tic Coali­tion of the Will­ing), a sus­tain­able fur­ni­ture and home­ware com­pany; so I got to im­merse my­self in the trade that you pi­o­neered, in that sense. To see the weav­ing, the crafts­man­ship, the vis­ual arts, the aes­thetic, and also the mean­ing of ev­ery­thing and how peo­ple from the out­skirts get their jobs and op­por­tu­ni­ties from all the trade that goes on in the city— it’s in­cred­i­ble. It’s re­ally a com­mu­nity col­lab­o­ra­tion. The cre­ativ­ity that hap­pens here is re­ally out of the box and the ma­te­ri­als we have are so unique. I was just in Medellin ( in North­ern Cebu) and there, they make jars out of banana leaves that have this glossy glass fin­ish. They’re beau­ti­ful. And here in the BusayBalam­ban area, they do abaca weav­ing, which holds a lot of po­ten­tial. You kind of pi­o­neered that, so now, younger gen­er­a­tions carry on what was started and find new ways to share it with ev­ery­one.

Jan­ice: There are a lot of com­mu­ni­ties in­volved in each prod­uct, and at ev­ery level there is ex­per­tise. And there is some­one who puts it to­gether, takes it abroad, and mar­kets it. I re­ally fell in love with this busi­ness. It was an im­me­di­ate de­par­ture from [ serv­ing] eco­nomic needs to just loving what I do. It’s very ful­fill­ing.

Raine: That’s the amazing part of liv­ing in Cebu now, be­cause even [ for those] in in­dus­tries like fash­ion, makeup, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, and pho­tog­ra­phy, they are able to do what they love and sur­vive on it. It’s nice that we have these mar­kets and op­por­tu­ni­ties now. Dur­ing my mom’s time, artists were strug­gling; it was more dif­fi­cult for them. But it has changed with all the travel op­por­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to come here. Dur­ing my reign, I was able to host Air Asia’s launch from Cebu to Tai­wan, and PAL also launched di­rect flights to LA [ at the same time]. These sorts of op­por­tu­ni­ties, plus so­cial me­dia as a plat­form, al­low us and the world to dis­cover what re­ally is here.

Jan­ice: It’s a tiny is­land in the mid­dle of the ar­chi­pel­ago, but our ex­po­sure to the world is di­rect. It’s a wide gate. That’s one thing very unique about Cebu.

Raine: Even with con­nect­ing flights, ev­ery­one goes through the heart of the Philip­pines which is right here. It’s easy to go to Siar­gao or Palawan [ from Cebu].

Jan­ice: More power to the ones who are or­ga­niz­ing the new Miss Cebu. I hope it will go with the flow and in fact, con­tinue and ex­pand the op­por­tu­ni­ties more. But we had a good run, didn’t we?

Raine: Ab­so­lutely. In our own way, the things we were able to do re­ally shaped us to be the women we are now.

Jan­ice: And some­how, we in­flu­enced oth­ers. We’re grate­ful to be put in that po­si­tion.

Raine: And blessed, with the Sto. Niño re­ally guid­ing us. I feel like his­tory is some­thing that keeps us con­nected to our roots and al­lows us to dis­cover our­selves more. Be­fore the coro­na­tion, for two or three months, we [ the can­di­dates] im­mersed our­selves in Cebu’s his­tory, the tourism, the dif­fer­ent sec­tors of trade, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, eti­quette— much more than mod­el­ing and fash­ion. I learned a lot about our place that I had never learned

in school, and it was a very life- chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s what kind of pushed me. Af­ter the coro­na­tion, I made it a point to help de­velop the youth by shar­ing what I learned about the Ce­buano com­mu­nity. I got in­volved with Cre­ate Cebu and Dream­fes­ti­val of Global Shapers, I did a TED talk at USJR, and worked with the Good Shep­herd Con­vent and the Rise Above Foun­da­tion. I worked with the Batang Pi­nangga in Car­men. The Miss Cebu ti­tle al­lows me to con­nect with groups and con­nect peo­ple [ who] all have a pas­sion cen­tered on want­ing to help Cebu grow and flourish. Hav­ing this op­por­tu­nity to grow with the ti­tle is spe­cial. It has shaped me so much and al­lowed me to dis­cover more, and hope­fully, I made an im­pact on the peo­ple I met along the way.

Jan­ice: Af­ter your reign, what do you plan

to do?

Raine: I went to Medellin be­cause I was look­ing to start a tour com­pany to help in­te­grate Cebu City tours with [ the north­ern prov­inces] be­cause that’s a lit­tle un­der­de­vel­oped; most tourists still go south. I’m look­ing to as­sist with that. I’ll also pur­sue my education be­cause I have not been to uni­ver­sity; I grad­u­ated high school on the year that I com­peted. Now, I’m ready to go to school. Jan­ice: Where do you plan to go to school? Raine: Be­cause I’m start­ing some­thing here, I’d like to have my education here. If I’d like to trans­fer... we’ll see. But I’d like to start here be­cause Cebu is so close to my heart. The education sys­tem here ( is so good) that many for­eign­ers come to Cebu to get their education. There are Amer­i­cans, In­di­ans, and peo­ple from Pa­pua New Guinea. We have a lot of bril­liant pro­fes­sors.

Jan­ice: Have you thought of what course you’re go­ing to take?

Raine: Through­out my reign, I was able to [ dab­ble] a bit in education, talk to peo­ple, and teach kids. Education is some­thing I’m think­ing of, but my pas­sion re­ally is mu­sic. If I could pur­sue that and mi­nor in psy­chol­ogy or education, that would be very nice.

Jan­ice: So much is hap­pen­ing in Cebu! Are you ex­cited about [ the third] bridge? It’s go­ing to end prac­ti­cally where my fac­tory is. How ex­cit­ing! This is some­thing we never ex­pected. There’s also the cen­tral high­way that will con­nect the ( north­ern and south­ern) ends of Cebu.

Raine: And the bridge that con­nects Bo­hol to Cebu.

Jan­ice: Yes, from SRP to Cor­dova and then Cor­dova to Bo­hol in the next five years. If they can do that, they should eas­ily con­nect Ne­gros to Cebu and San­tander to Du­maguete.

Raine: How would you de­scribe Cebu to some­one who has never been here?

Jan­ice: Aside from be­ing the hub of education, busi­ness, cre­ativ­ity, and the arts, there’s so much po­ten­tial for the future here. We’re also fast be­com­ing the top choice of re­tirees. Peo­ple pre­fer to come here be­cause we have peace and or­der, and a good bal­ance be­tween cre­ativ­ity and busi­ness.

That’s one way I seized the mo­ment: I used the beauty ti­tle as a plat­form to de­velop my­self and help the com­mu­nity, de­velop an in­dus­try and take it with me to tell peo­ple about Cebu abroad. I don’t think I will ever stop do­ing that.

Raine: You can eas­ily get to the beaches. Even with the traf­fic, you can eas­ily ac­cess the best of both worlds.

Jan­ice: One can de­velop a very, very good life­style here. Plus, we have this ex­po­sure to all kinds of cul­ture be­cause there is so much di­ver­sity.

Raine: And Filipinos can speak English, so it makes it very con­ve­nient for any English speaker from out­side of Cebu to im­merse them­selves here. It’s so easy to com­mu­ni­cate, which is the one thing that’s nec­es­sary for any tourism econ­omy to build.

Jan­ice: There are also a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties if we just seize them. We need to show our peo­ple how to seize the op­por­tu­nity. Raine: How did you seize yours? Jan­ice: Oh my. When I was reign­ing as Miss Cebu, at first, I thought I was do­ing it for fun. Then I re­al­ized I had a plat­form and peo­ple behind me. They were go­ing to Ja­pan with me to pro­mote Cebu, so I had to take it se­ri­ously. I cap­i­tal­ized on that, and had a blast. Even af­ter my term ended, I could not stop pro­mot­ing Cebu. It be­came a part of me, be­cause I was made aware of the place that I come from. I de­vel­oped a love for the place and can­not help but speak about it to peo­ple. Like I said, I had no idea I was go­ing to be­come a man­u­fac­turer, and when I did, it was fun! I can go abroad and tell ev­ery­one what we can do and make in Cebu. The crafts­men and the his­tory behind each piece are why we are good at iron- mak­ing. That’s one way I seized the mo­ment: I used the beauty ti­tle as a plat­form to de­velop my­self and help the com­mu­nity, de­velop an in­dus­try and take it with me to tell peo­ple about Cebu abroad. I don’t think I will ever stop do­ing that.

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