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Humor and Inspiration: Jaime Zobel de Ayala Interviews Xyza Cruz Bacani

The tycoon reveals his funny side during a talk with the photographer.
IMAGE MARIO ALVARO LIMOS
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Jaime Zobel de Ayala is many things we already know—a philanthropist, an art enthusiast, and chairman of Ayala Corporation. But one casual evening at the Manila House revealed another side to the business tycoon: He is also a funnyman. 

Zobel de Ayala was the host for the evening’s talk show, Changing the Narrative: An Intimate Conversation on Transformation and Photography, where he interviewed Xyza Cruz Bacani, a domestic worker-turned world-famous photographer.

With a tone of stung reproach, Zobel de Ayala began the evening with an apology.

“Good evening, everyone. First and foremost, an apology!” he said. “Everyone came up to me saying ‘Oh, but I thought it was going to be your father who’s interviewing Xyza,’” he said.

“I just wanted to give out a general apology and I will make sure to tell my father that he’s sorely missed here tonight!” he said, frowning.

The audience erupted in laughter.

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After all, between Zobel de Ayala and his father, Jaime Zobel de Ayala, it is the latter who is renowned for his love of photography.

When Zobel de Ayala introduced Xyza, he also poked fun at his own age. “Xyza was born in 1987, and embarrassingly, that’s the year I got married to Lizzie.” The audience laughed. “That’s the generational gap between us.” 

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Throughout the night, Zobel de Ayala and Bacani bantered with each other, while talking about domestic workers, photography, and Xyza’s transformation from a domestic helper to a photographer.

“The first question I’d really like to know, Xyza is how did you get the name ‘Xyza?’” asked Zobel de Ayala. “I mean, Filipinos have a penchant for unusual nicknames, but this one is very unusual!” he said. “Maybe you can tell us something about that.”

Bacani, who seemed shy at the beginning of the evening, turned out to be just as hilarious as Zobel de Ayala.

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Xyza Cruz Bacani and Jaime Zobel de Ayala

“I have two very creative parents,’ Bacani explained. “We’re part of this indigenous group in Nueva Vizcaya, it’s disappearing now, it’s called the Isinais, so we have our own dialect. They named my sister “Sharila,” which means “same old shit” because it’s another girl.

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In 1996, when Bacani was only 8 years old, she was given the responsibility of being a mother to her two younger siblings because their mother, Georgia, had to leave for Singapore to work as a domestic helper. Georgia has been working in Hong Kong for 22 years.

“I have very big gaps of memory from that time because I was so busy surviving and making sure that my siblings also survive,” Bacani told  Zobel de Ayala.

‘My Photography Became My Mother’s Eyes’

“So when I was 19, my siblings needed to study for university. You know how the typical Filipino family is, the eldest is the one who sacrifices for the younger siblings. So I told my mother ‘Why don’t I follow you and go to Hong Kong and work?’” Bacani added.

Zobel de Ayala then asked, “So you go to Hong Kong, you work with your mother, how did photography come to you? How did you start discovering that component of your life?”

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“She’s been in Hong Kong for 22 years and she only learned how to use the MTR last year,” reveals Bacani.

“That’s how much sacrifice she has done, so she never really saw Hong Kong. So I picked up a camera, and I realized, ‘Why not show it to her? Why not show her Hong Kong through my photography?’ she added.  “So she was the main reason why I became a photographer. I became her eye.”

“And what was your first camera?” asked Zobel de Ayala. Bacani hesitated. 

“It was, uh… an SLR?” 

“Yes?” Zobel de Ayala prodded, smiling.

“I cannot mention the brand, I have a contract!”

The audience erupted in laughter again.

The evening was a continuous banter of serious topics that were regularly interspersed with humor from Zobel de Ayala and Bacani. When Zobel de Ayala insisted on Bacani’s first camera, the latter obliged to tell a backstory.

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“It’s a funny story, actually!” she began. “I told my mother that I wanted to have a camera and I wanted to be a photographer, and she said, ‘Photography is only for rich people,’ those were her words.” 

Bacani continued, “Being the stubborn child, I asked our boss. ‘Can you lend me some money so I buy a camera?’ Fortunately, my boss is an amazing woman, and she lent me some money and I bought a camera.” 

“The defining moment was when I got fired from my job” 

“When did you realize that your passion was turning into something else?” asked an audience member to Bacani. “Was there a defining moment?”

“The defining moment was when I got fired from my job!” answered Bacani.

“And which job was that?” Zobel de Ayala asked.

“My domestic worker job. They fired me,” Bacani admits, smiling. “It was a funny story!”

“When I got the Magnum Foundation Fellowship, it came out on the papers, it was on the Internet, it was everywhere,” explained Bacani. “I did not tell my employer, Mrs. Louey. So when she read it on the papers, she immediately came home and talked to me. She’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ 

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“I was scared that I was not going to be able to help my family again,” said Bacani. “ So I told her I didn’t really want to go, and she was like, ‘Well, you’re fired. You have to go, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.’”

 “I don’t really care about recognition, but it’s important”

When asked about whether recognition for her art is harder to come by from Filipinos, Bacani confesses that she feels ambiguous about it.

“I don’t really care about recognition,” Bacani said. “My mother never cares about that. Like if I said, ‘Ma, I’m on the 100 BBC Women of the World!” she’d be like, “Did they pay you?” This prompted laughter from Zobel de Ayala.

“She’s always like that!” pressed Bacani.  “It’s not that recognition is not important. It’s important that we pave the way for creatives, for artists, for Filipinos to dream that there’s more. That they will be able to create, that they will be able to be someone else in their own country that they don’t need to go out just to be recognized, so I think that’s my point here.”

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About The Author
Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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