Benjamin Mendoza, the Bolivian artist found guilty of attempting to assassinate Pope Paul VI in Manila in 1970, spent three years and four months at the Philippine National Pentientiary in Muntinlupa before he was deported to Bolivia in 1974. He reportedly died one or two years ago. Forty-four years after the incident, people are still asking, was his attack on Pope Paul VI a real attempt of an assassin or a symbolic performance of an artist?He was the Philippines most anticipated visitor since The Beatles, who played to 80,000 fans at the Rizal Memorial Stadium for two nights in 1966. On the day of his arrival, the Manila International Airport appeared engulfed by fans and devotees, approximately six thousand of them, on balconies and control towers, on the tarmac, craning their necks. For a predominantly Catholic population, the visit of Giovanni Battista Montini — known the world over as Pope Paul VI — in November of 1970 held a far greater significance than that of the other Paul who performed with his friends John, George and Ringo some four years back.
It was the first time a Pontiff would be setting foot in one of the most staunchly Catholic countries in the world, the only predominantly Catholic one in Asia, and the lead-up to his arrival had inspired such excitement among the faithful. As soon as the Alitalia DC-8 jetliner broke into the Manila clouds and began its descent, a collective roar broke out from the airport grounds. The stage, it seemed, had been set for a performance of a magnitude that would catch the attention of the world.
Cheers and applause would greet Pope Paul VI as he emerged from the DC-8 dressed in his white robe and scarlet cloak. At an enclosed area on the tarmac awaited various local and foreign bishops, government and church officials, together with members of the First Family: President Ferdinand Marcos, his wife Imelda, and their younger daughter Irene. Irene would meet the Pope on the plane’s ramp to offer him a bouquet of white flowers while her parents shook hands with the day’s very important guest.
But there was one other performance no one expected to witness that morning.
As Paul VI strode along the red carpet greeting each of the bishops that stood in line, Bishop Anthony Dennis Galvin of Miri, Sarawak, who was standing beside the Pope, espied a man in a black sutana just as the Pontiff was about to reach out to Cardinal Stephen Kim of Korea. From among a bunch of press photographers the man appeared, slightly crouching and pushing his way in towards the Pope. Galvin remembered him initially only seemingly eager to greet the famed visitor, but the next thing the bishop saw was the black handle of a kris, about ten inches long, in the man’s right hand, about to lunge at the Holy Father.
Very quickly, solemnity had turned into chaos, pageantry into panic. A security man of the Pope, one of two present, warded off the attacker’s arm, in the process pushing him towards Galvin who, as soon as he became aware of exactly what was taking place, wrapped his arms around the attacker pulling him away from the Pontiff.
The President’s security men soon grabbed the intruder’s hands and took the man away from the bishop, before carrying him out of the scene. The Pope was safe, and appeared unruffled enough to continue to the dais and deliver his speech without a tremble in his voice.
The attacker would later be identified as Benjamin Mendoza y Amor, 35 years of age, an artist from La Paz, Bolivia. He would tell his arresting officers that same morning that he was only trying to save mankind from a Pope who, according to him, was “spreading superstition.”
Meanwhile, in London, a friend of Mendoza’s named Caroline Kennedy (not related to the former US president), a British journalist, and former wife of the artist Ben Cabrera had been watching the news and was stunned to see a very familiar face on the TV screen.
“Why on Earth would he be there? How did he get past security? Was I just imagining things? Or was it one of his surrealist jokes?” Kennedy recalls in her memoir blog, https://anywhereiwander.com/2010/01/22/memoir-blog-23-a-date-with-the-pope/ referring to the Bolivian artist whom she met in the Philippines. She tried to convince herself that it wasn’t her friend she saw, that her mind was only playing tricks on her; after all, didn’t she just receive a postcard from Mendoza days earlier with a message saying he was planning to return to his native Bolivia? But later reports would confirm that the attacker in Manila was indeed her artist friend. “I knew Benjamin disapproved of the Catholic church but he would never have gone this far.”
Who was Benjamn Mendoza? To those who knew him when he was new in Manila, the man seemed incapable of such a violent act. “Benjamin was thoughtful, gentle, if slightly morose,” wrote Kennedy, who had befriended the Bolivian the first night he visited the old bohemian haunt Los Indios Bravos in Mabini.
“He was very quiet, very reserved. He spoke in Spanish — and I speak Spanish, so [talking] wasn’t a problem,” recalls Alfredo Roces from his home in Australia. A columnist for The Manila Times during the early Marcos years, he had met Mendoza in Manila before the airport incident took place. “He wasn’t the kind of person who would tell you stories or talk a great deal.” Roces, himself an artist, thought the assassination attempt curious and unusual. “Benjamin didn’t look like the violent type. He didn’t talk radical politics. He was a very quiet man. He didn’t strike me as a terrorist out to fulfill some political mission. So I thought either this fellow was rather touched in the head, because he liked to do semi-surrealist works, too — so either touched in the head or he’s been accused of something he did not do.”
Above: Mendoza’s sketch of Filipina actress Pilar Pilapil; a work entitled “Beyond Realism.” Credits: From Isidra Reyes, with permission from Pia Pilapil; Lopez Memorial Museum Collection
Topmost: Mendoza being carried away by police officers and Manila Chronicle reporter Alex Allan; Pope Paul VI just seconds before Mendoza (in black, facing the Pontiff) would attempt to stab him). Credits: Lopez Memorial Museum Collection
“He was a very quiet and gentle man, who watched me intently,” wrote the actress Pilar Pilapil in her memoir, The Woman Without A Face. Mendoza, whom she met in 1969, was obviously smitten with her beauty that he would visit Pilapil during tapings of her ABS-CBN musical variety, This Girl Pilar, and would offer to sketch her portrait. “He was definitely not a monster,” says the former fashion designer Helena Carratala Mander, who met Mendoza sometime in 1969. “He was a kind, loving, soft, childlike man. Yes, he was peculiar, like most artists. He had such a vivid imagination, and sometimes he got carried away with it.”
He was a poet and a painter. Of a light frame and not particularly tall, Mendoza appeared both rough and refined, and in photographs seemed older than his 35 years. His features were markedly South American, a longish face, a nose that has been described as hawk-like. He possessed a pair of eyes both piercing and lost. As a young man from a poor family, he left Bolivia, a poor country like the Philippines, leaving behind his widowed mother and two brothers, and started traveling, getting by mostly on the little money he makes from his art, and through the kindness of privileged strangers who would take him under his wing.
He was a vagabond, and had been to many parts of the world before living in Yokohama for a year and a half, his last stop before he arrived in Manila exactly a year before the Pope came. Having gotten off a freighter that had landed in the South Harbor, he was met by an editor at the Daily Mirror named A.P. Sta. Ana. The painter and the newspaperman had a common friend, a Portuguese residing in Tokyo by the name of Peter Botelho. Mendoza carried with him an introductory note from Botelho requesting that the editor take care of the artist and introduce him to Manila’s art circle.
At the Army and Navy Club which would be Mendoza’s temporary quarters — he stayed as a guest of the Portuguese, a shipping officer — Sta. Ana would bring a critic from La Solidaridad gallery to take a look at Mendoza’s works which were mostly oils and watercolors. “The art critic was impressed with the collection, majority of which had morbid themes,” recalled the editor in a newspaper article he wrote the same day the attack on the Pope took place.
Religion was one subject Mendoza liked to indulge in, and Kennedy remembers one conversation where the artist told her, “You’re so lucky, Caroline, you weren’t brought up in fear. You weren’t forced to accept something you didn’t believe in. You weren’t punished for rejecting God. You weren’t threatened for questioning the Church’s motives.”
Recalling that exchange, Kennedy wrote, “I could sense he was fighting back the overwhelming urge to share his anger with everyone at Los Indios Bravos that night, but whatever lies were to be written about him some months later, Benjamin was quiet, mild- mannered, and reserved; a person who would never consider upsetting the mood of the evening.”
He had told Sta. Ana he was only staying in the Philippines for a few months but he ended up staying longer, requesting a visa renewal six times, going to Bicol and attempting to climb Mayon Volcano (he gave up halfway because of a typhoon), disappearing from Manila by the end of 1969 to spend months in the Bontoc province. There, he painted among the tribal people of the mountains with whom he might have felt an affinity, having come himself from a tribe, one called Aymaras, in South America. His first exhibition in the Philippines was at the Ato Art Gallery in Baguio, followed by a show at the National Library in Manila. “At that time in the Philippines,” recalls Alfredo Roces, “when most artists were doing very modernist work, abstracts, or doing a la Amorsolo with his farmers, Benjamin’s idea of doing ethnic groups was something new.”
At his arraignment, Mendoza arrived in military gear, carrying an infant-sized coffin containing a wax figure with an upturned crucifix, two candles and dried pasta as a reference to Italy and the Pope. Credit: Lopez Memorial Museum Collection
Mendoza was said to have an illustrous following, including the acress Shirley Maclaine who was said to own a few pieces of his works. The late Senator Ramon Mitra confessed to a newspaper reporter that he owned a painting by Mendoza, of white horses, their backs turned, jumping past a barbed wire fence, while knives stuck out from their bloodied bodies.
The artist could paint pastoral sceneries — Bontoc women preparing a meal, children frolicking in water — but then there is that other side of Mendoza, the surrealist side, the one that paints his dreams, his meditations on religion, and his explorations on sex which in his works is always portrayed as violent and terribly undignified.
In Sta. Ana’s piece about mendoza in Daily Mirror, he included a quote from an old interview where the Bolivian, putting on his poet’s hat, said, “I am a painter still unable to express with all the necessary power what lies dormant in the dark recesses of my soul and brush… Perhaps in the near future I may be able to bring to light those magical and hidden chambers that are in my heart, expressing them in my paintings with the same force with which they are expressed in my soul.”
Was November 27, 1970, that future? Could Mendoza have, that fateful morning at the airport, finally exorcised all his inner demons? By moving past the banality and restrictions of the canvas and spectacularly lunging into the realm of real life, was he able at last to set himself free?
This excerpt of “The Messenger” originally appeared in Esquire Philippines (Dec 2014-Jan 2015) and is being reprinted with permission. To read the full story, Esquire Philippines is available in newsstands nationwide and can also be purchased online via www.summitnewsstand.com.ph.