Mitzi Borromeo radiates sunshine. She’s warm and glorious and she lights up the room, and the best part of it is she is blissfully unaware of it. We are spending the weekend at the exclusive Eskaya resort on Panglao Island in Bohol, a short ride but a world away from the pulsating beats of the tourist filled clubs on Alona Beach.
The sky has been dark and gray all afternoon, and we have been in a general stupor, watching the raindrops puncture the glassy surface of our pool from the luxurious, sprawling deck of Balai Datu. Mitzi had been on air earlier that morning as a presenter a news channel, so she arrives on a later flight than ours, her energy electric, as she plops herself down on a daybed with the rest of us. She recounts how her flight had been circling the Tagbilaran airport due to poor visibility, with the pilot announcing the possibility of heading back to Manila.
“But it didn’t happen and I’m here,” she says cheerily. It’s all good.
Mitzi’s irrepressible spirit has sent her wandering about five continents and settling down in three of them.
A few minutes later, on the way to dinner, instead of waiting for a second electric car to pick her up, she decides to stand on the back of ours, hanging on to the luggage rails. It’s just a few minutes, no big deal, she reasons, her voice disappearing in the rain and wind.
Mitzi has always been a tomboy, she later declares. Perhaps it was her way of rebelling, of being the antithesis of her larger-than-life mother, Myrna Panlilio, the very first Miss Philippines-Universe from way back in 1964 and who never let anyone forget it (“I was always so embarrassed,” says Mitzi), always so feminine and fragrant with floral perfume.
Mitzi in Babuyan Islands in 2001 for a humpback whale research survey; on board Lory Tan’s catamaran Lumba Lumba with marine mammal veterinarians Dr. Ari Bautista and Dr. Jom Acebes
Or perhaps it was because Mitzi and her favorite neighbor and playmate Robbie were left to their own devices when they were children, playing in the street with their dogs, Ruffles and Maya, or crossing into their neighbors’ grand estate behind wrought iron gates, which had a lush garden and an aviary filled with multicolored parrots, pheasants, and a peacock.
It was through these childhood explorations that Mitzi first fell in love with
nature, flora and fauna, creatures large and small.
“We felt like we were stepping into another world. It was as if we had to hold our breath and keep quiet, lest we destroy the magical spell,” says Mitzi of the enchanted garden. In her own backyard, Mitzi was fascinated by baby birds that had fallen from trees. Their gardener, Mang Tony, showed her how to make substitute nests from margarine containers lined with dried grass.
“I came to understand the concepts of transience and impermanence,” Mitzi writes in an essay for a creative writing class. “I was devastated each time I was faced with the death of the creatures I cared for and grew to love dearly. Mom and Dad were always very busy and mostly out of the house all day. It was Mang Tony and the household helpers who consoled me as I bawled, explaining how all things eventually pass.”
Whales briefly surfacing during a trip to Bohol in 2000
“I think about how my experiences of pain, loss, and grief have scarred and chipped me to the bone. But I also think about how such experiences have renewed me."
Mitzi was 10 years old when her father Ramon, an orthopedic surgeon, died of hemorrhagic pancreatitis only a few months after diagnosis. Mitzi and her mother had been living in the U.S. at the time. (“My parents had apparently been separated, but I didn’t know it,” says Mitzi. I lived with my mom in New Jersey and my siblings, RJ and Trisha, stayed with my dad in Manila.”) The last time Mitzi had seen her father was when he had brought them to the Manila airport three years earlier. After his death, Mitzi and Myrna moved back home to Manila to be with RJ and Trisha.
When Mitzi was a young adult of 25, another death in the family. This time, it was Trisha, of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Six years later, it was Myrna, who passed away suddenly of what was believed to be a heart attack. And then it was just RJ, Mitzi, and RJ’s daughter Sammi left, now 13, “our little adolescent,” Mitzi calls her.
“How did I deal with it? I just did,” Mitzi says simply, her eyes not losing their sparkle. “Why wallow in grief ? I always think that we are still lucky, that we have what we have. I still I have my extended family. I keep busy with work. I throw all my energy into that. Working in my field, I’ve seen so many people who really have nothing. There are so many people who need so much more.”
“I think about how my experiences of pain, loss, and grief have scarred and chipped me to the bone,” Mitzi writes in her essay. “But I also think about how such experiences have renewed me. Life really is short, we must make the most of this one shot at living, and allow the spirit to roam wild and free. “
Mitzi’s irrepressible spirit has sent her wandering about five continents and settling down in three of them, moving 15 times, soon to be 16, as she happily settles into a home of her very own, in the same complex as RJ and Sammi, not too far from their childhood home.
“I’m really excited. It’s like having my own little nest,” she says of the apartment unit she recently purchased for herself and for all her stuff. She is a self-confessed hoarder.
Concert tickets, boarding passes, glass coasters, restaurant napkins, and other souvenirs of happy evenings. Letters, old magazines, clothing tags. And her prized possessions: rocks and shells from her childhood, an old coin from Ecuador, broken pieces of fiery coral from Krabi, Thailand, smooth stones from Lake Geneva, dried leaves from hikes around Japan.
“I look at these items as pieces of me, representations of myself at various stages of life,” says Mitzi. “They remind me of where I’ve been and where I want to go, so that I never lose my sense of home.”
After graduating with a degree in Political Science at Ateneo de Manila University in 1998, Myrna persuaded Mitzi to join a news workshop at the Sarimanok News Network (SNN), a new 24-hour TV channel. She was later offered a job as a news presenter and morning program host.
At about the same time, Mitzi also took on an unpaid volunteer position at the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), working with membership services and communications. Less than a year later, she left the bright lights of television for a full-time job at the WWF. As she says, it wasn’t just tree hugging and saving whales, but it was about the environment, going down to the grassroots, working with communities on the ground. It was right up her alley. It involved science, nature, and exploration, three things closest to her heart.
In 2001, Mitzi headed to the offices of WWF International in Switzerland for a secondment, an exchange program of sorts, and a few months later, got a job as a press officer. There, she worked on issues such as climate change and freshwater conservation.
“They were already forecasting climate change problems back then. It was a key global issue. But people weren’t paying attention. Environmental problems weren’t top of mind back then,” says Mitzi. “Our press releases always said the same thing. There were so many warnings. But like in life, you hear these warnings and you don’t pay attention. You don’t heed warnings about a heart attack until you actually get one, until you actually feel it. And now we’re really feeling it. The world is finally paying attention.”
With Buddy Zabala and Ely Buendia of the Eraserheads for a WWF-hosted concert back in 2000; during an outdoor expedition in Okinawa in 2006.
From 2005 to 2007, Mitzi was back in Asia, working with the United Nations University for Advanced Studies in Yokohama. She worked with technical researchers on sustainable development issues. Her work was to humanize their research and make them more understandable to the general public.
Then came the opportunity to move back home to the Philippines. Over the years, she had worked with several women as passionate about environmental issues as she was, and together they put together an agency called Creative Cross Border Productions (CCB), which produces documentaries and other media that focus on social development issues.
“We primarily work on corporate projects with an educational objective,” says Mitzi. “We help them with their corporate social responsibility programs. More than environmental awareness, we also work on science education and health issues.”
One of their earlier projects was helping a pharmaceutical firm develop a campaign for a vaccine against cervical cancer. They also did an interactive video for UNICEF and the Department of Education to raise awareness on sexually transmitted infections. A project Mitzi is extremely proud of developing is the first Philippine-produced documentary series, “Street Smart,” on the science of food, for National Geographic channel Philippines.
“We did months of research for episodes that ran for just a few minutes,” says Mitzi. “We read volumes of material. We interviewed so many people. We learned so much.”
For Conservation International, the group developed the My Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape series, children’s picture books focusing on marine preservation. Mitzi wrote two of the books, Ray of Light (illustrated by Ruben de Jesus) and The Gift of a Stranger (illustrated by Mark Salvatus). The bilingual books were distributed to children in coastal communities, and Mitzi and her team did storytelling sessions to develop awareness on the importance of preserving their marine environment.
For a documentary on the Tubbataha reefs, Mitzi and her team took a dangerous 18-hour trip via banca on open seas.
“I was devastated each time I was faced with the death of the creatures I cared for and grew to love dearly. It was Mang Tony and the household helpers who consoled me as I bawled, explaining how all things eventually pass.”
“I really thought we were going to die,” says Mitzi, shaking her head in hindsight. “But we really didn’t have the budget to pay for a bigger boat. In this field, you really have to be passionate about what you do. You don’t get paid well, so you really have to love it. I really love it.”
And while her work hasn’t made her wealthy financially, it’s certainly brought her an abundance of experiences, which she says, are priceless.
She recalls visits to the Amazon rainforests of Brazil, meeting with communities, when she was working on stories on fresh water issues, prior to the World Summit for Sustainable Development. Or a trip to South Africa, to KwaZulu-Natal also for water issues, where the Wetlands were under threat.
“We went to see how nonprofits were helping to empower communities, particularly women, how they were educating them on these preservation issues,” she says. “We got to explore the places and to meet really interesting people.”
Yet after traveling all over the world, Mitzi says some of the most exotic places she saw while she worked with WWF are in the Philippines.
Biodiverse and beautiful Bohol
“Bohol, this precious, beautiful place, is a hotspot for biodiversity,” she says of the province we are in. She reminisces about a WWF trip to the island paradise of nearby Pamilacan and of many dive trips to the spectacular underwater cliffs of Balicasag, just off Panglao Island, with her cousins.
“In terms of marine habitats, the Philippines is really the center of marine biodiversity,” she says. “Some of the most beautiful dive spots in the world are in Batangas, Tubbataha, and Bohol. We don’t need to travel far really. We’re already here.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Town&Country Philippines.