The passage of time left as a blur in the minds of Zamboangueños the memory of Pelayo, the man who served Zamboanga as an appointive mayor from 1946 to 1947. Yet no history book about Zamboanga would be complete without mentioning the magnificent contribution of the man who had unselfishly served the country and this city, especially at a time when it had to re-establish a civil government after the outbreak of World War II.
Pelayo was born in the Municipality (now City) of Zamboanga, Province of Zamboanga, on August 31, 1901. His mother died when he was only five years old. He graduated from the Zamboanga Provincial High School in 1921 as the salutatorian of his class. He later enrolled at the Philippine Law School where he earned an LLB degree and graduated in 1925. He took the bar examination that same year and passed it, obtaining an average of 99% in International Law. An article in the January edition of the Weekly Graphic Magazine in 1941, entitled “Who’s Who in the Philippines,” gave an account of his early life as a young lawyer. The article said that in 1926, he settled in Davao, where he immediately set up a law office in the provincial capital. In no time, he was regarded as one of Davao’s prominent lawyers. His coterie of admirers has gotten to be so big that a political faction headed by a late governor nominated him as a candidate to the Constitutional Convention. He and his running mate Atty. Rafael Castillo, won by a wide margin.
It was at the constitutional convention that Pelayo made a courageous speech denouncing Japanese landholdings in Davao. This stand was all the more courageous considering the power of the Japanese landholders who at that time had numerous laborers under their employ.
It must be remembered that at that time, Davao was nicknamed Davaoka because it was considered as the little “Tokyo of the Philippines.” The Japanese were in control and their influence in the community was tremendous. No one dared to antagonize them. Pelayo’s denunciation of the Japanese landholdings was considered by many as his political doom. But it was Pelayo’s revelation in the convention that influenced the body to adopt the constitutional precept contained in Article 13, Section 5 of the constitution, which reads: “Save in cases of hereditary succession, no private agricultural land shall be transferred or assigned except to individuals, corporation, or association qualified to acquire or hold lands of the public domain in the Philippines.”
Pelayo’s revelation also caused the then Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Eulogio Rodriguez, to order in 1934 a full dress investigation of Japanese landholdings in Davao and other parts of Mindanao. As a result, leases of public agricultural lands which were cultivated and developed by the Japanese were ordered canceled. This almost caused an international problem with the Japanese government, and President Manuel L. Quezon had to make a trip to Tokyo. What transpired in Tokyo between President Quezon and the Japanese government was never revealed, except that the President upon his return said that there was no “Japanese problem”. The Japanese landholders were told to file motions for reconsideration regarding the cancellation of their lease contracts and applications affecting public agricultural lands. These motions remained pending and unacted upon until the outbreak of war.
Without his knowledge and without having sought the position, Pelayo was appointed City Mayor of Davao by President Manuel L. Quezon in October 1940.
The appointment was to be a major surprise for Pelayo, and for many of his detractors. Pelayo set down the policies of administration in his inaugural speech on October 12, 1940, when he emphasized that he would not tolerate vices and corruption, and promised the people a clean and honest government. To those disappointed over his appointment, he pledged “to serve them more and serve them best” (Mindanao Recorder, Special Edition, December 1940).
Pelayo’s term as mayor of Davao was cut short when World War II began. Davao was invaded by the Japanese on December 20, 1941. Mayor Pantaleon Pelayo refused to surrender to the Japanese forces and instead went to the hills together with his family. The invasion was so sudden that he did not even have time to bring with him his personal belongings, including valuable pieces of jewelry which belonged to his family. He joined the resistance movement under Col. Wendell Fertig, commanding officer of the 10th Military District USDIF.
One week after the liberation of Davao by the American forces, Pelayo returned to Davao City to reorganize the Civil Government. A few months later, President Sergio Osmeña sent him to Zamboanga to reorganize its government and to be its City Mayor.
After the defeat of Osmeña in the 1946 election, Pelayo resigned from his position as City Mayor of Zamboanga and returned to Davao to continue his law practice. He served Zamboanga for only one year.
After his retirement from public office he continued to be active in youth and civic movements. He became the president of the Hijos de Mindanao and Sulu Association. He was the president of the Davao Youth Welfare League, and was a national committee man for Mindanao in the Philippine Veterans Legion.