Toppled in a 2001 uprising after charges of corruption, deposed Philippines president and former film actor Joseph Ejercito Estrada, 69, is under house arrest at his 18-ha ranch about two hours’ drive east of Manila. The ranch has a 200 sq metre museum, a library and a 60-seat theatre.
What inspired you to develop the ranch?
It was on a visit to then-California governor Ronald Reagan’s ranch in Santa Barbara. I thought it was a good idea to have a place to retire in. At that time Santa Barbara was the sister city of San Juan, of which I was mayor [from 1969 to 1986]. I remember coming to look at this property in December 1969 and it was really cool, like Baguio [the Philippines’ summer capital] but not as far. Plus I bought it cheap and had three years to pay. When Reagan became a US president I said to myself: “If the most powerful nation in the world can elect a movie actor, there is no reason the Philippines cannot.” I also got a lot of ideas for the construction of this ranch from Reagan’s. I really was planning to work on this when I retired. The roofs use similar tiles and some façades, especially the one on the main house, are similar. There is a bronze statue of me at the entrance of my museum, just like Reagan’s. The government gave me the option to live abroad but I couldn’t turn my back on the 11m people who voted for me, so I asked my lawyer to appeal for my detention here.
Eighteen hectares is a lot of land. What have you built and what other additions are planned?
It wasn’t always like this. I used to live in a three-level, one-bedroom villa surrounded by gardens that I built in 1970. This is where I stayed before all this was developed. I also had a 14-room mini-hotel to accommodate my kids, relatives and friends. And I opened the property to the public for picnics, camping and for military exercises. Today I keep the villa and hotel for the memories. There is a billiards table and an electronic organ so my wife [Senator Luisa Estrada] can play music for me. It has an entertainment area inspired by local architectural design. Aside from the main house, I have the lagoon that I created by building a dam that collects rainwater. I also have a piggery and poultry farm that creates a livelihood programme for more than 165 neighbouring families, organic vegetable gardens and a stable. In two weeks the fishing village will be complete. It has three levels of fish ponds where I will raise mud fish and catfish. We have a built-in pit for roasting calf, stations for grilling fish and chicken, plus a central dining gazebo overlooking the ponds. I am also working on the gardens with nine full-time gardeners. When you’re imprisoned like this, you think of so many things and I end up keeping very busy. Right now this is my home and it is my favourite because among all my homes this is where I have been most hands-on.
When you are free to go and if you ever take back the presidency, what will become of this place?
It will be our Camp David. I intend to open this place to the public so people can do research and we can conduct seminars on local government. It can also be a tourist spot because the air is so clean. In the museum people can see my career from actor to mayor to senator to vice-president then president and now prisoner. There are various representations of my commitment to the country – a carabao [water buffalo] for my commitment to farmers; indigenous tribal exhibits; the lowly Jeepney [a form of small bus based on Chrysler’s Jeep] for the masses. At the same time, I am hoping that with this history will vindicate me. When I was at my lowest point, the elite and Catholic Church, headed by the late Cardinal Sin, threw everything at me including the kitchen sink. Today the Philippines is a land without Sin. I come from the entertainment business and have made 165 films that we can show here. Currently we show visitors To Live for the Masses, a documentary of my life banned by the government. I owe all my success to the masses.
Tell us about your cowboy western saloon, built in memory of Fernando Poe Jr, a recent presidential candidate.
FPJ was known as the John Wayne of the Philippines. Our first picture was a local western film and we popularised that genre. He was my friend for 40 years and even held off making films to help me campaign from the time I was mayor. He never asked for anything in return. The only thing I asked of him when I was imprisoned was that if he became president he would give me a fair trial. He died of a heart attack shortly after he lost the election to Gloria Arroyo.
Why did you put an open-air memorial on this property and why have you decided to be buried alone, which is unusual in Philippine tradition?
On a single large marble wall, I have a beautiful saying with a large bronze cameo of myself. In Filipino, it says: “No one can help Filipinos except fellow Filipinos.” I want to be buried alone outdoors. I want to be close to nature. Even in the designs of my homes, indoor spaces open to outdoor spaces like gardens or terraces. I don’t want to have a neighbour. If my family wants to come to visit my tomb on religious holidays, how can they concentrate on praying if there are so many other people around them? I put a simple rock to sit on underneath a tree because I’ve been coming to this shady spot since 1996. God said “I am the light” so I pray here every morning facing the light for 45 minutes to an hour. All my prayers have been answered but the one thing God didn’t tell me was that I’d be imprisoned here.
Get alerts on House & Home when a new story is published