Old Town Meets New Blood
BY GRACE BAUTISTA
CARIGARA, LEYTE’S 26-YEAR-OLD MAYOR EDUARDO ONG JR. IS DETERMINED TO ELEVATE THE 452-YEAR-OLD MUNICIPALITY
Founded in January 1571, the Municipality of Carigara, Leyte was the first town established in the Eastern Visayas region. In its nearly 500 years of existence, the town has seen its fair share of public servants come and go—starting, of course, with the leader after whom it was named.
As legend goes, Carigara was founded by a certain Datu Gara who landed on the bay with his 77-member clan. The town came to be called ‘Kan Gara (Belonging to Gara)’ but its name evolved into Carigara when the Spaniards arrived.
IN WITH THE NEW
Long gone is the era of the early settlers and Spaniards, and now at the helm is Mayor Eduardo Ong Jr. At 26 years old, Ong is one of the youngest local chief executives in the country. With his fresh take on public service, the mayor is resolute in clearing cobwebs, revitalizing the town, and getting rid of old, outdated practices.
Less than a week before this year’s observance of Black Saturday, Ong decided to cancel a 400-year-old tradition which is the Turogpo Festival. Named after the Waray word meaning “to meet,” the festival involves three animal fighting events. Two carabaos fight each other in the Pasungay, two horses battle each other in the Paaway, and lastly, 49 roosters (representing the town’s 49 barangays) are pitted against each other in one big fight until the sole surviving rooster is declared the winner in the Carambola.
Despite the backlash from canceling the event, Ong went ahead with his decision, citing the Animal Welfare Act of 1998. In its official statement, the municipal government cited Section 6 of the law:
“It shall be unlawful for any person to torture any animal, to neglect to provide adequate care, sustenance, or shelter, or maltreat any animal or to subject any dog or horse to dog fights or horse fights, kill or cause or procure to be tortured or deprived of adequate care, sustenance, or shelter, or maltreat or use the same in research experiments not expressly authorized by the Committee on Animal Welfare.”
Instead of the animal fighting events, Ong decided that a mass and a short program will make for a more meaningful celebration. While he received criticism from older citizens who were used to the centuries-old event, the mayor also received much praise from animal lovers all over the country, not to mention the regional office of the Department of Agriculture (DA) which coordinated with the local government unit in addressing concerns regarding said festival.
“Even when I was still vice mayor, I was already pushing for the cancellation of the animal fighting] events. It’s against policy. I understand where the public backlash was coming from; they’re used to the festival and its accompanying traditions. But we have to cancel the Turogpo Festival because it’s unlawful; we have to follow the national law,” Ong says matter-of-factly.
Ong’s decisions, however, are not solely fueled by the need to follow laws. Despite his seemingly stoic persona, his actions reveal his genuine compassion for his people.
Last June 18, 2022, the local government held a Pride celebration for the LGBTQIA+ community of Carigara. Titled “Inclusivity and Acceptance: Carigara Embraces Pride in All Colors,” the celebration started with an “Understanding SOGIESC Seminar” held in the LGU Function Hall. This was followed by the Pride march around Carigara’s town proper. Afterward, a concert was held at the LGU grounds and included performances by local artists who are also members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
While the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression (SOGIE) Equality Bill continues to be a divisive topic at all levels of government, Ong laments the misconception behind the bill which prevents it from being pushed forward to enactment.
“When they say SOGIE Bill, they automatically assume that it’s only about gay marriage, which isn’t true. What the bill is pushing for is equality in all areas, including but not limited to job opportunities. Right now, whether we like it or not, the [LGBTQIA+] community is still not fully accepted. I see this both in government and the private sector. This is why it is important for this bill to be pushed in Congress,” Ong stresses.
Carigara was among the LGUs praised by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) for its Pride Month celebration (which the local government plans to hold yearly) and for approving a resolution that “promotes equal rights and condemns discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community.”
In a statement, CHR Executive Director Jacqueline Ann de Guia said that the commission “appreciates the initiatives of these LGUs to mainstream the plight of the vulnerable LGBTQIA+ and ensure a safe and enabling space in their respective jurisdictions.”
FOLLOWING HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS
While the mayor is not afraid to blaze his own path and make his own decisions for the town, he is also humble enough to admit that plenty of what he knows about public service (and what drew him to it) came from his father, Eduardo “Boy” Ong Sr. “My father was my role model and his involvement in government is what introduced our family to public service and its many aspects,” he reveals. However, much of what the younger Ong has learned from his father was not through words per se, but rather just by witnessing him render service firsthand. Ong shares that their family as a whole has a very introverted nature and that his father was a man of a few words—a demeanor, he quips, he may have inherited. Ong’s foray into governance began when he approached his father with his desire to run as councilor. It didn’t take much convincing from the senior Ong for him to run as vice mayor instead, in tandem with his father who was then gunning for the mayoralty. They clinched both positions and ran the town as a duo.
When asked about the experience of being a vice mayor under his father, Ong shares: “Actually, it went smoothly because we agree on a lot of things so we hardly clashed on any decision. His executive plans complemented our legislative decisions, and vice versa, so we barely had any problems.”
In the recent 2022 elections, the father-son tandem exchanged positions, and Ong Jr. found himself as the mayor, once again with his father by his side. Unfortunately, Ong Sr. passed away on December 7 last year due to cardiac arrest. The 66-year-old had served as Carigara’s local chief executive for three terms.
With his father’s passing, Ong remains true to his quiet nature but shares that his father, who he looks up to, imbued him with the value of integrity as a public servant. The mayor says that his decisiveness and strong political will stem from this lesson. He also inherited his father ’s “talk less, work more” mantra, for which he is grateful because it continues to guide him to focus on the municipality rather than the politics or the noise.
“Politics will always find a way to affect work, to interfere with governance. Even with the smallest of decisions. But I don’t let it undermine my decision-making as a leader,” Ong underscores.
The De La Salle University (DLSU) alumnus aims to implement innovative solutions to address the town’s existing problems and to prevent future issues from emerging. His bachelor’s degree in Management shines through as he launched several programs, some of which he began during his time as vice mayor.
As an example, the computer literacy program teaches basic computer skills to elementary students with the help of Eastern Visayas State University (EVSU) Carigara Campus students who are majoring in Information Technology (IT). The program, which began prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, proved useful as the global health emergency shifted education to take on an online approach to curb the spread of the virus.
Ong also shares that the local government is currently in talks with the national government, particularly the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for land reclamation, citing similar projects like the area of the Mall of Asia (MOA) in Pasay City.
“With the added space, we hope to invite more investors which, in turn, will yield more livelihood and job opportunities for the people of Carigara,” Ong says, addressing the congestion in the business districts in Leyte province and the lack of commercial space in their town.
Some concerns, the mayor explains, require simple solutions. As such, he has provided Php200,000 worth of financial assistance to all 49 barangays in the municipality to help the barangays with their proposed projects. “Tungkod (Cane) Tuesdays” is another project that he launched long ago but is continuing now as mayor; to provide canes to senior citizens and persons with disability. (PWDs).
“[Giving them canes] is such a simple gesture, but it creates such a big impact in their lives because it helps with their mobility. I personally oversee the turnover every week because the project means a lot to me,” the mayor adds.
Another simple project with big results is the initiative to distribute 1,500 chessboards to young children across the town. Apart from keeping the children entertained, to keep them off the streets and turning to vices or illegal activities, Ong shares that chess exercises their minds. Another added bonus is that the project keeps the dying art of chess alive.
Ong has plenty of projects centered on the youth and making sure that they stay active and focused, such as the distribution of basketball rings and boards, and volleyball nets. But the mayor has also concretized roads, built covered courts and health centers, and launched more infrastructure projects that benefit thousands in their dayto- day living.
With all of these efforts, the mayor hopes to elevate the municipality from its status as a second-class municipality to first-class. Still, Ong is aware that achieving such would not mean the end of the problems in their municipality.
“No LGU is perfect and there will always be problems in every town. But what I can promise the people of Carigara is that we’ll face these problems together,” Ong ends.