Winning the Hearts of MADRIDANONS
A self-described “outsider” and neophyte, Lopez won Madridanons over by focusing on uplifting the town and not letting politics surpass merit.
By Miguel Sirios
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROMEO PERALTA, JR.
While many young businessmen would rather stay in their comfort zone, Madrid, Surigao del Sur Mayor Juan Paolo Lopez chose to lend his leadership capabilities for the betterment of the people in his new
hometown. His decision has proven to be a good one, as he has successfully started to unlock the town’s and the townspeople’s potentials.
Lopez was born and raised in Mexico, Pampanga, to parents who both made a career in the field of business. In his younger years, politics was an idea that never crossed his mind, let alone running for office in a distant town in the southern part of the country.
“My parents are businessmen, so the way I was trained growing up was really in a business setting,” says Lopez. Just like his parents, he was focused on entrepreneurship, graduating with a degree in Entrepreneurial Management from the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P).
Following a business opportunity that came in 2017, Lopez traveled across the country and opened a construction company in Surigao del Sur, where he later decided to relocate permanently. He recalls that one of his first memorable experiences in Madrid was during a fiesta celebration that embodied the warm and accommodating nature of Madridanons.
“Nagulat ako noong nandoon ako, 2017. Nagsabi sa‘kin ‘yung driver, ‘Sir, gusto mong mamiesta? Kasi fiesta yung dinadaanan namin eh.’ ‘Mag-lunch tayo, ‘pwede ba?’ sabi ko. Hininto niya ‘yung sasakyan tapos kumain kami sa isang bahay. Kahit ‘di kami kilala nung tao, pinapasok kami at pinakain kami. Basta bawal lang ang take-out (I was surprised when I was there in 2017. My driver asked me, ‘Sir, do you want to join the fiesta?’ to which I replied, ‘Can we partake of the food?’ He pulled over and we ate in a stranger’s
home. They didn’t know us but they welcomed and fed us. The only rule was no take-outs).”
STEPPING UP FOR MADRID
Despite being an “outsider” to the town and a newcomer in the field of politics, Lopez was eager to fight for the development of his new hometown. This made him decide to run against the thenincumbent
mayor, who was gunning for a third consecutive term.
“Challenger kasi ako eh, incumbent ‘yung kalaban ko (I was a challenger, I ran against the incumbent),” Lopez recalls the disadvantaged position he was in.
Despite being an “outsider” to the town and a newcomer in the field of politics, Lopez was eager to fight for the development of his new hometown.
“My opponents tried to dissuade people from voting for me, sabi nila: ‘Si Paolo, hindi Lumad. Hindi pinanganak dito.’ Pero sa mga tao na sumusuporta sa’kin, kahit isang beses di ko naramdaman na ‘outsider’ ako (they said: ‘Paolo isn’t a Lumad. He is not a local born here.’ But not once did I feel like an outsider because of the people who support me). I felt like I belonged because of the love of the Madridanons,” Lopez shares. He adds that his opponents would often speak in Tagalog, while he communicated with the people in Bisaya, a skill he learned even prior to entering politics: “Most of the people I interacted with in my construction business spoke in Bisaya. A language barrier would make things difficult for everyone so I took the challenge and learned the language.” But the people clamored for a new breed of leaders. Upon the encouragement of his brother-in-law, who was a congressman,
and his sister, who was also a mayor of Cantilan, he was inspired to file his certificate of candidacy for the May 2022 elections. No campaign is smooth-sailing but Lopez found that the key to politics is to remain natural and true to one’s self. While politics may be a game also determined by charm and wit, the mayor stresses that ‘putting on a face’ is unnecessary. “If you have to ‘adjust’ your personality, then that means you are not fully comfortable. There was no adjustment for me; I just had to be myself. The people will really appreciate it if you’re sincere and they can tell if you’re genuine,” he says. Following his victory, Lopez thought that the next obstacle he had to face would be how to have a good working relationship with the municipal staff who served under the previous mayor. He believed that the municipal staff were loyal to the mayor he defeated since she served for six years.
But when he assumed office, the neophyte mayor realized that it wasn’t difficult to win the municipal staff’s hearts. Lopez emphasized that as long as they cooperate and work for the best interest of the Madridanons, then they can all coexist and work harmoniously. He ended up retaining them based on
their own merit, much to the relief of those who feared losing their jobs for not supporting him during the election.
FRUITFUL FIRST 100 DAYS
Beyond winning the hearts of the municipal employees, Lopez has won the hearts of Madridanons for his
projects and overall vision for the town.
As leader of a municipality with thousands of hectares of farmlands, Lopez wants to put a premium on
agriculture and the farmers. He compares the situation of the local farmers with their counterparts in
other countries. “Sa America, ang mga magsasaka, ‘yan ‘yung mayayaman (In America, the farmers are the rich ones),” he shares.
In his first 100 days in office, one of the young mayor’s achievements was forging a partnership with the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Land Bank of the Philippines to acquire the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF).
The fund helped a group of Madridanon farmers to loan money for only 2 percent interest, bolstering their buying power and allowing them to buy their own palay (unhusked rice). Lopez explains that this protects the farmers who are often at the mercy of cartels that determine unfair prices: “Our farmers often have no choice and are forced to sell to cartels according to their determined rate. With RCEF, they
now have the capability to buy their own palay and they end up earning more. They were also able to buy farm inputs— fertilizers, pesticides—in bulk and sell to their members for a much lower rate than they normally get.”
Lopez is proud to share that their town is the first in the Caraga Region to access this fund and that the local government is currently working on accessing more funds with the help of the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) in order to help more farmers in the near future.
By partnering with the national government agencies and institutions, the mayor aims to provide sustainable support to the three farmer clusters in their town and provide livelihood to more Madridanons.
He shares that with the help of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) Regional Office, they were able to launch Sustainable Livelihood Programs (SLP) worth Php2 million. Each barangay enrolled in the program is given Php350,000 to start their own negosyo (micro-enterprise). In addition, he reveals that another Php2 million is in the works to expand the reach of the program.
Lopez adds that he is also grateful for the assistance provided by our country’s leaders, citing the likes of Senator Koko Pimentel, Speaker of the House of Representatives Congressman Ferdinand Romualdez, Senator Bong Go, and LAKAS-CMD Secretary General Representative Prospero Butch Pichay who each gave funds that were allocated towards Madridanons’ financial assistance requests, such as for burial
and medical needs.
STRENGTHENING TOURISM & CHILDREN OF MADRID
Although Madrid has its fair share of tourism sites, Lopez has a challenge for himself and their local tourism office: “Bakit ka babalik sa (Why would you go back to) Madrid?”
This simple question is driving the team as they are in “R&D (Research & Development).” Lopez reveals that they aim to create a product or event that will put Madrid on the national (even global) map. For starters, the town is about to celebrate the Magdadaro Festival this coming May, a fiesta dedicated to farmers.
While the festival has been celebrated since 2016 (only halted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the
recent years), the mayor wishes to make it a bigger event that rivals that of Cebu’s Sinulog, Baguio’s Panagbenga, or Bacolod’s MassKara.
Lopez shares that they are launching the Madrid Loop during the fiesta which will kick-off on May 11. The Madrid Loop invites motorcycle riders from all over the country to ride around the towns of Surigao and Agusan. It starts and ends in their town, thus the name of the event. H e shares that they expect up to a thousand riders participating in the event.
Another festival event is the Badlit Street Party, named after the ancient writing system but is colloquially known for painting on someone, which will be conducted near the plaza. Lopez also aims
to recognize Madridanons who have brought prestige to the town through the Balik Madrid event.
Lastly, they will also have a “Halang-halang” cooking contest. The term literally means spicy, but it is also a cooking style much like ginataan (cooked with coconut milk). He shares that one preferred version is the Chicken Halang-Halang that he hopes would put their town in people’s radar, to parallel Vigan’s
longganisa or Bicol’s laing.
Aside from the festival, Lopez shares that they are developing an agri-tourism zone in Barangay Union which features fish ponds. Prior to his election, these fish ponds were illegal as they were in the location of an existing tourist site. He, however, turne the situation around and not only legitimized their existence, but
also maximized them by allowing tourists to picnic and fish in the area.
“It’s a win-win. People get to keep their livelihood and people get to enjoy the agri-tourist spot,” he explains simply. It is this inclusive approach that helps the town be noticed by national government agencies. In March, Lopez went to Manila because their town was the recepient of a grant by the Department of Health (DOH) and DSWD, in partnership with UNICEF and the World Bank, which focuses on combatting malnutrition and stunting among children. Lopez says, “Malnutrition and stunting is a nationwide problem that we have to address as early as possible because these children, as people often say, are our future. Their first 1,000 days are crucial.”
TOWARD A LEGACY OF SUSTAINABILITY
Lopez acknowledges that under his term, Madrid can only be given so much help. He believes that the government cannot keep doling out things to its people without training them, and he considers the programs from national government agencies as mere stepping stones for farmers to learn from.
In his efforts to make agriculture a more sustainable livelihood for farmers, the Municipality of Madrid was able to establish cooperatives, eliminating the need for middlemen and giving cooperatives the power to buy from their members. Through this, markets are able to set better prices without depriving farmers of a fair profit.
Lopez is sure that sustainability, not just in the field of agriculture, is possible because of the different
programs and initiatives he has started. With this, when asked how he visualizes Madrid three years
from now, he humbly utters, “successful.”
Still, Lopez wants to repay his constituents even more. Beyond working hard to ensure their economic
and social welfare, he also wants to leave them with a secure leadership when the time comes for him to step aside. “I want to [guide promising Madridanons into becoming the] same type of leader [as I am] who can also lead the people, so that when I’m gone, they can stand on their own,” Lopez shares.