This Mindanao Mayor Beat the Odds With Resilience, Diversity

Zamboanga Mayor Beng Climaco-Salazar pushes for inclusivity in government.
IMAGE Nasser Fernando Hadjula

Zamboanga City Mayor Maria Isabelle ‘Beng’ Climaco-Salazar went up against Celso Lobregat in the last mayoral election, a powerful and influential personality who had served as city mayor from 2004 to 2013.

“We used to be party mates and I strongly supported (Celso in the past) but such is politics. Everything will work according to God’s plan," said Climaco-Salazar, Zamboanga's chief executive since 2013, who emerged victorious in the recent mayoral elections.

Climaco-Salazar had served as vice mayor during Lobregat’s term as mayor, and in 2013, Lobregat asked Climaco-Salazar to run for mayor, since he was running for Congress. 

Come 2016, it became obvious the two were on a collision course: Lobregat wanted to return as city mayor. Climaco-Salazar was decided she was running for a second term. Lobregat was forced to run for another term in Congress.

The two camps eventually fielded their own slates to fill the various local elective positions.

The recent May elections in Zamboanga City brought the two political clans into direct opposition against each other: Lobregat's grandfather, Pablo Lobregat, was former Mayor of Zambonga and a representive to the first Philippine Assembly. His mother, Maria Clara Lobregat, was the city's first female mayor who was also congressman of Zamboanga. Throughout Maria Clara's long political career, she had lost only once, in 1984, when she ran for the Batasang Pambansa. She was defeated by Cesar Climaco, Climaco-Salazar’s uncle, one of the most visible, and loudly heard, opponents of the Marcos dictatorship. 

Climaco-Salazar said she had once dreamed of following in her uncle’s footsteps but realized she should follow her own path instead. “I am my own person and I must find my own identity.”  She worked as news anchor for a local television station in the city in the 1990s. She is married to Gen Trifonio Salazar (ret.): “My husband is 18 years older than I, and I got married at the age of 42, he is now 71.” 

Photo by Nasser Fernando Hadjula.

Zamboanga Siege

Not many mayors experience the grave tension of armored personnel carriers loaded with heavily armed soldiers rolling over their city’s streets to quell a rebellion, or have to deal with the fallout of urban warfare the way Climaco-Salazar had to: Just months into her first term as mayor, she woke up to the opening fusillades of the Zamboanga Siege.

On Sept. 9, 2013, a group of ‘rogue’ members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) attempted to raise their own standard on the flag pole in front of the Zamboanga City Hall.

That act of rebellion resulted in clashes between those MNLF members and the military and the city’s police force that lasted for six weeks. It resulted in the displacement of about 100,000 city residents and the destruction of property worth billions of pesos. From Climaco-Salazar’s estimates, Zamboanga City lost P331 million daily under that siege—roughly P7.9 billion over the 23 days it lasted.

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“With the grace of God, the city was able to bounce back better,” she said of the aftermath of the Zamboanga Siege.

Now on her third term, Climaco-Salazar believes her administration has accomplished much during the six years she’d served as city mayor: “In 2018, we had 13,000 businesses that enrolled in our one-stop shop.”

She also mentioned the thriving economy: Shopping malls sprawl across the city. Upscale restaurants have opened up shop. New capital coming outside investors is flowing into the city. Some say this is unprecedented, considering that, in the past, business expansion in Zamboanga was controlled significantly by Chinese businessmen residing in the area.

“There are more business opportunities in the city of Zamboanga now, and we have improved the business climate,” she said. Notorious for its peace and order problems in the past, Climaco-Salazar said the city has recorded zero bombings and zero kidnappings since 2016.

This city is home to people of several faiths and ethnicities: The Bisaya live cheek-to-jowl with the Chavacanos, and members of the Tausug, Yakan, Sama and indigenous peoples, including the Subanen. All of these peoples’ rich cultures and traditions are woven into the substance and fabric of Zamboanga City. It is a center of trade and is the commercial hub of the three island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

In this regard, Climaco-Salazar said inclusivity is the key to governing her constituents who are culturally and ethnically diverse people. Good, open communication is key.

Photo by Nasser Fernando Hadjula.

Women in leadership

When asked about being a woman in a leadership position, Climaco-Salazar said it is a tougher challenge for women to hold leadership positions.

“We are tested beyond what men are tested with,” she said. “It is okay for a man to enjoy spending the night in the karaoke bar, but for a woman to engage in physical fitness activities, such as in my case—I really engage in Zumba because it is an advocacy I do for breast cancer prevention—I am made fun of because I love to do Zumba as if it was a mortal sin.”

Climaco-Salazar’s cancer awareness advocacy is rooted in her mother’s death from the disease. “My mom died at the age of 48 because of cervical cancer so I champion cancer prevention,” she said, adding that she began organizing cancer prevention events when she was still a city councilor

She continues her Zumba workouts and advocacy for breast cancer awareness, nevertheless, because she prefers to lead by example: “In this kind of world that I occupy I really have to raise the bar of excellence higher.”

Despite the double-standard, Climaco-Salazar said a lot has changed in terms of providing a platform for women in governance: “Since I became mayor, we have seen an increase in female department heads,” she said. According to her, from three female department heads on her first year as mayor, Zamboanga City now has eight females among the 18 department heads in the mayor’s office.

Photo by Nasser Fernando Hadjula.

Bust a move to bust the stress

The 52-year old mayor said she enjoys Zumba “because I have learned the gift of dancing, I try to do it every day of the week if I can. It really removes my stress.” She also has “three beautiful pets at home and they serve so much comfort and joy,” while pointing to the photos of her three dogs situated in a corner of her office.

She also busts stress in the kitchen: “I enjoy washing the dishes. When you wash dishes, it’s a form also of de-stressing.”

Digitally savvy and unconventional in her music preferences, Climaco-Salazar’s playlist on Spotify is a K-Pop dream. Her favorite group is BlackPink—especially when she wants to kill time while trapped in the traffic of a quick-growing city.

“I like to listen to music but I cannot sing,” she added. “If there are activities, I want the music to be perfect. It really matters to me what you play.”

Good, healthful food also plays a key role in her stress-management strategy: “I really have to eat vegetables. I am happy if I eat lots of greens." 

The mayor said that she usually wakes up at 5:45 in the morning and sleeps at midnight.

 “I am just here to warm the seat, to give our people opportunities to be able also one day take on roles of responsibility,” Climaco-Salazar said. She was a teacher before entering politics, and she was referring to her former students, who are now stepping up to leadership posts in the city. 

This is Climaco-Salazar’s third and last term as mayor of Zamboanga City. The next three years of her administration will show her lasting impact on the community—an outcome which we have yet to see.
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About The Author
Amir Mawallil
Amir Mawallil is a Tausug writer based in Cotabato City. He is the founding chairperson of the Young Moro Professionals Network in western Mindanao.
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