The coastal town of Masantol sits on the southwesternmost part of Pampanga, encircled by the Pampanga River. Whenever my family visited my grandparents’ fishery there, the sticky salt air would cling to my hair and skin as we rode motorboats through wetlands. Our ancestral house — which had been renovated and heightened four times due to high tides — served as my mom’s childhood home, my siblings’ summer home and mine.
Masantol holds a lot of sentiment for me, as I noticed it usually does for anyone who’s lived there at some point in their lives. It may seem like an inconspicuous town to others, but it is synonymous with abundant servings of Kapampangan food and secure family ties. Now, it also stands as a beacon of hope amidst our bustling country.
“Bagong Masantol” was Mayor Jose Antonio Bustos’s campaign tagline as he promised both ambition and results for his hometown. Mayor Ton Ton, as he is fondly known in this tight-knit town, is the youngest sitting mayor in the country at 22 years old. He acknowledged that it was no joke for a young person to be trusted with so much responsibility, yet he wore an air of certainty and firmness rarely seen at his age.
I myself was a bundle of nerves and shaky words as I sat down opposite Bustos’s leather chair and the municipality wall emblem. The throng of people and cameras we passed in his receiving area prompted my anxiety; that this was real.
But I gathered that he was also fairly new to this when he sat down and jokingly told me, “Hindi ko alam mga itatanong mo.” I assured him that there was no pressure, and it was just a casual conversation between the two of us. “Ah. Casual conversation naman pala,” he said amused. It was my go-to tactic in interviews to make people more at ease with me, but for the rest of our “casual conversation,” I was the one who felt lighter.
Bustos won the elections at 21 years old, which was the minimum age to file for candidacy. He celebrated his birthday last June 14, with the oath-taking ceremony held the day after. He did all of this while earning his economics degree from De La Salle University, Manila.
“Mindsetting ang game ng buhay. Dapat alam mo kung anong uunahin mo,” he said when asked about how he manages his time. “Don’t prioritize temporary pleasures. It’s better that you sacrifice and push more now, and then you will reap and harvest ‘yung pleasure sa bandang huli. Kung saan paglingon mo sa likod, ‘job well done’ na sa sarili mo.”
He recounted how he would campaign the whole day and study the whole night during his campaign period. “Madaling araw hanggang madaling araw lang ang tulog,” he said, which elicited laughter from everyone in the room, “kasi madaling araw din ang gising para sa kampanya ulit.”
Alam ko ngayon, ang stereotype sa Gen Z, mga tamad, babad sa social media, puro barkada, puro party. Now, let’s try to shift that perspective of the older generations and improve ourselves.
Though most Masantoleños flash with hope and pride for their young mayor, there are still some who question his intentions. When I asked what pushed him to run for office as soon as he could, he explained that it wasn’t for celebrity or his family’s legacy. “Not because I want fame as the youngest mayor elected sa year na ‘to, not because incumbent congressman ang aking ama, not for the sake na mayroong kalaban ang incumbent noon,” he answered. “The bottom-line purpose ng aking pagtakbo is to alleviate the current situation ng aming bayan.”
Through his leadership, he also aims to alter the negative connotations that surround his generation. “Alam ko ngayon, ang stereotype sa Gen Z, mga tamad, babad sa social media, puro barkada, puro party. Now, let’s try to shift that perspective of the older generations and improve ourselves.”
Bustos, part of Gen Z himself, is an advocate for his fellow youth. “Now, more than ever, we are rallying the youth to be part of the progress and change that we are establishing, because we want to lay the foundation this early. Kasi ‘yung pundasyon na itatayo at i-i-invest natin sa kabataan, ‘yan ‘yung pundasyon na tutuntungan ng susunod na generation.”
When I asked how he plans to empower the youth in Masantol, Bustos said he will materialize this investment and faith in the next generation through the education sector. “We are engaged in a two-pronged approach sa ating advocacy sa education: scholarship for students and educators’ package. Gusto natin bigyan ng incentive ang mga guro na mag-aral ulit sa higher studies — masteral or post-collegiate studies. Kung hindi naman talaga kalidad ang itinuturo ng isang guro, wala din ang scholarship,” he explained.
He also believes strengthening the education sector is vital for our country’s development. “We’re rallying for economic growth. And that, magagawa natin kung strengthened ang education (sector), malakas ang healthcare system, at may employment opportunities for all. If all those are present, then we can talk about progress.”
As fascinating as it was to talk about his mayoral post, I also wanted to know his perspective as a Filipino citizen. I asked what standards he holds up for our national government, and how he applies those standards to his own governance. “Lagi nating ni-ra-rally ‘yung transparent, accountable and efficient na local government. Kapag transparent, walang corruption. Kapag accountable, mapagkakatiwalaan sa trabaho. Kapag efficient, alam mong ma-de-deliver ‘yung trabaho. ‘Yun ang lagi nating pinanghahawakan, ‘yun din ang naging standard natin sa pagboto, at ‘yun din ang ating i-i-implement sa local setting.”
When our conversation drew to a close, he told me of how he planned to go downstairs to the second floor of the town hall to check up on the medical team and their needs. “Hindi ako sanay sa office ko dito sa taas. Mas sanay ako na nakikisalimuha sa mga tao.” This intentionality even extended to his recall of how we first met, and the boba drinks I had with me now and then. He also said although he often utilizes social media’s real-time reach to his citizens, he values the groundwork more. “Dapat nakikita, nararamdaman, at nahahawakan nila ang serbisyo.”
I don’t live in Masantol, and I only had a handful of conversations with him, but I have gathered enough to say that Bustos displays a rare kind of confidence: a proud acknowledgment of his gaps, which he makes up for with his willingness to listen. He admits that he still has a lot to learn in his young age, but he is humble enough to ask for guidance and counsel from local officers and citizens alike. The quality we all look for in a leader.
“They were the ones with the advocacy, not me,” he said when I asked how he won over the trust of Masantoleños. “Lagi kong sinasabi, ‘ako po si Ton Ton, at flagbearer lang ako ng lahat ng naniniwala sa adbokasiya natin.’ Tumakbo ako kasi representative ako ng lahat ng naniniwala na kailangan ng pagbabago ng ating bayan.”