It Takes a Village

July 13, 2017 Elizabeth M. San Nicolas

Melissa Savares has Dededo in her veins. Her grandfather, Vicente S.A. Benavente, served as commissioner of Dededo from 1952 to 1976. The former Dededo Middle School was renamed in his honor in 1999.

“I remember him bringing kids home because their families were in crisis. He’d bring food my grandmother had cooked out the door,” Melissa recalled.

She has been mayor since 2005. Like her grandfather, she worked in education and was active in community organizations. When she was working in administration at Maria Ulloa Elementary, she was part of a group that started a 4-H club to teach leadership skills. They sent the kids out to see how the club could get involved in the village.

“The children did not get very good support from the leadership at the time. All of the advisors looked at each other, and one of them said, ‘Melissa, why don’t you run [for mayor]? Since people know your family.’” Melissa narrated.

“It was just a joke among our friends. Just once you get the program in there, then you’re out! But once you get the program in there, you’re stuck! We work so hard to empower the children, and you don’t want the kids to give up. What we do here in this community, it’s for them, not for us.”

Her father, Jose Garcia Savares, came to Guam in 1951 as part of the influx of Ilonggo workers at Camp Roxas, rebuilding the island after World War II. Contracted by the Navy, he worked as a teletype repairman at the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station and decided to settle in Dededo.

“The joke is that my dad is the only Ilonggo up here. Because after the camp was closed, they all moved either to Santa Rita or Agat,” Melissa said, amused.

Recruited from Iloilo, her father was the eldest of three siblings. Now almost 90 years old, he still has family in the Philippines. “I have a cousin I introduced to a friend of mine on Guam, and they were pen pals, and now she’s here!” Melissa revealed, laughing.

The ties that bind extend to her civic duties as well. “Most of my sister-city relationships are with provinces in the Ilonggo-Visayas area, because I feel it’s more connected with my family roots, Melissa said. “I have sister-city relations with the mayors of Iloilo City, Oton, Guimaras, Guimbal…not yet with my dad’s home province of San Joaquin, but all his neighbors.”

Dededo is famous for its large Filipino population, the reason the moniker “Little Manila” has been around for quite some time. Celebrating Guam’s cultural and historical ties to the Philippines has been one of Melissa’s passions for years.

“You know, many of them have left their provinces or their towns over 60 years ago and never went back. Like everyone, when they migrate to the United States, it’s for a better life. And sometimes they don’t want to look back. But just like when we celebrate Mes Chamoru here, we celebrate our culture, this is our motherland—no matter where we go.”

From inviting the Dinagyang Warriors from Iloilo City and marching in the Liberation Parade to bringing Philippine civic leaders out for local festivals and to meet with senior citizens, the Filipinos on Guam keep in touch with their roots.

Running Guam’s most populous village has its own challenges, but Melissa saw opportunity everywhere. Diversity and development are Dededo’s strengths, according her. “I think I prefer the diversity. The new cultures that come in and migrate here, we welcome them with open arms,” she said. She dismissed the notion of having a few bad apples because, “They’re all good. It’s a place of convenience. Can you tell me another village that has three grocery stores open 24 hours? We have 12 denominations of faith!”

She added, “Development is good. It provides opportunities for our people. I saw that when the new hospital went up, or when big stores are opening, I get calls from food, landscaping, and cleaning contractors—we need 40 people, we need 50 people. I was sending people I had on staff! Go! They’re going to pay good!”

"I think I prefer the diversity. The new cultures that come in and migrate here, we welcome them with open arms."

Dededo has blossomed in recent years, thanks to her partnerships with government agencies and local organizations. “I realized at the beginning of my term that if you try to do things by yourself, it’s not going to work,” its long-time mayor said.

Partnering with GHURA and Parks and Recreation, Melissa chased grants to build the Dededo Skate Park and the Guam Sports Complex with its baseball fields, swimming pool, walking trail, and gym. A FEMA grant helped renovate and retrofit the Astumbo Gym to be a secondary shelter during natural disasters. Working with GCC has brought adult high school classes to the Astumbo Senior Center, and Sanctuary Inc. has brought tutoring and mentoring to the troubled youth in Astumbo.

Youth empowerment is also close to Melissa’s heart, and she took pride in her village’s summer athletics programs. “Family planning, youth reading and education outreach, sponsoring sports teams and pageants—all of these efforts help empower future leaders to make a difference,” she said.

“The challenge is always going to be funding. But we’ve gotta be creative. We have to look. I’ve looked high and low, and I’ve turned over things that I’ve found. It’s about using the resources that are available here. They’re jewels, just waiting to say, ‘Hey, come out to my village,’” Melissa emphasized.

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