Photos by Nigel Ian Laxamana
As the car runs steadily across the highway, past vulgar posters of scantily clad women for whitening creams and loud bright pop soda advertisements, the blurred woosh of scenery fades from vivid to soft pastels like an old cotton tee shirt washed and worn in time. Things feel settled and time feels slow. The small town is bustling but quaint, with a pleasant juxtaposition of frosting looking cement buildings in garish seafoam green and withering old wooden homes, the capiz dotted windows glinting in the sun. There’s an idyllic charm in the harmony of the soft rustling of leaves and the nostalgic cries of food vendors long extinct from the heart of the city. The smell of smoke from burning leaves is telltale. We are no longer in the metro. This is the province.
Bulacan is rich in Filipino heritage. It’s set deep in the tagalong heartlands, the nurturing ground of many a Filipino revolutionary. Barasoain Church stands tall and emblematic, vibrating with pride as the birthplace of the first true Filipino constitution. The Bulaqueños industrious and cultured. Keepers of tradition, they work hard to flourish in family affairs that span generations and remain a stronghold against threatening conglomerate amalgamations. Home to many national artists and aging artisans, Bulacan is a living museum.
Nanay Luz Ocampo is a monument all by herself. Her dark shiny eyes are small and squint, framed by smiling wrinkles of time. Her brow is furrowed not with distress but with wise concentration. A large smile and softspoken voice, the immediate command for us to eat those little wrapped cakes and coca cola for merienda – she is true lola in any sense. Her aura of strong gentleness solicits a respectful mano po from even the citiest of citadines if they have any drop of Filipino blood.
Her craft is dying and while some have left it to history and frivolity, she perseveres in her legacy. Pabalat is a unique art form that is noble in its beauty and utility. Thin strips of silken Japanese paper are cut meticulously to form intricate designs that resemble the daintiest French lace. Used to wrap the iconic regional delicacy of carabao milk candies or pastillas de leche, pabalat gives a sense of fleeting charm in an area of flashy plastic and cartoony fonts.
Dating back to the Han Dynasty in Ancient China some 1800 long years ago, paper cutting is as old as it is symbolic. Traditionally paper was cut into pretty designs and used as decorations during funerals or laid on the altar of a deceased ancestor in order to symbolize their prosperity even in the afterlife. Brought to the Philippines by the early Chinese settlers, it rapidly took hold and developed into a festive craft used as decorations for celebrations.
Nanay Luz is from the town of San Miguel de Mayumo. An apt name as mayumo in the local dialect means sweets. Her family was producing minatamis, a local specialty of carved and preserved fruits. They also made the traditional pastilas de leche. Taught by a nun in school at the age of 11 she continues her passion 79-years-later. She isn’t very verbose, but her deft hands and intense concentration as she skillfully snips holes into the fragile paper speaks wonders. She does not wear eyeglasses. Her eagle eyes can trace and spot each slim line of her intricate designs.
From flowers to rural scenes to heartfelt messages each design impassions her. She claims that the most difficult aspect to consider is the continuity of the lines both in creating the patterns and cutting them out. One snip and it’s all gone as a whole piece detaches itself from the rest. Hunched up and enclosed in her bubble, despite her age and grandmotherly looks, she has the aura of a school girl deeply engrossed in her project. She can make up to 100 pieces a day, which seems like a rather large number considering the intricacy of the work and yet in this day and age where factories produce by the tens of thousands, it suddenly becomes paltry.
Research has led me to discover that Nanay Luz is one of the last of her kind. A celebrity in her own right, almost all books relating to pabalat and other artisanal work have featured her work. Passing down the craft to her granddaughter Janice, who despite her respect of her grandmother’s legacy, must find other means of earning her living comfortably. The rising paper costs, tedious work and ephemeral results, it is no wonder that the art of pabalat is on the brink of extinction.
The sunlight softened as our meeting with her came to a close. Everything was bathed in a golden sheen. Few words were exchanged. It was a pastel dream, sweet with a lingering nostalgia. Nanay Luz had let us into her intimacy. Just to share a pleasurable moment of solidarity as we watched creation unfold, unpretentious and pure. She closed the gate with slow movements, her eyes scrunched under the sun, all throughout keeping a soft smile. The leaves shook in the wind and with the light that shown from behind the trees it reminded me of her little strips of paper. She was the hardy trunk that kept it all together.
by Stephanie Zubiri