PAETE ON MY MIND

By Marie Cagahastian Castillo-Pruden   (July 1994)

While the Bible tells of God creating man in His own image, it never really says what God looks like, except that He is Creator. Human beings are therefore in their most Godlike image when they are engaged in creating.

Such are the Paetenians. As most Paetenians earn their living in the arts and crafts, creativity is an integral part of our being and it is with this that Paete leaves its mark on Philippine faith, history and culture.

There are no breathtaking sights in Paete to compare with Pagsanjan Falls; no landmarks of historical significance to approximate Rizal's birthplace of Calamba. But neither is Paete a kind of Siberia out-of-season. True, it has its underrated waterfall, its brush-covered wooden crosses on the mountaintop, its sewage-polluted river and streams flowing into an even more polluted lake. It even has its smoke-belching, ear-shattering, motorized tricycles that endanger lives and limbs.

Where it was once bucolic, squatters have set up households. Where drinking water was once its pride, the town is now nearly dry. But the people remain, in their goodness-of-heart, creative and long-suffering. At home and abroad, Paete is on our minds.

Paete got its name from the Tagalog word "paet" - chisel, a ubiquitous tool cherished by woodworkers. One can also say that the town's name refers to the bitter taste ("pait") of the lanzones seed, a fruit that abounds in the area, which - along with woodcarving - has made the town famous. But no one dares think of such alternative legends. With tenacity, we insist that Paete got its name from paet. And that Paete lanzones is sweet, made sweeter still by a folktale that many hearts hold dear.

Once upon a time, as most happy stories begin, the Virgin Mary came to Paete, but there was neither food nor water to be had. Approaching the town from the south side, she picked some fruit off a tree but the townspeople warned that it was poisonous. She opened the fruit anyway and pricked one section with her fingernail. Lo and behold, she rendered the lanzones edible! Then she knelt down on the earth and dug out a spring of the sweetest water. To this day you find her nail marks on the fruit. And to this day, the tiny spring which she dug out is called "Talagang Dalaga," the virgin pond.

Legends are lovely, but it is the woodworking shops that give you the real flavor of Paete. Here, children sit side-by-side with adults as they carve wood, fashion wooden shoes, polish and brighten wood products. No one takes issue on child labor here because labor is an art, and child-labor is the apprenticeship that insures the craft to be carried on from generation to generation, as long as there are trees in the forest.

All great art is incarnational and inevitably, our people's handiwork becomes reflected in our lives. From the simple childhood rhyme of "Lagari ng lagari, tawag si Tandang Bunyi, nang madaling mayari ang simbahan sa Paete!" to the breathless celebrations of "Semana Santa", Holy Week, native Paetenians learn to live through different layers of reality unique even to those growing up in small towns.

For example, little children learn early on to befriend the saints and weave stories about them by studying their wooden representations. One of the earliest stories you learn in Paete as a kid is that saints have pets. Santiago has a horse; St. Peter has a rooster; St. John the Evangelist, an eagle; San Antonio Abad, a boar, and so on and so forth.

As a child grows up, he encounters a fascinating dimension to the celebrations of the Holy Week. On one Palm Sunday an adolescent boy can suddenly reach maturity by sponsoring to decorate the Hosanna platforms and later, to submit to the coming-of-age ritual of circumcision, away from family and with no consolation other than cold river water and chewed guava leaves.

A couple-to-five years later, the same young lad may be seen escorting his junior high school sweetheart on Palm Sunday evening to "kiss the Senyor" (statue of the dead Christ), and afterwards go for short walk to the "wawa", lakeshore, to "kiss the junior." A most difficult, if exquisite, twist in the young soul's journey during Holy Week is to shift one's interest from the balmy breezes of Laguna Lake to the sufferings of Christ depicted in the spectacular "Salubong."

We might tell our out-of-town friends later in life, "In Paete, we have statues of saints that move. But of course they don't understand. Only Paetenians know what Paetenians know about woodcarving. It's in the water and in the blood.

Those who choose not to take up the chisel almost always take up the "taka" - papier mache toys made from old newspapers and scrap paper. Women are especially adept at this trade which is done at home rather than in the shops. Whereas time was when human and animal figures, molded in paper and paste and painted brightly, were sold simply as toys, taka has now been launched into the worldwide market of Christmas ornaments and other decorative articles. Like woodcarving, the humble taka has placed Paete on the map.

"This town has enjoyed a constant, apparently congenital flow of natural inventiveness," says Marian Pastor Roces, writing for Philippine Air Lines' infight "Mabuhay" magazine. "Paete, for instance, gave the world the yo-yo. It is known that in the 1890's, to pinpoint only one period, Paeteņos would regularly make paper jumping jacks, ingenious toys like one called "cirquero" (a tumbler manipulated with sticks to move upwards, downwards and in a twisting, swerving motion), masks of papier mache, cardboard figures for shadow plays, and paper balloons."

Today it seems only the taka remains. From Woolworth stalls that sell papier-mache reindeer ornaments to the window display of baroque taka angels at the San Francisco Opera Gift Shop, we know that Paete taka has come of age. And like the Paetenian himself, taka has traveled.

A portrait of our hometown would be incomplete without mention of our fishing industry. Like most lakeside towns, we are a fishing people. It was for this reason perhaps that the Spanish founders of Paete gave its patron saint Santiago Apostol, a fisherman apostle of the Lord.

The Lord Jesus Himself is celebrated by us lakeside people in a January fluvial festival to honor His infancy. "Salibanda" is a procession at once sacred and rowdy. Its starts out from the lake and snakes up the narrow streets as townspeople sing and prance about, splashing water on one another.

Naturally, Paetenians have a great devotion to the Santo Nino. A staple subject of Paete woodcarving, the Holy Child used to always be decked in princely attire. Now we see Him as a poor wanderer, which depicts in many ways the Paetenian "layas."

For the fact is, some Paetenians are not contented by merely staying home. Many are able to leave town to pursue higher education and the professions. Thus in the Philippine diaspora throughout the world, we find Paetenian doctors, nurses, dentists, lawyers and engineers. Even woodcarvers leave town in search for more lucrative markets for their skill. It is not uncommon to see Paetenians working as ice-carvers in the affluent hotels and cruise ships in Asia and the U.S.

Still our hearts remain in Paete. The layas find one another in the most unlikely corners of the world, such as Vallejo, California. Bound by a common concern for their hometown, they forge lasting friendships, share memories and food, and undertake civic and humanitarian projects for those who stayed behind.

About the Author

Marie Pruden writes cultural articles to Filipinas magazine based in San Francisco. Born and raised in Paete, she studied at Maryknoll College and the University of Santo Tomas in Manila and was a Fellow to the International Institute for Journalism in Berlin. She worked for UPI, the pre-martial law Manila Times, and wrote a column for the Philippine Daily Express before migrating to the U.S. She now works in the theater and movie advertising section of the San Francisco Chronicle & Examiner, where, among other duties, she paints clothes on nude models in the porno ads. A Catholic and a grandmother, Marie is a member of the Secular Franciscan Order. Marie was married to the late artist Rene Castillo of Buhi, Camarines Sur, with whom she has two children. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Miles Pruden of Sussex, England.   The article she wrote above appeared in the Paetenians International Northern California 10th anniversary souvenir program, July 1994.  You can e-mail Marie at: mpruden@juno.com.

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