PAETE: The Once and Future Village
by: Juan Quesada, Jr.

If you were born and had spent your formative years in the countryside during prewar days, as I did, you should count your blessings. And if your hometown is Paete, Laguna (Philippines), as in my case, you had seen the future: the air you breathed was clean and emission-free; the water you drank was crystal-clear spring water that gushed from the mountainside; and crimes were few and far between.

This haven you couldn't have enough of.  For Paete's living space is severely limited, squeezed as it is between the Sierra Madre mountain on one side and Laguna de Bay on the other. From Manila you may reach Paete by way of either Los Baños and Pagsanjan (about 110kms) via the south expressway or Antipolo and Pililia (95 kms) via the Rizal Province highways.

An inexhaustible subject of reminiscing when I was young was the Big Boom of 1911-1918 when the price of abaca did a series of prodigious leaps in the world market.  My father's only brother wrote about it in his book PAETE:

    Workers made as much as Peso 8 a day.  (In 1906 a cavan of unhusked rice cost Peso1, wrote John Foreman.)  Business was so good a group of abaca planters put up a movie house- Paete's first ever; later, another group built a second cinema.  During holidays workers wore the most expensive alpaca coats.  Beer and wine were guzzled everywhere.  Gamblers and taxi-dancers appeared on the scene.

The demand for abaca ended with the end of World War I.   Owner-farmers turned their hand to growing lanzones, which thrived best on the mountain slopes facing the town.  Father was one of them. Everyday of the week except Sunday he would trudge halfway up the mountain (with me dutifully behind him on vacation time) and water his young trees. But no sooner had the trees begun to fruit than World War II brokeout. Toward the end of the war, in retaliation for a guerilla ambush, the Japanese razed the village, dislocating the populace. When liberation came Paete's economy was a shambles. The lanzones orchards, utterly neglected, had run to seed.  By that time Father was dead,and his legatee, the only son left in the family, was off to the big city, doing anything but farming.

Owner-farmers tried rehabilitating their farms, without avail. In the 1960s I-- with the activist recommendations of Los Baños scientists- tried to nurse back to health the farm that was Father's pet project, but after a few years I gave up.  Irrigating it was too expensive a proposition. Efflorescence did take place, but the flowers often withered, especially when the monsoon rains were delayed.  The culprit?- Bigtime loggers who had stripped the Sierra Madre of its forest cover.

With unproductive resources in the boondocks, Paeteños turned inward and fell back on their own human capital.  That resource was to serve them well as it did their ancestors. Paete has produced skilled artisans and craftsmen, entertainers and artists, whose products (religious art, murals, canvases, papier-mâché) and services (moro-moro, zarzuelas, concerts, arranging) are in the "high value-added" category. A confluence of factors has contrived to produce a special class of Paeteños that renewed itself with each new generation.

The heritage left by the past generations was awe-inspiring. Outside Manila, in the 19th century, the center of the woodcarving industry was Paete. The works of the master sculptors, especially religious images, or santos, found a niche in the great cathedrals of Western Europe.

Then there were the performing artists- musicians who made up the town's famous brass and jazz bands. The more accomplished virtuousos performed in the cities of Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. They become folk heroes and role models for Paete's youth.  I recall Sunday afternoons when young people, clarinet or violin in hand, ambled down the street to seek out their maestros. Myself, I never got past my solfeo (solfeggio) lessons.

When the war ended, the dislocated villagers began to troop back home. They built ramshackle huts on the ruins of their houses.  Then something unexpected happened that built up Paete sooner than later.  This was the big postwar demand for bakya- wooden clogs.  All households in Paete turned into production units in order to cash in on yet another bonanza.  I watched with incredulity my former school- and playmates working 18 to 20 hours straight.  But no matter. The pay was good: a boyhood pal of mine could pocket a wad of Victory notes worth Peso 1,000 or more at the end of the day.

Just when Paeteños were beginning to enjoy their unexpected afflunece a supertyphoon, "Jean", blew into town and knocked off rooftops or flattened the fragile houses.  This time reconstruction was a snap: most Paeteños had stashed away some savings.  Also by this time Paete had begun to diversify its village-craft industries as though to anticipate a glut in the wooden-clogs market- and to so mechanize them that they'd become more competitive.

Thus did the burgeoning industrialization shove farming jobs into the background.  The fifties and sixties were profitable years for Paeteños, who were now exporting a variety of wood products. Paete was to undergo urban transformation with all the trappings of an urbanized community (TV, stereo systems, VCR, etc.).  The demographics had changed too.  Paete's population expanded many times its original size when labor shortages necessitated the hiring of migrant workers.  But the boom-and-bust cyle that characterizes the world's advanced market economies began to run its downward course in the 1970s.

Much of the workplace was laid off.  Squatter huts mushroomed on the fringes of the town.  The incidence of crimes surged.  Paete had become a micocosm of the urban community as Manilans know it.

Back to the "future"?  Perish the thought. Paete's social and economic structures have been so misshapen that a return to a stressfree, environment-friendly village would require the best that the Filipino race is capableof achieving.  In a word, it means falling back on and nurturing once again shared core values that are learned in the process of growing up in the countryside.

[This is the eleventh of twelve essays commissioned by the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company to promote a better understanding of the Filipinos by visiting the villages that foster their society. Juan Quesada, Jr., is a project management consultant specializing in information-related projects; among his current interests are CD-ROM technology, alternative energy systems, cable TV.  He served three stints with the pre-martial law MANILA TIMES, first as a Sunday Times Magazine staffer, then (after a year-long job with the Herald) promotion director of the Times newspaper chain and finally adviser to Don Joaquin "Chino" Roces. He is best remembered as the author and top operations boss of the original Operation Quick Count 1961.  He is married to the late Minda Luz Melendez, by whom he has six children.]