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Where my roots are

Recently, my daughter Veronica visited Paete in search of a good place to start a coconut project. The drive took them to several towns in that part of Laguna. Like other Paetenos who have lived  most of their lives abroad, she felt a strange link to it saying this is “where my roots are.”

It is a sentimental journey and difficult to express because it is about feelings rather than words.

I met other people less connected with the historic town like Beth Ramirez of the UA&P who has another concern about it. She is dismayed that a painting of San Cristobal (St. Christopher) in the historic church of Paete has been damaged. It is time, she said, that lovers of art and especially Paetenos look into what is happening to the priceless treasures of this church.

She points to two paintings of Saint Cristobal found on the wall to the left.

Butch Dalisay describes it as a large figure that its enormity seems to tighten in the painting. The large figure of the saint emerging from the sea, holding on to a coconut tree and riding on his right shoulder, the child Jesus is not the same in measure as the large figure.

The first painting can be said to be the composition of a figure, a giant dressed in Filipino even though there are slight foreign features. Through painting shadows on the body one can notice the heavy strokes used and both light and darkness are separated in the form of the arms and foot. This picture is painted on a panel, those attached to sliced wood. Colors are dark and each shape has a stroke of color.

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In my search for materials to write about Paete I found one I wrote when I was a young reporter writing as Carmen A. Navarro (originally published in The Chronicle Magazine, 29 June 1963, pp. 44) through Alex Castro’s blog.

“Paete is a little town nestled at the foot of Sierra Madre ranges and locked by Laguna de Bay. It has no wide plains, no topographical greatness. Rather, it is a town by the road between highland and water. Its history is the unraveling of a way of life rendered starkly simple by a lack of physical grandeur. Crowded in by mountain and bay, Paeteños looked within themselves and found there their greatness.

Thus, to know Paete, a town founded in 1580, 59 years after the historic date of the rediscovery of the Philippines in 1521, is to know a past that belongs to the present. For the accumulation of that deep human experience of a people steeped in self-awareness is tradition.

It is they who have kept the heritage of a unique custom of a “living saints” procession every Holy Thursday for the last 250 years by passing it to their younger kin with an unwritten will that the observance shall be without dichotomy between ceremony and belief.

In the past, Eugenio Quesada, a Paeteño who has written his memoirs in the form of a narrative of the town, says:

“Holy Thursday was the biggest day of the week, for on this day, the procession was the largest because the ‘pasion’ or carrying of the cross in the different stages was shown and not only that, the meeting of Jesus and his mother Virgin Mary was re-enacted.”

During this re-enactment, the author notes that the town people who actually cried as though in pain, may have projected their own grief and the tediousness of their own lives in one packed moment of religious compassion.

American and German tourists who visited the town during the celebration remarked that it is perhaps the near realism of the drama that moves the spectators to such an experience. The tender scene of a sorrowful mother who breaks loose from the hold of tough soldiers to embrace her son, faithfully issued by vocal animation from living persons and movements through an intricate mechanism gives semblance of the real. The mechanism found within the statues is as old as the celebration, 250 years ago.

The second meeting takes place in the upper portion of the town, in the Ilaya, almost in front of the small church called Ermita. It is the re-enactment of St. Veronica who meets Jesus with a piece of cloth on which our Lord imprints his face. St. Veronica in turn shows the printed face to the Virgin Mary, heightening her grief. The procession goes through all of Paete’s little streets, the menfolk bowed, the women in black, and the children sobered, singing in lamentable tones: “Populo meus quid feci Tibi” (O my people, what have I done to thee?).

A period of mourning marked by both interior and exterior silence is strictly observed at the penalty of being called a Jew begins when the procession finally winds up in church for the tenebrae.

To the Paeteños, Holy Thursday celebration is not a ceremony but an element of their identity, just as woodcarving and lanzones tending are.

After a period besieged by idleness and oblivion, Paete woodcarvers in 1960 enjoyed a renaissance when the late Pope John XXIII commissioned them to make the statue of San Martin de Porres for the canonization rites. The Renaissance was completed when the P75,000 worth of Paete woodcarving were exhibited in the 1964 New York World Fair.

Paete’s economic framework remains inimical to contemporary economic schemes. Peculiar to her modest geography, her people who have remained oddly faithful to social justice. Land which was parceled among their grandfathers remains in the hands of their descendants, with the same size, the same fruits, never coveting, never wanting, year after year, generation after generation.

Like tradition, Paete merely stays.

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