I went to Paeté several weeks ago to look for an image of the fabled Sto. Niño which I can put in our sala’s small altar. I’ve always wanted to have one when I was still working in Cebú. It is but strange that I never saw an image there of good quality despite the fact that Cebú is virtually Sto. Niño country. I prefer a wooden image with an antique-like finish. So it is good that I am knowledgeable of the fact that the place where I can acquire a fine uquit or sculpture of the Sto. Niño is Paeté, the quiet Lagunense town famous for its excellent wooden sculptures.
Paeté was named after the carpenter’s chisel, a tool used for sculpting. This tells us that the main livelihood of the town since earlier times was woodcraft. The town is still replete of the usual rural atmosphere. Although there are already modern elements slowly creeping up the town’s busy and robustly populated población, it has still retained much of its culture and heritage.
Rizal in his Noli criticized the town’s “crude carvings” which I doubt was true since Paeté could have been the subject of malicious judgment from people like Rizal, who was then a Freemason, because of the people’s services to the Church. Then as now, the jewels of Paeté have been treasured in the whole world, from St. Peter’s Basilica (where a life-size crucifix from the town hangs in one of its walls) to continental America. Paeté throughout the centuries has shared its gifts to the Catholic world.
A shop owner told me that there are collectors who buy their wares then ship them abroad. She showed some images: half-foot replicas of popular Catholic icons that were recently bought by a Filipino-American. Though there are already new techniques that are not traditional, such as the use of resin instead of wood for the santos’ heads and hands, Paeteños strive to retain their unique trade by employing only local artisans. Most of the shop owners I spoke with are employers of woodcarvers themselves, if not of a family that produces their own products.
An untold story about Paeté’s woodcraft industry is how it spiraled down, weakened by unethical practices as well as the scarcity of wood. Gone are the days when timber flooded the shops of Paeté. A popular sculptor, who also owns a shop, was once interviewed; he revealed how they suffered from unscrupulous people who would go to their customers and offer lower prices, stealing their clients by offering inferior products. This somehow had an adverse effect on the town’s reputation as superior woodcraft producers. Thankfully, the industry still persists even with such a decline, thanks to the many patrons and clients who have remained loyal all these years. Indeed, it would take more than business thievery and wood shortage to shutdown the uquit (or ukit) business of Paeté. Although shops are fewer in number now, smaller than what it used to be, hope remains that there will be another boom period for Paeté as its artistic natives never fail to reinvent and surprise us with their masterful craft.
Near the cemetery, outside the town proper, I witnessed some men carving a floral design on a tree trunk. It was superb. I’ve seen wood carvers at work before, but nothing like these Paeteños who have been cutting and sculpting wood as they have been doing for centuries. The church has benefited immensely from this seemingly natural ability of the Paeteños. It is said that when the friars saw the Paeteños exceptional talent in wood carving, they encouraged them some more. Later on, the natives utilized their creations in making religious icons made of wood. The introduction of religious art has been their major industry ever since.
I finally decided to take home a Sto. Niño from a shop called St. Joseph the Husband of Mary. I got a good deal for the one-foot image I purchased from the owner of the shop. Thankfully, my stay in Cebú has made me appreciate the Sto. Niño’s symbol as both a spiritual and, of course, a historical figure.
A visit to Paeté is never complete without stopping by its marvelous church. Its solid adobe exterior has witnessed the many changes the town experienced. It was rebuilt many times, but its primary appearance and made has been preserved. The retablos and the santos are among the most remarkable that I’ve seen so far. Every item inside has a story to tell. The Paeté Church is only one of the few remaining old structures in the town. It houses the work of José Dans, the Paeté-born painter of the late 1800s. There is an interesting story about the San Cristóbal paintings on the left side of the church wall’s interior (read here). The first one apparently appears to be an Asiatic-looking San Cristóbal. Perhaps Dans modeled the figure from a pre-Filipino local. The man was dressed like one complete with what looks like a royal Arabic mughal sword (the handle similar to that of a saber). This could probably be the only St. Christopher that has a sword instead of a long stick. My opinion is that this warrior image of this particular San Cristóbal is the basis why the early friars opted to have it changed. It was never removed but veiled by the new version. The old one was discovered during the restoration in the 80s.
Restoration is badly needed for the paintings. Something that I really wish would happen soon. These works of art also need to be protected from the elements and even from people; I was surprised to see some signs of vandalism which is unfortunate. There should be a barrier that would separate these paintings from viewers and parishioners or, at least, a protective screen. To future visitors, please avoid using flash in your cameras whenever photographing artworks — it burns the fragile outer coating especially for the really old ones. Strong flashes of light hasten its deterioration.
The skin color and facial appearance of the santos, even among the earliest popular Catholic icons like the Sto. Niño of Cebú, the black Nazareno of Quiapò, the Virgin of Ermita, or the Virgén sa Regla among others, was never a concern among the Spanish friars who understood very well the concept of a localized representation of its devotional figures (this should also shun the false notion that the Spaniards were racists). The friars even encouraged images that resemble the features of inhabitants as this somehow brings the saints closer to the natives. The image of this local saint which is produced in pendants and icons was popularized by the great artist Albrecht Durer. He depicted St. Christopher as an old bearded man crossing the river with the aid of a long stick while carrying the child Jesus on his back.
Paeté also reminds us that towns usually retain their names if the name is already established and broadly recognized. Spaniards usually don’t bother changing names of places. Instead, what happens is that these aboriginal names are corrupted by their inscription. The Spanish friars respected culture and beliefs so long as it does not collide with Christian values. The province of Morong, for example, was named as such because of the presence of Moros who were kept under control by the Spaniards. It was only later that we changed it to Rizal province because some of our leaders found it unsettling to have a province named after the Moro.
As I walked along the narrow streets of Paeté, I noticed a basketball court donated by Macati Mayor (and Vice-President elect) Jejomar Binay in front of the town hall. I am unsure if he has relatives in the town. This suddenly reminded me of Allan Caidic’s memoirs. The Triggerman’s parents were Paeteños. Although he spent much of his early years in Pásig, he has fond memories of being in Paeté. In Paeté, the Triggerman’s father was a hoop legend, too. A noticeable peculiarity that I thought was obnoxious was the new multi-purpose stage built at the side of the church. This stage obscures the church.
The papier-mâché is a unique Paeté industry where the town once again shows its people’s artistic versatility. I remember seeing it featured in Batibot when I was a child. Although the demand has gone down according to vendors, the art is far from dying. This backyard business started in the 70s and boomed in the 80s and 90s. Its fascinating how the craft of the papier-mâché has survived throughout troubled times. Those paper horses, painted red, will forever be part of our memory and Paeté’s identity.
Lanzones farming is also a staple business in the town. The lanzones here, like in Camiguín (in Misamis Oriental), is so abundant that the town celebrates its season with elaborate festivities and religious fervor. The sweetness of its lanzones has been admired all over the islands.
Like all lake shore pueblos, Paeté’s fishery is also a source of livelihood. Another popular product is the baquiâ (erroneously spelled nowadays as bakya). This iconic footwear was widely produced in the early 1900s. Also unknown to many is the town’s abacá industry (the abacá plants, from which the leafsheath comes from, were almost wiped out by a disease which spread at the turn of the century). Cápiz products were also a source of livelihood in the past. These various industries have made Paeté town affluent and dynamic as it continues to reinvent its crafts. Sadly, Paeté remains a fourth class municipality coupled with a rapidly growing population and an increasing poverty.
Of course, in a town of artistic and historical heritage, one will find many a great artist. They represent the essence of what Paeté is all about. Aside from its masterful sculpting hands, there are painters and music artists as well. I haven’t been able to explore this other side of Paeteños well enough so I guess I should plan a return visit soon. The Spanish King once honored the town hero, Mariano Madriñán, for his Mater Dolorosa. Madriñán’s recognition as a local hero is odd because I’m used to hear Katipuneros and soldiers as heroes. But in Paeté’s case, it’s an artist. Outgoing President Arroyo, a Campampañgan, even recognized the talent of the Paeteños and hailed their town as the Carving Capital of the Philippines. Arroyo’s fellow Campangpangans also have an outstanding woodcarving culture. However, their version of this age-old industry is not as vigorous and as historical as that of Paete’s.