Fragile History and the Art of Pabalat

Monday, July 18, 2011 21 comments
Candy wrapper art: Pabalat ng Pastillas de Leche

Not long ago, I read with great interest an article about Tukluhan, an obscure festival unique to the village of Santa Cruz in Marinduque Province, which takes place every May 15th on the feast day of San Isidro de Labrador (the Laborer), patron saint of farmers. The central event is a religious procession for which residents decorate fences, trees and other structures along the route with garlands of fruits, vegetables and various foodstuff. Parade-goers then eagerly collect¹ the hanging comestibles as they trail behind the passing procession, in what sounds like a rural Filipino hybrid of Mardi Gras, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and a self-service Halloween.

As I read, I hoped the article would satisfy my need for details: When did this tradition start? Was it some cool pre-colonial pagan harvest ritual adapted to Catholic themes? Most importantly, why was it done in the first place? Unfortunately, I came across a paragraph that pained my history-loving heart:
"Librada Ricamata, 75, who gathers and sells edible seashells for a living, said villagers can't remember when and how Tukluhan originated. 'By the time we were born, Tukluhan was already celebrated here,' said Ricamata. She said the festival has been held since the time of her parents. 'The tradition was passed from their generation to ours, and knowing its origin is not our concern anymore,' she said."
from "Marinduque Villagers Reach Out for Tukluhan" (PDI 5/26/11)
A Question of History

I couldn't disagree more with Ms. Ricamata's final statement - our histories should always be our concern. Why is knowing the origins of Tukluhan or any other tradition so vital? The answer is in the question. All other queries record factual details: Asking what defines the tradition and how tells us the manner in which it is done; who reveals the participants while when and where establish time and space. But why is a glimpse into elusive meaning - the answer shines a light, albeit dim or filtered, into the needs and motivation  behind our customs, which in turn helps us to understand their importance to our personal and group identities. The answer to why allows us to look at ourselves from the perspective of the past.

Young folk musicians in Gasan, Marinduque, Easter '11
If the why is forgotten or brushed aside as irrelevant, then traditions may lose much of their powerful symbolism and risk becoming irrelevant themselves. How long might Tukluhan last if no one knows or seems to care why they participate in its festivities? Already, the custom is changing: according to the article, the foods displayed along the parade route traditionally came from the town's agricultural bounty. Now, they are slowly being replaced by packaged, processed items such as chips and candies. How has the festival's meaning been changed by this development? We can't know because without knowing its history, we have little reference to evaluate.

Celebrations and Crafts

In a kind of cultural Darwinism, unique traditions fall by the wayside all the time, unnoticed because they are so little known, much less practiced, beyond the communities in which they first developed. Happily, some find a measure of outside fame to ensure their continuation, like the Moriones Festival, which originated in a tiny Marinduque parish and is now world-famous. That such a local cultural event can remain vibrant may be due, I believe, to an important distinction that the Tukluhan lacks: an active interest in its history that remains central to its tradition.

The Moriones Festival is celebrated during Easter Holy Week in municipalities throughout the province and has inspired similar festivities all over the Philippines, but the townspeople of Mogpog proudly preserve the story of how their own Father Dionisio Santiago staged the first re-enactment over 200 years ago. Furthermore, even as their tradition becomes a tourist attraction, the residents who participate in it do so in faithful practice to the event's original intent as a time for penance and prayer.

Moriones parading through Mogpog, Marinduque/Easter '11
Such festive occasions stand a fair chance of survival, if only because everyone, including 'outsiders', has an opportunity to participate in some way, whether as players or spectators. More precarious, however, is the fate of small traditions such as time-consuming and skillful craftwork that have many admirers but dwindling numbers of practitioners. Without subsequent generations willing to learn about their histories or perpetuate the art, some craft traditions may suffer the sad indignity of being met with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders and set aside.

Paper-Cutting: Folk Art and Candy Wrappers

That is the possible future facing the Filipino folk art form called pabalat². This lovely example of decorative paper-cutting is unique not only for being practiced primarily in one area, but also for its singular purpose - to make colorful wrappers for pastillas de leche. In a previous post, I discussed how the history of this Filipino milk candy is rather fuzzy for lack of recorded details; unfortunately, it extends to the special way this confection is presented. What little is known (or remembered) about how pabalat began is closely related to the origins of pastillas de leche in the town of San Miguel de Mayumo in Bulacan Province. But the reason behind why this particular candy, among all the many other treats and sweets, deserved such special wrappers has been lost.

Decorative paper-cutting is popular in the Philippines and its most recognized form is the famed parols, or Christmas lanterns, that sport fluttering 'comet tails' of delicately cut paper, of which pabalat is reminiscent. Filipino papercraft was likely adapted from Jian Zhi, the 1500-year old Chinese art of paper-cutting. Interestingly, jian zhi may have arrived in the Philippines via two routes - one direct, the other quite circuitous. Chinese traders and settlers probably brought paper-cutting directly to the islands, but a distinct influence may also have come from Mexico by way of the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade.

In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, Aztecs made a form of paper called amatl (Sp. amate) from mashed tree bark, on which images of deities were cut out with stone knives. Spain's own history of papercraft³ began in the 12th century when the material and art were introduced by Muslim rulers and Arab traders who brought the practices back to the Middle East and Europe from Asia. After the Spanish conquest, the Aztec craft, influenced by its European colonizers, evolved into Mexico's distinctive papel picado ('perforated paper'), used to create festive banners for special occasions. The influence of Mexican papel picado on Filipino papercutting is strongest in the colorful flag garlands called banderitas (from Sp. bandera, 'flag'), which add festive decoration to local pistahans (festivals).

Papercut candy wrapper
Preserving the Past

Neither parols nor banderitas, however, are as closely related to a specific place and purpose as pabalat. Presumed to be as old as pastillas de leche, these pretty candy wrappers are made from papel de japón and were traditionally used as decorative table centerpieces in Bulacan's fine homes⁴. Sadly, this unique Bulakeño craft - once taught in local schools and practiced in many families - is slowly disappearing. Most practitioners are now elderly, their ranks dwindling, and pabalat is now often made only by special order in association with local pastillas-makers and retailers.

Concerned by the possibility of losing this folk tradition, master pabalat-maker Luz Ocampo⁵, affectionately known as Nanay (mom), still  tirelessly practices and promotes her craft through media interviews and attendance at art shows and craft fairs, despite her nearly 90 years. Having learned the art at the age of twelve in her hometown of San Miguel (where pastillas de leche originated), Nanay Luz is determined to pass along as much of its history as she knows in hopes of keeping it alive for new generations.

Fascinated by the delicate beauty of pabalat and feeling a particular affinity because of my personal ties to Bulacan, ancestral home of my father's family, I was inspired to try my hand at it. I had never previously seen an actual pabalat, other than photographs on the web, but with some online guidance, I gave it a go. I hope that, in some small way, I can help preserve a small part of our history.

Colorful candy
1. Tukluhan ostensibly means "to reach". However, I could not confirm to which Filipino dialect this word belongs, and my mother - born in Marinduque and a native Tagalog-speaker - is unfamiliar with it.
2. Pabalat comes from the Tagalog word balat, meaning a covering (e.g. skin, bark, peel, husk, etc.)
3. Although Spain does not have a specific, named tradition of paper-cutting (at least, none that I could find online), the introduction of paper and papercraft to the region by Muslim traders was apparently the originating point for vibrant paper-cutting arts in other European cultures. The oldest may be the Jewish form, which is traditionally used to decorate mizrachs (a wall plaque indicating direction of prayer) and ketubahs (marriage contracts). Other papercut art forms include Scherenschnitte ('scissor cuts') in Germany and the Polish wycinanki.
4. Mapanoo, Sherwin. "The Pastillas Papercut Tradition" n.p.
5. Read more about Mrs. Ocampo in articles from Balikbayan Magazine and The Philippine Star.

Other sources:

Pabalat ng Pastillas de Leche

No recipe today! Instead, check out my earlier post about Pastillas de Leche for a recipe, then try crafting some pabalat for the candies you make or, as a quick alternative, use store-bought pastillas and other small candies such as Tootsie Rolls.

Materials and Tools

Papel de japón (tissue paper) in different colors
Fine-tipped scissors (curved cuticle scissors work beautifully!)

To make 2 wrappers:

Cut 1 sheet of tissue paper to 13.5 inches long by 10 inches wide. Fold in half lengthwise, then fold in half again lengthwise. The folded sheet should now be 13.5" long by 2.5" wide. Using a ruler, mark off a 4" x 2.5" section: this will be portion where the pastillas/candy will be wrapped and should remain uncut.

With a pencil, draw your pattern! A workable design is part trial, part error and all personal creativity.Start by drawing simple shapes such as flowers or stars all over the area. Then, 'connect' the shapes together by drawing 'bands' between them. For best results, keep the cut-out sections small but numerous to get a more lacy look. I also suggest keeping the edges intact to give the pabalat more structure and support.

With fine-tipped/cuticle scissors, begin cutting, starting inside and working out toward the edges. Don't worry about perfectly following your pencil lines - they will show up only on one panel. Besides, I think it adds a quaint roughness, a hand-made quality to the pabalat.

When done, open the sheet and cut in half lengthwise to make 2 panels. Take one half-sheet and cut in half again, beginning at the top of the cut-out section and stopping just at the untouched 4" x  2.5" portion.

If using homemade pastillas, wrap each piece in wax paper or plastic wrap to keep any moisture from saturating the paper. Place the candy lengthwise on the uncut portion of the pabalat and roll up, then gently twist both ends to close.

Place the pabalat-wrapped pastillas in a bowl or glass jar to show off your handiwork!

A bit of self-indulgence...


  • Elizabeth of AsianinAmericamag said...

    What a lovely post on the history of pastillas wrappers.It's an ancient art that needs to be preserved. My late Aunts used to be crafty with this and even making intricate art on bottled fruit preserves. Would luv to go on day trip/research with you when I go home visit ! Soon, Tracey!

  • SKIP TO MALOU said...

    Where was I when they taught this in school? haha! To be honest, it's my first time to come across Pabalat. I knew of paper cutting for the parol's tail and such but oh well Im not good at it and never tried it again. This is another interesting feature Tracey. Great Job!

    Have a great week!

  • Elin said...

    Thank you so much for sharing with us this wonderful write out on this pastille wrappers. Love reading it and I have gained so much. Love the designs on the wrappers. Its beautiful and a hug for you for sharing this with us. Great post !

    Have a nice day TN,

  • chef_d said...

    Sometimes we take things for granted just because we see them all the time, I remember carelessly peeling and throwing the beautiful pabalat when I was a child. Now reading this post makes me wish I had kept them instead. Thank you for showing step by step pictures of making these beautiful paper cut-outs.

  • sophia said...

    I agree with you...I think history is so important. Even a great event or artifact loses its meaning and significance without the central piece of its background: the history.

    Loved this piece, and for god's sake, how freaking talented are you?! :D

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Hello everyone! I'm here with my usual lame apologies for not responding promptly to each of your comments. I really appreciate the great feedback and will be back shortly to say so! 8-D

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Elizabeth - Yes! I read how pabalat & fruit carving go almost hand-in-hand in Bulacan as food folk art. But it would take a lot of skill for the carving - I'll stick to paper cutting for now. Definitely, we will have to plan something when come here! 8-)

    Malou - Thank you! I never knew about pabalat either until I was doing research into pastillas. It would be a terrible shame if this folk art died out or became completely mechanized. I love doing crafty stuff so it was fun to try my hand at pabalat making. I'm thinking they might make good gifts... 8-)

    Lisa - When I saw photos of Nanay Luz's pabalat, I fell in love with all the colorful paper. As far as I've read, almost all of the cutting is done with scissors, although one article did mention that NL's tools did include a small blade. I stuck with a $1 pair of cuticle scissors. 8-)

    Elin - Thank you so much! It was my pleasure to share as I truly enjoyed making them. It was indeed slow going (my first one took close to an hour!) but it's got much easier. 8-)

    Chef_d - I'm so happy you enjoyed it! I honestly don't recall ever seeing pabalat before, or maybe, just as you noted, I didn't pay attention as a child. Intricate designs such as Nanay Luz's take a lot of skill and talent, but this form of paper cutting isn't really that hard - I hope others will take it up! 8-)

    Ate - Martha has nothing to worry about but thank you! I will have to make some special ones for you on your next visit! 8-)

    Joy - Thank you! There's something rather soothing about cutting - a good time to meditate. I'm hoping to make them (along with homemade pastillas) as gifts for family and friends this upcoming holiday season! 8-)

    Kat - Aren't they lovely? I can only imagine how tables with dozens and dozens of these wrapped candies must look like! 8-)

    Sophia - As you noted on your own post about artist and journalist personalities, I share your curiosity about the stories behind people, art, events, etc. We can't forget what and who came before us! As for talent, you are way too kind - I do love being crafty, though! 8-)

    Forager - Yay! I hoped that the photos would do justice to the these wrappers. I left out some colors but can't wait to add to the rainbow! 8-)

  • joanneliezel said...

    Love the cut-outs. Gives me a great idea for making a mobile for my twin girls! And I love your blog, getting to know more and more about the richness of Filipino culture! Thanks!

  • Dee said...

    This is a wonderful post on these wonderful Papels. I am always impressed by the number of similar art/food items which are seemingly reminiscent of Mexican foods & artesanias. So glad I read this. You make me want to make a visit.

  • Midge said...

    It's times like these that I regret being all thumbs as a child when my Kapampangan great-grandmother was trying to teach me the art. I still can't cut out wrappers, but I've kept her recipes - and I will try to pass them on to another generation.

  • Lori said...

    Those are incredible. Quite the marketing piece for your blog. :) With being in the middle of summer around here there are plenty of festivals going on. However, they just don't spark my interest like the ones abroad. We have some history going on, but it's nothing like the history and traditions of what I've experienced in other countries. Such an interesting summary here.

  • Hornsfan said...

    I always learn something interesting and new when I come visit your blog! I was really struck by the comments early in your post about Tukluhan and people not really knowing it's origins. It saddens me to think of a people not knowing their own history like that. I am fascinated by local history where I am as it relates directly to my ancestry, while I understand this interest may be a luxury for some it seems it should also be a necessity. Those who do not understand their own history are doomed to repeat it....ok so that isn't a direct quote but you get the gist. I think that the loss of history on any scale is a cultural loss for us all. On the other hand I adore your papercuts and the detail, they are beautiful!

  • Jenni said...

    You are Amazing, TN!! Those paper cuttings are beautiful, and as always, you teach me something when I wander over here. The wee bit of self-indulgence is well warranted, friend!!


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