Luz Ocampo: The Last of the Master Wrappers

By Jay Bautista

As expected the 84-year old Luz Mendoza Ocampo was busy with her hands when we paid her a visit in San Miguel de Mayumo, Bulacan. In fact you don’t even have to get her address, you could just ask around and you’ll end up at her doorstep.

Already considered a National Treasure by her hometown, this Gawad Manlilikha Awardee is the last living pabalat or pastillas wrapper-cutter of her generation. With no trained successor in line, the craft might soon die a natural death. Not even her own blood – her children or grand children – are interested in holding up her scissors and tracing through the colorful papel de hapon on her own designs that have endured as old as her dying craft.

She blames television and the very fast pace of life as the main reason why she is all by herself now. Back then, as a 12 year-old, 5th grader, Lola Luz started cutting pastillas wrappers as a hobby to help her mother. She thought it would help sell more pastillas if every wrapper is “individually and attractively designed.” Taking inspiration from various shapes of flowers, leaves, and other subject of her surroundings, the Mendoza brand of pastillas had that distinct “sweet” taste of success.

It usually takes 10-15 minutes to make a bundle of six wrappers, however at her age now but still without aid of eyeglasses, she averages “only” a hundred wrappers a day. To date, she has 50 patterns to the art including the famous magbabayo, bahay kubo and dalagang bukid.

The tools of her trade are simple yet varied. She has a wide array of small knives, ribs of umbrella (tangkay ng payong), and surgical scissors to snip every nook and cranny of her preferred Japanese paper (papel de hapon) wrapped around the pastillas. Eventually, as an alternate, she would also carve intricate designs on fruits like dayap, suha, kundol, and santol.

Sweetness Has Its Name

Founded in 1763, as the second largest town in Bulacan, San Miguel has preserved enough old houses to be compared with other heritage towns like Vigan, Taal and Pila.

It is in these quaint and well-decorated homes, filled with local floral and fauna motifs on their ceilings and inlays of the roofs and ventanillas, where Lola Luz first got her inspiration to her pabalat.

Famous residents such as composer Nicanor Abelardo, Maximo Viola good friend of National Hero Jose Rizal who funded the Noli Me Tangere lived here. In fact, General Emilio Aguinaldo slept in the house of Capt. Mariano Tecson the night before he negotiated a truce with Spain in what is known as the Pact of Biac-na-Bato.

In fact the town is filled with culture and history that pastillas de leche is the town’s source of pride. In fact payumo literally means “sweet” that families engaged in this business have over the years handed down and improve the recipe to their descendants. This industry of making “soft, and sweet confection of fresh carabaos milk and sugar” has provided livelihood to many families and sent lots of children to school. To date, there are 200 producers in San Miguel alone who continue this tradition.

The Way of Folk Art

Philippine folk art like pastillas wrapper-cutting is very difficult to define and often contradictory. For example practitioners like Lola Luz are self-taught but they are expected to have apprentices. Described as primitive or naïve, everything is done handmade however they are ethereal. Inspiration springs from what is available and from alternative sources. Usually they are not part of the mainstream production of things. In an effort to preserve the town’s unique culinary traditions and techniques, special classes in San Miguel’s public schools are offered in fruit and vegetable carving and pastillas-making.

It is said as part of the town’s lore that pastillas is too sweet that it must be given as a token of gratitude or must be shared on special occasions. By ordering pastillas to Lola Luz every so often (and picking them up in San Miguel yourself), may probably be the best way of keeping her art alive and saying thank you to her after all these years.