By Carmen A. Navarro (originally published in The Chronicle Magazine, 29 June 1963, pp. 44)
Paete is a little town nestled at the foot of Sierra Madre ranges and locked by Laguna de Bay. It has no wide plains, not 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, fifty nine 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 two hundred fifty 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, two hundred fifty years ago.
The second meeting place 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 trictly 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.
Woodcarving is the lifeblood of Paeteño culture which started in pre-Spanish times when the first group of Malay inhabitants happened to have a penchant for chiseling figures with a ‘apet’. In 1882, that penchant reached a golden age when Mariano Madriñan received a diploma and a medal of honor from King Alfonso XII of Spain for his Mater Dolorosa, a work of art exhibited at the International Exposition held in Amsterdam, Holland and Paete’s woodcraft found its wayin European palaces of kings and doors of Cathedrals. 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 ay be completed when the Php75,000 worth of Paete woodcarving will be 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.