Meet the real ‘Pastillas (Wrapper) Girl’
CITY OF MALOLOS—The agricultural town of San Miguel in Bulacan is home to “pastillas”—that creamy, soft milk candy whose recipe was made popular recently by an online video posted by Angelica Jane Yap, popularly known as “Pastillas Girl,” who was nursing a broken heart over a former lover.
But in San Miguel, the original Pastillas Girl is not a comely lass looking for another chance at love.
Meet 93-year-old Luz Ocampo, who has been recognized for preserving the traditional art of making pastillas wrapper, called “borlas de pastillas” or “pabalat,” in the town formerly called San Miguel de Mayumo.
The term “mayumo” means “sweet” in Kapampangan.
Ocampo spent over 70 years nurturing the art, which is threatened by the loss of interest among the younger generations, said her daughter, Naty Ocampo-Castro. She is among, if not the last, remaining pabalat artisans of her generation but her contribution in keeping this art alive is evident in her body of work.
Her passion for paper cutting started at school when pabalat making was taught as part of the curriculum. Her skills improved when she started helping her mother, Adelaida Villaseñor, in cutting wrappers during her spare time after school.
Villaseñor was known for her pastillas and other delicacies in their home village of San Vicente.
Since learning the craft in her fifth grade at 12 until her retirement in 2010 at 88, Ocampo had created more than 50 designs, mostly based on rural settings in San Miguel.
Castro said at least 25 of these designs had been patented under her mother’s name.
Ocampo’s favorite designs include those showing outlines of Maria Clara from Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere, the traditional “bahay kubo” (nipa hut), and an image of a man pounding rice.
“When Mommy was in mood, she would draw from time to time. She drew anything she noticed in San Miguel, including nature [elements and scenes]…. She’s really an artist,” Castro told the Inquirer.
Unknown to many, Ocampo is also an expert in the art of fruit carving, using lime, santol and pomelo as her canvasses.
Aside from her original patterns, Ocampo is known for making customized designs based on the preferences of her customers, among them simple Bulakenyo folk and owners of five-star hotels in Metro Manila.
Customers usually request their names to be put in the elaborate design of the
2 x 10-inch pastillas wrapper. The wrappers and sweets are given as gifts during important occasions.
It was during Ocampo’s last year in high school, in the early 1940s, when the Japanese invaded the country, forcing her to give up pursuing college and tap her skills.
“When [World War II] started, I was in fourth year high school. That’s all I
finished since every school was closed year-round. I did not manage to study in Manila because of the chaos,” Ocampo said.
After the war, she put up a gift shop in San Miguel, where her skills were honed by wrapping gifts using wrappers with her own designs.
Upon marriage, Ocampo pursued pastillas wrapper making as a hobby and started earning by taking orders from home. But it was only after the death of her husband, Oscar, in the 1970s that she turned her hobby into a full time livelihood to support her four children.
From hobby to livelihood
Ocampo would start collecting thousands of pieces of pastillas wrappers in preparation for the high demand in the months leading to December when several celebrations are held, Castro said.
She would spend her days with folded colorful Japanese paper on her right hand and a pair of cuticle scissors on the other, carefully cutting the traces she made. She would place it between the pages of old magazines or books to avoid being crumpled.
She used to finish at least 100 pieces of pabalat a day, which she sold for 20 centavos in the 1950s. This now costs P600 per 100 pieces for basic designs and P1,000 for customized designs. If a customer wanted pastillas with the wrapper, then the product is sold at P12 each.
The tedious part of pastillas wrapper making, Castro said, is the cutting process. While a trace is followed, cutting small holes of the design takes effort and time, and a simple error could render the whole set useless, she said.
A lot of patience
“Cutting needs patience, a lot of patience,” she said.
Ocampo could finish a set, which contains five wrappers, between 10 and 15 minutes. “She made her products in our house in San Miguel. She doesn’t want to rent a space since it will entail an additional cost,” Castro said.
Ocampo’s wrappers became popular in Bulacan after she transferred to the City of Malolos in 1993 to live with her daughter, carrying with her the art of pabalat making.
Food historian Milagros Enriquez noticed Ocampo’s talent when she saw her demonstrating the craft in a school in Malolos. She invited Ocampo to seminars and workshops about the dying traditional art.
Among Ocampo’s regular customers is businessman Jaime Zobel de Ayala, who visited her in Bulacan to document the art in 2010.
Ocampo has displayed her craft in several official functions in Malacañang, with the latest in July 2012 when Spain’s Queen Sofia came to the Philippines for a five-day official visit.
Ocampo has been recognized by several groups, including the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, which conferred on her the Gawad Pamanang Sining. The Cultural Center of the Philippines paid tribute to her as one of the country’s “Manlilikha” or living artisans of the Philippine traditional arts.
The Bulacan government and the local governments of Malolos and San Miguel have been recognizing Ocampo since 2000 for her contribution in the preservation of the traditional art.
Dangal ng Lipi awardee
In September this year, she was cited as one of the province’s Dangal ng Lipi awardees, the highest recognition given by the provincial government to Bulakenyos who excelled in their chosen field.
But one of the things she enjoyed is conducting workshops and seminars in different schools and for organizations so she can pass on the art of paper cutting to younger generations, Castro said.
But Castro lamented that the craft is slowly dying, with few people appreciating and practicing wrapper making.
“She taught the women here how to make pastillas wrapper but no one wants to do it because it is tedious and hard,” Castro said. “Most of them have no patience doing it.”
Of Ocampo’s children, only Castro decided to pursue craft that her mother devoted her life into. The decision, however, came only after Castro retired as an industrial engineer in 2010.
Now 57, Castro said she went into pabalat making for the sake of her mother’s legacy. “I was not interested when I was younger, but my mother said no one will take care of the business, no one will continue the craft of pastillas wrapper making in the family. So I took on this task,” she said.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.