At first glance, you wouldn’t think much of it; after all, it’s just a pastillas wrapper. But before throwing it away, you might want to take another look. It might entrance you with attractively designed foliage, words of affection, or even historical events depicted on the wrapper’s tassels.
These unique packages are known as “borlas de pastillas” or “pastillas pabalat”, a specialty in San Miguel, Bulacan that was popularized by the late Luz Ocampo. It typically involves drawing patterns on strips of Japanese paper; afterward, the outline is hand-cut, leaving a small rectangle that nestles the pastillas. The outcome is a craft that is both decorative and functional.
While the practice of making pabalat has existed for generations, borlas artist Ruth Giron worries, “It’s a dying craft na dapat nang i-save.” One might not have the patience to endure the process of cutting elaborate designs. Yet, there are some who made it their mission to revive and disperse this traditional paper cutting.
(It’s a dying craft that needs to be saved.)
Many pabalat artists are connected to Ocampo in one way or another. Giron first made borlas de pastillas in 1992 after Ocampo conducted a workshop. She was part of the organizing committee who was tasked to clean the area after Ocampo was finished.
“Pinulot ko lahat nung mga tapon ng pinaggupitan [niya]. Inayos ko…[at] na-interes ako,” she recounts. Giron says she studied by herself until she effortlessly made her own designs. “Actually, sa umpisa, mahirap,” she recounts. But it was all worth it when she immortalized scenes from history and nature as the focal point of her borlas designs.
(I picked up the scraps of what she was cutting. I fixed them and I became interested…Actually, it was difficult at first.)
On the other hand, University of Santo Tomas College of Fine Arts and Design Professor Anna Marie Bautista learned about this “vanishing craft” in 2007 when her college planned to teach traditional Filipino art forms. “Nanay Luz taught us her trade secrets…Even though the scissors she used [were just] cuticle scissors,” she shares, looking back on Ocampo’s precise nicking of the minuscule patterns.
Although the attention fixates on the designs, Bautista reminds that the cutting aspect of pabalat should also be respected. Registered nurse Jaclyn Joaquin agrees, reminiscing how she and her sister learned about the craft in school and through their neighbor: Ocampo herself. “Depending on the design, may madali gupitin, merong matagal,” she expresses. “Pero it’s fulfilling kapag may matatapos akong gupitin.”
(Depending on the design, there are some that are easy and some that are hard. But it’s fulfilling when I see my finished work.)
This emphasis on cutting is more apparent in the strenuous freeform borlas, more commonly practiced in Malolos, Bulacan. Giron explains that in the past, housewives spontaneously conjure designs while they gossip, “Sasabihin ng isa, ‘maganda siguro may bulaklak ‘yan.’ Gagawa siya ng paraan kung paano ipapasok ‘yung [design] don.” But no matter what method or motif one uses, Bautista encourages that everyone can create attractive pabalat “as long as you understand the context [and] technique [behind it]”.
(One might say, “that might be better if there was a flower there.” Then they’ll find a way to sneak the design in the paper.)
An unfolding renaissance
Despite the popularity of pastillas, borlas currently wanes because its taxing undertaking only attracts those who are passionate about keeping the craft alive. Bautista notes in Filipino, “It’s dying because nobody does things manually anymore,” noting that the craft can be expensive, time-consuming, and laborious.
In the same tone, Giron laments that passing borlas to future generations is tough, especially if people are apathetic to learning this art form. This is discernible when older borlas makers only deem family members worthy of continuing the craft. “‘Pag hindi na naiinteres ‘yung sa kapamilya, wala na,” she says.
(If the family members aren’t interested, it’s done for.)
But all three testify that the pabalat’s intricacy gives it its inherent value, as automating its creation would lose its human touch. “Ito ang nakalakhan kong paraan…There is no better way [of doing] it than drawing and carefully cutting the intricate design,” Joaquin says. Moreover, the significance of preserving borlas carries much gravity as it symbolizes one’s culture and identity. She adds, “It is part of being a San Migueleño. Pastillas won’t be complete without its borlas.”
(This is the method I grew up with.)
To combat its impending extinction, Bautista conducts independent workshops to immerse people in making pabalat firsthand. “When I conduct workshops, I use my own designs [and] incorporate my personal innovations,” she mentions, advising beginners to shade the areas to be cut for easier navigation.
Similarly, Giron has worked with the Department of Education to train teachers in borlas making so schools could add it to their curriculum. This became a resounding success, resulting in pabalat competitions being held across school districts in Bulacan. Sadly, these activities have been postponed due to changes in the regional curriculum. But Giron is hopeful that pabalat’s integration in education would continue in the future.
In expanding the usefulness of borlas, Giron believes, “Kapag ginamitan mo ng creativity tsaka imagination, marami [paggagamitan ‘yan].” She contributes to this by accepting commissions that translate borlas designs on other mediums, such as on greeting cards, invitations, and nametags. Meanwhile, Bautista suggests the potential for the designs to be incorporated into lampshades, decorative art, and other furnishings.
(With some creativity and imagination, you can find many uses for it.)
Through these efforts, Joaquin is confident that “[pabalat] will still thrive in the future.” She believes that many people genuinely want to revive this craft for modern consumers, “Its intricate designs are too beautiful to be forgotten.”
‘Heritage of tomorrow’
At the end of the day, all three women have the same motive: to uphold the legacy of Luz Ocampo. Through borlas de pastillas, one not only gets to see the creative aspect of pabalat; they also witness generations’ worth of mastery in one wrapper. Giron’s passion overflows with memories of her late colleague. By discovering new takes on borlas, she believes people will get to appreciate the art form’s significance, continuing what Ocampo started decades before.
Bautista emphasizes this ideal by citing the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s calls to uphold tradition and heritage. “Lahat naman may pinanggagalingan,” she attests. “What we do now is the heritage of tomorrow…It’s up to us whether we kill it or sustain it.” After conducting her workshops where she imparts these thoughts, she feels at peace knowing she shared something profound to students.
(Everything has an origin.)
Ultimately, we have the responsibility to create avenues and seek innovations to save borlas de pastillas. Failure to do so would erase part of our history, culture, and heritage. Thus, Giron firmly believes the art shouldn’t just be cherished by the people of Bulacan, “Ang legacy ay, sa tingin ko, pamana—isalin sa susunod na henerasyon.”
(Its legacy, for me, is heritage—to pass it down to the next generation)