Jessica Nicole Gayo and Alyanna Bianca Pamfilo
SA 21 – J
On a bright and sunny day, with blue covering every inch of the sky, two young college students went out to explore the culture of the heritage town, Taal in Batangas. In a quiet corner of the historical town, dilapidating concrete houses with rusty roofs and slanting posts are surrounded by trees swaying in the slight breeze of the summer morning. Parked motorcycles lined the streets, and children were running around in front of one of the houses, their shrieks of joy like darts in the quiet of the day. A man nearby stood leaning against a post, seemingly waiting for a friend, or perhaps just taking a break from the glaring heat of the sun.
The car stopped here, in front of the house that the two young women were meant to visit for this day. Given its simple structure and modest space, the people inside were a little cramped. Beams of light filtered in from the many “windows” inside of the little panutsa factory, punctuating the dimness of the space. Made from all concrete, wood, and galvanized roof, with no walls on three sides, smoke rose up from the boiling pot near the entrance of the tiny makeshift house. As the two entered the place, they were instantly enveloped by the heat, and the accompanying sweet scent of boiling sugar; the air was thick with the smell of hard labor, and the distinct smell of burning wood. In one corner, a wide table made of wood was covered with kitschy table cloths under big plastic sheets; sweets made from coconut flakes and sugar — bukayo, as they are commonly called by the locals and those who are familiar with the treat — piled high, ready for packaging and delivery. Stray coconut flakes from the previous batch were left on the table, and a woman went over to put it into a plastic and throw it away, or maybe set it aside for the kids playing outside in the neighborhood. On another table, dozens of boxes are filled with their products and stacks upon stacks of panutsa line the tables, ready for delivery and consumption.
The simple tranquility of the factory was a stark contrast from what they had grown up accustomed to, living in the city. The undercurrent of constant stress which plagued them every day in Manila was very notably absent during their stay. There was no wifi here, or even any sign of electricity except for the fan that was whirring in the corner. No one here used any gadgets, instead preferring to converse with the multiple random individuals that came and went — presumably friendly neighbors just coming by to buy some treats or simply to say hello, and were curious what the commotion was all about. Everyone was either working, talking, or doing both at the same time. It was an escape from academics, from life, like they were all suspended in time in some glossy Filipino teleserye.
At the heart of all the hubbub was steaming cauldrons full of melted sugar mixed with peanuts, constantly being mixed by steady hands. The resulting steamy syrup is poured onto flat planks of wood with circular moulds atop them, which give the sweets their shape. Bilaos or hand-woven baskets made from sturdy leaves line the room; these are used to dry the sticky panutsa after they are moulded. The process of making panutsa is quick, but a lot of hands are needed, and efficiency is a must. Each cycle of production goes by in mere moments, and each of the workers’ movements are finely tuned, almost like a machine. On average, over 3,000 panutsa are made in this tiny space every day.
The two girls stared in awe at the hustle and bustle going on around them. Panutsa is such a simple treat, made only out of sugar and peanuts but, in truth, an astounding amount of work goes into making it. For a measly 9.00php, you can have yourself a true Pinoy snack or dessert. The two stopped to fully take in their surroundings: the sounds of engines passing, motorcycles and cars, at times playing loud (and often baduy) music, the faint shouts of the neighborhood children playing in the surrounding houses, the rustling of the growing green leaves from blow of the light wind, and the voices of the people conversing — their accents evident, and proof of how even if Batangas is merely two to three hours away from Metro Manila, their culture and usage of the same Tagalog language is different and distinct from that of the cosmopolitan. The girls were able to converse with a handful of the colorful characters that populated the factory. First, they were introduced to Nanay Sonia, the factory owner, who with her loud and raspy voice often talks in high volume (read: she’s always shouting at people), but not unkindly. Her husband, Tatay Chito, on the other hand, with his raspy, slow drawl, sounds like a slow drag from a cigarette and cynicism personified. Another friendly face, Ate Annie, the old couple’s daughter-in-law and product reseller, greeted them, a slow and gentle tone to her voice, as mothers often have.
A woman with a fresh face, one you might encounter at a grocery and chat up while you are both lining up at the counter, then approached the two girls. She was quite petite, and was perhaps in her mid-twenties, with a soft, maybe too-formal tone of voice. She tried to figure out what she was supposed to do with the two. She was Ate Michelle, the daughter of the owners, Nanay Sonia and Tatay Chito. Upon prompting from her mother, she proceeded to explain the work that went into making panutsa. She was kind and patient as she guided the two in the step-by-step process of making the treat.
The girls were first led to the front of the factory where the smoking cauldron bubbled, full of sugar peanuts caramelizing into a deep-amber colored syrup. They watched as the stirrer, a lean boy scarred from his constant handling of the pot, transported it to the next station, where Nanay Sonia was stationed to pour the syrup into circular molds placed atop worn wooden trays. As she was pouring, the girls were instructed to beat the syrup flat within the molds, using wooden pestles that were left soaking in a nearby bucket of water. This soaking, according to Ate Michelle, is done so that the sweets do not stick to their tools. After pounding, while the syrup was still malleable, the molds were taken off and the panutsa was left to air dry, until they were hard enough to transferred to bilaos to await packaging. Bilaos in hand, the girls were then directed to the final station, where they were taught how to seal the panutsa in plastic. They attempted in vain to mimic the swift movements of their mentor, who was able to twist the product sealed in one fluid movement. Packaging the sweets with them were women and children from the neighborhood, and when asked if they were paid laborers, they simply smiled, and answered in their famous Batangueno accents,
“Taga-dito din kami eh, tumutulong lamang kung walang trabaho. Itong mga bata eh, andito laang kung wala silang mga pasok.”
One of the two girls then proceeded to ask,
“Magkano naman po ang bayad sa inyo? O kusa lang po ba kayong tumutulong dito?”
“Ah eh, kelangan din namin ng hanap buhay, ineng. Ang mga tao dito kadalasan binabayaran mga isang daan (100.00php) kada sako.”
Coming to realize the hard work that goes into what people simply considered as a delicacy, the two girls quickly realized the relevance of their quest to Taal. With the upcoming Labor Day, the plight of these small town workers are often overlooked. Although they work in private, small scale workshops, they are underpaid and, because their work is physical, the workers are prone to health hazards, such as burns and wounds from stirring boiling pots of sugar all day. The benefits are close to none and the wage is below minimum, but according to the workers there, it is better than doing nothing all day and earning nothing in return.
If Jess and Pamf, the two college girls who went on this immersion, are asked how they felt during the activity that lasted for about four hours — though they stayed there for an hour longer to eat lunch with the workers and talk about everything in between — they would tell you that while it was not a life-changing and once-in-a-lifetime kind of event, it certainly opened their eyes to the reality of their kababayans. Pamf’s family has an ancestral house in Taal’s poblacion, so she was used to going home there and seeing these kinds of businesses around the neighborhood. However, she did not once stop to really take a look at the situation of these people who are only trying to make ends meet by making such delicacies as panutsa. A cultural icon that originated hundreds of years ago, panutsa’s recipe was passed between families around the town, and handed down from generation to generation. This simple, cheap sweet has managed to put food on the tables of hundreds of hardworking Batangueno families.
“It’s really far from what we are used to, living in the city,” says Jess, “I grew up in a small town like Iloilo, and we have provinces there as well, but getting to experience the kind of work that [these] people do is an altogether different experience. It was hot and humid in that small space, but the talking and the laughter and the food we shared with them made up for all the sweating we did while working.”
“Ay, totoo, bes. Sobrang relaxing sa pagawaan, walang Wi-Fi, walang anything, escape talaga from acads,” adds Pamf, “you can really feel the closeness of the family, and of the community. Even the vendors feel like they are part of Nanay Sonia’s family.”
Though the two felt very much welcome at the factory, they were initially afraid to strike up a conversation with the locals. Tatay Chito, the owner of the place, eventually approached the two girls, asking how old they were and, if they were there for academic purposes: “Ano ‘to, neng, yung thesis ba? Palagi namang may ganito, yung mga nag-iimersion. Kadalasan galing sa La Salle Lipa lamang eh, yung iba eh galing pa Maynila.”
He joked around with Pamf and Jess, and even jokingly tried to set them up with one of his sons, asking the ladies if they were single and ready to mingle. Tatay Chito also had some interesting insights on big universities, “Yung mga taga-Ateneo, bihira lang tumanggap ng mga iskolar,” he ponders, “mga mayayaman lang naman yung nakakapasok dahil sa laki ng tuition. Mga athlete nga lang yung kinukuha nilang scholar, kasi kailangan nila yun eh. Pag taga-UP naman, yun yung talagang magaling.” He did not say it to offend the two girls who mentioned they were studying in Ateneo, though, more like he was commenting on what he presumed was true because most of the scholars from Batangas that he knew of were admitted to Ateneo because of a sport scholarship.
After a few more minutes of friendly conversation, Tatay Chito excused himself to deal with some customers who were calling him. Ate Michelle came back and started wrapping the panutsa on the table. According to her, their workspace used to be a billiard house, until the business became slow and eventually had to close down; they then converted it into their factory. Taal is really into the business of making delicacies, she shares, and panutsa and bukayo are among the top products from Taal. “Mabenta talaga sila, especially sa mga tourists na nasa mga beach dito sa Batangas,” Ate Annie, a vendor, confirms. On a stroke of luck, Jess and Pamf went to Taal on the day of the El Pasubat Festival, which is celebrated in order to promote the many exports of Taal. This is a project of the local government, whom the citizens have a good relationship with. “Business lang, walang personalan,” as how Nanay Sonia would put it.
A few years back, the factory was featured on a local crime expose TV show, where the pagawaan was made out to look unhygienic. The producers of the show sent in an operative with a dog, and a camera strapped to his slipper. The operative was able to enter their establishment, and the TV show made it look like the dog was able to step on their cooking stations, contaminating their products. After this unfortunate incident, business slowed, and they were unable to get a lot of buyers. In the end, the mayor made arrangements to fix the mess created by a TV show that had no regard for the loss of livelihood as long as they had something to broadcast; the mayor promoted the products heavily, through grander celebrations of El Pasubat, and holding talks and workshops on how to make panutsa — in which Nanay Sonya has been invited to speak and teach several times — to tourists in the heritage houses, and the local businesses have since been steady, more or less.
Though they identify themselves as being poor, Nanay Sonya and Tatay Chito’s income is quite steady, and large enough that they can send all of their five children to finish college, some even finishing with two degrees. Their kids finished with degrees such as nursing, engineering, IT, but some of them chose to quit their jobs and come back to Taal to work for the family business. “Tinamad na kasi sila eh,” states Tatay Chito. According to him, his Children aren’t interested in leaving Taal and going to Manila because life there is harder: they hardly know anyone, and the cost of living would be too high for a small job, that is if they get hired at all.
Manila remains relevant to them, though they do not live there, since this is where they buy their ingredients in bulk, from Divisoria. They get their capital from a financier that loans them money, and when collecting the payment, it will have a certain percentage of interest. They deliver the goods — panutsa, bukayo, peanut brittle, etc. — to the local market in the mornings, via tricycle. The outside vendors, meanwhile, come over to pick up their orders so they can sell on the streets or at the local beaches; often they stay a while to help make the products. Vendors sometimes go as far as Manila to sell the delicacies, and they make good money because the price range is higher in the city. Tatay Chito good-naturedly said, “Kapag mukhang mayaman, sabihin mong 45 (php) yung presyo niyan”, ( the regular price is 35php).
The workers were very patient with Pamf and Jess as well, when the two volunteered to help with making panutsa. They understood that the two were not very familiar with the process, and they showed the girls how to mould properly, and redid the work if the girls couldn’t do it properly, without passing judgment or making impatient remarks. Quite the hospitable bunch, these locals of Taal. “When I couldn’t figure out how to wrap the panutsa, they kept trying to teach me until I wasted too much time and plastic, so they had me stop nalang and I watched instead,” Pamf laughs. The two worked at each station for a few minutes before sitting down to help wrap the dried candies. The children milling around were too shy to approach Pamf and Jess, but the two easily conversed with the grown locals there. Pamf’s parents, bless their generous hearts, came back before noon with a ton of food for everyone to share. After they left the food, the locals insisted that Pamf and Jess eat first, telling both of them, “bunso, kain na kayo.”
Of course, it can’t be denied that the presence of the two influenced the daily flow of the locals. Even when the food was already readily prepared at the table, they were a bit shy to eat and join the two at the table. They shared their own cooked food with two, and kept asking permission if they could get some from the food that was bought for them. They would get the food and eat somewhere else in the room, except for Ate Annie and Ate Michelle who joined Pamf and Jess at the table and happily chatted with the two while eating. They gave the girls bottled water and coke while they drank water from shared cups. Neighbors who came in kept asking them who the two “kay gandang mga dalaga ire” were. Ate Michelle even bathed her Shih Tzu, Kisses, when she saw that Pamf and Jess wanted to play with the dog.
The business of making panutsa and other local delicacies are very common; panutsa is one of the main exports of Taal, and it has reached different regions, not just in NCR, but in Visayas and Mindanao as well. These sorts of businesses have been around for the longest time, ever ingrained in the very heart of the culture of the people of Taal. It continues to flourish because it is honest work and helps contribute to the tourism of the town. People from the outskirts of town partake in this livelihood, and they sell to those living in the poblacion in the center. Much like the sugar that keeps the peanuts together in panutsa, the culture of locally made products keep the people of this small town close and in touch with each other’s lives, with them actively talking and seeing their neighbors and appreciating the quiet and peace their neighborhood has to offer. What a blessing for the two correspondents, Pamf and Jess, to be able to live a day in the life of these local laborers; to understand their culture, their plight, and stand with them to celebrate the richness that Philippine culture has to offer.