Ang La Laguna ay isáng nápacagandang lugar.
Mayaman sa calicasan, cultura, at casaysayan.
Daluyan ng macasining na camalayán at mg̃a obra.
May auit ang bauat diuang malayà.
We easily clicked the first time we met in his cozy, bahay na bató inspired café-slash-art-gallery. At least, that was how Dr. Nilo Valdecantos made me feel upon welcoming me to Kape Kesada Art Gallery, a popular cultural nook tucked in the heart of artistic Paeté, La Laguna Province.
Dressed in short pants and a tee (what we Filipinos endearingly call a pambahay), I found him in his art gallery seated by a customized wooden table, laughing vociferously with another gentleman. After the formalities of introduction, I nervously took my seat in front of him. But at that very instant, he bade me —no, ordered me— stand up again.
“Tumayo ca ñga muna, p’re,” he said, to which I complied. No sooner had I stood up when he suddenly asked me this question: “¿anó’ng height mo?” I was stunned by the seeming irrelevance but was already trying to remember measurements in my head when he suddenly shrieked in laughter, prompting the gentleman with him and my companion who was also his friend to laugh along with him. Little did I know that I was the victim of some sort of classic Doc Nilo prank. Apparently, the two gentlemen with us were also unknowing victims of the same question when they first met the jolly dentist.
That was eight years ago. The companion I was with was the one who brought me to Kape Kesada to introduce me to the rather eccentric dentist. Doc Nilo was then a cultural consultant under former La Laguna Governor E.R. Ejército. During that time, I was commissioned to write a history book for the province, a project which was later aborted when Ejército was unceremoniously kicked out of office due to an election campaign case.
The main reason I was introduced to him was to familiarize myself with the arts and culture of Paeté as part of the mentioned book project. Little did I know that it was going to be the beginning of a friendship that was anchored in our mutual love and respect for the arts and for La Laguna’s history.
During the course of my research on the history of our province, I stumbled upon its long-lost foundation date which, I’ve been told, has long been sought after by many other historians and provincial administrations before me. In my impromptu quest to have the date officially recognized, I received stiff opposition from various individuals and from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines itself. Doc Nilo was one of the very few who supported me. He always accompanied me to meetings regarding the recognition of the date. He even organized the first public celebration of the province’s founding anniversary at his Kape Kesada Art Gallery without any prodding from me, and even before the date was officially declared to be canon (La Laguna’s founding anniversary has since been celebrated officially beginning 2015 when Ramil Hernández already took over the governorship of the province Ejército).
Since then, Doc Nilo has never failed to invite me to Kape Kesada’s major events, and apologizing for those rare moments that the invitations failed to arrive. He even made me the main speaker in an arts event that he sponsored at the University of Asia and the Pacific. Indeed, he was both an admirer and a friend.
A funny thing that I notice in him is that during media interviews (as éminence grise of Paeté’s arts and culture scene, he was always the town’s representative), he is a man of praise, a glorious spokesman in the mold of Tagalog statesmen of yore. But among friends he was riotous and loud, the typical drinking buddy with guitar in hand and a drunken voice ever-ready to belt out Louis Armstrong tunes and other folk songs. Only among loved ones can one see the real Nilo Valdecantos: a jovial person, full of mirth. He was that fun to be with.
Sometime in 2017, tragedy struck the Valdecantos household when Doc Nilo was diagnosed with cancer: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He then underwent months of grueling chemotheraphy (the upside was that he lost a lot of weight, including his signature pot belly). After surviving the ordeal, he immediately organized a fund-raiser for the benefit of poor cancer patients, gathering La Laguna’s best artists in an art exhibit for a cause that was held at the LRI Design Plaza. It was the last major event that he had organized. Several months later, the cancer came back to take him away.
When it comes to the town’s arts and culture scene, Doc Nilo was the go-to-guy. While Paeté is known throughout the country for its visual artists (the Department of Tourism markets it as the “Woodcarving Capital of the Philippines”), Doc Nilo was no sculptor, neither did he sketch nor paint. But he served as the picturesque town’s patron of the arts. Through his Kape Kesada Art Gallery, he had helped launch and sustain the careers of many wood carvers and painters of Paeté, among them Dominic Rubio, the Cagandahan siblings, Fred Baldemor (Doc Nilo dubbed him as our country’s Michaelangelo), the late Patricio “Peping” Balquiedra (he died just a few months ago), and many others. Even artists from outside of town were welcomed and treated as family. For Kape Kesada is home to kindred soul, whethere Lagunense or not.
Kape Kesada Art Gallery is hands down the de facto cultural center of Paeté. It is thus a haven for both art aficionados and coffee lovers. Its founder, the poetic and ever jovial Dr. Nilo Valdecantos, was undoubtedly La Laguna Province’s most loyal and staunch patron of culture and the arts. His altruism towards the province’s artists is genuine, pure, something to marvel at. He and his café-slash-art gallery is the beating heart of the province’s culture and the arts, and thus should be recognized and honored by all art institutions in the country.
I have yet to meet another kind soul whose love for La Laguna is as ardent and as deep as Doc Nilo’s. I doubt if that love could be equaled in the coming years.
I miss him dearly.
Sabi nung ibá, “hindi ca mapapacáin ng cultura”. Pero ang nasa isip co, sinagót co sa canilá: “pero caya tayong buhayin ng cultura.”
–Dr. Nilo Valdecantos–