46…FortySIX

Mexico

46 SATURDAY

“An intellectual is someone who manages to leverage authority gained from peers in one field of knowledge or culture to become a publicly recognized authority on fundamental…public issues”

Yvon Grenier   Octavio Paz: An Intellectual and his Critics

One of the most prestigious intellectual feuds of 20th century Mexican literature is that between Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz.  While it was not my intention here to describe in detail their personal histories,  any investigation into contemporary Mexico – either artistically or politically – would be incomplete without acknowledging the profound impact these two writers have had on the Mexico which exists in the international psyche today.  In an effort to explain the complexity of Mexico and its furious desire to express an identity it would be impossible not to describe at least the shadows of how these writers became publicly recognized authorities of such a contradictory desire.  A desire which is further frustrated by the impossibility of reconciling a duality which began with the first child fathered by Spanish soldiers in the “New World” and continues with the struggle to move beyond that history without denying it as the foundations for a different kind of future.

Paz and Fuentes had in common many formative political, philosophical, and creative experiences – both men initially studied law but later abandoned the discipline for writing, both supported Castro initially and later condemned him, both worked as ambassadors (Fuentes to France and Paz to India), and both resigned in protest against the Mexican government, both accepted teaching positions at Harvard (Fuentes also taught at Brown, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth), and both cite Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as an especially influential figure in their lives – but a disagreement over the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua was where the two divided bitterly.

In 1984 Paz gave a speech in Frankfurt condemning the Sandinistas as ‘undemocratic’ and as a result was widely criticized as aligning with the United States and therefore betraying his Latin identity.  Later that same year Paz published an entire transcript of the speech in his literary magazine “Vuelta”, in the speech he clearly criticized both the Sandinistas and the United States – for their historical support of dictators in the Central American region, an opinion he had expressed two years prior to the Frankfurt speech in an essay entitled “América Latina y la democracia”:

“…the United States has been one of the principal obstacles we have encountered in our efforts to modernize ourselves…in Latin America, the United States has been the protector of tyrants and the ally of the enemies of democracy.”

Carlos Fuentes would avoid such leftist controversy by supporting the Sandanistas – and later the Zapatistas in Chiapas, a movement which Paz also criticized – and publicly denouncing U.S. foreign policy.   It is worth noting at this point  “The Old Gringo” a novel Fuentes first published in 1985, became the first of its kind to enjoy ‘Best Seller’ status in the United States and in 1989 was ironically made into a Hollywood movie.  One year prior journalist Enrique Krauze would attack Fuentes in the same magazine which had published the Frankfurt speech:

“There is the suspicion in Mexico that Fuentes merely uses Mexico as a theme, distorting it for a North American public, claiming credentials that he does not have.”

Meanwhile critics of Paz would claim that he had also lost authority on fundamental Mexican issues, articulated by Maarten van Delden in his essay Polemical Paz; 

“In 1968 Paz had resigned as Mexico’s ambassador to India to protest the Mexican government’s violent repression of the student movement; by contrast, in 1988 he used his prestige to help Salinas strengthen his hold on the presidency in the wake of what were widely viewed as fraudulent elections. There was a broad consensus among Paz’s critics that he had betrayed his former ideals.”

They were playing a game of chance with full pockets and an empty grin. Although the game was with themselves they crossed the border many times.  They left Mexico and they sold pieces of the Mexican story, retelling it with foreign tongues – each time playing another hand until perhaps their role as border-crosser became permanent and they could no longer remember the ending. Tiny aromatic explosions sprayed across the table top and the air was filled with the scent of fresh grapefruit.  He was intently separating  soft white membranes from their juicy sections when he replied; “Moss, musgos son Moss en Ingles”.  We were seated at the dining table and the window was open, I could hear an announcer calling out across the plaza as the evening game of Lotería began.  “Musgos…” I continued reading aloud and Antonio began dissecting the second of his four grapefruit.  When Antonio liked something he gorged on it shamelessly; mountains of grapefruit, liters of ice cream…once he explained this behavior as a result of his pregnant mother only eating chayotes; a sort of bitter gourd.   Whatever the cause it usually provided us some time at the table alone (the rest of the family long since gave up on waiting) with the window open and the calls of Lotería announcers softly echoing against the plaza walls.

I had been assigned Aura a short novel by Carlos Fuentes, and as it was the first book I would read entirely in Spanish – Antonio had offered to help.  So we read the book together, line for line, unraveling the story and often drifting into other discussions until each grapefruit had been carefully eaten; his moth-eyebrows fluttering, chewing slowly, infinitely patient.  One evening he told me of his childhood.  Watery eyes of memory and describing a younger self and the gardenia he sold to gentlemen on the plaza.  Although not quite a happy story, he laughed out loud to think of it and in doing so comforted the little boy of his past.  A few moments later, after the chuckle had subsided, he picked up another grapefruit and got back to the work of extracting its flesh.  And I continued reading, voice mingling with that of an invisible announcer “46 El Sol – La cobija de los pobres” – 46 The Sun, the blanket of the poor.  

It became something of an informal ritual and a way for both me to understand a man my father loved deeply and for him to understand which part of me was my father. One afternoon, walking with Antonio on an errand and walking along a side street leading away from the plaza, a woman stopped us. She greeted him and they embraced talking casually for a few minutes until he introduced me.  She was… his daughter.  Surprised and sensing it a delicate matter, I let it rest asking nothing more of him by way of explanation.  Later that week at the table, our conversation drifting, three and a half grapefruits remaining, he began the story.  Before Pina,Rocio or Abraham he had been a happy husband and father of other children.  Then his wife died and he was a desperate man, alone with small children.  So tragic a story of the gardenia-scented boy, I began to cry.  ” Y me salvo” She saved me…he met Pina.  It was not for me to ask about whether the small children by his side had also been saved, too raw and bleeding a topic – too tenuous an opening to his heart.  And to mine, I had also been by the side of someone alone.

Aura long finished, we still sat sometimes at the table, open window, Antonio carefully peeling his grapefruit, talking. An excerpt from “El Laberinto de la Soledad”  The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz was one of the last pieces of literature I was assigned to read.  Published in 1950 the collection of essays remained some of the most revered reflections on the nature of the Mexican mind.  The excerpt introduced me to an idea Paz  has long since been credited with introducing to academia; the idea that Mexicans fall on either side of La Chingada / El Chingado, the victim…  or La Chingona / El Chingon the victimizer.  The terms are dynamic in the sense that their use and contextual meaning depend greatly on the positioning of the speaker and to whom they are speaking.  A capricious conversation, generated by the mutability of life itself – revolutionaries age and gardenia die.

45…FortyFIVE

Mexico

Saturday-45

Kitsch can be understood as a monetized solution for the shame suffered by a culture’s middle class, a way to market their declaration of social mobility.  By simultaneously romanticizing and condescending artistic elements of authentic, specific culture, kitsch renders them digestible for a wider audience and for profit than the original element would have otherwise attracted.

“The precondition for kitsch, a condition without which kitsch would be impossible, is the availability close at hand of a fully matured cultural tradition, whose discoveries, acquisitions, and perfected self-consciousness kitsch can take advantage of for its own ends” Clement Greenberg Avant-Garde and Kitsch 1939.

Greenberg, one of the most influential visual art critics of the 20th century, goes on to examine in his essay the relationship between the development of kitsch in relationship with social class and political manipulation.  And while he describes kitsch in terms of an artistic style which had spread, even at the time of his writing, into the global he does not examine the relationship kitsch has with the tourist.  Diverging at this point with the trajectory of his essay,  I am interested in looking more carefully at the role of ‘cultural ambassador’ that kitsch has marketed for the benefit of the outsider.

In order for the appropriation and resulting mutation to meet the successful (read profitable) end it seeks, kitsch must attract a customer. When doing so internationally it must respond to a demand for culture made by an audience that constructs it’s own identity through collecting representations of the exotic.  As a result the producers of kitsch are able to market their sanitized version of a culture from which they have removed themselves and the collector is able to recognize familiar social cues stemming more from a socio-economic language than from specific geographical locale.

While kitsch necessarily deals in cultural iconography it is not to be mistaken for craft, for the product of an artisan working within a culturally relevant vocabulary and set of materials.  It is true that many artisans produce kitsch, and this can be understood as a response over time to the demand made by the middle class consumer for such easily digestible versions of culture and the extremely complex set of political networks which have placed many artisans in the crosshairs of profit.  Sadly this combination of factors has resulted many times in the annihilation of the original inspiration and ultimately culturally relevant bodies of work.  Nevertheless there is something more serious being whispered just below the surface of the flamboyance and manufactured nature offered by kitsch initially.

The traffic was thick as we approached San Luis Potosi, as all of the side roads connected to the highway from all directions.  Ahead of us, a long procession of lightweight trucks packed to overflowing with bags of goods for sale and upon entering city limits the streets were also packed with people selling any number of items to the slow moving lines of vehicles.  Commerce was in the air.  Money changing hands, travelers of all ages dragging, hauling, and hoisting  merchandise everywhere we looked.  The whole city was close to tearing open and spilling all of us out into the desert.

Looping and looping around the pulsating central business district we were finally able to park the car and stumble dazed into the chaos.  So saturated was the city that it took more time that anticipated to locate any vacancy for that night’s accommodations.   Once settled into a large dark room without windows, we weighed our options and decided to remain there for the night.  After having washed some pertinent articles of clothing in the bathroom sink and having engineered a clever line from which to hang them, we went to bed. Grateful to find that the car had survived an entire night of hustling and remained intact, we made our way back out of the city, quiet as it regrouped for the next evenings financial circus to begin once again.

Following the highway south, later that day we arrived in the small town of  San Miguel de Allende.  At one time almost unknown to tourists from outside of Mexico, San Miguel quickly gained attention as it’s neo-Gothic church at the heart of the town was ‘discovered’ by foreign artists and as a result several educational institutions were established.  It became an important location for the study and production of Mexican art, as both foreign and national students were attracted by the chance to study with famous Mexican artists such as the prolific painter David Alfaro Siqueiros.  This hybridization of the populous was nothing new as it had long since been a crossroads between territories of the silver-rich north and the commercial center of Mexico City – Spanish, indigenous and later Criollo peoples had been loving, fighting and trading in the area for hundreds of years.  

Entering San Miguel for the first time was like driving right onto the glossy set of an idyllic Mexican postcard.  It was the perfect, brightly painted, bougainvillea draped, Mexico only our fantasies could have conjured and we had arrived on market day.  Gone were the suspicious tricks of hand and burdened masses of merchant pilgrims stuffed into the dark corners of a capital city.  People did not wander the street selling wares, instead they were clearly organized into rows of shop fronts and doorways seducing pedestrians with images of Frida affixed to any number of objects, each shop striving to outdo the previous with it’s unexpected placement or juxtaposition.  The whole fantasy reaching climax as the streets merged into the Mercado de Artesanias – the central crafts market.  

Right in pace with the frenzy of ‘one of every color’ mentality and nearly floating on a cloud of ecstatic, if not somewhat voyeuristic, wholesaling of Mexican culture – we entered the market. It was here were the balance was tipped and I was able to comprehend the dimension of the world in which I had entered.  Every passageway was lined, shoulder to shoulder, table to table, rack to rack with objects for sale in each and every internationally recognizable  ‘indigenous’ format.  It was intimate, it was personal, it had all been produced for me, to satiate my orgiastic longing to posses all of Mexico.   In that brief pause of humid transactions, cash for culture, I recognized myself as fuel and my somewhat lecherous desire to collect, a choice I had made to prioritize owning over knowing.              

44…FortyFOUR

Mexico

*44 FridayProduced in 1979, translated into 1,100 languages, available as a free interactive application both on iTunes and Google Play;  the Jesus film  “…is perhaps the most-viewed motion picture of all time” according to The New York Times, as many as 2 billion views the BBC reported in 2003…today the website representing the film claims “6 billion views worldwide”.  The majority of these views designed to take place in the most ‘unreached’ areas of the world as the film is used by Christian evangelists working to convert populations who have potentially never heard of Jesus or do not have a single Christian among them.

An example of one such missionary crusade – an organization in my home state of Colorado – “Joshua Project is a research initiative seeking to highlight the ethnic people groups with the fewest followers of Jesus Christ” quoted from their website.  A visitor to this website can easily access details about “Unreached People”  around the world, organize missionary activities and check the “Unreached of the Day” calendar with lists of customized prayers.  After acknowledging the political function the missionary tradition performs in terms of spreading religious “reach”,  after addressing the inherent power of privilege and class divide that a potential interaction between missionary and ‘unreached’  groups presents,  such an intensity of emotional urgency to inform on a perceived dearth of spirit regardless of invitation is what remains curious for me.

Growing up in my father’s house and in his commercial design office, both filled with his curated collections of Mexican art, I gradually became aware of distinct artistic traditions and their correlating geographical origins.  When I learned of the Wixáritari (Huichol in Spanish) I was surprised there was not more of their art represented in my fathers collection. And when I decided to move to Guadalajara I saw  my opportunity to explore beyond my fathers cartography and into the unknown.  This quickly grew into a quest of a reasonable size and it was not long after arriving in Mexico when I announced my interest in ‘staying with the Huichol’ to Antonio.  Completely inexperienced in planning either the intellectual or logistical goals for such an impulse, I asked him to help me.  Soon after I realized that the situation was far more complex than I had understood.

First, the Huichol are historically a highly private people and very rarely welcomed strangers into their communities and second, they had long been the conversion target of Catholic missionaries traveling from Guadalajara.  Combined with the fact that Antonio and his family were highly religious themselves (attending Catholic mass every single morning) their participation, even facilitation, of my exposure to an animistic  “blue-deer worshipping-people” was…questionable.  In the end, after months of persisting,  Antonio found a way to negotiate between his spiritual hesitation and the loyalty to my fathers – and by extension my – artistic appreciation.  One afternoon he took me to the Templo Expiatorio del Santísimo Sacramento, a neo-Gothic style cathedral stretching its spires skywards from central Guadalajara.  After consulting with the local religious authorities in Tlaquepaque, Anotnio had secured an audience with a church official responsible for contact with the Huichol.  Unaware of this plan until it was already happening, I quickly found myself confronted with a decision.  Was the ‘how’ important to me?  It was.  Although extremely appreciative of my friends efforts to stretch significantly outside of his well-defined comfort zone, I  declined the offer to join a group of missionaries attempting to gain access to a group of Huichol living north of the city.

This was the first of many ethical crossroads I would encounter as I continued my travels that year and ultimately it set the tone, color and texture of my life as an anthropologist.

The light of the tunnel eventually faded and we were birthed into a dark, sleeping town of colonial masonry.  Almost immediately a boy of ten ran alongside the car and offering himself as guide.  Initially our auto response denied him the chance to do so, but after  driving on for a few blocks without seeing any signs of other options, he climbed right into the car with us and began pointing us down the narrow streets and around the plaza until we stopped in front of an imposing set of wooden doors.  Calling passwords out to an invisible host, the doors opened and we were greeted by a middle-aged man, who had obviously been asleep somewhere inside moments ago. We parked the car and tipped our young guide before the heavy doors were closed behind us.

The man casually led us through the courtyard, passing a thriving garden of potted plants and drying laundry until we reached a small room at the back of the building.  Before leaving us to rest, we asked about horses, actually my friend wanted a donkey, but I definitely was interested in a full-sized horse. Without explaining further he responded with a sleepy nod and replied “Si, si mañana. / Yes, yes tomorrow.”  as if the initial request his guests always made was for a horse at sunrise.  The donkey, he paused reflecting, may not be possible… but “mañana” either way.

We needed toothpaste and I needed a snack, so by default it was me who returned back out into he night in search of a tiendita.  I found one still open at the far end of the plaza, out front an animated group of teenagers were playing foosball on an aging table below a flickering fluorescent bulb and a smoking griddle was keeping an older man company as we watched in his periphery.  I ordered three tacos without meat and was served a mystified pile of grilled onions and bell peppers in corn tortillas before returning to our quiet room. It was dark and surprisingly cold when the alarm roused us the next morning.

Unsure if we had clearly expressed ourselves the night before, we made our way back through the courtyard and the still quiet building beginning to doubt if in fact horses would be waiting for us.   Passing through a collage of sprouting plastic bottles, leafy terra-cotta and prolific recycled cans of all kinds we noticed a single light had been switched on near the entrance.  Turning the corner three large horses dominated the doorway, their frosty breath forced out in plumes from moist nostrils, as they waited impatiently.  No donkey. A quick discussion about the price to time ratio has satisfactorily agreed upon by all involved, we were launched atop leather saddles and were following a young man out of the cobbled stone and onto a dirt path out of the town.

The sky was slowly fading to violet and the stars seemed to contrast against it even more fantastically.  The vegetation around me was unlike anything I had ever seen.  In town the roads were dry and dusty, coating your mouth with a residue of desert as you  took breath.  But atop the horse and making my way into the mountains which grew upwards in every  direction from the sleepy plaza, we had entered a soft green, low lying lushness that was completely unexpected.   Dew clung to everything and in it appeared the first signs of sunlight as the water droplets began to refract light with a gradual intensity illuminating our silent climb upwards. The horses circled, our guide indicated a place for us to dismount and he took the leather reigns from us without a word exchanged.

The Sierra Madre Occidental reached their own spires of rock and earth skywards and sunlight began to breach the diffused humid glow of dawn, until finally spilling over their peaks and into green valleys, layered infinitely towards the horizon.  Our guide had led us to that peak specifically because of a building no taller than 10 feet.  Displayed prominently on the ground in front of the building was a repeating circular design of gathered stones and inside the structure was filled with countless Ojo de Dios – God’s Eye, one of the principal forms of Huichol religious artwork.  Called Sikuli in the native dialect, the brightly colored weaving of yarn around branches or wooden sticks in a pattern that is meant to represent “the power to see and understand things unknown” and sometimes are understood to be direct representations of the experience a Huichol has had looking directly into the eyes of god.  As the morning warmed the air around us, birds began to replace stars, and I was certain of my decision.  Although my adventure had not led me to “staying with the Huichol” I had been able to understand a part of why they so seldom gave access to those who would attempt to convince them something was missing.

43…FortyTHREE

Mexico

43-ThursdayWe were transformed into birds, beaks wide open… hoping to catch whatever might spill from her as she bounced across the room on a bright plastic exercise ball.  Laura Archera Huxley was not a robust mother Robin, but instead she was built as an ant might be.  You could tell from a distance that she was strong and in full control of her bodily limbs, however fragile looking.  Dance naked first thing in the morning and do it  to passionate, loud music, I remember her saying as she oscillated around the room on the ball.  “The second wife of the late Aldus Huxley”… I had honestly known nothing more about her.   It struck me as a little sad that I had not known what an interesting person she was, independent of his illustrious name. Among the many books, essays and lectures Aldus Huxley produced during his lifetime, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell were two that helped to explain his idea of Mind at Large, he explains in The Doors of Perception:

“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful.”

Doors of Perception is an account of his experience while taking part in an experiment with the psychotropic drug, mescaline.   Another famous author who has written about the mystical qualities of this particular substance was Carlos Cateneda.  His books, originally published in the 1960’s while he was completing a bachelors and then doctoral degree in anthropology at UCLA.  He described a companion whom he is reported to have met in the northern Mexican desert and with whom he ingested peyote, a naturally occurring source of mescaline.  Castenedas’ books have been hotly debated. While the purely scientific value may be debatable, the cult following is not.  Some hold Casteneda responsible for the apparently ceaseless flow of drug-tourists that continue to saturate the mountains and deserts of northern Mexico.

Nowhere more so than a ghost town draped over the bones of a forgotten silver mine in San Luis Potosi ,  Real de Catorce or the “Royal Fourteen”. The windows were down and hot currents flowed in off the highway, filling the car with the smell of asphalt and dried plants.  We had left Guadalajara and were headed north towards Zacatecas where we planned on staying the night before continuing on.  As if we had just been set free of our cages, the destination acted only as a star to guide our sails.  So, with lyrics spiraling out of the speakers like pencil sketches, more than a week until anyone complained of our absence and a moderate level of Spanish we drove on, happy to be doing so.

We arrived in Zacatecas as the sun was burning holes into the horizon and after negotiating a miraculous parking spot on a steep cobbled hill, we walked towards the center of town to look for dinner. Expecting a sleepy mid-sized colonial town, we were slightly unprepared for a series of exploding stages, light shows and crowds.  We had arrived at the beginning of a weekend-long international Jazz festival.  It was… surreal.  And then again, “why not?” I asked myself… surprised by my uptight expectations of spending the evening admiring colonial buildings and quiet plazas.  Jazz was what was happening in modern-day Zacatecas, the Spanish were gone and the Mexicans were enjoying the excellent acoustics ricocheted off the cavernous buildings left behind.

After a simple breakfast, we were back in the rental, deciding what music to play and settling in for a long drive.  Invigorated by the unexpected atmosphere of the previous night, Real de Catorce seemed to pull us even more strongly towards its mystery.  Sometime around lunchtime, after a number of hours alone of the road, a group of  people appeared in the distance and as we approached we could see they were military. Many places in the world the sight of the military does not engender a sense of safety but quite the opposite and this was most certainly one of those places.  Alone, female, foreign… we began to rattle off the list anxiously as if we were taking an inventory of our mutual vulnerability.One of the uniformed men flagged us down and the gravity in the car suddenly amplified, turning off the music we pulled over.  A young man, in his twenties, leaned into the driver’s side window and asked us to exit the vehicle. As a group of soldiers searched the car, we waited 100 meters away behind a line of gun crested men.  We were  interrogated coldly about our destination before being allowed back into the car, which had now become imbued with supernatural protective powers we had previously been unaware of.

Neither of us spoke and the rear view was filled again by desert and sky, the stereo remained silent.  It is a difficult feeling, confronted with the very real dangers of a place, a sadness about the lost adventure we could all share, an understanding of the very real socio-economic divisions that create strife and the simultaneous desire to discover the special-gem-of-perfect-tranquility deep within a country; to be allowed access to its friendly places.

A glorious moon was rising and a dense sky of stars glowed down on us as we turned away from the highway and onto a gravel road lined by large Seuss-like cacti.  In front of us the mountains took on a deeper and deeper hue with the fading light, growing larger as we neared them until  finally blocking our view of the sky entirely.  Gravel abruptly turned to concrete as we came upon a warmly lit tunnel. Rolling slowly towards the tunnel, unsure of our next step,  A  man appeared from the darkness and walked in front of the car.  Our headlights shone across his ample midsection and his eyes looked tired.  The tunnel only had room for traffic in one direction at a time and we needed to wait.  Leaving us and making his way over to an old phone booth, he lifted the receiver and spoked for several minutes before motioning to us lazily and disappearing again in the shadowy cacti.   Awash in a yellowish light we entered the tunnel, a mysterious universe unfolding just beyond our windshield.

42….FortyTwo

Mexico

Sweaty Pox BattlerIn 1520 a Spanish ship arrived on Mexican shores, the passengers had boarded in Hispanola a tiny island which had already seen two years pass fighting the smallpox infection. Hernan Cortes had been in Mexico looking for ways to steal the rich territory of the Aztec empire for the Spanish crown and the new arrivals were viewed as unwanted competition.  A confrontation between Cortes and the infected Hispanola passengers led to several sick conquistadors.  The virus then made a third leap, landing in the center of the Aztec world – Tenochtitlan- as the same conquistadors fled the city following a failed attempt to take the it by force.  Perhaps the first old world disease to have reached the Americas and as a result 25% of the general Azteca population died and the army was severely weakened.

In 1521 Cortes returned, kidnapped the Aztec leader Cuauhtemoc and took control of the smallpox ravaged empire, claiming it for the glory of Spain.  It can be extrapolated that if small pox were raging through the city, many people must have been turning to their healers and their temazcalli, or sweat lodge, for relief. Long hours spent sweating in vapors of herbal preparations was the principal tool used across the Aztec empire for healing any number of ailments.  In fact sweating in this manner was also an integral part of most inhabitants regular lives, regardless of infirmity.  Temazcales were regularly conducted for the benefit of  all mixtures of people, old and young, male and female.

Disgusted by the unabashed nudity and the use of idols, many Spanish wrote home contemptuously.  Upon reading several of these accounts,  Charles the Fifth the King of Spain at the time, is reported to declare’“that Indians who are not sick shall not bathe in hot baths under penalty of one hundred lashes to be followed by two hours bound in the marketplace…” Later, the proscription was extended to the sick as well.’ according to Dr. Horacio Rojas Alba of the Instituto Mexicano de Medicinas Tradicionales.

Ironically such behavior was exceedingly popular with some of his more immediate neighbors and had been centuries before he outlawed it in Mexico.  There are records as early as the 5th century BC of Scythians, a nomadic tribe in modern-day Iran, building temporary structures from long poles and woolen blankets in order to sweat. Over the centuries the Greek, Irish, Celtic, Roman, etc… have all documented gratitude and praise for the results of induced sweating.

I had been living in Mexico for several months and it was Spring.  My new Canadian friend suggested we take a road trip for Semana Santa, a holy week celebrated during the last week of March in Mexico.  So we planned a large loop north,;  Zacatecas, Real de Catorce, San Luis Potosi, San Miguel de Allende and rented a cheap sedan.  The first afternoon we turned off the highway and onto a deeply rutted dirt road, rolling into the small plaza of an empty little town.  This was as far as her directions had carried us in a straightforward manner, it was then up to us to, ask around.  We wanted to find the property of el curandero, the healer / shaman.

Through her work with local grassroots ecology groups my friend had found a way for us to join in a ceremony for my birthday that afternoon. Approaching a clearing at the end of a restricted, dusty road we were flagged down by a young woman with unshaven armpits, in a serious tone she explained that we were late and asked us to park off to one side.  The clearing was empty of people, a squat dome structure at its center and an open fire was burning fiercely to the side.  She instructed us to strip down to the bare essentials, she then lifted the canvas flap which had previously been covering one side of the dome and hurried us into the darkness before replacing it.

The heat.  The heat was intense and instantly suffocating.  I didn’t start sweating right away, which surprised me.  It took a few minutes for my body to completely overheat and for the humidity of the small muddy bubble to prevent it from cooling down, eventually producing sweat.  There were 5 or 6 other people inside, arranged in an incomplete circle around a hole in the earth at the center and the door.  Periodically the woman outside would open the door, bright light would illuminate our crowded sweaty faces and she would shovel another stone from her fire into the hole.  Curling smoke around large volcanic stones, burning copal resin saturated the humid air between us.

Similar to meditation training, the experience was a trail of mind  encouraged by the necessary control of the body. It seems to me that most people are taught from childhood to avoid things that cause discomfort or direct pain.  Once a vital survival technique we now surrender near completely to the impulses to satiate our dependence on comfort, and we do it the name of progress.  I think it permissible to extended our avoidance of physical pain or discomfort to the same inflexibility of behavior with regards to our minds.  They typically spin and bounce along or against whatever they want to, with little interference from the somehow separate other part of ourselves.  It is so uncomfortable to try to stop the minds’ gyrations.

Crawling on my hands and knees a number of hours later, I followed behind some of the others into the fresh early evening air. Shocked by the sudden drop in temperature and flood of fresh oxygen,  we stood quietly faced with the most mystical, most surreal of skies on display across the horizon.  Burning its deep eternal orange the sun hung above one side of the temazcal, and on the other, suspended in the cool hues of night, the waning moon.  It was a view which took hold of all of us and an impossible serenity permeated the entire clearing.  Like a reminder for all of us that time is stitched together quite delicately and in places, where it has worn thin, your life as a continuum is revealed.

41….FortyOne

Mexico

41 - MondayFINAL

Fine white sands slide between your toes with each step,  slow rolling turquoise waters meet a cerulean sky just as the deep red hues of sunset are staining it purple.  There is a breeze, but just enough to blow your hair from your face romantically as you walk with a pair of designer flip-flops dangling from one hand.  The other hand holds a drink…something tropical with a small paper umbrella stuck into the blended ice.  Before heading back up the beach for dinner on the veranda of your sky-scraping resort hotel… you stop to watch the sun sink below the waves, you breathe out with a sense of victory and a smile… all this and for so cheap!

In the 1970’s Cancun was a small town on the Yucatan peninsula of southern Mexico – a small town with a beautiful climate, white sandy beaches and gentle waters.  It was just too idyllic to leave alone and within the decade the Mexican government – according to the public statement – began to promote hotel development along the coastline in order to produce a tax revenue for Quintana Roo an area wrestled from Mayan indigenous communities in 1915 and registered officially as a Mexican state in 1974.   Masquerading as an eco-friendly, well controlled plan the developers soon had title to the entire coastline and audaciously named it the “Mayan Riviera”.

Removing the soil-supporting shrubs and beach vines which retained the beautiful white sand, clearing mangrove forests which broke up the force of seasonal storms and subsequently adding intensely heavy structures has all led to severe erosion of the coastline. Apart from the complete alteration of the regional eco-system, erosion of beaches represents loss of tourism for the area and in turn loss of hotel earnings and ultimately jobs.  It has recently been calculated that the money generated via tourism in the Cancun area produces 1/3 of the national total.  So influential are those tourist dollars that in 2010, directly following an especially severe hurricane and an equally severe loss of sand from around 8 miles of its’ beaches, the Mexican government decided to invest the equivalent of 70 million US dollars into a project to replenish the sand by vacuuming the ocean floor.  A hopelessly temporary solution and one that causes long-term damage, some scientists report, to the worlds second largest coral reef structure just off the same coastline, the sand was re-deposited onto the beaches in front of hotels and the tourists continued to arrive.

I had been living in Tlaquepaque for about a month when I met Jen at the university in Guadalajara.  I was in the habit of ordering freshly made quesadillas and a cup of cafe de olla from the small kitchen on campus in the afternoons and sitting to read at a table near the open air courtyard and she began to sit with me.  A Canadian, she was in Mexico studying soil erosion and dropping water tables at Lago Chapala, a large fresh water lake which had supplied the city for generations.  We began exploring the city together, becoming regulars at  a delicious Italian restaurant with wild mushroom pasta, a fair trade coffee shop, and the most delicious Sunday brunch.  Apart from eating we had decided to do some traveling together.  Our first destination was a remote beach named Maruata on the Michoacan coast.  We took a highway bus, transferred to a local version and then jumped off at a small road sign with the beaches name.

Unclear about the full “lay of the land” and only seeing open-air hammocks, we accepted the offer of a friendly looking woman, agreeing to pay a fee for the night in a wooden shed behind her small restaurant. The rest of the day we enjoyed the beach and spent some time swinging lazily from hammocks strung in rows under palm from palapas.  It was so beautiful, the weather was perfect, and we seemed to be the only travelers around.  The postcard quickly disintegrated as we returned that evening to our dark shed, the flies and heat which were both trapped miserably inside and set to a soundtrack of stray dogs curious enough about our scent to circle the shed continuously – made for a deliriously sleepless and somewhat paranoiac night.   As soon as the sun rose graciously above the horizon, we escaped the shed to scout for alternate options.

The charm of secluded beaches relies in part on their inherent lack of hotel selections.  Apart from the random hammock, there were really no fixed hotel rooms for us to rent out.  Except the ‘eco-cabanas’ built on perhaps the most privileged cliff side of the entire area and nearly three times our anticipated budget.  Faced with leaving our packs unattended in sand while we swam and slept or the miserable shed we decided to stretch for a private cabana and move on with the day in paradise. Rocky islands reaching out into the water separated each of the three beaches and provided for distinct swimming environments. Incredibly, we had all three beaches nearly to ourselves.  We gravitated to one of the beaches in particular and spent the rest of the day swimming.  Sometime during the middle of the afternoon a woman balancing a large covered basket on her head approached us.  Carefully managing the graceful loop from crown to knee, she displayed her wares… fresh-baked empanadas of all kinds.  Miraculous! I could not understand the logistics of running an oven on the beach until… inviting me into her beach tent, she proudly revealed her sand-floor kitchen and small oven in question.

Our new accommodations included a private hammock strung up outside the room and overlooking one of the beaches.  The second morning I woke early to enjoy the morning light bleeding into the sand below.  My bare toes gripping cement, swinging quietly I contemplated my role as tourist in a place like Maruata.  The light dispersed in a cool yellow, and I watched small groups of men help each other flip over fishing boats and push them through the sand into the waves.  Later that day we would seek out a shady plastic table and one of their wives would plate their catch for us, perfectly aware that we had slept in the most expensive hotel in the area. I took a drink from a water bottle in my hand and thought about Cancun.

40…Forty

Mexico

40-Sunday

70 days were necessary for the preparation of a mummy in ancient Egypt.  An archaeologist in dusty khaki describes  how  priests first removed any organ which would decay rapidly; the brain was drawn out through the nasal cavity and an incision was performed along the left side of the abdomen from its contents could be easily extracted.  It seems that the ancient Egyptian priests of falcon and jackal-headed gods were also medical experts, the archeologist would continue on expertly his British accent somehow adding to the imagined drama, pausing to appreciate illustrations,  the narration rolling along in my mind as I read.

As a million children before me and a million after,  I lay on my belly under the blankets of my bunk-bed, the tiny glow of my mind transfixed by the scenes of mystical priest-doctors.  The precision and the twist of  smoke, I melted into the damp chamber and could smell the perfumed oils as I followed behind the priest hypnotized by his preparations for the dead.  As cars passed in front of our house their shadows fanned out across my bedroom walls and wrapped in a transparent cotton sheet, I read late into the night.  It was during these forbidden hours when I first conceptualized an afterlife for myself.  Such a catalyst, that forever I have had an incurable curiosity for the mystic, for an understanding of the relationship between essence and its physical representation.

A friend  from home had moved to a small Mexican city about four hours by bus from where I was living in Guadalajara.   An area rich in precious metals for centuries the fortunes of many men had been made in Guanajuato, beginning with Nahuatl-speaking groups indigenous to the area, then  the Aztecs and those who paid the great empire tribute, eventually even the Spanish discovered wealth within its steep canyon walls .  By the time I arrived, Guanajuato had become a college town, a popular destination for tourists interested in colonial-era history and once a year hosts of a large contemporary arts festival.  Due to its geographical positioning, generations of city occupants had been building their homes upwards from the plaza into the walls of the canyon, creating a network of residential, and thoroughly pedestrian, alleyways.

The highway bus stopped  at a simple station outside of central Guanajuato and I easily transferred to a local bus which then gliding through illuminated underground tunnels until finally surfacing in front of a sandstone plaza.  My friend stood waiting, bathed in the warm glow of street lights, flickering.  I then followed after him into the dark, steadily climbing through the narrow stairway for what seemed to be a couple of vertical city blocks.  He was lodging with a family running a small corner store at one of the steeply intersecting alleyways.  They had ingeniously built a room below their store and were letting out bunk beds to young single male students while they studied at the various schools of Guanajuato.  The monthly fee for accommodations included all of their meals, prepared by the mother herself and served at a table in the kitchen adjoining their store.

After dropping off my bag we made our way upstairs to sit in the kitchen and chat with the family as they helped customers, played with the baby and cooked late night snacks.  The father had just returned home from a Peregrinacion- a pilgrimage requiring the believer to walk for many miles in order to reach a specific destination of sacred orientation.  The walk itself is meant to be an offering, proof of your commitment to the prayer your carry with you and of your dedication to God.  Some pilgrims crawl; bellies traversing asphalt, gravel, debris, others travel on their hands and knees – cut and bleeding by the time they finally arrive,  some carry large and often heavy religious idols, some cover extraordinary distances.  He looked tired and as I listened to him describe journey, of which I understood only a portion, I imagined what his prayer had been.

The next morning we climbed the small, bald hill above the city and sat as his friend played guitar and we looked out towards the horizon for an hour or so before descending into the city center and seeking out the museum of mummies.  Guanajuato had become quite famous for the museum, once a makeshift display presented by an enterprising local man, the ‘museum’ had become something of a legend in Mexico with one of the most beloved Luchadores (Costumed Wrestlers)  “El Santo”  dedicating the entire plot of one of his movies (El Santo Contra Las Momias de Guanajuato) to the mummies in the museum.

Originally the bodies on display had been buried in the normal fashion utilizing plots in the cemetery nearby.  That was where they remained until surviving family members could no longer afford to pay the rent for keeping them in the plots and the bodies were exhumed to make way for paying “customers”. The groundskeeper accumulated enough bodies that people, both locals and tourists, began paying him a fee to view the collection propped crudely against the back wall.  Now the bodies are more professionally presented behind glass and the whole experience is more organized with tours and a ticket booth.  The “Mummies of Guanajuato” were naturally mummified, so well preserved in fact that it is possible to examine the remaining clothing, hair, eyelashes, fingernails.  There is even what some consider to be the worlds smallest mummy, a fetus on view.

Walking quietly flanked by corpses whose flesh had slowly been dried by the same minerals which had also made men wealthy in life, the fingers curled and the skin of their faces lay bare stretching against their skulls… I was, at first, saddened for the exposure they seemed to be enduring. Theosophical contrasting the mummies of my childhood, these bodies lay unprepared and alone.  If the snaking plumes of incense and sacred whispers of doctor priests were not with these bodies did they wander blinded somewhere?  Before I returned to the afternoon sunshine, I turned to look back down the length of the museum.  A soft dust disturbed by the shuffling lines of visitors rose above muffled voices, settling again on the glass once the voices quieted…and I realized I was, as each of the visitors, participating in a ceremony.  We were each whispering our incantations for the afterlife, a preparation already far surpassing 70 days in length.

39….ThirtyNINE

Mexico

Thursday 39 The Purepecha princess Erendira is said to have stolen a Spanish Calvary horse in the early 16th century, learned how to ride it and then taught her fellow warriors to do the same before leading the ensuing war on the Spanish invaders.  Eventually a peace treaty with the Purepecha was drafted in which they retained a shadow of autonomy. The treaty was subsequently  betrayed by Nuno de Guzman, a political opponent of Hernan Cortes.

Sent by the Spanish crown, his mission was to counter the inflating power of Cortes following the organization and unification of vengeful neighbors which resulted in Spanish occupation of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital city.  Seeking a victory with which to placate his benefactors Guzman followed a trail of golden peace offerings west to a land ruled by the Purepecha, a copper blade wielding people the Aztecs had failed to dominate. As a  result of clandestine negotiations with a wealthy nobleman Guzman was able to condemn, torture and finally murder Tzimtzincha-Tangaxuan II, the last Purepecha Cazonci (monarch) and take control of Michoacan, thus adding substantial territory to Spanish conquest and igniting an era of extreme violence for the Purepecha.

Nearly five hundred years later and the Michoacan soil remains wet with the spilt blood of its people.  On the Michoacan side of the border with Jalisco the small town of Tepalcatepec  has passed between the grisly cartel fists of Los Zetas, to the gun powered fingers of La Familia cartel to those of Los Caballero Templares. For a time the violence affected only those involved in the expanding drug trade as it made its way north to quench demand from the United States.  But as the trafficking moved out of the area cartel members began looking for ways to extort money from the local people. Living conditions in the area got so impossible and the government did so little to help stop the attacks that the community decided to rise up on its own.

José Manuel Mireles Valverde a member of  Concejo Ciudadano de Autodefensa de Tepalcatepec (The Citizens Advisory of Self Defence) explained the breaking point; “…empezaron a meterse con la familia. Empezaron a violar niñas de 11 y 12 años.” (“…they began damaging the family.  They began raping little girls of 11 or 12 years old.”) Fourteen such incidents were reported around the city in one month and then cartel members began taking the girls from their homes. Valverde goes on to explain that Tepalcatepec had been inspired by the neighboring  Purepecha, the only group which had successfully reclaimed their community from cartel control – and they had done it alone, without any military training or assistance from the Mexican government.

Tepalcatepec citizens began meeting at night and organizing a system of radio generated alerts which allowed them to gather sufficient numbers (at times several hundreds) of community members together in specific locations, confronting and preventing cartel aggression before it was able to manifest.  They set up a Facebook account where information about cartel movements in the area can be described and where photos can be posted and cartel members identified.  Their success, stemming from Purepecha bravery has been an inspiration to the entire region and citizens are beginning to feel empowered to liberate their own communities as well.

I arrived in Morelia, Michoacan with a request from my father on my mind.  Casa de Las Artesanias is advertised as a kind of financial refuge for the traditional artisans of the Michoacan area.Cool, perfectly white plastered walls and the manicured clay tiling the floor lent more to an atmosphere of high-end gallery than it did to that of an ex-convent.  Completely appropriate, in fact long over due, for artists producing such high quality pieces.  But after noting the prices listed on clearly typed out tidy labels in a country where bargaining is considered its own art form,  and where artisans usually sell their own work, I had my doubts about what percentage of the – mainly tourist – profits were filtering through the elaborate tableau and into the workshops of the artists themselves.

Further exploring the area my doubts were all but confirmed.  Upstairs was a maze of tiny workshops and stalls selling artesanias (folk art) of all kinds, without tidy white labels.  Sadly though the workshops seemed mostly for show as the savvy vendors figured out long before I walked the passageways,  a tourist loves a good show. They are even happier to part with their pesos if the show is conveniently located, cheap and easy to photograph in order to show off it’s undeniable ‘authenticity’ once they return home.  The problem with this scenario is that is deepens the schism between the art made for show and the art made for tradition, enabling all kinds of entrepreneurial vultures to take advantage of the situation on both sides.

Empty handed, I returned to the main plaza just as it was getting dark.  Morelia has a large cathedral which is illuminated in the evenings and just as is the case in most Mexican cities, a large plaza opens out in front it filling with music, food, families and travelers.  As a member of the latter category and alone I perched on the stone ledge of a raised garden to watch the crowds.  As the families dissipated and the music got louder, the plaza changed it’s tone and even though illegal to do so, beer cans were opened and passed around as the young locals and tourists alike took over, forever it seems on a quest to find their perfect fit within the crowd.

As I walked away from the pulsating singles mob ironically gyrating on the steps of the Spanish cathedral, I passed a small rust-encrusted pick up truck, the bed sagging under the weight of eight or nine women in uniform.  They wore neon green vests over their clothing and each one of them held equipment; a broom, a plastic trash bin, a dustpan. They were dark-skinned by Mexican standards, which can sometimes mean they had closer genetic ties to the indigenous population in the area.  They were waiting for as long as it took  for the party to end so that they could work cleaning up the plaza afterwards.

I thought about the Purepecha and how much their society must have changed since Guzman and his soldiers marched into it demanding gold and subservience and of many years later the cartels would turn their world into the same breed of nightmare.  I watched the women secretly a block away from the corner and thought about their potentially long journey home in the dark after the last of the beer cans had dropped from the last hand of the last tourists and they were able to sweep the plaza clean so the sun would rise once again on a perfect Spanish god.

38….ThirtyEIGHT

Mexico

Tuesday 38

Some few moments are able to hold a matrix powerful enough to support the really heavy symbols.  It is only these symbols, the heavy ones, that have the strength to echo down the tunnel of our lives and directing the way in which we translate in turn the messages from the world around us.  Many of these symbols have become invisible, deeply woven into the fabric of our varied cultural textile, becoming stories passed on simply because of their clear description of the consequences of its incorporation.  Money as a concept has few rivals in its prolific creation of heavy symbology.  It seems to me, a concept which has experienced such an intimate relationship with symbology that it would be difficult to deferentiate between the two at this point.

An increasing number of people had begun to fill the space around me just as a drop of oil in a bowl of water and I was left squatting and surrounded on a small square of dusty earth.  The incline was just steep enough to keep me ill at ease and  digging my heels into the ground.  Images of ensuing chaos if I were to slip, did very little to calm me.    I was the only one (obviously) having trouble with the seating arrangement, the only foreigner, the only blonde, the only unaccompanied woman… and I could feel it.  From the adjacent family a young woman, apparently concerned with my situation, engaged me in conversation.  At first she focused the pretty well-developed fantasy I was rolling nicely on at that point – a flowing light blue skirt tucked under her, she had beautiful eyes and with the setting sunlight on the purple bouganvilla behind her…it was the perfect scene for a kitchy Mexican postcard.

As we continued to talk I began to recognize the moment as the kind that would change my understanding  of the world. She was my age and lived on a ranch nearby.  As the rodeo began we had already been laughing and talking like sisters for over an hour.  Inevitably she asked why I was in Mexico and I explained that I was studying at the University in Guadalajara.  The look that crossed her face, changing the shape of her eyes will always remain as a teacher for me.  She congratulated me so genuinely that what ever pride I had in that moment melted away shamefully.  It was always her dream to study in Guadalajara, she explained to me quickly and then added that it would never happen.  After that she looked back out at the rodeo and sensing that the topic was a painful one,  I respectfully turned my attention likewise to the crowd.  My mind fixated on the reality of my role in such an injustice and of the “system” that relies on that injustice to continue at all cost.  We sat like this for another hour until the last event was cheered for and the champions awarded their prizes.

It was dark and after a melancholic parting, my companion followed after her family and I followed the wandering streams of flashlights navigating the precarious slopes out of the arena and towards the highway.  The rodeo grounds above the darkened arena was filled by groups of wobbly men talking loudly to one another and frantic women busily herding groups of children, balloons and bags of uneaten sweets gripped tightly in their sticky hands.  Working harder than usual to get my bearing on the situation, I was snatched up by a lovely wrinkled old woman.  She swooped me away from the apprehensively poorly lighting and inserted me into the crowds migrating across the highway.  She stopped at a taco stand efficiently filling plate after plate for the hungry groups crowded around limited plastic seating.  The elderly woman explained with a wily understanding of her community that the next bus will be full and that I should wait for the next one, in the meantime she ordered two plates and sat me down.

The evenings adventure to the rodeo increased my curiosity of the countryside.  After a serious hour of effort, I decrypted the complicated maze of microbus schedules.  At least a dozen idled, their drivers waiting around the plaza, while  their teenage assistants made rounds announcing destinations of their various vehicles.  Each offering  to carry passengers into the countryside in every direction possible.  On the road I enjoyed the luxury of a seat by the window, seemingly the only benefit of being one of the first passengers to climb aboard…and then wait until the teenager had gathered enough customers for the driver to make some money.  Dark rose-colored earth and the strong sunlight contrasted against a profoundly blue sky and I was happy for the open window, it was a very pleasant day.  Listening carefully and being quick to my feet, the microbus delivered me safely to Tocuaro. It was mid-day and most of the shops were closed up for the two hours (or so) of siesta.

It was not one of the little shops that I needed though, I was looking for a house.  The Purepecha masks created by Juan Horta were revered throughout Mexico and abroad for their fantastic attention to detail and creativity.  I had read recently that he lived and worked from a  studio in Tocuaro, a short distance from Patzcuaro.   I wanted to see if I could visit with him and buy one of his masks.  The dirt of the streets in Tocuaro lay quietly, undisturbed as inhabitants swung in hammocks from their doorways or cut fruit in tile covered kitchens sheltered from the angry sun, it was afternoon in a small town.  I alone braved the dusty sun-dried side streets, a small piece of white paper in my hand.  Finally, I faced the gate to his house and reached out to press the bell.  A very round and quiet woman walked up to the gate and greeted me.   Once I explained my aim she unlatched and swung open the entrance, letting out a thin metallic sigh. I followed her through the narrow covered walkway which spanned a central garden about five meters square.  She stopped in front of a heavy wooden door, sifted through her keys for a minute before selecting one and used it to open the door.

As she switched on the naked fluorescent ceiling light an entire room of mask encrusted walls was exposed and I caught my breath as quickly as I could after experiencing such a shock.   The soft round woman apologized that the artist himself was unable to talk with him about the masks, but that he was very ill and currently in the hospital.  Offering my condolences, I began to gape at the incredible skill and imagination on display.  Floating amid the wild snakes, swimming skulls and butterfly half-men the mask of an unadorned Spanish man.   It was shocking and for me the most weighed down by the heavy symbols of colonization and power and access… looking into the eyes of the wooden mask I remembered how the girls eyes had changed shape and I now understood that it was from the weight of those same symbols.

37 ….. ThirtySEVEN

Mexico

37- Sunday L’Inconnue de la Seine is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous Death Masks in popular culture.  It was reportedly taken postmortem  from a 16-year-old Parisian girl after she was pulled from the Seine river in the late 1880’s.  The pathologist handling her body was so consumed by her unusual beauty and expression that he carefully took a plaster cast of her face. The resulting mask and accompanying story entranced the Bohemian imagination  so completely that it became fashionable to have a replica of the mask displayed in one’s home. The production of Death Masks such as that of the unidentified young woman was already a common practice employed for a variety of reasons since the Middle Ages and eventually the production of Life Masks, taken while the subject was still living, became popular.

As a child I remember staring up at the cluster of Life Masks my father had hanging in his workshop, flutters of anticipation unsettling my stomach.  I also remember the saturated yellow glow of the afternoon sun as I finally lay down on the ceremonial aluminum grill cover, inserting a pair of Silly Putty rimmed straws into my nostrils. Years before he had started with my older brother and then sister and at some point decided that we would all have a Life Mask made.  The day my mask was made is steeped in a solemnity that accompanies a serious rite of passage.  I was nervous, I knew after that afternoon after I would be part of something else.  Connected to a lineage of faces, secured in place at a moment in time, like an exotic butterfly.

My father also had an extensive collection of folk art masks which he displayed more publicly across a wall in his office.  Somehow I understood that these masks were of a different kind, representing a potentiality and not a reality – full of wild colors and improbable elements. These masks came to represent him in my imagination,  it was as if he had each of those characters inside somewhere as if they were each a fragment of who he was, refracting light off of each of his surfaces.

I had been living ans studying in Tlaquepaque for just under a month when I decided to take advantage of a long weekend and headed to Patzcuaro – a small town on the banks of a lake in Michoacan, Mexico.  This area is central to the Purépecha peoples, their famous wing-shaped fishing nets, and it is also home to some of the most respected mask makers in the country.

My door echoed metallic down the twilight drenched rooftop courtyard and I ducked my head out into the light rain of evening.  I was hungry and on the prowl for some tasty street food.  Mexico has some of the best fluorescent-lit, tarp-covered street food in the world, even as a vegetarian I was always able to eat really well. Something that many people don’t understand about Mexican food is that nearly every fat dripping protein packed plate they identify as ‘Mexican’ was likely non-existent before the Spaniards invaded.  Indigenous cuisine originally focused on local fruits, vegetables, herbs and peppers with an occasional fish, Guajolote (wild turkey) or  Xoloscuintle (hairless dog) included for special meals depending on the region.

The center of Patzcuaro was arranged around a shady fountain-centric plaza and during the day it was lined with vendors tucked into towering piles of T-shirts, textiles, generic jewelry and replicas of all kinds. But the dusk fades and the vendors pack up their wares into wheelbarrows and small vans – and the food market takes over.  As soon as the dark settles completely across the plaza locals find themselves calling out, alongside the tourists, to the masters of the night kitchen. It was in Patzcuaro  that I first tried Ponche, hot fruit tea and stewed fruits –  a hearty blend of flavors infused with the glow of the street light filtering through a cobalt plastic sky – perfectly complimenting the roasted root vegetables and tortillas I had ordered.

The next morning descending into the plaza from my rooftop quarters I spent the morning at the nearby crafts museum.  Dreamily, I walked along the dusty hallways avoiding vendors until I  entered a large open room which had almost entirely been taken over by an enormous wooden machine.  The only other person in the room at the time, I approached the man sitting at the helm, busy moving an overwhelming number of wooden levers and pulleys.  In no hurry, he stopped the machine to explain that it was in fact a hundred year old loom and after an hour of careful discussion, I found myself behind the loom trying my hands – and feet – at the complicated craft.

Later that morning, scattering the pigeons, I sat down on a bench in the plaza.  A few minutes later an old woman came over and sat down directly next to me.  Finding it a little odd, as there were a number of free benches, I turned to greet her.  She had indeed been looking for a conversation with me and we enjoyed watching the business of the plaza pass by while we chatted casually.  Not long into our time together she began telling me about a rodeo that would be taking place outside of the city that day.  Nothing planned, I inquired about further details and within the hour I was stuffed into one of the vans serving as public transport to the outlying cities, repeating to my self for several minutes the unusual name of my ‘stop’.

I needn’t have worried as it turned out nearly every one of my fellow passengers were also going to the rodeo and we unloaded from the van, all of us stretching out our legs and regaining composure.  It was more adventure than I had been prepared for, the ‘town’ I had arrived at appeared to offer very little in the way of ATMs, in fact it was not a town of any normal description.  There were no streets and the river of people flooding in off the highway all channeled down a small dirt path and towards a large pit dug from the hillside.   Quickly I reviewed the contents of my pockets in my mind and realized  I would need to use my few pesos very wisely.

After choosing an area that appeared to have a decent view of the rodeo grounds below and a lack of rowdy drunken men, I scrambled up the dirt incline and with my heels dug securely into the ground, I squatted down to take it all in…