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.