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


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…