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.



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.