Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Converging in Yecapixtla

Located in the higher portion of the State of Morelos, above the altitude in which sugar cane grows, Yecapixtla survived the 19th century sugar boom and the many haciendas’ insatiable demand for labor that subsumed many of Morelos’ villages.  It survives as a town of prehispanic origin at the base of snowcapped Popocatepetl.  As an important population center it was chosen by the Order of St. Augustine to be the location of one of its more stunning church and monastery complexes.  Thursday of this week would be a grand day to visit that town just north of Cuautla.      

Thursdays and Sundays are market days but this Thursday, in addition to its regular food market, Yecapixtla's will be one of the largest Days of the Dead markets in all of Mexico.  Vendors from surrounding states will travel to Yecapixtla to sell everything one might need to decorate an altar, to host the return of the departed next week when they come back to visit their living relatives.  Yecapixtla's market on the Thursday before Days of the Dead is its largest market of the year and has its origins in a pre-Hispanic festival honoring the birth of Yacapitzauac, a deity who acted as a guide for travelers and protector of merchants.  In Yexapixtla this festival/market has been observed in one form or another since the 1330’s making it another example of the syncretism of Catholicism and prehispanic religious practice.

The State of Morelos' contribution to Mexican cuisine is usually thought of as Cecina de Yecapixtla.  Cecina is very thinly sliced beef, salted enough to preserve short-term without refrigeration.  The market is ringed with small restaurants and 'puestos' offering 'tacos de cecina'.  You'll be asked if you want them "con todo" which includes cheese, sliced and grilled flat leaf catus (nopal), avocado, and onions.  It is one of the grandest tacos you'll ever eat.  In order to savor the pure cecina taste, I recommend that you order a plain cecina taco too.

Although the town is prehispanic, Yecapixtla is centered  around a 16th century Augustine Order monastery.  It is part of the Ruta de los Conventos, an unusual UNESCO World Heritage site -- the Route includes monasteries  scattered throughout Morelos.   Originally constructed by the Franciscans, a small church was built on top of a sacred site of Yacapitzauac.  After a fire destroyed the Franciscan church the Augustinians (1535-40) rebuilt a much larger church and monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist.  It has been speculated that Yacapitzauac, like St. John, is depicted with a staff and that this would be more acceptable to the indigenous population. 

Be sure to have two old two-hundred peso bills with you -- the larger of the two types of 200 peso bills which are currently in circulation.  In the top left corner of the front of the bill there is an intricately designed half circle.  Invert another, similar bill, over it to make the full circle and you'll have a copy of the gothic rose window over the main entry.  It is one of the very few rose windows in Mexico from this time period.  Though the window appears pure Gothic it was, like most of the work in the churches of that time, executed by skilled indigenous artisans who perhaps surreptitiously inserted elements of their culture and faith in the window frame. 
Happily the exterior of the monastery conserves its original austere and elegant design.  The interior of the sanctuary was gaudily redecorated in the early twentieth century and is so tasteless that a metal plaque in the ground level corridor of the monastery laments changes that damaged the beauty of the interior and the originality of its design.   In the cloistered monastery portion of the building, under INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) supervision, the walls and vaulted ceilings have been taken back to the original 16th century decoration revealing stunning multi-colored geometric designs.  Upon entering the walkway your eyes will be drawn to the ceiling as in religious buildings of Moorish design.  This is natural, as after eight hundred years of Moorish domination, Muslim architecture had been fully integrated by Spain.  Christian religious scenes with portraits of church leaders were added later as Augustinians developed their own artistic style.  
If you return to your 200 peso note you'll find a portion of Miguel Cabrera’s portrait of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.  One might wonder why she is connected to the rose window of Yexapitla?  The famous poet, dramatist, theologian’s mother Isabel Ramirez, was baptized in the sanctuary of San Juan Bautista.  Sor Juana’s birthday is next month.  We’ll celebrate her birthday with a special column in her honor. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


It may seem strange to be reading about death in the Living section of the paper, but the
Days of the Dead are quickly approaching and we're going to be increasingly aware of them wherever we look.  Bakeries will be the first to be decorated with skeletons as they begin to offer us their pan de muerto -- bread for the dead – but particularly enjoyed by the living.  

As we get closer to November 1st and 2nd -- All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar -- we'll see businesses of all kinds decorating their display windows, lobbies, and sales areas with decorations allusive to dead returning to visit their living relatives.  Even automobile dealerships will have skeletons behind the wheels of new cars in their showrooms.  Municipal, delegational, state, and Federal District governments will award prizes to the best Days of the Dead altars in competitions in parks and government buildings.  In 2010 this column was inaugurated with a three part series about Days of the Dead and the traditional Mesoamerican way of observing them.  (Please Email me if you would like copies of them.) 

Today I'd like to deal with two aspects of dealing with death and the dead.  Both are associated with Latin American printed media.  Particularly interesting is the printing of esquelas in the newspapers.  There is no English word for such a notice though I translate it as a death announcement.  Whereas in English-speaking countries newspapers will have an obituary section with extensive biographical information about those who recently died, in Latin America articles about the recently deceased are treated as news items and are usually only about particularly famous people.   Some newspapers will publish funeral home advertisements titled obituario but they are limited to listing the names of people who died the day before, accompanied by the time and place of their burial.  Biographical information about the deceased is not included. 

In an esquela a person, family, company, government official or office, laments the death of the featured person and offers consolation to that person's family.  Esquelas are framed with a black border enclosing what is mostly empty space -- very little text is included.  They usually do not include the cause of death nor the age of the deceased.  Only those inserted by the family of the deceased would indicate the place and time of funeral services and burial or cremation.   What they usually do include is reference to the relationship between the deceased and whoever is placing the notice in the newspaper.  On occasion there may be dozens of esquelas for the same person in the same issue of the newspaper.  They do not make reference to one another.  

Upon the death of a person who was important in the business community they become particularly interesting to read and compare.  In them you can see how many boards of directors the deceased was a member. You see individuals, boards and companies positioning themselves in relation to the deceased.  By tracking the first and second surnames, the observant reader can become aware of family relationships and business links.  The religion, or lack thereof, of the deceased is evident by symbols centered at the top of the esquela, the most common being a cross, a star of David, or a black ribbon.  
Esquelas are an important source of income for newspapers and they are not inexpensive. The size of an esquela is important. The largest I've seen is a full page. but I’m waiting for a two-page centerfold esquela.  That certainly would be memorable and impressive.  If the esquela happens to be the notice of the death of a relative of an important person in business or government the name of the relative is also included.   It's not unusual for the name of the living relative and some reference to his or her position in government or business to be printed in larger sized font than the name of the deceased -- another great source of information for those skilled at reading between the lines.  For some, esquelas are places in which they can name-drop with abandon.
Another Mexican journalistic tradition is the printing of calaveras.  In proper Spanish, that would translate as skulls.  However in Mexican newspapers and magazines calaveras are short witty poems about living people referring to them as if they are dead -- in fact, mourning their recent death.  Unlike esquelas, calaveras will tell us their cause of death.  Newspapers and magazines are already asking their readers to submit calaveras and cartoonists are working on portraits, to accompany the poems.  They are drawn with such skill that we will be able to recognize people we see over and over in the daily press but when drawn to accompany calaveras they will be skeletons; some with no flesh, not even on their skulls.  Watch for them on November 2nd.  Despite the cutting humor, those portrayed in the calaveras are expected to be able to laugh at themselves from this side of the divide.  It's all part of the particularly Mexican way of dealing with the inevitable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mexican art and customs in Manhattan

I began last week's column with a whimsical line about Frida returning to Cuernavaca's Brady Museum from Beijing.  I emailed it to The News while seated in a pew in Trinity Church located in the heart of New York's Financial District.  I knew I was pushing my welcome by plugging my computer into a church electric socket and using a portable wi-fi to connect to the Internet.  Still, it was the quietest and most comfortable place I'd found in which to work, while camped at Liberty Park, a block away.  As I clicked 'send' I smiled to myself at the thought of referring to Kahlo's self-portrait as Frida.  I would top that minutes later.

As I stepped out of Trinity Church onto Broadway at Wall Street I suddenly realized I was stepping out into a scene in Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts -- the one in which Rivera gives us a view of Wall Street with Trinity Church at the end of a chasm of buildings.  The street sign in Rivera's mural indicates the corner of Wall Street and 2nd Avenue.  Second Avenue has been renamed, but the scene is very much the same today as when Rivera painted it in the 1930's; even to the point of having police presence.

No longer on horseback, blue uniformed NYPD officers are now mounted on motor scooters.  By riding them single-file, bumper-to-bumper, they confine the Occupy Wall Street marchers to the sidewalk.  Nonetheless the demonstrators carry signs much like those portrayed by Rivera in the mural intended for, ultimately rejected by, Rockefeller Center.  

Rivera wisely added a clause in the contract he signed with the Rockefellers.  If, for any reason, he were not allowed to finish the mural he would still be paid in full.  Nelson Rockefeller adhered to the contract and, with the received payment Rivera re-painted it for free in Mexico City.  I suspect it's the only mural in public space in Mexico in which all the text is in English; no Spanish is used.  

It was a fascinating week I spent at Liberty Plaza.  On Saint Michael Day's eve I delivered four pericón crosses sent by Cuernavaca's Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation to be tied to trees at the four corners of Liberty Park.  They were to protect the park, which has become the epicenter of one of our biggest ongoing, and growing, news stories.  Even though the custom of posting pericón crosses predates Christianity in what is now Mexico, I had feared they would not be well received because of the religious connection, in people's minds, between crosses and religion.  

I was surprised and gratified with the welcoming cheer from the occupiers.  Reverence is a hallmark of the Wall Street occupier.  Before each march a moment of silence is observed; frequently there is a respected prayer.  Indeed, last Friday Kol Nidre, the opening of Judaism's holiest observance, Yom Kippur, was held in an esplanade across the street from Liberty Park as police looked on. 

Respecting the NYPD's prohibition of using microphones the readings and songs were relayed though the crowd by what has become known as the “people’s mike.”   Speaker’s words are repeated, relayed, until the whole crowd hears.  It is a reverent process.  Even if one disagrees with the words spoken, they are repeated faithfully.  Observant Jews do not use vehicles or the subway on Yom Kippur so, after the service, many of them crossed the street and camped in Liberty Park.  There they slept side-by-side with Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists.  I had goose bumps thinking about what it would mean for the world if this could be a new model of reconciliation.

I remembered another connection with Mexican art and New York City upon taking a short walk from Wall Street to Battery Park.  From that southernmost tip of Manhattan I could see the Statue of Liberty.  Mind and memory took me back in time to the day I visited Ana Pellicer in her home in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan -- the Mexican village world-famous for its production of hand-hammered copper.  

It is France, not Santa Clara, that produced the largest piece of hand-hammered copper, the Statue of Liberty, gifted to the United States in 1886.  Perhaps as an attempt to salvage some of Mexico's prestige in the field of hand-hammered copper, Mexican sculptress Pellicer produced, in Mexican style hand-hammered copper, a necklace and earrings in proportion to Liberty herself.  She requested permission of the National Park Service to hang them on Lady Liberty for one day during the Statue's hundredth anniversary celebrations.  Permission was denied.  Not accepting defeat, Pellicer displayed them in a Manhattan art gallery.  I had felt privileged to see them in her living room with the necklace hanging from the ceiling, going down to the floor, back up to the ceiling, over and over again.   

It was delightful to think of these three Mexican contributions to New York City.  Even though Rivera's and Pellicer's were rejected, they stand nevertheless -- perhaps more prominently for having been rejected.  And the pericón crosses?  Last I checked (which was last Tuesday) two were still there.  The police only seemed to have spotted -- and removed -- the two on the Broadway side of Liberty Park. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brady's legacy became a treasure

Frida just returned from Beijing!  She's once again in residence at Robert Brady's home on Netzahualcoyotl Street in Cuernavaca.  

No, that's not a fictional statement.  Last week I drove to Mexico City with Sally Sloan, Director of the Brady Museum; she told me as much, as she spoke about Frida's famous Self Portrait with Monkey as if it were Frida herself.  She also told me that in Beijing more people saw Frida in one day than in a whole year in the Brady Museum.  

Museo Brady is one of Cuernavaca's gems.  I like to think of it as like a Russian Babushka nesting doll.  From the street the building itself is impressive.  It is adjacent to the Cathedral -- formerly part of the bishop's residence. You walk through massive doors; go up a flight of stairs to enter a beautiful garden.  From the garden you see the façade of the home itself, another treasure.  Inside are multiple rooms, each one of them distinct and memorable.  You can visit each and every room -- even the kitchen and the bathrooms, all exactly as left by Robert Brady himself.  In fact, that was one of the conditions of Brady’s will when he left his home and all its possessions in trust to the Brady Foundation.  

Wherever you are in the museum there is another treasure to be admired.  Each room has a different theme -- laminated cards name each of the items on display; wonderfully knowledgeable guides are also available to answer questions.  

And you will have plenty of questions. After a few moments in the museum you will not only want to know about the artwork but about Brady’s intriguing life and those with whom he shared it.  There are tantalizing clues everywhere you look.  Brady was a personal friend of many famous artists whose work is on display; among them, Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo.  In addition he had lifelong influential relationships with heiress Peggy Guggenheim and world-renowned singer dancer Josephine Baker.  They both are featured prominently in the museum. 
If familiar with the Barnes Foundation one will immediately notice that influence as well.

Wonderfully eccentric New York heiress Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) was his neighbor in Venice during the five years he lived there after completing his studies at the Barnes.  It is probably thanks to her that Robert Brady created the Brady Foundation and chose to leave his home as a museum.  Like her he is buried in the garden of his home side by side with his beloved dogs.  Their gravesites are almost identical.

Brady met and befriended Josephine Baker (1906-75) while she was traveling and touring in the U.S.  Ms. Baker was born in St. Louis to a single mother.  A desperately poor childhood led her to street corner dancing for tips.  She was discovered, became a hit in the Harlem Renaissance and ultimately moved to Paris, married a Frenchman and renounced U.S. citizenship.  Ms. Baker was married and divorced four times; no longer interested in romantic love she craved platonic companionship. In Acapulco, September 1973, she exchanged private marriage vows with flamboyantly homosexual Robert Brady.  She and Brady maintained their close relationship for the rest of her life.  Josephine Baker is renowned not only for her talent but for her courageous work in the Civil Rights Movement.  African-American, she refused to perform in any theater that was not fully integrated.

Robert Brady (1928-1986) was born into a wealthy Iowa trucking family.  His mother encouraged him in his love of art and he studied at The Chicago Art Institute, Temple University and, finally, The Barnes Foundation.  

Albert Barnes (1872–1951), founder of the Barnes Foundation, self-made multi-millionaire, developed Argyrol, an early treatment for gonorrhea and related blindness.  He made a timely sale of his pharmaceutical company in 1929, immediately before the depression and thus had millions to spend on art during a time when people were trying to unload art in order to keep a roof over their heads.  Like Brady, Barnes too left his home and art collection in an irrevocable trust that it be maintained as it was during his lifetime.  Sadly, Barnes' trust has not been honored as documented in the 2009 award-winning film, The Art of the Steal.

Brady was heavily influenced by Albert Barnes and his Foundation. In turn, Barnes was heavily influenced by beloved educational philosopher John Dewey.  In 1934 Barnes and Dewey collaborated on Art as Experience; a book theorizing that art is something natural to all human beings and should not be overly explained before being experienced. 

Barnes tried to limit admission to his collection and its associated art school to the underprivileged.  Famously, he even refused admission to author James Michener who ultimately gained access to the collection by posing as an illiterate steelworker.  Brady applied to the school and gained admission as a “trucker” not mentioning that, in fact, his family owned the trucking business. 

Brady’s study at the Barnes profoundly influenced his own collecting and its display.  Albert Barnes displayed his vast collection to show relationships between paintings and objects.  Paintings were placed near furniture and objects intended to complement one another.  Cuernavaca's Museo Brady is the only museum in the world established by a student of the Barnes Foundation that has adopted this pleasing philosophy.  But perhaps I should allow you to form your own opinion when you visit Frida at her home in Cuernavaca.