Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Learning for Learning's Sake

Ancient Roman patricians were proud of being able to enjoy "ocio", similar to leisure in English. It set them apart from plebeians engaged in "negocio", the negation of ocio – now the Spanish word for business.  Interestingly “ocio”, in a round-about way, is the root of “school” in English, as the place where lectures are given.  One aspect of ocio can be learning for the sake of learning.

I had the good fortune to experience three days of ocio last week at the Ivan Illich conference in Cuernavaca. Held on the 10th anniversary of his death, the conference covered the wide range of topics that this keen thinker and writer explored in his lifetime. 
Illich is mainly remembered for his writings on education, transportation, and medicine, but he also wrote about how modern society faces the challenges of growing population, limited resources, increasing concentration of wealth, governments' ever expanding control over our lives, gender issues, and the rights of indigenous peoples.  In each case Illich's point of view was very different from the mainstream.  

Illich identified the same topics of study in four important time periods in western culture. The first was ancient Greece and Rome. The second was Europe in the thirteenth century, a period which was important in shaping the Catholic Church and which saw the rise of institutions such as universities and religious orders. Then he focused on the industrial revolution and the modern times of the latter twentieth century. 

He criticized modern marketing institutions which “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”  He noted that an automobile owner in the U.S. in the 1970’s spent 1600 hours per year in the car or working to pay for the car and its upkeep. When dividing that cost by the miles driven, he found that cars were no more efficient than a peasant walking. He asked why we didn’t ride bicycles instead.

The conference organizers treated us to some of the more obscure topics Illich studied too, such as water, the acts of reading, and gazing.  

According to Illich, the ancient Greek concept of water was as an abundant crystalline purifier.  Today it has been reduced to H2O and sold as merchandise and is frequently a conveyer of waste. 

Before the advent of the printing press reading was usually done out loud in a gathering.  Words flowed together melodiously along with a good dosage of hand gestures and body language on the part of the reader.  Today we usually read alone, the words are independent of each other on the page, and body language has disappeared.  

An even more surprising topic was Illich's discourse on gazing or seeing.  Today we think of the eye as passive and receptive -- like a video camera receiving light.  The ancient Greeks maintained that when we look at someone our gaze goes out like an organ -- Illich actually used the phrase 'erectile organ' -- and touches what we look at.  In a sense making gazing a sensual event. When we close our eyes after staring at something bright we can see an after-image. This supports the idea of our eyes absorbing light. But if gaze isn't an organ going out and touching what we are seeing, how do we explain that feeling that someone behind us is staring at us?

For me the "Illich's Radical Humanism" conference was three days of ocio in its truest sense -- leisure and learning for nothing more than the sake and enjoyment of learning and questioning what we engage in during our daily lives.   However participants in their 20s remarked that they had not gotten anything they could use in their workplace or with which to further their studies.  I interpreted that as evidence that education itself has become expensive merchandise, even here in Mexico.   That was not a concern as recently as five years ago at the first of Cuernavaca's homages to Ivan Illich.  The nature of this conference was more along the lines Illich described when he referred to his study center in Cuernavaca, "free and powerless thinkery which can be squashed by its rising influence." 

I enjoyed a privileged seat in all the sessions as translator/interpreter from Spanish to English.  The translating equipment was rudimentary. Those requiring translation sat as close as possible around me on folding chairs.  My listeners had no headsets. I had no microphone. We quickly became an accepted group within the auditorium and head turnings and nasty stares by people in the audience ceased after the first session.  After particularly complicated presentations I found myself asking my little group if the translation had made any sense.  We had the good fortune of having Dougald Hine sitting with us. Five years ago he was working with the School of Everything in London. His extensive knowledge of Illich's work allowed him to give us a synopsis of each talk.

Many of Ivan Illich's essays and books are available free online.  His Wikipedia article lists his titles.  I encourage you to download some of them and enjoy some well-deserved ocio yourself. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lupe Reyes

Have you met Lupe Reyes? No, not the person. Lupe Reyes is what Mexicans call the time period from December 12th through January 6th. Lupe refers to the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, and Reyes refers to Epiphany, the celebration of Los Reyes Magos, Three Kings' Day on January 6th. In addition to the anchor dates at each end, Lupe Reyes includes celebrations of the "posadas", Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Day of the Holy Innocents, and the Feast of the Name of Jesus on New Year's Day.

Lupe Reyes pulls together a marvelous amalgamation of events rooted in different cultures all in less than a month.

Guadalupe is a name of Arabic origin. Words with "guada" in them refer to the sound of running water. In other contexts we've heard or seen that word as "wadi" for dry riverbeds in the desert. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Spanish manifestation of the Virgin Mary, and the Arabic origin of the name is a remnant of the Moors long domination there. She first appeared in Spain as a wooden image attributed to Luke the Evangelist. Spanish conquerors and colonists entrusted themselves to her at her shrine before setting off across the ocean. Likewise they thanked her for their safe journey upon arrival in this hemisphere. She appeared in Mexico as a life-sized, beautiful woman whose feet did not touch the ground to Juan Diego, an indigenous merchant. This happened on the 9th, 10th, and 12th of December in 1531 on the same hilltop where the Aztecs had worshiped Tonantzin, the goddess of fertility.

The posadas take place from December 16 to 24 and re-enact Mary and Joseph's attempt to find room at an inn. They lead up to Christmas on the 25th. Next comes the Day of the Holy Innocents on December 28, doubling as Mexico’s equivalent of April Fools’ day. All are Christian celebrations dealing with the birth of Jesus.

January 1st is The Feast of the Name of Jesus. This celebrates Jesus’ circumcision ceremony in which he became a member of the covenant established between Abraham and God following the instructions given in the Book of Genesis (chapter 17, verse 12). In other words, Jesus didn't become “Jesus” until eight days after he was born. Though there is much debate about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, I have no doubt that it is because of this Jewish ceremony that we start the Christian calendar on January 1st, not on Christmas Day.

Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, is January 6th. That’s when Mexican children expect gifts just as the baby Jesus received gifts from the Wise Men. All ages participate in cutting the "rosca", a special Three Kings' Day bread. The Three Kings or Three Wise Men are frequently used to symbolize the cultural and ethnic diversity of Christianity.

This year, in addition to Moorish, Spanish, Aztec, Christian, and Jewish influences, Lupe Reyes includes a significant Mayan religious event.

The ancient Maya deified time in addition to worshiping gods of the natural forces. They kept count and celebrated “bactuns”, a time period of 144,000 days.  In their world-view the humanity that we are a part of will be completing our thirteenth bactun on December 21. The count began in August of 3113 B.C.

The completion of bactun 13 and the beginning of bactun 14 is a moment when some gods will drop out of the procession of time and others will take their place. Because of that turnover the new bactun will have a distinct personality, different from the previous.

Though an important milestone, the Mayans don’t believe that December 21 will be the end of time. Not to put a damper on the "end of the world" parties planned for that night.

The day will be celebrated throughout the Maya world by those who honor Maya religion and its calendar. However, according to the Associated Press, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology (INAH) is not allowing indigenous ceremonies at Maya archeological sites “for visitor safety and preservation of the sites." Indigenous shamans and religious and community leaders will have to find other places to honor the gods passing the staff in the relay march of time. INAH spokesman Francisco de Anda, went on to say, "many of the groups that want to hold ceremonies bring braziers and want to burn incense, and that simply isn't allowed."  Horrors!

In Guatemala indigenous ceremonies will be carried out at important Maya temples in present-day archeological sites. Guatemala's peace accords brokered by the United Nations and signed in 1996 guarantee the right of indigenous people to free access to their ancient temples as well as the right to carry out ceremonies in archeological sites. The treaty even required that contemporary archeologists construct appropriate altars for offerings, many of which involve fire and incense at the base of ancient temples.

Lupe Reyes is a fascinating time to be in Mexico. Charlie's Digs' of late November and early December 2010 and 2011 cover other aspects of these year-end holidays.  Columns dated August 2 and 9, 2011 deal with the Maya calendar and the completion of backtun 13. All are posted at charliesdigs.blogspot.com.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mexico's Symbolic Colors

In Mexico City drivers are aware of the color of the sticker on their car’s rear window. It’s the color assigned to the last digit on their license plates, one of five colors identifying which weekday their car is not to be driven in the city. Morning newscasters make mention of it much like the weather is reported in northern countries. This is just one of many ways, some subtle and some bold, that colors take on significance in Mexico.

The color of the trim in a metro (subway) station is understood by all passengers.  Each metro line has a designated color as well as a number.  Each station has a logo that alludes to the name of the station.  With twelve lines crisscrossing the city, color changes can get pretty subtle.  There is green, olive green, and chartreuse.  There is yellow and there is gold.  Nevertheless, using colors makes it easy for illiterate people to ride the metro -- they follow a color and watch for the picture that identifies their stop.  A station with two colors in its emblem identifies it as a transfer station.  There are some stations where three lines converge, with three colors in their emblems.

Intrestingly neither black nor white are used to identify metro lines.  Perhaps because black is identified with death and white is hard to keep clean.

The most frequently seen colors in workers' or union marches are red and black -- the colors of the working class.  A red and black flag draped across the entrance to a workplace indicates that its workers are on strike.  When Mexicans see television coverage of striking workers in the U.S., walking endlessly to nowhere on a picket line, they wonder why their northern counterparts don't just put up a red and black flag and take a well deserved vacation. 

In the United States, both major parties freely use the colors of the flag for political purposes. We see red, white and blue donkeys as well as elephants. Since the 2000 elections, states and counties voting Republican have been shown as red with Democratic places shown in blue. This seems strange to me since red is the only color that has had a longstanding political connotation in the U.S, with "Reds" meaning Communists.

In Mexico no party is allowed to use the colors of the flag in its emblem.  Each has its own distinctive colors. Frequently the parties are referred to by their colors rather than their name.  The PAN party, closely identified with the Catholic Church, uses the colors of the Virgin Mary's white dress and blue cape. It is referred to as the "albiazul" (blue dawn) party.  At first glance the PRI might seem to be using the colors of the flag. Close inspection of its emblem will show that it is red and green with no color in the center.  Nevertheless it is frequently refered to as the tri-color party.  The PRD's emblem is a yellow square with a black design similar to an asterisk in the center, leading it to be called the party of the Aztec sun.  That association with an Indigenous nation leads to the different factions within the party being referred to as "tribus" or tribes.  The only party with a color in its name is the PVEM, Mexican Green Ecological Party, the “partido verde”. Not surprisingly it's color is green.

Red and yellow belong to the Partido del Trabajo (the Worker Party or Labor Party). Orange belongs to the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens' Movement). Partido Nueva Alianza's (New Alliance Party) emblem is a white swirl in a chartreuse square. 

With that mind, you can quickly determine which party holds the municipal presidency or governorship when you enter a Mexican municipality or state. Look at the railings on bridges, the overpasses, or really any public works. The color they are painted will tell you the answer.

The hundreds of men attending last Saturday's presidential inauguration in the Chamber of Deputies and the National Palace appeared to be in identical dark suits. A few women in bright colored dresses were interspersed. A closer look, however, revealed each man with a colored tie and each woman with a colored shawl or scarf. You guessed it—the color symbolized their party affiliation. The PRI wore red, the PAN wore blue, the PRD yellow, PVEM green, PT red and yellow, Movimiento Ciudadano orange, and Nueva Alianza chartreuse.  Enrique Peña Nieto, who assumed the presidency that day, wore an elegant grey tie. He is the president of all Mexicans.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Felipe, Prince of Asturias sat next to each other at the National Palace, obviously enjoying each other's company. Prince Felipe wore the color blue of the flag of Asturias.  Did Joe Biden decide to follow along and use the color -- blue -- that US television has assigned to his party?

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Maze of Stores and Stories

Like other large cities, Mexico City has streets which are known for a particular type of store.  Customers know they will be able to compare prices, brands, and designs in numerous stores all selling similar items. They can easily go back to purchase at the store where they found the product they liked the best.  However I doubt other cities have a street as interesting as the one along the west side of Mexico City's Zócalo.  

The street’s name changes every couple blocks. For the first block from the Zócalo it is called Plaza de la Constitución.  As it continues north and passes the national pawn shop it takes its name and becomes Calle Nacional Monte de Piedad. A block further along it becomes Calle República de Brasil.  The types of stores change block to block but they all have one thing in common--preparations for a wedding could be made without straying from this street.

After purchasing an engagement ring in one of the jewelry stores facing the Zocalo, a soon to be married couple can buy a wedding dress for the bride, a tuxedo for the groom, order wedding invitations, arrange for the wedding to be celebrated in the Templo de Santo Domingo, and a few blocks farther along even buy furniture for their new apartment.  

First the jewelry stores. Myriad aisles lined with jewelry stores wind their way into the buildings facing the Zocalo.  Continue north, past the multistoried pawnshop, and you will see stores and stores of beautiful wedding dresses.  Then men's suits and tuxedos take over on both sides of the street. 

Continue to the block-long Santo Domingo Plaza. There you will find an arched walkway running the length of the west side of the plaza. Inside each portal are print shops with hand-set printing presses. Each print shop is a 3-meter high, 2 meter by 2 meter wooden structure housing a manually-powered, movable-type printing press.  In these shops they not only print fancy wedding invitations but also letterhead paper and business cards.  Rumor has it that you can get any type of document you want at Plaza Santo Domingo, much like MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.  

Opposite the printing presses, under the arched walkway, sit the Evangelistas.  They aren't pushing a religion. They are evangelists in the true sense of the word -- the ones who write good news.  Each sits with his back against the wall behind a desk facing the plaza. On each desk is a manual typewriter.  They operate Escritorios Publicos, public desks.  For a fee the Evangelistas will fill out forms that need to be typed. They'll also type whatever the customer wants.  Frequently what they type are letters for illiterate people.  The customer dictates and the Evangelist puts it down on paper.  

Seeing the Evangelistas always brings to my mind the principal character in Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Times of Cholera.  Florentino Ariza's services at his public desk were the most solicited in town because of his fame for writing love letters.   He'd always known he was good, but he had no doubt he was really good when he'd gone full circle.  That’s when people started bringing him letters they had received -- which he recognized as letters he had written -- asking him to write the reply. 

You’ll want to notice the east side of the Plaza Santo Domingo, but not for its stores.

Here in the Customs House Dominican priests serving the Inquisition reviewed every book imported to New Spain to make sure it was not listed in the Index of Prohibited Books.  Next door the headquarters of New Spain's Inquisition occupied the real estate that became the School of Medicine. It now houses a medical museum and a macabre museum of the Inquisition.  If you don't visit the museums, at least step in to see the beautiful and unusual 18th century courtyard architecture.   An arched walkway surrounds the courtyard.  Each arch rests on a capital supported by a column that it shares with the adjacent arch -- except at the four corners.  There, where two perpendicular arches meet on a capital, there is no column beneath the capital.  Quite stunning.

Continue north on Calle República de Brasíl, beyond the Santo Domingo church, which faces onto the Plaza.  Here furniture stores line both sides of the street. 

Retracing your steps back to the Zócalo, finish your walk by rewarding yourself with coffee and pastries under the spectacular stained glass ceiling in the lobby of the Gran Hotel at the southwestern corner of the Zócalo.  You may remember the lobby from the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek. Although filmed in Mexico City, in the movie it is in Paris that Josephine Baker and Frida Kahlo ride the elegant 19th-century caged elevator together. (You may find it easier to get into the lobby if you enter from the garage on Calle 16 de Septiembre as the staff is not always friendly to non hotel guests.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mexico's Main Square

Mexico City's main plaza is center stage for today’s commemoration of the start of the Mexican Revolution.  Although last year on this date there was a military parade, traditionally the 20th of November's event is a parade with an athletic focus.  Many events crucial to Mexico’s history and character have happened in the plaza, known as the zócalo. 

In other Spanish-speaking countries zócalo is an architectural term referring to the base of a monument or column. The most frequently heard explanation for calling Mexico City’s central plaza the zócalo is that a pedestal was built there for a statue of the king of Spain. The statue took so long to arrive that people started referring to the pedestal itself as a meeting point or landmark, as in "I'll meet you at the pedestal," or "my house is three blocks north of the pedestal."  The name zócalo caught on and spread to every Mexican town and village square. 

Mexico's famous novelist Carlos Fuentes came up with another explanation for the name. He calculated that 25% of our modern Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin.  He theorized that the root of the word zócalo is zuc, the Arabic word for market.  Mexico City's market was in the southwest corner of the city square.  Fuentes pointed out that in New Spain there was even a title of nobility for the Señor del Zuc, the Lord of the Market.

To get to the heart of the matter I spoke to Mexico’s zocólogo, Obed Arango Hisijara. He got that moniker as a student at the National School of Anthropology where he extensively studied the zócalo. Obed says that the zócalo is the place that gives significance to the nation's historical events.  He says “there is no other plaza in the world that has such strength of significance in which the important and historical events of a country need to take place.  Red Square in Moscow and Revolution Plaza in Havana may be thought of has having similar importance but they lack the zócalo's ancient history.  The zócalo goes back to Aztec times.  For Grand Tenochtitlan it was the center of the universe."  

However he added that it could hardly have been in a worse location, located in the middle of a lake on a swampy island. But the regime named it the center of its world.  Sometimes the significance of social spaces is based on the importance we give them, in spite of their geographic location. 

Obed speaks about a many-faceted zócalo -- as the symbol that gives structure and strength to ritual. It can be the stage for governmental and non-governmental events of all kinds.  During Christmas and New Years' holidays it hosts an ice-skating rink.  Last Friday it hosted a fashion show complete with a runway.  It literally hosts stages for concerts. It is the parade ground for the annual military parade and sports parade.  Photographer Spencer Tunick even used it for his most massive photo shoot of 20,000 carefully arranged nude people. 

The zócalo is the setting that does, and must, witness all the relevant and important events of the nation.  Obed asks "If Villa and Zapata hadn't taken the zócalo and entered the palace would the Revolution have triumphed?  Of course not.  If Iturbide hadn't been crowned emperor in front of the Altar of the Kings in the Cathedral, would it have been an official event?  If Benito Juarez had not entered the zócalo he wouldn't have defeated the Imperial forces.  If Victoriano Huerta hadn't taken the zócalo during the 'ten tragic days' he wouldn't have been able to overthrow Madero and Pino Suarez.  If every first of May the president hadn't greeted the workers under the PRI administrations they would have been weak regimes.  If the Zapatistas (from Chiapas) hadn't entered the zócalo on their march to Mexico City, they wouldn’t have concluded their march. Even though congress has moved to other locations, and the president prefers his office in Los Pinos, where else can the military parade be held?  Or the sports parade?" 

The various powers are all represented on the zócalo.  The federal government is on the east, the city government on the south, the church on the north side, and although the main market is no longer there, the arched portals on the west side represent the commercial force. 

Author and social critic Carlos Mosivais said the zócalo has been the center of power generation after generation.  But not only that, it fills with the people who live on the fringes of power. It is a place of daily protests -- some small, some fill it up completely.  Some protestors come in for the day, some camp out and stay for weeks. However it is no longer a place where they are listened to.  Perhaps it would behoove the government to dialog with the protesters since without this release they take their protest elsewhere to places that are more disruptive to city life.

Regardless of today's events:  military parade, sports parade, or something low key, Obed Arango, Mexico's zocólogo, invites us to think of the zócalo as a museum of living and vibrant Mexico.  The museum's rooms are the buildings surrounding it, each with their own fascinating displays.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Second Vatican Council

The most visited spot in the state of Morelos is the simple and austere Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Cuernavaca. Built as a church in the early 1500’s, Franciscan friars served as its amateur architects and its indigenous laborers had never built a Roman arch or a vaulted ceiling. Look carefully and you will see Roman arches lacking keystones and other glaring architectural mistakes. But these don’t take away from its beauty. Wonderful modern stained glass set in 16th century windows. A single nave with glimpses of rescued murals. Monastic construction combined with mid 20th century modern church interior design.

It wasn’t always this way.  It used to be ornately decorated with side altars and images of saints. In 1957 Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo closed the sanctuary and completely remodeled it.  In his words, "we removed all the deformations that had been added over time.  It was an exemplary historical reconstruction, in which I put in place my ideas as a doctor of church history.  In the resulting interior space we placed modern furnishings that go along with the liturgical renovations that have been adopted by the Church. " The result?  "It shook up public opinion."  

It shook up public opinion so much that Bishop Mendez Arceo had to write a pastoral letter explaining the changes.  Not only had he renovated the building, but he had also removed all images of saints, leaving only Jesus on the cross and Mary looking up at Him.  In his newly remodeled cathedral Don Sergio started celebrating Mass in Spanish instead of Latin and he replaced German organ music with Mariachi musicians playing church music composed in Latin America.  Referred to as the Mariachi Mass, its proper name is the Panamerican Mass.  It continues to be celebrated Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.     

Bishop Mendez Arceo was ahead of his time. While he was renovating his church in Cuernavaca, the newly elected Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council, to begin in October 1962. Ultimately this council would encourage changes to the liturgy similar to the ones Mendez Arceo had already made.

As part of this year's 50th anniversary celebration of the Second Vatican Council, the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation will publish Don Sergio's thirty-five letters home from the Council on the anniversary of each letter.  Not only will we be treated to an insider's view of the proceedings, but church historian Father Angel Sánchez will preface each letter with historical context of the events the Bishop describes.

According to Fr. Angel, Cuernavaca's bishop was one of the most active participants in the Council, attending all four sessions spanning four years.  Bishop Mendez Arceo was one of only two Latin American bishops who wrote home to their dioceses about the goings-on at the Council.  He sent his letters to the editor of a statewide newspaper, Correo del Sur, not to the diocese.   In doing so he was addressing all the people in the diocese, not only Catholics. 

Pope John XXIII set out to improve dialogue and relations with non-Catholic Christians with the Second Vatican Council.  Six hundred Protestant and Orthodox church leaders participated in the inaugural ceremony on October 11, 1962 in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.   

I felt the effects of this ecumenical resurgence while growing up in Colombia.  My father, a Presbyterian missionary, studied the persecution of Protestants by Catholics throughout Colombia in the late 1940s and 1950s.  He documented hundreds of burnings and bombings along with the closing of Protestant churches, schools, clinics, and orphanages.  It was a dark chapter of Colombian history. All that abruptly came to an end with a photo published on the front page of Colombia’s newspapers. The photo showed Pope John XXIII with his arm around the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

This ecumenical embrace, and the outcome of the Second Vatican Council, not only brought the persecution of Protestants to an end but started a new era of cooperation. My parents, James and Margaret Goff, later found it easier to work with progressive Catholics than with Protestants. They were invited by the Maryknoll Order to run their press service in Lima, Peru. Later they worked in Nicaragua with the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center, headed by a Dominican priest.

Bishop Mendez Arceo submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II at the age of 75. He reminded his congregation that he had been a delegate at the Synod of Bishops in Rome where he voted in favor of Paul VI's proposal that bishops retire at age 75.  He also told them he had made a proposal that wasn't approved by his brother bishops -- that popes also resign at age 75. 

On another matter, next Tuesday is celebrated as the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, although it will be observed on Monday.  There are three Charlie's Digs -- posted in November 2010 -- on the topic of the Revolution posted at <charliesdigs.blogspot.com>.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Making a Better Mexico

Mal de Pinto is a disease that leaves white splotches on dark skin.  It used to be endemic in the Mixe region of Oaxaca.  In the late 1950s the Mixes brought it under control to the point that a bounty was offered to anyone detecting a new case in the region.  The heroine behind that story is Lini de Vries, who came to make Mexico her home.

Lini was born in 1905 in New Jersey to Dutch immigrant parents. In 1935 Lini joined the Communist Party and in 1937 she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  After World War II wound down she was trailed and hounded by the FBI.  Fearing a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee, she packed her duffle bags and with $100 in her pocket, her 4-year-old daughter Toby holding her hand, she boarded the midnight flight from Tijuana to Mexico City in the early hours of December 12, 1947, day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  

She was offered a place to live in Cuernavaca by Constancia de la Mora, daughter of a prime minister to the former King of Spain. Lini covered her expenses by teaching English.  Her passion was nursing and public health.  She taught English for five pesos an hour and taught nursing for free.  

She moved to Oaxaca in 1952, taught English and nursing and soon was working for the Papaloapan River Commission, a federal government development program patterned on the Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S. The plan was to build roads, bridges, schools, clinics, powerplants and flood-control dams. 

Three diseases threatened to bring the project to a standstill.  Malaria was prevalent in the lower regions, Mal de Pinto in the area around the largest dam, and onchoserciasis caused by the bite of a black fly in the mountains. Engineers and even public health workers were leery of entering the region for fear of contracting river blindness or the disfiguring blotches on their skin.

It was Lini's idea to train the rural school teachers -- federal employees with a good rapport with the communities -- to provide the necessary treatment for each one of the diseases.  Mal de Pinto required three vaccinations.  After the first, the symptoms disappeared and the patient felt cured.  However the disease progressed without the other two follow-up vaccinations. Teachers kept track of the dates for the second and third vaccinations and went out in search of the patients if they didn't come in for them.  

As the Papaloapan project reached completion, Lini accepted a position at the University of Veracruz in Jalapa where she taught anthropology and public health and set up a program for foreign students.  

It was in Jalapa that the FBI caught up with Lini.  Her friends and colleagues knew her fear and soon President Adolfo López Mateos learned of it too.  He reportedly told his Secretary of Foreign Relations that he would deal with the extradition request himself. As I recall the story, the president drew two parallel lines diagonally across the request and wrote between them "Lini de Vries is a Mexican citizen and cannot be extradited for political reasons."  On May 10, 1962, Lini received a telegram from the president requesting she report to his office to receive her citizenship papers from him personally.  Lini's autobiography ends with "all fears of the FBI seemed to lift off my shoulders.  Suddenly I felt free.  I was home."

I met Lini seven years after that.  Her Cuernavaca home was a bed and breakfast. She sold Oaxacan arts and crafts in a shop in her garden.  She hosted events in her living room.

Lini told of hiring a man to paint her living room walls.   She returned from shopping that morning to find a red splotch on her wall.  Raising her voice she said "I wanted it white, not red!"  "Don't worry Señora, it is just the rear end of a horse.”  Lini had the whole wall scraped revealing a mural underneath. Turns out that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in that house at the corner of Motolinia and Humbolt streets while Rivera painted the mural in the Cortez Palace. Lini suspected that her mural was an experiment with technique by Rivera and a Russian friend.

It was around the dining room table in Lini's home that my Spanish language school, the Cemanahuac Educational Community, was planned and took shape.  Lini insisted "You can't teach the language in a cultural vacuum.  You must also teach about the people who speak the language."  She helped us do that. As dean of students Lini contributed with her intelligence and wit and taught classes in public health and anthropology.  

The Days of the Dead make me think of Lini and the book frequently called the Book of the Dead -- the phone book.  Lini worked her way through nursing school as a telephone operator and had a keen ability to remember phone numbers.  When I couldn't find a number I knew I could call Lini and she would know it by heart. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Days of the Dead

Tomorrow is Halloween, what I consider an imposition from the north pushed by chain stores here eager to sell costumes to children. Shortened from Hallowed Evening, Halloween is just the build up to the days traditionally celebrated in Mexico--All Saints Day on November 1st and and All Souls Day on November 2nd. Here both days are called the Days of the Dead--Dias de los Muertos. You know they are approaching by the mounds of marigolds, special breads, and sugar skulls abundant in markets.

In Christian tradition All Saints Day honors all saints, known and unknown.  All Souls Day is one on which to assist through prayer the souls of the deceased who have not yet achieved purification and are still in purgatory. 

While that's what the Church says, Mesoamerican tradition is quite different. Death is not the end of life, it is merely a transition.  Dias de los Muertos are days when the souls of the deceased return to visit with their families. Family members who have migrated away from their traditional home make their way back, just as the souls of the deceased return to where they were buried.  That’s why these are the busiest travel days in Mexico.

According to Johanna Broda, who has written extensively on the overlapping of Mesoamerican and Spanish rituals, "the dead make their appearance during St. Michael's fiesta on September 29, and share with their family members their happiness over the first corn cobs.  In this way the dead show their intimate link with the agricultural cycle and the welfare of the living." 

Early Spanish friars were successful in extending Mesoamerica's harvest celebration for another month to blend with the Christian All Souls and All Saints Holy Days.  You can't but give credibility to the idea that Days of the Dead are linked with a harvest celebration when you see an altar to the dead, be it an authentic family home altar or a tourism department sponsored extravaganza in which groups are competing for prizes awarded to the "best" altar.  Loaded with the foods that the deceased enjoyed in life, Mesoamerican crops are well represented.  You’ll find candied squash, tamales made from corn, turkey in "móle" sauce.  Rice and sugar cane arrived hand-in-hand from Spain, but strangely rice is not a common dish on the altars while four- or five-inch-long pieces of sugar cane are. European wheat is well represented in the fancy Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead).  In fact, bakeries usually do the best job of decorating their store windows with allusion to Days of the Dead. 

Though the underlying meaning is the same throughout Mesoamerica, the way the Days of the Dead are observed changes from one village to the next.  Don't be surprised if your Mexican friends each describe different ways of celebrating these days.  They are all correct.  Just listen and take it in with fascination.  The one constant throughout Mesomaerican is the use of the bright yellow cempasuchitl (marigold) to decorate tombs altars and walkways.  Yellow is definitely the color of days of the dead.

If invited to visit a home altar jump at the opportunity because it is very much a family observance and celebration.  As outsiders we don't really play a role in it unless we have deceased family members who are buried here. 

With that in mind, I invite you to accompany me to decorate the tomb of a dear friend of mine, John Spencer.  John has no family members in Mexico, yet his tomb has never been bereft of flowers on Days of the Dead.  His tomb will be decorated by friends of his in life as well as others who have come to be his friends through his lasting legacy to art and design in Cuernavaca. We will meet and decorate his tomb on Thursday with a design copied from a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, an artist he particularly admired.  We'll recreate it with marigold petals. 

If you would like to join us at The Church of the Three Kings in Cuernavaca, send me an email.  The more participants we have the grander the "painting" will be.  While we work, we'll be surrounded by the magnificent walls he designed. John Spencer was one of us -- a foreigner enticed by Mexico's charm who settled here.

For more about these holidays refer back to the very first Charlie's Digs in October 2010,  three in October 2011, and one in November 2011.  They’re all posted at <charliesdigs.blogspot.com>.

Last month in a column about Ivan Illich, another foreigner who has left his mark on Mexico, I told you I'd let you know the dates of the forum commemorating the tenth anniversary of his death.  It will be December 13-15 in Cuernavaca with a series of talks by an impressive list of speakers about Illich's thought and writing.  If you’d like to attend send me an email and I'll forward the registration form to you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

All that Glitters is Wonderful

The exhibit "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia" is hands down the best of its kind.  The exhibit opened last week in Mexico City's National Museum of Cultures, adjacent to the National Palace, and will run through January. What makes the exhibit so good is that all the pieces are on loan from the Gold Museum in Bogotá Colombia.     

I’ve been fascinated with goldwork since I was a teenager living in Colombia. I visited the Gold Museum in the Bank of the Republic building in downtown Bogotá many times. My favorite room was the last, a round, darkened room on the top floor.  Once inside the lights gradually brightened until 6,000 pieces of gold crammed into the circular display case glittered intensely. Gold has a power to it that holds people in its grasp.

Legend has it that in prehispanic Colombia a new indigenous ruler (cacique) was rowed out on a crater lake standing on a raft, clothed only in gold dust.  At his feet were piles of gold ornaments and emeralds. His subjects stood along the rim of the lake, watching in respectful and absolute silence. Once in the center of the lake the cacique pushed the offering into the water.  His subjects erupted in cheers -- they had a new ruler.

There is no limit to the variations on this legend. Did this ritual happen only when the cacique took office, or was it once a year?  Did he jump into the frigid water and wash off the gold dust?  Was gold also thrown into the lake by the spectators? 

Spanish conquerors believed the legend. They searched for the land of El Dorado (the guilded one) in Nueva Granada, what is now present day Colombia. Most eyes have focused on Lake Guatavita, 75 kilometers north of Bogotá, as the legend's El Dorado Lake.  I remember Lake Guatavita fondly.  You could say it was there that I started my career leading trips. I’d organize high school friends to go with me in a long taxi ride followed by a two-hour horseback ride to the edge of the crater lake with a huge gash in one side. In colonial times entrepreneurs had tried to drain the lake by cutting a giant "V" into the crater.  Miscalculating the depth of the lake, the sides of the "V" converged before getting to the bottom. Nevertheless, gold ornaments were found in the drained portion of the crater, giving early credibility to the legend.  

The legend gained more credibility with the discovery of the Muisca Raft in 1968. This 20 centimeter-long work in gold portrayed a cacique and nine other people on a raft. It’s made of a single piece of gold using the lost wax process.

Many pieces in the exhibit in Mexico City are made the same way. In the lost wax process the goldsmith shaped the piece using beeswax. He squeezed clay tightly around the beeswax, then fired it to become a mold.  In the firing, the wax melted and flowed out a drain. Through that same drain the goldsmith poured in molten gold or an alloy called tumbaga -- a mixture of gold and copper or gold and silver--to take the place of the wax.  Once the metal cooled the mold was shattered, revealing the artwork. 

Other pieces in the exhibit are hammered. Hammering isn't as simple as it might seem. Gold becomes brittle and cracks when hammered. It has to be repeatedly heated and quickly cooled to maintain its resiliency.  Skilled goldsmiths knew its limits. 

The pieces on display in the Mexico City exhibit are grouped by design and function.  Most were to be worn.  In fact the first display is a gold outfit -- headband, earrings, necklace, chest plate, and loin cloth.  You’ll also see containers and long knitting-needle-length "palillos" used in coca rituals.  Ornaments in the shape of animals, some easily identifiable and others stylized, would be just as comfortable in a museum of modern art as in this exhibit. 

This is not the first time there has been gold exhibited at Calle de la Moneda 13.  When it was Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, the Emporer Moctezuma showed off gold in a temple there where he would go to dialog with the gods on that same piece of real estate. The Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes must have been overjoyed when he saw the amount of gold in the Aztec palaces. Cortez is quoted as having told Emperor Moctezuma's messenger that he suffered "a disease of the heart which only gold can cure."

I encourage you to go see what glitters in "Gold, Prehispanic Art of Colombia". It runs through January, 10am-5pm, free admission, closed on Mondays.  Informative panels are in Spanish and English, as are three excellent videos.  Captions describing the displays are in Spanish only.  The exhibit's website is <mnculturas.worpress.com>.   

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Honoring Siqueiros

Highly controversial artist David Alfaro Siquieros (1896-1974) has been honored with two major re-inaugurations within the last month.  The City of Los Angeles and the Getty Institute unveiled restored "América Tropical" on Olvera Street, eighty years to the day after Siqueiros himself unveiled the outdoor mural for the first time.  The 9.95 million dollar project includes a viewing platform and interpretive center about the artist and the mural.  

Timothy Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute explained "Part of the significance of this mural is not just the importance of Siqueiros, a major 20th century figure, but the fact that it was censored. . .  That contributes to our understanding of it as much as what he originally painted."  

Almost concurrently, Siqueiros' Cuernavaca workshop known as La Tallera was re-inaugurated by the federal government as a museum.  I visited La Tallera last weekend and was welcomed to the newly refurbished museum by Public Relations Chief, Yolanda Rodriguez.  I asked her that question I've often wanted to ask but didn't so as to not let on that I didn't know -- "why did he refer to his workshop as feminine?"

"Siqueiros gave it that name because it is a place of gestation, fecundity, creation, hence its femininity.  He designed it as an industrial-sized workshop to give birth to mural art projects."

My first visit to La Tallera was shortly after Siqueiros' death, in the company of Roberto Berdecio, a Bolivian artist and muralist in his own right, who had worked closely with Siqueiros on América Tropical in 1932 as well as other projects in New York and Mexico.

From Berdecio I learned Siqueiros knew La Tallera was where he would produce his last big project -- the Siqueiros Polyforum.   He had worn out his welcome with the Mexican government -- to the point of being incarcerated.  Marcos Manuel Suarez became his backer and financier.  It was Suarez's architects who built Siqueiros' Tallera just a couple of kilometers from Suarez's Casino de la Selva Hotel, which was to host the Polyforum.

Suarez, had been one of those many teenagers who sailed from Sevilla to Veracruz, sent, by their Spanish mothers, to America "to become a man".  It was sink or swim for the boys armed with more names of family members who had preceded them than cash.  Suarez did very well, but adhered to his mantra of having nothing to do with bandits -- his name for bankers.  He worked with his own money.  When Mexico City was awarded the 1968 Olympic Games, Suarez said "there's not enough hotel space for such an event," and he undertook the project of building Mexico City's largest hotel -- Hotel de Mexico (now World Trade Center Mexico).  The Olympics came and went and the Hotel de Mexico wasn't finished until after Suarez's death when his sons enlisted the aid of bandits.

To make his new hotel more attractive, Suarez, over Siqueiros' objections, changed the location of the Polyforum from Cuernavaca to Mexico City.  Indeed, long before the Hotel de Mexico was functioning, the rooftop revolving restaurant and the ground level Polyforum, with the world's largest mural, were open and generating income.  

The financial demands of the construction of the Hotel de Mexico sucked resources from the Polyforum.  After her husband's death, Angelica Arenal viuda de Siqueiros took out a full-page ad in Excelsior complaining to Suarez that what her husband had foreseen was indeed happening -- forcing him to scrimp and save meant the Polyforum was deteriorating quickly and hence affecting her husband's artistic reputation.

Despite the change in venue of the Polyforum it was at La Tallera that Siqeiros' turned out murals that are inside, outside, even on top of, his artistic extravaganza close to the intersection of Mexico City's Insurgentes Avenue and Viaducto Miguel Aleman. 

As an artist, Siqueiros took us, as viewers, into account.  Back in 1932 he painted América Tropical with the pedestrian in mind.  "A mural visible from the street on the second floor of a building should not just be a large-scale painting hanging on the wall.  It needs to be painted with the viewer-in-motion, in mind."  

Though La Tallera's main exhibit revolves around the design and content of the murals that make up the Polyforum, another deals with Siqueiros' concept of polyangularity -- taking into account where the viewer will be standing, sitting, or walking.  At his Palace of Fine Arts murals he imagines us leaning against a cool marble column while our arm rests on a brass railing.  On Olvera Street we're viewing América Tropical day after day as we walk to work.  Some viewers of the Polyforum are airline passengers on approach to MEX looking down on the roof of the building.

Siqueiros' last words, inscribed on a plaque that used to lie on his bed in his Cuernavaca home, were "I fear I don't have much time, and I have so much yet to do."  One year earlier he had intended to restore América Tropical, but was denied a U.S. visa.  I wonder which illuminated consul was responsible for that.  That censored mural was still on his mind.