Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Old Photos Rediscovered

In the 1950s in Hendersonville, North Carolina, Ellen Macdonald accompanied her mother on summer evenings to visit Mary Davis, a retired high school art teacher. Ellen remembers sitting spellbound as Ms. Davis recounted travel adventures on the back roads of Mexico -- stories accompanied by color slides and black and white photographs.  As a high school student Ellen, now a Cuernavaca resident entering her 70s, dreamed of travel adventures of her own in that beautiful country.  

Her wish was granted:  Ellen refers to Mexico as "the place of my dreams." Her dreams are still evolving and fifty-five years later Davis' photographs are still part of the story. At Ellen's instigation an exhibit of Ms. Davis' photographs taken in the 1940s and 50s will  soon be on display in the library of the Tec de Monterrey's Cuernavaca campus. 

Ellen's story unfolds as a southern tale worthy of Eudora Welty.  The setting was sultry southern summer evenings spent sipping sweet tea enjoying carefree chatter swinging on the wide porch of a rambling old home passed through generations of the same family.

Mary Davis incorporated some of her photographs into a 1963 book titled Mexican Jewelry.  The pictures in the book are black and white yet Ellen recalled the originals "were Kodachrome slides, with the sharp colors and clearly-defined images that made that process famous."

Ellen traveled to Mexico to study Spanish in the winter of 1977 and returned in 1987 for a year of graduate internship.  She married in Mexico and didn’t return to North Carolina until the marriage ended in 1995. 

Back in Hendersonville, Ms. Davis' house remained in her family's hands twenty-six years after her death.  When finally sold in 1997, a family member found a cardboard box on the floor of Ms. Davis' closet.  There were nearly a thousand slides taken on her trips to Mexico!  Most had notations on the mounts about the person or scene in the photograph.

"This was a treasure of memories and it was given to me!" says Ellen, adding "I resolved to go through the box carefully one day."  One day wasn’t that day; Ellen stored the unopened but treasured box close by. 

Ten years later Ellen sold her own home in Hendersonville and discovered the box of slides on the floor in her own closet.  She had forgotten all about them.  A month later she was diagnosed with breast cancer and after surgery faced months of chemotherapy.  "I was thin, weak and scared, and during the long winter nights of that year and the next I began to look at the slides.  I was astounded by the beauty of the images.  It comforted me to hold them up to the light, one by one, and imagine myself well again, sitting in the Mexican sun on a flower-filled patio.  I resolved to return to Mexico as soon as I was able."

Happily she was back in Mexico the following fall with the slides and photographs and a resolve to get them published.  Her first attempt was to print fine note cards.  The editor with whom she worked suggested a coffee table book instead.  The project became more and more overwhelming -- and expensive -- as time progressed.  She chose the best slides and separated them into themed chapters.  A breakthrough came last year with a visit with the chairman of the Communications Department of the Tec de Monterrey. Her book project was accepted as the project for a photography course to be offered in the Spring 2012 semester.  Tec students would select and restore the slides and the end product would be a prototype to show to publishers in Mexico and the U.S.

“I had a choice.  Continue to try and do it on my own or give it away to young, talented Mexicans who never saw this world.  It was a world that for the most part disappeared even before their parents’ memory.   I chose the later and watched excitedly as Imelda Hernandez's students became interested, then committed.  I now have a relationship with these young people and their professor, so proud of their project.  It's no longer only Mary Davis’ story, or my story, it's theirs as well.  I feel like I passed on the gift given me."  

“Each student restored thirty photographs.  The exhibit will be the before and after of the photograph that most caught the eye and heart of each student accompanied by an account of getting to know the photograph, having a relationship with it. 

“The box and the thousand slides have taken me on a journey with twists and turns that I never imagined.  I think that behind the book there is a story that is even more interesting than the book itself."

Ellen, who I know as a regular attendee of my Wednesday night current events class at Cemanahuac, is active in both Spanish and English writing workshops in Cuernavaca. The Mary Davis photo exhibit will move from the Tec de Monterrey to other locations.  I'll keep you informed of dates and locations.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Jigsaw Puzzle at Xochicalco

For 37 years I have led study groups to Xochicalco in Morelos, one of my favorite archeological sites. The stellar Temple of the Plumed Serpent (Quetzalcóatl) is a masterpiece with its carved relief depicting what many scholars believe records a meeting of Mesoamerican astronomers, hosted by Mayas in a city far from their homeland.
Overlooked by many is a collection of large carved stones near the temple – most likely stones that fit into blank spaces on the temple face. Each time I lead a group I pose the challenge that someone in that group might figure out where these stones fit, as if they were pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Albeit a heavy jigsaw puzzle. I even suggest it might be a worthy Ph.D. project. So far no one has taken the bait.
In 1910 archeologist Leopoldo Batres first worked on that colossal jigsaw puzzle located on an unusually high hilltop surrounded by flatlands in central Morelos. When Batres looked down into the valley he could see sugar haciendas in every direction. I doubt Batres, or even the hacendados themselves, were aware that the festering social unrest among workers on those plantations was about to erupt into the southern front of the Mexican Revolution. A year later Emiliano Zapata was a household name and the nation would plunge into a decade-long war that decimated the population of Mexico. A century later Emiliano Zapata remains a symbol of demands for social justice throughout the world.
Batres remained focused on the hilltop and the huge project he had started – putting Xochicalco’s Quetzalcóatl Temple back together stone by stone.
President Porfirio Díaz had appointed Batres, his personal friend, curator of archeology for the republic. Despite Díaz’ patronage and friendship Batres voiced a common complaint among archeologists – not enough funding. In order to make good use of the funding he did receive Batres demanded a full day’s work of his crew and awakened them before dawn with a cannon blast. He was reportedly quite a sight. Photos of the time show him sitting in a prominent place where he would shout out orders while dressed in a three-piece suit, monocle, and top hat.
Batres also worked at other important archeological sites, including Mitla, Teotihuacan, and the Templo Mayor. He is often criticized for his heavy-handed excavation and restoration techniques. At Teotihuacan he was under tremendous time pressure to restore the Pyramid of the Sun in time for the hundredth anniversary of Mexico’s independence from Spain on September 16, 1910. To hasten the project he used Alfred Nobel’s recent invention – dynamite. Batres claimed he only used small charges of dynamite to remove accumulated soil and vegetation. However, it was one of his “scientific explosions” that blew the temple off the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Batres’ restoration at Xochicalco was much more precise since there is only one place where each sculptured stone can fit. This jigsaw-puzzle nature of the restoration project guided Batres in restoring the slope and panel design of the temple – a trademark of Teotihuacan’s architecture and evidence that during most of its history Xochicalco functioned under the tutelage of much larger Teotihuacan.
After Teotihuacan’s collapse around 750 A.D., Xochicalco continued using Teotihuacan’s style of architecture, embellishing it with a cornice along the top of the horizontal panel. As Batres discovered, there was no other place for those triangular carved stones.
For most of the year the sun beats down on the south side of Quetzalcóatl’s Temple, causing it to expand and contract much more than the north side. Only from mid May – starting this week – through July is there direct sunlight on the north side of the temple. Consequently, it has fewer missing puzzle pieces and the carving is in much better condition.
I have always wondered how the deteriorated south side fits in with the rest. What more would we learn about the meeting of astronomers if the south side were properly restored?
The pyramid has what seems to be repetitive carvings of astronomer-priests sitting cross-legged among the undulations of the feathered serpent. Closer observation shows they are actually individualized portraits. Older participants have wrinkled and sunken cheeks, younger ones more youthful faces. Some keep their lips tightly clenched, and others’ more relaxed faces show their teeth. Fingers and toes are carefully carved; jewelry and feathered headdresses accurately portrayed. Deformed foreheads give away Maya ethnicity. Other astronomer priests are from various ethnic groups and each is accompanied by an emblem glyph of his city.
With today’s technology it would be possible to complete Batres’ jigsaw puzzle in a virtual way. No heavy lifting. On a computer screen, photographs of the sculptured stones piled just south of the temple could be moved around over a photograph of the temple itself and repositioned in their proper places. Will a reader visit Xochicalco, take the photos, and achieve archeological fame? All I’ve ever asked is that “thanks to Charlie for the idea” be included in the introduction to the thesis.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Moctezuma’s headdress

Right now high-level negotiations are going on between Austria and Mexico over Emperor Moctezuma II’s quetzal-feather headdress. If Mexico is successful, expect long lines here to view the spectacular exhibit.
What makes the headdress so amazing is that it has four hundred quetzal feathers!
The resplendent quetzal, considered the western hemisphere’s most beautiful bird, is about the size of a small owl. Like an owl it can sit on a branch and turn its head almost 360 degrees without turning its body. Unlike an owl, which is quite drab in color, the quetzal is emerald green with a ruby red chest. Adult males have three emerald green tail feathers two to three feet long (60-100 centimeters). In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica they were the most prized feathers in high-ranking peoples’ headdresses. Priests and nobles were limited to three or four. Emperor Moctezuma’s headdress was made from twenty bunches of twenty feathers.
The quetzal lives in the cloud forests of Chiapas, Guatemala, and Costa Rica. Mesoamerican merchants from central Mexico would make the trip to those distant places to purchase the tail feathers and leave a down payment for next year’s feather harvest.
In central Mexico quetzal feathers were worth more than their weight in gold. The word quetzal became synonymous with precious or valuable. In fact, quetzal is the currency in present-day Guatemala. Guatemalans earn quetzals in their salary, carry them in their wallets and spend them whenever they make a purchase. Printed on every quetzal bill is a quetzal bird in flight with its tail feathers streaming out behind.
Besides its stunning beauty, the quetzal has an unusual diet. Although omnivorous, its preferred source of protein is avocados. The ideal place to spot quetzals is near a wild avocado tree in a Central American cloud forest. Quetzal birds swoop in and quickly swallow three avocados. Wild avocados are much smaller, about the size of a walnut, than commercially available avocados. Nevertheless, three avocados in its belly is a burden for the bird. It makes its way to a nearby branch where it sits for about half an hour. Its digestion process separates the seed from the pulp and skin of the fruit; it regurgitates the three seeds and flies away. Birdwatchers set up their spotting scopes and watch the bird for thirty minutes. I’ve stood under quetzals perched on branches, catching the warm seeds as they fall.
In pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica hunters stunned the birds with blunt darts. When they fell to the ground they would pluck the three tail feathers and then stand watch over the birds until they recovered consciousness and flew away. Quetzals do grow new tail feathers every year so, though traumatic to the quetzal, it was a sustainable, valuable, harvest. Perks of being emperor were not limited to the sumptuous quetzal-feather headdress. Relay runners from Popocatepetl brought snow with which to make flavored sherbet – perhaps that’s why Mexicans call water-based sherbet ‘nieve’. Runners from the Gulf coast arrived with fresh fish.
In 1519 some of the runners from the coast arrived with messages about strange visitors traveling in houses that floated on water from which they brought ashore huge deer they rode on the backs of, all the while carrying pipes that spit fire. Faced with the possibility that these strange visitors were emissaries from a god – perhaps from Quetzalcoatl himself – Emperor Moctezuma sent them sumptuous gifts. Was it with the hope they’d be satiated and return to where they came from? Did the emperor fear that Quetzalcoatl, a friend of humanity, would be offended by the state of affairs in the Aztec Empire where conquered peoples were subjected through military might to paying onerous tribute?
Instead the gifts intrigued their recipient, Hernán Cortéz. He wanted to see their source. One of the many gifts Cortéz received was Moctezuma’s headdress. Reportedly, the feathers were attached to a gold helmet Cortéz removed and melted into a gold bar. He sent the feathered portion of the headdress to his sovereign Charles I of Spain, who was also Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles in turn sent it home to Austria.
I’ve visited it in a dimly lit room in Vienna’s Ethnography Museum. Outside the museum I saw Mexican Aztec dancers dancing near a table on which they had a petition to be signed by Austrians requesting the return of the ‘Penacho de Moctezuma’ to Mexico.
Much like other countries with ancient cultural history whose archeological treasures have been looted by first-world countries, Mexico has been engaged in a decades-long request to return the headdress. A complicating factor is that the headdress was a gift to Cortéz – one of the few things he didn’t loot.
Recent news reports say Austria is willing to lend the headdress to Mexico. Mexican legislators have expressed willingness to amend Mexican law to allow this. Without this change owners of foreign collections of pre-Hispanic art will not allow their pieces to be transported to Mexico since they would be subject to seizure.
Hopefully Emperor Moctezuma’s splendorous gift will soon be on display where it was once worn.