Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Caballito presides over art and architecture

In 1979 President José López Portillo ordered the equestrian statue of Carlos IV of Spain moved from a traffic circle on Paseo de la Reforma to a plaza where viewers could wander around and see it from every angle. The president reasoned few admired Manuel Tolsá's exquisite sculpture in the traffic circle.  Drivers maneuvering the traffic flow and even pedestrians put their lives at risk even attempting to view the statue in detail.  

Even though the statue has one of the largest and grandest horses ever seen in sculpture, it is referred to in ironic Mexican style as the Caballito -- the tiny little horse.  Once it was moved the traffic circle went from being the “Glorieta del Caballito” to “the Glorieta donde estaba el Caballito”-- where the Caballito used to be.  Yes, all reference is to the horse, not the rider.

In 1821, after independence from Spain, there was talk of melting down the statue and fabricating weapons from the bronze.  Cooler heads prevailed; it was preserved as art, not homage.  For safekeeping, it was moved from the Plaza de la Constitución (the Zócalo) to a university building.  It remained there until 1852 when it moved to the traffic circle on Paseo de la Reforma. 

Now the Caballito is in the middle of the esplanade in front of the National Art Museum and presides over one of the few open spaces in Mexico City's Centro Historico.  Although traffic flows through on Tacuba street, by eliminating curbs and sidewalks contemporary city planners allowed the Art Museum to share its open space with the Palacio de la Minería (the School of Mining) also designed by Manuel Tolsá, who besides being a sculptor and architect was rector of Mexico City's San Carlos Academy of Art.  The Palacio de Correos (main post office) and the old Senate building have toeholds on opposite corners of this marvelous plaza. 

As I sit on the stepped pedestal of the Caballito, busy contemporary Mexico passes by.  I am reminded of a tourism department poster that read "Mexico City, where the Renaissance went after it left Europe."  Tolsá's Mining Palace, built in the last years of the Viceroyalty period, faces the former Secretariat of Communications and Public Works building (now the art museum), symbol of Porfirio Diaz's idea of Order and Progress, built in the last years before the Mexican Revolution of 1910.  

Looking up at the top level of the main post office, designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari, it’s easy to imagine passing a Venetian palace in a gondola.   Step into that building at the corner of Tacuba and Eje Central and be wonderstruck by its beauty.   Inside is a statuette of a relay runner making his way from the Gulf coast to Emperor Moctezuma's palace with a giant fish on his shoulder -- Mexico's first postal system. 

The National Art Museum's facade is currently behind scaffolding, but the museum is open. It houses a number of magnificent marble sculptures in hallways and staircases but its extensive collection is mostly paintings.  One room exhibits various portraits, all by different Mexican 20th Century artists, of patron of Mexican arts and muse Maria Asúnsolo. 

You’ll see impressive mural-sized artist's views of imaginative events within Mesoamerican palaces, from a European perspective.  Contrasting with them are accurately portrayed photographic-quality landscapes by José María Velazco.  Velazco studied botany in order to paint leaves accurately.  His best known paintings are the view of the Pyramid of the Sun painted from the top of the Pyramid of the Moon in 1878, and a steam locomotive pulling a train around a curve, over a bridge, enroute to the port of Veracruz.  Snowcapped Citlaltépetl (better known as the Peak of Orizaba) is in the background.

Outside the museum art is also happening.  David Cerón Oropeza 'paints' with chalk on the pavement.  He 'puts up' a new painting each month.  The current one is Johannes Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring".  The pitch-black background of the masterpiece goes well with the Plaza's black volcanic paving stones.  

While admiring his rendition of the painting, tune out the traffic and listen for rattles like those worn around their ankles by Aztec-style dancers. They will be around the ankles of street saxophonist Oscar Gomezcesar, a.k.a. El Vampiro.  

When I emceed the tribute to John Ross in Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad last year, Oscar fulfilled John's request that El Vampiro play "The Internationale" on stage.  He'll gladly play it for you on request.  
Besides being part of the Manuel Tolsá Plaza, both Oscar and David are well-versed in literature, art, and current events, all likely from a point of view quite different from that you probably normally encounter.  They are interesting lunch guests. Don't worry about inviting The Vampire into a restaurant with you; he's well regarded in the Centro Histórico.

And going full circle, the traffic circle on Reforma is once again the Glorieta del Caballito, but with a very different Caballito.  Now it is Sebastián's schoolbus-yellow modern sculpture of a knight from a chess set.  Traffic flows around it smoothly. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Walking to save the world

Rio de Janiero’s population is currently swollen by an additional 100,000 people.  The United Nations Rio+20 meeting is in full swing. "Plus twenty" refers to twenty years after the United Nations Conference on Environment, commonly known as the Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Paul Coleman might think of it as Rio+22.  

Paul set off to Rio from his home in Ontario, Canada, in July of 1990, on a Walk to Save the Amazon.  He started alone, with only enough money to cover a month’s expenses.  His sponsors became the communities through which he walked.  His message was simple.  Each individual voice counts; as individuals we can do something to save the Amazon and halt destruction of the world's rain forests.  

Mr. Coleman encouraged a letter-writing campaign to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar demanding that the U.N. step in to save this natural resource.  As he, and three supporters who joined him in Texas, walked through Mexico City in November 1991, a U.N. representative informed Paul he had been added to the list of speakers at the meeting in Rio. 

Two days later I had a surprise phone call from Paul asking if he could stay with us while passing through Cuernavaca.  I had been reading about his journey in Mexican newspapers and my wife, environmentalist Flora Guerrero, and I were delighted to have the opportunity to meet him.  Paul accepted our offer to facilitate media connections and events for the rest of his walk through Mexico. 

A letter to President Salinas, expressing my concern for Paul's personal safety as he walked the Panamerican Highway, resulted in a phone call from the Federal Highway Police commander in Cuernavaca asking, "Where to you want the patrol car to meet you?"  From Cuernavaca to the Guatemalan border a Policia Federal de Caminos patrol car escorted Paul and those walking with him.  

Towns and cities along Paul’s route welcomed the Walk.  Villagers walked with him to the next town, entrusting him to their neighbors who did the same.  Huajuapan de León had a parade from the village outskirts to the zocalo with police cars and ambulances sirens wailing.  On the zocalo Paul and the municipal president planted a tree.  On a Sunday morning in a little village in Oaxaca the priest celebrated Mass until Flora gave a wave from the door of the church in advance of Paul's arrival.  This guaranteed a good-sized crowd to welcome him.  Radio stations interviewed him, schools held assemblies where he spoke and answered questions, school children cheered him and then helped plant trees.  Environmentalists and other members of civil society met him on the outskirts of Oaxaca City and walked with him to a grand reception in the zocalo.  The governor of Chiapas even flew Paul over the Lacandon rainforest in a light plane.  

Paul Coleman’s reception was so warm in Mexico that I faxed the president of Guatemala.  The Guatemalan counterpart to Policia Federal de Caminos was waiting for Paul at the border!  He was well on his way to Rio. 

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio was unprecedented in the scope of its concern for finding a new model that could both allow continued economic development and halt the escalating and rapid pollution of the environment and depredation of irreplaceable natural resources. 

Agenda 21 was the most significant plan adopted at the conference.  It focused on sustainable development and is a comprehensive global, national, local blueprint for actions to stop destruction of the environment by human action.  It recognizes that poverty, as well as excessive consumption by affluent populations, exerts unprecedented stress on a fragile environment.  It places responsibility on developed nations to help less-developed countries meet the standards.  

A 1997 assessment of the achievements of the Earth Summit determined economic disparity had grown further and the environment was at even greater risk.  The Kyoto Protocol was adopted later that year but not fully implemented until 2005. The United States never supported either Agenda 21 or the Kyoto Protocols.  Conservatives in the U.S. argued against implementation with many claiming there has been no human-caused climate change.  Without U.S. support the promise of the Earth Summit was not realized.  Pre-event press coverage of expectations for Rio+20 is generally pessimistic.  

Concurrent with the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference the Brazilian government provided five million dollars for a "People’s Rio+20 Summit . . . designed to foster alternative ideas and provide an outlet for discontent at U.N. member countries' failure to preserve biodiversity, eliminate poverty and cut greenhouse gas emissions.” Hundreds of groups - including environmentalists, unions, religious groups and indigenous tribes – are taking part in the nine-day event expected to climax with a rally of 50,000 people on June 20th.   110 heads of state convene in Rio on that day.

Meanwhile, Paul Coleman continues walking and is now known throughout the world as “Earthwalker.”  Though remaining committed to the rainforests and trees, Paul’s mission has evolved to include world peace.  Since 1990 he has walked the world with the goal of planting more than 100 million trees  -- “one for every man, woman and child killed in the wars of the last century.”   He’s walked 47,500 km and planted 11,350,000 trees. Paul Coleman is taking one step at a time to change the world. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Window into a Remote Village

Serendipity could be the headline of this week’s Digs.  On Friday I led a study group of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos supporters on a walk through downtown Cuernavaca.  That trip takes us to Morelos’ anthropology museum housed in the Palacio de Cortés.  I intended that we only visit Diego Rivera's famed mural but a temporary exhibit titled “Tlamacazapa” fortuitously caught my eye.

In the exhibit photos by award-winning photo-journalist Rodrigo Cruz poignantly portray daily life in Tlamacazapa, a remote mountain village in the state of Guerrero. Informative captions give us insights into the villagers' lives, especially those of women.

Their lives, shaped by poverty, are rarely understood or even contemplated by those who haven't experienced it first-hand.  In addition to the photos there are fascinating and intricate baskets and weavings and a display of the furnishings of a typical house.  Women from Tlamacazapa are there two days a week to weave and to teach visitors to weave.

Women carry water home in the early morning, as they do every day.
Photo: Rodrigo Cruz

For me the word Tlamacazapa conjures up the warm, intelligent face of Susan Smith, who has almost single-handedly put it on the map.  Smith, a Canadian nurse with extensive experience in underprivileged communities in Africa, the Arctic, and Latin America, came to Mexico on vacation in 1996.  She’d recently completed a doctorate focusing on community health and development and sought rest and recreation.  With friends she visited the remote, wretchedly poor Guerrero town of Tlamacazapa.  Vacation was put on hold; vocation took its place. 

Tlamacazapa’s Nahuatl name refers to “people who are fearful”.  The village, now with 6,000 inhabitants, formed 500 years ago by indigenous people fleeing the Spanish conquerors. Centuries of isolation have not been kind.   

All three wells in the pueblo are contaminated with natural lead and arsenic.  Harvesting firewood for both heat and cooking has degraded the environment further. Prior to the arrival of Dr. Smith, rates of infant mortality, illiteracy, male alcoholism and mental retardation were among the highest in Mexico.

Jose Antonio plays a stimulation game with Gabriela, a 15-year-old promoter in the 
Special Needs Program, seated in the narrow passageway outside his concrete block house.  
His mother watches with anxious interest. Photo: Rodrigo Cruz

Dr. Smith has come to see Tlamacazapa as representative of marginalized and impoverished communities throughout the world and hopes to develop a social justice template for use in other regions.   In a recent lecture at the University of Calgary she characterized her work as addressing three areas of a “Poverty of Spirit: the physical world of contamination and disintegration of the environment; the social world of economic poverty and violence; the emotional world dominated by fear, resentment and hate.”

It took years for Dr. Smith to gain the trust of this community.  Her first successes were a result of her medical training and the ability to provide medical care and education.  Gradually she trained village women to be midwives, nurse assistants, and teachers.  Now, fifteen years into her work in Tlamacazapa, ATZIN -- the non-profit organization she founded -- focuses on substantial programs in four areas:  health and healing; community education and literacy; income generation for women; and environment, water and sanitation. 

The only widely available natural resource in Tlamacazapa is palm. For generations the people have woven baskets that the men of the pueblo carry to sell throughout Mexico. Chances are you have a Tlamacazapa basket in your very own home.

Lucia, mother of seven and traditional midwife, weaves a large
basket while sitting outside her house.
 Photo: Rodrigo Cruz
Building on the skills of master palm weavers, Dr. Smith encouraged them to improve the quality and variety of the baskets, leading to more lucrative markets.  Simple baskets gave way to artisan creations that Susan markets to high-end stores and carries with her wherever she lectures. 

It is the baskets that will pull you into the exhibit. You can't help but think of the smiles on the weavers' faces as they gave free reign to their ability to skillfully manipulate palm into scenes from their daily life.  Pigs, chickens, children in the corral feeding them -- all rendered in palm weaving which is smooth to the touch.  Some of the baskets in the shape of farm animals are even gender specific.

A charismatic speaker, Susan has inspired hundreds of men and women and is living proof that one person can make a difference.  Her 1996 decision to vacation in Mexico turned out to be much more than serendipitous for the people of Tlamacazapa and indeed for all of us who have learned from her.  For more information about Susan, the baskets and ATZIN, please visit their website at http://www.atzin.org/.

The exhibit is open until September 23.  All signage is in Spanish and English.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Rice shapes and is shaped by history

Look in a grocery store and you will see that the most expensive rice is most likely labeled "Morelos".  Deservedly so. Earlier this year Morelos rice was awarded a certificate of controlled designation of origin by Economy Secretary Bruno Ferrari.  Just as tequila must be from Jalisco and Ataulco mangos from Chiapas, so Arroz Morelos must be from the state of Morelos.

A new rice harvest is in the works. The anxiously awaited rainy season is quickly approaching. Days will soon be cool, skies clear, vegetation greener.  Driving south on the Cuernavaca-Acapulco road we'll be treated to scenes seemingly right out of Asia.  Campesinos up to their knees in mud will be shaping terraces in which they'll plant individual rice sprouts in flooded fields.

In other parts of Mexico farmers scatter rice seeds in their flooded fields.  From the top of the five-storied Mayan building at the Edzná archeological site in Campeche, I've watched light planes swoop down to land on the highway where burlap bags full of rice are poured into their hoppers. The planes take off again to drop rice in huge flooded fields in that very flat state.  This would seem a more efficient and effective way to plant.  Nevertheless the care and extra effort Morelos' rice farmers take in planting is recognized and rewarded.   

Rice and sugar cane go hand-in-hand.  They have been principal crops in Morelos for generations.  Both were introduced by the Spanish conquerors who had acquired them from the Arabs.  In fact both "arroz" and "azucar" derive from Arabic words.  The Valley of Cuernavaca was ideal for the cultivation of cane and Hernan Cortez himself established its first sugar haciendas.  An easy, almost care-free plant to grow, cane processing requires a large investment and workforce as well as an enormous supply of water. 

Rice, the grain that produces the most calories per hectar, kept the workers going on the sugar haciendas.  Large scale rice farming in Morelos began in Jojutla in the 1840s. 
The rice mills also generated additional income for plantation owners.  They even had a captive clientele in their own workforce who bought from them at the "tienda de raya" (company store). 

The southern front of the Mexican Revolution was the direct response to the increasing land, water and labor hunger of the sugarcane haciendas. Emiliano Zapata headquartered his troops in a rice mill in Tlaltizapán while fighting for land reform.

Sugarcane continues to be grown in the Valley of Cuernavaca, now mostly on ejido and campesino-owned fields.  It is milled in the government built, co-operatively run Ingenio Emiliano Zapata. 

An unfortunate chapter in U.S. and Mexican history led coincidentally to rice farming improving dramatically in Morelos in the 1940's.  U.S. President Roosevelt asked Mexican President Avila Camacho to send prominent Mexican citizens of Japanese descent to U.S. internment camps during World War II.  Mexico’s president refused but under intense pressure ultimately compromised and agreed to relocate citizens of Japanese descent far from the U.S. border and the coasts.  

Those relocated did not necessarily lose their property as befell most U.S. citizens of Japanese descent.  Instead the decree required Japanese-Mexicans to relocate to either Guadalajara or the Federal District.  For those already living in those cities it caused little disruption in their lives.  For those living elsewhere it meant moving to Guadalajara or Mexico City, one week's notice.  Many families were split, with a "Mexican-looking" spouse remaining where the family home was located and the "Japanese-looking" members of the family being uprooted.  

In Mexico City the existing Japanese colony helped refugees find places to live.  Sanshiro Matsumoto housed almost a thousand on his hacienda in San Jeronimo in the southern part of the Federal District.  Matsumoto and Shunji Yoshida also gained permission to stretch the boundary of the Federal District in order to lease the Temixco hacienda just south of Cuernavaca. There they housed 660 other Mexicans of Japanese ancestry. These  "residents" were allowed to farm in order to cover living expenses.  

Recalling stories told by their grandparents they began farming rice in the Asian style--planting sprouts in the flooded fields instead of scattering the seeds.  Morelos' farmers watched and learned.  These temporary “residents” also started flower farms.  Today roses are an important crop in the valley south of Cuernavaca.  

"No hay rosas sin espinas" (there are no roses without thorns) is a Spanish saying.  Appropriate to think of as we drive through the Valley of Cuernavaca and admire the lasting legacy of Mexico's citizens of Japanese ancestry who left such beauty, enduring quality, and sources of employment in spite of the tragedy that brought them there.

On another note:  Starting today, the pharaonic Tecnologico de Monterrey campus in Xochitepec, overlooking rice, rose, and sugarcane fields, will be hosting the exhibit from Ellen Macdonald's collection of Mary Davis' photographs restored by Tec de Monterrey students.  The inauguration is by invitation. The exhibit will open to the public tomorrow, weekdays 9 am-7 pm, through the month of June.  A description of the exhibit and its origin is available at <http://charliesdigs.blogspot.mx/2012/05/old-photos-rediscovered.html>.