Tuesday, September 25, 2012

One Writer, One Reader

A frequently overlooked feature in Mexico is the corner newsstand.  It is my first stop when I leave home in the morning.  I don’t always go to the same stand -- that’s determined by where I'm headed -- but I'm gratified that all I have to do is pull up and say "buenos días" and the vendor hands me the papers s/he knows I want. Many people place a standing order at their favorite newsstand to receive the same paper every morning.  

Visitors from abroad are amazed by the array of papers to choose from.  In the U.S. even large cities are struggling to keep one local daily afloat.  I went online for a listing of Mexico City's dailies and counted 35!  Since some are sold as sections of larger papers, I'll stick with my longstanding yet still impressive count of 28.   

When I lead extended trips through Mexico I like to introduce the group to the newsstand's array of periodicals early in the trip.  I show them how each paper has a slightly different focus or fills a special niche, such as "The News" serving Mexico's English-speaking community.  Some are sports dailies, a couple specialize in finance, and there are those that are into blood and gore.  Some readers choose their paper by price, though more commonly they choose it by political point of view, some even buying the opposing political view in order to see what that side is saying.  The newspaper vendors understand this well -- when one paper is sold out a vendor will often recommend another paper with a similar point of view or focus.   

Despite their differences there is one thing all newspapers share; they all criticize whatever there is to criticize.  However, it seems there is a gentlemen's agreement they will not criticize each other.  Very rarely does a Mexican periodical comment on the inner workings of another paper.  For years I have kept a folder for that type of article; it is very slim.  An interesting open confrontation is a recent lawsuit filed by a literary monthly magazine against one of the largest circulating Mexico City dailies over comments one made about the other.

Choosing a name for a newspaper can be challenging with so many titles already in use.  Perhaps the most unusual is "unomásuno"-- yes, all in lower case and run together.   Shortly after publication began in November 1977, the paper’s founder Manuel Becerra Acosta was told, "your newspaper has the most ridiculous of names, 'oneplusone'.  Why don't you just call it 'two' and save us the trouble of doing the math?"  Becerra replied: "Ours is the most appropriate of all names.  Without at least one writer and one reader it makes no sense to have a newspaper."

With that in mind, dear reader, I thank you for your participation in making this the one-hundredth "Charlie's Digs".  I owe special thanks to Mary Coday Edwards, former World/Business editor, for suggesting my column to "The News'" Director Alejandro Envila Fisher.  I send my thanks for management of the column to Alicia Bello, managing editor, to Chris Waite, who's hand I see in subtle changes making the text flow better, and to assistant editors Armando Rodríguez and Oliver Lezama who help produce the column.  I remember fondly the late Lawrence Duncalfe, who I could always count on to give me positive comments about the column.
I thank Carol Hopkins who is my key collaborator in every way, with ideas for topics, editing, fact checking, researching, and overall encouragement.  For today's column she did that from the Camino a Santiago in northern Spain.

Thanks also to Sue Roman, who twenty-five years ago gave me an inch-thick hardbound book with gold lettering embossed on the spine and cover reading "Short Stories by Charles P. Goff."  Its three hundred or so pages are blank, challenging me to fill it up.  I didn't write in the book but with the support of all of you readers I'm writing my stories in "The News".  More recently she set up a blog in which all the Digs are posted.   

I invite you to visit www.charliesdigs.blogspot.com.  Each Digs is a stand-alone glimpse into an aspect of life in Mexico.  Most are not time sensitive.  Topics are varied and include art, archeology, astronomy, ecology, holidays, museums, special exhibits, history, theology, current events, journalism, social leaders, and Mexico's contributions to the world.  There are even outlandish Charlie's theories which make perfect sense to me -- such as how to straighten Mexico City's tilting cathedral or why Christmas isn't on the first of January. 

By the way, my special newsstand is in Acapantzingo on the outskirts of Cuernavaca. Brígida Gutiérrez Gómez saves a copy of "The News" for me every Tuesday, just in case I am out of town when Charlie’s Digs is published.  She saves them for me for weeks, sometimes even a month, never doubting that I'll show up and pay for them.  When I do arrive she pulls my papers out of a towering pile of newspapers and magazines almost immediately -- and does so with a smile.  Yet another of Mexico's marvels. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A universal struggle

"Probably nowhere in the world do two countries as different as Mexico and the United States live side by side," and "probably nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little." That's what Alan Riding wrote in his book "Distant Neighbors".

I thought of that book as the Caravan for Peace started in Tijuana and concluded in Washington, D.C.  The Caravan was launched by Mexico's Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity, and a number of U.S. organizations joined in, Global Exchange foremost among them.  The month-long journey led by poet Javier Sicilia skirted along the only border where the First World meets the Third World.  Upon reaching the Gulf of Mexico the Caravan turned northeast to Houston, on to Atlanta, and from there it went north to Chicago, east to New York and south to Baltimore and Washington.  

The Caravan had five themes: stop arms trafficking from the U.S. to Mexico, stop the drug war initiated forty years ago by President Nixon, stop the laundering of drug money, refocus U.S. foreign aid to social programs, and make U.S. immigration policy more humane. 

Two busses with the Caravan name and emblem on their sides, one in English the other in Spanish, led the procession of cars, vans, and campers on the 6,000 mile journey through twenty-six cities.  Most of the riders were people who had lost family members to the war on drugs.  Others joined in support.  Some people made the whole trip, others joined along the way for as long as they had time available.

Meetings were held in churches, in university auditoriums, on the steps of government buildings, and in public parks.  Members of the Caravan gave their testimonies. The hosts gave theirs. The effects of the war on drugs on both sides of the border were searing and evident.  Marches linked symbolic and historic places. 

I joined the Caravan at Riverside Church in uptown Manhattan across the street from Ulysses Grant's Tomb.  Javier Sicilia, a leader of the Justice and Peace Caravan, referred to Grant as a president with a strong Mexican connection. As a young U.S. Army officer he had fought in the Mexican-American War.  Yet in his memoirs Grant wrote of that war as a massive land grab.  “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”  In Mexico school children learn that Mexico lost half its territory in the "North American Invasion".  Interestingly, over the entrance of Grant's Tomb are inscribed the words "Let Us Have Peace."  

At the conclusion of the presentations, speeches, and remarks I heard at Riverside Church, hundreds of participants gathered outside for a candlelight march to St. Cecilia's Church in the heart of Harlem.  We walked past the Apollo Theater along streets with names of people who had also demanded changes: Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Malcom X Boulevard. 

At the City University of New York, documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki presented parts of his film "The House I Live In", this year's Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.  With all of it set in the United States, the film's theme is to treat drug addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal issue. 

Another U.S. president stuck in my mind on the Caravan. President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with establishing the Interstate and Defense Highway System -- known as today's Interstates -- that the Caravan's busses drove on.  He promoted a highway network paid with Defense Department funds that would further defense and at the same time serve the people right at home.  How much commerce travels over those highways today? 

It was heartening that in Washington members of the caravan met with members of both houses of Congress, with Maria Otero, the Undersecretary of State for Human Rights, and with leaders of various churches.  Memorable to me is that at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial we met with the Council of Elders of the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement.  Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder and vocalist of the music group Sweet Honey on the Rock told us "your struggle is our struggle, your victory is our victory" and she added, "wherever you go you must sing, and you must say your name so the air will know you are there." At that event she sung for us, and then shouted, "I am Bernice!" and the Elders shouted "Yeah!"  Around the big circle we went, each shouting our name and everyone responding with "Yeah!"  To all at the rally we were no longer anonymous -- we had names -- symbolic of the Caravan on which Mexicans and USns had been embracing and sharing their stories for a month.  I think people on both sides of the border got to know each other a bit better through the Caravan. I wish Alan Riding had been there to see it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The legacy of Rufino Tamayo

As he finished his five hour interview with Angelica Arenal, widow of artist David Alfaro Siqueiros, the editor of Excelsior newspaper asked:  All my readers will want to know:  whose fault was it that you are in this hospital bed?"  If she hadn't had weights hanging from all her extremities I'm sure she would have patted him on the arm when she answered, "Young man, it was nobody's fault but my own.  What else could I have expected of the most nefarious street corner in Cuernavaca?  The corner of Diaz Ordaz and Rufino Tamayo?"

Angelica's husband, David Afaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), liked to say "I won".  He lived longer than the other big name Mexican artists of the 20th century.  Jose Clemente Orozco died in 1949, Diego Rivera 1957.  Siqueiros even outlived members of the younger generation of artists such as Frida Kahlo (1954) and Jesús Guerrero Galvan (1973).

But the real winner was Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991).  Tamayo wasn’t on Siqueiros' list.  He didn't adhere to a basic idea proposed by the Sindicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution: truly revolutionary art should not only be something of beauty, it should contain a social message as well.  The clearer the message, the better the art.  For Tamayo art only needed to be something of beauty.  Many members of the post-revolutionary art movement considered him a lacky sold-out to the government.  In the meantime, Tamayo's paintings, usually not available in Mexico, were purchased in Paris or New York for twenty-five thousand dollars or more.  That’s not to say that Tamayo didn’t make waves with his art.

I remember a particularly well-planned set-up Tamayo crafted.  At a cocktail party in 1988 in Cuernavaca, Tamayo approached Governor Lauro Ortega with "I see you're building a new Palace of Justice."  With that prompt, Ortega launched into his spiel about how the State of Morelos should own its buildings, not pay rent. 

Tamayo offered the governor a portrait of Father Morelos to hang in the new building. Absolutely free.  Governor Ortega accepted right then and there. 

In the privacy of his studio, Tamayo painted.  As the date approached for the inaugural ceremony he put off the portrait's delivery date and only gave the architects the dimensions of the framed canvas.  "Put up the curtain to cover the painting and drive the nail into the wall.  I'll have it ready in time."  Tamayo personally delivered the painting wrapped in a sheet, slipping it behind the curtain minutes before the distinguished guest, President de la Madrid's arrival.   With fanfare the President pulled the drawstring.  The curtains parted.  And there was the portrait of a black man wearing a clerical collar and a bandana over his head!  Caught off-guard, the President said, "it's missing the plaque with the names of the painting and the artist."  It was a reporter who shouted, "What have you done to our hero?"  To which Tamayo replied in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone present, "It would be an act of racism to not be proud of him as he was." With that he turned his back on the assemblage and departed.  Touché, Siqueiros.  

As Mexico's best known artist, Tamayo traveled the world in his nineties in the nineties, with awards lavished on him wherever he went.  In many interviews he repeated, "I've been a socialist all my life.  I just didn't think my political views should be part of my art."  Indeed Mexico City's furthest-to-the-left daily newspaper owes him a debt of gratitude for lithographs and paintings he donated for fundraising to get the newspaper started.

In the 1970's, Rufino and his wife Olga offered their large collection of other artists' contemporary art to the Mexican people if an appropriate building were built for it.  The nation donated land in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park and an award-winning museum was built.  Though named Tamayo Museum, it hasn't been a place to see much of Tamayo’s work, just as Oaxaca's Tamayo Museum does not house his work either -- it features his and Olga's collection of prehispanic art.  

Now, however, for a short time we can enjoy a very special treat.  Mexico City's recently remodeled Tamayo Museum is hosting two "chapters" of Tamayo's paintings.  The first, "Tamayo/Trajectories," will run until November.  Forty-seven paintings, mostly from private collections both domestic and foreign, many exhibited for the first time, are arranged by topics:  still-lifes, female nudes, male nudes, portraits, landscapes, and scenes from Mexicans' daily lives.  There is even a watermelon section.  Tamayo was a great painter of watermelons, his slices are usually positioned on a tabletop.  Other Mexican artists enjoy arranging watermelon slices as a star -- a red star with the colors of the flag.   

There is a magic to Tamayo's landscapes and cityscapes.  In his unusual style, which lacks clearly outlined figures, Tamayo suggests a setting which we as viewers complete in our own mind and, in doing so, we realize it is a scene only seen in Mexico.    

Don't miss it.  When Chapter 2 opens, Chapter 1's paintings will have already been returned to their homes.  Texts and informational material is in both Spanish and English.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dodging the wheel

Ancient Mesoamerican cultures reached extraordinary heights in mathematics, astronomy, architecture, art, farming, and writing.  Yet they did not develop the wheel into their means of portage.  Constructors most certainly used logs as rollers on which to move huge pieces of sculpture or stones used in construction.  The Maya used enormous stone cylinders to flatten their roads.  But overland Mesoamerican cargo moved on the backs of porters with tumplines going around their foreheads.

If the load was heavier than a single person could carry, the burden was tied to a pole resting on the shoulders of two or more porters.   In the Palacio Cantón Museum in Merida you can see a three dimensional life-size carving of just such a scene:  two men carrying a deer they have just hunted, hanging upside down from its feet tied to a pole. 

So why didn’t Mesoamericans use carts rather than their backs to transport goods? Probably because unless its wheel and axel were as efficient as a bicycle wheel, it was more energy efficient for people to carry the load than to pull the cart. 

Ivan Illich touched on this topic in his book, "Energy and Equity."  A keen thinker and writer on many subjects but mainly remembered for his writings on education, transportation, and medicine, lllich thought and wrote a lot about how modern society faces the challenges of growing population, limited resources, increasing concentration of wealth and governments' ever expanding control over our lives.  Though he traveled extensively, Cuernavaca was his base of operations from 1959 until his death in Germany in 2002.

In his writings he frequently led his readers off on fascinating tangents to the most unexpected destinations.  One of the more esoteric topics that he explored in the area of transportation is the ball-bearing and how it increased human mobility. In the 1970's he wrote "Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently.  He carries one gram of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. . . . Thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and most animals.  For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rat or oxen, less than horses or sturgeon.  At this rate of efficiency man settled the world and made its history."

With the invention of the ball-bearing in the late 1800's, Illich contends that transportation made a tremendous leap.  "Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process.  . . . Equipped with this tool man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well."

The ball bearing caused a revolution in transportation, one of four revolutions in transportation that Illich identified.  Two others are the invention of the wheel early in our civilization and the simultaneous invention of the stirrup, shoulder harness, and horseshoe in medieval Europe “which increased the thermodynamic efficiency of the horse by a factor of up to five." The fourth revolution was the building of oceangoing vessels by the Portuguese.
"In Mexico, the wheel was well known, but never applied to transport.  It served exclusively for the construction of carriages for toy gods.  The taboo on wheelbarrows in America before Cortes is no more puzzling than the taboo on bicycles in modern traffic."

However equally amazing as it is puzzling, is that Mesoamericans did without all four revolutions in transportation that Illich identifies.  They knew the wheel and axle but only used it for toys.  They had no horses or similar animals for transportation. Their ocean going vessels did not stray far from shore.  And the development of the ball-bearing came long after the conquest.

Illich was a big fan of bicycles because they are cheap, durable, easily stored, and an egalitarian means of transportation. He was not as fond of the other 20th and 21st century means of transportation that the ball-bearing opened the door to.

Unlike the stirrup which "raised the knight onto his horse," or the Portuguese galleon "which enlarged the horizons of the king's captains", the ball-bearing is used by both the egalitarian bicycle as well as the automobile which Illich referred to as "the accelerating individual capsule [that] enabled societies to engage in a ritual of progressively paralyzing speed."

On the tenth anniversary of Ivan Illich's death he would be pleased to see how bicycling is encouraged in Mexico City.  He would be even more delighted to know that Copenhagen, Denmark -- where one third of commuters bike to work or school -- is building a 186-mile (300 km.) network of cycling superhighways linking the city with its suburbs at a cost of one million dollars per mile.  As the US’s National Public Radio reported last Saturday, the superhighway network is "expected to save Copenhagen's health care system some $60 million dollars a year."  

I did the math:  in a little over three years the network will start turning a hefty profit just by keeping people out of the reach of physicians!  That combination would make Illich even happier.  He may be best known for his book "Medical Nemesis" about the dangers of modern medicine.   What a marvelous way to keep people healthy. 

A three-day Illich seminar is being planned in Cuernavaca from December 13 to 15.  I'll let you know the schedule, topics, and location as soon as I receive them.