Tuesday, May 28, 2013

'Handicapped' accessible

In much of Mexico those with disabilities have very limited access to the larger world.  Entry to the workplace, markets, even community centers and government buildings is often impossible.  Mexico’s laws protect the rights of those with physical handicaps but the laws are generally unenforced and there are many areas where there is no “handicapped” access. 

In 2011 the Senate did not even have “handicapped” access to its newly designed and constructed building.  Zacatecan Deputy Claudia Anaya appeared at the bottom of the Senate stairs in her wheelchair drawing national attention to her plight and that of others.  There was no access even to the place where the laws protecting their rights were written. 

Seven years ago a non-profit organization was formed to provide freedom and public access for those far too often hidden away by their families. Handicapped, physically challenged, paraplegic, quadriplegic, emotionally disturbed, schizophrenic, autistic, mentally retarded, mentally challenged – ALEM (Autonomia, Libertad en Moviemiento / Autonomy Freedom in Movement) eschews all such descriptions and categories -- instead embracing “people with disabilities.”

ALEM was started by community organizer Eduardo Garduño, himself with muscular dystrophy, professional sociologist Mayra Solano, and U.S. expat-businessman and mechanic Erik Friend. ALEM’s mission statement is embodied in its name – Autonomy, Freedom in Movement. 

They set up a manufacturing facility that designs and builds wheelchairs and other means for people to get around. Members of the team design, manufacture, weld, sew, and upholster.  From the beginning there was recognition that each individual with disabilities' needs are different and that creativity is required to meet the goal of providing freedom, autonomy and movement within their community. 

Initially ALEM focused on building handcycles, thinking they would be user-friendly on Mexico’s rough or unpaved roads and good for those with use of their arms but not their legs.  Thanks to the creativity of the team and Erik, handcycles soon morphed into a much wider range of transportation mechanisms.

Last week Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins and I visited ALEM to interview founders Mayra Solano and Erik Friend.  Not surprisingly they refused any glory for their own efforts, instead wanting recognition only for the remarkable ALEM team.  The team itself proudly showed us their newest prototype – a fold-up “briefcase” wheelchair. Though such wheelchairs exist in other countries they are prohibitively expensive. ALEM has also created economical sports chairs allowing athletic programs for the physically challenged. ALEM now even has a bus designed to transport athletes.

Funding is always problematic. In the planning stages ALEM was developed using local funds, but just as ALEM prepared to open its doors the Mexican source of funding disappeared.  Erik’s father Howard, a retired Presbyterian minister with a commitment to social justice issues, came to ALEM’s rescue and raised funds in the US.  ALEM opened four years ago and thanks to Howard and Betsy Friend and many others it has been serving ever since.

ALEM makes additional money by mending wheelchairs and even doing neighborhood welding. While visiting we saw a small fleet of wheelchairs belonging to one of the large local shopping malls getting repaired. There was also a much-mended chair being repaired and altered for a cancer patient.  Some, like the shopping mall, can afford to pay.  Others can’t.  Thanks to the generosity of donors and the ingenuity of the team itself, they try to turn no one away.

ALEM is handily sandwiched between a junkyard and an auto repair shop, both operated by Erik. Materials needed by the ALEM team can often be found in one of those two places.  Broken down wheelchairs from the U.S. are also welcomed and get a new life in Mexico after being in the hands of ALEM’s capable team.  ALEM is a cheerful place with a brightly colored table and chairs for meetings and meals.  The office itself is sparse but functional.

Mayra and Erik told us that “Mexico City and states to the north are taking large strides in providing access but the rest of Mexico lags far behind. Getting around in a wheelchair or even with a cane is nearly impossible using local mass transit.  Here in Morelos bus drivers are penalized if they fall behind on their route.  Stopping a bus to help a wheelchair-bound passenger assures the driver of a docking in pay.”

I suggested that the government could issue reimbursable mass transit vouchers.  Those with disabilities would give them directly to the driver to offset the money he lost by picking them up. 

ALEM’s informative and inspiring website www.alem.org.mx is available in both Spanish and English.  There one can see videos of the ALEM team at work and play.  Watching a community of equals, though of disparate abilities, is moving.  The work they do with the limited resources they have would be astounding for any small factory, but the work of the ALEM team takes the words “amazing,”  “inspiring,” “moving” to an entirely new level.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mexican treasures

The Iturbide Palace located in the Centro Histórico (Historical Center) is one of Mexico City's architectural gems.  This is an auspicious week to visit it.  The exhibit in its courtyard titled "Artificios -- Silver and Design in Mexico, 1880-2012" has been extended through Thursday May 23. 

If you recognize the styles of outstanding Mexican designers you'll be able to pick out their work in "Artificios".  Over 2,000 items are on display.   Silver jewelry, cutlery, tea sets, bowls, serving dishes, sacred vessels for liturgical celebrations, bishops staffs, pieces based on Mesoamerican prehispanic design, Art Deco, and computer generated design all compete for space.  Production techniques range from individually hand-crafted pieces to mass-produced pieces that allow producers to fill large-quantity orders for chain stores and online sales. Pieces made with 3D printers are the most cutting edge on display.

The exhibit occupies two floors of the Iturbide Palace at Madero 17. The building is a work of art in and of itself. Built between 1779 and 1785, it is patterned on the Palazzo dei Normanni (the royal place of Palermo, Sicily) and considered a masterpiece of New Spain's civil architecture.

Popular lore maintains that Juan Nepomuceno de Moncada y Berrio built the palace as his daughter's dowry.  By not giving cash as dowry Moncada guaranteed that his good-for-nothing son-in-law, the Marquis of Moncada of Sicily, would not squander his daughter's wealth nor take her to Sicily.

Agustin de Iturbide lived in the house for eighteen months between 1821 and 1823. Iturbide presided over Mexico after independence from Spain, first as president of the Regency Council and then as Emperor of Mexico.  In a bizarre twist, the Regency Council offered the throne of Mexico to Fernando VII (a Bourbon) on the condition that he abdicate his throne in Spain or be deposed from it -- as seemed imminent.  If Fernando did not accept the throne it was to be offered to his brothers and cousin.  If none of them accepted the throne it was to be offered to any Mexican.  Spain rejected the offer outright.  Agustin de Iturbide accepted it on May 18, 1822. Two months later, in a ceremony held in Mexico City's Metropolitan Cathedral, he crowned himself Emperor of Mexico against the backdrop of the Altar of the Kings.

Yes, Mexico's first government after independence from Spain was yet another empire, not a republic.

Iturbide's reign was short-lived -- he abdicated in March of 1823 and went into exile in Italy and later in the United Kingdom. He returned to Mexico in July 1824.  He thought he would be welcomed back but instead was arrested and executed by firing squad.  His remains lie in a glass urn in a side chapel in Mexico City's Cathedral, just a few paces from where his crowning ceremony had been held. 

Though fleeting, "The First Mexican Empire" did serve to soften the transition from Spanish monarchy to a republican form of government. 

After Iturbide went into exile the palace carrying his name went through various uses.  Its low point was when it was the horse-drawn carriage terminal in Mexico City.  Later it became an elegant hotel.  In 1965 the building was purchased by Banco Nacional de México (now Banamex), the nation's second largest private bank. 

Banco Nacional de México (BNM) restored the Iturbide Palace to it former grandeur yet housed a branch of the bank in its courtyard.  I remember cashing travelers checks there.

Recognizing the beauty of the building, BNM decided it appropriate to furnish the palace with period furniture and furnishings.  It went so well that BNM went on to purchase viceroyalty-period palaces and mansions in other Mexican cities.  As a result I've also cashed checks in the Montejo Palace in Mérida and the Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal in San Miguel Allende. 

When President Lopez Portillo nationalized private banks on the first of September 1982, Banamex owned the nations largest collection of viceroyalty period furnishings.  The bank and its possessions were re-privatized during the Salinas administration (1988-94) At that time art lovers attempted to have the palaces and furnishings turned over to the Institute of Fine Arts.  After all they had nothing to do with banking. The government decided that since the furnishings and artwork had belonged to the bank before the nationalization they should go the new owner of the bank. 

Years later Banamex was acquired by Citibank, whose headquarters is in New York.  So to add further absurdity to the mix associated with Agustin de Iturbide, Mexico's largest collection of viceroyalty-period furnishings, art, and palaces in which to house them is owned by a U.S. bank.

"Artificios -- Silver and Design in Mexico, 1880-2012" will be open through Thursday May 23 from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., free of charge. No photos are allowed in the exhibit.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Back-strap weaving

For thousands of years Mesoamerican weavers have produced textile extravaganzas on back-strap looms. Although much of the fabric is used as clothing, the designs in the cloth hold symbolism and meaning for the weavers.  Those who know the designs can identify the weaver's community and family background. 

With few exceptions back-strap weaving is a women's art form.  In the highlands of Chiapas and Guatemala you can identify the weavers by looking at their ankles.  Most women wearing traditional Indigenous clothing have calluses the diameter of a ten-peso coin on the outside of their ankles.  It comes from weaving on the back-strap loom, a skill usually learned as a child and practiced ever since.

Unlike the treadle loom introduced to Mesoamerica by Spaniards shortly after the Conquest, the traditional back-strap loom is completely portable.  With one end of her loom tied to a tree or pole, the weaver kneels, straps the other end around her hips and leans back. Her feet tucked under her and her full weight resting on her ankles, she becomes an integral part of her loom. 

The process of weaving on this type of loom requires constant tightening and loosening of the warp (the threads running the length of the loom) as the weft (the threads running the width of the loom) is passed back and forth. The weaver loosens and tightens the warp by leaning forwards or backwards.  

As she weaves the weaver needs to reach ever farther forward in order to pass the bobbin from side to side between the warp or to introduce elaborate brocade designs so,  periodically. she rolls up the completed cloth at the end closest to her waist.  In doing so her loom gets shorter and shorter and she gets closer and closer to the tree or pole anchoring the other end of the loom.  

The cloth produced on the backstrap loom cannot be much wider than the weaver's shoulders. If she wants to make a wider piece of fabric she sews two or more strips of cloth together.  In doing so she produces squares or rectangles of cloth, which leads to another characteristic of traditional Mesoamerican clothing:  it is wrapped or draped over the body.  Quite different from the European concept of tailoring clothing to fit the human body. 

The sitting position required by a back-strap loom is unimaginably uncomfortable. The outside of the weaver's ankles rub constantly on the floor or straw mat on which she sits. This produces the calluses on the outside of her ankles. Pain and numbness in the legs limits the time weavers can work.

The skill and tradition of backstrap weaving has been passed through generations for as long as Mesoamericans have made cloth.  Unfortunately cloth does not last long and very few examples of prehispanic Mesoamerican fabric survive.  However, there are pieces of ceramic art and bas-relief sculpture -- especially of Maya origin -- that show embroidered designs in clothing in great detail. They are very similar to fabric being produced by Indigenous weavers today. 

Other than the introduction of new threads, the process of weaving has remained much the same through time.   At least that's the way it was until home economics professor Vivian Harvey and ergonomic specialist Karen Piegorsch came along.  Though they have never met personally they have corresponded a few times and, perhaps without realizing it, have made quite a team. 

I led a trip to Guatemala for Vivian and her students from Ohio State University's College of Home Economics in 1987.  Part of the program involved visiting a group of Indigenous women who met weekly for a home economics workshop in their community overlooking Lake Atitlán.  Those women and the insights they provided into backstrap weaving became a highlight of field study trips I co-led with Vivian for other university and adult groups over the years.  On those trips I've always subtly pointed out the calluses on the weavers' ankles.         

Dr. Piegorsch studied the way the women weave and designed a bench to take the pressure off their ankles. The bench is adjustable with a rounded-front seat and a footrest which allows back-strap weavers to tense and release the loom without sitting on their ankles. Dr. Piegorsch wasn't able though to come up with the funding necessary to provide the benches to weavers. 

For the last few years Vivian has been raising money through the sale of back-strap weavings in the United States. With the proceeds she has hired carpenters in the Maya highlands to make the benches for distribution to weavers who will use them.  

I wonder if the calluses will go away after using the benches.  Perhaps not.  But the new generation of weavers will not need to acquire calluses in order to continue the ancient tradition of back strap weaving.  I doubt they'll regret giving up that badge of honor.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Neighbors, but distant or close?

Late last month, only a week before President Obama set off on his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, recently appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to Latin America with one of the most offensive and unfortunate phrases in diplomatic lexicon: "our back yard."  Nevertheless, Secretary Kerry's faux pas may have led to speechwriters working overtime to compensate for it in President Obama's message to students in Mexico City as well as opening the door for President Peña Nieto to revert the insensitive remark by quoting another Massachusettes politician, John F. Kennedy. 
Traditionally when U.S. and Mexican presidents visit each other's countries, the U.S. president quotes from Benito Juarez in his speech and the Mexican quotes from Abraham Lincoln.  Presidents Juarez and Lincoln each served their countries as presidents at the same time and they are each held in high esteem in their respective countries.  Both are known for being concise and to the point in their public speeches--Lincoln for his pithy statements as well as his Gettysburg Address, Juarez for his "Among individuals as among nations, the respect of the rights of others is peace."

In his stellar speech to students in the courtyard of Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology last Friday, President Obama quoted from several Mexicans including Benito Juarez -- although when he quoted from Juarez, it was not the frequently quoted phrase about peace.  Mr. Obama instead praised Juarez for saying "democracy is the destiny of humanity."  The most extensive quote Mr. Obama used came from Octavio Paz in which, in his characteristically esoteric and convoluted way, Paz based Mexico's hopes for the future on its long history:  "Modernity is not outside us, it is within us.  It is today, as well as the most ancient antiquity.  It is tomorrow, and the beginning of the world.  It is a thousand years old and yet newborn."
Paz's view contrasts with Alan Riding's view in his best-selling book "Distant Neighbors" -- published in 1984, six years before Paz received the Nobel literature prize. In it New York Times correspondent Riding refers to a three thousand year old Mexico held back by its past while the United States, barely two hundred years old lunges toward the 21st century.  

Is it all a matter of perspective?  

Last November, in an effort to encourage U.S. colleges to reinstate study-abroad programs in Mexico, I toured through New England speaking in colleges about my prediction that as soon as the new administration took office in Mexico on the first of December there would be a change in perspective of Mexico in the U.S. mainstream media -- a shift towards a much more positive view of Mexico.   It is marvelous to see the transition occurring as I expected it would -- now even to the point of having the U.S. administration joining the change in perspective.  Last Friday at the Museum of Anthropology President Obama announced a program titled "One Hundred Thousand Strong in the Americas," in which 100,000 Latin American students, including Mexicans, will be invited to study in U.S, colleges and universities and an equal number of U.S. students will be encouraged to study in Latin America "because when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together."

At presidents' Obama and Peña Nieto's joint press conference held in the National Palace last Thursday Mexico's president closed his remarks by quoting President Kennedy to whom he attributed having said, in that same building, 51 years ago, "Geography has made us neighbors.  Tradition has made us friends.  Let us not allow anyone to separate what nature has brought together."