Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ducks are back in Borda Gardens

The weather we’ve been having is fit for ducks. And I’m glad to be able to tell you that the ducks are back and thriving in the rowing lake in Cuernavaca’s Borda Gardens. Six years ago they were banished by the director of Morelos’ Culture Institute because she said “the ducks and the fish get things dirty.” The current administration has welcomed them back. Private citizens are supplying the ducks.

This is wonderful news because it just wasn’t the same without the ducks. The Borda Gardens is one of Cuernavaca’s hidden gems — it’s right across the street from the Cathedral. I consider it a sanctuary in the center of busy downtown. No one pesters you inside the gardens. A small admission fee keeps the vendors out. You can sit on the grass, a bench, or at a garden table and read a book. You can even have a picnic on a boat in the rowing lake.

It’s the ongoing legacy of an immigrant to Mexico, José de la Borda (1699-1778) and his son Manuel. José was born in France to a Spanish mother and French father and was baptized as Joseph de La Borde. When he was 16 his mother did to him what many Spanish mothers still do to their teenage boys — she sent him to America “to become a man.” At that time Spanish mothers purchased passage for their sons on a ship from Cádiz to Veracruz. Today they buy their sons a one-way ticket on a flight from Madrid to Mexico City. They arrive on this side of the ocean with a little bit of money and a long list of relatives who have already made the trip. Many of them have done very well. Borda was one of them.

Upon arrival in this Spanish viceroyalty Joseph hispanicized his name and signed in at Veracruz as José de la Borda. From there he went directly to Taxco where he caught up with his brother Francisco. Both brothers had a knack for finding silver. They did so well that they married two daughters of the mayor of Taxco. The Verdugo sisters became Mrs. Borda and Mrs. Borda.

It was after Francisco’s death that José discovered Taxco’s richest vein of silver. He had mule trains carry the silver from Taxco to the mint in Mexico City. Cuernavaca was a good resting point. The cargo would be unloaded at Borda’s Cuernavaca estate to give the overseers, guards, muleteers, and the mules themselves a couple of days rest before continuing to Mexico City.

In appreciation for the tremendous wealth the silver bestowed on him, José de la Borda built the Santa Prisca church facing Taxco’s zocalo. It’s the only church of its size built in the 18th century Mexico for which there was enough money to finish when construction began.

It was José’s son Manuel who transformed the mule train depot in Cuernavaca into a botanical garden. He had a landscape architect lay it out with a French design of crisscrossing walkways with fountains where they intersected. He extended Cuernavaca’s aqueduct to end in the rowing lake which doubled as a water tank at the highest part of the property. Water flowed by force of gravity through the planter beds. I imagine the lake was filled with ducks then too.

In the 1860s the Borda family felt it appropriate, perhaps taking into account their French ancestry, to make the property available to French-imposed Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta. Maximilian made plans to use the Borda home and gardens as his summer palace but his empire didn’t last long enough to do that more than once.

In the 1970s, while restoration work to the Borda Gardens was underway, I read a newspaper article about an Austrian woman who traveled to Mexico on a diplomatic passport.

When she returned to Austria a short while later she was decorated by the Austrian government for returning a collection of Emperor Maximilian’s jewelry and medals. If the story is true, the Austrian government had known the location of the stash for more than a hundred years but had not had access to the gardens without risk of being caught.

Last weekend as I thought of those ducks in the rowing lake as the only ones enjoying the endless rain I decided to see if I could confirm my recollection of that story. I went to see long-time Borda Garden employee Heberto González who has authored a book about the gardens. I remembered him and he remembered me as a frequent visitor with students in tow and always with food for the ducks.

You see the ducks learned to recognize me and would gather around whenever I stood on the edge of the rowing lake. He’d heard the story about the Austrian woman too but couldn’t confirm its accuracy.

That’s okay. The story adds to the charm of this wonderful spot in the heart of Cuernavaca. And I’m happy because the ducks are back.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

California State University and Mexico cooperate

Negative perceptions of what it is like in Mexico over the last couple of years have led to a huge drop off of people from the U.S. visiting Mexico. The tourism industry has felt it. The educational study abroad sector, which I am part of, has felt it. And I’m sure that U.S. companies investing in Mexico have had harder conversations with their executives sent to work here. Yet those of us who live here have difficulty matching those perceptions that others hold with the reality we see and feel while going about our daily lives. Last month I got some more insight not only into how those perceptions are formed, but how they can be changed.

I was at a meeting held at Casa California, an estate in the San Angel district of Mexico City owned by the University of California. The U.S. State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council was hosting the College and University Health, Safety, and Security Seminar. Attending were Mexican and U.S. academics. I predict this meeting will mark a positive turning point in U.S.-Mexico study abroad programs. 

First some background. In the fall of 2011 the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system cancelled all of CSU’s study programs in Mexico. Keep in mind that with 23 campuses and a little shy of a half a million students, CSU is the largest university system in the United States.

It turns out that CSU had a blanket policy that if the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning, programs in the target country had to be cancelled. This didn’t sit well with faculty, students, nor their parents. The California state legislature didn’t like it either and demanded further analysis of the situation.

California State University's Director of International Programs Leo Van Cleve was on hand to tell us what he did next. He told us about the "need to analyze the real situation," and carry out additional information gathering. 

A key source was the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute's analysis of Mexican crime-related statistics, "a pretty substantial document."  Dr. Van Cleve also mentioned the importance of taking other countries' travel advisories into account.  "There are lots of different angles.  No piece of information is going to give you an entire picture.  But by putting it all together you can come up with a more complete or a more nuanced view." 

He described working with academic partners in the foreign country, in this case Mexico, recognizing that they play an important role in "gathering insights about what's going on at the university where our students will be studying."  

Contracting an outside analysis of the situation in Mexico proved useful and persuasive to CSU. The result was that in March of this year it reversed its decision and reinstated its study abroad programs in Mexico.

Dr. Van Cleve said their new strategy regarding Mexico will serve as a model for the way CSU monitors its study abroad programs in other countries and in all health and safety situations.  I watched the two consular officials who earlier in the day had defended the U.S. State Department's dire and dour Mexico travel advisories.  They sat stone-faced as Dr. Van Cleve described the embarrassing situation CSU had gotten into by relying exclusively on U.S. State Department information.    

Dr. Van Cleve closed his talk by saying "We want to see more connections between California and Mexico and between the U.S. and Mexico.  We really want to take this on and I think we in California will continue to see what we can do to encourage more activity and more connections.  Not only student mobility -- it strikes me that there are a lot of other ways that we can cooperate and collaborate."

The following day the Oversees Security Advisory Council sponsored a business-oriented meeting at the Bankers Association headquarters in Mexico City's Historic District.  There, the State Department's ten regional security officers presented a positive and encouraging view of U.S. companies doing business in Mexico.  While at the academic meeting the day before OSAC analyst Eric Sheely had refused to make comparisons between Mexico and other countries, at the business-oriented meeting regional security officer Paul Isaac presented a chart comparing Mexican crime statistics with those of other countries.  Mexico's figures were more favorable than The Bahamas or Brazil's.  Isaac recognized that this is not the impression one would get from reading or listening to mainstream media.

I am heartened that in May of this year, at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, President Obama introduced the 100,000 Strong Initiative.  He envisions 100,000 Latin American students studying in the United States and an equal number of U.S. students in Latin America.  To honor President Obama's commitment will require that the State Department implement a new and welcoming visa application process for Latin American students as well as encouragement for U.S. students to venture abroad.   President Obama said "when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Muralist’s family opens exhibition

Mexico is a fascinating place because so many influences come together and blend here. The Spanish culture blended with the Indigenous cultures. Politics influences art and art spurs politics. Religion and the Mexican landscape are ever-present forces. You can see all these influences at work in the art of one family now on exhibit in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Cuernavaca.

The artists whose work is on display are three (of seven) children of artist and muralist Jesús Guerrero Galván. Guerrero Galván was born right along with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1973). Though much younger than the big-name muralists of the 20th century, he was very much a part of Mexico's post-revolutionary art movement. 

Guerrero Galvan was not a prolific artist -- his pace was an oil painting per month.  At the end of a day spent on his feet painting he would sit in a chair of William Spratling's design and relax by drawing.  For the most part his paintings and drawings made their way to private collections.  Earlier this year I was pleased to discover a small painting of his I hadn't seen before in the exhibit "Impulsos Modernos, Pintura en Mexico 1840-1950" (Modern Impulses, Painting in Mexico 1840-1950) at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

At the inauguration of that exhibit curator Miguel Cervantes Díaz Lombardo said,  “The Revolution brought Mexico a new identity charged with nationalism -- a new conception of what Mexico had been, and was. Jose Vasconcelos [1920s Secretary of Public Education] was extraordinarily important in developing Mexico's renowned post-revolutionary mural art movement dominated by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Less appreciated, a modernist easel art movement paralleled the mural art movement."  Guerrero Galván participated in both movements.

In his twenties Guerrero Galvan assisted prominent and older muralists on murals for the Secretariat of Public Education.  In his thirties when he was an artist-in-residence at the University of New Mexico he painted "Americas Joined in Freedom" outside the president's office in Scholes Hall. In the 1950s Guerrero Galván was commissioned to paint a mural in the lobby of the Federal Electrical Commission's headquarters. In it he even made high-tension power lines beautiful.

Guerrero Galvan was very much involved in the politics of his day. He was a member of the Syndicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution, which supported the idea that to be truly revolutionary, art must include a social statement. Easel art had less obvious social statements than murals, so Guerrero Galván would often paint in a subtle red star representing the Communist party.

In the St. Michael's Church exhibit Guerrero Galvan's oldest son Francisco "Paco" Guerrero Garro displays drawings and paintings with a definite influence of prehispanic pictographic calligraphy -- shamans, "nahuales" (animals born at the same time a child is born that become the person's alter-ego) along with other aspects of Mesoamerican Indigenous culture.  In his twenties Paco worked in the United Nations' Plan Oaxaca and he still maintains contact and friendship with people who with time have become Indigenous leaders in Oaxaca.

Middle son Miguel Angel's paintings are landscapes, forests, and rainforests portrayed in oil on canvas.  Angel recognizes his love of art and music came from his father of Purepecha ancestry, while from his Spanish mother, Deva Garro, came his appreciation of writing and architecture.  Indeed the Guerrero Garros are first generation mestizos with strong roots in and appreciation of both their Indigenous and Spanish backgrounds.

Flora, the youngest of the siblings, paints in a magical realist style frequently combining gold leaf with oils on her canvases.  On exhibit is one of her incursions into religious art--"Virgin Mother Earth" holding flowers instead of a child standing barefoot on the planet.  Not on display in the exhibit, but easy to visit in Cuernavaca's Church of the Holy Spirit, is Flora's "Baptism of Jesus."  It's not unusual to see people on their knees in prayer in front of that painting.  Her art reflects her role as one of the state of Morelos' prominent environmentalists. In full disclosure, Flora is also my wife of 35 years.

These three artists continue the social activism inspired by their parents. Miguel Angel and Flora were among the 33 activists arrested for defending Cuernavaca's Casino de la Selva in 2002.  Paco, founder, and then director of the state of Morelos' widest circulating daily, covered the movement from its inception and was the trusted voice for those following the events.

The fascinating exhibit at St. Michaels is not about Jesús Guerrero Galván, but he is the link between the three artists.  To fill that gap I will exhibit two Guerrero Galván drawings concurrently with St. Michael's exhibit at the Cemanahuac Educational Community in southern Cuernavaca.  Email me for a map to both locations. 

The exhibit will be open through Wednesday of next week during church library hours:  Monday-Friday10 am-12:30, Saturday 10:30-1 pm, Sunday 11:45 am-12:30,  Calle Minerva #1, Colonia Delicias, Cuernavaca. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The best of Tlaltenango

The Tlaltenango fair, which runs through next Monday, has been an annual event for 293 years in what is now northern Cuernavaca. I have long thought of it as a nuisance that closed Cuernavaca’s main north-south boulevard, causing traffic congestion and detours for ten days. But thanks to political science professor Adriana Hernandez I now recognize what a wonderful blend of religion, politics, tradition, and commerce it is.

The draw at the Tlaltenango fair is the Virgin of the Nativity. People more commonly refer to her as the Virgin of Tlaltenango or the Virgin of the Miracles. "Let me tell you two of her most famous miracles," Adriana said enthusiastically.

"A hundred years ago there were open fields between Cuernavaca and Tlaltenango.  Emiliano Zapata was being chased from Cuernavaca by the federal army.  The federales were gaining on him but he could see Tlaltenango’s church.  Zapata prayed to the Virgin for her assistance.  She raised such a dust storm that the federales lost sight of Zapata and he was able to find refuge and protection in the church.  In appreciation he gave the Virgin of Tlaltenango a scepter and a crown which she still wears."

Another miracle has caused the far off community of Iztapalapa, now part of the Federal District, to play an ongoing roll in the annual fair. According to Adriana, "some say Iztapalapa was suffering a drought, others say there was an epidemic.  But whatever it was, the townspeople gathered to plead with the Virgin of Tlaltenango to save them and she did.  In appreciation they promised to visit her every year on the Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8) and offer her a floral arch over the entrance to her church.  Iztapalapa has been fulfilling that "manda" (promise) for close to 200 years.”

Now this is no small gesture. Sixty or more people travel from Iztapalapa to assemble the floral arch. Tradition maintains that during the time they work on it there shall be a band playing continuously and fireworks shot off. They also need someplace to stay overnight. Here’s where things have recently gotten sticky.

For many years the Iztapalapans stayed in a lot that had bathrooms, showers, and a shed under which they slept. But last year that lot was lost due to a lawsuit. The ayudante municipal (a liaison between a community and the municipal government) and the local priest lacked the foresight to prepare other lodging for the pilgrims. The Iztapalapans were understandably offended and said they would not return this year.

Tlatelolco's current ayudante municipal, elected on an independent ticket, is Adriana’s son Daniel Vazquez. It fell on his shoulders to repair the damage. With an offering in hand and accompanied only by a coach in traditional Indigenous protocol, Daniel set off to Iztapalapa. He was granted an audience with Iztapalapa's elders and seven mayordomos.

It amazes me that even though now part of Mexico City, Iztapalapa has active cofradías headed by mayordomos.  During the colonial period Spanish authorities restricted communication between Indigenous groups as a control mechanism.  However, they were allowed to establish “cofradías” (brotherhoods) headed by “mayordomos” for the purpose of taking care of the image of saints.  Religious festivals were one of the few places people from different ethnic groups were allowed to interact.

Tlaltenango, on the other hand, has lost its cofradías and hence its mayordomos.  As ayudante municipal twenty-seven year old Daniel represented the community.  At the meeting his coach stood on the other side of the room and indicated through hand signals when Daniel should enter, sit, and stand. The coach signaled him to wait until he was given the right to speak and pointed out to him who was the proper person to address.  The audience was such a success that Daniel was addressed as the Señor de Tlaltenango (Lord of Tlatenango)!  Adriana reports that there were tequila toasts (no drunkenness), tears, and embraces.  This year the Iztapalapans will be hosted in local peoples' homes when they visit Tlaltenango.

The Iztapalapans are not the only ones who return to the Tlaltenango fair every year. Merchants arrive bearing receipts from previous years and expect to get the same spot back in which to set up their stall. Some report that their families have been participating in the fair for generations.  Many speak Indigenous languages with Spanish as their second language.  Adriana finds they already know their neighboring stall-keepers.  She refers to them as "ferieros" (merchants at fairs).  "They go from festival to festival throughout the country as part of a steady occupational group.  In the case of this fair, a thousand vendors and their dependents speaks of about 5,000 people whose income is directly linked to traditional religious fairs."    

A new feature at this year’s fair is talks by noted residents of Cuernavaca.  The topics include history, human rights, gender, anthropology, and economics. They are scheduled at 5:00 p.m. in Tlaltenango park every day through Monday, September 9.  Send me an email for the schedule.