Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A life with the Trique

Many parts of Mexico are wonderfully accessible — the archeological sites, Mexico City’s fabulous museums, colonial towns steeped in history. In a couple of days you can take in a lot. Other parts of Mexico take years to know. My brother-in-law Francisco “Paco” Guerrero Garro started learning about the Trique in Oaxaca almost 50 years ago. You may have heard about the Trique recently when a Trique boys basketball team won an international basketball competition in Argentina. Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies saluted them with a one-minute standing ovation.

In 1966 Paco was invited to work with an international team from the United Nations comprised of geologists, agronomists, economists, geographers, archeologists, and botanists to do an economic study of the state of Oaxaca. Paco was in charge of doing a census of the arts and crafts and the craftspeople across the whole state. For 2 1/2 years he traveled with his team throughout the state of Oaxaca documenting how many artisans there were, what they produced, how they produced it, where they sold and how much they sold it for.

One place he visited was San Andrés Chicahuaxtla. Then it was a 12-hour drive on a dirt road from Tlaxiaco, only 40 kilometers away. Today that same trip takes 45 minutes.

As was his custom, he first met with the leader of the community. Not coincidentally, that person, Don Marcos Sandoval, was the only person in the pueblo who spoke Spanish. The first night Paco was invited to stay with him; there was no electricity, no running water. At night they lit ‘ocotes,’ strips of wood from the highly resined ocote tree. Ocotes function as candles.

This was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. The study ended in 1968 but Paco continued to visit San Andrés Chicahuaxtla and the Sandoval family. Thoughout the 1970’s Paco took many groups of students to Chicahuaxtla. I accompanied him on some of those trips.

Paco and my sister Harriet are making that trip again, now accompanying the professor of linguistics Ray Elliott of the University of Texas, Arlington.

In 2008 Professor Elliott saw the documentary “The Linguists.” The film follows two young scientists in their race to the most remote corners of the world recording languages on the verge of extinction. Dr. Elliott was particularly struck by a line in the film — “every two weeks a language dies.”

“Fifteen years into my academic life I decided to find and study an endangered language in Mexico,” Dr. Elliott said. “When a language dies you lose a history of interaction with the environment that may cover thousands of years, knowledge of medicinal herbs, even unknown cures. When the last language speaker dies you lose an entire culture. Language and thought are so inextricably intertwined that when you lose a language; you lose part of the collective humanity.”

Through a friend, Dr. Elliot established contact with my brother-in-law, and soon found himself in the pueblo of San Andrés Chicahuaxtla. This town had 6,000 inhabitants in the 1983 census. In 2009, when Dr. Elliott began his research, the demographic had changed dramatically — the population of San Andrés was approximately 2,000. This year it is 950. Men and whole families have moved to Mexico City and parts of the U.S. where they will most certainly lose their language within a generation. Documenting the language became increasingly critical.

The Chicahuaxtla Trique indigenous peoples refer to themselves as Gui a’mi Nánj nï’ïn or “The people who speak the Complete Language.” There are three “dialects” of Trique spoken in only three pueblos within the municipality of Copala, Oaxaca. Dr. Elliott uses the word “dialect” advisedly because comprehension of the “dialects” between villages is less than that between Portuguese and Spanish and “no one would ever consider calling either Spanish or Portuguese a dialect.”

Since 2009 Professor Elliott has spent all of his research time in the pueblo. “The first year I always had a ‘minder’ and was never invited beyond the concrete front porches of the homes. Each year those boundaries have extended. Now I’m welcome everywhere. A month ago I was even invited to be the padrino of the graduating primary class.”

He explained that “Trique is a complex tonal language difficult for westerners to master. In the easiest of the “dialects,” Copala, there are 8 tones. In Chicahuaxtla Trique there are at least 10 tones, maybe 16. The words can look and sound the same to an untrained ear.” For me that was certainly true. The words “more” and “less” look the same and sound the same. It took multiple repetitions by Dr. Elliott before I could detect the difference.

I never would have imagined basketball as a way to reinforce native languages. But the team of youngsters who traveled to Argentina and won the basketball competition is part of a program the Oaxaca state government provides for poor children. To be in the basketball program, coach Ernesto Merino said, “The children must have good grades, speak their native tongue and help with home chores.” I bet there was a celebration on their win in Arlington, Texas too.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A taste of Paris in Mexico

A new metro station opened in Mexico City last Saturday. It will be a station that even those leery of riding the subway will want to visit. It’s this year’s Days of the Dead altar at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in southern Mexico City, presented hand-in-hand with masterpieces of art on loan from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

This exhibit came about because relations between France and Mexico have been mended by the current administrations in both countries. In exchange for lending Mexico the paintings from France’s national collection, 75 paintings and drawings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are on exhibit in the Musée de l’Orangerie.

This convergence will be capped by French President Hollande’s visit in early 2014 — the 50th anniversary of the visit by General Charles de Gaulle.

“Masterpieces of the Musée de l’Orangerie” is made up of 30 paintings by 11 impressionist and modernist painters. They will be on exhibit until Jan. 19, 2014. The exhibit features paintings by Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Chaim Soutine, and Maurice Utrillo.

In recent years Days of the Dead altars at the Olmedo Museum have been dedicated to the art and crafts of different states in Mexico. This year’s extravaganza goes a step further. As a visitor you’ll enter the altar through Paris’ Montmartre metro station. After a few twists and turns you’ll emerge into Paris of the early 20th century, populated by life-sized skeletons going about their daily activities.

Pay close attention to the scenery. You’ll see it again in the paintings in the exhibit or you’ll recognize it as taken from paintings by the French masters. Maurice Utrillo, in skeleton form, is painting “Notre Dame.” The finished painting is the last one in the exhibit. You’ll also see the paintings he would sell to fruit and vegetable vendors along the Seine. Look for Chaim Soutine painting in the butcher shop — one of his favorite topics. One such painting is in the exhibit.

Don’t miss La Calaca Catrina — an elegantly dressed female skeleton. It is an emblematic figure in Mexico’s Days of the Dead made popular by Mexican cartoonist and satirist José Guadalupe Posada. Diego Rivera came to know her by purchasing copies of Posada’s broadsheets on his way to class at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. Later Rivera incorporated her into in his mural “Dream of Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park.” In it, Rivera as a boy holds her hand while Posada stands the other side of her. In the Parisian scene you’ll see La Calaca Catrina on a street corner accompanied by Posada, now also a skeleton.

Exiting from the “metro station” you’ll be in the Olmedo Museum’s extensive gardens. You’ll see peacocks on each side of the path and dogs of metallic color, the descendants of xolitzcuintle dogs, that stand so still it is hard to distinguish them from the sculptural portrayals of dogs in their pen.

“Masterpieces of the Musée de l’Orangerie” is in the museum’s main building. It begins with Claude Monet’s “Argenteuil” and ends with Maurice Utrillo’s “Notre Dame.” The five galleries between those two are filled with paintings on loan. Museum director Carlos Phillips said “there hasn’t been a foreign art exhibit in Mexico with as many paintings of this quality in the last 50 years.”

Stepping through the doorway beyond the last painting will put you in a 1900s Parisian café. Choose a table and sit down. One of the servers will bring you a menu. But instead of food on the menu there are names of artists and art supplies to choose from. The museum invites you to create whimsical scenes based on the work of the artists you’ll have just seen — and save them in photos. Hats of the time period are available on a hat rack.

Niches in the wall are large enough for two or three people to stand in and are framed as if they are paintings hung on the wall. In them you’ll find masks, dresses, and tuxedos.

The entire experience is a delight. Where else could you enjoy the whimsy of creating your own art a few steps from a staid art gallery, combined with Mexicans’ ability to laugh at death, all set amid lovely gardens?

The only thing that brought a bigger smile to my face during my visit to the museum last Thursday was hearing Marie-Paule Vial, director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, talk about the Mexican collection on display in her museum.

She said: “All over Paris people are talking about Diego, talking about Frida. The surprise for the French public isn’t in discovering Frida. She’s already well known through film and exhibits in Europe. But through the exhibit at Musée de l’Orangerie we’ve been able to show Diego’s work on canvas.”

Hard for many in Mexico to accept. For years I’ve been hearing that “Frida is known because of her husband.” Fitting of the French though — didn’t they refer to JFK as “Jackie’s husband?”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aronson showcases Tibetan exiles

I was transported last Thursday into the lives of Tibetan exiles living in Dharamsala India. I met award-winning journalist and photographer Peter Aronson near UNAM at Plaza Loreto. This former paper factory is now an upscale shopping mall and home to the Soumaya Museum’s still functioning original location. Peter led me through his exhibit — Dharamsala: Three Generations of Tibetan Exiles, on display through Oct. 20.

The exhibit holds 30 large photos, Peter’s culled choices from five years of living in Dharamsala, India, home to the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama and his followers. There’s also a 12-foot panoramic collage of 93 photos taken walking down a main street one day in Dharmasala.

Looking at the collage I felt like I was walking the street myself. I peered into each shop door and even saw a man with a ten-foot-long snake draped over his shoulders and holding it by its neck — that is if a snake has a neck. In other photographs Peter took me into people’s living rooms, shops, political demonstrations, into a kindergarten, even to a wedding.

Peter’s photographs are of such clarity that I could read the titles of the books on the shelves and tell the brand of monks’ footwear — they tend to favor Nike and Tevas.

Peter shared anecdotes about the people in his photos and explained their body language. The friendly face of a monk who’d spent 20 years in a Chinese prison before Indian exile was Peter’s philosophy teacher. Upon arrival in Dharamsala the Dalai Lama asked this monk if he was ever afraid while imprisoned. “I was often afraid,” he replied. “I was afraid I’d lose compassion for my tormenters.”

In a photo of a stern faced former Tibetan soldier and his wife I spotted seven silver bowls on a shelf next to a small light — “they are the traditional gifts you give to a visitor: water to drink, water to wash their feet, flowers, incense, perfume, food, music and illumination.”

Moving through the exhibit we saw younger Tibetans born in India. Peter said: “They struggle with an identity crisis. Who am I? Am I Tibetan, Indian, Asian, Western? Many reject the style of older Tibetans. The young want to move on to something else but there is no consensus about what that will be.”

A photograph of a young travel agent talking on a cellphone seemed the perfect embodiment of this new idea. “Look at his belt buckle. It’s a spinning dollar sign.” The caption beside the photo reads “The Dalai Lama jokes that the mantra of compassion made up of syllables in Sanskrit is changing from the traditional ‘Om mani peme hum’ to its English version ‘Om money money.’”

Peter said that “a lot of photographers go to Dharamsala and take pictures of Tibetans. They’re usually looking for the exotic, dressed in traditional clothing spinning a prayer wheel. Few show the Tibetans the way I see them — how they are becoming Westernized, or Indianized, how their culture is changing. Outsiders may be surprised to see that Tibetans are not all saintly. They’re not all like the Dalai Lama. I’m not trying to fit them into any particular box of expectations. I’m just saying ‘this is what I see.”

Outsiders are in for lots of surprises. In his Sunday talk in Mexico City, I was surprised by the Dalai Lama himself. The importance he gives to education and modern science was refreshing to hear from the leader of a worldwide religion. His recognition that global warming is occurring and measures need to be taken to counteract it puts him on the cutting edge of human survival, in my view.

Imagine my trepidation showing up at a photography exhibit with my camera hanging over my shoulder and tripod in hand, but I wanted to get a photo of Peter surrounded by his exhibit. As we came to the end of the exhibit I asked Peter if anyone objected to him taking his or her photograph. “People in India love to have their photo taken.” Peter seemed to like having his picture taken too — in his style. “You didn’t ask me for any photo tips but my first photo tip is always get closer.” Pointing to a close-up photo, “With this guy I was like this;” he walked up to one of his portraits, imaginary camera in hand, stopping only a foot from the person’s face. “This guy,” referring to the travel agent, “I was in his face too. I get close to people. I think it’s important if you’re going to capture something of the person to engage with them. I don’t walk by, sneak by, grab a photo. I say ‘Hey! How’ve you been? I talk with them and soon have the camera right in their face.”

It worked for me; I felt fully engaged in the lives of the photo subjects.

Dharamsala: Three Generations of Tibetan Exiles will be open tomorrow through Sunday (closed on Tuesday) in the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Loreto. It’s an easy walk from Dr. Gálvez metrobús station. There’s plenty of parking if you’re driving.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Placido Domingo at Arena Teques

Last Saturday one of the world’s greatest singers performed to a rapt audience just 80 miles from where his career started as a teenager in Mexico City’s National Opera. Placido Domingo sang at the Arena Teques overlooking Lake Tequesquitengo in the state of Morelos. His performance to an audience of 6,000, along with sopranos Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste and the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra, inaugurated this wonderful new outdoor concert venue.

The driving force for the event was Elena Cepeda, wife of Morelos’ new governor Graco Ramírez.  Cepeda had been the Secretary of Culture for the Federal District for six years.  I first had contact with her when she accepted my idea of hosting an homage in Mexico City’s Teatro de la Ciudad for John Ross, the dean of the foreign correspondents in Mexico. 

As first lady of Morelos, Cepeda now has responsibilities imposed on her by Mexican law and custom that would seem to move her away from sponsoring high profile cultural events. The wife of the chief executive at the municipal, state, or federal level always becomes the president of the D.I.F. (National System for Integral Family Development) for that area.  If the chief executive is female, the responsibility can become that of a close female relative – sister, daughter, aunt – but never that of her husband.

Cepeda has made one of her principal projects, as president of D.I.F. for the state of Morelos, the construction of the Morelos Center for Rehabilitation and Special Education.  The Placido Domingo concert was a major fundraiser towards an end she hopes will benefit 100,000 Morelos children with special needs -- a fascinating way to blend the contacts Cepeda made in Mexico City with the world’s leading artists and her commitment to meeting the educational needs of children who have traditionally been hidden away.

From the moment he appeared on stage, Placido gave his all, as did the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra.  Headquartered in the tropical and coastal Pacific port, the orchestra members conformed to standard protocol by wearing black.  But in this case they wore a Mexican contribution to fashion:  black, short-sleeved guayabera shirts.  I was amazed to hear that the orchestra had rehearsed with Placido for only a couple of hours that afternoon. The secret to success was conductor Eugene Kohn who collaborates with Placido Domingo in concerts and recordings and is closely in tune with Placido’s needs. 

When the concert ended it was immediately obvious the crowd wanted more.  Much more.  Placido obliged.  His first encore was “Besame Mucho”.  The audience went wild.  After many more encores he obliged the calls for “Granada”.  It seemed that would be the end but he’d saved the best for last.  Mariachis came on stage and sang a few familiar favorites.  Then, joined by Placido in full mariachi attire, the stage was transformed into a Saturday night in any pueblo in Mexico with mariachis accompanied by the best tenor soloist in the world.  

Since he seemed so genuinely comfortable and pleased to be singing with mariachis I asked him later in the evening if what I had once heard was correct, “Did you start your singing career with mariachis?” 

I was hoping his answer would be yes, but he told me “Not true.”

At the press conference Placido expressed his support for the Morelos government’s plan to create municipal and regional youth orchestras.  The plan is modeled on Venezuela’s highly successful National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras created by José Antonio Abreu.  Placido endorsed Abreu’s idea that intensive musical training instills discipline and self-esteem and acts as an antidote to the ills of poverty.

Placido took pride in describing the two sopranos who performed with him, Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste, as former students in opera training schools he founded in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. 

It was obvious on Saturday that Placido inspires young opera singers in Mexico too. At the dinner at the Morelos World Trade Center following the concert I met opera students and siblings Sinuhé and Grecia Alvarado. Too young to drive, their father had brought them from Mexico City. Their faces radiated the joy the event was giving them.

After midnight the father of our young tablemates came to claim his children.  All of us were effusive in our praise of his progeny. Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins said, “I wish I could hear Sinuhé sing.”  The father quickly replied, “Oh I’m sure he’d be happy to do so.”  With little encouragement, undeterred by all the noise around, the young man stood and sang a beautiful aria.  The tables around us watched enviously. 

At the very next table, 14 year-old opera student Paola Pelcastregui stood and offered to sing for us too.  Appropriately she sang “Time to Say Goodbye” in Spanish. These three open-hearted young people with their enthusiasm and joyous gift of music sent me home whistling.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rivera at the Cortés Palace

Eighty-four years ago today artist Diego Rivera was polishing both a speech and a pistol.  He was making sure everything was ready for the Communist party meeting two days later where he would expel a prominent party member.  It was all part of the theatrics that Rivera loved.

Writer Hayden Herrera describes the events at that Thursday, October 3rd meeting -- yes, 1929’s calendar was the same as this year’s.  “Diego arrived, sat down, and took out a large pistol, and put it on the table.  He then put a handkerchief over the pistol and said: ‘I Diego Rivera, secretary general of the Mexican Communist party, accuse the painter Diego Rivera of collaborating with the petit-bourgeois government of Mexico and of having accepted a commission to paint the stairway of the National Palace of Mexico.  This contradicts the politics of the Comintern and therefore the painter Diego Rivera should be expelled from the Communist party by the secretary general of the Communist party, Diego Rivera.’”  Having proclaimed himself expelled he stood up, removed the handkerchief, picked up the pistol and . . . smashed it!  It was made of clay.

Recalcitrant Diego Rivera went even further.  In December of that same year he accepted the commission to paint the walls of the Cortez Palace terrace with the history of Cuernavaca from the conquest to the Revolution of 1910.  It was a gift of Dwight Morrow and his wife Elizabeth to the city they enjoyed so much while he was U.S. ambassador to Mexico.   Planning to be away for most of the following year the Morrows even lent the Riveras their weekend home in Cuernavaca.

In the National Palace in Mexico City Rivera painted the leaders of the Mexican Independence movement in a crowd. But the Cortez Palace in Cuernavaca was the headquarters of all three branches of the government of the state of Morelos. There was no way around it--he had to paint a prominent portrait of independence fighter José María Morelos.

There are statues of José María Morelos all over Mexico.  He is easy to identify, Morelos always wore a bandana tied over his head.  He had bandanas for every occasion – silk bandanas, embroidered bandanas, simple cloth bandanas.  Like ten percent of the population at the time, Morelos was Afro-Mexican.  It seems he wore the bandana to cover his Afro-textured hair.

Most artists are reluctant to depict Morelos accurately. We come across his portrait every day on the fifty-peso bill, but we’d be hard-pressed to think the person portrayed on that bill had any African ancestry.

When it came to painting Morelos into his mural, Rivera resorted to more theatrics.  Before applying color to the portrait of Morelos he invited the governor, his cabinet, and the press to view the mural and listen to the artist himself describe the scenes.

On the scheduled day Diego described the portion of the mural he had painted so far and what the rest, which was only outlined, would contain.  Then, pointing to a pillar in the center of the long wall, he said, “I’ve reserved this important spot for a portrait of José María Morelos, a man of universal stature!”  Rivera’s well-rehearsed friends started to applaud. The governor joined in.  Before the applause died down Rivera bellowed “His face could be anyone’s!”  His friends cheered and stood up.  The governor did too.  Rivera wrapped up his talk and sent his audience home.  He had gotten what he wanted from them.  If Morelos’ face could be anyone’s, why not have it be that of the artist himself?  And if a self-portrait of the artist, then it should be the artist’s skin color.  It was only Morelos’s hands that were accurately painted.

The rest of the year-long project transpired smoothly until close to the end.  While Diego painted his wife Frida Kahlo was a daily visitor.  She was always generous with praise of content and historical accuracy.  That was except in the very last scene he painted.  In it Emiliano Zapata dressed in white peasant’s clothing holds his white horse by the bridle.  Frida reportedly shrieked when she saw it.  “Diego, what are you doing?  Zapata had a black horse.  His horse was legendary.  There are songs and poems about Zapata and his black horse.” 

Rivera replied: “I like white better than black and, besides, a white horse will go better with his white pants and white shirt.” 

It became a heated argument that also involved the horse’s heavy legs. Diego came down from the scaffolding, tossed his palette down the hallway, and as he kicked over the scaffolding shouted, “Frida, you paint the horse!  But it must be white.”

The horse remained white, but Frida drew the horse’s legs the way she thought they should be.  Diego would later tell his friends, “I had to correct that white horse of Zapata’s according to Frida’s wishes.’”  Good that he did because it has become the best-known scene in the Cortez Palace series of murals.