Tuesday, March 25, 2014

‘Keramiká’ in Chapultepec

When the first Spanish troops reached Tenochtitlan in 1519 in what is now Mexico City’s Centro Histórico (historical center), they were astounded to see ornate buildings, a highly engineered city with an intricate system of canals, a market center, and ceremonial plazas. These were all signs of a high culture that had developed independently of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. They found more signs of high culture in the Maya territory to the southeast and frankly throughout what is now Mexico.

There is so much to say about the indigenous cultures of Mexico such that the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park focuses almost exclusively on this area. It is unusual among the world’s leading museums in showcasing only two cultural areas of the world — Mesoamerica and Arid-America.

But as a world-class museum it also has access to temporary exhibits from around the world. Right now it is showing “Keramiká, Divine Matter from Ancient Greece,” an exhibit on loan from the Louvre with 89 exquisite vases and urns and five marble sculptures.

The result is that a convergence of high quality ceramic vases is going on in the National Museum of Anthropology. Though not billed together, and not even exhibited in adjacent galleries, ancient Maya vases in the museum’s permanent collection dating from the the classic and post-classic periods (300-1500 A.D) and ancient Greek vases (700 B.C.-200 A.D) are exhibited concurrently.

The comparisons between Greek and Maya vases are fascinating. Not in the sense that ancient Greece had any influence on the Maya, but rather in the similar use given to ceramic art as the medium for portraying events that have endured, with little decay, through millennia.

Clay seems deceptively simple. It is easily modeled and can be skillfully decorated, but when fired to high temperatures it becomes as hard as stone. Due to its beauty, ceramic art was a frequent offering in Greek and the Maya burials — placed carefully in tombs subsequently sealed or filled with earth where it survived the passage of time.

Decoration on some of the vases — both Greek and Maya — portrays deities and mythological or religious events. Many are pictorial documentation of events in the lives of living people.
View Greek vases from opposite sides and in many cases you’ll see before and after scenes in which the same people or gods are portrayed. The shape of the vases and urns varies, but the color, for the most part, is amazingly uniform — black background with orange-red figures, or vice versa.

View Maya vessels as if to be seen as a single panel all the way around. Archeologist Justin Kerr perfected a technique to photograph the entire surface of a cylindrical or round vessel in a single frame.

The interaction between Greek deities is portrayed graphically on many of the vases. Though ancient Greek can be read by modern scholars, there isn’t much text on the pieces displayed in Keramiká other than an occasional name of the patron for whom the vase or urn was made, or the name of the ceramic artist. Those versed in Greek mythology will understand the scenes showing gods interacting with each other. Portrayals of life markers such as birth, marriage and funerals give us insight into daily life and living quarters of the ancient Greek elite.

It is the Maya vases that include the most writing. Breakthroughs in deciphering written Maya weren’t made until 1977, but once they started they came fast and furiously. Within five years the understanding of written Maya went from 15% to 50% and comprehension went up to 90% when read in the context of the surrounding hieroglyphs. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to read. Only four books survived along with an assortment of texts carved in stone, most of them quite deteriorated. Then archeologists realized there was a wealth of hieroglyphic text, much of it in pristine condition, on ceramic plates and vases.

Just below the rim of Maya vessels there is frequently hieroglyphic text blessing the piece, describing its shape and referring to its owner and its use. Sometimes the name of the artist who painted the vessel is recorded as well — making them the earliest signed pieces of American art. Text set within the painted scene describes the event itself.

The scenes portrayed on both the Greek and Maya vases are small and it can be hard to see all the detail. In the Keramiká exhibit some of the scenes from the vases are enlarged to life-size photographs. It is as if we are looking over the artist’s shoulder.

I encourage you to see the beautiful pottery in the “Keramiká, Divine Matter from Ancient Greece” exhibit in the National Museum of Anthropology. It will be open until April 27, 2014. And on the same visit walk 100 meters to the Maya room to take in the remarkable vases and urns there. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Remembering the northern cultures

I am sure I’ve been to Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park hundreds of times. I regularly take student groups there. If anyone visits me in Mexico City I will suggest we go by. And I’ll go on my own to see temporary shows like the exhibit of Greek vases on loan from the Louvre there through April 27. It’s that good.

The museum was built 50 years ago during the administration of President Adolfo López Mateos (1958-64) who took great interest in Mexico’s ancient history.

Lead architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez reportedly asked President López Mateos: “Would you like a museum that will be as secure as a bank vault? Or would you prefer a museum that will give visitors the opportunity to wander outdoors as they move from one room to the next?2 Thankfully the president chose the second option.

Ramírez Vázquez took inspiration from the ancient Maya courtyard in Uxmal’s Nunnery Quadrangle. He mimicked Uxmal’s design with the top half of the long, low buildings intricately decorated while leaving the bottom half smooth. At one end of the huge courtyard a fountain, known as the umbrella, holds up an enormous canopy with a single column.

The museum is designed to give visitors a crash course in Mesoamerican anthropology. You enter through the room explaining how anthropologists view the world and then follow room by room the settlement and development of the high cultures of Mesoamerica. The main floor shows the archeology while upstairs shows how people lived. You’ll also see contemporary indigenous exhibits upstairs.

The Aztec room breaks this pattern. It has soaring ceilings and no upstairs. Architect Ramírez Vázquez said it houses “the essence of Mexican-ness.” Indeed the Aztecs who called themselves Mexicas gave their name to the nation.

However, in the 50 years since the museum was built, perceptions of the Aztecs have changed.
Now we understand that every ethnic group in Mesoamerica feared the Aztecs. Those that had been conquered by the Aztecs were tired of sending tribute to Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital. Those that hadn’t been conquered were tired of being threatened with conquest. Many ethnic groups welcomed the opportunity to join with Hernán Cortés and his 550 Spanish soldiers to overthrow the Aztec empire. Granted that at the time they didn’t know what life would be like under Spain’s control.

I don’t normally take my groups into the last two rooms at the museum that cover the arid northern and western parts of Mexico. These cultures have more to do with Arid-America which extends into the U.S. southwest and I’d have to begin a whole new story to talk about them. They are set apart by the architect too, separated from the Mesoamerican rooms by a break in the building the width of a street.

Now is a good time to focus on those northern cultures — admiration for them is soaring. New expanded displays fill the Arid-America rooms. Nearby Chapultepec Castle is hosting a temporary exhibit that complements those exhibits titled “Infinite North — Indigenous people in movement.”
Infinite North focuses on 13 contemporary indigenous ethnic groups living in areas bordering the Gulf of California in Sinaloa and the states along the border with the United States from the Pacific coast to the easternmost part of Chihuahua.

Displays start with stunning baskets. Some so large they are angled sideways to allow visitors to peer inside and admire their intricate detail inside and out. Another that sticks in my mind is a tortilla basket made entirely of pine needles.

Most of the indigenous cultures of northern Mexico suffer from discrimination and poverty and are at high risk of disappearing. The case of the Kiliwa culture is the most dire. Only five people now speak Kiliwa.

As the exhibit explains, “The loss of a language takes with it the link that gives meaning to all of that culture’s expressions: cuisine, clothing, dances, fiestas, religious ceremonies, and art. Indigenous languages are an essential part of the identity of its people. It is through their language that ideas, objects, and practices take on meaning. Language is the code through which they perceive the world and construct its significance. A culture can disappear when its mother tongue is no longer spoken.”

I liked how the exhibit emphasized the importance of language with information available in Yoreme (Mayo), Yoema (Yaqui), and Rarámuri (Tarahumara) as well as in Spanish and English.
The Museum of Anthropology is open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. “Infinite North — Indigenous people in movement” in Chapultepec Castle is open until June, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Both museums are closed Mondays. Keep your eye out for other treats the National Institute of Anthropology (INAH) has for us celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Museum of Anthropology.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The wonderful Chichicastenango

Tucked in the Quiché highlands, Chichicastenango hosts Guatemala’s most famous indigenous market. Early every Thursday and Sunday morning in a well- rehearsed exercise the plaza is transformed into a vibrant, colorful, tightly-packed market. Many vendors set up their stalls on the same spot their family has been occupying for generations.

For locals it is their regional food market. International tourists focus on indigenous textiles, jewelry, and masks.

The beauty of the market complements the religious importance of its setting. Facing the plaza the Church of Santo Tomás’ steep stairway resembles that of a pyramid — complete with platforms on which incense burns and shamans recite prayers in rapid-fire Quiché Maya. Inside a plaque reads: “In the early 18th century in this monastery of Santo Tomás, Father Franzisco Ximénez found and translated the Popol Vuh.” Frequently called the sacred book of the Maya Quiché, it is often quoted and referenced in ancient-Maya studies.

Diego Ignacio was the ranking mask-maker in Chichicastenango until his death on Christmas Eve 2013. From his father, Miguel Ignacio, Diego inherited the morería (mask-making shop) he worked and, in turn, left to his heirs last December. The Ignacio’s morería includes a home linked to an occupation and responsibility that has been in their family for generations.

In 1938, famed U.S. anthropologist Sol Tax in search of folk tales interviewed Diego’s grandfather — also Diego Ignacio, and also a mask-maker. In his diary Tax noted “Ignacio did not volunteer any stories,” adding, “Chichicastenango seems to have a dearth of folk tales.”

In Spain a morería is the section of town where Moors live. In Guatemala it is where Moors are made — in the form of masks for the dance of Moors and Christians. Morerías also make masks for characters in all the Indigenous festival dances. Some masks portray European or African faces, most are of Indigenous faces, native animals, and fantastic and imaginary beings carved out of wood.

Anyone who has been in Mexico or Guatemala for any length of time has come across this type of mask. Folk art museums and private collectors have whole walls covered with masks on display. Souvenir shops have them for sale. Vendors walk amidst patrons in outdoor restaurants selling masks. Usually missing are the costumes that should accompany the masks.

Without a costume the mask is incomplete. When worn together in indigenous pageants, dancers give up their personality and take on another. The Ignacio children delighted in putting on costumes and masks and dancing to traditional music from a boom box. When they did so the transformation they went through was such that they were unrecognizable.

Like his grandfather, Diego did not reveal information easily. It took me several visits to Diego’s morería before I understood that his principal source of income was not from mask sales to tourists but rather hinged on the rental of expensive full sets of costumes, masks, and script to dancers performing in festivals in Chichicastenango and nearby towns and villages.

Well into my series of visits to his morería, Diego surprised me and members of my study trip by showing us notebooks filled cover-to-cover with elegant handwritten script — instructions for the set director and lines to be recited by each of the actors performing in what I had thought was restricted to dance and pantomime.

The plaza and adjoining streets is the “stage” on which these pageants are presented. Though usually packed with spectators, necessary space always opens up when the actors need it, but rarely can their recited words be heard.

The more I scratch the surface of Chichicastenango the more cyclical and enduring its life seems to be. Which member of the Ignacio family will take up the baton from Diego and keep the morería alive? Even we outsiders now have our recognized niche in maintaining the market cycle through purchases and patronage of restaurants and lodging.

My trips to Chichicastengo always include breakfast at the timelessly elegant Mayan Inn. My reading of Sol Tax’s diary leads me to believe that’s where he interviewed Diego Ignacio in 1938.
Back in the 1970s I’d rouse my college students early in Panajachel in order to get to the Mayan Inn for breakfast. Our motley appearance always led the head-waiter to caution me, “This breakfast costs five dollars.” Upon telling him that was fine we’d sit down to a grand multi-course breakfast in which the silverware, pitchers and serving dishes were sterling silver and the service impeccable.

In 1980 Guatemala’s internal war intensified. I didn’t return to Chichicastenango until 1987. But I was at the Mayan Inn for breakfast my first morning back. Midway through breakfast I told the waiter I’d returned after a long absence and complemented him on everything looking as it always had, “except for this,” as I held up a spoon. He nodded and told me an amazing story — one that someday will certainly nurture folk tales.

“When the guerrilla army was approaching Chichicastenango the owners arrived with moving vans and took everything that was portable — even windows, doors, and bathroom fixtures. All they left was walls, floors, and ceilings, yet they paid us our salary throughout that time period. Five years later they brought everything back. Except for the silver.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Banking through the years

I wonder if I could quantify the percentage of my adult life that I have spent inside Mexican banks. As nationwide institutions, Mexican banks fill the role that the post office and Internet play in bill payments in the USA. A tremendous array of services can be paid at banks. Even payments between private parties are made at banks since anyone can deposit to anyone else’s bank account — the deposit slip becomes the proof of payment.

When I started doing business in Mexico 40 years ago it was close to being a strictly a cash economy. Bank hours were short and lines were long. With banks only open from 9:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays, employers had to pay their workers’ salary in cash or give them time off to cash their payroll checks. Those of us with a lot of banking to do had messengers we’d send to the bank ahead of time to stand in line. Upon getting to the head of the line my messenger would stay there and let people by one-by-one until I arrived. Then, exchanging only a nod, he would step out of line and I would take his place.

Back then every bank exchanged U.S. dollars at the same rate. Longtime foreign residents in Mexico remember well the 12.5 multiplication table. Banks would buy dollars at 12.49 pesos per dollar and sell them at 12.51 and we got good at the math. It had been that way since 1954. We could have peso accounts as well as dollar accounts in Mexican banks. With a dollar account we could cash a check and have the teller hand us U.S. dollar bills. Nice and straightforward.

That was also when a bank employee would manually enter each check or deposit on a card with a carbon copy attached to it. At the end of the month the copy became the monthly statement. Tellers would check the card before cashing a check. In our own branch office we could ask to see the card to check our balance.

Branch managers had to authorize cashing an out-of-town check. I remember listening to a bank officer in Mérida describing over the phone to her colleague in Cuernavaca what my signature looked like. On the island of Cozumel trying to cash some travelers’ checks I was told the manager was out. I asked his secretary when he would be back. She glanced out the window and said “in about half an hour.” I looked out the window expecting to see a coffee shop but instead saw a sidewalk barber shop in the shade of a big tree. I walked across the street, greeted the man seated with a sheet draped over his shoulders, and asked him if he was the bank manager. He replied affirmatively and I presented him my travelers’ checks to approve. In a few minutes I had cash in hand and was on my way.

The late 1970s and 1980s were boom years for anyone with a foreign source of income. During some of those years inflation ran at over 150 percent and the exchange rate soared even faster. The central bank couldn’t keep the country stocked with currency.

Store cashiers would give change in chewing gum or candy when they ran out of coins. I remember being in line in banks and hearing the head teller shout out “Who’s here to make a deposit?” Those with deposits were waved to the front of the line so the bank tellers would have cash with which to work.

By the 1980s Mexico was printing one-hundred-thousand peso bills. President de la Madrid (1982-88) was credited with having made everyone a millionaire! President Salinas (1988-94) carried out the transition from the “Peso” to the “New Peso” (designated as “N$”) with three fewer zeros and finally back to the “Peso” we know and use today.

Computers have taken some of the fun out of banking. There’s no more need to describe a signature. Last month a teller in training had her computer screen turned so that I could see it. Not only is my signature clearly visible to every teller and bank officer in that banking network throughout the country, a scanned copy of my identification card was on the screen too.

Lines can be long at times but those bankers-hours of the 1970s have been extended. I know of three banks open long hours that only close on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Account holders frequently get bankcards that give them access to special lines that move very quickly.

One thing that has gotten worse is that it is now very difficult to exchange foreign currency in banks. Visitors from abroad need to change money at the airport or use exchange houses (casas de cambio). An even better option is to use ATMs to withdraw Mexican pesos. I’ve found that ATMs also give you the best exchange rate.

Travelers checks? I haven’t seen one in years.