Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August is watermelon season

The large, juicy fruit is celebrated all over Mexico and the United States. Zacatecas and Coahuila in northern Mexico have watermelon festivals that attract thousands of people. Russellville in northwestern Alabama recently hosted 30,000 people at its watermelon festival. I wonder what’s happened to seed spitting contests now that seedless watermelon are all the rage?

Watermelons make me think of two Mexican artists – Rufino Tamayo and Wilberth Azcorra. Many Mexican artists have an affinity for painting watermelon because the slices contain the color of the Mexican flag. Arranging watermelon slices into a red star is a subtle way to give their art a social message. Many 20th Century artists joined the Union of Artists and Engravers, an association formed during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which held that to be truly revolutionary, art should contain a social message in addition to being something of beauty.

Although he was a member of the Union of Artists and Engravers, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) didn’t go for that. When he painted watermelon slices they were usually portrayed standing vertically on a tabletop. Tamayo maintained that art only needs to be something of beauty. And, boy, did he have fun with watermelon.

I found this out through Yucatecan artist Wilberth Azcorra. Azcorra has made watermelons his leitmotif. In whatever medium he works in, Wilberth’s topic is watermelons.

It turns out that Azcorra and Tamayo had a friend in common: Lauro López (1930-1996). Lauro was also an artist – known for his still-life set in viceroyalty-period kitchens. He really liked painting two shelves in a cupboard.

In the early 1970s, Wilberth frequently stayed at Lauro’s home in Temixco, just south of Cuernavaca, while teaching a high school literature class in rural Morelos. The class was on Friday nights. He would stay over and drive back to Mexico City in daylight on Saturday.

Every other Saturday Rufino Tamayo and his wife Olga would go to Lauro’s house for lunch and then stay to play canasta. Lauro put Wilberth in charge of setting the stage for those events.

On a long table set in the garden, covered with a white tablecloth, Wilberth would make an artistic arrangement of four, five or six watermelons. He had previously rubbed them with olive oil to make them shiny. Lauro himself would decorate a 40-centimeter-long knife (16 inches) with a red ribbon and place it on the table.

Wilberth told me, “When the Tamayos arrived, Rufino knew that the knife was for him to use and with it carve, cut, and arrange the watermelons however he pleased. It was wonderful. He would go crazy. It was like a children’s game but he was the only one who played.

“To me it was an ephemeral work of art because after sketches had been made the watermelons became juice served at lunch.”

I asked, “Would Tamayo do this on a plate or on a tray?” “No. Right on the tablecloth. Everything got stained with watermelon juice. It was marvelous. He knew that it was all set up for him to transform into an homage to watermelon. It was beautiful. And very magical. “No two cuts were ever the same. Once the initial cut was made he would cut it into other shapes. Pyramids, cubes, cones, squares, slices, triangles.”

In our conversation Wilbert referred to the pieces as fractals – a way to cut a solid object in to many shapes. Be they straight or curved, each one represents the original object but seen in a different way. No two pieces of Tamayo’s watermelons were the same. Some pieces were red, others green, yet it was obvious that they were all watermelon.

I like the image of fractals to describe Wilberth too. He is an artist to some, a poet to others, a teacher to many and a philosopher to boot. He is also a wonderful host. In August of each year he sponsors a festival to Saint Augustine, in his hometown of Valladolid, Yucatan, as his family has done uninterruptedly for 99 years. I encourage readers in the Yucatan peninsula to attend one or both of the remaining evening rosaries leading up to the feast day of St. Augustine.

On Thursday morning Wilberth will lead the procession with the 16th century wooden image of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family. A 7 a.m. Mass in a nearby church will be followed by breakfast, and a Balche (fermented drink of prehispanic origin) ceremony in the Maya style, then dinner for over a hundred guests.

“The menu is the same as the one my parents prepared.  We can’t change it.  It’s the dinner for the Saint – relleno negro (a Yucatecan specialty). Everyone that arrives is welcome.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Economics of street vendors

While stuck in traffic, I watch the “vendedores ambulantes” weave their way through the cars and trucks. My mind frequently flashes back to my college accounting professor. He taught me terms like FIFO, LIFO, overhead costs, and value added. At the time I had decided to file all that information in my brain’s category of “when is this going to be of any use to me?” Yet right in front of me I see those economic terms played out in real life.

“Vendedores ambulantes” are vendors who set up a stall at the beginning of every workday and take it down at night. They pack up all the merchandise and store it for the night in some other location, frequently in a nearby parking lot. Some vendedores ambulantes staff a stall while others look like walking display counters.

They exemplify low overhead. They don’t pay for a building and all the intendant costs in order to make profit even if they sell a meager amount.

My favorite low-overhead sellers are the silver jewelry vendors at Xochimilco. They work their way up and down the canals through the “floating gardens”, but not by paddling their own boats. They skillfully step from boat to boat, timing their movements to show their wares to the boat’s passengers and then make a graceful exit onto another passing boat. Essentially they are walking on water.

Most vendors buy their inventory wholesale and then simply sell them at higher retail prices. But some have figured out how to add value to what they sell. A good example are the Castro brothers at Teotihuacan who sell postcards.

Postcards? You might have thought they went the way of travelers’ checks and public telephones, but the Castros do a brisk business selling postcards of the pyramids – 10 cards to a packet. Their father, the late Paciano Castro, came up with one of the most marvelous marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. Buying postcards from him became a history lesson.

During the viceroyalty period cochineal dye was the second (after silver) most important source of wealth for Spain from Mexico. Paciano Castro would demonstrate where the dye came from by smashing cochineal insect eggs infesting a flat leaf cactus paddle. He then would rub the bright red die on an envelope containing 10 postcards. Then he would take sap from the cactus and use that to seal the dye on the paper.

Visitors wanting a souvenir of cochineal buy a packet of postcards from one of the Castro brothers. The Castro sons have ratcheted up the value added by selling the envelope inside a bag made from century plant fiber.

Managing the amount of inventory is key for vendors. I remember learning about two strategies for moving inventory in that same college class—LIFO (Last in First Out) and FIFO (First in First Out). Those are helpful concepts when waiting in line too. While waiting in line in a bank or government office you definitely want to be FIFO. In these queues I move quickly to get to the head of the line.

However there are some queues that are best to think of as LIFO – such as when boarding the shuttle bus from the airport terminal to the car rental depot. It’s best to be the last one to board those shuttles to be first on line at the car rental counter.

Sometimes businesses want to hold no inventory. Just-in-time production is the catch-phrase. The parts arrive at the assembly plant just as they are needed. It takes skillful coordination or an assembly line can come to a halt for lack of a part. Today’s package express companies with guaranteed delivery times are an essential part of this manufacturing concept.

But you don’t need a big assembly plant to take advantage of just-in-time inventory. I found it on the beach at Chachalacas, Veracruz.

Far from town, close to the hill-sized sand dunes, with a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico, was a six-table restaurant with an extensive menu. The structure over the tables and the adjacent kitchen were all made with palm fronds—low overhead.

I figured out the inventory system when a member of my party asked for an uncommon soft drink. The grandmother first said it wasn’t available and then corrected herself. Out of the corner of my eye I’d seen a young man who I thought was a customer nod affirmatively. When our orders for fish and soft drinks had been placed the “customer” got up, walked around behind the kitchen and departed on a motorcycle. From the kitchen came chips and salsa, and before they were finished I heard the motorcycle returning. Immediately after its arrival, the soft drinks came from the kitchen. Soon I could hear fish sizzling on the grill.No inventory. No waste. Everything just in time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tiffany glass adorns Mexico

Seeing marvelous works of art is one of the delights of traveling. I’m one of those people who reads billboards to find must-see museum exhibits in the city. So imagine my delight when after missing a flight at the San Francisco Airport (SFO) I stumbled upon “A Radiant Light, The Artistry of Louis C. Tiffany” in the International Departures terminal.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), founder of Tiffany Studios was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the renowned jewelry store Tiffany & Co. Louis Tiffany is probably best known for Tiffany lamps — stained glass lamps and shades with floral and organic designs in richly hued colors. At the exhibit in SFO you can also see blown glass vases, ceramics, window panels, desk sets, and oil paintings, his original métier. But you don’t need to travel far to see his work—an enormous work some consider to be his masterpiece is right here in Mexico City.

In 1892 Louis Tiffany filed a request for a patent for his breakthrough in the art world — a new method for stained glass. Rather than painting colors onto glass as had been done since medieval times, his glass was internally colored with many-hued opalescent colors. He trademarked his product Favrile, derived from the old English word “fabrile”, meaning handcrafted. He changed the b to a v because “it sounded better.” His work in Favrile glass went on to win the 1900 Paris Exposition grand prize.

In the United States, following the Civil War, economic prosperity led to the construction of thousands of churches. Tiffany set up an entire division of Tiffany Studios to create “all forms of decorations and instrumental ecclesiastics.” Tiffany’s brochures offered leaded-glass windows, mosaics, frescoes, altars, and an array of sacred vessels and portable objects with biblical themes which wealthy parishioners could donate to their churches as a way of memorializing their loved ones.

At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair the Tiffany Studio exhibit included an award-winning chapel interior which attracted over 900,000 visitors and resulted in so many commissions that supplying stained glass windows for churches supported the rest of Tiffany’s various artistic pursuits.

Favrile glass could hardly have come at a better time as it coincided with the spreading use of electricity. Tiffany lamps became an artistic way to soften the harshness of the bare light bulb, while electrically backlighted stained glass windows took on new luster.

So how can you see a Tiffany masterpiece? Arrive on time for a performance in the theater of Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. The largest mural in the Palace of Fine Arts is the Tiffany Glass Curtain in the building’s main theater.

It is only visible during the short time between when doors open for seating and show time. After the third call the lights dim and the curtain’s glass landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes is taken through a light show from dawn to dusk before the curtain rises and disappears into the ceiling.

Construction of the Palace of Fine Arts started in 1904 during the Porfirio Díaz administration of 1884-1911. Italian architect Adamo Boari commissioned Tiffany Studios to apply techniques developed for decorating churches to Mexico’s secular theater. Boari wanted to use Favrile glass to disguise his new development in theater design — a fire-proof curtain to separate the stage and backstage from the seating area.

To protect the audience from the frequent threat of fires starting backstage, Boari designed a double walled steel firewall 14 meters (42 feet) wide, 12.5 meters (38 feet) high and 32 centimeters (a foot) thick — weighing about 27 tons!

The fireproof curtain and mechanism to raise and lower it were constructed in Germany and shipped to New York. In the meantime stage designer Harry Stoner was sent to Mexico City to paint a landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes as seen from an office in the National Palace.
Once the firewall and painting converged in New York, Tiffany’s artisans started a two-year project of copying the painting onto 206 panels which were attached to the firewall. In doing so they used close to a million pieces of Favrile glass.

Before being shipped to Mexico City in 1911, the finished curtain/firewall was displayed in New York.
Architect Boari never saw the Tiffany curtain installed. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 put a stop to the theater construction work. Boari waited for the Revolution to settle down, but gave up in 1916 and left Mexico for good. Finally in 1930 work resumed on the Palace of Fine Arts under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal. The art nouveau building with an art deco interior was inaugurated in 1934.

I suggest that the next time you attend an event in the Palace of Fine Arts’ main theater you take your binoculars with you in order to get a close up view of Tiffany’s marvel.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Glorieta de la Palma 200 years old and still going strong

A Mexico City journey I enjoy is to walk, drive or bicycle along tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma. Though now a long easterly-westerly avenue, it was originally designed in the 1860s to link Chapultepec Castle — then Emperor Maximilian’s palace — with the city center.

Austrian military engineer Ferdinand von Rosenzweig patterned it on the grand European boulevards, especially Paris’ Champs-Élysées and Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Maximilian christened it Paseo de la Emperatríz, the Empress’ Promenade, referring to Empress Carlotta.

Along Reforma you will see some of Mexico City’s best-known and certainly most viewed pieces of public art. They are in the traffic circles as well as along the sides of the avenue. They have a permanence that is reassuring as you make your way by them or use them to give directions – as in, “The U.S. Embassy is a block east of the Angel of Independence.”

But look at old photographs of the city and you will see that the position of statues is anything but permanent.

The statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor at what may be Mexico City’s busiest intersection – Reforma and Insurgentes Avenue – was moved a few meters out of the intersection during López Obrador’s 2000-2006 administration in order to improve traffic flow.

The Angel of Independence at the intersection with Florencia Street – now an emblem of Mexico City much like the Statue of Liberty is for New York – tumbled off the top of the column in the 1957 earthquake.

President Lopez Portillo (1976-82) moved the statue of Diana the Huntress at Reforma’s intersection with Sevilla Street out of the traffic circle to a park so that people walking by could see it better. President Carlos Salinas (1988-94) moved her back into the traffic circle.

I always look forward to seeing the monument at the intersection of Niza Street and Paseo de la Reforma. This monument is living, and growing. A 75-foot high (25 meters) palm tree soars in the middle of the traffic circle. That traffic circle is commonly referred to as the Glorieta de la Palma.

I call it the traffic circle of the heroic palm. That tree is quite the survivor. The oldest published photograph of that palm tree is dated 1920. Not only is it still thriving in the middle of one of the city’s busiest intersections, it has stood its ground for a little over a hundred years despite several attempts to remove it.

The most recent attempt was eighteen years ago, in 1996. Those wanting to get rid of it argued that it would die within eight years anyway.

At that time the palm tree was to be replaced with a monument to 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Sor Juana. But I joined the 25,000 other people who within days of the announcement signed a petition to save the palm tree. There were already other monuments to Sor Juana and another was not necessary at the expense of this wonderful palm tree.

Tree specialists say that the Canary Island Date Palm – the kind in the Glorieta de la Palma — can live to be 200 years old. It’s the same species of palm you see growing all around Los Angeles where it was introduced about a hundred years ago — right about the time the heroic tree in the glorieta was planted.

Dealing with adversity is not unusual for palm trees. While frequently thought of as trees of beaches or deserts, palm trees are also the tallest trees of the rain forest. There, however, they are at a distinct disadvantage as far as trees go. Palms only grow upwards. They cannot send branches out in search of direct sunlight. Their leg up is that many palms can grow faster than other trees. If fortunate to grow where there is a gap in the rain forest they shoot up as fast as they can before other trees move in and block the sunlight — frequently becoming the highest trees in the forest.

I have seen the exception to the rule, palm trees with branches, in Costa Rica’s coastal rainforests. These trees usually have no more than two branches. But branches they are.

That’s also where I’ve seen the “walking palm”. With the base of its trunk raised up a foot or so off the ground, on roots that look like a many-legged tripod, it can actually move to position its leaves in the sunlight. It sends new roots out toward the sunlight and lets-go of the roots holding it back in the shade.

The heroic palm tree on Reforma is going strong despite dire predictions about its fate. It is fortunate that it doesn’t have to fight for sunlight. It can focus on being resilient in the niche it has found — the hallmark of life in a big city.