Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Finding your way around the block

The next time you’re in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico look up to the top of the 17th and 18th century buildings. Most have a niche on the corner with a sculpture of a saint or other religious figure. These signs of religiosity by the original owners are also clever navigational aids.

I was reminded of this by the monthly magazine “Kilómetro Cero” (“Kilometer Zero”), published by the Historical District Trust Fund. The magazine’s name can be considered an address. It refers to the Zócalo, where roads to all parts of the country originated.

In last month’s cover story, historian Guadalupe Toscano traced the origin of these niches to the Holy Cross Hospital in Toledo, Spain, where an arched niche contains a sculpture of St. Helen discovering the Cross. In her book ‘Witnesses in Stone,’ Toscano said Mexico City adopted this as a style in architecture. “While the image in the niche was an expression of the owner of the building’s devotion for a particular saint or virgin, the niches soon became landmarks for those who needed to locate an address. Numbers were not used.”

This prompted me to remember Mérida, Yucatan’s similar practice. Stone plaques — many still in place — with an outlined picture were affixed to the walls of corner buildings giving a name to each corner. Mermaids, elephants, saints — over 250 of them. Addresses were given with the name of a street and the name of the closest corner.

Eventually this gave way to Merida’s contemporary, easy to understand street numbering system. Odd numbered streets (Calles) run east to west. Even numbered streets run north to south. The Zócalo is at the intersection of streets 60 and 61. Addresses include the street number and the number of the building followed by the closest cross street.

Puebla introduced a similar system in 1917. Street names were replaced with numbers, with avenues (avenidas) running north to south and streets running east to west. Numbering radiated out from the Zócalo and was divided into four quadrants. Puebla historian Sally Ochoa said with a smile, “It’s totally logical — once you figure it out.”

In the northeast quadrant the streets and avenues are all even-numbered. In the southwest they are all odd-numbered. In the northwest avenues are even and streets are odd-numbered. In the southeast quadrant it’s the reverse. I’ve never been in Puebla long enough to find an address without a map in hand.

Outside Puebla’s historical center the street naming reverts to Mexico City’s style. Each neighborhood has a certain category of names — such as rivers, or species of flowers, or mountains. My favorite in Mexico City is Colonia Telefonistas with streets such as Dial Tone, Handset, Operator, Direct Dial. That’s what happens in a city as large as Mexico — you run out of names.

In my book, Colombia takes the prize for the easiest to understand street system. In Bogotá, what are called carreras, run north to south and streets run east to west. When I was in high school we lived at Calle 69A #10-23. Calle 69A is between 69 and 70. Our house was 23 meters west of the corner of 69A and Carrera 10.

Being an odd-numbered house, you would know it was on the south side of the street. This is so, logical a blind person can find an address in Bogota by pacing the distance from a corner.

Pacing is used in Costa Rica where directions are given in meters. But there meters can expand or contract. A city block is considered 100 meters — even extra long blocks are ‘100 meters.’

In neighboring Nicaragua, blocks are ‘cuadras’ and many streets have no names. My parents’ official address at the Valdivieso Eccumenical Center was the bust of José Martí, 2 cuadras east, 1 cuadra north, Managua, Nicaragua.

In Caracas, Venezuela streets are named, as are buildings and houses. No numbers. You need to know the location of a building to find an address. The British Embassy’s address in Caracas is Castellana Tower, 11th Floor, Eugenio Mendoza Avenue.

As vague as addresses can be, they seem to go hand-in-hand with our identity. To open a bank account in Mexico you must provide proof of your domicile with a utility bill.

A telephone company receipt is the preferred ‘comprobante de domicilio.’ The address also needs to match the address on an acceptable government-issued document. A driver’s license is not acceptable, however a voter’s registration card is. Foreigners can use their immigration document.

But you residents know that’s still not enough. “¿Entre que calles?” (between which streets) the banker wants to know. What color are the walls/ gates of the house or building? If you’ve gone in search of an address you understand why. House or building numbers aren’t necessarily in orderly succession. The name of a street often changes when crossing an important artery.

How improved is this from Viceregal Mexico City’s address system?As we search for an address might it help to have a nearby saint in a niche ready to intercede on our behalf?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Celebrating trade

Last Tuesday, the Rufino Tamayo Museum in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park was the venue for a reception hosted by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, who was in Mexico as head of an official trade delegation to the Federal District and the State of Jalisco.

As I approached the museum on a walkway through the forested park, I saw people milling around in its entryway. I wondered, was the procedure for getting inside causing the backup? After all, the hand of the U.S. Embassy was obvious in setting up the event and sending out the invitations.

Approximately a year ago Carol Hopkins and I attended an Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) meeting at the embassy. Security was extremely tight, hospitality was less than one would hope and for the more than 150 guests there were only two small restrooms “for citizens.”

I was thus delightfully surprised to find the Tamayo’s doors wide open and a generous reception going on both inside and outside the museum building. All that was required of guests was to pick up their name tags.
It was obvious the Minnesota trade delegation overrode the damper the U.S. Embassy seems to put on everything related to travel in Mexico.

A further break with embassy protocol was the importance given to education. The Minnesota trade delegation was made up of representatives of three sectors of Minnesota’s economy: manufacturing, agriculture and education. Every speaker, even chargé d’affaires William Duncan, referred to higher education on an equal footing with manufacturing and agriculture.

In his remarks to the assembled guests, Duncan stated, “In addition to trade there is a human factor and it’s about human capital. I want to congratulate Minnesota’s educational institutions, which today signed four partnership agreements with their Mexican counterparts to increase educational exchanges. Between 2013 and 2014 we’ve doubled the number of Mexican students who have studied in the United States — from 14,000 to 30,000; this has enormous implications for our future, our collective future.”

Only two years ago at the Tamayo’s “next door” museum, the Museum of Anthropology, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the program titled “One hundred thousand strong in the Americas,” in which 100,000 Latin American students were to be invited to study in U.S. colleges and universities; an equal number of U.S. students were to be encouraged to study in Latin America. “Because when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together.”

Coincidentally, last week the Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca received its annual approval from the University of Minnesota’s International Travel Risk Assessment and Advisory Committee to host, for its 36th year, the University’s study abroad program in Mexico.The University of Minnesota is exemplary in setting a goal of having 50 percent of its students experience study abroad during their undergraduate years.

Meredith McQuaid, Associate Vice President of the University of Minnesota and Dean of Global Programs, was present as a member of the trade delegation, as was Stephen Rosenstone, Chancellor of Minnesota’s College and University System.

Michael Langley, CEO of the trade delegation sponsoring organization, Greater MSP (trademark name for Minneapolis Saint Paul Regional Economic Development Partnership) pointed out that Governor Dayton’s first job after graduation from Yale was teaching in an underprivileged school in New York City. “His experience when fresh out of college set the pace for his life in public service. Ever since he has been a champion for economic prosperity for all.”

U.S. Congressman Tom Emmer accompanied the trade delegation. Even though it was Mark Dayton’s reception, the governor was generously non-partisan — offering to share the question period with Congressman Emmer. The governor drew a good laugh with “I’ll take the easy questions and Congressman Emmer will take questions on U.S.-Mexican trade relations and on Donald Trump.”

Chargé d’affaires William Duncan put trade in perspective by saying that breaking it down to a per-day figure, there is $1.6 billion dollars of trade going on daily between the United States and Mexico.

Much of that trade is by truck, U.S. Department of Transportation figures say 15,000 trucks per day cross the Mexico-U.S. border. Congressman Emmer shared another statistic with me, which the trade delegation had heard earlier in the day, from José Antonio Meade, Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Relations. All the cocaine that goes north annually from Mexico to fulfil the demand for U.S. cocaine consumption would fit in 13 trucks. Secretary Meade added, “Unfortunately that trade gets more attention than the 5.4 million legal truck crossings per year.”

In his public presentation, chargé d’affaires Duncan remarked that for 30 years he has been listening
to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion (APHC) — a very popular weekly National Public Radio variety show. Garrison closes each week’s tale from Lake Woebegone, Minnesota with, “Where the women are strong, the men good looking and the children above average.” From 35 years of having Minnesota students at Cemanahuac, I’d say Garrison has it right.

One of Garrison’s APHC sponsors is the imaginary Fear Mongers Shoppe, “catering to all your phobia needs.” Weekly ads poke fun at fearmongering. Perhaps Garrison’s humor has made Minnesotans less susceptible to it. The U.S. Embassy could take a lesson from him.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Marvelous Marjory

Some 30 years ago, I got called to do a deathbed translation of a will. The will was written in complicated Spanish. The man, who still needed to sign it, understood only English and French.

I translated the part I read into English. My co-translator, legendary Marjory Mattingly Urquidi, could have translated it into either.

It was a long, complicated, and many-paged will, suiting the drama in the home of the dying man. Marjory and I divided up the pages. I’d translate one page, she’d translate the next. I was relieved when she received a page listing the bottles of French wines. She pronounced everything perfectly. I’d have been lost.

That event has been a memory that has stuck with me. I’ve often wondered if Marjory’s memories would coincide with mine, even whether she would remember me.

Last week, Carol Hopkins and I enjoyed a long interview with this fascinating, beautiful, and articulate woman who has lived nearly a century (b. 1922) and been part of Mexico since coming here as a young 21 year old.

Marjory got her first taste for international adventure as a 16 year old when she traveled to France as part of Vermont’s famous Experiment in International Living.The French military mobilization forced her home, sailing to New York on the last passenger voyage of the S.S. Normandy “with only a rucksack, but with a taste for international living and culture that has lasted my lifetime.”

After studying French in college Marjory planned on doing graduate work in France but the war was still on. She met a young Mexican diplomat at a State Department sponsored meeting at West Virginia’s Greenbrier Hotel. He invited her to travel to Mexico. The relationship didn’t last but her life was never the same after that.

She was very good with languages. Spanish came easily and she was soon immersed in the Mexican National Archives working on her Columbia University master’s thesis, “Origins of the Mexican Labor Unions.”

“Mexico was a gorgeous, exciting, city when I arrived in 1943. Carlos Fuentes described it perfectly,‘Where the air is clear and transparent.’ Beautiful Porfiriato mansions lined Reforma. I lived in a basement apartment of one of them. Art was happening everywhere.”

Marjory met Víctor Urquidi (Víctor Luis Urquidi Bingham 1919-2004) while doing research in September, 1945. They were married in November. Marjory described Víctor as “brilliant, of high integrity and ambitious; though never for himself, only for Mexico. He was already a well-known economist and a bright star in Mexico’s constellation; these were exciting times in Mexico.”

Victor worked for the National Treasury. “I drove him to work at the National Palace each morning and picked him up in the afternoon. We lived in San Angel and the drive took only 20 minutes. Imagine!” At that time Diego Rivera was working on the murals at the National Palace. Marjory described walking past his scaffoldings with her son Joaquin in tow. “He’d look down and greet me with, ‘Que niño tan bonito.’ Rivera was not attractive but had the charm of a man who knew he was something very special.”

Marjory translated books throughout her professional life. Most are in the field of economics. For skilled translators like Marjory it’s not enough to translate the information into another language, they transform a book into a readable account that flows as if it was originally written in the second language without deviating from the content of the original.

Perhaps her most impacting translation followed being called to Mexico’s presidential residence, Los Pinos, on Aug. 31, 1982. Marjory and three other translators were sequestered in a locked office suite without telephone contact to the outside but with plenty of food and coffee. They were not allowed to leave until their assignment was completed.

It was a literal, word-for-word translation into English of President López Portillo’s 65-page, single- spaced, state-of-the-nation speech to be delivered the following morning. On page 57 he announced the nationalization of the banks and the imposition of currency exchange controls. The translators were released at 5 a.m., but it was not a banking day and there was no way Marjory could use the information she’d acquired to protect even her own finances. Later that morning the president read his speech to a full session of Congress.

Some of Ms. Urquidi’s favorite memories are of traveling alone throughout the world. Her memories of Afghanistan, Iran, India, and Pakistan pre-date today’s conflicts.“I saw amazing sights … sadly some no longer exist.”

We were struck by Marjory Urquidi’s lack of affect. Though she’d been in the heart of Mexico’s power elite she remained in touch with her roots and continues to live a simple life. She’s outlived most of her old friends but continues to make new ones.

Marjory’s recall of events of the past seven decades seemed so amazing that I confess to fact-checking some of them. I needn’t have bothered. Unfortunately the one thing she seems to have forgotten is meeting me. She remembered the signing of the will, the translation, many other details; my presence wasn’t one of them. Oh well. I guess I didn’t exude Rivera’s charm.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I, the King

Have you seen lanky King Phillip IV of Spain in his parade armor? Gaspar de Crayer’s portrait of the 17th century king is a familiar sight these days in Mexico City’s Historical Center. Phillip IV is portrayed on long colorful banners advertising the exhibit “Yo, el Rey, la monarquía española en el arte” (“I, the King, the Spanish monarchy in art”), currently on exhibit at the National Museum of Art.

In his right hand Phillip IV holds a scepter, his left hand rests on his sword — a standard way of portraying 16th and 17th century Spanish monarchs. His helmet is on a nearby table. The exhibit explains, Spanish kings do not wear a crown — they are sworn-in on the crown.

Early this year while visiting Madrid’s Prado Museum, I found myself running back and forth between rooms trying to compare paintings of Spanish monarchs and to see if different artists’ portrayals of kings and queens were indeed of the same individuals. If so, in which painting is the subject younger or older? All the while I wondered, “Why aren’t these portraits in the same gallery?”

I therefore found it refreshing to experience “I, the King,” curated to follow in chronological order. It is particularly interesting since many of the paintings in this show had never been exhibited together.

In the case of some kings it is possible to compare portraits painted at different ages during their very own lifetime — each by a different artist, loaned by different museums and collections. When exhibited chronologically side-by-side it’s easy to pick out physical traits and verify that the different paintings are indeed of the same person.

A homely portrait of Ferdinand and Isabella standing together is the first of the chronologically exhibited portraits. Fitting. It was Isabella who financed the first of Spain’s incursions into the western hemisphere. It was the union of Ferdinand and Isabella’s kingdoms that created Spain as a political unit.

“I, the King” is focused on Spanish monarchs who ruled New Spain, but it is bracketed with Mexico’s own monarchs. You’ll see Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II, a contemporary of Isabella and Ferdinand and the 19th-century short-lived emperors — Agustín de Iturbide (1822-23) and Maximilian of Habsburg (1864-67).

An anonymous oil on copper painting from 1698 depicts Moctezuma II, naming the king of Spain as successor to his empire and promising him obedience and tribute. This is likely a late 17th century attempt to legitimize the conquest.

Another — from an undisclosed private collection by an unknown European artist — depicts a stocky, full-bearded Moctezuma II as a discouraged Spanish vassal. Moctezuma’s right hand cedes a scepter and his left hand is over his heart. From his belt hangs an obsidian club. In the lower left corner of the painting the Aztec crown with an eagle atop a cactus sits on a tray on the floor.

In fact, Moctezuma II was most likely a lean-muscled warrior with no facial hair. But, as always, to the victor goes the recording of history. I suggest you take this portrait with a large grain of salt.

Physical characteristics of Moctezuma II were not recorded by conquering Spaniards and the Aztecs had yet to develop an interest in portraiture. However the Maya had taken portraiture to the heights of “carving in stone.” While visiting “I, the King,” my mind kept traveling to an exhibit at the Lithic Museum in Tikal, Guatemala, which owes its fame to portraying rulers in chronological order — Maya kings of Tikal carved on stelae.

When a stela is discovered at an archeological site it’s given a number or a letter — which becomes its name. Stelae are numbered in the order in which they are found — an order that has nothing to do with the order in which they were carved.
They are arranged in chronological order in the Lithic Museum, a marvelous repository of magnificent stelae and altars protected in a roofed open-space. Their places in the archeological site have been filled with accurate, well-rendered copies.

In these stone portraits, Tikal’s rulers carry a ceremonial serpent bar. They hold it in the crook of their arms, against their chests, with the palms of their hands turned outward. As Linda Schele and Peter Mathews explain in The Code of Kings, “The serpent bar’s original function was to symbolize ‘sky’ based on the homophony in Maya languages between Kan, ‘sky,’ and Kan, ‘snake.’ The bar also symbolized the ‘sky umbilicus that connected kings to their sources of supernatural power and the ecliptic path across the sky. Gods and ancestors materialized in the open mouths of the serpents.”

Good thing this was all discovered relatively recently. I’m sure the Spanish monarchs would all have wanted similar scepters with which to solidify their concept of divine right.