Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Crafted by hand

Orizaba, the city at the base of Mexico’s highest mountain, the Peak of Orizaba, had a count during the Viceroyalty years. When the count died, his oldest son would become the new Count of Orizaba.

One such eldest son was known as a good-for- nothing. His father did not relish leaving his affairs to him. “He’ll never even be able to make a house of tiles when he grows up,” he reportedly said.

The boy never forgot this insult. When he became the Count of Orizaba he covered the whole outside of the family’s Mexico City palace with tiles — Puebla’s famous Talavera tiles.
Talavera is a form of majolica — painted pottery using a white tin-glaze decorative technique. The process was originally developed by Islamic potters during the Middle Ages, though it was likely inspired by Chinese porcelain. It was the dominant form of tile in Europe until the mid-18th century. It spread to Spain where it is known as Hispano- Moresque ware.

Soon after the conquest of Mexico, examples of fine majolica pottery were brought over from Spain. With them came the know-how. Skilled indigenous potters were soon trained to make it themselves. They imitated Spanish, Italian and Chinese designs and called it Talavera pottery after the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina, which was already famous for its pottery.

The city of Puebla became the epicenter for Talavera pottery. Potters found fine white clay nearby in the valleys around Mexico’s second highest peak, Popocateptl.

One of the oldest and finest producers of Talavera is the factory, founded in 1824. They still make it the same way it was made in the 16th century, except they use a modern gas-fired kiln.

I like to take visitors to this amazing factory where we can watch the production of tiles, fine pots, dishes and works of art. Each piece is tapped after the first firing and must ring with the required “Uriarte sound.” The finest pieces are unique and signed; many others are designs copied through generations.

During the workweek Uriarte is generous in allowing visitors to tour and watch the process. On request they will open their second floor museum exhibiting the whole array of their production.

Its function is two-fold. It is of interest to those admiring Talavera ware and, perhaps more importantly, a place for Uriarte’s artisans to visit in order to maintain the style and quality of pottery for which the company is famous.

Over the centuries, ceramic artists have refined their work all the while passing down the designs of master artisans.

If you are looking for a set of dishes where plates, bowls and cups are uniform, Talavera is not for you. Each piece is unique and should be hand-signed.

Originally Talavera was just blue and white — traditional Chinese porcelain colors. The Mexican color palette follows the examples of Italy and Spain where other natural pigmented colors were used. Running your fingers over a tile or dish, you’ll feel the raised color.

Not every potter can claim to make Talavera. In present-day Mexico, the use of the word “Talavera” is subject to Mexico’s Denominación de Origen Law which requires it be made in Puebla using 16th-century techniques. A government agency certifies and periodically inspects shops authorized to use “Talavera” to describe their production.

If Puebla is not on your itinerary, an exceptional collection of Talavera ware is on display in Mexico City’s Franz Meyer Museum. That’s just a four- block walk from where the good-for-nothing covered the family’s mansion with tiles.

Today the Count of Orizaba’s Palace is designated a historical monument. It is also open to the public as Sanborn’s flagship restaurant. You’ll find it two blocks east of the Palace of Fine Arts at the corner of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and Condesa street.

Known as the House of Tiles, it is one of Mexico’s premier destinations and has featured in countless novels, movies and political intrigue.

Perhaps the most recognized photo taken there was snapped in 1914. In the heat of the Revolution General Emiliano Zapata’s army and Pancho Villa’s División del Norte converged in Mexico City. A photographer caught some Zapatistas taking a coffee break. Space was tight. They had to artfully wrap up the wide brims of their tall hats in order to squeeze in at the counter.

A modern group of Zapatistas arrived in Mexico City in 1999. Eight members of the caravan accompanied by members of the city’s legislative assembly went to have coffee at the same counter. They were also photographed.

This time they had to sip their coffee through straws. It’s difficult to drink from a coffee cup while wearing a ski mask. Another difference is that they paid for the coffee. The Zapatistas of 101 years ago left without paying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Immigration Tradition

Two weeks ago at the Hispanic Choice Awards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Obed Arango received an award for the Education Champion of the Year.

Before stepping up to the podium to receive the award statuette, the audience was shown a short video.

In it, Obed recalled immigrating to the United States 17 years ago with his wife — a U.S. citizen — and their two daughters, both born in Mexico.

“One of the big questions I had was what am I going to do with my life in a new country? In Mexico I was a journalist and a tenured professor at the National University. But here — in the United States — I was nobody.”

I asked him how he transitioned from being “nobody” to being the recipient of the Education Champion award.

“I saw new immigrants struggling with their kids’ education;the parents themselves struggling with their development as new immigrants – just as I was. I had the idea of setting up a place where members of the immigrant community could develop their talents — a cultural center where we as immigrants could discover who we are in a new country.”

Obed is a founding member and executive director of Norristown, Pennsylvania’s Center for Culture, Art, Training and Education (CCATE), where over 100 families participate in classes offered seven days a week. As the program moves from afternoons into evenings, the student body changes from children to their migrant parents.

Obed refers to the immigrant community, wherever it is, as La Villa Inmigrante, a virtual village, where children can remain bilingual and bicultural and the parents can maintain contact with their country of origin even as they learn to be part of an adopted country to which they contribute their talents and skills.

In a much different framework, I’ve watched a governmental process spanning borders and facilitating bilingual bicultural life in this hemisphere. One-by-one, and mainly in the 1990s, Latin American countries have revised their laws to allow for dual nationality. Panama, Cuba, and Haiti are the exceptions.

I was pleased to hear that law students at Villanova University provide legal assistance for those members of CCATE wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Upon becoming a citizen of the United States, an immigrant immediately acquires the right to vote. This leads to a new respect from candidates running for office — as well as elected officials — toward the immigrants personally and their countries of origin.

From a practical point of view, Latin American governments enjoy having the backing of a block of sympathetic U.S. voters.

However, from the perspective of sovereignty and national pride, it’s a difficult topic to discuss in legislatures.Lawmakers don’t want to appear encouraging of their citizens to take on another country’s citizenship — as if pushing them out the door. Dual nationality issomething you also won’t heardiscussed in the U.S. Congress.

In Mexico, during the Zedillo administration (1994-2000),the constitution was amended to allow citizens to maintain their Mexican citizenship after becoming citizens of another country.

President Zedillo received an unexpected boost in this campaign when Mexican-born Mario J. Molina shared the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1995.

Years earlier, Dr. Molina had given up his Mexican citizenship and taken U.S. citizenship. He explained he had reached a point in chemistry research where he needed security clearances only available to U.S. citizens in order to work in federally funded laboratories in the United States. At the time, Mexican law prohibited dual nationality.

President Zedillo stepped in and said he would do something to rectify this for this distinguished Mexican. The executive and legislative branches of Mexico’s government had already begun sotto voce discussions with the intent of modifying the prohibition of dual nationality for Mexican citizens.Reinstating Dr. Molina’s Mexican citizenship was the catalyst needed to push it through.Dr. Molina currently serves on Presidential Commissions in both Mexico and the United States.

After the 1997 change in Mexican law, many expected a surge in Mexicans requesting dual U.S. citizenship. It hasn’t happened.

The Pew Research Center has found that “nearly two thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have not yet taken that step. Their rate of naturalization — 36 percent — is only half that of legal immigrants naturalizing from all other countries combined.”

Asked why they hadn’t naturalized, Pew found that a quarter of Mexican immigrants said there were personal barriers such as a lack of English proficiency. Only 30 percent of Hispanic legal permanent residents said they speak English “very well” or “pretty well”. 

Others cited the cost of applying as the barrier. The United States doesn’t recognize the brain-drain of the Molinas, Obeds and other immigrant professionals — choosing to focus on poorer undocumented workers. A recent excess of anti-Mexican rhetoric by some U.S. presidential candidates has been met with considerable anger by Mexicans both in the United States and in Mexico. This rhetoric may be the catalyst for recognition of La Villa Inmigrante and the importance of spreading programs like CCATE’s throughout the United states with a side benefit of teaching the importance dual-citizenship.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

El Zócalo: The Public’s Plaza?

Devoid of trees, sculptures, walkways, or even park benches, Mexico City’s Zócalo is adorned only with an enormous flagpole. The space itself is referred to as “la plancha del Zócalo” (the slab of the Zocalo) — as in a slab of stone, but in this case concrete designed to look like square-meter tiles.

However, it is not a bleak and empty space. The Zócalo keeps a very busy schedule. Literally and figuratively, it is Mexico City’s center stage. Throughout the year, erector set-type structures are put up and taken down with surprising speed for concerts, exhibits, book fairs, museums and even for an ice-skating rink. Depending on the event, the audience sits in chairs and bleachers or stands and walks.

Four “powers” surround Mexico City’s Zócalo, each represented by buildings. The National Palace is on the east and is the seat of the executive branch of the federal government. The Cathedral is on the north and is the seat of the archdiocese of México Tenochtitlan. This is the only place the Aztec capital’s name survives in an official way. Federal District buildings line the south side of the plaza. Commerce anchors the west side.

Though it appears to be totally open, the space is jealously guarded by these various powers. The “plancha” of the Zócalo is under the jurisdiction of the city government. The federal government’s jurisdiction is limited to the sidewalk in front of the National Palace. A few years ago the city discussed remodeling the Zócalo and removing the fence in front of the Cathedral. The archdiocese’s spokesman reminded the city that the atrium — though outdoors — is an integral part of the Cathedral.

But all that was ignored last Saturday. The Army took over all those spaces as it does every year in preparation for the grandest of Mexico’s civic events.

Independence Day is tomorrow, with the celebration beginning tonight. It’s a particularly Mexican event held in a place with a Mexican name.

Only Mexico calls its plazas zócalos. Only Mexico’s president leads a celebration that mixes military pomp and formality inside the National Palace that morphs into a rowdy and celebratory event when the President steps onto the Palace’s central balcony and delivers the Grito (Shout).

He’s emulating Father Miguel Hidalgo’s ‘Shout of Independence’. He even rings the same bell Father Hidalgo rang on the 16th of September in 1810. That act, with different players, is reenacted in zócalos all over the nation and in Mexican diplomatic posts throughout the world.

Tomorrow the Palace balconies become viewing stands for one of the world’s grand military parades. It is well rehearsed with few changes from one year to the next. A recent change was the inclusion of foreign armed forces in the parade.
The most surprising is that of the United States, a country whose soldiers invaded Mexico in 1846 and raised their own flag over the National Palace.

Another change is that previous administrations’ military commentators emphasized Mexico’s military preparedness. This administration’s commentators stress military assistance to the citizenry.

A commemorative mass honoring Father Miguel Hidalgo is traditionally celebrated at the Cathedral on Independence Day. This also may be unique in the world. The highest clergy honors a priest the church had excommunicated. Hidalgo even had his hands scraped to be sure there were no holy oils on them before his execution by firing squad.

This dark side of Mexican church history was talked about sotto voce until 2010 when the Luz del Mundo (Light of the Word) Church, a Mexican Pentecostal church, brought it to the forefront in paid insertions in newspapers. Catholic hierarchy replied that Father Hidalgo indeed had been excommunicated but was readmitted to communion before his execution. The Luz del Mundo Church published copies of Catholic documents certifying the contrary.

The Zócalo is also a favorite place for political demonstrations and is frequently the destination for protest marches. This a right protected in the Constitution.

Most demonstrations are of short duration. A plantón is a demonstration of longer duration. Plantón demonstrators “plant themselves” on the “plancha” of the Zocalo, promising to stay — in tents — until their demands are met.

A plantón starting in late August will quickly draw attention from authorities; they need a clear Zócalo for the Grito on the 15th and the parade on the 16th of September.

In 2006, a massive plantón covered the whole plaza. At a press conference, Federal District Chief of Government Alejandro Encinas said both the Grito and the parade would be held. A reporter’s rejoinder was, “The law of physics maintains only one body can occupy a space at any given time.”

Encinas replied, “There’s a law of physics, and there’s a law of politics. I can have the Zócalo ready six hours after the plantón is dismantled.” Indeed, Encinas turned it over to the Army, swept, clean, and empty of all but its flagpole in time for the 2006 Grito. Just another Mexican Miracle.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Preserving Pulque

Francesco Taboada Tabone makes movies to preserve oral memory long after those who lived it have
died. With his recent film, “Maguey,” he goes a step further, breathing new life into ancient practices.

Taboada’s (b 1973) award-winning first film, “The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes,” told the powerful story of the Mexican Revolution through the eyes of 10 centenarian survivors of the Southern Front. One survivor actually died on camera while being interviewed.

Taboada followed this 1998 film with another about survivors of Pancho Villa’s División del Norte, as well as short videos on various important social issues. In 2008 his feature film, “13 Villages in Defense of Water, Air and Earth” about a Morelos peasant environmental movement, received numerous prizes.

His most recent film, “Maguey: A Documentary,” is about the century plant, whose sap is harvested as “agua miel” (honey water) and fermented to become pulque, an alcoholic beverage of pre-Hispanic origin.

In a recent interview I asked Francesco why he’d chosen this topic, seemingly so different from his previous films. Francesco saw no break.

“Images are a tool to transmit communication in the way it was done by the great majority of ancient Mesoamericans. They preserved knowledge in an oral way. I preserve it in film. Maguey and pulque are also part of ancient Mexico, Mexico Profundo (Profound Mexico), it’s very roots.”

Before the conquest of Mexico pulque was consumed for rituals, by the nobility, warriors, the elderly, and pregnant women. Codices depict the importance of both the plant and the drink. After the conquest, pulque became a cheap source of alcohol for all classes.

It also became a major source of tax revenue. Then in the early 20th century European beer companies began to denigrate pulque in favor of beer. By implication pulque was relegated to the lower rural class. By the 1990s, for the most part, even they switched to beer.

Francesco described it as “The War Against Pulque,” with the government taking part by shutting down pulquerías (pulque bars). “Pulque was attacked after the Revolution because it was associated with México Profundo, Indigenous Mexico, the Mexico linked to ancestral traditions.

“The Revolutionary ideal was the creation of a single ethnicity — a mestizo state. Using education as an example, Francesco continued, “Mexico’s educational system attempted to blend the many Indigenous groups into one nation. In the process, Indigenous languages and customs were often sacrificed. Only recently have we, as a nation, started speaking about cultural diversity.”

To better understand that process, Francesco started learning Nahuatl in 2000. He is now conversant — “if the conversation isn’t too complicated.” I asked about his most recent conversation in Náhuatl.

“Moments ago, outside this coffee shop, I was asked ‘What’s going on there with all those dancers – where did they come from?’ Indigenous people see me and speak to me in Nahuatl. They know I’ll answer them.”

Three years ago Francesco was entrusted with a Morelos state government project to recuperate the Náhuatl language. “People told me ‘you’re not going to be successful. There’s no reason to do that.’ There are now 1,600 people studying Náhuatl.

“In Hueyapan, Morelos, Náhuatl was spoken but young people were ashamed of it. The shame barrier is broken; they’ve started speaking it openly. The townspeople set up a Náhuatl Academy and in less than three years the language has been mostly recovered.”

When asked which languages he speaks, Francesco lists Náhuatl first. “Not because I speak it the best, but because it is the one I’m proudest of speaking.” Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese are the others. Francesco finds only English has similarity with Náhuatl. And that’s only in its succinctness. Romance languages say ‘yo estoy caminando’ verse English’s ‘I’m walking.’ In Náhuatl it’s ‘mecnemi’ — ‘walking.’

After completion of “Maguey: A Documentary,” Francesco and seven friends opened a pulquería a block from Cuernavaca’s Cathedral. La Guayaba serves pulque and accompanying indigenous foods. This interesting new restaurant hosts art exhibits as well as Thursday evening lectures at 7 p.m. on the history of pulque, the maguey plant, and other related subjects.

When asked why he’s undertaken such an unusual project, Francesco replied, “México Profundo has a link with maguey, an endangered plant and pulque production is equally threatened. In the early 20th century, Hidalgo was the principal producer of maguey. Today its second most important crop — after corn — is barley.”

La Guayaba’s clientele spans social classes. Indigenous vendors who ply their crafts in Cuernavaca’s Zócalo stop in. Elders who grew up during The War Against Pulque are regulars. A lot of college students make it a meeting place in downtown Cuernavaca.

As far as I can tell, La Guayaba is the only pulquería in Cuernavaca. Stop in for a glimpse into México Profundo. If you — like me — don’t care for alcoholic beverages, you’ll be welcome ordering agua miel. La Guayaba, at Ruíz de Alarcón #4, is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. – closed Mondays.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

All wrapped up

Unwrapped gifts don’t seem like gifts do they? For me it’s the wrapping paper that adds surprise and even a touch of elegance to a gift.

When my older siblings came home to Colombia for Christmas vacation from Massachusetts high schools, they came bearing wrapping paper and small dispensers of scotch tape with Christmas designs.

That thick, richly decorated paper was a luxury and hard to find in Latin America. When this source dried up I found it made more sense to take gifts to stationery stores or “wrapping shops” set up during the holiday season in Bogota. With great skill the gift was wrapped with minimal use of paper, and I was charged only for the materials used.

Later in Mexico, I resorted to using bright-colored tissue paper available at a fraction of a peso per sheet. There’s a danger in that though; ― the least bit of moisture causes the tissue paper to stain whatever it touches.

A few years ago I had a seamstress make a safe, reusable, and quick wrapping solution a set of different sized cloth bags with drawstrings. I give the gift but get the bag back for future use.

I learned to open gifts with great care. First, I slit the scotch tape with a knife and then I spread the wrapping paper out flat for future re-use. Friends laugh at the way I open gifts using the knife from a Swiss Army card I always carry in my pocket.

It’s a good idea to take care of gift-wrapping paper.I’ve heard of cases in which the wrapping paper may be worth more than the gift. The U.S. Treasury sells full sheets of 32 uncut dollar or 2-dollar bills sometimes used as wrapping paper.
But the most valuable of wrapping paper is found in the least likely places.

In 1992, the University of Milan purchased a roll of papyrus that had been used to wrap a mummy in Fayum, Egypt in about 180 BC. On the scroll were 112 brief poems in ancient Greek text. They are attributed to Macedonian epigrammatist Posidippus of Pella (c.310-.c.240 BC). In 2001, the publication of “Milan Papyrus” caused a literary sensation.

To put Posidippus in chronological context, he lived in Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, founder of the Library of Alexandria. Sixty years after Posidippus’ death the scroll was being used to wrap a mummy. It’s possible Posidippus’ own handwriting is on the scroll.

But don’t think re-used and valuable wrapping paper is only something of centuries long past.

In 1990, as executor of Dorothy Cordry’s estate, I was invited to UCLA’s Fowler Museum in preparation for the delivery of her Mexican folk art donation. The procedure is long and involves close scrutiny of donated items. The Fowler is a highly desired destination for private collections. It promises donors that once accepted, donations will be kept and never sold or traded. They don’t make these decisions lightly.

The museum treated me to a behind-the-scenes visit of their archives. Spread on tables was a wide array of Iranian antiquities metal and ceramic vases, plates, bowls. The museum’s most recent acquisition had just arrived from the U.S. State Department.

I wondered aloud, “Why did the State Department give this away?”

“All they wanted was the wrapping paper.” As tension between the United States and Iran increased in 1979, there was a need to surreptitiously remove important documents from the Embassy in Tehran and get them back to Washington. Wadded-up documents were used as stuffing and padding for fragile items of folk art and antiquities they shipped out. It appeared innocuous and was successful. Diplomats used Iranian art, portrayed as souvenirs, to smuggle sensitive documents.

The award-winning movie Argo shows scenes of Embassy staff members hastily shredding remaining documents just before the assault of the Embassy building by Iranian hostage-takers. Press coverage during the hostage crisis documented hostage-takers reassembling the shredded paper.

After seeing the array of Iranian art at The Fowler, I also pictured State Department personnel in Washington ironing and collating wrapping paper that had arrived from the other side of the world. They were probably not nearly as experienced in this art as I am.

I haven’t been back to see the State Department’s donation on display in The Fowler, or if or how it is attributed as the donor. But last week my appetite for Islamic art was whetted by the magnificent exhibit on display in Mexico City’s former San Ildefonso School two blocks north of the National Palace.

The exhibit, “Earthly and Divine: Islamic Arts of the 7th–19th Centuries” on loan from Los Angeles County’s Museum of Art is on display through Oct. 4th.It includes 192 exquisite pieces from as far west as Spain and as far east as Indonesia, with Iran well represented. I could have been back in The Fowler’s archives.

“Earthly and Divine” at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Justo Sierra #16, is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. closed on Mondays through to October 4.