Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zapata Was Here

Zapata Was Here (Aqui Estuvo Zapata) is the name of a new cultural venue in downtown Cuernavaca, located in the former Moctezuma Hotel, the building stands out among its neighbors. It’s constructed entirely of un-plastered brick. Between 1911 and 1916 it was Emiliano Zapata’s headquarters, that is, whenever he was in control of Cuernavaca.

A photograph of Zapata taken in its courtyard in front of a brick wall at the base of a stairway holds the distinction of being the most frequently viewed photo of a Mexican.

Last Friday, on the anniversary of the Revolution, I climbed the stairway where Zapata posed. I was on my way to a talk by Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna. His exhibit “Lux in Arcana: Ferdinando Scianna’s Baroque” opened this month (Nov. 14 to March 20) in Mexico City’s San Carlos National Museum.

The famous photo of Zapata was printed on the outside of my invitation but it seems to have been there to accompany the name of the hosting institution, not the topic of the lecture. Though generous in crediting other photographers’ work, Scianna made no reference to the portrait of Zapata.

I asked Scianna to elaborate on the difference between a painter’s portrait and a photographer’s portrait. Without mentioning Zapata’s portrait, I learned more about it than if he had projected it on the screen for analysis.

“Not many photographs of people are portraits. A portrait implies that the person being photographed is conscious of the photograph, knows about it, dialogs with the photographer and willingly poses. When people interact in this way they have an effect on one another.

“Let’s use Rembrandt as our example of a painter. Probably the most important portrait painter of all time, he also painted many self-portraits. When we see his portraits, even if we don’t know the subjects, we recognize them as his. Through his art Rembrandt gives us the presence of a person in his painting. He may have painted the portrait in the span of a month or a year — going back to the same image many times to end up with the final result — he brings that image out from within himself and offers it to us.

“A photographer, on the other hand, may spend a day, even a month, preparing a portrait of a person — telling him or her ‘angle your body this way or that’ or ‘turn your head a bit more.’ All this done before the moment the shutter is released. Regardless of the time invested preparing the photo it is still the product of an instant. In that moment the feeling — entelechy — has to be deposited in the image of that person.

“When photography works it is the miracle of an encounter which can be published and which a third-party can recognize when lining up the eye, mind, and heart. That’s complicated. Not all photographers are good portrait photographers. Nor are great photographers necessarily good portrait-takers. A good portrait photographer has to have passion for people — empathy. That could seem to say that one can only make good portraits of people one likes. However, making portraits of people the photographer detests also requires empathy. Some portraits can be manifestations of hate, others of love. Good photographic portraits tell us much about the person portrayed — just as they tell us about the photographer.”

The photograph of Zapata meets Scianna’s criteria of a great portrait. No wonder photography historian John Mraz says this photo has become a revolutionary icon. Mraz adds, “The image is of intriguing complexity and represents a startlingly graphic depiction of triumph. Zapata is dressed with the sash and sword that General Manuel Asúnsulo wore as a symbol of his status as the authority in Cuernavaca.” Asúnsulo headed the 1911 revolutionary assault on Cuernavaca but was killed shortly afterwards.

By wearing Asúnsulo’s sash and sword, Mraz explained, “Zapata was demonstrating the prerogative he’d acquired to determine who would govern the city and the state of Morelos. Wearing these emblems could also represent an attempt on Zapata’s part to legitimize his movement. He and his campesinos had been portrayed in the Mexico City press as cruel and ferocious savages. Zapata may have been attempting to counteract that mindset, presenting himself as a professional soldier, with the rank of general, and thus deserving of political recognition.

Seventeen years later, Diego Rivera would use this photo to paint Zapata in Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace. The photo is in black and white but we assume the colors of the sash were the state colors of Morelos. Rivera uses the tri-color, thus promoting Zapata as the leader of the nation.

The portrait is attributed variously to the German Hugo Brehme or to U.S. photographer F. Wray. It is interesting that Zapata posed for a foreign photographer, perhaps because of his aversion to Mexico City’s press.

Zapata certainly made his statement in the portrait, but what was the photographer’s message with campesinos hunkered in the stairwell?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The anniversary

Mexico observed the Anniversary of the Revolution of 1910 on Monday, Nov. 16. It, like many national holidays, is now celebrated on a Monday rather than on its real date.

You can thank the Chamber of Deputies for the long weekend. Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins and I were present the day Article 74 of Mexico’s Labor Law was amended to change several holidays guaranteed by law from specific dates to the Monday closest to the date.

Until 2005, the Anniversary of the Revolution was celebrated on Nov. 20. I’ve no doubt that on Friday there will be an official commemoration. After all, I doubt there has been any other revolution with as precise a starting date and time.

On election day in 1910, then President Porfirio Díaz claimed a landslide victory and ordered his opponent, Francisco I. Madero, arrested. Madero escaped from prison to San Antonio, Texas. From Texas he wrote a nine-page document published in San Luis Potosí setting the date and time for the uprising against President Díaz: 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20.

Madero’s call-to-arms was first answered on the West Texas border by the relatively unknown Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Orozco began to smuggle arms from the United States into Mexico. On Oct. 31, Madero placed him in command of revolutionary forces in his municipality.

Orozco led his troops to a series of guerrilla victories against Díaz loyalists. At the close of 1910, most of the state of Chihuahua was in the control of revolutionaries and Orozco was a hero.

Orozco was promoted to colonel and in early 1911 promoted again to brigadier general. In May of that year, Orozco was the architect of the important Battle of Ciudad Juárez.

Madero had been negotiating with Díaz for a cabinet position and greater power in the Díaz government. General Orozco and Colonel Pancho Villa feared the Revolution would be sidetracked before it got up to full steam. They engineered a confrontation before this could happen and the Battle of Ciudad Juárez resulted.

Victory in Juárez, combined with Emiliano Zapata’s victory in Cuautla, Morelos, led directly to the resignation and departure of Díaz and to the presidency of Madero.

Like Emiliano Zapata, Orozco was soon disillusioned when Madero’s presidency did not result in the promised labor and land reform. Furthermore, he was not offered a coveted cabinet position as secretary of war, which he felt was his due.

This anger and disillusionment led to Orozco’s defection from Madero, turning his support to Victoriano Huerta, whose counter-revolutionary views were diametrically opposed to those espoused by Orozco.

In 1915, a despondent Orozco skirted through Texas on his way to meet up with his army. There — in the High Lonesome Mountains south of Van Horn — he was killed, along with four of his companions, by Sheriff John A. Morine, a former Texas ranger.

Sheriff Morine circulated the story that the five men had raided a local ranch. His posse went after them and in the shootout all five were killed. Until now, this ignominious death was the more or less official story of the end of Orozco.

Last week I received a heads-up from Mexico City-based C.M. Mayo about a recently released book with a startling new history of General Pascual Orozco.

Author Raymond Caballero’s “Lynching Pascual Orozco: Mexican Revolutionary Hero and Paradox” is a veritable detective story.

Mayo, herself writing a book about far West Texas, told me, “You can’t write about West Texas or Chihuahua and not write about the Mexican Revolution. They are deeply intertwined.”

Orozco’s anger and disillusionment with Madero led to what Caballero characterizes as the “paradox.” In an interview with C.M. Mayo, Caballero compared Orozco’s defection from Madero over to Victoriano Huerta, to Bernie Sanders suddenly aligning himself with the Koch Brothers.
Raymond Caballero is a lawyer and former mayor of El Paso, Texas. He researched the death of Orozco in old Texas courtroom files.

Caballero explained, “Sheriff John Morine thought he and his boys had ‘just killed themselves some Mexicans.’ When it was known he’d killed General Orozco, one of the greatest military heroes of the early years of the Mexican Revolution, questions began.

There was pressure for an inquest and a Grand Jury inquiry in El Paso where Orozco had many relatives.

“Sheriff Morine did an end run on his home turf. He went to the Culberson County Grand Jury and asked that he and all the members of his posse be indicted for the murder of Orozco and his companions. The trial was held in three days with no investigation. Not surprisingly, all were found not guilty.”

Caballero continued, “As I read the files and the court case I realized what a brilliant cover-up Morine had concocted. They had clothed themselves with the immunity of the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. They would never be held accountable for the murder of Orozco.”

One hundred years since Orozco’s death, who would have thought new facts could emerge. It’s as though Orozco himself returned from the dead to straighten out the history books. Caballero’s book promises to be a fascinating read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Moving forward on the drug debate

This was an exciting week for me. In anticipation of the City of Ideas Festival (La Ciudad de Ideas) in Puebla I spoke with Andrés Roemer, the festival’s co-curator. I was particularly interested in a scheduled debate titled, “What’s the Point of Prohibition?” — referring to the legalization of currently illegal drugs.

I asked, “What are we going to do if the Supreme Court gets ahead of us?”

Andrés replied, “This debate is about much more than marijuana.”

Was Roemer talking about the spectrum of drugs that was possibly to be legalized or was he talking about how, as a society, we reach consensus about social policy? I looked forward to finding out.

Within two hours a New York Times headline popped up on my screen saying Mexico’s Supreme Court had struck down laws limiting a particular group’s right to grow and use marijuana recreationally. An interesting thing about this decision is it is limited to the four people who brought the suit.

As Roemer predicted, Saturday’s debate proved especially timely, touching on both harmful legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco and illegal drugs. He moderated a two-hour formal debate with four proponents on each side of the issue.

Three former heads of state argued for the legalization of drugs. They were Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Mexico’s own Vicente Fox. Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a Mexican entrepreneur and co-curator of the festival, joined them.

Colombia and Mexico both have been seriously impacted for decades by the War on Drugs initiated by the Unites States. Both countries have suffered an increase in violence and drug cartel activity and an increasing lack of respect by the citizenry for their government’s anti-drug policy.

Two of the defenders of prohibition of illegal drugs were from the United States: Kevin Sabet a founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and Mark Kleiman, CEO of Back of the Envelope Calculations Analysis Corporation. They were joined by Mexican Viridiana Rios, a fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, and by Antonio Mazzitelli, an Italian who is the liaison with Mexico from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Before the debate, Roemer asked the 5,000 people in the audience to raise their hand if they defended prohibition. A good number raised their hand. He then asked for a show of hands of those opposed to prohibition. They were both numerous and boisterous. By my calculation the mostly, Mexican audience was 2:1 in favor of doing away with prohibition.

During the debate the only reference to the recent Supreme Court decision came from ex-President Fox who said that with five more similar court decisions, legalization of marijuana will become law. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies need to work quickly to write law. “I hope they are up to the challenge,” he added.

Using Fox’s introductory comments, Roemer asked the ex-president how he could compare the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the forbidden drugs and allow their use while regulating them.

Fox pointed to the role of parents. “Through example and information. Parents must be careful o give their children information necessary for their health. Forbidden fruit was attractive to Adam and Eve but it could have been described as infested with worms, bad for their stomachs. When things are explained and reasons are offered we all understand. This is particularly effective if the parents themselves are not examples of using.”

To Ricardo Salinas Pliego (TV Azteca’s CEO), Roemer relayed a question from the audience. “TV Azteca’s often repeated slogan is ‘Say no to drugs.’ Isn’t that in conflict with your suggestion that addicts be provided with free drugs?”

“Much like we give out free medicine to sick people” was Salinas’ reply.

Roemer’s sharpest question — and the one which drew the most cheers from the audience — was addressed to ex-President of Colombia Gaviria. “No one is more vehement in defending that which you defend. Why didn’t you do it when you were President?”

“I had no option. Drug cartels were so strong they threatened the state itself.”

Addressing Mark Kleiman, who was Roemer’s professor in the University of California’s School of Public Policy, Roemer said, “Everything, including drugs, has a market. Why not bring in transparent competition. Currently the drug market is a monopoly. In a free market there’s competition; profits are reduced. Black markets currently damage the health, life, and dignity of huge sectors of Latin America and the world.”

“I think you need to take my class again,” said professor Kleiman.

“But you gave me an A.”

“Some vices in society are so harmful that government must regulate them; gambling, alcohol, illegal drugs,” said Kleiman.

It was an intense, thought-provoking discussion on the liberalization/prohibition of drugs in society. After the debate concluded, Roemer asked for a show of hands. “How many people changed their minds from where they had been at the beginning?”

Despite all the discussion, very few hands went up. Nevertheless it was an achievement to be speaking openly and civilly about the elephant in the room.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ideas set to stream from Puebla

Fast on the heels of Day of the Dead, it’s again time for Mexico’s other annual November luminous experience, the City of Ideas.  Founded in 2008, this is my third City of Ideas.  I look forward to it as a stimulating mental retreat.

It will be held from November 5 to 7 in Puebla’s 5,000 seat, recently-remodeled, Auditorio Siglo XXI.   Though the event sold out within days of its tickets’ release the entire three days is live-streamed on the Internet -- you needn’t miss a moment.  Most everything is in English -- even the theme of the conference:  “What’s the Point?”

The conference is the brainchild of Mexico’s San Francisco Consul Andres Roemer, who co-curates with Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Chairman of Grupo Salinas and Grupo Elektra.   Romer said of Salinas “He’s a visionary -- breaking the typical prototype of the business entrepreneur.  I met Ricardo through books.  After reading two of my books he wanted to meet me. An avid reader, he has read many of the books written by the presenters at City of Ideas.”
TED Talks have become popular world-wide; the City of Ideas may be of equal importance.  The slogan of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks is, “Ideas Worth Sharing.”  Growing out of a one-time conference, TED Talks, are curated by Chris Anderson. Anderson, born in Pakistan to Medical Missionaries, went on to an Oxford education in so many disciplines that he, himself, could be considered a Renaissance Man.

Fascinated by the emerging computer world, Anderson began to publish magazines dedicated to various facets of the computer revolution. He used his newly-created wealth to fund the Sapling Foundation and acquired TED. The rest is history.

City of Ideas has a format similar to TED; each speaker is allowed only 14 minutes.   On a single stage only minutes separate the speakers.  All attendees have the opportunity to see all speakers.  From experience, I can attest this is a physically challenging three days.  Yet you hardly want to take a break for lunch.  When the right brain approaches absolute overload, there will be a left-brain interlude of phenomenal music, dance, even magic.

This year’s theme is “What’s the Point?”  If past is prologue, all of the speakers/presenters will, in some way, answer that question.

World leaders and politicians will be heard including former heads of state of Colombia, Switzerland, Mexico and Spain. 

Patrick Magee, a long-imprisoned member of the IRA, will share the stage with the daughter of a British General killed by the IRA.

The US drug war will be one of the topics of “What’s the Point?”  There will be speakers from all sides of the issue, including some major players who have dramatically changed their minds about the impact of this “war.”

Who says one person can’t change the world?  These have.

Canadian Ryan Hreljac was only six years old when he learned about the difficulties Ugandans faced obtaining clean water.  He immediately started doing chores to earn money to give to an African charity that builds wells.  Others began to match his donations and the story went global.  Ryan’s Well is now an international Foundation.  Though now only 23 he has helped build hundreds of wells in Africa and has traveled the world raising money for clean water.

Another exciting and world-changing voice is Sugata Mitra’s.  Professor Mitra is an educational scientist working to solve the global problem of a lack of teachers and schools.  In impoverished areas of India, South Africa, and Italy, he “implanted” web-connected computers in walls located in public places.  He left no instructions with the computers but returned periodically finding them surrounded by children learning complex mathematics and other subjects.  The kids were teaching themselves!

Can the blind learn sonar and navigate the world without vision?  Daniel Kish has been blind since 13-months but has learned to “see” through sonar.  He now teaches his skill to others.

Jason Padgett was savagely attacked in 2002, left with a severe concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Livescience” staff writer Tanya Lewis says, “The incident turned Padgett into a mathematical genius who sees the world through the lens of geometry.  Padgett, a furniture salesman from Tacoma, Washington, had little to no interest in academics.  He now has the ability to visualize complex mathematical objects and physics concepts intuitively. The injury, while devastating, seems to have unlocked part of his brain that makes everything in his world appear to have a mathematical structure.”

Simon Pierro is a German digital magician.  You’re sure to wish your iPad was as talented as his!  His presentation is certain to be enhanced by neurologists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, experts in the neuroscience of illusion. 

Like City of Ideas curator, Andres Roemer, Simon Pierro and his many fellow presenters will bring magic to Puebla and into our lives.  By this time next week I’ll hope to have an insight into how it all fits together, perhaps even know “what’s the point.”  For now I leave it in Andres’ capable hands and await the magic of the City of Ideas.

Don’t forget.  You can watch it live-streamed at ciudaddelasideas.com.  I suggest you go on early to register.