Monday, November 20, 2017

First rule of photography: Be there … with camera!


Light and shadow
November 20th is Revolution day here in Mexico, an official holiday marking the beginning of the revolution which overthrew the 35-year presidency of Porfirio Díaz. 

It is also a day that reminded me of the first rule of photography. The parade was going to start early and there are a lot of parades here. My coffee was hot, several projects called me. Why bother? 
 
But this holiday is big … there’s a Ferris wheel blocking one of the main streets of the Plaza, there are several pop-up restaurants/bars already set up, and bands have been playing … or practicing … long into the nights recently. 
Young dancers
Mexican Revolution:
Young soldier
After what was deemed a fraudulent election, wealthy landowner Francisco I. Madero opposed Díaz. Díaz jailed Madero, who then escaped, issuing the Plan of San Luis Potosí on October 6, 1910. In that plan, Madero declared the results of the 1910 election fraudulent, nullified them, asserted that he was provisional president, and called for Mexicans to rise up against Díaz on November 20, 1910.[1] He wrote "Throw the usurpers from power, recover your rights as free men, and remember that our ancestors left us a heritage of glory which we are not able to stain. Be as they were: invincible in war, magnanimous in victory.” (Wikipedia)

Thinking little about Diaz, Madero or this historic event, I finally grabbed my camera and headed out. After all, you can’t get a great shot if you don’t go into the world, camera in hand. As I write this, I haven’t seen the results of this morning’s shoot. The light and shadows were challenging and everything was in motion. I don’t know if there’s a great, or even any good shots, in the 224 that I just took.

Don Porfirio, as he was called, had been in power for more than 30 years (1876-1911).  Under his rule, Mexico had political stability and grew in many areas, creating new industries, railroads, kilometers of railroad tracks as well as the increase of foreign capital. Non-the less, this progress was not translated into the peoples’ well being. (Inside Mexico)
Alone in the crowd
Most of the parade consisted of school children with the younger ones being dressed in Revolution-era costumes. Watching costumed children in a parade is a delight, regardless of where in the world you are. I was soon caught up in the beautiful faces. I would have missed that if my camera hadn’t pulled me out of my comfy chair. 

When one of the groups of children stopped, two boys chased each other through the costumed rows, shouting the names of Díaz, Madero, Zapata and Villa. As I watched all the dancing and singing, I thought of all the moms who had made the costumes, braided the hair and drawn on the mustaches. They must be so proud and, at the time, frightened at the state of our world, watching the children re-enact such a traumatic time in their history, hoping these children never have to experience such terror in their own lives.



Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango in 1877 in San Juan del Río, Durango, in north-central Mexico. He lived there until the age of 16, when he murdered a man who had raped his younger sister and was forced to flee for his life. Over the next decade he became a legendary hero-a Robin Hood to the poor in his country, robbing the rich and sharing with the hungry masses-all the while skillfully evading the government's troops.

On November 20, 1910, the war to overthrow General Porfirio Díaz officially began when Francisco Madero escaped from prison in San Luis Potosí and declared the electoral process in Mexico invalid. Thus, soon after Francisco I. Madero's declaration of war, Pancho Villa led his men down from the hills to join the revolutionary forces-making the historical transition from bandito to revolucionario. The charismatic Pancho was able to recruit an army of thousands, including a substantial number of Americans, some of whom were made captains in the División del Norte. (MexGrocer)
 
After gorging myself on the faces and sounds of the children, the music, and the dancing horses, I proceeded to feast on the sights of the plaza … and on a carne asada taco with some muy picante onion salsa. Interestingly, it’s a challenge to find spicy food here in the regular restaurants. The street stands are where the Mexicans eat and some of it can definitely be challenging. 
 
Fighting continued in Mexico until 1920, even though in 1917 a new constitution was adopted. When the U.S. government came out openly in support of the new Carranza presidency, Villa was incensed. He retaliated by raiding U.S border towns-most significantly, Columbus, New Mexico. North of the border, Villa's image plummeted. However, many in Mexico saw him as the avenger of decades of yanqui (Yankee) oppression(MexGrocer)
 
    







Princess of Ajijic
One of my favorite things: tuba reflections.
The photographs? Good or not so good, I am so glad I got out of my chair and went out to see the world. Turns out the first rule isn't just about photography. If you want to see and feel great moments you have to be there! The camera is just an excuse, a motivation, to get up and get out there.
 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Did a dream change Mexico’s art forever?


Purple-dotted three-headed dragons, orange-striped unicorns, multicolored armadillos, a turquoise-winged owl with a human face. Where do all these brightly painted mystical, fantasy creatures come from? Called alebrijes (Spanish pronunciation: [aleˈβɾixes]), this popular form of Mexican folk art stems from one man’s dream … well, maybe.


Bújo Najual by Zeny Fuentes Santiagoand Reina Piña Ramirez
The popular story is that the term and this form of art came forth when Pedro Linares fell ill.  Wikipedia tells us this story:

While he was in bed, unconscious, Linares dreamt of a strange place resembling a forest. There, he saw trees, animals, rocks, clouds that suddenly turned into something strange, some kind of animals, but, unknown animals. He saw a donkey with butterfly wings, a rooster with bull horns, a lion with an eagle head, and all of them were shouting one word, "Alebrijes". Upon recovery, he began recreating the creatures he saw in cardboard and papier-mâché and called them Alebrijes.

The more pedestrian story is told by Mexican Folk Art Guide:

Pedro Linares was a cartonero (papier mache crafter) from La Merced a neighborhood in Mexico City. He made a living by making pinatas and judas like his father before him. Linares was appointed by painter José Gómez Rosas aka El Hotentote to make some "alebrijes" to decorate the annual masquerade party at the San Carlos Arts Academy

When Linares asked how to make such things, Gomez Rosas replied "just grab a judas (giant, exploding figures of Judas) and give him a tail and bat wings". In Gomez Rosas paintings there were often zoomorphic and fantastic figures that combine reptile, bird, insect and mammal parts as well as different eras and painting styles.

Judith Bronowski in 1998, with some creations by 
papier-mâché artist Pedro Linares
(photo by Jacklyn Stroud)
Whether from a dream or from an art request, Linares developed the first alebrijes which now show up in all art markets in Mexico. However these brightly painted fantasy creatures might not have become the beloved Mexican folk art favorite if it hadn’t been for artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and a filmmaker. In the 1980s, British filmmaker, Judith Bronowski arranged an itinerant Mexican art craft demonstration workshop in the US and helped bring many Mexican folk artist to public attention through her films.

While Linares crafted his chimera-like alejibres in papier mache, wood artisans quickly began to craft the fantasy creatures in wood, primarily using green copalillo because its wood is ideal, soft and easy to carve. He would probably be amazed to see Mexico City’s Alebrije Parade which begins on midday on a Saturday in late October in the historic center. The giant creatures are accompanied by musicians, clowns, people in costume and more, giving the event a Carnival-like atmosphere. After the parade the creations are judged with prizes awarded. (Note to self: put this on the calendar for next year.)

Mexican folk art has come along way since the days when Linares crafted his first alebrije. Until the 1970s, Mexican folk artists seldom signed their work, remaining anonymous and poor. Now it is illegal to sell crafts made in Mexico without acknowledging the community and region they are from, or to alter the crafts in a way that could be interpreted as damaging to the culture’s reputation or image. The Feria Maestros del Arte in Chapala, Mexico, has become one of the premier supporters of Mexican folk artists with a three-day fair where traditional artists can show their art to buyers drawn from all over the world. The carefully selected artists at this fair pay no space fee or commission and the fair organizers pay transportation costs and organize housing for the artists while they are at the fair. 
Time to Laugh

Creativity is a contagious thing and I seem to catch it looking at art that inspires me. The same artists who created Bújo Nahual shown above, created a wonderful creature that captured me all during the recent Feria Maestros del Arte, although my budget wasn't big enough to bring him home with me. 

"Time to Laugh" was stimulated by this alebrije and a "Laugh" sign I saw in a home on the recent "Behind the Walls" tour here in Ajijic.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mexico triggers horn honking and new ways of looking at the world


Art Wall in Chapala
My wifi is down.

If I were still in California, I would be having a fit, immediately calling for service.

I am deeply connected to the electronic world, and frequently need to scratch my itch for information and understanding. Many times a day I wonder about things: how Bob Marley died, what the color of amaranth looks like, does wifi still have a dash in it, who Marcos Castellano was (street name here in Mexico), is the ketogenic diet healthy, the history of the purple dye used in the huipil I just bought, how to convert inches to centimeters, and so on and so on.

Wikipedia and Google are pillars of my day. I can’t imagine not having access to that ocean of information. So, when my wifi is down, my brain starts sounding the call for oxygen, gasping for the breath of information. It makes me want to honk a horn, demand attention, make my world right again.

That’s where I am right now. My router is across the room in my direct line of sight. The light that should be blinking is infuriatingly constant. If it were later in the morning, I could go to the coffee shop and relieve my angst, but, like many things here in Mexico, the general need for a caffeine boost seems to move at a slower pace. While the 24-hour OXXO (like 7-11) two blocks away offers coffee at all hours, it has no ambiance … or wifi.

My favorite coffee shop doesn’t open until 8:30 so I’m in withdrawal (wifi, not caffeine) until then, trying to distract the absence by writing about all of this.

One of the first things I noticed here was the absence of honking horns. In a noisy world of barking dogs, rockets, crowing-at-all-hours roosters and ringing church bells, this one noise is missing. The streets here are narrow and often jammed. Drivers do crazy, unexpected things, darting across lanes of traffic, parking every which way, ignoring signs, stopping in the middle of the street to chat with a driver going the other way … but, they seldom honk at each other.

We gringos, though, are a bit different. We don’t actually honk the horns in our cars that much, but we honk about other things … including the wifi being out, as it is with some regularity. That’s what I’m doing right now: honking.

A lot of other things make us honk. Facebook forums, where we talk to each other, are a fountain of honking. A lot of honking is about finding stuff. It is said that Mexico has everything you want or need. That’s probably true, but finding it is another thing. It takes awhile to realize that the needle and thread you need is actually at a booth in the Wednesday market where an assortment of everything from pizza to fish, batteries to mole tacos, corn husk dolls to displays of nuts, seeds, and candies joins a wide range of fresh fruits and veggies, household necessities, skin creams and health potions. An amazing supermarket that comes and goes one day every week.

One very long thread on a recent forum focused on Walmart. Many people honked their irritation at its shortcomings: all the things it lacked, how it was organized, the disappearance of favorite brands of paper towels. Mexico challenges our comfort zones and triggers our honking as we long for a particular, hard-to-find vegetable, a specific tool we left behind when we moved down here and now can’t find, a hairdresser who knew just how to cut our hair,   … or the constancy of wifi.

Comfort zones by definition are comfortable. We voluntarily left that zone when we moved here, but that doesn’t stop the yearning for it. I think of a dog circling and pawing his bed into some, unknown-to-us, configuration of comfort. We’re like that, circling, pawing, honking, trying to recreate that familiar place where we were confident in our ability to cope with every day life.

Perhaps, however, that’s Mexico’s biggest gift to us: that uprooting that forces us to experience unfamiliar things, develop new perspectives, learn how to communicate and cope with a new language and, sometimes, radically different ways of doing things. All of us who are relatively new here are on a steep learning curve, which is, at once, exciting and also frustrating. 

Which, of course, means I should stop honking, get off my butt and go out into this cool, sunshiny morning and give thanks for the inconsistency of everything about this new world I’ve chosen to live in, a beautiful, charming, friendly world which is helping me learn new ways to live.

And, that question that is right now circling my brain? The one that can only be answered by plugging into the electronic world? If I stop honking, I can see that it will actually wait while I stop to savor a few moments of the world that was here long before the internet. 
 
(Sitting in the incredible Lake Chapala Society garden ... a delightful compromise of electronic and real world that allows me to post this.)

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Chasing the bright bauble of passion and purpose


Búho Nahual Speaks
Almost five months ago I signed up to be a volunteer at a local arts and crafts fair. I had few expectations. 
 
While I didn’t know much about Feria Maestros del Arte, it seemed like a good place to meet interesting people, find stories, and take pictures of beautiful things.

For four and a half months, that seed lay dormant, then suddenly it burst forth into a colossal blossom that encircled me with shimmering petals, filling the air with a new scent, daring me to catch one of the sweet, swirling, snowflakes of possibility. 
 
I definitely did not expect Búho Nahual, a wood carving that came home with me from that amazing folk art fair to send my mind spinning into a turquoise mist, contemplating passion and new projects. 

Passion, Purpose and Meaning


Sometimes passion sweeps you off your feet.
Sometimes it quietly curls up beside you like a purring kitten.
Sometimes you have to book a cruise and sail off into the unknown ... somehow sure it’s out there, or at least hoping it is while you take the risk to explore a new corner.

While searching for passion, I've been known to make a long list of what I want, thinking it will help the Universe point me in the right direction. Other folks just say, “Bring it on!”

Does it make a difference either way? Or, does the Universe already have a path neatly painted in day-glow yellow lines to guide our way? However, what if you can’t see the lines? What if the abundance of choices paralyzes you as it often does me?

Or, what if there are a million yellow lines stretching before us, morphing into our paths with each step we take. Step slightly left and you wind up married with 2.3 children in Indianapolis. Lean right and you’re in Mexico, sipping mescal with a curandero.

Could it be that each step is its own marker? Maybe the bright yellow paint is actually on the soles of our shoes, 7 billion shades of yellow tracking the planet as we proceed this way or that, creating paths that can only be seen by looking backwards.

So, does it matter? … that illusive, bright bauble in the distance? that siren song of purpose and meaning and passion? Does it have to have a name, a label? Can you follow the wrong star or miss your calling?

Should I take my long list of druthers, spooling behind me like a Christmas list written on adding machine tape, and stamp my footprints onto the cobblestones disappearing into the fog of the future? Or, would it be better to patiently wait for the kitten to awaken and meow its secrets? I could also spin the cruise dial and see where the tick of luck sends me, knowing that wherever I go, that’s where I’ll be and something will be waiting for me. 
 
Or, perhaps, I should just check out the soles of my shoes, make sure the paint is bright and look backwards more often to see if the footsteps from where I was to where I am mark a path that makes me smile? If so, maybe the only thing I need to do is give the Universe a fist bump and keep stepping out and checking the trail I’m leaving behind me. 

I do smile as I look back. I respect where I’ve been. I like where I am. The one thing I notice is that the trail behind me is a little thin. I’d like to make a fatter, more generous trail, scattering those sparkling petals far and wide. The Universe has gifted me with an abundance of energy, skill with words and images, and a heart that wants to help. Maybe all it asks of me is to share what I've been given.

As I head toward the end of my time here in this earthly form, I think what I most want is to be used up when I reach the end. A friend of mine always joked that he wanted to die “five dollars over drawn.” Like him, I don’t want to leave my resources unused. Unlike him, I don’t think it’s about money. 
 
As Búho parts the mist, I am left with wanting to have my own form of potlatch, giving away everything I’ve been given to people who need my particular gifts.

Morning after addendum from The Potential Within:
 
 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ancient traditions: purple magic in a dyeing world


Caracol Púrpura, milked for purple dye
Yesterday, I held a bit of magic in my hand. Magic that connected me back through thousands of years of history and a sacred and fragile bit of today’s world. All of this was handed to me at the premier Mexican folk art festival: Feria Maestros del Arte, held every mid-November on beautiful Lake Chapala, Mexico.

Purple has long been coveted as a color of beauty and a sign of royalty and wealth. The wearing of purple was often forbidden by sumptuary laws intended to regulate and reinforce social hierarchies. Interestingly, for as highly as it has been valued throughout history, the discovery of purple dye seems to have come from the whims of accident.

The primary source of purple dye has been snails which make a defensive ink, somewhat like an octopus. In Phoenician mythology, its discovery was credited to the pet dog of Tyros, the mistress of Tyre’s patron god Melqart. One day, while walking along the beach the couple noticed that after biting on a washed up mollusc the dog’s mouth was stained purple.(1)

Early dye makers crushed the snails to extract the dye and it is reported that it took 10,000 shellfish to dye the hem of a garment. Today’s natural dye makers, tintoreros in Mexico, have a much more difficult and dangerous job of humanely gathering purple dye from the caracol púrpura, a snail that lives amidst crags of the rocky coast from Baja, Mexico to Peru.

Back strap loom showing the sacred purple
Among the Mixtecs, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, there is a thousand-year-old tradition of obtaining the precious purple tint of a marine snail called purple pansa. That snail was the magic that I held in my hand yesterday as I listened to Don Habacuc Avendaño, one of the 15 remaining tintoreros in the world who knows how to gather the precious dye. 
He described how he “milks” the snails, 300 of them, in order to dye one skein of yarn. From his village, Pinotepa de Don Luis, he travels to the rocky shores, gently removing one snail at a time with a special wooden stick designed to not injure the snail. 

With a white cotton skein in one hand, he blows on the snail to make in first release its urine and then the milky ink which will turn purple as it dries in the sun. Then he returns the snail to its rock and loosens the next one. One after another, he milks 300 snails to dye one skein. As Patrice Perillie, Director of Mexican Dreamweavers, continued the story of the many hours it takes to hand weave (on a back strap loom) a huipil (traditional tunic-like blouse) or rebozo using this sacred dye, I felt a little overwhelmed wearing the precious garment I had purchased the day before. 
Note: also at the Feria, there was a woman spinning rare brown cotton as well as a few garments made from it.

Rare brown cotton being spun into thread.

Margarita Avendaño spinning
Patrice Perillie wearing brown cotton huipil
It is humbling to even try to compare the hours it took me to earn the money to pay for the huipil to the hours, days and months it took to spin and dye the yarn and then weave and embroider the cloth, to say nothing of the knowledge and skill of generations of craftsmanship involved.
Huipil

Unfortunately, all of this is now endangered. 

 

Years of poaching and extreme demand for the dye has driven the magical snail to the brink of extinction. The indigenous art of weaving fabric on back strap looms is also endangered by modern commerce and the availability of cheap fabrics.


Video:
Facebook: Mexican Dreamweavers
A fascinating video featuring Don Habacuc Avendaño and his sister, weaver Margarita Avendaño is offered on Facebook: Mexican Dreamweavers, videos. Subtitled in English, the video shows how the dye is gathered and woven into cloth. 

Don Avendaño explains the hazards of gathering the dye and the challenges of making a living in the tradition that has been handed down for generations. 

If you would like to know more about how to support this project, please contact Patrice Perillie at mexicandreamweavers@hotmail.com.


Interesting:
  • The dye gathering follows a lunar, tide cycle and snails can only be milked every 28 days and during the months of November through May. (After that, the rainy season makes gathering too hazardous.)
  • The snail’s dye does not require a chemical fixative.
  • When Don Avendaño first began working as a tintorero, they could gather food where they worked on the beaches: fish, iguanas, turtle eggs, clams. Now, he says, the wildlife is gone.
  • In the mid-1950s, when he started gathering dye, there were four times more snails than today. Now there is a national park protecting the snails and tintoreros have to be authorized.
    Authorization for Habacuc Avendaño
Wikipedia gives us a glimpse into early society and the history of purple, telling us:

          The first written Greek law code (Locrian code), by Zaleucus in the 7th century BC, stipulated that:

A free-born woman may not be accompanied by more than one female slave, unless she is drunk; she may not leave the city during the night, unless she is planning to commit adultery; she may not wear gold jewelry or a garment with a purple border, unless she is a courtesan; and a husband may not wear a gold-studded ring or a cloak of Milesian fashion unless he is bent upon prostitution or adultery.

Resource: (1) Ancient History Encyclopedia: Tyrian Purple

More about the purple dye and the weavers from poet Susa Silvermarie:
http://susasilvermarie.com/tixinda-at-the-feria/
 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Generosity in Action - Prison Dolls spread love and creativity across borders


Esmeralda Hernandez and Original Friends Dolls
In an overcrowded women’s prison outside Guadalajara, Mexico, a child named Lupita was born. No one knew how much that young child and a small act of generosity would change the lives of the women around her.

Lupita was 15-months old and had no toys so Rebecca Roth decided to make her a cloth doll. Rebecca is an American who had moved to Puerto Vallarta in 1998. Eight years later she was arrested for money laundering in connection with a ponzi scheme. Although she was innocent, the Mexican justice system moves slowly and she was jailed for four years before being vindicated and released.

Rebecca Roth and Esmeralda Hernandez with Mariana and Magda
That might have been the end of the story except that Rebecca started teaching English to a young, Mexican cellmate, who also claimed to be innocent. It would take eleven years for Esmeralda Hernandez to prove her innocence and be released. During that time, the two became friends and started looking for a way to make money. (Prisoners in Mexico need to pay for their basic supplies.)

They decided to make ten dolls for the upcoming prison art show. When the prison director bought one of the first dolls and guards and visitors began to buy them also, they knew they had a project. They continued making dolls and called them Original Friends Dolls. By the time Rebecca was released in 2010, they had sold over 100 of the one-of-a-kind dolls.

Today Rebecca and Esmeralda continue the prison project providing women the opportunity to make fair pay and use their creativity making the trademarked dolls. Over 1200 hand-painted mermaids, fairies, dancers, witches, crones and more have been sold, each with a unique outfit, name, number and signed by the artist who made it. 

I fell in love with the dolls and the project at Feria Maestros del Arte, a premier folk art festival held each November in Chapala, Mexico. Of course, two mermaids demanded to come home with me. Meet Magda and Mariana.
Magda, artist: Esme
Most of the doll materials are donated scraps, and other found items including, ribbons, lace, buttons, paint, broken jewelry, seed pearls, shells, mirrors, yarn and other bright bits. More information available on Facebook.
 
All in all the seed of generosity that started this project, has grown like kudzu across borders and communities, spreading creativity and love as it grows.

Mariana, artist Ericka
P.S. And Lupita, the child who sparked this project? She and her mom now live in a small town outside Puerto Vallarta. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Generosity: Gratitude in Action … Feria Maestros del Arte

Artist from Chiapas
 After practicing gratitude for a year and a half, I began to be pulled to something else. At first, I thought it was my old nemesis, inconsistency, raising its ugly head again. After awhile though, it felt like something else was emerging, and it seemed to be coming from my new home here in Mexico.

One of the first things I noticed here was the overwhelming generosity of the immigrants to this beautiful but poverty challenged country. I’ve met people from the US and Canada who have started orphanages, medical programs, tuition support programs, food programs, art mentoring programs, language programs and dozens of other helping projects. Most of the people I talk with are so grateful to be living in this amazing country that they want to give back and they are finding thousands of ways to do that.

Artist from Puebla
One example is Marianne Carlson, founder of the Feria Maestros del Arte, an annual event which, over the past 16 years, has become known as the premier folk art festival in Mexico. Most of us are familiar with arts and crafts fairs, but this one sprang from a different source. 
Marianne was traveling around Mexico, finding amazing crafts that she had never seen in stores or galleries. She began to fall in love with the crafts and the artisans and to understand the difficulties they faced in selling their art in order to support their families and continue making their crafts which had been handed down for generations. 
Woodcarving from Oaxaca
Chiapas textile artist
 Marianne founded the Feria to support the artists and to introduce their crafts to a wider audience. The financial arrangement for the Feria is designed to support the artists. Artists pay no booth fee or commission. The Feria raises money to help pay for transportation costs, often renting buses to bring artists from remote villages as far away as the state of Chiapas in the south of Mexico. Artists are housed by local residents, another piece of the generous nature of this event and a cultural interaction that might never happen otherwise. A modest fee is charged visitors and artists donate one piece of their art to help support the event. 
So many colors!
Ribbon hat


Huichol Pompoms
They may look like bright bits of fluff but the making of pompoms are an important Huichol craft for celebrations. Pompoms,  resembling roses in full bloom, signify “the way.” 
Bujo Nahual
While I was taking photos of some wood carvings, the artist handed me the one above. I was struck by it for many reasons but the price was way out of my range so I walked away ... only to come back again, and again. Finally, rationalizing to the nth degree, he'll come home with me tomorrow.
The Feria was born in the cauldron of generosity and I was thrilled to sample just a bit of it today.

This the first in an ongoing series around generosity.