Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quetzalcoatl: Rediscovering My Roots

When I was hired as a Chicano Studies instructor back in 1972, I knew little about Mexico or its history, save what my mom told me about her childhood in Torreon, Coahuila (Northern Mexico) in the early 1900's, and a couple of trips I had taken to Mexico City before I met my wife there in the mid-60's. I spoke what I believed was Spanish, and ate what I thought was Spanish food. The pioneer Chicano Studies teachers of the late 60's and early 70's, were self-taught, since there were no courses we could have taken in any American school that taught us anything contrary to the steady diet of a Western or Europeanized view of the world. So we had to teach ourselves by reading and traveling! We were just a chapter ahead of our students, in the few textbooks available to us at the time.

I found Mexico's history engrossing. How could I have grown up and missed this? Oh, the price of assimilation! When I returned to Mexico now I had a new mission, to touch and see for myself the art of ancient Mexico, the Maya, the Aztecs, Teotihuacan, Tula, and Chichen-Itza, the Aztec calendar, and the murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros and share that with my students. Standing on top of the pyramids of Monte Alban and Tulum on the Carribean coast filled me with a renewed sense of pride, of belonging. These were my people too, and I felt a kinship far beyond that of a tourist. I was stunned to learn of the brutality of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, of Hernan Cortez, of 300 hundred years of Colonialism, the War of Independence and Miguel Hidalgo in 1810, Mexico's first indian president, Benito Juarez, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
One day, when my mother-in-law visited my wife and I from Mexico City, I made the mistake of referring to myself as a Mexican. "No, tu no eres Mexicano", she said." "Si soy", I countered. "No." "Si." "No." "Si." I became more and more irritated until she decreed "No nacistes en Mexico, nacistes aqui en los Estados Unidos. Por eso no eres Mexicano." I could not accept the notion that just because I was born in the U.S. I could no longer refer to myself as Mexican. To me, being Mexican was a thing of the heart, the soul, the mind. It was all about beans, tortillas, chiles, menudo, tamales, enchildadas, Mexican music (rancheras, boleros, corridos), mariachis and gritos. Besides, both of my parents were born in Mexico! To my mother-in-law, to be Mexican, was simply a matter of geography, not of the heart.
Over the years, I have come to realize that my Mexican heritage is a gift I cherish, one that no one can take from me. No wonder my mom's last words to me as I left for college were: "Nunca se te olvide que eres Mexicano" (never forget you are Mexican). And forget I did, in the decade that followed as I went through college and we studied the art of every culture except Mexican. OK, so I'm not a real Mexican. I wanted to be. On the other hand, many of us have grappled with the pressure to assimilate: become Americanized: "You must forget your culture", we are told, as if we have to choose between one or the other! To hang onto to our culture is baggage and blatantly un-American. Yet so many us have perfected being bilingual and bicultural (even tricultural or more-orale!!) There is a choice to be made, yes. A very important and conscious choice. The choice to be a person of two cultures, two languages, both Mexican and American, a Chicano!
And like the old song says: No, no you can't take that away from me."

Childhood Protector: Mi Angel De La Guardia

I can still recall the sense of peace I felt as a child looking at this image my mother kept of our Guardian Angel, a print that long outlived the calendar once attached to it.
God, if only I could continue to believe that I am constantly protected from evil by this beautiful angelic creature.
But now I have become a skeptic, a disbeliever, a non-believer. My wife still teaches one of our grandsons to pray to his Guardian Angel before he goes to sleep each night. The beautiful phrase "No me desampares.." rings in my mind, "Never abandon me...." It's beauty haunts me.
My prayers still go out from me most nights, but now to some vague entity beyond us, respresenting goodness and love, which transcends the earthly evil that pervades. Please, Guardian Angel, protect us from ourselves. No nos desampares.....

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Collection: A Wall of Christs

For years I have been collecting Mexican Christ figures. I have never forgotten the first time I saw the power and passion of Mexican Christ figures in the churches and museums, especially those from Mexico's Colonial Period. I was raised with the generally innoculous Europeanized Christs (with the exception of artists like Matthias Grunewald) I found in European and American churches, mostly muscular, idealized and white and was not ready for the brutal , bloody, and agonized portrayal of the Spanish, Indian, and Mexican artists. The great variety of mediums used also intrigued me, clay, wood, straw, so I began collecting.
The wall of Christs in our home is a conversation piece to all who visit and from time to time, friends bring me a piece for the collection. The pieces seem to have one objective: to show the pain and agony Christ suffered on the cross, and they succeed. I collect them both as a Christian and an artist. As a Christian, I am amazed at this supreme human sacrifice, and as an artist I am amazed at the innocence and sophistication of mostly folk artists who paint, carve, weave and mold these crucified Christs.
At the front of every Catholic Church in Mexico is a tortured Christ in a prominent place on the altar. I have spent hours meditating before them. I have trouble explaining to others what my fascination with these figures is. Am I morbid? Am I religious? Am I just an art collector?
Regardless, they have a place on my walls.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ah Youth, Sweet Youth Where Hath Thou Gone?

Portrait of the artist as a young man, bright red haired, freckled Mexican, when he spoke to mountains and flowers and hugged trees. The neighbor, my mother's comadre called me "coloradito", little red-haired one. Carrot top, I hated the nickname and wished I could have black hair like all the rest of the Mexicans. In our family, three with black hair, three with red. The freckles confused everyone I met. Could pass as anglo if I wanted and I often did, as Dick. Hated that too. "Where has the red hair gone?" Ask those who know me. Who knows. It's gray now and freckles a little darker. "Why do you have all those spots, Dad?" My son Miguel asks. "Because my mother was painting the ceiling when I was a baby and the paint spattered all over me." "Why do you cry, Grandpa?" "Because I am sad." "But why do you cry now?" "Because I am happy." But men do not cry, they just whimper.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Dog Skippy: Only Grinning Dog I Ever Met

My dog "Skippy" was the only grinning dog I ever met. When you spoke to him, his lip would curl back on the sides of his mouth and expose his teeth! On school days, he would follow me to the bus stop on Highway 99, off the old 9th St. Bridge in South Modesto. When I got on the bus headed north into town, he would start running alongside and when the bus reached the bridge crossing over the Tuolumne River, he would run under the bridge and presumably stop at the river's edge, though I could no longer see him from my seat. My greatest fear was that he would cross the bridge and follow the bus into town and he would get lost forever.

My head hanging halfways out of the window, I would shout: "No, Skippy, no! Go home! Go home!", but that seemed only to trumpet him onward. Yet, my fear was relieved when I returned home about 2:15 in the afternoon and Skippy was faithfully waiting for me on the dirt road in front of our house. He would begin a maddened dash towards me and leaping into my arms, would lick my face and hands. And, of course, he would grin. Skippy would later get rabies and my older brother Jess, would have to put him down with a .22 caliber pump rifle we had.

Almost Walked To School Barefoot In The Snow

I was born in 1939 in a small barrio in Southside Modesto we jokingly called "Tortilla Flats", a pretty baby, as you can see. (In fact I won a Most Beautiful Baby Gerber's Contest with this photo!) The Barrio was about two square blocks, surrounded by unpaved streets, no streetlights or street signs, and two sets of rail lines, the Southern Pacific and the Tidewater Southern, a local train serving the county. The Toulumne River divided us from the city limits with two bridges connecting, the 7th St. and the 9th St. bridges. My parents had emigrated into the U.S. in the early 1920's and I was the last born of three older brothers and two sisters.

Eight of us lived in a single bedroom house which my Dad had built, with no hot running water. A pipe, with a faucet poked through a hole in the kitchen wall. There was no sink. My mom had a bucket to collect the waste water and when it filled we took turns dumping it in the yard. We had an old wood stove and I remember chopping and carrying wood into the house. To bathe, my mom heated water on the stove and we used a large "tina" or metal tub to sit in. Alongside was a smaller "tina" which held the warm water, and we used a tin cup with which to rinse ourselves with.

In the backyard was our outhouse "El Escusado", a single-seater (some of my friends had two-seaters - I never understood why). My mom would stuff her purse with toilet paper from the cannery where she worked. I hated using it. I would much rather go in the orchard in front of our house, especially after we found that our neighbor had been bitten on her behind by a black widow! When the toilet filled, we dug another hole in the yard, moved the outhouse, and filled the old hole. Using it at night was out of the question because no one wanted to make the trek to the backyard in the dark. My mom kept a "basinica" or bed pan under her bed and in the morning, we took turns emptying it. When it was full, it was extremely heavy, and I tried my best not to spill it as I lugged it to the outhouse. Sometimes, my older brothers would come home drunk late at night, and in the dark, slide the pan from under the bed but miss the mark. I could hear "chorro", or stream hit the floor! We were poor, but as a kid I never really knew it until I visited the homes of anglo friends in town and used their indoor, flush toilets, and sinks with hot and cold running water!
In the backyard was our refrigerator, an old "ice-box" with a top compartment that held the ice. I remember the iceman delivering a big block of ice on his back, opening the compartment, and with forceps, setting it inside. With an ice pick, we would chip ice cubes for our drinks.Inside on shelves, we kept the perishables. Milk was delivered in glass bottles to our door. I would collect soda bottles to get a little spending money.
On occasion, I would visit my dad who lived in a tiny railroad section house in town. I usually found him at Fajardo's, a smelly beer joint on 7th St. The stench of beer and cigarettes was foul. "My mother said for you to give me money for some shoes." He would snicker and growl: "Dile que no tengo dinero! Que te los compre ella!" (I have no money! Tell her to buy them for you!) Pretending to have no money, he would reach into his pockets and give me a few bucks. "Este, es mi hijo", he would say in mock pride to his drinking buddies on the bar stools. Other times, he would put pennies into a coffee can until he filled it and then give it to me. Damn, it was heavy and I had to lug it all the way back to the barrio! My mom would take 7 cents daily, tie it in a knot into the corner of a handerchief so I wouldn't lose it, for my milk at school.
Mom would mend our old pants with "parchis", Chicano slang for "patches". I was embarrassed to go to school with pants that had been mended. We would never have been caught dead in pants with torn knees like today's kids do on purpose! Sometimes, the soles of the shoes we wore for so long, came unglued, and the "lengua", or tongues of the soles would flap on the ground. I remember kicking up sand with them and having sand-fights with my friends.
Yet my poor mom had a motto: "You can be poor, but you don't have to be dirty", and she proved it by keeping her children and her house immaculate. In summer, she would rake the dirt yard with geometric patterns, then lightly spinkle it with the hose. When we went to Mexico, she would save money and give a few coins to every beggar she saw: "Nunca se te olvide que fuimos de gente pobre", she would say. (Never forget we came from poor people) But as long as we had beans and tortillas, we were rich. Oh yeah, it never snowed in Modesto.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Never Forget To Say Thanks To A Teacher

On occasion I will be at Walmart or the mall and someone will come up to me "Hey, Mr. Rios do you remember me? I was one of your students about 1985! How are you? I want you know what a difference you made in my life." Chances are I will have to ask their name and sometimes I do recall the face. My oldest son calculated that after 33 years I have taught some 10,000 students! These encounters are a blessing for me, a confirmation that I must have done my job, earned my wages after all those years. However, most students just turned in their final exam, walked out the door, never to be seen again. I was no different, yet I can mention by name specific teachers, Isabelle Barnett and Dale Thorsted in high school and Dr. Paul Schmidt and Ralph Borge in art college, who completely changed my life. Did I thank them in person? I don't recall.

This weekend I attended a memorial gathering for one of my favorite college professors, Mr. Ralph Borge, held by his family at Pt. Reyes Station on the California coast. When I heard of the memorial, I immediately began making excuses why I couldn't attend: too far, too tired, my wife's back problems but thanks to her insistance: "I want you to go. I will go with you. You have to go", we went. As I entered the house of the master, I felt ashamed that I had never bothered to track him down, write or call him while he was still alive.

I met Mr. Borge in 1957, when I signed up for his course Beginning Drawing at California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, Ca. I was fresh out of Modesto High School, heady and determined. I had been a sort of Prima Donna, having won numerous contests, ribbons and scholarships. I was good and I knew it. One of Mr. Borge's requirements was for each student to keep up a sketchbook of drawings, done outside of class and turned in a couple of times during the semester for a grade. When the first book became due, I couldn't wait to show my teacher just how good I was. Most students had barely managed to fill half of their books with sketches but mine was filled cover to cover with intricate, delicate pencil, charcoal drawings done in pen and ink (India Ink). After all the booklets were collected, he piled them on his desk, while we all worked drawing a still life which he had set up at the front of the room. He proceeded to call on students, one at a time, for an individual consultation, then assigned each a grade. When my turn came, he thumbed through the pages of my book, pausing now and then to look closely at a sketch, then called me up. "Mr. Rios, this is very impressive work. It is obvious that you are a very talented young man. Next time, I will expect TWO sketchbooks from you." He then called up the next student. I was stunned. He had seen right through me! I was greatly humbled in his presence from that moment on.
On another day he scolded us: "You people think that just because you wear a beret, have paint under your fingernails, and carry a portfolio around that your are an artist. Well, let me tell you, you are not. Maybe you can fool your momma, but you can't fool me."

Mr. Borge was a master artist from the old school. His command of drawing and painting was stunning. To teach drawing of the human figure, he would tear off six-foot lengths of butcher paper and tape three or four to a wall of a classroom. Then, with a with a piece of compressed charcoal, he would begin to sketch and shade-in a mouth, an eye, hands or an ear: "An ear is not a dried apricot or a cauliflower", he would say with a sneer, and proceeded to show us how each part fit, overlapped and connected to one another. As he shaded the anatomical parts, he explained how shadows were cast, and how reflected light created 'turning edges' on each surface. We stared in awe as gigantic ears, mouths and hands materialized before our eyes on the wall. There was absolutely no faking it after these lessons. We all wanted to be instant artists, creative, lyrical but Mr. Borge showed us we had to learn the basics first.

When I began my graduate work, about 1961, I was awarded a Teaching Assistant grant and I asked to work with Mr. Borge. He readily accepted me and I also asked him to serve as my faculty advisor for my master's project. This time I was not so confident to work with El Maestro. "Class, this is Mr. Rios. He will by my Teaching Assistant for the semester. I want you to give him with the same courtesy and respect you would give me." The experience of working alongside the Master was memorable, an honor more valuable than the grant, and chances are it prompted me to devote my life to teaching.

One room on the second-storey of the gallery, displayed many of his earliest pieces. I recalled having seen some of them in exhibits years back. While I hadn't forgotten his technical skills, I had totally forgotten his incredible compositions and perspective. His work seems to break all convention as many of his subjects are viewed from odd, bizarre angles, a cross between Andrew Wyeth and Salvador Dali. "He's better than Andrew Wyeth", said my old high school buddy and also former student of Mr. Borge, Phil Linhares, who was in the room with me. The stark realism of some pieces reminded me of the stereotypical phrase "you can almost reach out and touch it."
As we left in the late afternoon, the neighboring hills were innundated in gold light, cows dotted the landscape and flocks of birds lifted and landed in the fields. The numerous landscapes my teacher had painted, that now graced the walls of the gallery, had perfectly captured what we were looking at.
No wonder he chose to live and to end his life there. Adios, amigo, mi maestro.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Mi Musica: Have Guitar Will Travel

Born into a family that loved music, naturally I was inspired to continue that tradition. Our family gathered twice a year, on Mother's Day and Christmas Day. After all the tamales, enchiladas, frijoles and other potluck surprises my two older brothers, Eddie and Jess would get their guitars and start to play and sing. We all joined in, knowing bits and pieces of rancheras, boleros, and corridos and often sang up to three and four-part harmonies. Ed had the finer voice of the two, but Jess could do the "requinto", picking out the melodies to a song on his guitar and he and Eddie sang some beautiful duets. We would sing into the early evening, until we had drunk so much that people starting falling asleep and forgetting the words to the songs. And that was it until the next holiday.
Last to sing was my mom, who we prodded and prodded until she would finally give in, but only after a couple a glasses of champagne we also prodded her to drink. She had a fine almost soprano voice, and would complain: "Porque me hacen cantar? Ya saben que no puedo cantar!" (Why do you make me sing? You know I can't sing!). One of her favorite songs was "Rayando El Sol", a haunting song about a man crossing a river at sunset, who suddenly recalls his true love: "Que chulos ojos... los que tiene esa mujer" (what lovely eyes that woman has!) She would always ask me to sing with her, and I would sing a second harmony behind her. I couldn't play guitar in those early years, but with persistence, I learned basic chords, enough to accompany myself on simple songs. I made up for it with my voice and my ability to remember all the lyrics to many of the songs. These were popular Mexican songs I learned from a stack of old '78 RPM records we owned, and listening to them on the radio.
Over the years, I would gain enough confidence to play and sing in front of people, and eventually to perform for audiences, and even got paid ($) for it once in a while! I never knew my Dad who left us when I was about 2, but my mother told me he had been the life of a party, played guitar and sang with a beautiful voice. Maybe I did inherit something from him after all. I still recall and play many of the old Mexican songs and people still love to hear them. Many of my old guitar playing buddies have passed on. We are the last of a breed. "Adios, adios, adios para siempre.... adios...."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

You Can't Win: The Road Taken (After Robert Frost)

On one dark and cloudy day
when into the forest I did roam,
the singular path I had chosen
branched into three among the trees.
And as I pondered which to take
all seemed of equal importance to me;
So I gazed down each as far as I could
but I, being just one traveler, could
only wander one you see.
If I choose the one on the left,
what if a Mountain Lion should accost
and rip me to shreds? Or the one on
the right, and a Bear maul me to bits?
Or what if the center one should
lead me to a rocky cliff, and I slip and fall
to my death? And as I agonized over
which path to take, pondering the
possibilities, a giant rock from the
cliff above, fell on my head
crushing me to death!

Life Is A Terminal Illness

Life is a terminal illness
eating away at you
from your first breath,
clicking towards the finish line;
Pulsating, gasping, choking
countdown to round 12
On life support, precious
seconds tick away,
to a rendezvous with
the eternal.