Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Lucky Day: Anything Will Help

Phony as a two dollar bill?
There is one on each side of the crosswalk, at the stoplight waiting for the cars to stop so they can ply their faces of pity on the hapless, unwary drivers forced to stop for the red. Scraggly, beaten, weathered, wrinkled faces beyond their years, seasoned, soiled, wretched, their sparkling eyes the only sign of life, of humanity left in them.

The one on my side holds up a dirty, cardboard sign reading "Anything will help." I stop 3 or 4 cars back. Traffic is heavy. Maybe I'll slide through when the light changes. Maybe not. My luck the light will turn red again when I get to it. I begin to rehearse my litany of excuses, of rationales for being stingy, but I know I have some loose one-dollar bills in my wallet.

I begin to stress. The light changes to green and I edge closer to him. The light turns red again! I am right next to him. He catches my eyes and smiles at me. I decide. I reach into my wallet and without looking pull out a single bill, open the door slightly and hand it to him, slamming the door shut and locking it.

He stares at the bill, and an immense smile grips his face. He holds up the bill, excitedly pointing at it and mouthing "thank you's" to me. I look. Oh shit! I have mistakenly given him my lucky $2 bill, the one I have carried at the back of my wallet for years!!

I am torn between utter regret and sharing in the man's exhilaration. I choose the latter. We both cheer as I drive off.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"If Only We Had Waited a Little Longer"

One of life's supreme ironies lies in our feeble, human efforts to figure out exactly why things happen in our world, and we will go to absurd extremes to assign "reasons" for them.

I was in college when a bunch of us bohemian, art students were sitting around at a friend's apartment, drinking cheap wine at and watching one of those South Sea Hollywood movies, so popular back in the 50's and 60's

In this one, a ship crashes on the reef of South Pacific island, and a White man, half-drowned, is rescued by a tribe of Natives. He is dragged to safety and slowly nursed back to life. Neither he nor the primatives understand one another's languages.

When his health returns, he quickly catches the eye of the beautiful, luscious, dark-skinned Chief's daughter, who has been his nurse throughout his ordeal. She, of course is also taken by this handsome, mysterious White Man, but the Chief makes no bones about the unspoken edict that he is not to mess around with his precious child, since both are from two different worlds. Regardless, their passions get the best of them and they sneak embraces and forbidden smooches in the bushes behind the coconut trees.

One day, the dormant volcano on the island suddenly erupts, and the Natives go berserk! The castaway looks with wonder at the mayhem. The Chief calls an emergency town house meeting, but all their banter is but gibberish to him. Suddenly, the daughter approaches the father and he looks deeply into her eyes, then at rolls his eyes toward the volcano. As she bows her head submissively, the significance of glance and the body language slowly dawns on the White Man: She will be sacrificed to quell the anger of the volacano!! He rushes towards her, in an effort to stop this primitive madness, but the villagers quickly subdue and lashed him to a coconut tree.

With tears in her eyes, as she obediently makes her way up the volcano, she looks down passionately at him. He lunges towards her, but to no avail! The beating drums begin to reach a crescendo. Higher and higher up the slope she edges. This is madness!! When she reaches the cone, it is furiously sputtering molten lava high into the skies, and she gazes longingly, one final time, at her forbidden lover below. "No! No! No!!" He cries. But it is too late. She leaps into the volcano and a gigantic plume emerges. In moments, the volcano emits one last belch... and subsides! The White man collapses in shock.

There is a long and awkward silence in the room. Suddenly, one of my buddies mumbles, "God, if only she had waited five minutes more, maybe the volcano woulda' stopped by itself!!!"
 Like the volcano, we all erupt in laughter and roll around on the dirty carpet until our stomachs hurt."What a waste," someone else mutters and we all explode into laughter again.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

"Los Tres Grandes": Finding The Voice Of a High School Junior

Souls trod off to the Mexican Revolution by Jose Clemente Orozco
"The New Democcracy" Mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros
"Tenochtitlan" mural by Diego Rivera

Los Tres Grandes

I was just a junior in high school when my Junior Composition teacher assigned my first Term Paper, on a subject of our own choosing.

When I scrambled in terror reading the guidelines for the assignment, library research, footnotes, citations, a bibliography, I felt overwhelmed. I would be doomed to a D or F paper; I knew it! Although I had been an avid reader to this point, and I loved libraries, I had never written a term paper. Where would I even start? I panicked!

As the due date loomed, I forced myself to choose a topic. Since I was of Mexican decent, maybe I could choose something Mexican. Since I loved art, I should choose something to do with art, right? So I decided to look under "Mexican Art ". In these days, they still had the old, dog-eared Card Catalogues in our library, listing bibliographies of books and periodicals by subject, by title, by author, in alphabetical order. You would pull out the long wooden trays with little the brass handles on the ends, and thumb through the alphabetized listings. I even loved their smell.

Then, by accident (or by Fate), I found a book enttiled "Los Tres Grandes", full of color plates depicting the paintings of three of Mexico's greatest muralists, Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Mind you, I was a scrawny little 17-yr. old kid who never even knew Mexico had artists, let alone famous ones!

The book was filled with beautiful color plates of murals created in public spaces throughout Mexico during the 30's, 40's and 50's by these prolific painters. When I began to read about their lives, their philosophy, their art, I was stunned. It had no idea that art could be such a powerful commentary on society. Art could be public. It could be big. It could glorify, but it could condemn. I had grown to believe art had to be pretty.

This art glorified the raw endurance of the poor, Los Pobres, the indians, the Meztizos, the downtrodden. And it condemned the audacity of the Church, the priests, the brutality of corrupt politicians, the inexhaustible materialism of fat politicos, the rich, Los Ricos through 300 years if colonization, a war of independence and and a revolution.

I dutifully copied quotations, including page numbers on my little 3x5 cards as instructed.  I found a few more books, articles and recorded all the bibliographical information, the titles, authors, publishing companies, editors names and dates of publication for my bibliography and sheepishly turned in the finished product,  convinced I that with a little luck, I might even score a C- on it.

Weeks passed and we went on to other assignments. I dreaded the day the papers would be returned. I held my breath when it finally arrived. My English teacher addressed the class: "Class, before I turn back these papers I want to read to you one paper. It is an outstanding example of what a term paper should be". It was mine!

I shrank in my seat as she read, convinced that everybody just knew it was my paper. I turned red.  I would be laughed at. I would be ridiculed. But instead, my fellow students congratulated me. That moment is now thoroughly engraved in my book of good memories.

I would go onto to love and master the art of writing Term Papers in college. But more important, was having discovered my roots, my connection to my people. This was to direct my life's work which continues to this day.

In the years that followed, I would make several pilgrimages to Mexico to stand before the real murals for myself. Nothing, not books, not articles, neither plates nor reproductions could be a stand-in for this.

But wait, maybe that's not the whole truth. Having researched the lives of these maestros, Los Tres Grandes, their work, and their accomplishments only made the experience of gawking at massive walls and cielings filled with their murals, all the sweeter, albeit bitter-sweet.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bringin' Home Da' Bacon: The New Hunter/Food Gatherer

Me and my Homies on a typical day Bringing Home the Bacon.
The thought of our ancient cousins hunting animals and gathering food in order to survive is subconsciously ingrained in our mind's eye. It must have been rough.

Yet, for us guys, it must have defined our manhood. The ladies stayed home, wove blankets, nursed the kids and cooked. A neat division of labor which worked well until women decided they were sick of it and went to work.

As a kid, I grew up with the concept that it was the man's job to "bring home the bacon" or the frijoles in the barrio. The hunting and gathering had now metamorphosed into getting a job and a paycheck and bringing it home to the old lady. I did a pretty good job at this for most of my life. My wife never worked and I brought home my paycheck while she paid all the bills, shopped for groceries and did all the cooking.

Now that she is ill, and I am retired, the roles have reversed. My retirement check still brings home the bacon in a sense and I have figured out how to retain my machismo (manhood) as Hunter/Food Gatherer. Now, I hunt for bargains in the stores, check out the sales, and gather the food for our dwelling.

I hunt for milk, coffee, eggs, bread and meat at Grocery Outlet, Costco,the 99 Cents Store, Food 4 Less, and Safeway. I gather fruits and vegetables from the Farmer's Markets and neighbor's fruit trees whose branches lean over the fence to my side of the yard. I gather tomatoes and chiles from the scant plants in my back yard, offering them to my mate.

I hunt for space in the Refrig to gather the fruits and vegetables into. I separate the meats from the hunt, ribs, hamburger and wieners (sometimes New York Steaks when they're on sale!) into Ziplock bags and gather them into the freezer. It is I who hunts for pots and pans with which to prepare the meals.

I gather bleach, fabric softener and detergent, to wash clothes with. I hunt for mismatched socks after the dryer ends it cycle. Does anybody know where socks go to? I have a dozen without mates.

As the sun sets, I lift my spear skyward. I am still da man: Bringin' home da' bacon (and chorizo too!)

Monday, August 16, 2010

Depends on How You Look At It: Musings On Miracles

"Where there is love there is always great miracles."
I just read that an airliner crashed and broke into three pieces and that it was "a miracle" that only one of the 133 passengers died. But what if we ask the one passenger who died if he agrees?

We constantly hear people attribute miracles to all kinds of ordinary events usually when things wind up going the way they think they ought to go.

Typically, we think of the miracles of Jesus as the standard, the blind man seeing, the dumb speaking, and the deaf hearing or Lazarus raising from the dead.

To be sure, these are extraordinary, the quintessential definition of the act, paranormal, supernatural events which transcend what we deem humanly possible. Something only God can do.

There is an interesting discourse on this topic between the two priests, Father Jean Marie Latour, and his vicar Joseph Vaillant, in Willa Cather's excellent novel Death Come For The Archbishop. Set in the American Southwest during the mid-1800's.  Latour tells Joseph about the great miracle of the apparition of The Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico in 1531.

Fr. Vaillant knows that "Joseph must always have the miracle be very direct and spectacular, not with nature, but against it... a miracle is something we can hold in our hands and love." To Latour, miracles do not "so much rest upon faces or voices or healing power comment suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is always there about us." (50)

Sometimes I think either nothing is a miracle, it's just natural, or everything is one, every birth, every breath, every action, every reaction. People constantly say almost as prophecy that "everything happens for a reason." Maybe everything happens because it has no other choice?

Anyway, I do know that a lot of things depend on how we look at them and that we don't all look at the same things in exactly the same way. Who knows maybe this post happened for a reason?

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Moderate Conservative or a Liberal One?

The political jargon that surrounds any discussion these days has reached the theater of the absurd. Good used to  mean good.
Bad, well bad. Right used to mean right, and left, left.

Que paso? Now, we speak of liberal consevatives, moderate ones, and the Far Right. We speak of liberal moderates, consevative moderates, and moderate liberals.

We say that the rise in foreclosures is dropping. That the upswing in unemployment has decreased.

We say that more is less. 

Yet, I love the verbal encounter in "Through The Looking Glass" when Alice encounters the egg, Humpty Dumpty sitting on a fence and a debate ensures over his definition of the word "glory" and Alice complains "The question is whether you can make words mean so many things." Humpty makes his classic rebuttal: "The question is which is to be master, that's all."

Yes, we are the masters of words no doubt. But are we. Shakespeare said a rose by any other name smells
just as sweet. But can a horse by another name smell just as bad? I think words are charged (Visa/Mastercard). For instance, illegal means Mexican. No one conjures Irish, Italian or Canadian illegals.

America mean the U.S. Yet, Mexicans and South Americans often refer to their countries as American.
Mexico and Central America was once referred to as Middle America, naturally to be tucked neatly between North America and South America.

The word tragedy as the Greeks saw it was once reserved for kings and royalty who had it all but lost it in one of three manners: Their own stupidity, a character flaw, and fate or destiny. Now it's a tragedy if my huevos con chorizo are served cold.

Great was reserved for greatness. Now, we praise our kids for failing by saying "great try, kid."

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!!" Oh, yeah Pendejo"?

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

If A Tree Falls In The Forest....?

I remember this mind bender from a philosophy course I took in college and how I spent days, even years contemplating the question: "If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it still make a sound?

And now at 70+, I am ready to pronounce the answer. Are you ready? Yes! It sure the hell does! This week my son Miguel took my wife and I to Silver Lake, an old haunt nestled at about 8500 feet elevation in the heart of California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

Across the lake, stubborn snow patches still dotted the granite monoliths, the last of this year's snowfall.  The one's at the top melted into temporary channels, which then poured into their brothers beneath them, which melted into more rivulets running down to those at the bottom which finally melted into large streams emptying into the lake.

Varieties of ants rushed aimlessly (or purposely) about, some black ones almost an inch in length! But they didn't really bother us. Clouds of mosquitoes hovered over us, agreeing among themselves, not to bite. Or was it the insect repellent? Two lizards did combat over a prime location on a bare rock in the sun. Why, when there were plenty of other rocks all over the place? Is there a story here?

As I lay on a rock looking up at the cotton tufts of cumulus clouds drifting by overhead, it occurred to me that all things do everything they're supposed to do whether we see, feel or hear them. The trees in a forest, if they wanted to could just fake growing and dying and no one would ever notice. Most could be replaced by photographic props, backdrops, and cheap visual tricks and most of us could care less.

Yet, each living thing goes through its prescribed ritual when it could take shortcuts, condense, delete or add things. Why? Every passing cloud formed, connected with larger clumps, devoured its neighbors, and deformed exactly as it was supposed to do without cheating. Every wisp, and shadow was perfectly in place. Cause and effect.

So I too went through the prescribed ritual of my species of drinking beer, lighting up my pipe, and eating salami and cheese sandwiches. What choice did I have? I didn't want to make a fool of myself.

Thus, the question really ought to be "if a man opens a can of beer in the forest, does it still make a sound?" Don't ask me, ask the squirrels!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

'Escuse' Me But Some Of My Best Friends Are Illegals!

In my tiny barrio in Southside Modesto, I grew up surrounded by what were then commonly called "Mojados", referring to the crude namesake "Wetbacks."

They seemed normal enough to me. Young kids, old men whose only dream was to work the summer seasons in the fields, send money to families in Mexico, and return for the winter.

I worked alongside them in the fields, fruit picking machines, their skillful hands devouring fruits from sets of four trees and rushing off into the darkness before day break, till the infernal 105 degree heat of the mid-afternoons, lugging metal buckets and 14-foot ladders, to a new one.

In contrast, I was lazy and worked only enough to be able to buy my Buenas Garras, fancy new clothes for school. "No seas burro", my mom would tell me. "Estudia, para que no tengas que trabajar el los fieles como animal." 

I remember the dreaded call "Ahi, viene La Migra!!" And them scattering like cucarachas across rows of fruit trees, over fences, into irrigation ditches. Those caught were deported, and most in a matter of days or weeks, just waded back across the Rio Grande to pick again. Over and over.

In the popular imagination, Americans today picture hordes of Mexicans, rushing the borders into the U.S. to commit crimes and take away people's jobs. Many of our own Gente embrace the myth.

Ironically, immigration to the U.S. is something the great masses of Mexicans never even think about. They go about their lives, working, toiling, surviving with absolutely no intention of ever leaving Mexico, except to ocassionally fantacize about visiting Disneylandia or Las Vegas.

My relatives, who live in Mexico City are perfectly satisfied to remain there. After all, the U.S. comes to them, Walmart, Costco, Burger King, MacDonalds. They do so depite the povery surrounding them, the crime, and the corruption they all complain about in the police, local officials and the government.

Yet illegal immigrants in the U.S. are embedded in our way of life, and to remove them is like cutting off an arm or a leg to save yourself. Some of them have lived here illegally for generations, undetected, having raised their grandkids among us.

They are our brothers, fathers, wives, sisters and neighbors. We go to school with them. We work with them. We break bread with them.

As far as I can see, most still pick our fruits and vegetables, serve our food, wash our dirty dishes, roof our houses, and fix our cars, cheaply too. I don't know about you, but the ones I know are not drug-trafficers, not criminals, but maybe you and I don't run in the same circles, quien sabe,

In fact, some of my best friends are illegals.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Ethnic Studies: May You Rest In Peace

I recall reading that until recently, there was no mention of the Holocaust, or the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Nagasaki or Hiroshima during World War II, in German and Japanese history books, respectively.

Imagine if our U.S. History books selectively omitted mention of Black Slavery, The Mexican-American War, or the brutality visited on Native Americans in the Winning of the West? Yet, history is mostly told by the hunter, but what would the lion have to say?

The buzz about Arizona's new get-tough immigration laws aimed at illegal Mexicans is taking on a more sinister twist: SB1108 that seeks to ban the teaching of Ethnic Studies courses in the state's public schools because they promote (get this) the overthrow of the government, foment resentment towards a specific race or class of people, and are designed for students of a specific race!

I wonder if teaching of the Holocaust promotes resentment towards Germans, the bombing of Pearl Harbor promote dislike of Japanese, or of the war between Mexico and the U.S. in 1846 promote resentment towards Americans? Resentment or not the truth ought to be told from both the hunter and the lion's point of view, shouldn't it?

I was one of these Ethnic Studies teachers. Before 1965, the only view of the world we learned about was a Western European one. No questions were asked. Gospel was gospel. Ethnic Studies was born out of labor pains, epitomized by confrontation, demands, threats and student walkouts. The massive East L.A. student walkouts in 1968 were the poster child.  Latino students, a majority in many L.A. schools, felt alienated, noting the lack of Hispanic teachers, discrimination, and absence of a curriculum which reflected the contributions of minority groups to the building of the U.S.

The Chicano Movement was inspired by the black struggle for equality, Cesar Chavez and the farm worker struggle, and community activists like "Corky" Gonzalez and his epic poem "I Am Joaquin." Mexican Americans with a college degree were rare. Brown faces as lawyer's, writers, doctors, teachers, artists, school principals, were conspicuously absent from American society.

In Stockton, students, educators and community activists demanded the inception of Ethnic Studies courses. Our own community college finally relented, and as our offerings grew and we expanded, we were granted a division with our very own Division Chair, with classes in Chicano/Mexican, Black, Filipino, and Asian studies. And yes, the courses were primarily designed for students of each specific ethnic group. No bones here, but any brave soul wanting an alternative view of the world was welcome and there were a few. I'll speak to this later.

In 1962, against all odds, I had acquired a Master's Degree in Fine Arts from a private and prominent art school in Oakland. Soon after, I enlisted for three years in the U.S. Army, and spent most of it in Germany, which allowed me to travel though Europe and see museums and works of art I had only read about and seen in slides. Unable to find a job after my discharge in 1965, I married and settled in my old barrio in South Modesto. In desperation, I set my sights on teaching art, but after dozens of rejections reading "despite your impressive qualifications we do not currently have a position for you", I gave up, became a dropout, and took a job as a florist, a secondary trade I had picked up as a student.

In 1972, I received a phone call to my place of work. "Is this Richard Rios, The Richard Rios?". The voice introduced itself as that of a Chicano Studies teacher from Delta Community College in Stockton. "You come highly recommended. My old college buddies, Jose Montoya and Esteban Villa had apparently heaped lofty accolades on me.  "How would you like to teach a courses in Chicano Studies?" "What's Chicano Studies?"  "Don't worry, I'll send you some books; read them", he said. It was about October and classes for Spring Semester would start in January! He walked me through the application process and I was hired.

I trusted that having grown up in a Mexican family, in a barrio, with parents who immigrated from Mexico would tide me over. Meanwhile, I scoured books on Mexican History, traveled to Mexico during summer breaks, visited art and history museums, historical sites both modern and Precolumbian, and took hundreds of slides.
At the time, there was no curriculum, no course of study, in any institution of higher learning where we could have gone to learn this. We had to teach ourselves, and I survived by keeping "a chapter ahead of the students." Worse, there were few books available by ethnic authors. Publishing companies were completely ignorant of an ethnic market. Later, our prodigies would have the courses, the curriculum and even majors in Minority and Ethnic Studies.

 But who was this skinny, freckled, light-complected, red-haired teacher claiming to be Chicano? Was it true?
 A Mexican college teacher? In my lectures, I through in some Spanish, some spanglish, some barrio slang. I played my guitar and sang Mexican songs for them,, the ones my family had sung at family get-togethers,  and we analyzed the traditions, the texts, the themes. We discussed art, history, literature, poverty, discrimination and education. We analyzed folk tales like La Llorona (The Weeping Woman), ones my mom had told me as a kid.  I had them write papers and research traditions in their own families. And they loved it.

But authenticity and credibility was vital to our mission. Students wanted the real McCoy, no substitutes, no facsimiles. In fact, before being hired I was summoned to a meeting with the campus M.E.Ch. A. club, presumably to determine if I was the real deal.  I must have answered their questions right. They were tired of interlopers, Anglos teaching Spanish etc. That was to be the key.

But it would be an uphill battle. Resentment and outright hostility brewed since the inception of our courses, from staff, from peers, from administrators who were probably hoping we would fail. We heard disparaging remarks about our competence as teachers.  Rumors had it that we had low student expectations, useless curricula that duplicated what students could learn in mainstream courses. That our students already knew about their history and their culture . That we passed students just because they were from our own ethnic group. That we excluded Whites. That units earned from our courses would never transfer to four-year colleges, and they were partly right about this. Students confessed to me that counselors would sometimes advise them not to take my course.

To boot, the term Chicano was suspect. I will not go into etymology here, but suffice to say that it carried a host of negative connotations. Mexicans argued that derived from the word "Chingado" (F.....r) and wondered who in their right mind would choose to call themselves that. Moreover, the term was in competition with terms like Mexican-American, which to many seemed less offensive. We argued that we wanted a term than sounded like us, who were neither completely American, nor Mexican, but part of each. Worse the term "Chicka-no" became a household name, associated to radicals, and Marijuana smoking "greniudos" (long haired), seen on the 6 O'clock news. Many would-be students avoid our classes because of the term.

Another problem was enrollment. If our courses did not reach the magical number 25 by the end of the first week, our courses would be cancelled.  In the first years, courses were packed. In later years, enrollments waned and in desperation, I even offered Richard, my shill, $5 bucks for every student he brought me!
My students, were composed of old timers who never finished high school, young dropouts, vatos from the barrio, entire families, mom, dad and daughters. I started by telling them that they were part of an incredible culture, but that most of it had been suppressed by Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1500. That Mexicans were "Meztizo", a product of Spanish father and Indian mother, an object of shame during Mexico's 300 years of colonization, but an object of pride after the War of Independence in 1810, offspring of two great cultures, European and Native American. That they were children of the great Maya, Toltec and Aztec cultures.

The pedagogy at the time was to attract minority students to the classroom with a curriculum they could identify with, entice them to read, to write papers, to ponder questions they had never dared ask. Appeal to cultural pride was the hook. The pitch. Once hooked, we would send them off with enough skills and self- esteem to enter into the mainstream courses, armed with the belief that they mattered and were just as smart as any Anglo. And for the most part, it worked, and many of my ex-students went on to get Bachelor's, Master's and Ph.D. degrees at some of our best universities. They became college deans, administrators, artists,  professors, professionals, lawyers, social workers.

While the rhetoric in my class was often heated, at no time did I ever advocate the overthrow of the country, or foment dislike of any ethnic group, though we got close with the Spaniards. While some students might have wanted to "take the country back", their notion of how to it, was pretty damned fuzzy. I mean no one in the Barrio that I knew had and tanks, bombs, or airplanes (with the exception of the Royal Chicano Air Force in Sacramento). The overthrow, if it came would be more subtle, a gradual infiltration of American culture through sheer numbers. The return to "Aztlan", a mythical birthplace of the Aztecs, became the symbol of the disenchanted, and the new society many of us fantasized about.

But getting an education would be the first step to liberation I told them. Some resisted. They had problems getting to class, turning in assignments, passing exams. For these, the classroom was a obstacle to the real business of revolution. They were dropped, or dropped out.

Some stormed out of the classroom to beat war drums that were quickly quenched by apathy and ironically, the very limitations posed by their lack of education. In fact, I often served as mediator, quenching discontent between radical groups and individuals. I was a pacifist born of the 50's and 60's. I would have made a poor General in this Revolution. I believed we could walk the narrow rope between cultural pride and outright assimilation without an overthrow. Forget your language and culture was the nativist's mantra. Be like us. We had heard that one for decades. But we could be American without sacrificing our language and our culture. And we would be the better for it, becoming bi-lingual and bi-cultural. 

Moreover, at no time did we ever discourage students of other races or cultural stripes to take our courses. I was in fact, flattered when a brave White or Black soul wandered into one of  my courses. I made extra effort to welcome them, make them comfortable and my students obliged. However, few stayed to finish the semester. Those who did, often offered a hearty handshake, and thanked me "for how much I've learned in this class." Chicanos and Mexicans (from Mexico) shook hands, and thanked me for enlightening them about their common, yet different cultures, because in spite of the myth that they already "knew" it, most were completely ignorant of their past and the role their people played in American and world history.

One brave soul I will never forget, was a Jewish student, one of the most articulate and well-read individuals I ever had. I smelled trouble the first day he arrived. After one heated discussion about the unjust treatment of Mexicans and Chicanos by White Europeans, he exploded: "All you guys do is bitch and moan about how you have been mistreated by other people! Your'e not the only ones! We Jews have also experienced it!" We were in for a hot one now. I let the students respond, as I often did. This was their baby. Hands shot up! "Ok, but we didn't say we were the only ones, did we?!" They clarified. I was the referee. And he took on the whole class by himself, becoming increasingly hot as the debate roared on.

A couple of days later, the student came to my office: "Mr. Rios, I feel very uncomfortable in your class. I feel I am being attacked. I have decided to drop it." I started by thanking him for having the courage to speak out in class. "You pointed out something that we all need to hear. If you feel alienated in my class, welcome to the club. This is what it feels like for us to be the only brown face in a roomful of White faces. It's scary, huh?"  In the end, I succeeded in convincing him to stay and encouraged him to continue to speak up, to challenge us. He did. At the end of that semester he left without even a backward glance or a "thank you." I was used to it.

Life went on and some years later, a friend of mine who was attending CSU, Stanisluas in Turlock, told me "I have a friend at college who says he was one of your ex-students and speaks very highly of you." When she told me his name, I realized it was the Jewish fellow. "Oh?"  I had concluded that his semester in my Chicano Literature course had been as complete disaster, a waste of his time. Some days later she brought me a letter penned by him. I opened it expecting him to chastise me for my course. It read "Mr. Rios how are you? Well, I hope. I just wanted to tell you that of all the classes, and the teachers I have ever had in my life, you are the best and yours was the most meaningful to me. Thanks."

That fear, misinformation, and prejudice might have resulted in non-Hispanic students never having taken one of our Ethnic Studies courses is a tragedy. We fought in vain to add our courses as requirement for any majors aimed at public service, but the best we could do is to be included as one of the many General Education transfer requirements students could choose from. I was satisfied with this.
As the years passed, some of our courses thrived, while others languished with low enrollments. In time, our Ethnic Studies division was dissolved and each Ethnic Studies instructor transplanted to his/her respective department or division, according to discipline. Since I taught Mexican/Chicano Art I now belonged to the Art Department , since I taught Chicano Theater I joined the Drama Department, and since I taught Chicano Literature, the English Department. Strange bedfellows, huh?. Though we fought the dissolution, most of us were grateful we still had a job. Unbeknown to me, this would open new opportunities for my future at the college.

I continued to teach Chicano Literature now in the English Department, and when the time came for me to be evaluated by our Division Chair, I received a glowing report: "Rich, you're a fantastic teacher, and I would love to have you in my department, but you need to go back to school to get a Master's Degree in English." My head spun. English? Me? Go back to school? Without a second thought my wife said "hazlo. I will be there to help you."  While I worked on my degree, I was allowed to teach my first English courses, English 1A and 1B. I cherished being a student again. With an M.A. in English, I was finally legitimized, no longer a bastard-child, as an "Ethnic Studies teacher".

I would tell my English students in jest "Just look at how bad things have become. You now have Mexicans teaching English!' The tables had turned. In truth I will always be grateful to this college, and all those who gave me a chance, and opportunity for my slice of the pie. I became a good teacher I think, and gave my students, who were in sore need of positive role models, the best I had to offer.

A couple of years ago, I was contacted via email by one of my ex-students, Enrique Sepulveda, inviting me to his graduation ceremony at U.C. Davis. For the life of me, I could not remember who he was or when he might have been in one of my courses. It was early June, the temperature already over 100 degrees, and the thought of me sitting through another 2-plus hour ceremony, and the 1 hour drive to Davis, gave me chills, so I decided not to go. He would not even notice my absence in the sea of faces. When I told my wife, she looked at me in dismay and commanded: "Nonsense, you are going to attend!" I reluctantly obeyed.

When I told Enrique I would attend, he was ecstatic. "I have tickets for you and your wife. Just go to the box office when you arrive to pick them up." I was not even sure what the kid looked like. Regardless, I soon discovered the tickets were for two reserved seats, in the auditorium, center section, about three rows back from the front! We sat down and waited. As we read over the program I scanned it to find Enrique's name. He was receiving his PH.D. and would be the student speaker! When the VIP's settled into their folding chairs on stage, I saw a short, brown-faced young man take his place. "That must be Enrique", I whispered, nudging my wife.

"At least it's air-conditioned in here", I thought. When Enrique rose to the podium, he told of his challenging journey, of being raised in a poor Mexican family, of not caring about school, od being ignored and dismissed by his teachers. "It all changed when I met my professor at Delta College in 1984. He showed me that I mattered, that my culture mattered, that I could go to college, and I can honestly say that I am here today because of that teacher, Mr. Richard Rios." He pointed at me and I briefly stood and waved.

The applause flooded me with tears and shame to think that I might have missed out on this special moment because of my complacency and self-indulgence. Evidently, teachers can make a difference in a student's life.

 The rest is history. I continued to teach Chicano Literature to my last day, 33 years later when I retired, convinced more than ever of the validity of Ethnic Studies. May history some day reflect it. We made a difference.

Ethnic Studies: May you Rest In Peace.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Arizona: We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges!

Alfredo Bedoya, famous Mexican actor said it best when he confronts Humphrey Bogart, gringo fortune hunter in the classic film, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" who asks the quintessential (and stereotypical) Mexican Bandido, swarthy, greasy, sweaty in a dirty sombrero with a knick in it: "Who are you?"

"We are the Federales."
"Well, if you're the Federales where's your badges?"
"Badges? Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no stinkin' badges!!"

A recent Arizona legislation gives police the right to demand proof that any person stopped (Betcha' they'll only be Mexicans) for "reasonable suspicion" of having committed a crime must present a document proving they're in the country legally!

But we were staunchly reassured by Arizona's Governor that all of this can be "reasonably" done without racial profiling. Oh, yeah?

Dios Mio, geev me a brake!

Worse, even if the person (Mexican) is here legally but cannot produce proof, he can be detained until it is all cleared up! Oh, no problema just tell your boss you missed last week because you were "detained".

Where in the hell are the Tea Party people when you need them? They, of course will be first on the lines to protest this dismal law since they heartily stand against any intrusion by government against the rights of individuals. Oh, I guess they only do this when the rights of (Americanos) have been violated, right?  But they are mad. Mad as hell.

For most Republicans, Immigration Reform means "round em' up, and ship em' out." All 12 million of them. And of course, Secure the Border which really means hiring more immigration officers and building more and higher fences.

But even the Great Wall of China was breached by marauding armies.

For most Democrats, Immigration Reform means, having the 12 million "get in line" for eventual legalization which opponents "reasonably" call Amnesty. And then tax the hell out of em'!

Maybe, if we curbed our appetite for illegal drugs, sales of guns, and cheap labor it would help.

Meanwhile all the mess is cleared up, we are mad. Mad as Hell. And we don't need no stinkin' badges either!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Up In Smoke: Cho & Lo In A Cultural Misadventure

(Two Vatos pull up on Acacia St. get out of their ranfla and look nervously around. They hold a crumpled up, soiled business card in one hand)

Lo: Ese Cho, are you sure dis' is da right place? Looks purdy spooky to me.
Cho: Pos claro que si. I wrote down da' address on the back of my hand but I think it washed off when I shaved dis' morning! (Laughs at his own joke).  But calmate Homie, it's right here on dis' lil' ol' card check it out: "Pathroads Natural Supplements", see?
Lo: You got the subscription, loco?
Cho: Este Vato. You mean the prescription! Simon, it's right here, mira. (They go inside the building). This shure beats the hell outta' having to buy the stuff from that creepy old Vato down on the corner of Main St. que no?
Lo: (hesitant) Hey Vato, I don't don't hink this is da' right place, look at all the weird pictures they have hangin' on da' walls.
Cho: Looks like the vato who painted this one was on a tripiazo, que no?
Lo: Yeah, look at this one with a piece of cheese hanging out of the vatos' head! And this one, hijola with this woman and a baby lookin' out at da' moon. Man, I cud' just feel this Jefita's love for life and her baby.
Cho: (Excited) And this one with the cactus. Orale, my jefita used to grow cactus in our backyard! We used to eat them!
Lo: This is a cool one too with a Mexican flag draped over a barbed wire fence. And a padlock on the gate.
Cho: Reminds me of all the pedo going on with the illegal aliens, verdad?
Lo: Hey homes, check out how all of the artistas are Chicano names: Gonzalez, Mora, Garcia, Rios, Lua. Are Mexicans the only ones smokin' this stuff?
Cho: Hey Lo, check this out they got all this stuff from Mexico on sale in dis' other room! Check out dis' pot from Michoacan. That's where my Jefitos came from. Orale. You'd never know this was a dispensary, verdad?!
 Lo: Yeah, my Tio used to have one of these posters of Cesar Chavez in his living room.
Cho: But there's nobody here.
Lo: Yeah, the place looks empty.
Cho: (In a loud voice): "Hey, anybody home???"
Lo: "Can we get some service here?"
Girl: (A young girl comes from a back room): "Hi, I'm Maria. How do you like our center?"
Lo: Looks purdy' firme to me, esa.
Cho: Yeah, me too. Kinda makes us feel good to see all this stuff by La Raza, sabes?.
Girl: Yeah, we have art exhibits all year round, and community groups use our space for meetings and different dance groups use it to rehearse. We have Mexican Folklore, Aztec, Salsa and even Haitian.
Cho: Haitian?? Orale, iz dat the girls with da' lil' ol' teensy-weency grass skirts??
Lo: You better chill it, ese. Show a little respeto.
Maria: (Ignores Lo) We also have other cultural events going on, music, poetry, speakers and workshops throughout for young and old during the year.
Cho & Lo: (Together) Orale!! Viva La Raza! You'd never guess this is a dispensary!
Girl: Here's a poster of our upcoming events. You guys can also become members.
Cho & Lo: (Together): Members?? Orale!!
Lo: (Getting Nervous): Give her da' prescription, dude!
Cho: Oh yeah, we're here to pick up some Mota, esa. Here's the prescription.
Girl: (Puzzled & Shocked) Prescription?? Oh my God! You guys got us mixed up with the place next door! They are the ones dispensing Medical Marijuana. This is the Mexican Cultural Center!
Lo: I told you, this wasn't da' right place, didn't I, Loco??
Cho: (Embarrased) Dispensa! It wuz nice to meet you anyway, Maria.
Lo: Yeah, lookin' at all dis' stuff was like a natural high, you know? Maybe you guyz oughta' the ones selling Mota, you'd get more people in here?
Maria: Good Idea!! Anyways, it was nice to meet you guyz. Stop by again!
(As Cho & Lo Exit): We'll be back, Esa!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

On Achieving Farthood: See You at Your Next Colonoscopy!

"Como te veo, me vi; como me ves te veras" is and old Mexican proverb that addresses the idea that we all must grow old, saying to the impudent young: "Go ahead and laugh at me, because how I see you I once was, but how you see me, you will one day be!"

It seems that lately all my friends and I talk about is pain, prescription meds, cataracts, enlarged prostrates, and yes my friend Colonoscopies! We gossip about CT scans, MRI's, Sleep Apnea, Hemorroids, and side-effects.

In between, we share the medicinal secrets of fish oil, daily vitamins and the curative properties of Marijuana, tortillas, Fish Oil, Ginger, Garlic and Meditation.

Go ahead and laugh but where I presently am, you will one day be too.

Dr. Oz and Opra mouth their daily mantras against snoring, obesity, fat, and lack of exercise, and we pay little attention to warnings signs until it is too late. There is something frightening about lab work, x-rays, mammograms, and gloved doctors shoving greased index fingers in our rectums to see if our prostrate has grown since last time!

But a colonoscopy? Oh Lord. Luckily, they put you out. As you sit in the tense lobby full of a dozen other patients you wonder "Are they all here for the same thing? Even that good looking young lady over there?"

We watch in horror as previous patients leave, searching in desperation for some sign on their face suggesting it will be horrible. "It's a breeze", one lady says to us, and chuckles, as she is led out of the office.

In truth, the worst part of the whole thing is Prep Day, 24 hours before the procedure and being restricted to a diet of liquid foods, jello! But even that pales against what awaits you at 4 and 6 o'clock that day: having to ingest two (2) 10 oz. bottles of that crap "Sodium Nitrate", and the boweled Vesuvius that follows! Not even my trusted Preparation H was any help!

Anyway, it's all over now and I'm home-free for another 5 years. "Can I get a picture of my hemorroids?" One lady in the adjacent cubicle asked. "Sorry", said the nurse, "but I can give you a picture of mine if you want", she quipped. No thanks.

I was given a photocopy of the inside of my colon; I have absolutely no idea why. Would anybody like to see it? So go right ahead and laugh, but I just attended a funeral for a young female friend who died of colon cancer just days before her 48th birthday. It's really not funny at all.

See you at my next colonoscopy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

San Patricio Battalion: A Mexican St. Patrick's Day

Few history books will tell the incredible story of The San Patricio Batallion, one that seems appropriate to recall during this season of St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. As a kid, the only thing I knew about the day was that if I didn't wear something green to school I would get pinched!

Before 1835, a big chunk of Southwestern U.S. was Mexican Territory, including California and Texas. As the U.S. began its westward expansion, Texas became prime realty for the Americanos who at first sought to live in peace with the Mexicans (Catholics) there. But when American ambition grew, a war broke out between Mexico and the U.S., the so-called Mexican War, or Mexican-American War. President James Polk declared war against Mexico in 1846.

To fill its ranks, the U.S. solicited enlistees from the mass of new immigrants, many of them Irish, seeking to escape The Great Hunger of 1845. These were promised land and wages for fighting on the American side, but the strong anti-Catholic sentiments of their new found country became quickly evident. The "Potato Heads", were a prime target for this discrimination.

The war was not a popular one in the U.S. The Mexican army was no match against one better trained with superior weapons. Moreover, the greed behind Manifest Destiny and westward expansion prompted many soldiers to defect and dessertion rates were high. The Irish soldiers embraced the notion that this was a war attacking ordinary farmers for their land.

But when these soldiers witnessed atrocities, rape, plunder and desecration of Catholic churches in Texas, some (including German Catholics) deserted, joining the Mexican forces to fight against their own country. Mexico, of course, took advantage of the situation encouraging the would-be defectors not to fight against their own religion and stop the U.S. from destroying Catholicism. For foreigners to fight in Mexican Wars was not uncommon and dated back to Mexico's War of Independence in 1810.

Mexican General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana decreed that two infantry companies of about 100 men each, be formed, calling them "El Batallon de San Patricio (St. Patrick's Batallion)", each with its own captains, leiutenants, and sergeants. They were even permitted to fly their own banner, depicting St. Patrick, a Mexican coat of arms, reading "Libertad Por La Republica" on one side, and the Irish motto "Erin go Braugh" on the other.

The San Patricios fought and distinguished themselves in two important battles, the Battle of Buena Vista (near Saltillo) on February 23-24 of 1847, and in the final battles against the U.S. Marines at the convent of Churubusco on the outskirts of Mexico City on August 19-20, that same year.

Following Mexico's devastating defeat at Churubusco, the U.S. captured and tried some of the remaining San Patricios, found them guilty of desertion, and hung more than 50 soldiers. A few were pardoned, while others were flogged, beaten and branded with the letter "D" (deserter). After the final battle at Chapultepec Castle, the condemned soldiers were hung facing an American flag, raised in triumph over the castle.

The Mexican population rioted in protest over the inhumane treatment of the San Patricio's, threatening 
 to kill American prisoners in retalliation.

When the war ended, the U.S. sought to extradite the remaining San Patricios to the U.S. but Mexico prevailed, spelling out in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which formally ended the conflict, that they would remain in Mexico. Incidentally, Mexico lost about 40% of its territory as a result of the war.

Mexicans showed their gratitude to the San Patricios by erecting a monument in Mexico City honoring the "Martires Irlandeses" (Irish Martyrs), and by establishing September 12, the day of their executions, as a national day of remembrance with a plaque at Churubusco. The street in front of the convent is also called Martires Irlandeses.

They are also remembered on St. Patrick's Day, March 17 each year. Maybe the color green on Mexico's flag is not incidental?

Needless to say, the story was not a popular one in the U.S. media or history books and not until 1915, did the U.S. War Department even acknowledge existence of the San Patricio Batallion and the U.S.' treatment of them, after that devastating war.

Surviving members continued to function as a military unit in Mexico after the war, and some later returned to Ireland.

Lest we forget: Que Vivan Los San Patricio's!!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Going On To Pink Slip Heaven: Save Our Schools

Went on a "Save Our Schools" protest march last night which ended up with a rally at my old Alma Mater, San Joaquin Delta Community College in Stockton. But I, being a senior citizen (70), had seriously underestimated the 2-plus mile distance of the march and was forced to rest a few moments on the bridge over the Calaveras River (aptly meaning "skeleton" in Spanish), alongside University of the Pacific, the oldest university in California. The muddy runoff below roughly raced to the west.

The orderly line had begun to split up, people struggled to keep up. Some dropped out or gave up. I was doing it for something. Myself? To maintain an image of old self? For others? Education? Still a mile to go!

Speaking of skeletons, the marchers had secured an old coffin and fixed an effigy of a  cadaver inside, signifying the "Death of Education", carrying it at the front by pall bearers, followed by the revelers. The hundreds who attended were mostly educators, administrators, board of trustee members, union members, teachers and students, from all over the county, Ripon, Manteca, Tracy, Lodi. Moms with children in strollers.

A lone helicopter circled overhead, its blades chopping loudly into the wind, signs and banners everywhere and cars honking in support. It was wild, reminiscent of the old days, the anti-war and Huelga (Farmworker) marches of the late 60's-70's. The media, here and there interviewed people and shot photos.

Roberto Radrigan, the consumate journalist, hoofed it all the way, darting back and forth from the front to the back of the line, shooting photos, once counting passersby with his fingers, and then passing out copies of his local paper, Bilingual Weekly.

As the marchers pulled away, and I joined in, my eyes welled with tears. I tried to understand why. Why was I crying? Me, a grown man? I tried to not let anyone see. My oldest son kept texting me with updates of what was going on in San Francisco, Los Medanos College, UC BerkeleyOakland where protestors had closed down a freeway, UC Davis, of students being arrested. This was big.

Ours was a law abiding, peaceful march and we made sure to stop at all the red lights, crossing only on green. However, when we arrived at Delta College, I was completely overcome with tears. I felt so grateful that destiny had led me to become a teacher here for 33 years.

I thought of the hundreds of students I taught and how hard I had tried to instill in them the pearl, the gem of free thought.  Just as it had been instilled in me by the incredible teachers who crossed my path in high school, in college. For a moment, I was overcome by gratitude.

For a young Mexican to come out of a poor Mexican barrio in South Modesto, and go to college in the 1950's was nearly unheard of. My two Masters Degrees, one in art, one in English, stand guard on the wall, even as I write this, one to the left, one to the right. My prize possessions. Education changed my life.

Then, the tears dried when the speakers began, and it dawned on me that this, this gift, this pearl was on the brink of extinction in light of proposed cutbacks to California schools of 17 billion! Consequently, Stockton Unified School District has sent out 290 "pink slips". Other local districts follow. Class cuts. Fee hikes. Increased class sizes. Layoffs. The news, not new, was grim.

Afterwards, my wife and I went to Manny's on Pacific Avenue and ate an Avocado Burger on Genova French Bread with a side of chile beans. I felt guilty.  

People need to speak out on this! I think I will: Manny's makes great burgers!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Angel De La Guardia: Our Guardian Angel

As a child, I remember this image on a calendar my mom had pinned on a wall of our bedroom. It gave me a wonderful sense of peace to think that God had assigned each of us with a heavenly defender to keep us from stumbling.

"Pray to your Guardian Angel for protection", she would say.

The bridge which the two children cross in the image is old, and rickety, a board missing on the crosswalk, and could collapse at any moment sending the children tumbling into the cold waters below.

When I think of how many rickety bridges I have crossed in my life, some I might even have lost my life to, was it fate, luck or angelic or divine intervention that spared me?

Surely, to live, is to step out in faith. The boards beneath us are groaning, moaning and crackling; they bend with our weight.

In the middle of the bridge, we can risk going forward, or risk returning.

Angel de la Guardia, protect us.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Real Cactus Society Meets Today

I saw an ad in our local paper that the Cactus Society has regular meetings and I wonder who they are and what they discuss at their meetings. Do they compare species? Talk or sing to the cacti? Whisper to them? Get into a circle and watch them grow?

As far as I am concerned, the real cactus society is the Mexicans. The history of the importance of cactus in Mexican culture has probably not been written but it might go something like this:

Not only do Mexicans eat many species of cactus, but the plant has many other amazing functions. The Aztecs, for example, used to pluck off a spine, making sure a long thin strand of skin peeled off with it, and then used it as a needle and thread, in one, to sew clothes with. The skin was also peeled off, dried and used as paper to draw and paint on.

They also discovered that a strong rope could be made from the dried skeleton or hemp of the cactus. The dried, cactus spears and trunks, also made for a long, hot burning fire to keep them warm or to cook on.

For Mexicans, eating the new shoots of cactus (my mother stressed they had to be cut before 10 am to preserve the tangy flavor), diced and cooked, and with onions, a clove of garlic, and then topped with freshly diced tomato and cilantro is a delicacy. Another special treat became the "tuna"- or cactus pears - that grow on many species. Carefully removed from spears full of notoriously vicious spines, they are peeled and the seedy crimson, yellow or white, pulpy meat inside tastes like jam!

But beware! It takes a masterful surgeon to avoid the harmless looking needles, like powdery puffs around the pear. While they don't ply their evil upon touching them, the nearly invisible spines tenaciously cling to your hands for days, hounding you each time your fingers brush up against anything, the price of your foolhardiness. It is worth the treat, though.

Throughout Mexico, in market places or along the highways, one can buy them from the Indians already peeled, and chilled over a block of ice! My favorites are the white pears; they are amazingly sweet. Don't sweat the over-sized seeds inside, just swallow them and your body will process them harmlessly and naturally.

The ancients also discovered peyote, a powerful hallucinogenic cactus reserved for the priests and religious ceremonies, still used by groups such as the Huicholes of central Mexico and native Americans in the Southwest.

Pulque, Tequila and Mezcal are alcholic beverages squeezed and fermented from the Maguey and other species of cactus. It must have taken inspired minds to figure this out.

Many say - and believe - that cactus is "la comida de los pobres" (a poor man's food), but I think that even if I was rich, I would still eat them!

So, the real cactus society meets today for lunch. Want to join? Cactus is on the 3-course menu: cactus salad, pears for dessert, with an aperitif of mezal or tequila. for Dues are affordable, but bring your gloves!!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Mexican Folk Art: For A Song and A Dance

As I helped hang the incredible tapestries of Leo De Los Angeles in a recent exhibit at the Mexican Heritage Center in Stockton, I was struck by the incredible journey this art form has taken from its ancient Oaxacan- Zapotecan roots, from grandfather, to father, to son, of being peddled in plazas and tourist sites to buyers from Los Angeles, Las Vegas to Copenhagen, to an insignificant cultural center showcasing Mexican heritage in Central California.

The prices for his pieces range from $700. to $5000. for a spectaluar blanket 8'x10' in size! A giveaway when you compare this to what a Navajo blanket or Persian rug demands! Peanuts. Yet, people around here raise their brows at the prices. They don't know. In San Francisco, people would not blink twice.

For too long, American and European tourists have flocked to Mexico purchasing exquisite art and folk art for a song and a dance. They thrive on the rush of haggling with the local artists and craftsmen and sadly, the artisans have bought into it too. They expect it. Especially from their compatriots who are relentless at the art of "repelar", of being able to strip down any poor vendor to pennies on the dollar. Besides, most Mexicans see little value in folk art. That is for the tourists.

"Pido S500 pesos, senor." "I'll give you $250" "No se puede, senor. Es mucho el trabajo... deme $350? "I'll pay you $300, no mas." "Andele pues, Senor... $300" And we slink off with our treasure to  brag about how we "stole it" to our friends back home. We're talking "pesos" here, say $12.50 for each American dollar! Cacahuates.

Meanwhile Mexican art galleries and high-end crafts outlets will sell the same piece for $300. "American", while the indian or indigenous artisans get peanuts again. Not only has the peso seen devaluation, but so has anything "Mexican".

In the popular imagination, genuine handcrafts are confused with tourist trinkets at "Tiajuana"  market places. The plaster donkeys, and stereotypical figurines of a lazy Mexican leaning up against a cactus abound.

It's a sin which began with the European invasion of Mexico in the 1500's, when the Spaniards demolished all things representing the indigenous peoples, books, art, sculpture, paintings, and architecture. Dazzing gold masterpieces of jewelry and art, where melted into gold bricks and shipped to Europe.

Fine art was stripped from throughout Mexico and shipped to Europe, eventually finding its way to the homes of the rich and museums world wide. The actual Quetzal head dress of Moctezuma, the last king of the Aztecs, a showpiece of gold and irredecent emerald plumes, found its way to a museum in Vienna, a copy of it was left for the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City! 

It has since betwen returned.

Now the art of collecting has moved to e-Bay, and specialized cites plying Mexican Folk Art at exhorbitant prices. 

All but gone are exciting forays throughs deserts, mountains and jungles to villages and market places where the art is actually created.

And nearly extinct is the joy of buying it from the artisan himself, not from smug dealers or collectors.

Monday, February 1, 2010

In The Ancient Zapotec Tradition: A Ten.

I met Leo De Los Angeles some months back, at a Multi-cultural Fest that was held locally. He was wandering around with his little son who kept tugging his shirt, encouraging him to stop at our booth.

I was manning the booth for The Mexican Heritage Center in Stockton, and Leo introduced himself as a weaver. I told him about the center, explaining that central to our mission our was to exhibit local Latin0/Chicano artists, and to showcase the beauty and history and of Mexican culture . I invited him to visit us.

Not long after, Leo showed up at one of our meetings with a binder full of photos of his exquisite tapestries and carpets. We were stunned.

Thus, grew the concept for our latest exhibit titled "El Arte del Telar" (Art of the Loom). As we hung the show, I grilled Leo about his art, a craft handed down to him as a child from his grandfather and father in Oaxaca.

He referred to them and himself as "diestra" weavers. For a while, he seemed pressed to define the word, then smiled as he found the syonymn: "master weaver". His natural humility remained intact, even as he said this.

Yes, Leo is a master weaver in the tradition handed down to him by the ancient Zapotecs of his birthplace.

When I pointed to one of my favorites (pictured behind him in the photo), an 8' x 10' zinger hanging on the wall and asked "How long did it take you to make it?" He answered: "Three months", adding "on a scale of 1-10, this one is a 5."

"A five?!" I exclaimed. "Do you have any 10's in this show?" I strained to even imagine a 10.

"I have a couple of 7's, on that wall", he mused.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Red and Red Lights

As I hit about six red lights in a row the other day, it occurred to me that I hit one about 85% of the time I drive up to an intersection. Why is it? One would think the odds would be 50-50.
Have you ever noticed that red lights seem last forever? That they are twice as long as green lights?
Red lights strike terror in us. Holy Frijoley, a $250 ticket! The camera on the light posts is forever vigilant.
Did you hear that California's illustrious Governor wants to attach a device to the camera that can also record the speed at which you cross the intersection? That means not just a possible ticket for crossing a red light, but another for speeding through an intersection! Got to make up that 80 billion dollar budget deficit somehow.
We race through yellow lights just to avoid one. Sometimes, during commute hours we have to endure two or three red lights in a row, just to get across an interersection!!
The color red seems to have a historical connotation to things of terror: war, blood (The red in the Mexican flag symbolizes the bloodshed of wars and revolutions), violence, passion, love and jealousy. We send a red rose to signify love. Mars is red. Commies were "reds." Then, there are the red-necks, people go "red-in-the-face". E-gads, I used to have red hair!!
Then there is the red of "red-light districts" of old, houses of ill-repute.
Have you ever noticed how when you drive up to an intersection and you see one of those "will-work-for-money" guys standing there, and no matter how much you speed up, the light always turns red? His sign looms in your window, rattling your self-importance. You fidget, toss and squirm knowing you have a wad in your wallet, or you just cashed your check.
Those red lights are far longer. Maybe it's Karma. You console yourself with the usual moral justifications for not giving of "well, the guy probably has a Mercedes parked around the corner", or "why don't they get a job, like me?"
I am just asking for justice, for equality. That some Cosmic-Power-That-Be see to it that we get equal time, a balanced amount of green vs. red lights. Would that asking too much?