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.