Thursday, June 11, 2020

Music Makers: Notes from Habana

Osvaldo & Alga Marina
In the winter of 2017, I took my second trip to Cuba. I had gone the previous year with my friend, Helene, and I fell in love with the place. This trip the plan was to meet my friends Fred and Faye in Habana and spend a couple of weeks exploring the music scene there. Fred is an accomplished sax player and wanted to play with some Cuban musicians. I had some good connections in my friends Osvaldo and Alga Marina. They had lined me up with people to photograph the previous year and we had formed a strong bond in a short time. Osvaldo was a talented jeweler and Alga Marina had been an educator. They were both very involved in the Cuban Revolution, especially in regards to the arts. So when I asked them if they could put me in touch with someone who could arrange for Fred to play with some Havana musicians, they did not hesitate.

Gerardo Portillo
 A few days later I was contacted by a french horn player named Portillo. He offered to help in any way he could. His brother was a well known jazz pianist and Portillo thought he could get Fred a gig playing with them. As a professional musician, he had lots of good contacts. Since I had arrived in Cuba a week before Fred and Faye, I arranged to meet Portillo one afternoon in Havana and talk about possibilities. I mentioned to him that I was a photographer and asked if it would be ok to take some shots during my stay. He assured me that that would be fine and offered to arrange for me to photograph a few of his musician friends

La mamá de Portillo

We met again the next day and he invited me to a rehearsal of one of the national bands he belonged to. After the rehearsal he asked me if I would be willing to go to his mother's house and take a photo of her. She was old and in poor health.When we arrived, we found her not doing well at all; I was only able to get one shot  for Portillo. She died a few days later.

Amadito Valdéz: Percussionist of Buena Vista

Portillo then told me we were going to the home of Amadito Valdez, one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club. We stopped at a cultural kiosk and I bought a copy of a new biography about Amadito, upon his request. When we arrived, Amadito signed my book and wasted no time getting to the point: He wanted to do a tour in the US and he wanted me to help arrange it! Buena Vista no longer existed as the original group, and he was in dire need of work. I told him I knew nothing about such things and he responded that it did not matter. He had press releases I could use, and he felt his fame would carry him a good distance in the US. He also thought that Fred, being a musician, must have contacts that could be interested. I did set him up with a cultural promoter in Oaxaca, but nothing ever came of it.

 Portillo and I got together once more before Fred and Faye arrived. This time he arranged for me to take some shots of two very popular female vocalists, Zule Guerra ( Dayme Arocena. Zule was an up and coming artist who had drawn a lot of attention in the 2015 Habana Jazz Festival. Dayme was an Afro Cuban jazz vocalist who had  won the 2015 Juno award for best jazz album ( I could never have had this opportunity without Portillo's help.
Dayme Arocena
Zule Guerra

The following day my friends were arriving in Habana. I had arranged for a nice apartment in Vedado, a short guagua (1950's taxi) ride from Habana Vieja. Portillo had come through nicely; he had arranged three gigs for Fred with some of Habana's finest jazz players. The adventure was about to begin.

Part 2 to follow soon and will include a visit to Cuba's Escuela Nacional de Arte.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Simple Life: Tecla & Nahum

This winter I made my first visit to Capulálpam, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Mágico. Tucked away in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca at 6700 feet, it is deserving of the title. It is a pueblo that prides itself on its environmental consciousness, the preservation of its Zapotec roots, and the sincere friendliness of its inhabitants.

I had wanted to go to Capulálpam for some time and had some possibilities of finding people to photograph for my project on occupations. A visit from my amiga, Shawna, gave me an added incentive to go. I had one contact there, Doña Tecla, a Zapotec women I had met while giving a workshop on children’s literature three years earlier. I had used the book The Woman Who Outshone the Sun: the Legend of Lucia Zenteno. It is a story about the importance of Mother Nature in our lives, especially the importance of water. The Zapotec poet that first published the story as a poem, Alejandro Cruz Martinez, was killed in 1987 while organizing the Zapotecs to regain their lost water rights. Doña Tecla reminds me very much of Lucia Zenteno both in her appearance and her spirit. She had invited me to Capulálpam to share the book with a group of woman working on a water rights project, but I was unable to go at that time. I searched Tecla out during this visit.
Capulálpam is a small pueblo where everyone knows everyone else, so it was not difficult to find her. I went to the community library where she works everyday for a few hours and we reconnected. She invited us to visit her and her husband, Nahum, the next morning. They have a small business that opens their home to students from the States who want to learn about the traditional Zapotec ways of life. They stay at their home, study the medicinal plants that grow in the garden and how to use them, and observe and learn about traditional farming techniques and food preparation. The day that Tecla invited us, they had no other visitors. I asked permission to photograph her making tortillas and she readily consented. She was proud to continue making tortillas by hand as her mother and grandmother before her had done. She uses non-GMO, maiz criollo (organic corn) grown from the seed bank of their ancestors and takes it to the local molino (mill) to be ground. It is the way that everyone used to do it, but nowadays even in Capulápam long-lived, traditional ways are changing. Doña Tecla served us a breakfast of salsa de huevos, freshly baked bread, and hot chocolate, a specialty of Oaxaca. When we finished, Nahum started the wood fire under the comal and Tecla began working the corn masa to
make her tortillas. We spent a wonderful morning together and were treated to fresh, hot tortillas right off the comal with a sprinkle of salt! When we left, I told them I would be back in a couple weeks with printed photos for them and to do a more formal portrait as well as a video interview.

Three weeks later I returned to Capulálpam with my camera, my portable backdrop, and tripod. I met Tecla at the library and we set a time for the next morning. When I arrived, her long, black hair was still drying in the morning sun and she had on a beautiful Zapotec huipil (blouse). She was Lucia Zenteno reincarnated! I asked her to gather the essential items to include in the portrait that would help define her occupation. She chose to bring her metate (grinding stone) a basket of maiz criollo, and her stone rolling pin. She looked exquisitely timeless.

When we finished the portrait shots, Nahum joined us for the interview. I have a structured set of questions for the interview that allows for the interviewees to expand on the questions or introduce something more that they feel is important. My interview with Tecla and Nahum was slow moving. They answered the questions briefly and succinctly, but at the end of the interview, I felt that I had not succeeded in drawing out their stories, that I had not gotten a true picture of who they were. Often people take a question and run with it; they use words to paint a picture of their life. But Tecla and Nahum are not in that category. They paint the picture of their life with their actions. 

It wasn't until later that day that I realized this; they had told me their stories with much depth and clarity. “Their story” was one of simplicity; their lives are centered round their home, their land and their traditions. They choose to live in another time, one that much of the world has long left behind to become “more modern”.  What matters to Tecla and Nahum is preserving the ancestral values and customs that have given their lives meaning. They continue to select the seeds they plant from the
seed banks they have preserved; they plow the fields using a team of oxen and a wooden plow that does not harm the earth as a tractor often does. They grow the vast majority of the food they eat and treat themselves with natural herbs from their garden when they are ill. This is what keeps them happy and healthy. 

In this time of pandemic I ask myself what will change for them? They already live a relatively isolated life as many campesinos (farmers) do. A part of their income comes from the foreigners who visit them to learn about their traditional lifestyle. But the border between the US and Mexico is now closed, depriving them of that much needed source of income. I have no doubt that they will survive despite this setback. They are self sufficient and incredibly able people. I am more concerned that if the virus is brought in, it could be devastating to the pueblo. Indigenous peoples have repeatedly been decimated by disease brought into their communities from the outside. I truly hope that their ancient wisdom and strong sense of community will protect them. For it seems evident to me that this pandemic will make us all reflect on how to live more simply and more wisely. This is what Tecla and Nahum have been doing all of their lives.

Doña Tecla invited me to return and exhibit some of my photos from Capulálpam on May 15th, the Fiesta de Maiz, one of the most important festival in the pueblo. I agreed and had purchased my return ticket to Oregon to allow me to be present at the Fiesta. The pandemic has changed that plan. 

Deek and Nahum    Photo: Shawna Harvey

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Preserving the Tradition: The Feather Art of Elfego Lopez Luis y Soledad Valentin Navarro

Elfego Lopez Luis and Soledad Valentin Navarro are feather artists. For over forty-five years they have dedicated themselves to creating penachos (headdresses)  for the dancers in the Valle Central of Oaxaca who perform La Danza de la Pluma (The Feather Dance). La Danza de la Pluma is a two-day long dance consisting of thirty-five different dances that depict the Conquista of Mexico by the Spaniards. The Spanish used the dance as a way to incorporate Catholicism in the native cultures, but it has also proved to be a vehicle for preserving indigenous traditions. Despite the fact that the Spaniards decimated the native populations by as much as ninety percent, their rich cultural traditions have survived and prospered. This is what gives meaning to the work that Elfego and Soledad do: preserving the traditions of their Zapotec ancestors. 
Soledad's father was a feather dancer and he also made penachos. As a child, she learned to make them working by his side. Elfego danced for three years in a local group and when he and Soledad married, they decided to dedicate themselves to making penachos. In time he learned to take accurate measurements and and build the frames for the penachos so that they are well balanced and comfortable to dance with. "What I like best about my work", he told me, "is that it has a purpose. It i a way to stay in touch with our roots and honor our ancestors. People seek us out to make their penachos and they appreciate our work".

In essence, what Elfego and Soledad do is draw with feathers. They are brought designs that the dancers want incorporated into the penacho and they have to figure how how to weave the colored feathers to create the desired design. Elfego commented that it is more than a craft; it is an art form. They both welcome the challenge and get much satisfaction from using their talents to please their patrons.
In order to maintain the large stock of feathers needed to make the penachos,  Elfego goes to small communities in the sierra when they have festive celebrations like weddings or quinceaneras. In the pueblos a large number of turkeys are slaughtered to make mole for the guests attending. Elfego gets permission to attend the celebration to buy the turkey feathers. He helps deplume the birds, a rather long and tedious job. But he enjoys the social aspect of meeting new people and sharing their traditions. "Both of us are happy", he told me. "Their job is done quicker and I get my feathers. After doing this, one realizes the value of a feather".
Elfego and Soledad have found a meaningful rhythm to their lives. In the morning Elfego goes out and works the fields he has planted with corn, beans and squash and Soledad tends to the things that have to be done in the home. And from mid-morning to near sunset they work on their penachos. Working from home allows them to be with their children and grandchildren and teach them their art form so that the Danza de la Pluma will not die out. "It is very important that we teach our children this because if we do not, our traditions will begin to die out. And if they die out, communities will not have their fiestas and cultural celebrations to give them a respite from their work. These are the roots of our ancestors and we must preserve them along with our mother tongue".
The wonders of technology have offered young people other often more tempting paths to follow as a livelihood and many of the old ways are slowly fading. However, the Zapotec pride that 
still flows through the veins of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca gives hope that the Danza de la Pluma will still be performed for many years to come, and that the feather art of Elfego and Soledad will be continued by their children, maintaining a strong framework for the Zapotec rituals and traditions to survive and flourish in future generations. 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Making Mezcal: The Livelihood of Juan de Dios

Juan de Dios and his team of oxen
Juan de Dios is a mezcalero, a distiller of the maguey cactus that is the signature alcoholic spirit of Oaxaca. He has been in the mezcal business for forty-six years, since he was five. His still is on the family ranch in Santiago Yogana, Oaxaca, where his father farmed and produced mezcal before him. It is a trade that is passed down in a family and you learn by doing. You inherit the land and the work that goes with it.
I first met Juan de Dios at my friend Luis’ place, in Ejutla, an hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca. Luis is a leather artisan and a participant in my “oficios” (occupations) project. I had told Luis that I was looking for a mezcalero to photograph and interview and he told me he would introduce me to one. The next time I visited Luis, Juan showed up and invited me out to his still the next day to photograph. I gladly accepted.
El Equipo: The Crew and me
I arrived in Ejutla early to take the cooperativo pick-up to the small, isolated pueblo of Yogana. I told the driver where I was going and he said he would let me off near Juan’s place. Forty-five minutes later he dropped my off at the end of a dirt road that ran into a river. “It’s just across the river, you can see it from here. There is a foot bridge to get across”. And sure enough, I found Juan at his still waiting for me.

Grinding the maguey cooked piñas
Since that day I have been to Juan’s several times to photograph and interview him. Since I always try to do business with the people who are kind enough to share their stories with me, Juan has become my “mezcalero”. He showed me the whole process from start to finish. He brought out his team of oxen to grind the maguey hearts (piñas). A good team of oxen costs around 50,000 pesos ($2500 US) and lasts about two years before they need to be replaced. He took me to his earthen “horno” (oven) where the piñas are cooked and showed me several different types of maguey used in making mezcal.
Delivery of Tobalá piña
He explained that he plants some of the maguey plants such as Espadin and Arroqueño,and buys other wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe which are now difficult to find due to the boom in the popularity of mezcal around the world. It takes a plant six years to reach maturity and Juan plants 100-200 plants a year. But the wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe are dying out and are being over-harvested to meet the public demand. 
Juan is a small producer. He still does things the way that his father taught him many years ago. He does not have the right to bottle and label his mezcal and thus has to sell his product in bulk at a very low price. He sell his mezcal for 150 pesos for five liters. ($7.50). That is $1.50 a liter. In high end bars in the Oaxaca, mezcal is going for 100 pesos a shot ($5). He dreams about finding a market in the USA; he even suggested that i might help him with that. But I am afraid that is well out of my realm of expertise.
When I asked Juan what was the most difficult thing about his work he said,"being a mezcalero is not work. Some youth choose to go north to the USA to earn money. You need to have "ganas" (desire) to be a mezcalero. I enjoy my work, I learned how to do it well, I am proud of the mezcal that I make, and it allows me to provide for my family". What more can a man ask for? 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Life Set in Print

When I visited master printer Gabriel Quintas Castellaños in his workshop in Oaxaca Centro, I immediately knew we would make a strong connection. The Keis family has ink running through its veins. My father was a lithographer, my grandfather a typesetter for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and several of my uncles were also in the trade. It was what you did if you were a male in the Keis family. Being the first in the family to go to college, I broke with tradition. But the ink is still in my veins and my encounter with Quintas brought it to the surface again.

At age seventy-six, Quintas has been in the printing business for sixty-seven years: seven years as an apprentice and sixty years as a printer. When he was ten years old, he left for Mexico City alone and got a job working for the newspaper El Universal". He rented a tiny room in the attic of a building on Cinco de Mayo and worked an eight hour shift at El Universal learning to typeset and how to do maintenance of printing presses. 

He returned to Oaxaca at age fourteen and set up his own print shop. He began by typesetting newspapers and traveled extensively in the state of Oaxaca publishing newspapers not only in Spanish, but also in Zapotec. In addition, he  printed one hundred posters daily for local cinemas, dances and other cultural events. 

In 1987 he gave up publishing newspapers and devoted himself solely to commercial work and typesetting artist books and posters for exhibitions and cultural events. 
At that time he also began to buy presses and boxes of letters from print shops that were going out of business. What he has accumulated over the years amounts to a museum of printing in Oaxaca. He has over 4000 boxes of letters of all sizes and materials. He has also written a history of printing in Oaxaca that is near being finished. It is his hope that before he dies, he will be able to create a museum of printing so that the younger generation will be able to know how things were done in the pre-computer era. In this day and age of advanced technology, typesetting is a dying profession. Quintas sees the artistic aspect of his trade falling by the wayside as people choose the easier but less permanent form of publishing. In Quintas' words, "Dura más la más pálida tinta que la más brillante memoria" (the most pale of inks outlasts the most brilliant memory).

Despite some serious health issues, Quintas continues to work eight to ten hours a day in his print shop. "Es una vida bonita que he pasado tantos años aquí y sigo trabajando a la edad de 76 que tengo". 
"I love everything about my work, everything. This has been my life since I was a child. This has been my whole life".

Quinta's wife works with him daily, running the small Heidelberg press and binding books. They are the "old-timers of the trade, the "puristas". According to 

Quintas, "typesetters create as they work to make a piece that is pleasing to the eye". He is proud of his ability to always keep the aesthetic as his guiding principle. 

Right before I left Oaxaca to return to Oregon, Quintas typeset a poem I want to use in a photography exhibit here in three languages: Spanish, Zapotec and English. He welcomed the challenge of publishing in languages that were not his mother tongue and the final printing was without error in any of them.

Craftspeople like Gabriel Quintas are rare nowadays as is his profession of typesetting. The pride that he takes in his work  and the quality of what he produces is admirable. May his history of printing in Oaxaca be published and may his dream museum be realized while he is still on this earth. He has indeed lead the life of an artist, set in print.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Muxe: A Poem that Never Dies

We live in an increasing changing world, for better and for worse. What used to be taboo is in some ways becoming more visible in today’s world. And yet we often seem to take one step forward and two steps back in our evolutionary process. I would like to focus on the issue of transgender in this blog entry. My visit to Juchitán to partake in la Vela de las Auténticas Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro was a unique cultural event that I was privileged to experience. The three-day celebration was not held last year as the city was in mourning over the devastating earthquake that shook Juchitán in September 2017. The event is now in its forty-third year and is dedicated to St. Vincent Ferrar, the patron saint of Juchitán.
Since I know very little about the transgender world, I do not want to try to give information that I do not know first hand. It is best for me to share the photographs that I took while in Juchitán and let someone knowledgeable inform us about the world of the muxes.
I am very fortunate to have a friend, Elvis Guerra, a muxe from Juchitán, who is a very talented poet. Elvis, who writes in both Zapotec and Spanish, was the winner of the Premio CaSa 2015 for poetry. My photos are a very shallow glimpse into the world of the muxes, a three day look into a very complex world with many layers. Elvis' words go to the very core of it. I sincerely want to thank Elvis for giving his permission to use his poem (originally written in Zapotec and Spanish), Erica Nava for translating it into English, and to all the wonderful people of Juchitán de Zaragoza for their willingness to share their incredibly rich culture so openly with us.

A Muxe is…
Muxe is a leap into the mouth of the abyss.

Muxe is an ever-dazzling smile.
Muxe is a native Zapoteco that dreams he is a princess.
Muxe is a body of a man with the voice of a woman.
Muxe is a joke in school, a burst of laughter in the street, a clown for all.
Muxe is a universe populated by men.
Muxe is being naked in a stare-filled street.
Muxe is a “yes” to everything and to everyone.
Muxe is to challenge the other, to those that hate and have never learned to love.
Muxe is a skirt imbued with hand-embroidered flowers.
Muxe is the one that drinks the wine of brave men.
Muxe is a home, always open.
Muxe is the one that never says “no”.
Muxe is to look in the eyes of those who disregard you
Muxe is to dream that you marry a man.
Muxe is to walk to the altar on the arm of the father who never knew how to love you.
Muxe is the one who was beaten up by his brothers.

Muxe is the boy who played with a doll made of sticks.
Muxe is the one arriving at a party all dressed up
Muxe is carrying a flower in your mouth.
Muxe is a fire on the mountain.
Muxe is waking up with an erection in a mini-skirt.
Muxe is the boy who wants to wear a huipil to his drawing class.
Muxe is the cantina and its dust-filled womb.
Muxe is De Profundis by Oscar Wilde.
Muxe is a student kicked out of his home.
Muxe is an ever-eternal instant.
Muxe is a 65cm waist and a 19 cm penis.
Muxe is the pride of the family. Wait no… that´s false.
Muxe is freedom that is battered.

Muxe is a high-heel that never breaks.
Muxe is the eye that cries for many men.
Muxe is an arm, a leg and many hearts.
Muxe is the movie that you´ll watch your whole life and never finish.
Muxe are those that were born hurt.
Muxe is the corn that never sows its seeds.
Muxe is the flower that falls apart to perfume your bed.
Muxe is a very expense velvet huipil.
Muxe is an etching by Goya.
Muxe is the accent that gives meaning to words.
Muxe is the legitimate mother of freedom.
Muxe is a tortilla that you eat, but don´t recognize .
Muxe is the food you push aside in public, but enjoy in private.
Muxe is the bitch that bites your ear at 11 o´clock at night.
Muxe is a never-ending dance.
Muxe is a poem that will never die.



For anyone interested in excellent resources on issues of gender and bodies to share with children, check out the important work being done by Maya Christina  Gonzalez. .