Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Working to His Heart's Content

Roberto with his newly tanned hides
Roberto Sanchez is a curtidor (tanner). He learned his profession from his father many years ago, but left it temporarily to explore other occupations. He tried working in the campo (fields), construction work, and a few others, but eventually he came back to tanning when he was forty. He spoke to me in Spanish, but his mother tongue is Diidxazá, el Zapoteco del Istmo de Tehuantepec. "A mi me encanta trabajar" (I love to work)he told me. "When you work in the campo or construction, you can't work when the weather is bad. But with tanning you can. That is what I like best about this job".

He is on the job each morning at six dressed in shorts, a tee shirt and barefoot. His routine varies from day to day depending on where he left off the day before. Tanning is long process; there are hides to clean and prepare after they arrive from the slaughterhouse, others to cover in lime and soak in holding tanks, and still others to sew and sink for curing. You cannot rush things if you want to do a quality job. 

When I mentioned to the local Juchitecos that I was going to photograph a curtidor, they all reacted in the same way: with a wrinkled up nose and a nauseous look on their face. "¡Huele horrible"! (It smells horrible). "Be prepared". And they were right. I found it tolerable, but just barely. I asked Roberto if the odor bothered his neighbors. He said that when he first set up in el barrio de Las Pilas, he was alone in the monte (hills). But as people moved out of the city, those who moved near him were upset and wanted him to move. "They knew I was here and what my work was", he explained. "They didn't have to build here". 

Besides the disagreeable odor, there are serious environmental and health hazards, depending on the process used. The vast majority of tanneries use chemical and organic compounds that are detrimental to the environment and the people who live in it. They also use  large quantities of water and produce a vast amount of pollutants. But Roberto is proud of the fact that his process is puro natural. He uses no chemicals; he even uses the waxy substance in a bull's horn to lubricate his needle when he sews the hides.

Hides are purchased at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. When they arrive at Roberto's, he needs to clean the hides before they are treated with lime and put in a holding tank for two weeks. This will soften the leather and make it suppler. Next the hides are put in a clay pot filled with water and corn masa to soak for three more days to remove the lime.

When the hides are removed from the masa, they are sewn together with an opening at the top so they can be filled with water and submerged in a final holding tank for another six days. The bark of the Guamúchil tree (Pithecellobium dulce), which grows right outside of Roberto's tannery, is ground and added to the water to further soften and preserve the hides.

The final stage in the process is drying the hides before transporting them ten hours away to Veracruz to sell. The are purchased primarily to make saddles and other equestrian equipment. As hides become harder to come by, the price goes up. People come from a distance to buy hides at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. Roberto's natural process yields a high quality product that continues to sell well, despite the competition. He is proud of his work and the fact that he is not harming the environment.

The pale white hides floating in the murky, brown water made me wonder how working in this every day affected Roberto's health."The Guamúchil bark has medicinal properties", he explained. "People come here from far away to get the bark to treat infections and skin diseases. It's good for me".

Roberto end his ten hour day tanning hides with a cold, well deserved, forty ounce caguama of Corona. The heat is intense and his day has been long. It is time to relax a bit and then clean up. He will be back on the job again at six in the morning, rain or shine. That is what he loves about his job: he can work to his heart's content.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Poems of Resistance and Acts of Love

Marie's sketch for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution

Teacher Training Center in Nochixtlán
The sad events taking place in Oaxaca and other parts of the world have moved me to think about resistance and people’s willingness to risk imprisonment and death for their beliefs and values. Spending six months a year in Oaxaca has given me an opportunity for first hand experiences. I have worked with some of these maestros (teachers) who were recently attacked in Oaxaca and heard personal stories that helped put the situation in perspective for me.

In March 2015 I was invited to give a bookmaking workshop to a group of maestros at El Centro de Maestros, in Nochixtlán, an hour and a half from Oaxaca. This is where the recent attack and killing of eleven people occurred. A group of thirty eager teachers devoured all I had to offer them and asked for more! They were wonderfully dedicated individuals who work many more hours than they are paid for, and many work under extremely difficult situations in very isolated communities. But they are devoted to providing the children with the best education that they possibly can. It is more than a job; it is a mission. The poster on the wall in the photo to the left reads: “Education is an act of love, an act of courage, it is a practice in liberty directed toward reality that does not know fear, but rather seeks to transform it through solidarity and fraternal spirit. (Paolo Freire)

Earlier that day, one of the teachers had invited me to give a workshop at his small rural school in a nearby pueblo. It was a peaceful, well kept school with a fine little library that the teachers were very proud of. The inscription on the wall  outside reads: "Education does not change the world; it changes people who then change the world". The children gobbled up the bookmaking project just as the teachers had. They were eager learners taught by dedicated teachers. It was an honor to have been invited to work with them both. 

A few weeks later, I was invited to Juchitán de Zaragoza by my friend Ana Matías, editor of Revista Sinfin, to be part of a book presentation of Los 43: Poetas por Ayotzinapa. Juchitán is an indigenous city that has seen much political struggle in its history. There is much concern over the disappearance of the forty-three students in the state of Guerrero. The reading was held at la Biblioteca Victor Yodo, a small neighborhood library created to honor Victor Yodo, a Zapotec activist who was
“disappeared” over thirty-five years ago for his social organizing. Victor’s daughter Irma, https://orionmagazine.org/article/endangered-language/, a celebrated Zapoteca poet, read a poem about her mother's strength and courage since her husband was taken away by the army. In her poem, Cándida, Irma asks: “With what words do we explain to a child what a missing person is, with what unit do we measure absence, the days of darkness, the unanswered letters to government officials…” Unfortunately many people in Mexico have posed those same unanswered questions. Repression is strong, especially if you are indigenous. It takes much courage and conviction to stand up for what you feel is right and just. Irma’s mother sat alone and thoughtfully listened to her daughter’s words, remembering only too well what had happened to her husband. She is very active in the teacher’s union and is a strong supporter of their resistance to government demands for an educational reform. She is not afraid. Several other poets were also present to read their poems. It was a very moving event, a testimonial to the resistencia shown by many Mexicans toward a government that tries, without success, to repress them. Twelve hundred copies of Los 43 were printed and distributed free at a series of reading throughout Mexico to pay homage to the missing students.

I cannot help but wonder what my wife, Marie, would have done in reaction to these recent events. She was very sensitive and aware of the injustices that were taking place around her. Several of her sketch-collages targeted the injustices that she perceived while in Mexico. They were her poems of resistance, her acts of love.

I believe that the resistance will endure and I fear that the repression will continue. I pray that there will be no more violence and bloodshed, but that is not evident. The government is threatening to attack the teachers again as I write this. The crisis in Oaxaca is dividing communities, with many people supporting the teachers and others strongly opposed to the tactics they use in their resistance. Lives have been lost, businesses forced to close, and friends pitted against each other as to how to resolve the situation. 

I do not claim that all teachers are as dedicated or qualified as those I met in Nochixtlán. There are some who should not be in classrooms. Corruption is pervasive in Mexico and the teacher's union has not escaped its clutches. But I do firmly believe that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated human beings trying their best to help children learn. They are poorly paid, lack essential materials to do their work, and have to overcome enormous hardships to do their jobs. This crisis is about much more than just educational reform, but I am not qualified to expound that. I can only say that I have met and worked with teachers who I would be proud to call my colleagues. They have some very legitimate demands that need to be addressed. I sincerely hope that dialogue between the teachers and the government can resolve the problems soon. I am certain that bullets and burning will not. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Larger Than Life: The Monos de Calenda of José Azcona

José (Pepe) Azcona is a “monero”. For over twenty-five years he has been making “monos de calenda”, giant paper mâché puppets that are an integral part of calendas, the popular religious festivals that are everyday events in Oaxaca.

Like many Mexicans, he has had to hustle all his life to make a living. His profession for many years was tire repair and he raised his family doing that. Tire repair brought in little, but it was relatively consistent. However, when work was slow he had to find other ways to earn money. He made piñatas, built gates, and even had a shoe shine kit for when things were really dark. In 2014, Pepe decided to devote himself “body and soul” to monos. “When life begins to get routine and boring, you need to change direction completely”, he told me. Once he made the leap, he began to get invited to dance in important calendas, sales and rentals of his monos increased, and he became known as the maestro de monos in Oaxaca

Unlike tire repair, income from his monos is very irregular. He had to learn to save for rainy days and be frugal. “When things are the darkest, there is a new dawn awaiting”, he told me. “I had my share of dark days”. But he is willing to weather these dark moments to do the work that he loves.

One reason that Pepe loves his work is the egalitarian nature of calendas. “They are a totally democratic form of celebration. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is, or your political party, or how deep your pockets are. Anyone can participate. It is a level playing field in which the rich and poor celebrate together”. 

Making monos allows Pepe’s imagination to run wild making a rooster for a neighbor child or a condom and sperm cell for AIDS Awareness Day. He welcomes visits from friends while he is working. I have to be happy to do my work; I cannot create if I am sad or depressed. I need an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that allows me to develop the potential for creativity that we all carry inside of us.” Friends provide him that atmosphere; they fuel his spirit.

What I like best about my work is seeing people’s faces when I dance”. His monos are ten to twelve feet tall, and a peephole is made at waist level to allow the dancer to see where she is going. “It fills my heart with joy to see how my monos bring smiles of enjoyment that enrich people’s lives and nourish their souls”.

Pepe’s monos have evolved considerably over the years. It was after meeting his current partner, Sonia, that he started to pay more attention to anatomy. “Sonia is my muse; she is a beautiful woman and she made me realize that my female monas were not right. Their breasts were often more rectangular than round. I corrected that thanks to her. Breasts represent motherhood and nurturing. Since monos are fantasies, I decided to exaggerate the breasts to emphasize those qualities. ”
He particularly enjoys making “monos” for young children. “It is a way of planting cultural seeds in fertile soil. They will grow up and preserve these traditions. And whenever they see a mono, they will remember their childhood, because remembering is a way of reliving the past”.

Pepe doesn’t dance his monos much anymore. It is hard work; the monos are heavy and it requires a lot of stamina to dance several hours straight in a calenda. There is a younger generation coming up to keep the tradition alive and dancing. They are making their own monos and letting their imaginations run wild, just like Pepe. 

At this stage of his life, Pepe is happy to be el maestro de los monos and pass on his art form. His workshop on Heroes de Chapultepec is now a landmark in Oaxaca. He does not have to seek out clients for his monos, people find him. Young people call him to find out when the next calenda is, his monos are dancing throughout the state of Oaxaca, and Pepe manages to earn a modest living by doing what he loves to do most: make other people happy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

El trabajo de todos los días (Everyday work)

 Each tortilla ...is a tasty round of applause... for the sun (Francisco Alarcón)

El totopo is type of corn tortilla made exclusively in the Istmo region of Oaxaca. It is an ancient form of food that dates back centuries, food from the sun. Totopos are made from zapalote, a native species of corn that grows well in the Istmo. The process for making them has changed very little over the centuries. It has been passed on from generation to generation, from mother to daughter. It is noble work.

Reina de la Cruz is a totopera. She is a thirty six year-old, single mother with two adolescent children and a mother who is ill. She has been making totopos for fifteen years. Six days a week she rises at dawn to prepare the fire in her earthen oven in the back of her yard. When the temperature is “just right”, she mixes her corn masa, forms it into perfectly round tortillas, and slaps them on the sides of her oven to cook “just the right” amount of time. “Es el trabajo de todos los días”, she told me, everyday work. 

The work she does is time consuming and the income that it generates is very meager. 

The price of corn rose a few years ago and it has made selling her totopos difficult. Her totopos now sell five to eight for ten pesos. Tortillas de kilo (sold by weight) cost fourteen pesos for thirty tortillas. The ancient food of the zapotecos is becoming unaffordable for many local families.  And this makes the economic survival of artisans like Reina difficult.
Reina & her mother, Maria
But despite its hardships, Reina likes her work. “I like that my family can still eat good tortillas,” she said. “They are “hecho al horno” (oven baked) and made with nutritious, local corn". Her job also allows her to be with her family full-time. It gives her some flexibility with her schedule so she can care for her aging mother, be involved in her children’s school and to partake in civic events.

But she regrets the fact that people don’t value the work she does. "They don’t want to pay the price that the work deserves.”  So to supplement her income, she weaves. It was something she always wanted to do as a child and was able to take classes when she was younger. She weaves after dinner sometimes if she has the energy. Otherwise it is on Sunday, her day of rest, when she can work on a huipil. “Es muy pesado el trabajo” (it is really hard work), she tells me. The huipiles from Juchitán are very ornate and exquisite. They take a long time to make, especially if you are making totopos ten hours a day. It takes Reina a week to ten days to finish a huipil when she is working  on it full time. And unless it is a commission, there is no income until it sold.

When I left Reina's house that day I left with a huipil for Quena and 25 totopos to share wit my good friends at the Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán who made these photo sessions possible. And I told her I might come back someday with my son, Joa, who just happens to be 36 as well. And..... he like tortillas!

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Heavy Metal: the Craft and Music of Don Jorge Díaz

Heriberto (Jorge) Díaz is a blacksmith. He has been working iron for fifty seven years, loves his trade, and has no intention of stopping soon. He works with his brother, Moises, in both the construction sector making spiral staircases, barred windows and metal doors, as well as forging wrought iron products that are more decorative and aesthetic.
Jorge & Moises in their workshop
They compliment each other well: Moises is more prone to the structural part of the trade and Jorge, by preference, chooses to work at the forge, crafting items that give him more freedom to create and experiment with new ideas and forms. 

After finishing primary school, Jorge, like many youth of his generation, looked for a trade that would provide him a living. His father was a "mantelero" a weaver, who had two looms set up in his home and wove curtains, bedspreads and other textile products. However, Jorge decided not to follow in his father's footsteps as he did not see much of a future in that trade. At age seventeen, he was accepted as an apprentice with a welder, who, he came to discover, was also a master blacksmith.

"I could have learned so much more from "el maestro", but I didn't pay enough attention. I was young and not thinking of the future." But over time, Jorge has learned very much. He had the opportunity to work with some very gifted tradesmen and architects who shared their skills with him. Jorge would like to share the skills he has crafted over the past fifty seven years, but he cannot find anyone interested in taking up the trade. His three children are all university educated and have good jobs as professionals. Other young people are more interested in jobs in technology than in a trade like blacksmithing. When he and his brother retire from the trade, there are no takers. His shop will close.

But in the meantime, he goes on working. He has dedicated himself more to forging. He explained, "there is a lot of competition for the building trade work. But I saw that those who could forge were dying out. It left a space for me to fill." Forging also gives Jorge an "artistic license" to create and explore. He has become a master at working iron, and the forging is what gives him the most satisfaction.

Over the past year, a friendship has developed with Jorge. I stopped by on several occasions in the late afternoon to find him sitting in one of his wrought iron chairs playing his guitar.When I asked him about it, he told me,"In this life it is very important to do things to satisfy oneself. Life is not just about working, taking care of your home, and doing the the things necessary to live from day to day. Someone once told me that if you have a talent for painting, drawing, music, or writing verse, you should cultivate that talent because it will serve you well in life. For me it is music. Music is mental, emotional, and spiritual. In times of need, it serves me better than any medicine can."

So at the end of each day, Jorge leaves his forge, grabs his guitar, and lets his mind and body slow down and relax. He plays traditional Mexican music, but to me he is redefining the term, "heavy metal". To me it is the relaxing music that a blacksmith plays at the end of a hard day's work. 
Wrought Iron Music

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cuba: A Kaleidoscopic View - Habana

Waitress at el Bar Neptuno: Best mojitos in Habana
Of the all the places I visited in Cuba, it was Habana that stole my heart. It is full of history, music, culture and colorful people. It is so wonderfully photogenic that my camera jumped out of my bag without warning and started clicking away. I have decided to make this entry more of a photo essay because, as the old adage goes: A photo is worth ......... Please forgive the formatting, it is a nightmare to deal with on this site.

The waitress above works at el Bar Neptuno. As we were walking down Calle Neptuno I heard a voice calling: Tenemos los mejores mojitos de todo Habana, y los más baratos también". And the best and cheapest they were. I watched the bartender make mine and deliver it personally to my table. It was so good that I had another!

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Walking the streets of Habana was full of colorful scenes and unexpected surprises. The old balconies that look down upon the city are dilapidated and alive at the same time. What appear to be condemned buildings have tenants living inside them. And if no one is in sight, the signs of occupancy are obvious.

Cigar lady with flowers
Life is lived outdoors for the most part. Chess games take place on doorsteps and makeshift tables in the street fill the air with the lively clacking of dominoes on wood. As you walk down the streets of Habana vieja, music invites you from the smallest of bars with music worthy of big time venues. It is as if each neighborhood has their own "Buena Vista Social Club" playing a private gig for those passing by.

Alga Marina & Osvaldo

And thanks to my new friends, Alga Marina and Osvaldo, Habana took on a personal touch. They invited us into their home, shared meals with us, and set up some photo shoots for me. They were a window into the true Cuba, the way people live, their joys, their frustrations, their daily lives. I am forever grateful to them for opening their home and their lives to me.

I met people on the street that also opened their lives to me. Doña Graciela Perez Rios, a ninety one year old artist of recycled materials who invited us into her home to share her work. She makes dolls from milk cartons, plastic bottles etc. The photo to the left is a self portrait of herself as a doll at age 80. She seems to have gotten younger! 

Alberto Pays
Alberto Pays is a portrait photographer that works in the Parque Central de Habana with a 1913 box camera. He charges two dollars for a portrait which is developed inside of his box camera. When I asked what I could bring him in return for an interview, he told me photographic paper as it was extremely difficult to find in Habana. I will bring him some when I return next year.

Marta Aguila
And on our way to el Callejon de Hamet to listen to AfroCuban Rumba we ran into Marta Aguila. We struck up a conversation, she invited us into her home, and she shared her life a bit with us. She is a medium of sorts who is very involved in Santería. She also reads cards. She is a beautiful woman who did not hesitate for one moment to open herself to a couple of foreigners walking through her neighborhood. 

Schoolgirls at Rumba High School

Raúl Corrales with Fidel
I am seriously considering going back to Habana for a month next winter to photograph. Thanks to Alga Marina and Osvaldo, I have a wonderful connection in Norma Corrales, daughter of Raúl Corrales, one of Fidel's personal photographer. She has offered me a place to stay in her home in Cojimar, Hemmingway's old hangout. It is a very tempting offer. 

 So let's all hope that Obama's visit to Cuba will bring the two countries back into a  relationship of amistad and that the blockade and other restrictions will be lifted. Let's also hope that Cuba's infrastructure can successfully deal with the enormous influx of American tourism without losing its integrity and charm. I fear this is a real danger. May the good things that came out of the Revolution remain intact, and the change and growth that may follow be in Cuba's best interest.