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.


shawna harvey said...

Fascinating story, Deek. Put's a whole new spin on "super-size me."~ Shawna

Lisa Ede said...

Yes, fascinating! I appreciated the comments from Pepe. You are good at interacting with the people you're interviewing, making them feel comfortable, drawing out thoughtful comments.

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