Saturday, December 6, 2014

No Matter Which Way You Look

Demonstration in the zocalo of Oaxaca
For most of my life, I have been a firm believer in evolution. It seemed logical that as the millenniums passed, (wo)mankind would progress in a manner that would lead to a more peaceful and harmonious existence. I never expected that we would arrive at a perfect world, but I figured we would be able to look back and say, "Wow! Glad we have gotten our act together some since those days". The state of the world today has me seriously wondering if we have, if we really have learned anything from our numerous mistakes on this planet.
At first I thought that perhaps I was mistaken about what evolution was supposed to be, so I looked in up the Merriam Webster online dictionary:
1) :  a process of continuous change from a lower, simpler, or worse to a higher, more complex, or better state :  growth (2) :  a process of gradual and relatively peaceful social, political, and economic advance.This did not seem to be what was taking place in Mexico.The disappearance of the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, has thrown Mexico into a state of rage and unrest. There has been sustained outrage the likes of which have not been seen
in Mexico for many, many years. Not a day goes by without a front page story about the situation here. And as the communities continue to look for real evidence concerning the disappearance of their loved ones, more graves are found and DNA analysis confirm the remains are not those of any of the forty-three students! Who are they then? How many more are there?
The demonstrations grow and the government crackdown on them becomes stronger.
Zocalo in Oaxaca
Street art
Today's headlines of La Jornada show a 18 year old youth in Chiapas lighting himself on fire in front to the government building to demand the freedom of his uncle, a campesino leader held since last May on trumped up charges. Popular protest art is again filling the streets and zocalo of Oaxaca. Roadblocks are an everyday occurrence here, and it polarizes the community at times. Frustration and a sense of total mistrust of the government fill the air.

Roadblock on one of Oaxaca's main streets
But no matter which way you look, north, south, east, or west, it seems to be the same, injustice abounds. As the banner on the bus reads: If there is no justice for the pueblo, there will be no peace for the government. I have no photos of Ferguson or Michael Brown. Nor of New York City and Eric Garner. They are not necessary, your eyes have seen it all. And it appears that people everywhere have had enough, ¡Basta! Maybe this is evolution in process, if it can stay peaceful and focused on meaningful change. There are indeed signs of that here and in the US. Tomorrow there is a gathering and concert calling for justice and solidarity with Ayotzinapa.
And later this month there is another gathering of hope on the coast of Oaxaca calling for the defense and autonomy of territory.

So as people in Mexico and Ferguson, and New York fill the streets to call for justice, let's hope that someone listens. And may some of those who listen be those in power who can decide that indeed "enough is enough!", and take action to bring about real change. Then I can go back to believing in evolution, in believing that when my time comes to leave this earth, I will feel that we are a kinder and juster species than when I first set foot here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mud, Manos, and Corazón

Living in Mexico often gives me the chance to enjoy the simpler things in life. En "el Norte", it is easy to get caught up in first world comforts, often mistaking them for progress. I remember receiving a book entitled Handmade Houses as a gift one Christmas. Wonderful dreamers they were! And I was pleasantly surprised to see that those dreamers still exist and are building their homes in Mexico as they have for centuries.

Don Marciano's kitchen
Recently I was contacted by my friend, Angeles, who invited me to accompany her and four of her students on a trip into la Sierra Sur de Oaxaca. Angeles teaches architecture at La UNAM (Universidad Autónimo de Mexico). She is heading up a project to preserve traditional building techniques: mud, stone, and adobe, by finding and interviewing people who still know the secrets of building with the earth.

Our first stop was in San Tomás, a small pueblito in the region of Miahuatlán. We had no arranged visits, but Alicia, a natural builder familiar with working in the comunidades, soon lead us to a stone and mud house and struck up a conversation with the owner and builder, Don Felipe. Before we knew it, Don Felipe was showing us around and sharing his knowledge of natural building with pride.
The house Felipe built
All of the materials for his house came from his land: stone, timber, and earth. I was curious about the mud, which was white, not brown. He knew his land well. He took us to the place where he got the earth near his spring. He added some water until it was just the right consistency to stick together solidly. It took Don Felipe two years to build his house, but like many of the other houses in the area, it will stand for many, many more.
Doña Lorenza Agustina
One of the highlights of the visit was meeting his 84 year old aunt, Lorenza Agustina. She has not been able to walk for over fifteen years, yet she was a bright light in her somber earthen kitchen, upbeat and full of positive energy. Like the walls that surrounded her, she has settled firmly into place.
Don Felipe con su barro
Felipe then gave us directions to the house of Don Marciano, one of the elders of the area who was a master builder. After a good while of roaming the bumpy dirt roads, we found the house. Don Marciano is 87. His daughter told us that his memory was not what it used to be, that he might not be able to remember much of his earlier days. But what he had done all of his life was well engraved into his faltering memory; he did not hesitate in recalling how to transform earth to home.
Don Marciano
La esposa de Don Marciano
We were treated like royalty by the family. Marciano and his wife had ten children, nine daughters and one son. They were there para servirle (to be of service). They gave us a tour of the farm, answered any questions that we had, and then invited us into the kitchen to serve us pan y chocolate a la oaxaqueño. Nothing better!

Nestora, one of the nine daughters

We made two more stops before I returned to Oaxaca. We spent the night in El Refugio in San José del Pacifico, where an intentional community had built their homes of mud and adobe, very beautiful structures. 
Again, all the materials came from the land where the houses were built. Although there were monetary costs involved in the building, they were minimal comparatively speaking. The greatest cost was undoubtedly in time and human labor.
These homes were built with mud, hands and heart, and one feels it immediately upon entering.The earthen walls seem to be smiling as they welcome you. It makes you feel as if you have become one with the earth, as if this is where you belong. Home is where the heart is, as the old adage goes. Add some well mixed clay and hands that are not afraid of hard work, and you have yourself a home that is in perfect harmony with nature and that nourishes the soul. May the knowledge and techniques needed to create such a space never be forgotten. Thank you Angeles for doing your part to make sure that never happens.
El Refugio, San José del Pacifico

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Grateful Dead: Part Two

El Panteón de Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca
The night of October 31st was the night in Xoxocotlan to illuminate the tombs of loved ones. The cemetery was aflame with candles of all sizes, and families camped out for the night around the tombs of family members who had passed on. There were tombs of all types, some rather elaborate
and others nothing more than a mound of piled up dirt for the many who could afford nothing more. They were equally beautiful and touching. I was invited to Xoxo with the owners of my apartment, Hector and Lulú. We arrived shortly after dusk and found the cemetery already aglow and many families already installed to pass the night with their loved ones. Despite the chilly weather, there was a feeling of warmth that permeated the cemetery. Marigolds and Cockscombs were everywhere, illuminated by candles of all sizes. I felt as if I had passed through a thin veil that separated reality from otherworldliness, not sure which was which! It was truly magical.

At one end of the cemetery was an enormous stage set up for the concert by Juan Casaos, a popular Mixteca singer, and La Banda Sinfónica Juventil of his pueblo in la Mixteca, a mountainous region of Oaxaca.There were monos de calenda, giant paper maché puppets, spinning around the stage and young people performing danza folklórico to the traditional Oaxqueña music. There was no doubt that "los muertos" were having a wonderful time, going back to their tomb for a shot of mezcal and then back to the concert to join the festivities! Just goes to show that there are advantages to being dead!

Magos hererra
The evening of November first there was a special concert by Magos Hererra, a Mexican jazz vocalist now living in New York. She just happens to be one of my favorite performers! I thought I had died and gone to heaven!! Magos and her group performed outside on a very chilly Oaxaca evening to a full house. She encouraged us to applaud to keep warm, and we did.
She  herself wore a pancho given to her by Chavela Vargas, one of Mexico's most revered musical divas, who passed away in 2012. This concert was a special offering to Chavela. Magos was accompanied by a very talented group of musicians from DF (Distrito Federal). A superb performance despite the cold that kept the string players rubbing their strings to keep them tuned properly.
How was I able to get photos so close up? No security thugs guarding the stage, no check for concealed weapons at the concert site. Just a lot of good people celebrating Día de los Muertos and enjoying the incredible cultural richness of Oaxaca.

Santo Domingo
After the concert I walked to La Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a few hundred meters away. I arrived just in time for a light show projected on the facade of the church. Apparently the concert was not enough! ¡Qué chido!

My altar for Marie, minus the mezcal glass which I drank!
I went home at midnight, sensually saturated, poured myself a shot of mezcal, and one for Marie, and went to bed. I was literally "Dead tired"!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Grateful Dead: Part One

In remembrance of the 43 students that disappeared in Guererro
Día de los Muertos has come to an end, and besides the scores of roaming spirits who have decided to stay on this side and celebrate for a while longer, things are going back to normal. What a different way of looking at death! There is normally an “alegria” in the air, and instead of sadness and melancholy dominating the scene, there is celebration and fond remembrance of loved ones passed on. This is still the case, however Día de los Muertos 2014 is also shrouded in sadness and outrage. The disappearance and probable death of forty three young students in Ayotzinapa, Guererro in late September, has placed the spotlight on deaths that never should have happened.
Plaza de la Danza, La Soledad
Many of the typical decorations of ofrendas and tapetes (sand paintings) have focused on this tragic event. Since September 25th, there has been no sign of the students, no bodies identified, although they have discovered mass graves, and remains are awaiting DNA testing. In the meantime, the well respected daily newspaper, La Jornada, has reported that government official have offered families of the missing students one hundred thousand pesos each for their silence. A national student strike has been called for November 5th in all parts of Mexico. Mexicans are fed up with the deaths of innocent people caused by cartels and corrupt government officials. Unrest fills the air.

But the resilient spirit of los Mexicanos shines through, despite the cloud above them. Families still make the traditional mole to share with visitors on November 2nd, the last day of the celebration. Although mole can be purchased in the market ready to use, many families still prefer to prepare it themselves, a complicated and time-consuming process.  There are four types of chiles to be toasted over a charcoal fire. There are plantains, almonds, prunes, raisins, peanuts or walnuts, cinnamon, clove, sesame seeds, onions, tomatoes, oregano, and a special bread for mole to be added ingredient by ingredient.
Doña Soledad's mole
Once everything is toasted and mixed together, it is brought to the local mill to be ground. Doña Soledad took hers to the Mayordomo Chocolate mill a half kilometer away from our house.  Weaving through traffic with her hand truck was risky business, but she got there in one piece and did not lose one drop of mole!
Al molino
Then back home with the ground ingredients to cook it for a few more hours, stirring constantly, bien seguro, to avoid burning. It is a full day of preparation, morning til night.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing her mole with family members and friends. It was well worth every minute of toasting, grinding, and stirring! ¡Muy, muy sabroso!

On the way to the molino to grind the mole ingredients, were stall after stall of flower vendors selling marigolds (cempasúchil), cockscomb (Terciopelo), and a variety of other flowers to adorn the altars and tombs of loved ones. There were truckloads of  flowers along the busy streets, and nearly everyone you saw had a bouquet or two in their arms. And next to the flower vendors were those selling copal, a mineral burned as incense on the ofrendas.
Copal vendor with customer
The altars and ofrendas deserve a whole blog to themselves. But since long blogs are hard to read, let it suffice here to give you a sample or two.

I always wondered where the name Grateful Dead came from; now I think I know. Who wouldn't be grateful for the abundance of all the things you liked while you were alive: food, flowers, drink, tobacco and music?

The figure below holds a banner that reads:"Death says, with me there are no bribes". Perhaps the government official who ordered the massacre of the students in Ayotzinapa should take these words into account!
Parade of Barrio de la Noria, where I live

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Short Reflection on the Road

Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement. Henry Miller

As summer comes to an end, my thoughts once again turn to the road and my departure to Oaxaca. I feel very fortunate to be able to live the life I do, moving back and forth between two beautiful places. But travel is much more than just a beautiful place. As Henry Miller once wrote, "One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things". The ability to live this lifestyle is a matter of good fortune on one hand and priorities and the right choices on the other. 

I recently received an e-mail from a friend who is an accomplished photographer and children's book author. He has just submitted his 115th book for publication and is ready to start another. He wrote,"In one sense I feel very blessed and seeing life through the perspective of age. In a couple of months I'll be 85. Retire? I did that when I turned 30 and began to do what I wanted to do. And I'm still doing it"

His words struck a chord with me. Isn't that what it is all about, doing what you really want to do in life? How many of us put that off until "retirement", only to find out it is too late? 

The sketch that illustrates this post was done by Marie on one of our trips to Mexico. We met on the road and the road played an integral part of our 35 years together. When Marie passed away, I decided to continue the lifestyle that we so loved. It is certainly a different journey, but still full of wonder and newness. I wrote a poem after Marie's death to accompany her sketch:

Asi es el camino
Watch out for the train

The roads of Mexico
heading south toward the border
make me wonder where we are going,
where we belong.
Home is where the heart is, 
but hearts can stop
and one can lose their sense of place.
Así es el camino
weaving and wandering
ups and downs
but always leading somewhere.
The road map of life takes time to decipher,
many topes to cross and detours to take
before one arrives at destination unknown.

¡Buen viaje a todos!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Magic of Maguey

Pencas de maguey, San José del Pacifico, Oaxaca. 

The maguey is a kind of agent of history and time concentrated. It has been present as a silent witness to the all country's historic stages .... In Mexico, the culture of maguey constitutes a kind of wisdom, it has become a national emblem of the country
(Artes de Mexico, Número 51)

House in Atlanga with maguey in front
In 2006, Marie and I left to spend nine months in the small pueblo of Atlangatepec in the state of Tlaxcala. It was situated in the altiplano (high desert) region between Mexico City and Puebla, an area where maguey plants were plentiful and so were their potently popular by-products: pulque, tequila and mezcal.

One of the projects that we had in mind while in Tlaxcala was a young adult book about "el derecho de no migrar" the right to not migrate. Our storyline was a young boy who decides he does not want to go to the USA to work as all of his brothers had done. He loves his pueblo, his family, and his culture, and decides to stay in Tlaxcala and take over his father's maguey plantation and continue a life style that had been in his family for generations. So we began our research.

Fermin at work
Our friends, Paco and Alejandra, directed us to their neighbor, Don Fermin, a campesino who lived in the hills outside of Tlaxco. Fermin lived in an isolated, arid spot where little else grew except the maguey. He was alone and his children were not interested in staying on "el rancho" to care for the maguey and produce pulque, an age old fermented drink made from the sap that was extracted from the maguey. Pulque is a drink that dates back over 2000 years to the time of the Aztecs, who prized it for its healthful and aphrodisiac properties. It was still produced and consumed in Tlaxcala and Fermin had a small "pulqueria" on his land. He gladly took Marie and me around his land and showed us some of the many other uses for the maguey, from tiles for roofs to thread for making rope and baskets.

What Deek could have become!
But for Fermin, it was aguamiel (unfermented juice from the maguey used to make pulque) and his pulque that defined who he was. He took great pride in his product and as Marie sketched him, I got to sample the various stages of fermentation. As I sipped the milky substance, I wondered what would have become of me had I lived at the time when pulquerias were the gathering places for men to indulge in the vices that destroyed many of them. I decided that it was a blessing for me not to have been alive in that period of history!

We returned several times to Fermin's ranch and he was always more than willing to share his knowledge of the maguey with us. He took us out to see how the plant is "castrated" so its juice can be used for aquamiel and pulque.
Magueys, who live up to thirty five years, flower only once in their lifetime. If the quiote (flowering stalk) is cut, it will continue to produce the juice that is collected daily by the "pulquero".
Castrated maguey producing aguamiel
On one of our many ventures to "la laguna de Atlangatepec", we met José, another pulquero that befriended us. Again, we were invited to taste his creations and go with him to visit his plants and collect aguamiel. And once again, as I sampled what could have been my demise, Marie sketched José. Then she wandered off to sketch the quiote, the flower of the maguey (on the left hand side of the page) which shoots twenty five feet into the air! It seems to emerge right out of la Malinche!
José, el pulquero de Atlanga

 When we returned to Oregon in 2009, it was our intent to return to Tlaxcala the following fall and continue working on the book. That never happened. Life is like that sometimes.

As for our story, it is still fermenting in my mind. The need for something written to promote the "right not to migrate" is greater than ever as thousands of Latino children seek a safe haven in the US, a country that does not welcome them with open arms. Perhaps my next trip to Mexico will take me back to Fermin's or Jose´s magueys in search of the wisdom and inspiration that I need to move forward on the book. Much has changed since it was started six years ago. It is not just economic desperation that forces men and women to leave in search of work. It is now violence and fear that forces children to flee their families and homeland to stay alive. It seems that there are two parallel rights that need to be addressed here. The "right to not migrate" and still live a life with dignity and safety in your own country, and the "right to migrate" "al otro lado" in order to live a life free of violence and fear. Luckily I have the time to reflect on it more, and the good fortune to migrate myself, back to a country that does welcome me with open arms.And the maguey will still be there waiting to share their wisdom with me.
Maguey Fantasy
Decaying plant