Wednesday, November 25, 2015

El canto del gallo: The Rooster's Song

At age eighty one, Joel Garcia Leyva (El Pollo) is completing forty five years as the owner and cantinero (barman) of the only cantina (tavern) in el barrio Xochimilco. He has been intent on keeping his establishment, Pollo's Bar, in el estilo antigua (the old style). Not much has changed since he first opened it in 1970. Walking through the curtained entryway is walking back in time. His shiny, red "rockola" no longer plays three 45' vinyl for ten centavos, but it still retains the look of the one he first bought in the 70's. Pollo himself retains a classic look dating back to the 40's. At eighty one, he is the oldest, if not the only, pachuco in Oaxaca!

El Pollo is a nickname that Joel has had since birth. He explained to me that everyone en el barrio Xochimilco had a nickname, mostly animal names. He has one brother called el Chango (the monkey) and another el Caballo (the horse). Since he was the youngest of nine children, he was called el Polluelo (the little chicken). "I may be a rooster now, or even a turkey", he joked, "but to the people of this barrio, I am still "el Pollo".

While I was interviewing him recently, a customer came in for a beer. El Pollo told him to help himself because, Manuel, his right hand man, was sick. We continued our interview, the man walked behind the bar, grabbed a Corona, opened it, and handed twenty pesos to el Pollo when he was done. Just like old times, the friendly flavor of a neighborhood bar.
El Pollo como joven gallo

El Pollo did not start out as a cantinero. After finishing sixth grade he decided he did not want to continue with formal schooling. As was the tradition at that time, that meant that he had to take up a trade. He chose to be a tailor, and for several years he worked with relatives and in time became a talented designer of deer and goatskin jackets for men and women. 
He was thirty six when his mother died, and he returned to his family home, set up his tailor shop, and cared for his ailing father. With his workshop in his home, his neighborhood friends began to stop by and compliment el Pollo on his success. In return, Pollo offered them beers and sat down to share a few with them. And before he knew it, Pollo was partying with his friends more and making jackets less.

In short time, he came to the realization that he was having a very good time, but he was not making much money, and he was giving out free beer to his friends. So during one of the drinking sessions with his compañeros he told them, "desde mañana amigos, van a costar las cervezas (from tomorrow onward, my friends, beers are going to cost you)." And so began the history of "Pollo's Bar". 
Welcome to Pollo's Bar
Pollo made a deal with Corona to buy beer exclusively from them, and in return they would deliver. He would go to a nearby ice factory in el Llano with a wheelbarrow and buy enough ice to keep his beer nice and cold. He started out selling only to his four drinking buddies, but word soon spread, and others began to come to see if they also could join in. A friend told Pollo that he know a woman who had a liquor license to sell, and Pollo bought it from her for 100 pesos. He was now a legal cantina! 
El Pollo has always tried to run a reputable establishment, but told me it was not always easy, especially in the beginning. "Men from other neighborhoods came over looking for a fight because someone from Xochimilco (his neighborhood) was dating a girl from theirs". Something that obviously had to be settled! But he managed. "I have never been shut down or fined since I opened", Pollo boasted. 

Not only did he manage to keep his cantina a reputable establishment, but he was elected "presidente del barrio" four times!  During his time in office, he made major improvements in the local school, built a basketball court and soccer field, and renovated the church in Xochimilco, including a new paint job, new bells for the bell tower, and a new fence for the cemetery.

When Pollo was 36 years old, his only sister died. She left six children behind, and their father left and did not provide for the children. So Pollo adopted them and took them into his home. It took some rearranging to accommodate six young children in a neighborhood cantina, but he succeeded. He raised all six, gave the three girls away at their weddings, and paid for all of their education. "All six are professionals now", Pollo told me. "Gabriela, who lives in the States, is the official translator for Pope Francisco", he shared with me proudly. 

And so at eighty one, Pollo's Bar is still a Oaxaca landmark. He can no longer serve and drink with his clients as he used to. Age has made that too dangerous. So he sits in his chair, converses with his clients, and collects the money when they leave. He is seldom dressed as he is seen here anymore. He now is often covered with a wool blanket and is drinking a watered down Coca Cola instead of a Corona. But his gold necklace and gold bracelets are always in sight, and if given a chance, he will gladly don his favorite garb. Once a Pachuco, always a Pachuco!

The author as patron

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Dreamer of Vega Street

When I am in Oaxaca, I am very fortunate to live in el barrio de la Noria, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. It is  a short distance removed from the touristic center of el Centro Historico, and is mostly residential, with many small businesses operating from very modest homes. It is full of small "mom & pops" type grocery stores, tailor shops, carpenter and blacksmith workshops, and any other type of business that meets a need in the "barrio". 

Don Manuel Garcia is one of the "artisanos" that lives in la Noria. I interviewed him in my home last April, and share some of his story with you here.

Don Manuel lives in the house he was born in on Calle Vega, and has his workshop set up in a small building next to it. At seventy three, he is now an accomplished and respected silversmith. His work has been included in coffee table books on Mexican arts and crafts, and he has represented Oaxaca at international exhibits as a world class filigree artist. But his beginnings were very humble, and his journey has not changed his humble and modest manner.

Don Manuel's parents were "hortelanos" (market gardeners) at a time when la Noria was the remains of an old hacienda that was sold or gifted to the workers when the owner died. What is now an urban neighborhood, was then a fertile garden area that supplied Oaxaca with much of its produce. 

At a very early age, Don Manuel realized that school was not meant for him. He found it far too hard and struggled without success. He seemed destined to follow in his parents' footsteps. But even then it was difficult making a living as a "hortelano". So his father told him it was best if he found an "ofico", (occupation) that would provide him a decent living and allow him to succeed. And that "oficio" turned out to be an "orfebre", a silversmith. It was an "ofico" that let Manuel's talent shine through.

He began working with "un maestro" when he was ten. His apprenticeship was one from days gone by, almost zen-like. He learned by watching and by doing whatever "el maestro" asked of him. Often that was watering plants or sweeping the floor the whole day without any guidance at all in working silver. But Don Manuel persisted and learned well. Filagree work has a long tradition in Oaxaca, and Manuel excelled in it. " Everything I do, I do to the best of my ability", he told me, "because my work reflects who I am, in my creations I leave a piece of myself. I love my work and it gives me much satisfaction to know that the work I do, no one else can do the same."

For Don Manuel, the creative process is a realization of his dreams. "Sometimes when I look at what I have made, I ask myself, how did I do that? When I start to work on a piece, I think about everything, I have to concentrate on what I am doing. When I do that, time does not exist, I don't see the hours pass. All I think about is finishing what I am working on. I think it happens to all of us, we dream something, decide to do it, and begin. Our ancestors also dreamed a lot, and then they gave meaning to those dreams, and in doing this, we are leaving a piece of ourselves in our work ".

Manuel has no desire to sell his most elegant pieces. Although they are quite valuable, he chooses to keep them as a legacy for his children. "When I make special figures in silver, I won't sell them, because they are for my children; one day after I am gone, when someone sees them and asks who made it, they can answer proudly, 'my father did that'".


But just as much as an excellent "orfebre", he is a man who loves his "barrio". "He tratado de sobrevivir el barrio" (I have tried to help the neighborhood survive), he told me. There are so many traditions to safeguard, so much value in working together as a community. He is instrumental in organizing "comparsas", neighborhood celebrations full of music, dancing, food and tradition. Don Manuel also makes"monos de calenda" giant paper mache puppets that are indispensable in any true celebration in Oaxaca. Most of the neighbors participate in providing what is needed to make the "comparsa" a success. "We do it for the kids", he explained, "they are our future. And one day when I am no longer here, someone will say, 'remember Manuel?' And they will, because I left a part of myself behind." 

La comparsa de la Noria - Day of the Dead
Despite his success as a artist, Manuel is a model of humility. "There was a time when one of my dreams was to have money. But my friends told me, ' if you had money, you never would have done what you have done, because money changes a person, it takes you down a different path. Being poor has its advantages. In being poor, we are also rich in many ways. We all have a gift of some sort, a gift that God has given us. All we have to do is feel it. Because if you leave it pass you by, you lose it. But if you grab hold of it, you can do many things, you just need to seize the moment".

Don Manuel and his wife
Beside his talent as a silversmith, Don Manuel has another gift, his good health. At seventy three, his eyes are sharp, his hand steady and his mind keen. He appears to have many years yet to practice his trade. And as I prepare to head southward to Oaxaca, I know his  creative energies are focused on preparing the barrio comparsas for Day of the Dead and Our Lady of Juchila. These are the things that keep him young.

*** The photo to the right was taken this spring at the public exhibition of photos for the International Day of Art in Oaxaca.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Symphony of Looms

José Leyva Garcia: Artisano Textil (Mantelero)

 I interviewed Don Chepe and his son, Gustavo in their workshop in el barrio Xochimilco, in the Centro Historico of Oaxaca. Gustavo did most of the talking as Don Chepe was busy spinning spools of cotton thread for weaving the various linen products that they specialized in. One hand spun the wheel, while the other held the "canilla"(reel) receiving the thread. He does this every day of the week from 8 AM until 7 PM, with a lunch/siesta break fit in somewhere in between. He can no longer physically do the weaving he did for most of his life, but his canilla keeps him very busy. He still loves his work.
La canilla
Don Chepe has been weaving for over seventy years. He began when he was sixteen, learning from his father, who had learned from his father. Four generations of the Leyva Garcia family have been working in this same taller (workshop) and producing quality linen bedspreads, tableclothes, curtains, etc. that they sell directly from their home workshop. When I asked Don Chepe what he likes most about his work, he answered, "Todo, desde principio al fin. Nunca pensé hacer otra cosa" (Everything, from beginning to end. I never considered doing anything different).
Don Chepe had nine children, six sons and three daughters. Four of his sons still work with him. They hold other jobs as well, but their true calling is at the loom. This is work of the heart, something they do as a family.
Pancho, Javier, Gustavo & Mario working together


Their workshop is on the corner of one of Xochimilco's colonial streets. It is inviting, and many people stop to watch and are invited in. Some buy a bedspread or curtains. All are treated like honored guests. The family is proud to show their talents as weavers to whoever may stop by. That is how friends and sales are made.
Gustavo told me that people were tired of seeing massed produced products that were all alike. They liked the traditions of Oaxaca and the fine craftsmanship of its artesania. "El artisano no tiene que buscar el mercado, el mercado viene al artisano" (The artisan doesn't have to seek out a market, the market seeks out the artisan).

Gustavo showing the tools of his trade

As true as that may be, to make it only on weaving is very difficult. The economic situation in Mexico makes living as an artisan a risky business. All, except for Don Chepe, had worked a second job at some point for the steady income. The job filled "la panza" (your belly) Gustavo told me, but weaving filled the body, the soul and the spirit.
In the sixties and seventies, almost every house in Xochimilco had a loom. The click clack of working looms resonated through the streets."When I was a child, it was a marvel to walk into this barrio", Gustavo told me."There was a symphony every day. It was padrísimo (awesome)! "It was so common, that I don't think people realized what a symphony it was, ... like the birds singing in the church courtyard at dusk".
Today it is more like a chamber recital with all four brothers playing. They are what remains of a livelihood that was once in every household of Xochimilco.
When I asked Don Chepe if he ever thought of retiring. He laughed and told me, "Mi pensión es mi bobina" (my retirement is my spinning spool). It gives meaning to his life.
Mario at his loom

I visited the family four or five times and  purchased a bedspread and curtains from them. We had become friends. When it was time for me to leave, Gustavo commented, "this photography project you are doing is letting you see the real Mexico, the 80% of us who do not live like the 20% that the media portrays as "normal life" in Mexico. The wealthy have their reality, and we, the people, have our own. When you buy something from us, you take with you a part of our lives, la parte humana de la artesania (the human aspect of artesania)". And that is what makes all the difference.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Working with Dignity: A Oaxaca Portrait - Part One

Don José: Blacksmith
Recently Colectiv-O,the photography collective to which I belong, initiated a photo project entitled "Oficios" (occupations) for World Art Day 2015. Our project is to choose occupations that are very old or in danger of dying out, and print them poster size to be plastered on walls in the Centro Historico of the city. Since I had already begun working on a project very similar to this, I was happy to participate. One of my shortcomings as a photographer is my fear of approaching people and asking permission to take their portraits. This project gave me the perfect point of entry; it recognizes the importance of the work that these people do, and it serves as good publicity for them as artisans.
Bonifacio: Organ Grinder

I was very touched by the openness of the people that I chose to photograph. Much like Marie's sketches, my session with them opened a channel for dialogue, for sharing personal feelings about their work, and their lives. It made me think of Stud Terkel's book,Working: People Talk About What They Do all Day and How They Feel About What They Do. (1974). So I ordered it  for my Kindle (immediate gratification). But what I found soon into rereading it, was that most of Terkel's participants did not like the work they did. Few felt truly satisfied and many felt alienated by the work they did. What I was discovering was to the contrary. My neighbors here in Oaxaca were proud of what they did! They were a dying breed in many instances, but they recognized the value of their work and the skill involved in doing it. It gave me an idea for a book about these people and their feelings about their "oficio". It appears I am much better at starting books than finishing them! So this entry is a sampler, the embryonic stage of what someday might bring Studs Terkel out of his grave: Working with Dignity: A Oaxaca Portrait.

Bonifacio is an organ grinder, an occupation that is held in high esteem in Mexico. The occupation goes back to the end of the 19th century when the German government sent a gift to Porfirio Diaz. It is hard work, as the organs are heavy and must be carried from place to place to perform. Organs are not easy to find anymore and outside of DF, there are not many grinders to be found. It is a disappearing profession. Bonifacio got his from some artisans that were closing up shop. It is an old organ, simple but solid. He plays on markets days throughout the city. He is from the Mixteca, a mountainous area outside of Oaxaca, and has a wife and five children. He also makes wooden toys that he sells sometimes in the market, and his daughter Marisol sells gardenias along side of him.The day I photographed him, I bought two bunches from her for Marie's altar. I hope they were not too fragrant for her! Today I went to the Merced market and gave him copies of some of the photos I took. He was thrilled, and so was I. 
Pepe & his Monos de Calenda

Pepe is the subject of yet another book project, one that I started soon after arriving in Oaxaca this fall. We met last year at a festival and we had a strong connection. Pepe used to repair tires, even came to your house to do it. But that business went under, so now making the monos, giant paper-mache puppets, is his only livelihood. He rents them out and sells them as well. Monos are big in Oaxaca, almost every wedding, church festival, and community event is not considered a "true event" without the monos, the "banda municipal", and dancing. Pepe is a social butterfly, a fixture in his neighborhood where nearly everyone that passes by stops to have a few words with him. If they don't stop, he talks to them anyway, especially the women. But he does so in a respectful, comical way that draws a look back at him and a smile. He never knew who his father was, and when he asked his mother, she told him "Pedro Infante", one of Mexico's most renowned actors. He took it to heart. You can see Pedro looking over his right shoulder in this photo and Pedro's photo is on Pepe's altar alongside of his recently deceased mother.

Don José is one of two blacksmiths that I visited. His workshop is in his home, a humble space where he spends most of his day. It is full of pieces of iron, wrought iron furniture, and tools of all sorts. When I returned at night to give him a copy of his photo, he was playing guitar to relax from the day's work. 
He takes great pride in the detail work he does, the difficult bending and shaping of hot iron. He has been working iron for over forty years, and he makes it look so easy. His eyes sparkle like the charcoals that heat his iron rods as he pounds them into shape. There is no one learning his trade from him, no one to pick up his hammer and man his anvil when he is gone. "It is too much work, takes too much patience for the young people today", he tells me. So he continues to do the work he loves as if he will do it forever. After all, there is no reason to stop doing what you truly love to do. Bonifacio, Pepe and José take pride in the work they do. They may struggle financially to make ends meet, but then, most artist do.Their art form brings meaning  and satisfaction to their lives. It puts bread on their table, gives them a much deserved sense of self worth, and allows them to hold their heads high.That is what work should do for people. (More stories and photos to follow).

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Power of the Pencil

Four years ago today (January 9th) Marie left on her ultimate sketch journey. Even in those last days, when she was too weak to lift her pencils, she continued to sketch with her eyes. Her pencils were her passion, her avenue to make sense of this world. 

At the time of this writing, the nightmarish events of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris still continue, with more innocent people being killed in the name of religion. My friend, Carmel, sent me the image to the right from France this morning, commenting how much Marie would have been in agreement.The power of the pen(cil) cannot be silenced.

Teotitlán del Valle
Marie's pencil brought people together. Wherever she stopped to sketch, people were attracted to see what she was doing, what she was capturing on paper. And very often friendships blossomed because of it. Her pencil lines crossed cultures and celebrated the differences and similarities between us all.
Purepecha woman, Michoacán

A couple of years ago, my friend Greg took a photo of the altar I have for Marie in our bedroom. I wrote the poem below to accompany his photograph. Happy sketching Marie!! May your lines continue to cross borders and realms, and bring people together in harmony.
Greg's photo

Below is a link to a slideshow I have posted on Youtube and on my Facebook page. It is 7 1/2 minutes in length. A bit long, but then Marie deserves it!

A Sketch from the Other Side

From her altar in our bedroom

she smiles at me with pen in hand,

sketching with her eyes

what her hand no longer can.

The glazed Oaxaca-toned urn

that holds her coarse gray ashes,

can no longer contain her.

She descends at will

the narrow black ladders

that adorn the sides of the urn,

a portal from another realm traversing

the void between life and death.

New pages sketched in thin air

capture the moment as viewed
from the “other side.”