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.