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!