Saturday, December 27, 2008

Art from Trash

I have been keeping an art journal here in Mexico, incorporating my writing with imagery.
Its a wonderful medium and adds a whole new dimension to the experience of place.
Now I have begun to pick up interesting trash from the street.
Not the safest thing to do considering the dusty condition of the streets here,
but hey, it's for arts sake, after all. And art, as you know, is a dangerous pursuit.
Here is a page from my journal made from a Faros cigarette pack
I found on a trail in the desert outside of town.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo 2009!

Wishing you all a miraculous holiday season and new year
filled with abundance, hope, and joy in new beginnings.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Here Comes Jesus, Ready or Not

Wed, December 17th

On the street outside the schoolhouse old grandmothers sit and wait for their prey. They have set up little stands selling gelatinas and chili coated lollipops and chewing gum and potato chips under the shade of the Mesquite trees, where they gossip with their comadres until the schoolbell clangs and the children come spilling out like plaid confetti from a shoebox, pesos in hand.
Today I walked by on my way into town just as the bell rang and was suddenly surrounded by hordes of children of all ages streaming down the cobblestone streets. Each of them was carrying a hand made nativity diorama made from popsicle sticks, twigs, straw and moss, with plastic sheep and donkeys and figurines glued to cardboard boxes. Each had a miniature baby Jesus doll nested into matchboxes filled with cotton or moss. There were orange ceramic roosters wired onto crooked little rooftops, painted backdrops of the night sky with glitter for stars, and silver foil cutouts of the star of Bethlehem wobbling precariously from the tops of pipe cleaners. I was drowning in a sea of mangers weaving all around me. Unable to move, I stood and watched as my cynical heart melted just for a moment.
Just then a small boy squeezed by with his diorama carefully perched on his head. Among the plastic menagerie of animals and wise men and angels glued in a neat circle around the baby Jesus, he had added a pink flamingo and a snowman wearing a red Santa hat.

In the market, tables are overflowing with everything you could possibly want to make your very own Nacimiento. Baby Jesuses of every size and color are piled next to painted red devils and pink pigs. Marys and Josephs collide with donkeys and cows. Tinsel and crepe paper, fireworks and stars. Christmas lights beeping out Jingle Bells and other familiar holiday tunes.
And on the street the poorest of the poor sell little piles of moss and reindeer made from twigs that they have gathered from the countryside. It's almost enough to make you want to believe.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

House of Light and Shadows

I love the peculiar way the light casts shadows on the chipped and broken surfaces of this old house on the Calle de los Muertos, street of the dead, where dust mingles with the afternoon heat and deep shadows poke out of dark and ancient doorways, carrying memories of those who were sheltered here before. Doorways to rooms that are now collapsed and open to the endless sky.
A thriving bougainvillea rises up from a hole in the courtyard, oblivious to the decay of manmade things. Its drying flowers swirl around the rubble like magenta butterflies.
Soon these walls will receive fresh coats of cement, reinforced with brick and mortar. Channels will be chipped into the walls to lay in the wiring for lights, televisions, and refrigerators. Pipes will carry water to boilers and bathrooms. Floors will be laid with terracotta tile and new concrete steps will replace this crooked iron stairway, inlaid with painted tiles. The bougainvillea will be cut to make way for the workmen, its roots buried beneath the new cement patio. Perhaps it will find it's way back, or a new one will be planted and their roots will mingle, joining the past with the inevitable future, twining the stories together into a mysterious continuum.
Meanwhile I stand on the rooftop and listen to the faraway cries of roosters, playing with the shadows until they disappear with the fading light.


Saturday, December 13, 2008

Patterns in Chaos

At the Tuesday Market in San Miguel

used barbie dolls rusty wrenches chicken feet gorditas chili peppers home made honey a table made from railroad ties bootleg DVD's and CD's jitomates chicharones old frayed comic books baskets pottery tacos pizza plastic jesus plastic santos christmas lights underwear tee shirts used clothes socks dried flowers watermelons avocados incense cooking pots spray bottles speakers soap candles shoes candy hammocks dried beans corn pozole earrings sunglasses bull horns live birds including a peacock eggs cheese plaster angels camotes tamarindos herbs powder of the seven african powers amulets plastic toys brassieres sewing thread computer parts radios bananas mole in buckets canela licorice poodles gummy worms gelatinas a stuffed iguana kewpie dolls shoelaces chewing gum bunjee cords and a famed picture of elvis
et cetera


Friday, December 12, 2008

The Virgin of Guadalupe

"Juan Dieguito"

San Cristobal de las Casas, 1990

I am wandering up the calle Guadalupe in San Cristobal under streams of plastic banners: red, green and white. Crowds of people growing thicker as I get closer to the church. Along the sides of the streets little stands are selling sweet bread and ponche, sodas and tamales. Popcorn, tacos, cotton candy, corn on the cob. Music blares simultaneously from mariachi and marimba bands as fireworks punch the night sky. Lights flash and blare from ferris wheels and bumper cars, A woman’s voice calls out the images of the Loteria games: El borracho! La sirena! El nopal! Enormous stuffed animals and plaster Jesuses and gold spray painted skulls are the prizes perched above the heads of hopeful players. Suddenly sirens begin to wail and a group of marathon runners clamber up the cobble stone street. ‘Para arriba, para abajo, a la bim bom bam! A la Virgen! A la Virgen! Ra! Ra! Ra!’ They shout in unison, carrying torches and flowers, the image of La Virgen stenciled in red and green across their sweaty tee shirts.
I climb up the steps to the church at the top of the hill, following clusters of Chamulan Indian women wrapped in dark wool skirts and blue striped rebozos, elegant Zinacantecan Indian men dressed in bright pink with ribbons streaming from their hats, and Mexican children in frilly dresses and little suits and shiny shoes. The air is filled with the smell of smoke and frying food and the aromatic carpet of pine needles beneath our feet.
Inside the church the crowds are huddled into pews and pressed into the aisles. Pungent lilies and dark red roses are on every corner and ledge, spilling out over the altar, where a larger than life sized plastic Virgin of Guadalupe rises up from the glow of a thousand candles, appearing before the astounded plastic peasant Juan Diego. Three green snakes writhe from beneath her feet, their tongues a string of flickering Christmas lights. Her cloak is dark blue like the night, carrying the constellations of the stars. Her white dress is tied at the waist with a knotted belt that symbolizes her pregnancy. She stands upon a dark crescent moon, rays of light radiating from her like great golden spears. I squeeze into a pew next to a woman wrapped in a dark shawl, and watch as Indians bring more candles to place at the feet of the Virgin. The floor is caked in pools of dripping wax. The Indians kneel before the altar, exposing their cracked and calloused feet. There among Indians and old folks and children and tourists, I suddenly begin to cry. I am surprised by the sting of my own tears and my heart’s sudden ache. Outside, I can hear the plinking of the marimbas. They are playing a tune that sounds strangely familiar. Then I recognize it as “Feelings” and laugh out loud, tears still on my cheeks. Once again I am caught up in the tragic comedy of Mexico, as the colored lights from the Virgin of Guadalupe blink and call to us from the altar.


Tepeyac, Mexico, 1532

In December of 1532, in the hills of Tepeyac near Mexico City, when Spain had conquered Mexico and Christianty was introduced to the resistant Aztecs, an Indian named Cuauhtlatoatzin, christened Juan Diego, turned toward the sound of heavenly music and saw before him the vision of a woman beckoning to him. She spoke to him in his native Nahuatl tongue, asking him to gather the roses that were suddenly miraculously growing in the bare hills around him in the middle of winter, and take them to the bishop to convince him to build a church in her name. He gathered them into his tilma, or apron, and when he unraveled it before the bishop the image of the Virgin herself appeared on the cloth. She is called the Virgin of Guadalupe. Some say she is named after the Spanish Guadalupe from the Moorish name that means “River of Love”, whose waters were reported to have aphrodisiac qualities. Some say the name derives from the Aztec language of Nahuatl and the goddess Coatlique, the snake goddess. Or from Coatlaxlpeuh, Nahuatl for ‘That Which Crushes Snakes.’ Indeed, her appearance occurred after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, whose god was Quetzalcoatl, the winged snake. In fact Genesis 3:15 alludes to a snake being crushed by a woman. She is thought to have replaced the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the mother goddess. The time of her appearance, whether miraculous or politically motivated, served to unify the Spanish and the Indians under one faith. Her followers include peasants and presidents, nuns and thieves. She is the spiritual mother of Mexico, of Mexicans, and of anyone who chooses to embrace her into their faith. Her saints day, December 12th, is a time of celebration and reverence all over Mexico and wherever Mexican people live.


San Francisco, CA 1992

In March of 1992 I was caring for a dying friend. One afternoon I took a much needed walk down the streets of his neighborhood to try to come to terms with my grief and exhaustion, having spent the past several weeks involved in the difficulties and heartbreak of his illness. While I was anguishing about whether to stay with my friend or return home to Monterey for some urgent business that needed attending to, I passed a basement window across which someone had strung a makeshift curtain using a towel with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. As I stood there looking at it, I was suddenly filled with a feeling of great calm. My body relaxed and my head felt clear and at peace. Then I heard a voice in my head. It told me that there was no reason to worry, that all would be well. When I returned to my friend’s house I joined his wife and a few close friends as we gathered around his bed and held him as his breathing slowed and he passed away peacefully, released at last from his suffering, surrounded by the people he loved. I can’t say that I quite understand what happened that day, but ever since then I have held a deep reverence for the Virgin of Guadalupe. I like to carry the image as a talisman on my travels or tape pictures of her to my bathroom mirror or studio wall I don’t consider myself a religious person, and in fact am cynical at best, but sometimes I find myself sending out silent prayers to her in my times of confusion and sorrow, when I have given up on trying to solve the problems of my life and having to figure it all out myself. Somehow having a sense of faith in a loving being that is compassionate and wise relieves me of the burden of having to carry the weight of my life all alone. I suppose if one has faith in a higher power it doesn’t seem to matter whether the image that represents it is carved from marble or cast in plastic, woven in fine silk or printed onto a beach towel. It is still a reminder of my own humility and the miracle of the human heart.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Real Deal

When I was a child growing up in the sterile manicured suburbs of Southern California we were fortunate to live on the edge of a wild canyon, where I spent a great deal of time climbing trees and fishing polliwogs out of the muddy creek and exploring the mysteries of nature among the danger of poison oak and rattlesnakes. It was a place I could go where I felt like I could truly be myself; wild and natural and free. Years later at age 23, I had a strong desire to travel to Mexico, precisely because of its danger, mystery, and wildness. Because it was so close, it was an easy choice. I have since returned many times, and each time I am enchanted by the experience. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I can see now that in some ways Mexico was another version of the canyon in my back yard.
What follows is a short piece about one of my first childhood experiences with the Mexican culture...


The Garcias were the only Mexican family in the neighborhood, and the first I’d ever met. They lived down the block and across the street from our house in the suburbs of San Diego. Their house was different from ours; instead of a perfectly manicured lawn there were potted plants, an old wooden gate, spiny cactus growing outside the door. Inside, there was always the smell of roasting chilies and salsa and corn tortillas and meat, even when no one was cooking. There was always music playing, people coming and going and hundreds of things to look at. Little plaster poodles with gold chains next to figurines of the Virgin Mary and various saints and angels. There was a calendar on the wall in the kitchen with a picture of Jesus on it, his pleading eyes looking up to heaven, blood oozing from the thorns sticking into his forehead. If you moved slowly up and down he would open and close his eyes and a river of tears would stream down his sorrowful face. I had never seen anything like it, and would spend a long time bobbing up and down in front of the calendar watching Jesus in his infinite sorrow, batting his eyes for God.

On Saturdays when most fathers were mowing the lawn or washing their cars I would go down the street to the bright green house with the bicycles in the yard and eat tamales at Dona Lupe’s crowded table while her husband Carlos sang along to the Spanish songs on the radio. I would play in the backyard of overgrown weeds with her daughter Sylvia, who was the same age as me. One day I asked her about the Jesus picture and the words that were printed in Spanish beneath his painful portrait. What does it say? I wanted to know.
“It says ‘Carniceria Gonzalez; Freshest meats in town’. “It’s from a butcher shop in Tijuana,” she said.

At our house the décor was Japanese. Rattan furniture with little fan patterns on the cushions, straw tatami mats on the floor. A little brass Buddha incense burner perched on the coffee table and prints of airbrushed Jaguars prowling through exotic jungles adorned the walls. It never occurred to me at the time to wonder how my cockney English mother and Jewish father from the Bronx had ever come to embrace this mishmash of Oriental decor, but this is how it was in the suburbs of southern California in the fifties. You bought a tract home in a development called ‘Cinderella Homes,’ chose an interior motif based on a fantasy, and there you dwelt in the environment of a culture you knew nothing about. Anything tropical and exotic was in, and we attended countless neighborhood luaus where we would sip Hawaiian punch under the light of tiki torches as we watched our drunken parents bump their chests on the limbo pole to the tunes of Chubby Checker singing the Limbo Rock. “How lowww can you gooo?”

A few years later we switched to Early Colonial American. Heavy dark stained notched wood with brown Naugahyde cushions, brass eagle lamps, prints of autumn landscapes and horses, braided rag rugs in Avocado Green and Harvest Gold. The Naugahyde would stick to your skin in hot weather and make strange squeaking sounds when you moved. I wondered how those early colonial people handled it. We traded our Formica table for a larger one made of faux carved wood where my mother would serve up spaghetti with canned sauce and frozen chicken pot pies and pizza and ground beef with packaged taco mix in perfect molded hard taco shells. We took on the flavor of other cultures and periods of history and made them our own. We embraced them as if they were a ride at Disneyland.

But at the Garcia’s house, everything about it was Mexican. Mexican food. Mexican music. Mexican language. Even the chachkes were Mexican. The photos lined up under the rabbit ears antenna on the Zenith TV set were of Mexican people. Grandparents and uncles and cousins and nieces. Girls in frilly white dresses and men in cowboy hats, all with dark eyes and brown skin, peering out of their ornate plastic frames like a silent crowd of ancestors watching over their progeny. These people were the real deal.

Sometimes Sylvia would come over to my house and we would play on my swing set or in my room, which she couldn’t believe I had all to myself. It was decorated in lavender and pink with ruffled curtains and matching wallpaper that my mother had chosen for the little girl she wished she had. The floor was strewn with little plastic army men and baseball mitts and super hero comic books. Sometimes it seemed as if the rooms of our house were decorated for someone else's family. They just hadn’t arrived yet.

Years later, when I was seventeen and my parents were divorced and we had sold the house to live in separate condos, (my father said that he always hated having to mow that lawn on his days off) I ran into Sylvia at the Kmart. She was pushing a shopping cart with a small toddler sitting in it. She said she didn’t know where the father was but that it was okay, because her mother and sisters were helping her out. In her cart were several bottles of Coke, a large box of Cheerios and a package of Pampers. She told me how they had moved into some apartments on the other side of the freeway, where a lot of other Mexican families were living now, and how she had a part time job busing tables at Shakey’s Pizza. Her eyes were lined in black and her tight blouse revealed her now full breasts and the paunch of her belly. Suddenly the baby began to shriek, kicking his feet against the cart. Sylvia rolled her eyes and said she had to go.
For some reason I remembered the Jesus calendar, and with the memory came the spicy smells of the kitchen, the ayayay! of ranchera music, and the vision of bright red pepper plants sprouting up amidst the weeds like painted fingernails. I laughed out loud.
“What?” she asked. She had taken the child out of the cart and was bouncing him on her hip.
“Oh, I was just thinking about that Jesus picture,” I said. “Remember? The one where the eyes opened and closed?” She looked at me over her shoulder, her penciled eyebrows raised, and said she didn’t remember a thing about it. What she did remember, she said, was the feeling of riding high on that swing in my backyard. How she loved looking down from the sky like that, for just a second, before chain jerked you back to earth again. Back to the bittersweet green smell of freshly mowed grass.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Bird Dreams

"Gathering" monotype
(see entire series at

The other night I dreamed that I suddenly remembered a small box that I had brought back with me from Mexico that contained a live wild bird. How could I have forgotten all about it? Surely that poor bird was dead from starvation by now. And if so it was my fault. I had killed it. But what if, through some miracle, it was still alive? There was only one way to know, of course. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. To find the box. To open it. Perhaps if I just imagined the miracle I could go on, guilt free, knowing the bird had survived despite my negligence. But the thing about miracles is that you can’t just imagine them, you have to believe in them. You have to have faith and know beyond a doubt that they are true. And if it wasn’t true, then it meant that I had killed that innocent bird. And so to save myself from guilt, I had to believe.

Well, this was a dream after all. Which means that the bird is me, or part of me, I suppose. And maybe what has been neglected since I returned from Mexico is my creative spirit, my connection to the magic. My writing, perhaps. A wild thing that should never be kept in a box anyway. I must keep faith, must keep it fed, above all else.
That the creative spirit survives at all in this demanding world is a miracle in itself.

We have moved back to California and are living in yet another reality. We can hear the hush and sigh of waves on the shore, the hiss of sprinklers at dawn. Swallows nesting in the attic vents that shared our bedroom wall. All night long we could hear their little cheeping sounds, all beaks and bone and hunger. Now they are gone and we remain in this new nest, padding through carpeted rooms, trying to keep our faith in miracles in these days uncertainty. Trying to keep from getting swallowed up by the demands and stresses of everyday life.

Here in Santa Cruz, there are plenty of opportunities to practice.

At a little gift shop in Capitola I overhear a customer talking with the saleswoman. I can’t see what they are looking at but I can hear the conversation.
“So what does this one mean?”
“That means Happiness.”
“And this one?”
“That says Prosperity”
“How about this one? What does this stand for?
“I think that one is Love.”
“Good. I just think it’s important that I know what they mean.
After all, if I’m going to put one on my altar and pray to it then it better stand for something I want.”

Friday, June 27, 2008

Zocalo Shaman

We follow the sound of beating drums and a rhythmic rattling and pounding to the Zocalo, the central plaza, Mexico City’s own beating heart. There, groups of dancers costumed in Aztec garb leap and twirl around a smoking altar in sandaled feet, rattling the strings of seed pods and goat horns strapped to their ankles, pulsing gourd rattles and pounding on enormous carved drums. They are dressed in animal pelts and fluorescent fabrics, gold plastic, feathers and face paint. The sound echoes off of the walls of the Catholic church, the Presidential palace, and the crumbling remains of the pyramids of Tenochtitlan that support the weight of a steady stream of camera laden tourists as they stare and wonder at remnants of an ancient history and it’s reenactment all happening at once, right here before their very eyes.

Scattered between the groups of dancers, self proclaimed Curanderos dressed in a variety of exotic costumes are waving smoking herbs over the heads of their customers, stroking them with bunches of basil leaves, performing limpias, cleansing the ailing spirits of tourists and locals alike. They vie for attention with their costumes made from various animal parts and altars which hold clay bowls of smoking copal and sage, photos of saints and Aztec kings, flower petals and shells.
Large hand painted cardboard signs announce their services. These presumed shamans appear to be multi talented, offering spinal alignments and massages, astrology and palm readings, as well as the usual spirit cleansings. One shaman sports a dead rabbit’s head on his forehead, it’s blind eyes peering out through a fan of peacock feathers. He wears the red painted skull of a small animal at his groin. We watch as he holds onto the head of a middle aged woman, rocking it back and forth, and then suddenly jerks it sideways as she grimaces with pain. My curiosity to step up for a shamanic healing ends in that moment. When the lines of customers grow thin the shamans stoke their smoking altars and blow into conch shells to announce their presence, beseeching the weary gods for more customers to heal. The cardboard signs assure you that your participation is voluntary and gratis. I wonder if it is because it is a sacred shamanic law that says they must offer their services for free or lose their spiritual healing gifts, or perhaps (more likely) it is because the Mexican law has recently banned street vendors and merchants from selling goods and services in the zocalo. Either way, you can be sure that they willingly accept donations for the cause.

Despite the law, blankets and tables are laid out along the sidelines with a myriad of goods for sale, where long haired tattooed and pierced sellers hawk their wares. Here you can buy post modern precolumbian chachkes galore. Faux ancient artifacts like plaster Aztec calendars spray painted gold, cheap jewelry made of questionable jade, obsidian and coral wrapped in nickel silver wire. Rattles and drums and flutes, and clay ocarina flutes shaped like animals. Smoking pipes made from epoxy clay entwined with serpents and pre-Columbian figures. Spray painted plaster skulls and little pyramids of resin with entombed scorpions sealed inside. In short, anything you could possibly need to set up an Aztec altar right in your very own living room. It is decadence at its best. A fantasy revival of an ancient culture turning a profit here at the very site of their reign and demise. Beneath the wary gaze of the Catholic church, the government, and the crumbling ruins of the Aztec empire itself. Mark is fascinated by a woman throwing pairs of small oval magnets into the air that click together with a buzzing insect like sound. He buys a pair for the equivalent of a dollar, and proceeds to spend the rest of the day annoying me with them.

For dinner we buy delicious tamales wrapped in banana leaves from a vendor with an ingeniously designed wheeled cart. Beneath the steaming pot of tamales is a charcoal brazier, and attached to the sides are plastic bags filled with plates and forks. I barely take my first bite when suddenly the cart is in motion, a trail of sparks and steam rushing past us, only to disappear around the corner of a building just as two uniformed policemen saunter by. Behind their unsuspecting heads stands the vendor’s buddy and informant, holding up an empty plate and plastic fork, still advertising the now invisible wares. “Mas tamales?” he mimes, and I nod, holding up two fingers. Then he is gone, reappearing moments later with a fresh steaming plate. Somehow they taste even better just knowing that they are illegal.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Art of Suffering

Easter in San Miguel

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Feliz Primavera

Kids in the Spring parade in San Miguel

Happy Spring!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Flight of the Iguana

Neighborhood crocodile in La Manzanilla
(photoshop was not used to create this image)

We are trying to get through Puerto Vallarta but the city is endless. Rattletrap old busses with broken plastic seats and sweat-smeared windows list their destinations in white paint down the front of broken windshields. Not street names or neighborhoods, but Wal-Mart. Costco. Sam’s Club. This bizarre disparity/ juxtaposition between transportation and destination are the epidemy of the new Mexico, caught between two words, chugging to catch up to the modern world in broken down busses and empty pockets. We rumble over semi paved roads, the driver popping the clutch at every stop and start from his plastic lawn chair bolted to the rusting floor. Dusty faded dingle balls bounce and jerk in rhythm with the potholes and topes, speed bumps. We hold on, passing KFC’s and OfficeMax and McDonald’s. Home Depot. Subway. Billboards in English with pictures of towering hotels and blonde couples smiling on a deserted beach. We never see the real beach, only streams of yellow taxis, sunburned tourists laden with shopping bags. Frayed palm trees line up along the road like tired old soldiers in a lost war, dwarfed by cell and radio towers. We are confused here among the traffic and buildings and Mexicans who seem to have lost their inherent kindness, cinched their hearts against the overwhelming encroachment of a new culture, teetering between the world of abundant capitalism and convenience and the uncelebrated loss of their neighborhoods. The only thing that feels like Mexico right now is the interior of this old bus- the driver joking with the ticket boy, cussing and laughing at every near miss. No manches, guey! Ay, cabron! It’s hard to imagine this town as the fishing village it once was until Liz Taylor in “Night of the Iguana” put it on the map and sent it spiraling into tourism and the excesses of the modern world. We careen across the cobblestone streets bordering slick concrete parking lots as if in a time machine from the past, barreling towards progress and a future that does not stop for anyone.
We pass the Mega.Soriano. Gigante. Liverpool. Mexico’s own versions of big box stores. Outside in the street an old man pushes a little paleta cart past the entrance to shining luxury condos. At a bus stop a young girl in her Catholic school uniform is wrapped in a hot embrace with her boyfriend, her plaid skirt hiking up her thigh. Everyone on the bus watches with mild interest, until we are jerked forward and onward, our destinations a distant dream in the midst of a journey that is longer than any of us can possibly imagine.

After following the long curve of highway south of Vallarta we travel towards La Manzanilla, a small fishing village where I used to live over 20 years ago. I am filled with memories and expectations, and bracing myself for the changes that must have occurred since my last visit. I lived in a little bungalow on the beach, owned by a wonderful Mexican family that adopted me as their resident gringa. Would they still be there? Would anyone remember me? Surely many had left or died, their children now grown with children of their own. We are let off on the crossroads to the town and walk the kilometer to get to the beach. I am already noticing the changes: huge houses on the hillsides, tour companies and real estate offices, cell tower, restaurants, gift shops. We wander down the dusty main street that runs parallel to the beach. Where breeze once flowed through the palapas to the street there is now a wall of large houses with iron gates. And then a palapa roofed terrace, where a woman is hanging laundry. I call her name and she squints at me, confused. Then her eyes grow wide and she remembers. All these years gone by and she remembers.

We are invited to Miguelito’s 4th birthday party, the age his mother was last time I was here. It’s being held at the ranch out in the country by Boca de Iguanas. Once a remote beach the property now butts up against a huge resort. There is cake, tamales, and birria from a freshly slaughtered goat. The men all gather around a vat of frying chicharon that Miguelito’s grandfather is stirring with a large wooden spoon. They pluck lemons from nearby trees to squeeze into tequila. The women and children are on the terrace, where a clown is performing and music is blaring and colorful piñatas hang from the rafters. There are so many children. That each one of them gets a birthday party like this one every year is mind-boggling. Mothers must spend most of their time preparing for them and cleaning up after them. It is so amazing to be here and among this family again. Some have died, and many more have been born. Some have moved to the states and are working in factories or cafeterias, but most of them have stayed on, knowing that they have a special piece of paradise, here among the palm trees and each other. I am so glad to be a part of it all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Journey to the Edge

We take a night long bus ride from San Miguel to the coast to spend a few weeks at the beach and the noise never ends. Television screens hanging above the seats blast out B rated movies dubbed in Spanish to a busload of sleeping Mexicans, while I suffer every scream and bullet through my useless earplugs. The baby in the seat behind us cries all night long amidst the suck and whistle of a dozen people snoring, the loudest by far being the woman sitting across the aisle from me. A woman so large she seems to be poured into her seat like dark bread dough, overflowing the arm rests, her brightly flowered belly rising and falling with the labored rhythm of her breathing. We wind our way down from the high desert and over another mountain range, past the cities of Celaya and Guadalajara and a hundred small villages in between, the dark shadows of trees and cactus passing in a shady blur outside the window. At one point we feel a rush of intense heat and watch out the window as a fire rages at the side of the road just a few feet away from the passing traffic. I see the dark silhouette of an agave raising its spiny thorns in a futile gesture against a wall of bright orange fire poised to devour it, and I think: “El llano en llamas,” straight out of a Juan Rulfo novel. The Valley in Flames.
Somehow I manage to sleep for a few hours and wake up to the breaking dawn to see the layers of distant hills in shades of pink and lavender, and the dark spindly shapes of palm trees rising up out of a tangled mass of jungle. I breathe in the moist green air of the coast and taste a hint of salt. My ears are thrumming from the long descent and my mind is a tired blur of exhaustion and relief. Finally we arrive in the dusty coastal town of Buscerias, where we disembark and stagger down a dirt road towards the beach.
The sea at last. There it is, silvery blue and green, twinkling in the haze of the early morning light, gentle and sweet. A few plastic bottles and beer cans bob gently on the surface. We plop down on a concrete bench and buy hot creamy atoles from a boy pushing a little cart, and we sit there and wait for our souls to catch up to our tired bodies, listening to the soft sounds of water on sand.
A man is standing several feet away, looking out to sea. He is drinking from a can of orange Fanta. He turns toward us and I nod in greeting, then see that his eyes are brimming with tears. He comes over and sits down on the bench and asks us where we are from, and tells us that he is also a stranger here. He lives in another beach town a few hours away, and is here in Buscerias staying with his brother. One week ago today, he says, he found his wife in bed with his best friend. Now he has no idea where to go, or what to do. He takes a long drink from the can, shakes his head, and sighs. We sit in silence for awhile, the three of us. What can we say to this man with a freshly broken heart, crying into his soda? Which of us has not been betrayed by someone we love? I feel my heart expand with his sorrow, emptying into the endless sea.

From Buscerias we hop on an old second-class bus to Chacala, a small beach town about a half an hour up the coast and our final destination. I share a seat next to a beautiful young woman holding a sleeping baby wrapped in a fuzzy blue blanket. It takes a moment for me to realize that the child is deformed, a tiny face nested into an enormous head. The woman is glowing and begins chattering away about the boy, who she absolutely adores. She tells me that he was born in a coma with encephalitis and not expected to live more than a few hours. But now look at him, living proof of the existence of God and His miracles. For this reason she has named him Angel of Jesus. After a while the baby opens his eyes and they swim about like lost fish for a few seconds before they focus on his mother’s face and rest there, his little mouth forming into a tiny alien grin, revealing two miniature teeth. It is a smile as pure and full of love as I have ever seen.
We arrive in the town of Varas and I say goodbye to Angel of Jesus as we are directed towards a rusty blue van, a collectivo that will take us to Chacala. We squeeze our way into the crowded van as the driver pulls on a frayed string to close the sliding back door. He slips a CD into the player and away we go, bouncing to the scratchy wailing of ranchera music that skips and switches songs at each pothole and bump in the road in a maddening schizophrenic montage of sound. No one seems to notice but me.
My husband is seated up front next to the driver and I can see the back of his head, his hair sticking out in all directions and his shirt rumpled from the long sleepless night. I feel a pang of tenderness for him, and wonder if he is cursing me at this very moment for talking him into coming on this trip, pulling him out of his comfort zone and into this world of unpredictable ups and downs. As the music jerks this way and that, the old van rattling and squeaking, everyone is hanging on to their seats or to each other, I suddenly begin to laugh out loud. I can’t stop. I’m delirious with exhaustion and the wonder of being alive in this world where it is impossible to know what will happen next. Where life splays itself open and shares itself with me, in all of its pain and beauty. Tears are streaming down my face. I am a madwoman, laughing and crying at once. Fortunately no one can hear me among the myriad of noises that surround us.
Chacala is a lovely white crescent of beach lined with palm trees, a few RV’s, and several small seafood restaurants with palm leaf palapa roofs and little stands selling shell jewelry and plastic beach toys. Enormous iguanas sun themselves on nearby rocks and pelicans perch on the edges of fishing boats that are tied to a small dock at the far end of the bay. We collapse onto plastic chairs at a table right on the beach and order huevos rancheros and coffee, but there is only instant Nescafe, so we order coke and beer instead. We take off our shoes and dig our toes into the cool sand and feel the ocean breeze on our faces as we scoop up eggs and beans and salsa with thick home made tortillas and watch the vast sparkly ocean as it gently kisses the grateful shore.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Roof Dog Rant

Two doors down from our little row house in San Miguel a huge black Doberman perches on the edge of a flat concrete roof among the rusting rebar and dead potted plants, its dark ominous shape looming over the street below. Yellow eyes, a stray tooth poking out over its lower lip, one ear sticking straight up, the other bent at an odd angle. At any time of the day or night, motivated perhaps by a passing street dog, a running child, the gas man or the rising full moon, it lurches into a barking frenzy, overtaking any other activity such as conversation, reading or sleeping. It is a deep-throated explosion of sound, a thunderous dark bellowing, a bone racking howl and cry that echoes off of the walls and down the cobblestone streets below.

The Mexican roof dog. It is a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, especially by someone who comes from a culture where animal cruelty is frowned upon and peace and quiet revered. Aside from offering a sense of protection against crime, the roof dog owes its meager existence to a lack of space in a city where houses share walls and small patios and courtyards don’t allow for pets and the messes they make.
To complain to the dog’s owners would be futile, I am told. It would only invite bad relations and would not do anything to resolve the problem. What problem, gringo? So I have tried joking about it, forcing a laugh. I have tried listening to the barking without letting myself become irritated, attempted to hear it as mere sound without judgment. I have tried to feel love and compassion towards this poor wretched creature whose pathetic fate consists of several square feet of concrete under a hot sun. I will be like the Buddha, I say. I will practice acceptance and gratitude. But it isn’t long before my throat begins to tighten, my chest contracts, and I feel my jaw begin to twitch. Soon any semblance of spiritual progress I have made in my life shatters like a frail illusion as I envision myself shooting the dog in the head or tossing up a little meat injected with rat poison. ‘Just don’t listen to it,’ says my Mexican neighbor. But how? After all, you can’t close your ears as you can your eyes and mouth.

Years ago, I befriended a young Zapotec Indian man who invited me to spend a few days with his family in their village on the coast of Oaxaca. I spent the night in their one room house along with his parents, grandparents, children, cousins, and in-laws, all sleeping in hammocks strung across hooks in the walls. I remember lying awake for hours listening to the roosters crowing and dogs barking until I finally fell asleep from pure exhaustion, only to be jolted awake a few hours later by the sound of a screaming woman. I bolted upright in my hammock to see my friend’s ancient grandmother perched in front of a television set turned on full blast to a late night telenovela, in which an angry woman cursed and wailed through the worn speakers, mascara streaming down her face.
I must have shouted in my surprise because the old lady turned to me from across the room, smiling a toothless grin. “Que pasa, guera? She asked. “no puedes dormir?” “What’s the matter, blondie? Can’t sleep?”
Furious and confused, I looked around me at the dark room, illuminated by the dim blue light from the television. What I saw seemed impossible. Everyone was still fast asleep, snoring in their hammocks, sleeping children sprawled on a mattress on the floor at various angles, oblivious to the deafening noise. And that’s when I got it. It’s not that they learn to cope, because this is all they know. Raised in large noisy families in a cacophony of wailing radios, blaring televisions, clanging church bells, the barking and crowing and screeching of animals and honking of traffic, they learn to hear selectively, to listen only to what they need to hear.
Levels of tolerance to noise seem to be a learned thing that develops within a culture.
Once I met a man from Switzerland who told me that in his apartment building in Zurich a person could call the police on their neighbor if they took a shower after the 10:00 curfew, as the noise would be too disturbing.

When I lived in San Cristobal my friend Anie, a painter from Australia, rented an apartment above a restaurant in the center of town, where she would paint beautiful delicate gouache paintings of Buddhas and clouds. One day the restaurant began doing remodeling construction, and she was tormented every day by the sound of hammering and machinery below her feet. She would come over to my house in tears, unable to work or think. “Help me! She would cry. I’m losing my mind!” When she complained to the restaurant owner they told her not to worry, that it would be over in a few weeks. So she toughed it out, and after about a month the noise finally ceased. She was so grateful she spent the first day sobbing with relief. What she didn’t know was that what they had been building the whole time was a dance floor for their brand new discothèque.

And so it is. Mexico does not promise peace and quiet, only the incessant sound, color, and smells that constantly assault and entice the senses and remind you that you are never alone. The chaos of life is always present and abundant, buzzing and exploding with unpredictable energy.

Meanwhile the roof dog is at it again, and I wonder if I can possibly learn to find some semblance of peace amidst the discomfort I feel in the midst of its barking. If so, perhaps I can find peace anywhere. I practice “selective listening” as if it were yoga. And once in a great while I do succeed.
Meanwhile, I try to be thankful every day for the small miracles in my life. Like ear plugs, for instance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Burdens We Bear

In the chill of the morning, a string of black Ibis wind their way across a rosy pink sky over the high desert plain. Under a scrawny mesquite tree by the reservoir, two men are scooping rich soil from the shore into flour sacks and loading them onto the backs of two waiting burros. The smells of animals and earth and wood smoke from the nearby village fill the air. They work silently, the burros shifting under the growing weight of their load, their ears twitching among the flies that buzz lazily around their heads.

Finally, the bags are tied onto the animals with rope, and men and beasts begin the long climb up the hillside toward the clanging church bells of San Miguel. They walk past the bright green alfalfa fields and the small adobe and brick houses, climbing over the railroad tracks by the old abandoned train station to where the dirt roads turn to pavement at the edge of town. They lead the animals uphill towards the center of town, passing children in school uniforms carrying day packs full of books, their hair slicked back and shoes freshly shined. They nod to the housewives and maids in aprons and rebozos carrying their plastic shopping bags down to the market. Gringos weave past them on the stone sidewalks carrying yoga mats, Spanish books, sketchpads and laptops. Early morning traffic grinds its way up the narrow streets.

A dusty golden light peeks over the tops of the buildings, slanting across the ochre and sienna walls and meandering up the cobblestone streets and into the courtyards and gardens as a new crescent moon fades into the lightening sky. The hot, yeasty fragrance from the local bakery mingles with the smell of diesel fumes and wet stones. Pigeons coo and flap from various niches in the old stone and brick buildings. Doorways open and young women with plastic buckets sprinkle water onto the dusty streets as if bestowing blessings.

The men lead their burros into the nicer neighborhoods at the top of the hill, wandering the streets from door to door and offering their bags of earth for sale as fertilizer for the gardens that lie hidden behind the high walls of the big houses. They wipe the sweat from their foreheads as they unload the bags, the shadows growing shorter as the sun rises higher in the endless sky.

By mid-afternoon, they pass by an outdoor café where tourists and locals are having lunch under colorful umbrellas. At one small table, a middle-aged couple sip lemonade, circling real estate ads in the local English language newspaper. Having recently sold their LA condo, they have come to seek refuge and a simpler life in Mexico, where they hope to buy a colonial house near the center of town. Already they have signed up for Spanish classes, joined a few local clubs and made several friends. They have fallen in love with the town and the people, surrounded by such heartbreaking beauty, and are happy to have discovered this charming little place they are now calling their home.

The men stop to rest next to the café to water their animals at a fountain built into the side of a building. Two brown-skinned men in stained clothes and straw hats; two burros carrying mounds of white sacks, casting russet colored shadows against a terra cotta wall.

Across the street a man in khaki shorts, pale legs planted into white socks and sandals, canvas safari hat perched on his balding head, raises his Nikon to eye level. Squinching up his face, he makes a few adjustments to the camera, zooming in on the men with the burros. He can’t believe his luck. Last year, his picture of a beggar woman carrying a small child in a shawl had won him second prize in the county fair in his hometown. And now here is this perfectly quaint scene, presenting itself to him like a gift.

At the click of the shutter, the men with the burros jerk their heads up toward the sound. They watch intently as the man re-adjusts the camera for a second shot. Their faces take on a sudden look of desperation, and they thrust their empty hands out towards him.

The man with the camera blinks, as if surprised that the men are actually alive and not just figurines placed there for his personal viewing pleasure. What now? He tips his hat nervously, uncertain as to what to do next, uncomfortable that he has to acknowledge them. He begins to back away, the heavy black camera twisting awkwardly around his neck.

The couple at the table have looked up from their newspaper to witness the scene. They see the poor Mexicans with the overburdened burros. They see the clueless tourist with the enormous lens, lurking away. Suddenly they are both on their feet, the man pointing an accusing finger at the Nikon.

“Hey!” He shouts. “For chrissakes, give them a few pesos, why dontcha?” The man with the camera stops and turns to see where the voice is coming from.

“You can’t just walk around taking pictures of people without their permission, you know,” says the woman. She is standing with the newspaper clenched in her hand. Perhaps she plans to hit him with it. Instead, she shoves it into a plastic shopping bag decorated with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe and crosses her arms, glaring at him.

The man with the camera stares at them, then back to the Mexicans, who are still standing with their outstretched hands. Their desperate faces soften unwittingly into confused and mild amusement as they witness the drama unfolding before them. The man with the camera looks sheepish, as if he has been caught stealing. He tries to speak, but he can’t imagine what he should say, and so begins to fumble awkwardly in his pockets.

Dark moons of sweat reveal themselves beneath the armpits of his Banana Republic shirt as coins tumble and clatter onto the cobblestones. He crouches down to gather them up, then stands up and steadies himself. He sees the two men talking softly to each other, nodding their chins toward him. He sees the American couple turn and walk away, shaking their heads. Then he moves slowly, nervously towards the men and drops a few coins into each of the earth-brown hands. He can smell the stench of the animals, the dust and the sweat. The men tip their hats and offer him their crinkled smiles. He nods his head and manages a nervous grin. The men pocket the coins, and then one of them holds out his hand again, his palm turned sideways. The man with the camera reaches out and shakes the calloused hand with his own sweaty one, takes a full breath, then turns and slowly walks away, down the winding narrow streets to the cool safety of his hotel.

The burros, their loads somewhat lighter now, gratefully lap up the cool water from the fountain, then stand still and silent in the narrow shade of the overhanging Bougainvillea, momentarily protected from the heat of the afternoon sun. They close their eyes and rest. As far as they are concerned, this is as good as it gets.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Amor Espinado

Love is where you find it.

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Blessing of the Animals

The Blessing of the Animals at the Oratorio in San Miguel on January 17th, the day of San Antonio Abad.

Several years ago while sitting on a bench outside a church in Michoacan I saw a man leading a cow adorned with a wreath of flowers towards the entrance of the church. A few minutes later he was followed by an old woman wrapped in a rebozo carrying an enormous bird cage containing a squawking parrot. Now what? I thought, and turned to watch, waiting to see another of Mexico’s mysterious traditions unfold. A boy tugging at a goat on a frayed rope came next, followed by what appeared to be his little sister, clutching a speckled chicken to her small chest. Then another cow, a spindly legged lamb, a canary in a small wooden cage, a basket full of kittens, and a dog of questionable breed with a bright pink ribbon around it’s neck, lead by an old man bent over a gnarled walking stick. Patiently, the small contingent of humans and animals stood at the church door as if awaiting a small arc. Finally the door to the church opened and the padre appeared in white robes with a bowl of holy water, which he began to sprinkle onto the heads of the beasts, each one in turn. And so I it was that I learned of the blessing of the animals that takes place on January 17th, the day of San Antonio Abad, at churches all over Mexico.
Here in San Miguel the scene is slightly different, with poodles and chihuahuas leading the pack, along with a few reptiles and birds as well as a pair of ferrets. All of which are outnumbered by camera toting gringos as they weave among the faithful with their point and shoots and imposing telephotos. Two picturesque small twin boys carrying little bird cages become a prime photo op are surrounded. The ferrets are released from their cage and the cameras click away. A teenage girl with a yellow snake entwined on her arm waves it proudly for the cameras. The Mexicans in their seemingly infinite tolerance don’t seem to mind, however, and neither do the expats, strutting their finely quaffed poodles and miniature chihuahuas, adorned with crocheted little outfits, some of which designed to match to the outfits of the proud owners themselves. To them it is a chance to show off their precious bundles of joy. Faith and meaning mingle with pride and ego, and the humble padre does his job, reminding us of how grateful we should be for the gifts that these animals give us with their companionship, loyalty and song. Reminding us that all of God’s creatures deserve His love and blessings. Including gringos, I presume.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Into the Heart of the Desert

Cactus in the Botanical Garden at the Charco de Ingenio, San Miguel

Perhaps it is the very barren nature of the desert, the dry clear air, the spiny tortured plant life that sprout miraculously from the dry dust, that make me feel alive, something fragile that can whither and perish in the harsh sun. You have to have thick reptilian skin to protect yourself with in the desert. You have to pull nourishment from a deep well and hoard it. Life depends on resourcefulness and tricks to survive.
We are hiking through the Charco de Ingenio, a desert botanical garden and preserve, amidst 30 foot high organ cactus and round spiny barrel cactus large enough to crawl into. Nopal leaves shaped like hearts and laden with red prickly fruit called tunas that symbolize the sacrificial heart in Aztec codices. “Ixtli in Yollotli” in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, meaning the face heart, signifies the emotional balance one must achieve to live a good life. They say that the goal of this life is to match the heart with one’s outward expression or personality, to find harmony within. We pick the white fuzzy cochineal that is sticking to the spines of the nopal leaves and watch as it drips crimson between our fingers, like a tiny miracle.

And then of course there is the Agave, the source of the lifeblood of Mexico, reaching its sword like arms up towards the sun like a silent green explosion from the dry desert sand.
Not really a cactus at all, but a member of the lily family, it flowers only once in its long lifetime, sending out a long flowering stalk up into the sky, filling it’s heart with precious juices to nourish its seed before the whole plant withers and dies.
The Otomi Indians in central Mexico harvest the Agave or Maguey, as it is also called, to make the mildly fermented drink called pulque. They have ancient names for every part and every stage of growth of the plant, and use it for food and drink, to make a fiber for clothing, needles and tools, and even use the dried leaves to build their homes with.
The goddess of the Maguey is Mayahuel, who appears with 400 breasts spouting the precious white liquid with which to feed and nourish her many children.

In the making of Mezcal the heart is smoked in mesquite before fermenting. At the Mezcal tasting bar in San Miguel, Maurice has a passion for every nuance of the brew and is happy to share with us the entire process.
We sample the pure mezcal base, and then a rose colored mezcal that has been cured in wine barrels. Another that tastes a bit like scotch because of the part of the plant that it is fermented from. After several samples he offers me a special glass filled with a type of Mezcal called Sotol that comes from a the Yucca plant and is not available commercially. This one is for artists, he says, because it makes you have magical visions. I munch on a little dried worm sprinkled onto a fresh orange slice to clear my palate and ease the burn as I suck it down, feeling a dizzy rush of heat that sends my head spinning. For a moment the only vision I have is of myself passed out on the floor. But then I am enveloped by delicious warmth and feel the spirit of plant inside of me, as if Mayahuel herself were whispering sweet secrets for my ears alone. At least that is how it seems, as I am the only one nodding my head. Everyone else is watching me with raised eyebrows that for a moment look peculiarly like arching worms.
Now the Agave begins to appear in my paintings in silvery greens and dark blues. The overlapping patterns of spines and thorns slowly unfolding to reveal a protected heart that is ready to blossom at any moment.