Searching for the People’s Art
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a subscriber from Maine who normally visits Mexico’s East Coast, but after a visit to Puerto Vallarta contributed an article comparing the two coasts for the March 2001 issue of Mexico File. She has also contributed a number of book reviews. This is the first part of a multi-part series which covers Lynne’s travels south of Mexico City in search of folk art.
Crack of dawn, insane security measures from the place where nothing happens. Puddle jumper from Portland to Albany, horrible turbulence, pouring rain, another puddle jumper to Bradley, finally a real plane to Newark. Stop dead. Terrible thunderstorms over the southeast so our flight to Mexico City seems permanently on hold. It’s dark as we walk across the tarmac to get to our plane, another hour and a half wait, and finally we’re on our way. Midnight at Benito Juarez, lots of action but no Avis meeting us. Several phone calls, wow – in Mexico a Dodge Neon is a full-size car! 2:30 am at the Hotel Seville, no AC. I wish I were dead.
Crack of dawn again, after a quick jog through the Artisan’s Market La Cuidadela where Julie tells me not to buy anything because I can get it cheaper somewhere else. We are on the road to Oaxaca. We can see the sun as we clear Mexico City. It is uncommonly warm and sticky, and my friend Julie and I are beginning our whirlwind tour of central Mexico hunting down folk art – Julie for her shop in Massachusetts, me along for the ride to fatten up my collections of ceramics, textiles and alebrijes. This trip is old hat to Julie, who does it several times every year, but it promises to be a great adventure for me. I have never traveled such great distances through central Mexico by car before. Sad to say, too many of my pieces have been acquired from shops, dealers and over the internet rather than directly from the artists. I am excited beyond reason at the prospect of meeting some of the artists I most admire. Julie is working hard to tolerate my “are we there yet?” enthusiasm.
I have done this ride to Oaxaca before, six hours over the mountains on a fairly decent two lane highway, but it never fails to amaze. It looks a lot like the Grand Canyon without the color, but the many varieties of cactus and plant life hold endless fascination for me. However, by the time we approach the outskirts of Oaxaca city, I am cramped, starving and thanking God for Pemex and their excellent banos. As I crawl from the very tiny car, I look at Julie with new eyes. A normally conservative driver at home, she has become totally Mexican behind this particular wheel, flying over the ‘curvas peligrosas,’ passing indiscriminately on solid lines while leaning heavily on the horn, and cutting the trip to four and a half hours. We check into Julie’s favorite spot in Oaxaca, Casa Arnel, buy some Coca Colas and I send what I’m beginning to suspect might be my last e-mail to my husband.
I get to sleep in on this Saturday morning, all the way to eight o’clock. We have a breakfast of fruit salad, fresh squeezed jugo de naranja, and toast at Casa Arnel served by the sullen teenage children of the owner (some things are the same wherever you go). Today we are off to Ocotlan so I can find the Aguilar sisters, followed by an afternoon in San Martin Tilcajete, home of some of the most famous alebrije carvers in Mexico. Guillermina, Josephina, Irene and Concepcion Aguilar are the stars of the book Oaxacan Ceramics – Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women, and creators of the wonderful market ladies, Mujeres de la Noche and Fridas admired the world over. As I shuffle through my pesos, Julie tries to warn me that oftentimes the workshops of these most celebrated artists have been swept of their stock by dealers, store owners and collectors, particularly at this most un-touristy time of year, but I remain hopeful. We pull into the dusty town of Ocotlan, where the Aguilar workshops line the main road. Julie pulls up and smiles, “You’re in luck – look at those tables.”
Our first stop is Josephina’s workshop. She is not there, but her very beautiful daughter escorts me through the rooms, followed by small children, chickens and Siamese kittens. Josephina’s specialty is the endless series of market ladies of varying sizes. They are brightly and authentically dressed and carry all the products found in mercados across Mexico. I choose several carrying fruit, vegetables, calla lilies, baskets, and various animals, all about eight inches tall and selling for about $6.00. (These same items sell for between $38 and $45 on the internet, depending on the website, plus shipping). Julie finds a delightful lady carrying flowers and onions with a turkey on her head and I add her to my pile. Then a tiny little girl takes me into yet another room filled with the very delightful and humorous “Ladies of the Evening” figures. Josephina has recently begun covering the very skimpy dresses on these figures with sparkles – they are buxom, hilarious and hard to resist. Julie and I are in stitches. Julie doesn’t market the Aguilars in her store, but she very generously enjoys my delight at being here. I add some ‘ladies’ to my acquisitions and head off to find Guillermina while my pieces are wrapped.
Guillermina is the most famous of the sisters, discovered by Nelson Rockerfeller as a young woman and celebrated now for her wonderful representations of Frida Kahlo, taken from all of the self-portraits Frida painted during her short career. She faithfully represents Frida’s clothes, hairstyles, pets and cigarettes, and each figure sports a tiny mustache. They vary in size from 5 to 12 inches, the largest selling for $23, as opposed to the $125 to $155 on the internet. Guillermina herself escorts me through her workshop, asking which pieces I already have and which I am seeking, and complimenting me extravagantly on my abysmal Spanish. In spite of her recent inclusion in the marvelous coffee table book, Great Masters in Mexican Folk Art, she is warm, friendly and modest in the extreme. As we speak, however, of some of my favorite sites in Oaxaca, she leads me to a exquisite representation of La Virgen de la Soledad that I cannot go home without. It’s easy to see why dealers and collectors love her, and why she has done so well. She tells me about her children who are following along in the family business and encourages me to visit the workshop of her son Julian. I do, and it is remarkable to see his skillful but very different interpretations of Frida. I spend much more money than I should, and move on to the workshop of Irene, noted for her almost lifesize fruit vendor figures.
I don’t get to meet Irene or Concepcion, in whose studio I purchase a wonderful caricature Catrina from a very handsome and personable son, but when I return to Josephina’s workshop for my purchases, she is there working. Although similar in looks to her sisters, Josephina is reserved and shy, smiling very slightly as I take her picture, speaking not at all. As we load up the car, I am beyond thrilled at the opportunity to see these women on their own turf, rather than dressed to the nines as they are for their book photographs. It is an extraordinary experience for me to connect the creators to the work. Julie tells me not to gush so much or the prices are going to go up.
Taking my life in my hands, we buy a roasted chicken and horchatas (kind of a watery milkshake-type drink made with rice) from a street vendor and backtrack towards Oaxaca on our way to San Martin Tilcajete. Again exhibiting her Mexican driving style, Julie whacks each tope at top speed – I comment that I’m glad my name doesn’t appear anywhere on the car rental contract.
For the uninitated, alebrijes are objects – animals, angels and fanciful creatures – carved from copal wood and painted with either analine dyes or more recently, acrylic paints in vibrant color and multitudes of designs. I began collecting them as a child living in Mexico in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Though a thoroughly Zapotec tradition, the concept was more primitively executed then, in the form of carved wooden toys for children. Some carvers were doing large conceptual pieces, namely Manuel Jimenez, but most were smaller and not artfully done. When the carvings were painted, they were less colorful and more realistically represented. Then Nelson Rockefeller came along and the original alebrije tradition became an intricate art form. The history of the original alebrijes is told by Shepard Barbash in Oaxacan Woodcarving – The Magic in the Trees, and some of Rockefeller’s original purchases can be seen in the book Folk Treasures of Mexico by Marion Oettinger, Jr. However, both volumes deal only with the first generation of carvers, and it is the second generation of carvers working now – the children of those first great innovators – who, in my view, have made the collecting of alebrijes the massive worldwide passion it has become.
I have waited so long to get to San Martin that I cannot believe it when we arrive. It is a flat, dusty, grubby little town far off of Highway 175 due south of Oaxaca City. There is a small handmade sign saying “Alebrijes – Wood Carvings” on the highway indicating a right turn into the hills. Otherwise, it’s an easy place to miss. There are a few workshops on the left side of that first road. On the right side, garbage is scattered over fallow corn fields. Julie cautions me once again, “I’m buying here – DON’T gush.” I’m suitably chastened,
The first shop we hit is that of Hipolito Fabian Perez, a young artist whose wife has to be the most gorgeous woman in Mexico. Julie purchases many grasshoppers, crickets and other insects. I have been coveting his herons. They are tall, delicate and masterfully painted by his wife. I have not, up to this point, realized how complicated is the process of purchase for resale in Mexico. Julie carries some of her purchases home with her to stock her store, but most travel to a distributor in Gualadalajara for shipment to the United States via container. Nothing she imports can come in without an “Hecho in Mexico” stamp, and when dealing directly with artists, she is responsible for these tags herself, which she purchases in sticker form in Mexico City. While Julie applies them to each of her purchases, I wander further down the street in search of more goodies. It is just past midday, the heat and humidity oppressive, not a Coke in sight. I’m moving significantly slower in spite of my curiosity and to get out of the sun. I stumble into the workshop of Vincente Hernandez Vasquez, a deceptively young artist of whom I have never heard.
He rushes to put on a shirt in the horrible heat, and his very gracious wife Paulina – God bless her – offers me a Coke. I wander their fairly large studio wondering how I am going to get out gracefully without buying anything when I spot the MOST beautiful peacock I have EVER seen, and I’ve seen a few. Some alebrijes are carved from single pieces of wood, but most consist of solid bodies with tiny holes drilled in them to accommodate wings, ears, tails, horns, legs, antennae, feet, etc. This peacock has no less than 45 removable pieces in the form of wings, feathers and topknot. The carving is infinitesimal, smooth, symmetrical – the painting muted, detailed, painstaking. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere, including my favorite alebrije sites on the Internet. To my shame, I gush without reservation, but the cost is still only $12. Paulina carefully wraps the piece so that I will know how to reassemble it when I get it home. It remains the most exquisite acquisition of the trip.
I am torn between saving this marvelous discovery for myself or sharing it with the world, but only momentarily. It has long been a mission of mine to do all I can to help put my favorite artists on the map, in spite of the fact that I know it will drive prices up and make pieces harder to find. In the years since I have been seriously collecting, I have seen the difference a little success has made in Oaxaca’s craft villages and I am anxious for the progress to continue. Vincente can be found at Avenida Oriente #8 in San Martin Tilcajete, and I cannot urge strongly enough that anyone interested for any reason check him out. His work is extraordinary.
Throughout the very long afternoon, we visit Julie’s favorite vendors and search out those I am looking for. In the process, we are welcomed into every workshop and home. We are offered chairs, food and drinks, and we exchange many stories, some happy, many tragic. San Martin is a town in distress. In spite of its recent notoriety as the home of some of the area’s best carvers, Julie cites the addition of a covered basketball court and a recent paint job on the church as the only community improvements made in years. Many of San Martin’s young adults are migrating to the United States, most illegally, some with tragic results. A favorite artist of both of us, Luis Sosa Calvo, (famous for his charming marcianos) shares with us the sad story of his daughter’s decision to go with her husband to California so that he can earn $20 an hour working construction. She has left her small daughter to be raised by her parents. Luis has heard that the Mexican who recruited his child to emigrate for what he considers an outrageous fee is now blackmailing the entire group for more money under threat of turning them in to the INS. His daughter and son-in-law are in hiding and out of touch. His worry is palpable.
In the studio of Bili and Carlos Mendoza, Bili collapses in hysteria as I tell him of my misadventures in placing the pieces of one of his unicorns in the wrong holes while talking on the phone, and my husband coming along and gluing them in place, only to have to then try to disassemble the Super Glued pieces without destroying the piece. He tells me I should have brought it with me and he would have fixed it for me. I assure him you can hardly notice the very slight damage to the paint and he urges me to bring it the next time so he can repaint it.
Julie seeks out her friend and favorite carver Pedro Cruz Hernandez and learns from his broken-hearted mother that this talented young carver, depressed because of his difficulties with diabetes, has taken his own life, an occurrence practically unheard of in this very Catholic country. In Mexico, when someone in a family dies, a large black bow is placed over the entrance to his home and left there for minimally a year. Pedro’s mother’s distress is multiplied over her inability to place a bow, or to bury her son in consecrated ground. Her hospitality is warm and generous, but her grief is totally overwhelming as I attempt to commiserate with her while Julie shops. Julie is saddened at the absence of Pedro’s signature on any of the pieces she purchases, and very dismayed that all traces of the existence of this very talented man seem to have disappeared.
With great difficulty and much asking of directions, we seek the home and workshop of Maria Jimenez Ojeda, who has to be the only carver in town without a sign.. Her painting style is in a class by itself because of her ability to work unique and fanciful bird and flower patterns onto her miniature animals. I have long been a fan partly because Maria is one of only two women (the other being the very skilled and imaginative Rocia Hernandez) working successfully in what has long been ostensibly a man’s world. Men are almost always the carvers, with their wives, sisters and mothers doing most of the painting, generally without being credited or acknowledged. Maria and Rocia do both and boldly sign their own names. However, once we did find her, Maria was reserved to the point of rudeness and behaved as though our visit was an extreme intrusion. Every piece we looked at was for some reason unavailable for purchase. When we asked directions to the workshop of Jacobo Angeles, she claimed not to know and requested that when we got there, we not reveal to him anything we had seen in her workshop. I’m hoping the heat had gotten to her and this was not her real personality, though information gathered since points to a difficult personality coupled with inflated pricing.
Finally, the optimal experience of the day – a visit to the studio of Jacobo and Maria Angeles Ojeda (no relation), considered by just about everyone in the know to be the hottest carvers working today. This dynamic couple is very young – only in their twenties – and their considerable success is evidenced by their large, picturesque and well-furnished home. I purchased my first piece of their work several years ago in San Francisco, primarily because Maria’s signature appeared right next to Jacobo’s on the bottom of the piece. Since then, they have been marketed by every up-scale dealer in alebrijes, and have made many appearances in the United States as museum guest artists. When we arrived, neither artist was home, but we were charmingly escorted by Jacobo’s sister, Roberta, an artist in her own right, and his very dynamic mother, Tomaza, whose pride in her son knows no boundaries. Their studio had been recently swept, but when I expressed my extreme disappointment, Roberta and Tomaza ran around the house and workshop scooping up all the pieces they could find for us to see. Julie had never heard of Jacobo and Maria before and much to my relief, was enchanted with their work. My response to the work found was mixed – I was thrilled to find a companion dragon to one I had purchase from a dealer, but somewhat chagrined to find that I could purchase for $50 a piece that had cost me $200 on the internet.
As we were leaving, Jacobo and Maria arrived at home and we sat down to Coca Colas and a discussion of the market for alebrijes in the US. They were very interested to learn that we were from the northeast coast as most of their dealings have taken place in Texas, Arizona and California. There followed a lively conversation regarding what kind of animals they could be carving that would be a departure from the subject matter of most carvers. Their reputation has obviously been achieved through a combination of warm hospitality, great humor, astounding talent and brilliant marketing.
Dinner at Maria Bonita’s, in Oaxaca City, a marvelous little restaurant near Santa Domingo that serves a great gin and tonic with a wonderful chicken in mushroom sauce for about $5.00. All in all, a thoroughly exciting and rewarding day.
Casa Arnel advertises breakfast served from 7am to 10am – I guess that’s if anyone is in the mood to serve it, which isn’t the case this morning. Ditto for internet service – only one person has the password and if he’s not here, oh well. Unfortunately, this small backpacker’s joint is a million miles from nowhere, therefore requiring a car to get anywhere, which in Oaxaca means no parking anywhere. Thus a cab, which is a nuisance since there’s no way to call one. I honestly can’t recommend this very bare-bones, minimally maintained place, but Julie loves it, so there must be something I’m missing.
Searching for the People’s Art
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a subscriber from Maine who normally visits Mexico’s East Coast, but after a visit to Puerto Vallarta contributed an article comparing the two coasts for the March 2001 issue of Mexico File. She has also contributed a number of book reviews. This is the second part of a multi-part series which covers Lynne’s travels south of Mexico City in search of folk art.
Today the plan is to journey to the Sunday market at Tlacolula and, later in the afternoon, to Teotilan del Valle, famous worldwide for it woolen weaving. I’ve been to Tlacolula before and while it is certainly a bustling market, it is also very crowded and famous for its pickpockets – not a place I would normally frequent. However, as most internet vendors do, Julie sends a small free gift along with most orders, and it is at this market that she purchases the tiny nodding turtles that are her trademark. So, after a breakfast of yogurt and chocolate chip cookies from the corner tienda, off we go on the highway heading east in the direction of Mitla.
The heat and humidity are still oppressive and the road into Tlacolula is teaming with burros, oxen and other livestock. We park several blocks from the market and walk in, entering about in the middle. This market is truly a Mexican experience – almost all shoppers are Mexican, and most goods offered are food and products not geared to tourists. However, here and there are craft vendors and eventually we find Julie’s turtle guy, Santiago Vazquez Rosales. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the 300 turtles she needs, so she makes arrangements to meet him tomorrow at the zocalo in San Bartolo, where he lives and keeps his stock. Santiago’s wife Cecelia shares his stand selling her painted gourd boxes, which are truly gorgeous, so I end up looking forward to visiting with them the next day.
Highway 190 out of Oaxaca winds through mezcal country and all along the road are distilleries and vast orchards of the great agave plant. As we drive, the distinctive odor of the liquor permeates the still air. Another hidden treasure on this road is the marvelous Hacienda San Agustin, a huge restaurant and banquet center famous for its flavorful beef. Julie decides I need to experience this place, along with several hundred Mexican families enjoying their one day off a week. The Hacienda is a right turn off the highway at the point of a tiny sign, several miles along a dusty road into the hills. We have a marvelous though pricey lunch of arranchera, a kind of marinated pounded sirloin, and lemonade, and head back towards Oaxaca to Teotilan del Valle.
I’ve been here before also, and have never really had a lot of interest in the rugs this town is famous for. However, I am in for yet another surprise. Julie’s favorite weavers here are the brothers Pedro and Fidel Montano Lopez, who own a huge workshop along with the Restaurant el Descanso on Avenida Juarez, the main road into town. It is immediately apparent that the prosperity brought to this town by Nelson Rockefeller has continued in the forty or so years since he first discovered it. When I first came here fifteen years ago, the streets were still largely dirt and the houses unimposing. Now most streets are paved, the houses brightly painted, and evidence of ongoing construction everywhere. I always tend to measure the relative prosperity of a Mexican town by the number of starving, injured dogs roaming the streets – here, the dogs appear fat and relatively healthy.
The brothers Montano, who could be twins, greet Julie effusively and we repair to the upstairs showrooms, which are cooler, to view the latest offerings. Fidel, the oldest by two years, speaks totally unaccented English and immediately gets down to business, showing Julie his newest products, rugs woven of angora wool. Educated through college in the US, Fidel chose to return home to join the family business and obviously has taken the innovator/marketing genius role in his family. Pedro, who remained in Mexico, is the family’s primary weaver and designer. The family was able to afford to maintain only one son in the US, and this has caused a barely perceptible absence of personal closeness between these two remarkable men. In spite of this problem, however, they are a totally blended unit in the running of their business as they pull out stack after stack of incredible weavings.
I smirk as I watch Julie gushing all over herself as she piles up various sizes of rugs and moves on to the bolsas (zippered purses). We take a small break with cold water served over ice and Fidel takes the opportunity to bring out some rugs done in new designs with pastel yarns. Finally, my attention is totally engaged as I look at these completely unique colors. Now Julie is really gushing, and immediately purchases all but the one I am standing on, which I get. Julie mentions my fascination with the fish designs that are a large part of many folk art mediums in Mexico, and instantly Pedro brings out a vibrantly colored rug with an enmeshed fish design, which I also have to have. Most astounding to me are the prices these guys ask. Generally these weavings are expensive in the extreme, which has been a major deterrent to me in the past, but Pedro sells me the 3’ x 5’ fish rug for $40, the same size pastel for $35, and a bolsa for $14. His 11-year-old daughter Diana does the addition and multiplication, no mean feat in Julie’s case, with appropriate gravity and presents us with our bills. She then carefully counts our pesos and presents them to her father. She has not missed a single decimal point – the next generation in training.
One of the most interesting and pleasant aspects of this trip is the new-to-me pace of doing business in Mexico. Unlike the way we do things here, each visit we pay to a vendor, whether known to us or not, first involves an offering of drinks, or food if the time is appropriate, and an exchange of personal news and information before any business can be transacted. The choosing of items to purchase is accompanied by amusing and informative stories of designs, manufacture and other purchasers, as well as much laughter and banter, and usually involving the family children and pets. This is not generally the case with shopping in stores, but apparently, folk artists feel that if one takes the trouble to deal with them personally, one is interested in everything about them. I’m not sure I could function at this pace on a full-time basis, but it does prove to be yet another extremely pleasurable facet to going to the source.
Dinner tonight is at a tiny apparently nameless Italian restaurant – only eight small tables – across from Santa Domingo. Excellent wine, excellent spaghetti, only $6.00 each. I drop like a stone at 9:00 pm.
The morning finds us sitting on the curb in front of the cathedral in San Bartolo Coyotepec, home of the Oaxacan black pottery known the world over for its distinctive color and finish. We are definitely on Mexican time, but eventually Santiago shows up with a small boy in his wake that he introduces as Santiago Tercero – there is an older son known as Santiago Segundo. We travel in the mighty Dodge into the Colonia Vicente Guerrero where Santiago and Cecelia live with their family of seven children, various daughters-and-sons-in-law, and grandchildren. This colonia is typical of many off of the main roads in Mexico – narrow dusty streets with small homes of corrugated tin walls and dirt floors. We pull up in front of one such home with a mound of clay piled in front of it – Santiago and one of his sons are building a brick and adobe home, firing their own bricks and mixing their own adobe. At the top of the hill we climb to reach the house is a row of tin cans with roses and geraniums in them, all blooming profusely. Santiago shows us around his property – a 12’ x 20’ tin structure in which his family lives, a rear patio covered with a blue tarp where Cecelia paints her gourds, a cleared space off to one side where construction of the new home has been started. He tells us proudly that he has purchased this lot for $35,000 pesos (approximately $3,775) and expects to have the brick home completed within the year. There are scrawny chickens, puppies and kittens along with several small children seeking shade under a small tree.
We are ushered with great ceremony into Santiago’s house and given the only two chairs to sit on. In one corner is a small hibachi-style cookstove, in the opposite corner the table at which we sit; the other half of the house consists of many blankets and quilts piled on the floor and a woven baby basket hanging from the ceiling. Cecelia offers us boiled chicken and rice from the single cookpot, Santiago pours Coca Cola into glasses. Cecelia hustles Santiago Tercero out the door with a bucket to run down the street to get ice, which is then added to our glasses. I hesitate but cannot find a way to refuse the warmth and generosity of these charming people, so I go ahead and eat. During the meal, Cecelia and Santiago share with us the difficulties they have had getting treatment for their youngest daughter, nine-year-old Elvia, who is epileptic. They are finally receiving medication from a clinic in Oaxaca, and recently Elvia has begun to walk, but her years without the appropriate care have rendered her severely brain damaged and unable to speak. Cecelia confesses with tears in her eyes that she is also using birth control pills received from the clinic. We go on to admire the newest grandchild peacefully asleep in the hanging basket, a little girl seven months old.
Eventually, Julie and Santiago begin to count out turtles, and I go with Cecelia to see her taller (workshop). She shows me the raw gourds, explains how they are cut and hollowed out, and then brings out the small can with her brushes soaking in it. Cecelia tells me it takes her about three hours to cut, sand, design and paint each gourd. We then go through a box of the finished product and I find eight of various sizes, shapes and colors to purchase as gifts. She totals my bill – I have spent $20. So I choose a few more. As I look at them, I begin to appreciate the work involved in their creation. These gourds are not ordinarily a craft I would have noticed, but some combination of the generosity, skill and need of this small woman have caused me to look closer, and I have found a striking object of unique beauty. How lucky can you get?
We make a quick stop at the taller of Dona Rosa to purchase some black pottery. This home in San Bartolo is a standard stop for every tour in Oaxaca and we have both been before, but the prices are the lowest anywhere, and since we are in town anyway. It is interesting to note that the distinctive finish on these objects was achieved by accident, and even more interesting to realize that in spite of the vast quantity of vases and pots available, if water is applied to any of these vessels, they will dissolve into a pile of the original clay!
The afternoon finds us in Arrazola, perhaps the most prosperous of the carving villages of Oaxaca due to its fifteen-minute access from the city. Most noted as the home of Manuel Jimenez, the founding father of the alebrije tradition, Arrazola is smaller than San Martin and generally a more attractive town, although harder to navigate because of its many hills. Its prosperity is easily recognized by observing the paved streets, new bandstand and pleasant plaza, housing a small artisans market and clean public rest rooms.
We head for the taller of Pepe Santiago whose reputation as a carver is mixed among dealers and collectors. Some regard Pepe as running a sweatshop of young carvers and painters while turning out a decidedly inferior – although inexpensive – product. Others find the vast imagination found in his carvings significant. Either way, his wife Mercedes, who is the brains of the operation, is a total hoot. She speaks no English, but manages to convey great humor while running a strictly American-style business. There is no chit-chat with Mercedes, no invitations to linger, no drinks offered after commenting on the unusual heat. She is pointedly and successfully running a business and the way she does it has much to do with the success Pepe enjoys. Personally, my very first large alebrije piece was an exquisite turtle by Pepe, and it remains one of the nicest I have. In 1998, w hen I visited, much of the work was primitive at best and often sloppy and poorly executed, but there were still some remarkable pieces. This time there is a marked improvement in the majority of the pieces available, in both the intricacy of the painting and the skill of the carving. There are also many pieces depicting subject matter not usually portrayed by Mexican carvers, such as cows and palm trees. Additionally Pepe has branched out to pieces for use as well as decoration, including switch plate covers, candlesticks and napkin holders. As well, there is a good selection of large museum quality pieces. Julie and I both load up as Pepe remains one of the most reasonably priced carvers around. Regardless of your interest and taste, Pepe’s workshop is always worth checking out. Anyone in town can direct you to the large green home.
Julie makes several other stops to purchase small pieces for her store and we head back town to visit the Mercado de Artesania two blocks south of the zocalo, where Julie buys tin. This market deals mostly in textiles, but tucked into the farthest corner is a cage whose bright colors can be spotted from the street. Along with the painted tin Christmas ornaments and mirrors are hundreds of miniature alebrijes of every kind. I wonder why I’ve never found this place before. Unfortunately, on this day the market is completely airless and we are both soaking wet when we emerge laden with bags two hours later.
Julie tells me that we are leaving in the morning before light to get a jump on the long drive to Morelos, so we need to pack the car tonight. I have brought one suitcase of clothes and one filled with cotton batting and bubble wrap, plus some extra duffels, so we spend the evening trying to find room for all our purchases and then cram it all into the car. I am exhausted but can hardly sleep as I contemplate the completely new territory we will be covering in the next few days. We will be traveling by way of Puebla to purchase tree of life candlesticks, and then heading west towards Toluca. Julie always stops in the village of Capula to buy Catrinas and table ware, but I have never been and am very excited to see it. Neither of us have ever been to Metepec, where I am searching for Arboles del Vida, but Julie has agreed to work this stop in on our way to Patzcuaro. Since the least expensive Tree of Life I have found on the Internet is a $1,500 masterpiece, I am anxious to see if I can do better at the source. We check out of Casa Arnel, where oddly the price of my room has escalated since we checked in – to bed and thus to dream.
It is pleasant driving over the mountains to Puebla in the cool darkness of predawn. The only other vehicles on the road are double load semis – which after all can only add spice to Julie passing on solid lines. We reach Puebla at about 9:30am and stop for breakfast at a nice buffet restaurant on the zocalo. We experience a first for both of us: on the way back from the buffet table, a gray-haired gentleman in a suit menacingly hisses “Yankee!!” at us as we pass his table.
We stop at a booth on the street to purchase some of the theme-based Tree of Life candelabras for which Puebla is noted. Some feature Day of the Dead figures holding the candles, others feature fish, sirenas and charros. All are brilliantly and intricately painted, priced at about $6.00 vs. $30 to $50 on the Internet.
We hit the road again towards Mexico City. Unlike the US, Mexican highways don’t have bypasses around their major cities. We will have to cross Mexico City in order to get to Metepec, Capula and eventually Patzcuaro where we will spend the night.
Transversing the city is hot, crowded and takes forever. It doesn’t help that Julie speeds by several of the necessary turns and backtracking is next to impossible in the traffic. Finally, we leave the city on Highway 15 west towards Toluca, traveling through more mountains on this well-maintained toll road. Julie is really flying here and I learn new translations of the road signs. “Disminuya su velocidad” means speed up as you take the “curva peligrosa,” and “despacio – conserve su distancia” means crawl right up on the bumper of the guy in front of you and lean on your horn. I take out a book and attempt not to watch, but before I can find my place, Julie – while reading a map – has plowed into the car ahead of us in the cuoto (toll booth). The owner of the car jumps out screaming, gesticulating wildly at the police car on the other side of the booth. As Julie passes through the booth, she announces that since there was no real damage to either car, she is not going to stop and risk being shaken down for a mordita. The hour it takes to get to Metepec is thereby cut in half, although our excessive speed causes us to bypass the only Metepec exit which costs us an extra twenty miles.
Searching for the People’s Art
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a subscriber from Maine and a frequent contributor to Mexico File, both articles and book reviews. This is the third part of a multi-part series which covers Lynne’s travels south of Mexico City in search of folk art. The final part will appear in the October 2002 issue.
Eventually we reach Metepec, home of the Arbol de la Vida, the wonderful ceramic trees of life noted for the stories they tell. Most common are Bible stories such as The Creation, Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark, but the most celebrated artists in this genre, Moises and Tiburcio Soteno, and Juan Hernandez (famous for his miniature trees) have taken on Day of the Dead, Lady of Guadalupe and History of Mexico themes as well. Metepec is a very pleasant town, although not well known on the tourist trail of Central Mexico. It has several plazas, many picturesque colonial era churches, and seems rich in restaurants of every kind. We wander for a while, but finally ask for directions to Juan Hernandez and the Sotenos. We find Juan’s workshop first, and I could cry when I learned that it had been totally swept a week before our arrival. There are several terra cotta miniatures between four and eight inches tall waiting for paint, and Juan tells me he will have some ready in several days. He is a big man with hands like hams, which makes the very tiny objects he fashions for his trees even more amazing. The basis for the tree is a ceramic frame and the flowers, animals, people and other objects are attached by means of small wires. The trees and attachments are fired together before painting. As he walks me around his shop explaining the process, he adds more bad news – he sells these miniatures for $12, the same ones that cost $150 on the rare occasion you can find them on the Internet. Although very reserved and definitely conversationally challenged, Juan gives me a business card and encourages me to call him to special order a tree before my next visit.
We head for the Artisan’s Market where the Soteno family has their workshops, only to discover that because this is off-season, neither of them are there. The workshops look stripped, so we can only assume the dealers hit here as well. We roam around this very pleasant but mostly empty market and find some terra cotta trees, but I am looking for painted ones. Again the prices between the trees for sale here and those on the Internet are shocking. Very few dealers market these very fragile objects – the one tree I own arrived wrapped in multiple layers of cotton batting double boxed. It is with great disappointment that we depart Metepec, hopefully to reach Capula before all the shops are closed.
We head back to Highway 15 west towards Toluca and arrive in Capula fairly quickly. Some of the most interesting workshops are on the road into the little town. This is the village that is famous to collectors for its ironic ceramic Catrinas. At the end of the 19th century, political cartoonist Jose Guadelupe Posada became noted for satirizing governmental abuses and revealing the secrets and gossip of the social and economic elite of Mexico City favored by Porfirio Diaz. He accomplished this by publishing his caricatures of spirited skeletons dressed in elegant European finery with wide-brimmed feathered hats that ridiculed the overdressed bourgeoisie of Mexico City in newspapers and broadsides everywhere. Posalda used these figures, known as La Catrina (sometimes as La Calaca) to poke fun at the vanities of wealthy Mexican women and to appeal to a largely illiterate populace that relied on visual images. At some point in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, some say at the instigation of Diego Rivera, Posada’s lithographs were translated by the ceramic artists of Capula into the terra cotta and painted clay figures that today live on as the emblem of Day of the Dead observations and festivities throughout Mexico. Contemporary folk artists such as Miguel Linares, Robert Ruiz and Juan Antonio Cruz continue to be inspired by Posada’s legacy and have expanded upon his original audacious humor by creating bride Catrinas, dancing Catrinas and even elaborately dressed skeleton figures sitting on elegant furniture. Needless to say, these wonderful figures don’t appeal to everyone. I personally enjoy thoroughly the Mexican kinship with death, but many Americans, with our funeral home mentality, don’t. No matter how delicately and humorously done, my husband continues to be “creeped out” by the Catrinas all over our home, but it is a total thrill for me to see row upon row of them in the workshops along Highway 15 and in the Artesan’s Market in downtown Capula. Julie purchases some unique tiny figures, as well as a great deal of Michoacan tableware, but I stick to the larger figures I haven’t seen before. One riveting example is a 20-inch coal black bride figure; another is a smaller man and woman dancing. Still another is a Frida Kahlo figure complete with the pet monkey, toucan, cat and traditional dress favored by Frida. The primary problem with collecting Catrinas is their terrible fragility, which makes them very difficult to transport and drives up their prices on the internet, but I have come prepared with cotton batting and bubble wrap. My bride figure even manages to survive a fall over a large rock that I take on the way back to the car.
As dark approaches, we are on Highway 15 again heading west to Patzcuaro where we will spend the night. It is well after midnight when we arrive at Meson del Gallo, a picturesque hotel about a block from Plaza Grande (the central zocalo of this multi-plaza town) on Calle Jose Maria Cos. We are warmly welcomed without reservations and get a pretty double room with breakfast included for $44. I can recommend this place whole-heartedly – it has a ceiling fan, decent water pressure and bedside reading lamps, all that I require. Additionally, a large barred window opens onto a pretty courtyard, and the room fronts a beautiful tiled patio with profuse potted plants. There is a pool (empty when we were there), an attractive dining room and an in-house Latadel phone with cards for sale at the registration desk.
Patzcuaro is the town where Julie purchases all the cotton textiles for her shop and immediately after breakfast we head for La Casa de Los Once Patios, just off the same street on the opposite side from Meson del Gallo. This magnificent Colonial-era building, once a convent belonging to the Catherine nuns, now houses the Casa de las Aresanias de Michoacan and is the best one-stop shopping in Patzcuaro. There are indeed eleven patios, some with gorgeous fountains, between which can be found every folk art produced in the region – textiles, pottery, lacquerwork, paintings, wood carving, jewelry, copper and musical instruments, including the famous Paracho guitars. Julie heads for her favorite shop for woven tablecloths and napkins while I roam from shop to shop. As a child in Mexico, I was always fascinated by the miniatures for which Mexican artisans are famous, and I find that I still am. There are wonderful tiny enameled copper pitchers the size of thimbles and little reproductions of the colorful weavings. Diminutive lacquer boxes and two inch diameter painted nesting bowls, exact replicas of those used by Mexican cooks everywhere, cost $1.20. I’m intrigued by the maze-like patios, rooms and corridors and wander until I find myself in what must have been the convent cistern, complete with sunken well. The decorative tiled floors and carved arches are some of the most gorgeous I’ve seen anywhere in the country.
After Julie finishes here, we head for the Plaza Grande, which features an elaborate stone fountain with a large statue of the beloved Vasco de Quiroga. It is said that this colonial priest was determined that the indigenous population of the area be able to support itself; one of the many accomplishments of which he is most noted is the design of a multi-use copper pot which is still in use to this day. This plaza is unique in Mexico in that it has no cathedral or government buildings on any side of it, but rather houses magnificent colonial mansions converted to shops, restaurants and hotels. Julie heads off to purchase wood carved bowls and utensils and I wander around the plaza. Considered by many to be the loveliest town in Mexico, Patzcuaro’s cleanliness appeals greatly to me. There is no refuse in the streets, and the dogs are not only fat and healthy, they all seem to have tags around their necks. I stop at the incredible Hotel Mansion Iturbe and upon entering their main lobby, experience as major an episode of deja vu as ever in my life. This building is almost an exact duplicate of the house my family occupied in Cuernavaca in the 1960’s, with a giant fireplace at one end of the lobby and graceful arches leading to the central courtyard at the other end. Noticing my shock, the lady at the desk speaks to me, and after an explanation, takes me on a tour of this exquisitely restored house. I resolve that I must come back to this lovely town and spend some time soaking up the atmosphere in this most restful home.
Julie and I hook up again and drive to her shipper to drop off our purchases so far. She ships most of the things she buys by container to her shop in Massachusetts, and her shipper has recently opened a branch in Patzcuaro to accommodate the massive amount of rustic Mexican furniture being shipped to the United States. He has agreed to transfer the stuff she has acquired so far to Guadalajara so that we will have more room in the car when we get to San Miguel Allende, where Julie stocks up on Talavera pots, sinks and tiles. When we get to his barn, we discover all the iguanas Julie purchased in Oaxaca stuck to each other because of the heat and humidity. We manage to separate them and finally get everything wrapped and marked with Julie’s business card in about an hour, and set out for Santa Clara del Cobre, home to dozens of copper workshops.
The copper mines of Michoacan are long gone, but the village of Santa Clara remains a clearing house for some of the most impressive copper work in the country. As we enter this congested little town southeast of Patzcuaro, we can hear the hammering coming from the talleres all over the hills. Not as clean or architecturally picturesque as Patzcuaro, Santa Clara is nevertheless an experience not to be missed. The streets are lined with shops selling all sorts of copperware. La Mariquita at #220 Avenida Morelos seems to us to be the best of the shops available, with the most varied products and the best prices. Julie purchases many copper napkin rings to go with the linen she bought in Patzcuaro, as well as vases, candlesticks and enameled copper plates and boxes. The prices to me seem absurd considering the workmanship involved, so I too stock up. Of great interest to me are the multitudes of copper miniatures of Don Vasco’s famous pot, as well as pitchers, cups, trays and many other things. In somewhat under an hour, Julie has filled the trunk and we again hit the road for the long drive to San Miguel de Allende, where we will spend the next several days.
The drive to San Miguel is long, complicated, hot, miserable and otherwise thoroughly unpleasant, but by midnight, we do eventually get there. Unfortunately, Julie’s inexpensive hotel of choice is full, so we are left navigating the narrow, hilly, one-way streets of this historic town trying to find another. By 2:00am, Julie has found Hotel Quinta Loreto, five long blocks away from El Jardin (San Miguel’s answer to a zocalo) and secured for us a decent double room for $45 a night. We turn on the ceiling fan, which turns out to sound like a jet landing in the room, and fall into bed.
Though we are close to the center of town and directly below the large artisan’s market, we are awakened by the bellicose crowing of multiple roosters. After gratifyingly hot showers, we discover a pleasant though not well-tended courtyard with a fountain, a large pool behind the hotel, and a dining room which doesn’t appear to be open. Julie wants to head for Dolores Hidalgo, about twenty-five miles northwest of San Miguel on Highway 35, immediately. This is the town where she buys most of her Talavera pots, sinks and tiles, as well as tin mirrors decorated with miniature Talavera tiles. I have driven through Hidalgo before, but have never had the opportunity to stop, so I am really looking forward to this. We avoid the center of the town, which I understand has a very attractive and interesting colonial-era church, and stay on the thoroughfare going around the town, where the Talavera factories display their wares all over their parking lots and sidewalks. Julie has several vendors she deals with here for different things and she considers the extra distance well worth the trouble as the prices for Talavera here are about half what they are in San Miguel.
The pottery sold in this area is very different from that made in Puebla in design and color, but it is all considered Talavera because the production process is the same and directly descended from the Majolica brought from Talavera, Spain, by the conquistadors. Both kinds of Talavera have evolved with a decidedly Mexican twist, with Spanish Talavera being considerably less colorful than the Mexican product. Talavera Poblana, manufactured in Puebla, is generally more meticulously and carefully painted, with smaller, more intricate designs greatly resembling the tiles seen all over the buildings of that city. The Talavera of the silver cities is larger, more freely and spontaneously painted with brighter colors, often dominated by cobalt blue. It is considerably cheaper than Talavera Poblana, which is primarily dinner ware, as well as more plentiful and with more objects available, from plant pots, urns, candelabra, bowls, platters and ginger jars, in addition to complete bathroom fixtures, including toilets and tissue holders.
I have hauled a great deal of Talavera home over the years, often in a million pieces, so it is with great enthusiasm that I approach the opportunity Julie has given me to buy to my heart’s content and ship it all home in a truck. Julie does very well in her shop with sinks, tiles and mirrors, but I am much more interested in large belly plant pots and urns with pedestals. There are many patterns of Talavera, the most popular of which are the Alcatraz (white calla lilies on a cobalt background), sunflower (gold flowers on a terra cotta background), and the traditional pattern, which is various combinations of curlicues and fleur de lis, in any color combination of cobalt, gold, green, terra cotta, white and, very occasionally, lavender. My personal favorites include the green and blue peacock patterns and the classic cobalt and white, but the combinations are endless and ever-changing, depending on the whim of the artist. Although Talavera is readily available on the Internet, the shipping costs often make it cost-prohibitive. Our first stop is Talavera San Gabriel at #15 Calle Carretera. The prices here are amazing – $12 for a 14-inch high belly planter that costs $85 plus shipping on the net. The less said about the damage I do, the better. Julie fills the back seat with sinks and I take the trunk. Luckily for me, she orders her tiles and pots by the crate and they are shipped directly to Guadalajara, so I get to take up a great deal of space with my pots, candlesticks and jars. I am beyond elated. We go on to Talavera Cortes for Julie’s mirrors and some more tiles – but I’ve done enough, so I’m under control now.
Eventually, we get back to San Miguel for lunch at the wonderful Restaurante Bugambilia with its gorgeous courtyard and great, reasonably-priced food. Julie is off for more shopping, but I find myself dead on my feet with a banging headache I attribute to heat, humidity and fatigue. I wander around the lovely central Jardin, distinguished by its beautifully trimmed laurel trees and facing La Parroquia, the very unusual church that has become the symbol of San Miguel. Originally a colonial-style church, La Parroquia’s façade was revamped in the late 1800’s by local builder Zeferino Gutierrez, supposedly inspired by pictures of European Gothic churches, but unlike any Gothic church I’ve ever seen. Looming pink and pointed in the afternoon sun, La Parroquia seems to me to be totally a product of the imagination of Gutierrez, who in my view must have been a very interesting guy.
After several turns around El Jardin, my headache has approached blinding and I give up and return to La Quinta Loreta for a nap. As luck would have it, I sleep through dinner, the night and Julie’s departure for Guadalajara to drop off our Talavera at her shipper’s. I wake at 10:00 am, again missing the dining room, and find a note from Julie, who didn’t have the heart to wake me. Starving, I take a cab to El Carreo, a plain little restaurant across from the post office, just off El Jardin, famous among expatriates for its terrific fried chicken, which turns out to more than live up to every great report.
Searching for the People’s Art
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a subscriber from Maine and a frequent contributor of articles and book reviews to Mexico File. This is the fourth and last part of a series which covers Lynne’s travels south of Mexico City in search of folk art.
With an afternoon to myself, I decide to take a bus to Guanajuato, fifty or so miles west of San Miguel, and take a break from shopping to do a little sight-seeing. I have been to this city before, unfortunately during the Festival Cervantino, an annual celebration held in October honoring Cervantes (the author of Don Quixote). During this time, this already confusing city of hills, subterranean highways, and tunnels is a disaster of traffic and overcrowding. The international performances are spectacular, but the congestion took most of the joy out of it for me. This time of year, when most tourists have gone home to enjoy the summer, Guanajuato is blissfully deserted and I am able to get around unhindered. My first destination is Teatro Juarez, an absolutely gorgeous structure built during the excessive Porfirio Diaz era that overlooks El Jardin Union, the main plaza of the city. The theater exterior has wonderful columns, carved statues and lions and wrought-iron lanterns, and inside is just as opulent. The seats rise vertically almost four stories and are beyond plush. There is no activity on this day, but just seeing this place is experience enough.
I take a cab to the studio of Gorky Gonzales, a prize-winning ceramist who creates still another kind of Talavera particular to Guanajuato. His workshop is quaint and well-stocked with primarily Majolica-style dinnerware. He works with more muted colors than most Talavera and his designs have a much clearer background than I am used to, but the pitchers, platters and other pieces are lovely. Unfortunately, the prices reflect Gorky’s international renown, so I don’t purchase anything, but as I stand talking to one of his workers, I spot a most interesting object on a table. My husband, who is an electrical contractor, collects electrical insulators and right before me is an amber Telegraphos Nationales insulator – the kind of addition to his collection that we would never find in the US. Mustering all of my totally inadequate Spanish, I attempt to explain my interest and offer to purchase the insulator. Before we are through, everyone in the workshop has gathered around, trying to understand why anyone would be interested in such an object, which apparently turned up during some construction on Calle Pastita in front of Gorky’s building. With facial expressions which more than convey how strange they think I am, they finally offer me the insulator for no charge. I am elated, knowing that my husband will be thrilled to receive it. Additionally, it represents several t-shirts I won’t have to buy for him.
My next stop in Guanajuato is the birthplace of Diego Rivera on Calle Positos. Originally a smallish, two-story house when Rivera was born in 1886, this building has been restored with two additional floors added and converted to a museum housing some of Rivera’s earliest works. Though interesting in its way, it is mostly a disappointment in that it doesn’t contain anything resembling the work for which Rivera is famous. Rivera started painting as a child and his earliest work consists of pen and ink and pastel drawings and portraits. The first floor is furnished simply as it may have been when Rivera lived there; the upper floors contain the art work. There are a few preparatory sketches of parts of his best known murals, and a reproduction of Sunday Afternoon in Alemeda Park, but the museum has the feel of not containing anything of much interest to Rivera aficionados.
I plan to go back to the bus station, but my cab driver insists that I must see the Museo Hacienda san Gabriel de Barrera before I leave the city. He tells me there is just time to get there before it closes, so we go for it. Guanajuato was a silver city and its environs are littered with dozens of the former homes of wealthy colonial-era mine owners. Most are either ruins or privately owned restorations, but this marvelous place has been converted to a museum reflective of 1700’s life in the grandest of styles. The house and its furnishings are much like other similar restorations of the period, but the gardens are spectacular. Containing hidden stairways, pools, fountains and statuary along with its bounteous plant life, this lush hacienda is not to be missed if you are in the area. Located two miles out of the city on Camino Antiguo a Marfil, it is located across the street from the four-star Hotel Mision Guanajuato.
I take the late bus back to San Miguel and finally find some action in La Quinta Loreta’s dining room. The food is plain but tasty and ample. I drop like a stone until Julie returns from Guadalajara at 4:00 a.m. I’m so sorry I missed that trip....
In spite of the ever-present roosters, we both manage to sleep in a little, although Julie is out of it much longer than I am. The dining room is open this day and I have a great breakfast of muffins, fruit salad and tea. While in the shaded dining room, I delude myself that it seems a little cooler and less humid, but once outdoors again, my delusion is just that. Julie plans to head back to Mexico City today, so I don’t dare wander too far. I go next door to the Artisan’s Market to look around, although I remember from previous trips that this is a very expensive market, in some cases more so than some of the shops in town. It is also one of the more pleasant markets I have seen in Mexico. It is outdoors and is long and narrow – none of the mazes for which most markets are famous. There are some portable booths, but most are little permanent enclosures with doors, shelves and price tags. The products are mostly of the region – silver mirrors, jewelry, Talavera, copper and some alebrijes, all of it very pricey.
The heat is overwhelming, so I head back to La Quinta Loreta and sit on the very pleasant, plant -lined verandah to read. By noon Julie is up and by one the car is packed and we are on our way. The ride to Mexico City is more pleasant than most of these rides have been as we go through so many villages and towns that Julie never really gets up a full head of steam. We stop for lunch at a street stand in Santiago de Queretaro, (about an hour southeast of San Miguel) famed for its historical role in almost all periods of note in Mexican history including all three of the wars establishing Mexican independence. Founded in 1531, Queretaro housed a large Franciscan community established there for the purpose of spreading Catholicism throughout northern Mexico. Eventually they also founded the first religious college in the New World. The quest for Mexican independence began in this town with the machinations of Father Hidalgo in 1810, and in 1867 Emperor Maximilian lost his last battle with the Mexican army, was captured and imprisoned in a monastery here, and finally executed. Half a century later, the constitutional convention during the Revolution was held here; the Constitution of 1917 produced at that time is still the prevailing law of Mexico.
Queretaro is also famous for its opals, its colonial architecture, its aqueduct and The Chapel of the Bells. This small Franciscan church on a hill overlooking the town houses the crypt and a statue in tribute to Dona Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, wife of the mayor at the time of the Conspiracy of 1810. Although she had been imprisoned, she managed to warn Father Hidalgo that his plan for the liberation of Mexico from Spain had been discovered in time for him to escape to Dolores Hidalgo, where independence was eventually announced. Although Dona Josefa died in oblivion, she is considered a heroine today and was the first woman to have her face appear on a Mexican coin (in the 1940’s). This tiny church with its beautiful plaza, sculptured trees and lovely gardens reflects the esteem in which the city of Queretaro holds this courageous woman and provides a restful spot for us to eat lunch.
Soon we are back in the car and we do not stop again until we get back to Hotel Seville in Mexico City. We are both exhausted, so we have a quiet but pleasant dinner of Polla Monterrey (chicken baked with cheese) in the hotel restaurant and crash early. In the morning, Julie has more shopping to do for laquer trays and boxes and heads off to the La Cuidadela market. Much to my surprise, I find that I have had enough shopping and I decide to spend some time at one of my favorite spots, the Castillo de Chapultepec with its panoramic view of La Reforma, Chapultepec Park and Mexico City.
Because I am tired, I take the little tram up the hill instead of tackling the five-minute walk as I usually do, and I am disappointed to find that in the heat, there is no view in any direction. It is very much like being enveloped in clouds, but the gardens originally designed by the Empress Carlotta when she lived here with Maximilian are still lovely. This hill originally held an Aztec temple/fortress. Construction on the present building was begun in 1781 and was home to various Spanish forces. During the French occupation of Maximilian and Carlotta in the 1860’s, they resided in the front part of the castle overlooking the city and governmental offices occupied the rear. The castle was also home to Porfirio Diaz and his family during his “presidency,” as well as subsequent presidents through 1939, although the private quarter furnishings remain those of the French period. These beautiful rooms can be toured every day but Monday – admission charges are minimal and sometimes, if they are out of change, nothing at all is charged. What was once governmental facilities is now a museum housing an amazing collection of artifacts reflecting Mexican history from the Conquest through the Revolution. There are several colonial couches as well as several very ornate ones from the French period, in addition to colonial and French clothes, armor, jewelry, furniture, dinnerware, and papers. There are multitudes of photographs of revolutionary figures occupying the castle and many colonial-era paintings. I especially enjoy the murals by Juan O’Gorman, Jose Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tumayo depicting Mexican history and life scattered through the many rooms of the museum. Admission to this end of the castle is generally free.
Because I don’t get to spend my usual couple of hours wandering the gardens of the castle enjoying the views, I decide to make a stop at another of my favorite haunts, Museo Frida Kahlo. A twenty-minute cab ride to Coyoacan, in Kahlo’s time a village outside the city but now part of it, this museum is open every day but Monday and admission is $2.00. Also known as Casa Azul because of its distinctive blue exterior, the former birthplace and home of Frida Kahlo, as well as of Diego Rivera during their marriage, is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these two bigger-than-life artists. The rooms have been left as they were at the time of Kahlo’s death in 1954; they contain her collections of retablos, pre-Colombian artifacts, and clay pots. There are also many family photographs of the couple and the many artistic, intellectual and communist friends of their time. As much as I love this odd blue house, there are a couple of downsides to visiting here. Most important of these is that no photographs are allowed (although I sometimes sneak a few), but just as distressing to me is the fact that the cats roaming the courtyard – said to be descended from the beloved pets of Frida – are as decrepit and starved-looking as any strays found in the country.
Another spot I love, even though it is not yet well-known, is the Museo Dolores Olmeda, also in Coyoacan. Dolores Olmeda enjoys no particular distinction personally, but she is an intriguing person, known most widely as the sometime model and last mistress of Diego Rivera. In her day, Dolores was rumored to be the mistress and/or friend of most of the prominent men in 20th century Mexican artistic and governmental circles, photographs of whom are liberally displayed all over her home. It is unclear just where her money came from, but in the l970’s and 80’s, she purchased this ruined hacienda and carefully restored it to its present splendor, which is considerable. She was one of Rivera’s primary heirs and as such, has the largest collection under one roof of Kahlo’s paintings. Her museum also houses Rivera’s Acapulco series, twenty-four brilliant sunsets painted from the roof of Olmeda’s home in Acapulco, where he lived from the time of Kahlo’s death until his own four years later. Strolling the museum’s plush grounds are Olmeda’s noisy and often aggressive pet peacocks, as well as her flock of hairless Mexican dogs. Once nearing extinction because they were considered a food source, these dogs have enjoyed somewhat of a resurrection thanks to Olmeda’s efforts, and some thirty of them are in residence at the part of the museum where Olmeda lives at this time. I did not catch a glimpse of this remarkable woman on this visit, but last time I was here in 1999, I saw her frail, diminutive figure with coal black hair walking through the grounds near the gift shop. In her late seventies then, I am not sure if she is still alive, but thankfully the museum is an established oasis in the chaos of Mexico City.
As night falls, I get a taxi back to the city and join Julie in the Zona Rosa for a last dinner. We try the Italian restaurant La Gondola which turns out to have the best filet mignon I have ever tasted in my life, accompanied by fresh veggies, potatoes and one drink, for a mere $6.00! Because our flight leaves at 8:00 a.m, which means we need to be up at 4:00 a.m, we fall into bed. Awakened by the hotel phone well before dawn, we drive to the airport and leave me at the Continental desk with all of our considerable luggage while Julie turns in our stout little car. I am charged a goodly sum for my extra duffel bags, but I manage to avoid having everything carefully searched as most of the others going through the line are. Julie doesn’t do as well, and we end up spending nearly an hour getting through security. Then breakfast upstairs and we are ushered onto our plane, which thankfully takes off on time. This time the plane is nearly full and I am seated next to a young mother with an eight-month-old baby, who manages to spill various drinks on me several times before we get to Newark. I absorb this philosophically – it helps me not to regret the end of this very interesting and eventful trip. Although I would not necessarily attempt an adventure at the pace of this one again anytime soon, I am still reveling in all goodies I was able to acquire, and thoroughly enjoyed my quick glimpses of the places I had never been before. Thanks to Julie’s patience and generosity, I have come home with enough future destinations in development to last me a good long time, and most importantly for my husband, enough art to keep me off the internet at least temporarily. Viva Mexico!