This article is from the March 2004 and April 2004
issues of The Mexico
Back to Articles List
Something’s Afoot in Mexico, Part I
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a frequent contributor to Mexico File, with a number of book reviews and accounts of her searches for Mexican folk art. She hails from Maine.
I spent most of the autumn of 2003 roaming Mexico, going to places I had visited before and one I never had, and while I can’t put my finger on just what it is, something is going on south of the border. I had not had an opportunity to wander at leisure in Mexico since the early spring of 1998, when I spent six weeks traveling around the Yucatan, seeing all the little places off the beaten track that I had missed over the years. At that time, Mexico seemed as it always has to me – overflowing with marvelous folk art, warm friendly kind people, the slower pace we all associate with our southern neighbor. Aside from one relatively harrowing ride through the jungle with a Mexican man seeking to avoid the toll station on the new highway between Merida and Cancun, Mexico was Mexico, and I experienced no problems at all finding just what it is that has always made this country so spiritually “home” to me.
This time, however, there are big changes in the air, and I found them everywhere. We started our journey in Guadalajara, a city I had never been to before, but which had always been spoken of fondly and with great affection to me by fellow Mexicophiles who know the city well. As they say, every set of binoculars is set up a little differently, and not every place can be your favorite, but as my husband observed, if not for the palm trees and everyone speaking Spanish, we might well have been in Kansas, Toto.
We stayed at the very delightful Hotel de Mendoza ($85 a night for a double), which is housed in the former convent attached to the church of Santa Maria de Gracia, one of Guadalajara’s oldest and most graciously beautiful churches. The rooms are large, the pool area tiny but beautifully planted, and the exemplary service is offered by young, hip, perfectly dressed and coiffed hotel employees. We found only the restaurant wanting – service was the same as elsewhere in the hotel, but the food was mediocre at best. Perhaps the Mendoza’s most important qualification is its placement in the center of Guadalajara’s small but impressive historical center. Also, however, herein lies one of my largest surprises in this city – Centro Historico, while what there is of it is indeed impressive, there isn’t much and the buildings are interspersed with clunky, modern concrete and glass structures. My impression is that Guadalajara has, much like many of the cities of its ignorant northern neighbor, destroyed a lot of its historic past and replaced it with ugly strip malls. There is the city’s signature cathedral – magnificent with its twin yellow-tiled spires, the Palacio del Gobierno and the Hospicio Cabanas with their dark and gloomy Orozco murals, the fantastic Teatro Delgollado – home of Guadalajara’s unsurpassed Folkloric Ballet – and the imposing Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres – resting place and monument to many of Guadalajara’s favorite sons, and now also (we were told by a female Mendoza employee with great pride) sporting a statue in tribute to a favored daughter of the city. There are several other colonial-era buildings found here and there throughout the Centro, but also, the many lovely fountains of the Plaza Liberacion are fronted almost exclusively by contemporary, not especially attractive, stores and offices. The atmosphere of the Hospicio Cabanas with its seventeen gorgeous patios was almost destroyed for me by the huge blocky brick and glass structures housing Guadalajara’s very prosperous jewelry outlets that face it.
Anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written for The Mexico File knows that a big part of Mexico for me is hunting down folk art, and because of this habit of mine, Guadalajara was a huge draw, as it is home to several of the artists who participated in Fomento/Banamex’s exhibition of Great Masters that has been touring the world for the last three years. Thus I was very shocked to learn that the city itself, while the place to be if you are shopping for shoes, is bereft of any of the little shops ordinarily found on every corner in most cities in Mexico that peddle art of varying quality from throughout the country. We did manage to find the El Palomar factory – an amazingly primitive operation considering the high-end glorious ceramic house wares it produces – and also the extremely upscale Casa de las Artensanias, an enormous state-run museum/crafts store housing and selling products native to Jalisco, as well as some other things from around the country – a magnificent, intricately displayed collection with matching price tags.
In order to find folk art (and the artists) in the area, one needs to travel about half an hour outside of the city proper to the villages of Tonala and Tlaquepaque, and if you have time for just one, my recommendation would be Tlaquepaque. A prosperous suburb of Guadalajara, this quaint town is peppered with stately mansions built by wealthy tapatios as well as a pedestrian-only thoroughfare housing a memorable regional museum and many high-end shops selling all kinds of crafts. I have to stop and gush, and say that I very much enjoyed everything about Tlaquepaque, in spite of the fact that it is an ingeniously-planned tourist-oriented burgh.
I had heard that the area of Guadalajara was known for its fine leather products, so I dragged along with me a hand-tooled camera bag given to me by my father for my fifteenth birthday, hoping that I would be able to find others like it for my husband and children. Upon my arrival in Tlaquepaque, I started asking around for leather shops and almost immediately met a young man who informed me that bags like mine were no longer made in Mexico, at least not in this area. For some reason, this enthusiastic, charming man made it his mission to find a shop that might make some duplicate bags for me, and he set off at warp speed on his quest. Eventually after several stops, we happened into the shop Leo e Hijos de Jimenez Piel, where we encountered the very polished Efrain Jimenez. He initially shook his head as I handed him my bag, but when he opened it and saw the maker’s label inside it, exclaimed that his father had been the original designer and maker of my bag. He escorted me to an antique photo on the wall of his shop showing his father in front of shelves in a much less elegant store and pointed to an upper shelf in the photo lined with bags much like mine, all the while giving me his family history – the original store in Nogales in the 50’s, moved to Guadalajara in the late 60’s, seven sons – each with his own establishment, his being the finest of them all as he is the eldest. Long story short, Efrain agreed to reproduce my bag if I would leave the original with him, as patterns no longer existed. As an inducement, he offered to make some repairs on my aged bag in addition to making the new ones. With major reservations, I agreed to part temporarily with my bag and we proceeded about an order. Out came the laptop, where I was instructed to type in my design requirements, initials to be stamped, and shipping address information. Efrain gave me a specific date for completion of the bags, and advised me to have them shipped to my final destination in Oaxaca, as it would be far less costly than shipping them to the US. I paid the rather hefty tab with a credit card so as to have some recourse should the bags never arrive, but suffered severe separation anxiety as I walked away from my father’s gift of so many years ago. (I’m delighted to report that the new bags were waiting for me when I arrived at my friend’s home in Oaxaca and they are superb – all in all, an extremely efficient transaction – definitely a first for me in all of my attempts at commerce within Mexico.)
In contrast to Tlaquepaque, Tonala is a rather nasty little town whose only recommendations are the extraordinary Sermel papel mache factory and the workshops of Great Master ceramists Jose Bernabe Campechano , Jorge Wilmot Mason, Angel Santos Juarez, and Florentino Jimon Barba. Through sheer luck, in a taxi line in front of our hotel, I managed to latch onto Jose Gabriel Gomez, proclaimed by Frommer’s to be the best taxi driver in Guadalajara, who agreed to help me find these people. (Gabriel turned out to be indeed a local treasure and I recommend him without qualification to anyone visiting Guadalajara. He can usually be found near the Hotel Mendoza, but also at any one of the numbers listed in Frommer’s.)
Sermel is home to the artisans who for twenty years have been making the wonderful, very inexpensive “viejo” figures sold all over Mexico – the farm and village men and women complete with ceramic jugs, beans, hay and rice that are so popular with tourists. To my delight, they have started a new line of folkloric dance figures – more costly but totally enchanting.
Jose Bernabe is noted for his work in petitillo pottery, the fantasia-like designs with tiny, exact crossed lines in the backgrounds, and he is a charming, expressive and generous man. He escorted me around his studio and his taller, showing me his kiln and design shop. However, as we got to the retail portion of his establishment, I nearly fell over with shock at the prices, shelving immediately my plan to purchase a small vase as a gift for the neighbor who takes care of my cats when I travel. Much to my astonishment, a 4” vase cost $450 US. Many of the artists included in the Great Masters book and exhibit have increased their prices, but this was the largest jump I had seen yet.
Jorge Wilmot Mason was not at home when we called, but after Jose Bernabe, I wasn’t so sure a visit would have been all that productive as Jorge is the most famous of them all. I was also very disappointed not to find Angel Santos, as I felt it would have been an experience to meet this very young and accomplished ceramist who is working with traditional Tonala materials and methods, but I felt adequately compensated to find Florentino Jimon Barba at home to me. Jimon (as he signs his work) also fashions some marvelous traditional Tonala ceramics, but is perhaps best known for his work in Bandera, pottery so named for its use of the colors of the Mexican flag. Terra cotta represents the red in the flag, with details added in white and green. Also rewarding was finding that Jimon’s prices are still very manageable in spite of his recent celebrity. As I began searching for pieces to purchase, I was dumfounded to find a plethora of Bandara, but all of it missing any green detail. Noting my reaction, Jimon explained to me that his customers seemed to prefer only the red and white combination. I thought about this and then asked how the pottery was still called Bandera, since the colors were no longer accurate. We went around and around about this for a while, when finally, in frustration, Jimon – guessing my Spanish skills to be even less than they are – turned to Gabriel and asked “Who IS this woman and why is she asking all these questions?” Gabriel and I burst out laughing, and Jimon blushed with embarrassment at realizing that I had understood his question. Gabriel and I then entered into a discussion of the antique Bandera I have for which Tonala is also noted, and Jimon became jovial once again. All in all, it was a fun visit and Jimon gave me several ceramic Christmas ornaments to cover for his gaff.
One of the highlights of my visit to Guadalajara was an opportunity to talk with a young woman named Griselda Godoy Medina, a university graduate employed as a stock broker on the fledgling Mexican stock exchange. She is twenty-eight years old, has been married for three years, and is expecting her first child at the same time that my first grandchild is due to arrive this spring. Unlike most Mexicans I have met in the past, she knew exactly where my state is located, even adding that Maine is part of that area of the northeast United States known as New England. Also unlike most Mexicans I have had discussions with in the past, she was very interested in the financial aspects of our lives as compared to hers, with particular emphasis on real estate values. We had a lively conversation that was very illuminating to me. I asked Gris if she planned to continue working after the birth of her child and she replied that she would have to if she wanted to continue to finance her house, as well as that she had not spent all those years breaking into an essentially male-dominated field only to leave and stay home. This conversation led to an invitation to Gris’ home for dinner, which was also a revelation. At least in the area in which Gris and her husband live, gone are the high street-side walls and sultry courtyards of the Mexico I know and love, replaced by two and three-story stucco homes surrounded by cultivated stamp-sized lawns. In the interior of her home, I found the first wall-to-wall carpet I’ve ever seen in Mexico, as well as sparkling appliances much like our own. In fact, the only vestiges of Mexico I saw in her home were a small pewter Virgen of Guadalupe on the wall, and several Mexican pewter photo frames holding family photographs. Otherwise, definitely Kansas……..
All in all, Guadalajara was an expose to me. We were shown with pride the first Burger King established in all of Mexico, for which a French colonial mansion was essentially destroyed to make room for its construction. On the upside, we saw very few of the skinny, scabrous dogs found everywhere in Mexico, and lots of well-fed, expensive, pedigreed dogs confined behind gates and fences. Perhaps most astounding to me was the fact that the sidewalks of Guadalajara were totally rolled up almost every evening by seven-thirty. I was told that September is a slow tourist time in the region, but for the home of the Mariachi, I saw only one band, and that for about two minutes at the very end of the Sunday morning Folkloric Ballet at the Delgallado. With the exception of one Friday night, when there was a huge, excessively noisy fashion show worthy of MTV staged behind Teatro Delgallado, Guadalajara’s nightlife seemed non-existent. When we asked where we could go to see mariachis, we were told the Plaza of the Mariachi, but were also advised to stay out of the area, as it is somewhat seedy and not considered safe for tourists. On weekend afternoons, the plazas were full of Mexican children and their parents eating candy cotton and waving balloons, but the evenings were stark in their silence.
Definitely the most stunning aspect of our visit to Guadalajara took place on the day we drove out of the city. As we passed the plaza across from the Cathedral, I saw out of the corner of my eye a sixteen-foot vertical flesh-colored balloon with a smiling face painted on it cavorting around the fountain. Unsure of what I had seen, we circled the block to look again, and found to our utter amazement a large gathering of young people moving among several tents with five or six of the balloons mixing with the crowd. It turned out to be an all-day exhibition and lecture series, passing out literature and having speakers pertaining to safe sex and AIDS prevention – definitely not a sight I ever expected to see anywhere in
Mexico, especially not fifteen feet from the doors of the celebrated Cathedral of Guadalajara.
Something’s Afoot in Mexico, Part II
by Lynne Doyle
Lynne Doyle is a frequent contributor to Mexico File, with a number of book reviews and accounts of her searches for Mexican folk art. She hails from Maine. This is the second part of a two-part series.
The next stop on our trip was Puebla, a city I have been to many times, but always with a long agenda and limited time and never with an opportunity to wander and absorb the atmosphere. We have always stayed at the Hotel Colonial de Puebla, a long block off the zocalo, and been completely satisfied with its accommodations, prices ($55 a night for a double) and services. We tend to lean towards hotels converted from colonial-era structures, and the Colonial is no exception with its spacious rooms, graceful arches and antique furniture. Perhaps the hotel’s most delightful feature is the panoramic view of the city to be seen from the easily-accessible roof. The service is gracious, the food excellent, and there is an inexpensive computer room with internet access for the use of hotel guests. Best of all for me, this atmospheric hotel is around the corner from El Parian, Puebla’s tiny but treasure-packed artisans’ market.
As we settled into our room, I felt as though I was closer to “my” Mexico, and indeed, within the confines of the hotel, I was. However, the next morning, as we set out to explore the zocalo, I found that transformation has come to Puebla much like that enveloping Guadalajara, although thankfully not so pervasive.
On a sunny Monday morning, the streets were busy with young professional people dressed in attractive suits and fashionable dresses, stockings and high heels. No quaint brush brooms cleaning the streets; rather, large riding machines sucking up litter similar to our leaf vacuums. No picturesque food stands selling tacos and rotisserie chicken – only small but sophisticated little shops selling chocolate and the candies for which Puebla is famous. Restaurants were open early and were full of people drinking coffee huddled over cell phones and laptops. No perceptible slow lane here.
Whenever in Mexico, I always search for bookstores, primarily because of the noted magazine Artes de Mexico, which costs $30 an issue in the US can be had for $17 or $18 in Mexico. Generally I can find most of a year’s issues. The store we found on the zocalo in Puebla had many old and new issues and as I produced a list of those I was missing, I was waited on by a very proficient young lady with a computer who was able to tell me instantaneously which issues were in stock. Her service was courteous but brisk and unsmiling – and, in minutes, I was on the sidewalk with my very heavy bag and very long computer printout. In contrast, though, next door was another less technologically upscale bookstore manned by a courtly older gentleman anxious to understand in which books I might be interested. As we sat around a large antique table talking, he turned out to be most helpful in discussing the history of the city and in suggesting sights not to be missed. He was exceedingly gracious in speaking precise Spanish so that I could understand him, and in correcting my efforts. Our next stop was an information booth directing people to the various outlets for Talavera in the city. Another older gentleman speaking perfect English directed me to specific stores and advised me to avoid El Parian as only inferior products would be found there. Escorting me to the door, he handed me a sheet of paper availing me of a 10% discount in any of the stores he had recommended – a marketing tool I had never before experienced in Mexico.
Being me, I headed directly for El Parian, and while most of the Talavera found there was unsigned, I did not find it to be particularly inferior, or particularly inexpensive, either. What I did find was the first glimpse of the Mexico I know as I chose a large Tree of Life from the noted Flores family of Izucar de Matamoros in one small shop and found it to be covered in several layers of dust and priced at only $29US. I also found a large assortment of high-quality popote boxes, pictures both large and small, unusually shaped crosses and terra cotta plates with popote centers. For the uninitiated, the art of popote, also known as straw mosaic or straw painting, is a series of dyed pieces of straw arranged in various forms and designs, unfortunately a dying art in Mexico. To my knowledge, there are only three significant popote artists working in Mexico today – Arturo Hernandez in Puerto Vallarta (overpriced and undergood – in my never-to-be-humble opinion, his work is redundant and not terribly well-executed), Jose Miguel Santealla in San Juan del Rio (an extraordinary artist in this medium who is very shy, retiring and impossible to find unless you hit the right day and he is selling in front of the church), and this unknown but very prolific artist – whoever he is – working in Puebla today. No one seems to know his name, or no one is telling, but his work is phenomenal – large, intricate, totally unique and easily-identifiable stylistically. To my astonishment, the prices are reasonable and affordable, so I was able to load up. To my intense pleasure, when I asked for a receipt, after some dithering, the amounts were written in pencil on the bag containing my purchases.
El Parian, as artisans’ markets go, is very small – only one moderately long aisle – but it is surrounded by what has become known as the Artists’ Quarter of Puebla, which consists of several blocks of relatively high-end shops selling primarily Talavera and clothes, but occasionally some textiles and other products. The prices are reflective of the higher operating costs involved in individual shops with English speaking staff, clean public bathrooms and computerized inventory. The courtesy of the staff found in stores is very typical of my Mexico, but you don’t get the fun and small talk found in the markets.
We were fortunate enough to find a very knowledgeable gentleman, an architect by profession, to show us around the city. For me as a history teacher, a must-see was the hilltop where a very undersized Mexican force defeated Napoleon III’s vastly superior army and drove them out of Mexico on the 5th of May in 1866, effectively ending the reign of Maximiliano and Carlotta. There is much to understand of this decisive battle, and much territory to explore, and once he recognized our interest, Ruben Carvajal Corte pretty much covered the city of Puebla with us, including a mole factory, the noted Exconvento de Santa Monica (whose nuns continued to operate in secret for 77 years after Benito Juarez closed all of Puebla’s religious buildings in 1857), and the celebrated Exconvento de Santa Rosa, with its intricately tiled kitchen where Puebla’s famous mole is said to have been invented by the nuns to surprise their gourmand bishop. Sn. Carvajal Corte was a bonus for us – dignified, courteous, extremely well-informed and enthusiastic about showing us his beautiful city. He spent a great deal of time with us for not a lot of money and was patient and considerate of my constant stopping to take pictures. All in all, a nice taste of old Mexico in contrast to the new atmosphere.
From Puebla, we proceeded on to Oaxaca for the annual Day of the Dead celebrations. Whenever I am in Mexico, I try to spend at least a few days in Oaxaca, and on this trip, I was fairly confident that I would find nothing changed in this most special city. However, while the changes are subtle, they are there. For the first time in my history with Oaxaca, when entering an exclusive bookstore I often frequent on the Alcala, I was asked to check my shoulder bag behind the counter while I shopped. In another shop, we were told that no photos could be taken of the offrenda set up at one end. In still another shop on Calle Garcia Virgil that I never miss when in Oaxaca, for the first time, there was no offrenda. There was a small tribute to Frida Kahlo in the front window, with all art relating to Frida stacked around a portrait of her, but no traditional offrenda such as they have always had in the past.
As well, there was chaos in the home of the friends with whom we stay when visiting Oaxaca. The youngest daughter of three, twenty-two years old, had just announced her intention to leave university and marry a man of whom her parents do not approve. She has been particularly educated and groomed to eventually run the small hotel her family owns, but her ‘novio’ has insisted that she have nothing to do with the family business after her marriage, due to take place in early December. This is a particularly sad situation in this family because they have been an extremely close and happy group until the advent of this young man, who for some reason is resentful of this closeness and seems determined to derail at least his fiancee’s participation. On top of it all, while she is still working to some degree in the hotel, this young woman has left home and lives with her novio across the city, a phenomenon I have NEVER encountered before in Mexico. Even in the very progressive city of Cancun, where I have several young career-oriented women friends in their early thirties, one of whom actually owns her own house, it is established that until they marry, they live at home with their parents. The girl who owns a house rents it out to business associates. So I was shocked by the way events had unfolded for our friends and very saddened by their grief.
Otherwise, during a quick ride to Teotilan de Valle to purchase cochineal, we had an interesting discussion with our driver regarding some of the conspiracy theories rampant in Mexico regarding our government’s possible prior knowledge of the events of 9/11. The most popular is that the attack was Israeli-sponsored and some 4,000 Jewish workers in the World Trade Center towers were warned in advance not to go to work on the day of the attack. Sebastian seemed genuinely amazed that we had no prior knowledge of this rumor. Also mentioned was the mess of construction on the road, designed to cut the trip from Oaxaca City to Huatulco and Puerto Escondido from six hours to three when completed.
Everywhere I went in Mexico during this visit, I asked if having the PAN party in power after seventy-two years of PRI had made any difference in the country’s circumstances. Where previously only very close friends would enter into such discussions with me in any detail, this trip everyone I asked had something to say. The general consensus is that while Vicente Fox was certainly well-intentioned, he had been unable to fulfill many of his campaign promises, largely because he was hampered by a PRI majority in the Mexican congress. Several people I spoke to related this to a Republican president trying to function with a Democrat-dominated congress in the US, a comparison that while valid, I have never heard made before by a Mexican. When I asked if the PAN party would be re-elected, most thought the government would return to the PRI. Tapatios are generally very happy with their progressive PAN governor, who they feel has done a fine job for them. Oaxacans are less enthused about their state government; while they acknowledge that their infrastructure seems to be improving by leaps and bounds, they seem unsure whether this is a federal or state-sponsored benefit. Everyone I talked to had a great deal to say about President Bush and the Iraqi war, as well as venturing opinions about President Fox’s failure to back Bush’s invasion of Iraq and how that would impact future US/Mexican relations.
On two occasions, once in Jalisco and once in Oaxaca, vehicles in which we were traveling were stopped and searched for drugs. These stops were explained by our drivers as Fox’s efforts at fulfilling his promise to the US to work harder at cracking down on drug traffic through Mexico, one area where most Mexicans with whom I spoke feel Fox has expended a great deal of energy. No one, including me, seems to know if his efforts have helped, but Mexicans seem very proud of his efforts and anxious to relate experiences illustrating them. At the same time as they hasten to explain the growing of marijuana by poor farmers in the mountains as a matter of economics, they express with great seriousness their understanding of why such endeavors need to be redirected.
All in all, this extended trip around interior Mexico was a very unusual one for me. It’s very possible that the changes I noticed have been evolving for a long time and I was so absorbed in the never-ending romanticization of my spiritual home that I just wasn’t aware. After all, it makes sense – as Bob Simmonds believes – that Mexico is going to change and progress, no matter what. I guess I was just startled by the seemingly headlong charge into the 21st Century that seems to be taking place almost overnight. I have heard from many fellow Mexicophiles that they really enjoy the new energy found in Mexico’s cities, and feel more at home because of it. I, on the other hand, don’t go to Mexico to feel the same Type A atmosphere I find at home. I go for the slower pace, the absence of CNN blaring everywhere, and particularly, because absolutely everyone isn’t careening down the street talking on a cell phone, characteristics that seem to be disappearing before my eyes, at least in the cities. On the upside, what isn’t changing is the essential gentility and kindness of the Mexican people, the genius of Mexican gardeners, and of course, the marvelous art of Mexico. Although these days, you can order from many folk artists by email or phone before you go, once you get there, their humor and courtesy remain the same, the fruit drinks offered with knowing grins pack the same punch, and the work – while more expensive than in the past – is every bit as whimsical and enchanting, even as you are handed a computerized receipt for your pesos. Which really does work for me, in spite of my reluctance to admit it. It’s good to have strong water pressure and toilets with seats, and healthy dogs with tags, and internet cafes to keep in touch with home, and it stands to reason that if the artists are making more money, they will continue to create for many years to come, which, after all, is one of my life’s goals. Also, in my heart I really do want the best for the people who make me feel so welcome whenever I am there. But it’s just as good to see impromptu parades of gigantes and brass bands crossing the zocalo for no apparent reason and dignified old gentlemen creating amazing sand paintings on the sidewalks, and it is a huge comfort to me to know absolutely that I will never be rushed to pay a check and get out of a restaurant in Mexico.
I wish I could say that writing about all this has been a wonderful catharsis and I’m comfortably resolved now to accept and enjoy the fact that Mexico is moving rapidly from the Third World into an era of technological sophistication hitherto unknown. I wish I could, but I can’t. I’m still afraid it’s all going to change and end up being home with a better climate. But I think I have worked out that what I need to do is dig deeper, be careful to combine my visits to the cities with lots of time spent in more rural areas, where things are not changing so rapidly, and hope like hell I’m dead before Mexico completely modernizes. And understand once and for all that in spite of her growth, Mexico is never going to be, say, Japan....