Monday, March 30, 2009

But is it safe??

I'm off again to Mexico tomorrow, April 1st, and I'm sure you've heard some of the noise of late about the drug-related violence in that country. The U.S. State Dept. has issued a travel advisory, a Hollywood crew recently picked up and moved out of their film location in Culiacan, Sinaloa (didn't they know that is one of the top hot spots for the drug cartels?) and CNN's Anderson Cooper has been reporting from the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez all week. A lot of attention is finally being paid now to the situation by the U.S. government, with President Obama publicly addressing the issue and Hilary Clinton making a trip just this past week. If you are wondering whether you should cancel your plans to visit Mexico, my answer is NO, and I will be addressing that issue in the next few posts. For now, I suggest you take a listen to what Secretary of State Clinton had to say when she was interviewed recently by Ana Maria Salazar of Radio Universal.
I read my morning paper today, and it reported that on one day in this country there were 2 savage attacks of violence perpetrated by 2 American men, resulting in the deaths of 2 children, 7 nursing residents and a nurse--all innocent people. Last week 4 police officers were killed closer to my home in Oakland. I'm curious, do other countries of the world issue travel advisories to their citizens warning them about visiting the United States?
Finally our country is recognizing the role it plays in the Mexican drug war; we provide the weapons and eager customers for illegal drugs. Maybe Americans can stop pointing fingers at others and try to tackle the issue of violence in our own society.
This is a complicated problem and there are no easy solutions.
hasta la proxima...

Friday, March 13, 2009

Contemporary Indigenous Political Art

Ocumicho is a small indigenous village in Michoacán, located in what's called the "Meseta Purepecha." I picked up this piece by Ocumicho artisana Carmela Martinez Alvarez, made for the 2008 concurso (competition) in Ocumicho because, well, I had to. I had never seen anything like it. I've seen overt political messages from this village before, having previously bought some clay Comandante Marcos figures and a train carrying Zapatista revolutionaries with a sign saying "Mexico Armado" (meaning Mexico armed or in revolt). Mexican artists have always expressed their political views publicly in their art. But this two-sided creation about the struggle of desperate Mexicans attempting to illegally cross the border into the U.S. is truly unusual and amazing. If you look on the left, note the corpses in the desert and the women holding their infants. On the U.S. side (photo on the right) you have the border patrol looking up at the gringo with a bottle in one hand, reefer in the mouth, cell phone in his pocket, who is peeing on the Mexican sneaking under the fence. Thus we have the double meaning for the word "mojado", which literally means wet, but has been used to refer to illegal immigrants who have also been called "wetbacks".
Yes, the immigration issue to most Americans is complicated, but for poor Mexicans who face the choice of doing whatever they can to survive and feed their families, versus committing an illegal act by entering our country without permission (which they would never be able to get if they tried) they do what most of us would do if we were that desperate.
Carmen, and many women like her, have said goodbye to their sons who have left the village in recent years to go to El Norte. If the artists can't sell their work, many will give up and join them. When we were there at the competition, you could count the number of tourists, i.e. potential customers on one hand. So most of the artisans you see pictured below, picked up their pieces and went home with them--weeks or maybe even months of work--and nothing to show for it.
The good news is that people in the U.S. who see the fantastic work coming out of this and other communities in the region are excited by it. Let me know if you are too.

If you'd like to see more or buy clay figures from Ocumicho, or to learn how you can visit the village yourself, go to
Ocumicho artists anxiously waiting to hear names of the prize winning pieces.

Below are two young indigenas choosing to dress in modern short jean skirts, along with the traditional rebozo of their Purepecha culture-- representing a community at a crossroads.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

To Market, To Market

It's raining here in Northern California, hailing too. And freezing cold and snowing on the East Coast, which means most of us are thinking about summer. In my family, summer means eating lots of delicious fruit, and we got a head start on it this week when our local produce market received some wonderful sweet watermelons and mangoes from Mexico. Not exactly eating local, but it's our little guilty pleasure that helps us deal with missing Michoacán.
Ay, the mangoes--the Morelia markets carry like five different varieties-- all delicious and not expensive. I also miss Mexican papayas, and though one can sometimes find them here in the U.S., I'd rather wait until I can get a good one there. But folks, you have no idea what an avocado should taste like if you haven't had an avocado in Michoacán, which is by the way, the avocado capital of the world. And cheap?! Oh yeah. It's a staple, every day food, and we buy them by the dozen. Actually one pays by the kilo, usually about 10 pesos a kilo, which is like 50 cents a pound.
Markets are great fun, and a must if you go to visit Mexico. Especially the giant ones that take up several square city blocks. When we first arrived in Morelia we lived close to the medium size Mercado San Juan or La Revolucion (we preferred the second name, which was for the street it was on). I liked saying, " I'm going to the Revolucion", or "I got these from the Revolucion". But after about a month we found an amazing 200 year old house to rent on the other side of Morelia's Centro Historico. It became our home for almost a year, and we said goodbye to the Revolucion and came to know and love the gigantic Mercado de la Independencia. There are aisles of leather huaraches, belts and boots. Colorful piñatas, rows of gorgeous fresh flowers and an assortment of bird cages. But it's the food at the mercado...the beautifully ripe fruit and vegetables, the mounds of nuts and tubs of delicious local honey... and the amazingly fresh tortillas! We never learned how to make tortillas while we were there, because we could just walk the three blocks to find the señoras, who were waiting there to sell us a dozen of their perfect, handmade corn tortillas. Roll one up with a slice of avocado, and it's a little piece of heaven. Yumm.

Above is a market scene created out of clay by one of our favorite indigenous artists from the village of Ocumicho. The devil seems to have a thing for mangoes too!
Scroll down and click on the photos of more Ocumicho clay art, available from Yes, below is a tortilla making machine, which one sees in many neighborhoods and often at large markets.
Click below for two views of a chicken truck, by award-winning artist, Zenaida Rafael Julian.