Chronicles of Mexico Studio Spring 2014 - Part 1

Photo by Fernando Garcia

Chronicles of Mexico Studio Spring 2014 - Part 1

This post is one in a three part series chronicling the travels of the Spring 2014 Mexico Studio. The instructor on the trip was Luis Montalvo, Director of Media Arts at the BAC, and the students were: Fernando Garcia, Jose Gonzalez, Marcus Cantu, Marwan Ghabour, Jamaal Siddiqui and Anastasia Lyons.

Day 1: Llegamos en la Oscuridad (We Arrived in Darkness)

After a long flight we land in Guadalajara under the cover of night and immediately head south in a rented van. I was eager to make out as much detail in the dark landscape that we speed by as my tired eyes could manage. After arriving at the Chapala Lake and our hotel, we set out in search of food. By this time most places were closed, but we headed to find a bar in Ajijic that served tacos late into the night. Luis drove the huge van down undulating and narrow cobblestone roads, past buildings whose faces were closed to the street, where old men sat on patios smoking and unnervingly eyed our passing. We spotted a bar with young people outside, sitting on upholstered couches in the open air. The barman replied, si claro!, of course we have tacos- we have pollo con mole (chicken with spicy sauce that has cocoa in it), ranchero beef (slow cooked beef), and cochinita pibil (pulled pork) – the mole is their best, he says. We entered a back room patio that was a half-ruin, whose splintered beams jutted overhead into space. Tall crumbling brick walls led the eye upward towards a ceiling of stars. A DJ was spinning house music, and young people sat on long benches drinking cerveza. It was our first taste of Mexico.

Day 2: El Tema del Viaje es Serendipia (The Theme of the Trip is Serendipity)

I had fallen asleep to the sound of trumpets blaring at a party near our hotel, and awoke early to the sound of a thousand birds singing. I walked to the window barefoot on the cool red tile. What a moment that was, seeing Mexico in the light after so much already experienced in darkness. The Chapala Lake was pristinely beautiful, and the colors -that blue juxtaposed with the butter-yellow walls of the hotel bathed in sunlight- felt like a dream. To state that the concept of color is important in Mexico is radically inadequate. I would soon observe that, in Mexico, color is more deeply significant, more plentiful, and more vibrant than anywhere I had ever been. I will never see color the same way.

After breakfast we were back in the van, listening to playlists burned by Fernando on CDs, and inventing nicknames for each other- DJ Onions. We were headed around the lake to stop by Luis Barragan’s family’s old ranch – the site for the studio’s final design project, and ultimately to the town of Mazamitla. Trekking across a rolling desert landscape; we shared the road with burro drivers and others all terrain vehicles. Up in the mountains, the town of Matzamitla had the feeling of an alpine village. Every building was painted white and red on the bottom, with red and black lettering, and dark wood carved in detail. Our hotel was right on the main plaza across from the church. We had a wonderful lunch prepared for us in the hotel patio, featuring locally made fresh cheese and cactus leaf that we wrapped inside of just made warm tortillas. Afterwards we went to sketch in the plaza.

Photo by Fernando Garcia

And then a remarkable thing happened. I noticed that the dogs were waiting patiently for their owners at the entrance of the church, and peering in I saw that they were holding a funeral mass service. Soon after the final blessing and sprinkling of water, the Mariachi’s struck a chord and the casket was being paraded through the plaza and heading down the road outside of town. The whole town appeared to join the procession, pouring out of doorways, and following the group to the cemetery, as the ten person Mariachi sang all along.

The cemetery is a complex of concrete tombs, layered one on top of the other, some with gaping openings waiting for the casket of the next family member to join this eternal dwelling place. The tombs are festooned with a confectionary like assortment of plastic ribbons, flowers, saintly figurines, images of the virgin and a white-faced savior, all piled up like the leftovers of many parties, the accumulated debris of familial devotion. We stayed in the cemetery with the people of Mazamitla, who leaned unscrupulously on the tombs of others passed, until they sealed up the opening of the dead man’s tomb with brick and mortar. All the while the Mariachi’s played the man’s favorite songs, and the lyrics pleaded that the loved ones not be sad for the dead, because living is harder than heaven.

Photo by Luis Montalvo

After the funeral we returned to the plaza, where the Mariachi band appeared a little later. Everyone played with firecrackers, fart bombs, and sparklers; the young men sang loudly and danced with tequila bottles. The whole world it seemed could spin out from this place, where this small-town ballet keeps everything alive. We ate on the balcony and watched as many couples danced in unison in the night’s cool breeze under a full and waning moon.

Day 3: El Pueblo y La Ciudad (The Village and the City)

The next day we are back on the road to Guadalajara, following Barragan’s life to the place where his first works were constructed. On the way we stop at an even smaller village, called La Manzanilla. It’s Sunday, people are gathered in the plaza, the old men sit, watch the children play games and gripe about each other. On occasion visitors arrive in this quiet town to go to the shrine of the Virgin- a tower and chapel all dressed in pink stucco. They say a miracle occurred here, wherein the Virgin Guadalupe appeared on a piece of slate stone, which now rests on the altar within the shrine surrounded by a display of angelic figurines with weepy eyes. People have left children’s clothing and shoes as well as locks of hair as offerings in prayer with their embroidered messages of gratitude to the Virgin Guadalupe. We enter a hotel run by an old woman who collects sentimental objects, her collection amassed over many years sits under layers of dust – ancient photographs, poor souvenirs and random mementos – and she begs us to buy some, then asks if we’d like to buy the hotel itself.

Photo by Fernando Garcia

There is a little store in this town where Luis says, you can buy anything you need. I buy a hat; we buy confetti, tape, star stickers, shoe polish, candy and big dried corn as chips for playing loteria (Mexican bingo) – our favorite mealtime activity. Then we are back in the van, listening again to Julieta Venegas sing “Eres Para Mi”, and we invent a dance to the Fatback Band’s funky 1980 hit “Backstrokin”.

The Backstroke Banditos arrived to the city of Guadalajara, which is more Spanish-looking and much more cosmopolitan, in the late afternoon. We were tired from the long drive. On the way to the historic center, we get tacos before checking in at the hotel and visiting Joe Clemente Orozco’s famous Hildalgo Mural in the Palacio de Gobierno just a few blocks away. Orozco is one of Mexico’s most famous muralists and a friend of Barragan. Here in the governmental palace he depicts – at an indescribable scale – Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican Independence brandishing a torch at shadowy figures that represent oppression and slavery. In another area Orozco painted an enormous-scale mural of Hidalgo signing the decree to abolish slavery, surrounded by grotesque figures breaking free of their chains. To call these murals, specially the Hidalgo on the stairway, visually arresting is an understatement, Orozco’s expansive murals take up the total of your upward-turned visual space; they dissolve the boundaries of architecture to appear as even larger and deeper than they are. They are so powerful that they threaten to come down from the ceiling and pound your chest into the floor.

Photo by Fernando Garcia

Turning out from the governmental palace onto the plaza, we see the Sunday crowd gathered here too. There is music everywhere in these streets. We join the children who are shooting things that shine and flutter into the evening sky.