Archive 2008 3rd Quarter

Manzanillo

Overcast and rain and gloom: Will it ever end?

Expatriates living in San Miguel de Allende are a tender lot. We're sunshine babies. When the climate gets too tough for us, there's only one rational thing to do.

We head for the beach.

Paul (El Guapo) invited me to accompany him for a few days at a friend's beach house near Manzanillo. Ah, a few days of lying on the beach, swimming in warm waters, reading a good novel: just what I needed to beat the rainy day blues.

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Of course, I never do any of that stuff. Promise of idyllic days under swaying palms isn't enough to get me to make the trip. But Paul told me that nearby we could visit the Salt Museum of Cuyutlán. No way I could refuse that.

That Paul. He really knows how to hook me.

We set out to find the place. In the car I told Paul I had forgotten to bring my laptop with downloaded directions for getting there. Paul said, "Don't worry about it. I know right where it is."

I know better than to accept such assurances, but I didn't want to drive back to the house. So I yielded to sloth over sensibility and placed my trust in Paul's legendary navigation skills.

Soon we were driving south, following the eastern shore of the Cuyutlán Lagoon, a shallow salt lake many miles in length.

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A tiny settlement of shacks roofed with palm thatch caught my eye. I yelled "Paul!" (Paul was driving. Note to self: avoid riding with drivers who exhibit signs of advanced ADD.) "Paul! Stop! Right here!"

Paul rolled his eyes as he does when I use my imperious tone, and pulled to the side of the road.

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We had stumbled across a salt-works. A gang of men have removed a black plastic tarp from a large heap of sea salt. They are shoveling it into the lower end of a motor-driven screw, filling large bags from the stream of now clump-free salt issuing from the upper end.

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Backbreaking work, this. The temperature is around 100º and the humidity is near 100%. Small but tough men haul filled bags away, to be sealed closed and loaded onto a truck headed for Aguascalientes, whose epicurean residents provide demand for hand-harvested sea salt. This is the world-famous Sal Coronita (Coronet brand salt).

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Salt is produced from the brackish waters of Cuyutlán Lagoon in crude evaporation pans, using methods virtually unchanged since the Sixteenth Century, when it was used in the refining of silver ore. The colonial owners of salt works made great fortunes rivaling those of the silver magnates, since they did not have to share a portion of their output with the Spanish Crown.

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At the end of the dry season, all that remains in the evaporation pans is crystalline salt. Then rains come, refilling the pans. Salt crystals rise to the surface. Men use boards affixed to poles (more recently, they use plastic brushes) to scrape up the floating salt that they then carry over to large, tarpaulin-covered piles to await shipment.

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For their hard labor, the salineros (salt workers) earn $1,000 pesos ($100 U. S.) per week, a good wage in these parts.

Some of the salineros live in the nearby pueblo of San Buenaventura with their wives and children, traveling to the salt works by bus, pickup truck, or by riding their bicycles along the shoulderless highway.

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Some live part-time in tumble-down dormitories, sleeping in hammocks, cooking their meals over open fires.

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The image below depicts in toto the sanitary facilities for some twenty men. No door, no roof.

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A glimpse through the window of a dormitory room reveals laundry hanging to dry. No matter how humble their lodgings, people in this country are fastidious about personal cleanliness.

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Roadside stand operators sell small bags of hand-harvested sea salt—here Sal Espuma de Mar; a name that might be translated "Spindrift Salt." Twenty-five pesos for a one-kilogram a bag.

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It's good stuff. I sprinkled some of the coarse salt on my lunch today.

I went to the effort to photograph the small bags, but I didn't think to buy any until I got back to the beach house. Looks like Paul isn't the only one around here whose wits are not always with him.

Oh—and the Salt Museum? We never did find it.

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Wildflower Season

Everyone knows better than to accept the stereotype of Mexico as cactusy desert--even if a nopal figures prominently on the flag. Even so, the profusion of wildflowers surprises me every year as the end of rainy season approaches.

Clouds darken our skies this morning. Fog curls around the Parroquoia. Expatriates complain. They say we might as well be living in England. Or the Pacific Northwest.

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This season has been particularly wet. But look at what all that rain has done for us.

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I've said it before. Scenes like this could be right out of Arizona Highways magazine. Except the photography would be better.

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Blooms like this demand walking in the campo, camera in hand.

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Flowers line pathways in El Charco del Ingenio as if they had been planted by an English cottage gardener. But Nature does the gardening here.

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Wildflowers often appear small and insignificant. Not here, where they grow in great swathes.

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Scores of varieties find niches. In last year's post on this subject, I identified some. But this year we have too many flowers, too little time. If you really want to know what these are, you can take the link above to find a great reference that will probably identify every flower presented here.

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What variety! Sometimes, the eye is drawn to sweeping fields of blossoms; other times, to a few mixed blooms that form pleasing juxtapositions of colors.

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Cultivars lack the charm of natural flowers, in my opinion. Tiny blossoms (and some not so tiny) exhibit a delicacy absent in the showy offerings of breeders.

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I'm always on the lookout for new types. Perhaps a reader can identify this unusual bloom, found in waste land at the edge of town.

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Sunflowers are the stars of the countryside. Sometimes they cover solid acres.

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For my money, though, nothing beats a field of mirasols (cosmos). I don't know if they always grew here naturally or if they escaped from cultivation. But they are very much part of the Mexican landscape today.

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A couple of years ago, I posted a picture of a big black cow chewing her cud in a field of mirasols. Last year, my model was Rosita, my Boston Terrier. This year I placed Paul (El Guapo) in a field, but I carefully controlled the depth of field so readers wouldn't have to endure the full impact of the contrast between the delicacy of the pink petals and... well... Paul.

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Veijecitos de Pátzcuaro

A crowd had gathered behind the statue of Bishop Quiroga in the Plaza Grande of Pátzcuaro. From there, music of an enthusiastic, if poorly-tuned ensemble enlivened a gray day. The tunes were accompanied by an infernal clacking.

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I hurried over. By the time I got there, the show was over. I had (almost) gotten to witness the dance of the Veijecitos (little old men), a centuries-old tradition. Wearing colorful costumes, hats festooned with ribbons, ancient men dance on a sounding board, their wooden sandals and canes banging out rhythms and pretty much drowning out the musicians.

I caught this man's final flourish just as the performance ended, appreciative tourists applauding.

Ta-DAA!

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The dancers patiently posed for turisty photo ops, leaning on their canes, their masks frozen in toothless smiles.

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Glancing to my right, I saw a few performers taking a break. Why, they weren't old men at all! I felt a little cheated as I watched teenagers in veijecito garb tossing a frisbee. Later I learned younger people had always been dancers: it's too strenuous for genuine elders.

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A young woman selling balloons was unimpressed with the goings-on. She clearly had seen it all hundreds of times. What delighted the visitors went right on by her, as she dreamed on about tonight's date. Or whatever.

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The whole affair impressed me as somewhat Disneyesque. Whatever the original dance once might have been was today transformed into tourist attraction.

I was killing time, waiting for Clint to do some business. The Veijecitos provided an hour's welcome diversion.

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Las Catrinas de la Capula

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From the online brochure of the Centro Cultural de Lenguas in Morelia: "Capula is a mestizo community [near] Morelia [that] preserves strong Purépecha traditions such as the production of clay objects."

Prominent among those clay objects are Catrinas, those grinning high-society ladies that have become symbolic of Mexican people's engagement with death and the dead. Capula potters advertise their Catrinas by painting images of her on old buildings and empty telephone wire spools. You see them along the Quiroga-Morelia highway running through the center of town.

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La Catrina is a satyrical creation of José Guadalupe Posada, arguably the world's first political cartoonist. His dancing skeletons have provided the inspiration for millions of folk art objects. I believe he was more influential in early 20th-Century Mexican iconography than luminaries such as Diego Rivera.

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We stopped in Capula to visit artists Alvaro and Miguel de la Cruz. Their studio is in the building on the right-hand side of this rutted dirt road.

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I'm impressed that such exquisite art can be produced in these humble pueblos.

The de la Cruzes sell their work in Patzcuaro galleries, keeping only a sampling in their studio. Here, two Catrinas (with überstylish hats) are joined by other figures, some yet to be painted.

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I love their bony décolletage.

The senior de la Cruz, Alvaro, is taciturn, focused entirely on his work. His workbench consists of a glued-up slab of indestructible mesquite supported by loose stacks of tabicón (cinder blocks). Unmortared brickwork flooring rests on raw dirt.

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Eight unfired Catrinas await heads and hats. Alvaro forms some by hand, cutting details with small knives and wire loops. He makes others in clay molds that he fashioned himself.

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A homemade kiln hardens clay objects. The access port is closed by stacking firebrick in the opening. Mesquite finds yet another use in this studio, as hot-burning fuel.

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The son, Miguel, created this boating couple: dowdy señora seated passively on the transom, mustachioed pescador, rakish in his blue sash, bringing the catch to market.

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Miguel's trademark, and his gift, is miniaturization. Each of these fish was individually formed, fired, painted and fired again. None is more than a half inch long.

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More of Miguel's miniatures, this time clay flowers, adorn ceramic skulls. These pieces are only a few inches high.

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Miguel has a remarkable talent. Alvaro, like all fathers of teenagers, hopes his son will settle down and dedicate himself to his craft. Maybe he will, maybe not. These days Miguel usually starts a piece and lets it sit for months before finishing it. He's brilliant and creative but not yet perseverant.

The artists, father and son, are not getting rich. The prognosis isn't good either. Again, from the Centro Cultural de Lenguas brochure: "Morelia’s urban growth has prevented the artisans from getting the raw material from free sources, and obviously, this has also affected product sales. Intermediaries represent another problem. Migration to the U.S. offers young people a better opportunity, but family relationships, the community concept and the preservation of traditions are affected."

A way of life is threatened. Artisanship in Mexico is declining. Time for me to get out there and see it while it's still there. And to support it through direct buying from artisans, in the hopes of staving off the inevitable.

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Leathercraft in Guadalajara

You are looking at the premises of Santa Fe Saddlers S.A. de C.V. in Guadalajara. That door next to the row of windows is the visitors' entrance. Actually, it's the only entrance.

No sign identifies this business. You just have to know it's here.

The three-phase transformer and circuit breakers lend a gritty look. A huge fan serves as air conditioning. The façade doesn't look particularly inviting.

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Nor does the lobby—industrial chic: fiberboard receptionist's desk bearing an old-fashioned monitor, cpu on the floor. Looks like my office. Except for the crucifix next to the fire extinguisher. Fire extinguisher!

A window behind her desk admits a glimpse of Javier Delgadillo Alvarado, Gerente (manager).

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I'm tagging along with Clint, who is contracting with Sr. Delgadillo for the manufacture of leather bands used on western hats. Clint seems to have an unending list of items for trade. I'm guessing he struck up a conversation with a supplier of western gear on his last trip to Texas and found a niche he could fill: high-quality handmade leather hatbands at low prices. These would be a new line for him—he's always experimenting. But he has an uncanny knack for knowing what will sell.

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In the conference room, Sr. Delgadillo has a wide variety of hatbands to show Clint. They interest me for about fourteen seconds. Then I sneak off into the back to check out the factory.

Now this is more like it. I hate conference rooms. I spent 35 years in them watching harried managers blowing out their antiperspirants and dampening the armpits of their white shirts. We used to call the phenomenon "pitting out."

But factories! I have been fascinated by them ever since my seventh-grade science teacher, Miss McManus, took me to a copper smelter.

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Santa Fe Saddlers has a great factory. Unadorned concrete floors beneath, chain-hung fluorescent lighting fixtures above, grimy machines in between. My kind of place.

I immediately see that Sr. Delgadillo is one of a new breed of Mexican manufacturers. Floors are painted with yellow and black striping to warn away passers-by from work areas so hands won't get stabbed with sharp tools or sleeves caught in spinning pulleys. And wonder of wonders, another fire extinguisher hangs on the wall to the right. I checked the gauge: the charge is full and the date is current. These are the first overt signs of industrial safety I've seen in Mexico.

A worker punches holes, another sprays dye on leather bracelets under a vent hood.

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Ascending a perforated steel catwalk, I line up a shot of people assembling leather wastebaskets. My presence provokes laughter. "What's that crazy gringo doing, taking our picture?"

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The panels of these leather wastebaskets and laundry hampers are being sewn together with thongs—part of a large order for a new hotel in Cabo San Lucas. Sr. Delgadillo says this order is unusual because almost 100% of his output gets exported to the United States.

Shelves hold remaindered material...

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... hanks of horsehair...

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... and scraps.

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The latter will be ground up to make "corkboard."

Negotiations successfully completed, Sr. Delgadillo offers Clint a gift of a beautiful handmade belt.

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If you call, the receptionist answers the phone in polished syllables: "Buenos Dias, Santa Fe Saddlers." One imagines her sitting at a granite desk in a glass and steel high rise.

Reality is this scene of the executive suite. Sr. Delgadillo runs his empire from a small table flanked by a rolling cart bearing a printer and a fax machine.

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Santa Fe Saddlers is an honest business run by a no-nonsense guy. He doesn't worry about images. There's no talk of branding. Sr. Delgadillo probably doesn't use "leverage" and "dialog" as verbs. He doesn't have an MBA.

What he does—he makes artisanal leather items. He hires craftsmen, types his own correspondence, and fixes broken punch presses. If you are a potential customer, he'll drive over to your hotel and pick you up. Personally.

He's also the complaint department. You got a problem with your briefcase? Talk to Mr. Delgadillo. He'll come to the phone if you ask for him. If something is wrong, he'll make it right.

It's a business model increasingly scarce north of the border.

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Tonalá Vinylwork

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Tonalá, that great center of artisanship! Clint and I visited Tonalá to call on potter Salvador Vásquez (see previous post) and to buy some hand-blown bullseye glass—that oldest type of windowpane. I had hoped to photograph the glass blowers in action, but they had gone home for the day. Clint's transaction consisted primarily of delays: Issuing facturas (official receipts for income tax purposes) and counting change can take ever so long. I became bored and walked out of the glass factory, wandering down the street, coming across this...

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... some of the most garish furniture I have ever seen. I was so shocked that I walked past it twice before I thought to photograph it—to share with all of you. You're welcome.

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I couldn't imagine anyone putting stuff like this in an actual home. It looked uncomfortable, impractical, and exquisitely ugly.

Here, an orange vinyl end table flanks a red divan shaped like a pair of female lips. Lips!

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When I got home, I looked these photos over, wondering how it is I can't comprehend tastes so different from my own. Suddenly an image flashed into my mind—of an ultramodern, hip apartment full of playful furniture and art: Spirals painted on the walls, 3" shag carpets, ameba-shaped glass coffee tables. I could see how this stuff might work.

I'm a Brooks Brothers kind of guy. Living in Mexico has been widening my range of tastes.

Once I called on Yahoo, Inc. during its early days. In the lobby they had placed yellow and violet upholstered wing chairs built so large that sitting in them made one fell like a five-year old. Playful. Perhaps I could accept this vinyl furniture as playful.

Yeah. I can see that.

I peered inside the furniture store. The first thing I saw was a painting of mama and baby giraffes.

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An original painting rendered with a certain skill and little substance, I couldn't wrap my mind around what kind of decor it might enhance. A Motel 6 lobby, maybe.

The proprietor came running over, telling me to stop photographing his furniture.

"Why not?"

"Because you'll steal my designs."

With effort, I am able to comprehend—somewhat dimly, perhaps—the esthetics of the vinyl furniture. A big step for me. Tastes that aren't congruent with mine should be valid; a tough concept for an engineer who thinks in terms of right and wrong. The giraffes, though—not them, not ever.

Mexico throws challenges at me. Today I'm in my late sixties, and I feel like I'm just now getting a glimpse of life's real lessons—like the spirituality of vinyl.

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Salvador Vásquez, Potter

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Fomento Cultural Banamex is a nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and promoting Mexico's cultural heritage. It has played a part in the preservation and renovation of important historical buildings in, among other places, San Miguel de Allende.

The foundation has published a number of elgant coffee-table books all of which are worth reading and if you can afford them, owning. Perhaps the best known of the Banamex books is Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art. Sadly, it is out of print, but you can find copies on the used book market. Be prepared to spend something north of $200 for a volume in good condition. If you're interested in collecting Mexican folk art, you'll gladly pony up the money: It's the bible. You can't manage without it.

The very best artists and artisans are profiled in this book. Hundreds of exquisite photographs give an idea of their work. Perhaps those honored here don't quite rise to the level of those individuals honored as Japanese Living Treasures. Perhaps they do. These people are most accomplished and talented, and there are none better in Mexico. And most of them are still alive and working.

We who live here are privileged in that we can meet these masters simply by finding out where they live and work, and going there. On last week's trip, I met Salvador Vásquez Carmona, a potter living in the Guadalajara suburb of Tonalá. Here is the portrait photograph of Sr. Vásquez in the Banamex book, taken ten years ago when he was about 60.

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And here he is today in his studio alongside Clint (who cannot abide being in the vicinity of an active camera without posing).

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Sr. Vásquez is holding a blue pottery dog covered with smiling new moons. Clint is negotiating purchase of the piece. Prices of this work are surprisingly low. An object like this one, made by a Japanese master, would sell for 100 times as much.

Below are some pieces representative of Sr. Vásquez' work. Today's collection seems to feature cats, a favorite motif.

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Sr. Vásquez' son Salvador Jr. shares his father's love of the art. Here he is removing pieces from a mesquite-fired kiln.

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Looking into the interior of the kiln, we see two recently-fired pieces along with a thick layer of broken pottery, placed there to raise the level of finished work to within easy reach. That Sr. Vásquez achieves such fine results with equipment so crude seems astonishing.

Northern California potters I have known use thermostat-controlled gas-fired kilns capable of maintaining reducing atmospheres or other special conditions. They have motor-driven potting wheels. They buy clay and glazes from specialized suppliers. Sr. Vásquez digs up his own clay out of a riverbank, and makes his own paints from natural vegetable and mineral sources. He grabs a glob of clay, mashes it until it's the right shape, fires it, paints it and fires it again. Potting wheels are for wusses.

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I don't think you can call the paints Sr. Vásquez uses glazes. Pieces acquire a matte finish after the second firing, as illustrated by this vase.

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To achieve a shiny surface, he burnishes each piece with a chunk of iron pyrite, as he is demonstrating below. He's embedded the fool's gold crystal in a piece of clay to form a handle for his tool.

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The result is a muted shine, less glassy than that produced by glazes.

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The plate above depicts La Llorona (the crying woman), a mythical figure who searches the world for her lost sons, making spooky crying sounds all the while. It's a scary tale told to children to make them behave. Or to provide a ghost story thrill.

In the studio, mussy tables and shelves hold work in various stages of completion. A group of unpainted vases are carelessly piled up against a finished urn worth thousands of dollars. The artist doesn't care. If it breaks, he'll just make another.

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Sr. Vásquez insisted I come into his house to see his "diplomas." He has lots of them. He is known globally, and has pieces in museums and important private collections.

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Unaccountably, he manages to show great pride in his accomplishments, and simultaneously, the deep humility of a man whose life is his art. His home is modest: he's uninterested in the material things his notoriety could buy him. His house is open to any visitor who wants to drop by to see great art in the making, or to simply sit in conversation with an interesting old man.

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A Breakfast of Enfrijoladas

Mercado de Abastos is one of the large covered buildings crowded with small shopkeepers in Guadalajara, a smaller cousin of the Mercado Libertad. I love these places—bustling, chaotic, friendly and often exotic. I'm here with Clint and our hostess Moni for breakfast.

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You can't order a grand slam breakfast in a place like this. Or yogurt and fruit. People here work too hard to survive on such light fare. They know that breakfast should consist of meat and something made out of cornmeal. Anything less is simply inadequate.

The reason for my visit is to try a dish that is new to me: enfrijoladas. My order starts out with slices of ropy-looking beef. The meat is broiled over a charcoal fire until nicely browned and infused with a wonderful smoky flavor.

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The cook chops and rolls the meat into a large, freshly-made corn tortilla. You can see the uncooked beef stacked in front of her chopping block.

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The rolled tortilla is bathed (bañado as Mexicans say) in a sauce made of beans. Sounds unexciting, doesn't it. That's what I thought before I tucked in.

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Usually when I wrinkle my nose at some Mexican dish, I turn out to be wrong. Enfrijoladas turned out to be one of the tastiest meals I have eaten. Better yet, they'll last you until dinnertime. This is substantial food.

Regulars at this stand who have tired of grilled beef enfrijoladas can opt for other fillings; say, beef tongue or tripe.

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I'll stick with the grilled beef, thank you.

Food concessions in mercados consist mostly of kitchens with narrow counters and stools jammed next to each other. They're not the French Laundry by any means, but in my opinion, they're much more fun, and cost approximately 97% less than exclusive Napa Valley restaurants.

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Photo: CLint Hough

Mercado food used to frighten me. But I've never had any trouble with it. I've contracted food poisoning and other ailments any number of times in classier, sit-down restaurants in San Miguel de Allende, but never at one of these lunch counters.

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Tlaquepaque

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Tlaquepaque was once a small town situated southwest of Guadalajara. Today it has been absorbed into the larger city's sprawl, just as Santa Monica has been engulfed ameba-like into Los Angeles. It's a favorite destination of Credit Card Bearing Gringas bent on buying folk art and antiques. It is also of interest to my friend Clint, who scours Tlaquepaque's galleries and workshops for stuff to export to the USA. I accompanied Clint on one of his trips there.

Our headquarters was the Hotel Casa Campos, a small, warm, and friendly hotel owned by Monica Kabande, seen here walking past the hotel restaurant with Clint. Moni served as our friend and guide during our visit.

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A courtyard inside the hotel serves as habitat for a dozen marmosets; perfectly tame creatures, delightful to watch as they scamper on the philodendrons. They like it when you feed them marshmallows.

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The hotel is set in a quiet part of town. On a nearby street you'll find a tile replica of Diego Rivera's mural A Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park.

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Parking is permitted in front of the tile mural, and a tree has been planted there as well. Apparently the directors of civic art and of streets and sidewalks don't speak to each other.

A kiosk on Tlaquepaque's plaza advertises Systema Apartado. In response to my question, I was told the term refers to a lay-away plan. You put a little money down for something you want to buy, and make additional payments from time to time. When the shopkeeper has collected the full price from you, he gives you the merchandise. Seems cumbersome to me: I doubt anything in the kiosk—cheap sunglasses, pink plastic purses—is priced at more than US $10.

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Sitting on benches, we ate lomo and salchichon tostadas from a cart on the plaza. Across from us, a little girl in an avocado dress enjoyed her ice cream. The plaza is a relaxed and safe place.

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Tlaquepaque is a quiet sanctuary amid the bustle of Guadalajara. Hotel Casa Campos is the perfect retreat after a day of art and antique shopping.

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The large and energetic Kabande family and their friends welcome travelers enthusiastically. Stay here, and you immediately have a circle of good friends. Reasonably priced, with comfortable common rooms and an excellent breakfast of yogurt, fruit, fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee included, Hotel Casa Campos has become my favorite Guadalajara-area hotel, in my favorite part of town.

Note to beleaguered San MIguel residents: Fireworks are rarely set off in Tlaquepaque.

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