Mexican Folk Art: La Casa de los Venados

What It Feels Like to Stay at Home All the Time

I am about to take a break from my “Plague Diary” posts to remind myself that, somewhere, something like a normal life still exists. Toward the end of my vacation in Yucatán, I spent several days in Valladolid, home of one of the country’s best private collections of folk art at the Casa de los Venados. I loved the exhibits I saw throughout my trip of folk art. The combination of humor and brilliant color had me won over. Now that I am sitting out the plague in my apartment, sans restaurants, sans libraries, sans movie theaters, sans any humor or brilliant color. (Especially as it has rained all week.)

Dog Cart

Sometimes I feel as if North American culture is deficient, especially in the visual arts. It wasn’t always thus, but somehow I feel that abstract expressionism took all the fun out of painting. Seeing the collection at the Casa de los Venados, on the other hand, made me laugh out loud.

Mermaid


The amazing thing about Mexican folk art is that there is so much of it about and at such reasonable prices. Over several decades, you can have a great collection that might even rival the Casa de los Venados—and have loads of fun doing it.

Yucatán Yummies

La Chaya Maya in Mérida

One of the best parts of my recent trip to Mexico was the general high quality of the meals I ate. Following is a brief survey of some of the highlights:

Mérida. My favorite restaurant in Mérida was La Chaya Maya on Calle 55 near Parque Santa Lucia. In all, I ate there five times. The specialty there is Yucatec Maya food, such as papadzules, salbutes, panuchos, and the excellent sopa de lima. It was there that I discovered chaya, or tree spinach, which when mixed with fruit juice makes an incredibly refreshing drink.

Martine vividly remembers sopa de lima from her trip with me to Yucatán in 1992. La Chaya Maya’s sopa de lima was the best, with its shredded chicken and tart local limes.

Honorable mention goes to Marlin Azul on Calle 62, where I had a memorable ceviche de pescado for just a few dollars.

Santa Elena is a small town between the ruins of Uxmal and Kabah. The Pickled Onion is a B&B run by a British and Canadian expat by the name of Valerie Pickles. Although she no longer does the cooking, the breakfasts at her place were memorable, but the poc chuc (a Maya pork dish) I had one evening was superb. I treated my Maya guide to the Puuc Hill ruins to a meal there, and he was so enthusiastic that he wanted to bring his family there.

A Few Miles South of Champotón is a restaurant on the Gulf of Mexico shore where I had the best seafood lunch of my life: It was a filete de pescado a la Veracruzána (filet of fish with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and olives) at a restaurant whose name had the word Tortuga in it. I only wish I remembered the exact name. I liked my lunch there so much that I kept ordering the same dish elsewhere, but it never was quite so good elsewhere.

Campeche. I ate twice at Marganzo near the Plaza Independencia in Campeche. The seafood was great, particularly a botana (freebie extra dish) of octopus ceviche, which was incredibly fresh and tender.

The only bad meal I had in Mexico was also in Campeche, at a Chinese steam table buffet called the Restaurante Shanghai where all the dishes were tepid.

 

 

Mexican Folk Art: Museo de Arte Popular

A Delightful Museum of Mexican Popular Art

I began my vacation staying at the Hotel La Piazetta at Parque de La Mejorada. At first, it didn’t seem there was very much to see in the immediate area—at first glance. Then I noticed a museum at the corner of Calle 50A and Calle 57 dedicated to Mexican folk art. So one morning, I started by visiting the Church of La Mejorada, which was right across the square. Then I waited for the museum to open at 10 am.

Masked Skeleton

On the ground floor was an exhibit of colorful textiles. They were nice, but I was was after something less abstract. My wish was fulfilled by the galleries on the second floor. There they were: all the Posadaesque skeletons, religious themes, and indigenous designs.

You cannot go far in Mexico without running into artesanias created, in many cases, by common people and readily available to yanqui tourists. Sometimes the work is so fine that it takes your breath away.  You can find something like this in parts of the United States, but most of the energy seems to go into antiques.

The Birth of Christ with Shepherds, Angels, and the Magi

It seems that wherever I have traveled in Mexico, I have run into what I regard as clearly identifiable Mexican folk art. Much of the folk art in Yucatán isn’t even particularly Maya: It seems to be more of a pan-Mexican thing.

 

House of the Turtle

The House of the Turtle at Uxmal

I have always had a special feeling about turtles. That comes from having lived at the edge of a desert for the last half century suffering from a chronic lack of rain. I strongly suspect that the Maya of the Puuc Hills (redundant: Hill Hills the way that Torpenhow Hill in England means Hillhillhill Hill) felt the same way. One of the simplest, most classical and beautiful structures at Uxmal if the House of the Turtle.

It is named after the row of carved turtles that appear along the top edge:

Detail of Carved Turtle

As I have mentioned previously, the hills of the Puuc are separated from the underground rivers of the Yucatán Peninsula by several hundred feet of impenetrable limestone. The Maya of the Puuc had to dig cisterns (called chultunes) which they hoped would fill with water during the rainy season. In good years, they did. But when a series of dry years came in the Ninth Century A.D., the Maya just walked away from Uxmal. Why obey the local god/king and get a hernia hauling stones to build new structures when they might easily die of hunger or thirst?

All the stones of Uxmal—and, for that matter, all the Maya sites—were hauled by human labor. There were no wheeled conveyances because there were no wheels, and what would be the point anyway when there were no draft animals to pull them over roads which they would have to build of other heavy rocks in the first place?

Looking Through the Two Doorways of the House of the Turtle at the Nunnery Quadrangle

When you think of it that way, you can understand why the Maya just walked away from their ceremonial centers and changed their way of government. It was a miracle that they allowed themselves to be used for so many hundreds of years hauling rocks and putting them into place—even creating such magnificent sites as Uxmal—for little reward in their hardscrabble lives.

The Maya who built Uxmal are still in the neighborhood: It’s just that they are not quite so much involved in major engineering projects. And their homes, if built of stone (or, more likely, cinder blocks) use trucks to do the heavy hauling.

 

Splashing Out at Uxmal

My Guide, Jorge Mex, at the Governor’s Palace

At the key Maya ruins I visited, I hired a guide all to myself. It only cost a few hundred pesos for an hour or two, and it was worth it for the quality of information conveyed.  At Uxmal, I sought out and hired Jorge Mex (pronounced Mesh), who had been recommended to me by Valerie Pickles, a hotelier at Santa Elena. I could have joined a group tour with a large crowd of ignoramuses who didn’t know the first thing about the Maya, but to have the time of someone who worked with the archeologists at digging and restoring the ruins is worth the extra cost.

As I said before, this was my fourth visit to Uxmal, but it has always ranked first with me; so it was worth the extra effort. At Chichen Itza, I was my own guide: Although Chichen is a spectacular site in many ways, I was less interested.

Double-Headed Jaguar Throne at the Governor’s Palace

Although there was a structure at Uxmal called the Governor’s Palace, there was no governor. There was, however, a king who ruled at the time the Palace was built: His name was Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw. Curiously, none of the other god/kings of Uxmal are known by name, according to Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s authoritative The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition). Unfortunately, the glyphs at Uxmal have been badly weathered.

Details of Carved Stones on the Governor’s Palace

Notice the square stones at the bottom of the above photo. They are characteristic of the Puuc (pronounced Pook) style of architecture. The word puuc in Maya means “hill.” The Puuc region included some five or six sites that were in the hill country in the south of the State of Yucatán, ranging up to six hundred feet (183 meters) above sea level. This made access to water for drinking and growing crops a bit of a problem, as the underground river system of the peninsula was too deep, and there were no nearby cenotes (sinkholes) allowing access to the water.

 

Maya Nuns?

Detail of the “Nunnery Quadrangle” by Frederick Catherwood

The names ascribed to Maya archeological structures has almost nothing to do with their real function, which is mostly unknown to us. The names were assigned by the Spanish or local Maya who were in many cases a thousand years from having inhabited the ruins. Most of the great Maya cities were abandoned around the Ninth Century A.D., and Uxmal was no exception.

By the time John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited in 1839, the various names were already in use, such as the Templo del Adivino or Pyramid of the Magician, the Nunnery Quadrangle, the Palace of the Governor, and so on.

One of the Buildings of the Quadrangle Today

So if you think there were a bunch of Maya nuns running around in the quadrangle of buildings that bears their name, you can forget about it. I am sure that some twelve hundred years ago, the local residents knew exactly what function every public building served. But we will likely never know.

The buildings have various themes carved in the area above the doors, including snakes, masks of the rain god Chaak, geometrical designs, and even a typical residential Maya hut of recent vintage. There are even a few very worn hieroglyphs which commemorate various dynastic events about which we know very little.

Chaak Masks at the Edge of the Structures (and Note the Maya Hut at the Upper Right)

As I wrote in my previous post entitled “The Crown Jewel,” I regard Uxmal as the greatest of the Yucatec Maya sites because of the excellence of the architecture and the care with which the structures have been restored using the mostly original stones. I remember on my earlier visits seeing piles of carved stones which the archeologists of that time had not yet decided how to use. Now there are fewer of those piles lying around.

Next: The Palace of the Governor

 

 

Kind Hearts and Blistered Toes

A Mexican Doctor’s Prescription for a Blistered Toe

Whenever I encounter a medical problem in my travels, I go to see one of the local doctors. This trip, I developed a nasty blood blister on my left big toe after just two days in Mérida. As I walked out of the Cathedral of San Ildefonso, I was approached by an English-speaking guide named Rafael. Although I was limping badly, I willingly took his guided tour. As it was winding down, I asked him if he could translate my English into Spanish for me to a Mexican physician. He was willing, and suggested the “Doc-in-a-Box” connected with the big Farmacia Yza on the main square.

So he and I saw Dr. Durán Chacón, a young locally trained physician, with Rafael translating. Using the bandaging, wound cleanser, antibiotic capsules, and antibiotic ointment he recommended from the Farmacia, the good doctor cleansed my wound and suggested that I bandage the toe twice a day, applying the cleanser and ointment. Three times a day, I took a 300mg Dalacin C Clindamicina capsule for about five days.

The Antibiotic I Was Prescribed

Fortunately, the good doctor’s recommendations worked; and my toe healed in record time. And it only cost me a few hundred pesos, a small fraction of what I would have had to pay Stateside.

Not surprisingly, Rafael invited me to a souvenir shop in which he was a partner. I knew I should express my gratitude for his kindness so I purchased a few nice items to take back to L.A.

Do I think he was being mercenary? Yes and no. He was a small businessman with a kind heart, and he saved my vacation from turning into a medical casualty. Again and again during my trip, I met with kindness; and I tried to express my appreciation in a meaningful way, even if it meant dispensing a few extra pesos.

Boat People

Oh, Those Evil Mexicans!

For this post to make any sense, you’ll need to know the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso around the time of my trip. When I was there, the peso ran around 17.5 to the dollar, or about 6¢ each.

There is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and Mexicans. (In fact, there is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and me, for that matter.) They tend to be retirees whose idea of paradise is to rot on some beach somewhere. They know next to nothing about the countries they visit. In fact, they don’t know the language; their wallets are stuffed with dollars; and they basically listen to what their handlers tell them.

I was in Izamal when for a brief moment, I was mistaken for a boat person. I hand just seen the Church of San Antonio de Padua and wanted to get back to my room. There was a taxi tout next to the Centro bus station who said a taxi would cost 100 pesos for the five-block ride. I glared at him, said that was demasiado caro (“too expensive”), and hoofed it back to my room, which I would have done in the first place if I weren’t recovering from a nasty blister on my right big toe. The tout looked surprised: These boat Gringos weren’t supposed to know any Spanish, and certainly wouldn’t know that the in-town taxi rate in Izamal was only 25 pesos.

Cut to Progreso, which has two or more cruise ships call each week. The malécon fills up with American cruise ship zombies, who quite naturally have to relieve themselves from time to time. There are bathrooms (sanitarios) in the alleys off the malécon, costing 5 or 10 pesos each. The equivalent price in dollars is 30-60¢, but U.S. coins cannot be exchanged for pesos in Mexico, so the bathroom is charging $1.00 to Gringos. (The sign on the right side of the above photo sets the price in Mexican currency for a bathroom visit to be 10 pesos.)

Finally, also in Progreso, I saw a scene that annoyed me to no end. I purchased a one-way ticket to Mérida for 21 pesos. At the same time, a tout was selling round trip tickets to Mérida for $10.00 each, about four times what I paid. The boat people were grabbing them up as if they were a bargain. Several, seeing that I spoke Spanish while looking like a Gringo, came up to ask me questions. I smiled and answered them … in Hungarian. I have no intention of being a cavaliere servente to a bunch of brain-dead Yanqui tourists.

The Yellow City

Statue of Diego de Landa Facing the Church of San Antonio de Padua

On my recent trip to Yucatán, I enjoyed staying in smaller towns such as Izamal, each of which seems to have some unique claim to fame. In the case of Izamal, it was the deep yellow color that characterized most of the structures in town. There are a number of reasons for this, but I like the story my guide to the Church of San Antonio de Padua told me: “It’s the color of corn—and we Maya believe that man was created from corn.”

Visible throughout the town are the ruins of ancient Maya structures, particularly the Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo, which is visible from the church:

The Pyramid of Kinich Kakmo Seen from the Church

The church at Izamal is notable for the large size of its footprint, supposedly the second biggest in all of Christendom after St. Peter’s in Rome—and also for two church figures associated with the town. The first is the Franciscan Diego de Landa who is both infamous and famous: the former because as Bishop of Yucatán, he ordered the burning of all the Maya codices as heretical, the latter for writing a book which attempted to atone for his crime by writing Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, which helped scholars of our times understand how to read Maya glyphs.

The other figure who stepped into Izamal’s history is Pope John Paul II, who, during his travels, visited Izamal in August 1993 and served Mass there to a crowd numbering in the tens of thousands. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times:

About 3,000 representatives of indigenous groups of the Americas gathered here to meet with the Pope at a 16th-Century Franciscan sanctuary erected atop a Mayan temple to the sun god. By the Vatican’s count, there are 52 million native peoples in Latin America–26 million in Mexico alone.

“Unfortunately, it must be noted that the richness of your cultures has not been duly appreciated. Neither have their rights been respected as peoples and as communities,” John Paul said. “Sin has also cast its shadow on America in the destruction of not a few of your artistic and cultural creations, and in the violence of which you have so often been the object.”

In a 28-minute speech under a merciless tropical sun that wilted his retinue, John Paul singled out some of those communities by name: Guarani, Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl, Mixtec. And some farther north as well: Apache, Inuit.

The Church of San Antonio de Padua

I spent only one night in Izamal, though I could have spent several days. At the local mercado, a certain Señor Gordo sold two venison tacos with a cold Coke for a grand total of 25 Pesos, about $1.25.

 

Mexican Folk Art: Alebrijes

Magical Realism—Zapotec Style

At the Casa de Montejo in Mérida, I stumbled onto a special exhibit of Mexican folk art by Jacobo and María Ángeles and their collaborators from the Zapotec town of San Martín Tilcajete in the State of Oaxaca. In general, I think that Mexican folk art is magical, but Jacobo and María are something else. They are known for their sculpted figured known as alebrijes in a series called “Tonas and Nahuales.” According to Wikipedia, “Alebrijes are brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures of fantastical creatures.”

These particular sculptures are carved from the wood of the copal tree, which is sacred to many Meso-American peoples because it is the source of incense for worship. They are meticulously painted, and various other objects are frequently attached.

Magical Monkey

This was the first of several visits I made to see Mexican folk art in both Mérida and Valladolid. In every case, I was enthralled.

The Ángeles art group has an excellent website which can be accessed here. Of particular interest is a four-minute video in Spanish with English subtitles explaining their method of creating these alebrijes as well as a quick survey of their other activities:

Future posts will describe other works of Mexican folk art that caught my eye.