Are You Still Nasty?

This week I began writing the thesis upon which my entire MSc grade will depend. I adore getting my teeth into a project, so I am feeling really good about it, despite the weight it carries. My research deals with domestic worker’s sense of identity, and reading the interview transcripts is a helter-skelter ride in analysis, taking the words spoken as a starting point and spiralling down into contemplating what those words are really saying.

Being the labour intensive task that I am glad this is, I haven’t had the chance to write anything new here lately, which is a shame today especially, since it’s summer solstice and I would love to get into that! But, instead I’m going to share with you some brief text that I wrote to accompany the three pieces I showcased at the Are You Still Nasty? exhibition in Newcastle in November 2017. The Nasty Women exhibitions are global affairs to protest Trump’s presidency, taking his pile of shit misogyny and growing something beautiful from it. My work for the November 2017 exhibition dealt with Mexican women’s identities, specifically the philosophical concept of border identities. I’d love to share more about this with you some time soon!

To know more about NASTY WOMEN: http://nastywomenexhibition.org

For more of my art: tallulahlines.tumblr.com

ARE YOU STILL NASTY? 2017

The three works chosen for this exhibition focus on the various ways in which Mexican women live their layered identities in their day-to-day lives. Or, to put it another way, how they navigate the physical and psychological borders which Gloria Anzaldúa brings to life in her seminal 1987 work Borderlands/ La Frontera, generally agreed to be the fundamental text of Latina and Chicana feminism. Anzaldúa, and many Latina theorists since, cite borders as core in constructing Latina women’s experience and identity in their day-to- day lives.

In part, they refer to the physical border between the US and Mexico. Until recently California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were in Mexico, and one look at the neatly ruled line between Sonora and Arizona tells us just how man made that particular stretch of the border is. There is also the vast and stark space between Ciudad Júarez and El Paso, which has gained infamy  since the 1990s as the dumping ground for countless female bodies – disproportionately those of poor, Brown women who worked in maquiladorasas cheap labour for US owned businesses – murders which the authorities largely ignored or dealt with incompentently. Every day Latin Americans die trying to cross the border from Mexico to the USA; they are the immigrants. Every day, the expats and tourists from the USA enter Mexico freely to speak English, spend their dollars (no need to change them to pesos), and be served by Mexicans.

The other borders that Latina feminists refer to are the those that develop in the mind when a person lives in a country that is not one, but instead is many at the same time; Mexico is abeautiful, vibrant, complex, creative, energetic, electrifying and richly textured place whose identity is formed by its indigenous people, the lasting effects of Spanish colonisation, and the contemporary force of globalisation. Embracing, living and reclaiming this mestizaje (mixed-upness) is a daily act of resistance when society will have you believe your history and your identity are not the right ones. It is these borders that my work deals with.

 

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Las Zapatistas– screenprint on cotton, 2017

Triumphant fists in the air from Zapatista women, who have played an equal role to men since the inception of this indigenous rights movement in Chiapas. The Women’s Revolutionary Law has been central to Zapatista organisation since the rebellion of 1994 – it is not an afterthought, nor just words on paper. Not only do men and women caminar parejo (walk together) to guarantee equal participation and representation in political meetings, but María Jesús de Patricio, or Marichuy, is the first indigenous person ever to be nominated as a presidential candidate.** The Zapatistas fight for un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos, a world where many worlds fit, and women are central to achieving this.

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Tejiendo– screenprint on cotton, 2017

Indigenous women defiantly and proudly continue to wear the traditional clothes they have always worn, woven in traditional ways, and unique to their different communities (the flowers in this design are inspired by Oaxaceño patterns). Contemporary fights regarding indigenous clothing include allowing indigenous children to wear their traditional clothes to school, and for fair pay when traditional designs are commissioned for use in high fashion. Indigenous women may spend their days traversing borderlands but their clothes keep them rooted to their cultures.

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Belief in Borderlands– mixed media, 2017

The Maya goddess* of death and fertility, Coatlicue, cuts a striking image with her head of two snakes, necklace of human hearts and hands, and skirt of writhing snakes. In this piece, images that invoke her overlap with the Virgin of Guadalupe, symbol of Catholicism and the Mexican Revolution. Borderlands are also present in the spiritual world, where Mexicans have created a vibrant space where many beliefs juxtapose.

 

*there is no direct translation for god or goddess in Maya language. Coatlicue is actually closer to being known as the intricate link between life and death.

** UPDATE Marichuy never made it to the final stages of the presidential race, which is taking place now actually, ahead of the elections in July 2018. But she toured the country representing the EZLN, taking historic strides for indigenous women and men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If She’s On Her Period, Offer Her An Ice Cream

‘If she’s on her period, offer her an ice cream….

And if after this, she isn’t happy

To relieve her of all her bitterness,

With all due respect,

Lend her to me’

– Calibre 50, Préstamela a Mí

Despite lyrics like these ones, which should send shivers down my feminist spine, I really fucking love Calibre 50. They are a four-piece group from Sinaloa who shot to fame in 2011 with a controversial and raunchy song called El Tierno Se Fue, which cracks me up when I listen to it, with its oh-so-risqué oh-so-almost mention of a sexual act. I couldn’t possibly repeat what it is they are insinuating, but let me tell you it is quite a job for listeners to blow right over it.

I came across Calibre 50 last year when I heard the song Siempre Te Voy a Querer everywhere, blasting out from mechanics’ garages, barber shops, rolled down car windows, and the oversized speakers that people just love to haul along to the beach with them. Here it is – check out the video before reading on, you’ll need it for context.

That intro! That accordion! That brassy bass! How he rolls the second R in querer! The matching hats! MAN. How can you not fall for those lads? (If you still aren’t convinced, leave that link playing to hear Amor Del Bueno, my second fave).

There is something so powerful, so fun, so bright, and so goosebump-inducing about it. You might not think it, but like most things in Mexico, this sort of music has a long and meaningful history, it is political and creative, and goes so much deeper than you think. Here, I’m going to look at how it plays a key role in Mexican identity and memory.

In the late 19th century, German immigrants coming to work in northern Mexico brought their instruments and their musical tastes and traditions with them. The genre that developed out of this is known as Norteño and it is still characteristic of the north of Mexico, specifically the border area. It is also a big deal in California, Texas and other US states. All kinds of subgenres make up Norteño and a professor of music will be able to tell you the difference; I still can’t, despite doing a fair chunk of research. Norteño can encompass banda, corridos, bolero, ranchera and more. Two instruments form the core of Norteño music, the accordion and the bajo sexto, but these days many more instruments can be included in an ensemble. Norteño has retained a rural, migratory, working class and masculine identity since those German immigrants first came to work in the northern Mexican countryside. It is deeply associated with los ranchos and los campesinos who live there, because it was written by them, for them and about them.

Lyrically, corridos are perhaps the most powerfully associated with Mexican history, memory and identity-formation. A corrido is ‘a popular narrative in the form of song, poetry and ballad. The songs can deal with political themes, historic events and sentimental relationships. The corrido played an important role in the history of Mexico as a source of information about the movements, victories and losses of the revolution.’[1] Since their beginnings, the corridos have celebrated the underdog, the rebel, or the every day Mexican.[2]

Corridos remain at the core of Norteño music today, continuing to make heroes out of those whose lives (and deaths) would otherwise go unsung. Immigrants continue to be key characters in, and consumers of, Norteño music today. Those who are forced to risk their lives crossing the Sonoran desert to try to get into the US are the poor, rural Mexicans who Norteño has always been for and about. It is touching and powerful that they are the inspiration for songs like Somos Mas Americanos by Los Tigres del Norte (this video has the English translation included).

 

‘I want to remind the gringo

I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me’

–  Los Tigres del Norte, Somos Mas Americanos

Many of the articles I’ve read about Norteño music do not situate it statically in Mexico. Both in real life and on paper, it splurges across the line in the sand that separates Mexican and US territory. Martha I Chew Sanchez writes that, ‘Mexicans and Mexican Americans insist on recalling and re-creating spaces of Mexico embodied in canciones rancheras and corridos in radio stations, dance halls, and fiestas in the United States’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 484). She goes on to describe how Mexican identities are reproduced and reinforced in Northern Texas and Albuquerque by repeating many of the same behaviours and customs in dances there that are performed in rural events in Chihuahua. She says that one reason for this is because, ‘when the collective memory of a diasporic group, such as the Mexican migrant one, finds itself under constant threat from the host society, its members tend to resort to creative forms of ‘recreating’ or ‘reinforcing’ their collective memory’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 484).

It is also important –personally and politically – to retain a connection to one’s own language, particularly when discussing painful experiences, as the immigration process is.[3] See the snapshot of an imagined conversation between two (invented) academics[4] discussing the role of language (in this case Spanish in the USA) in a post-colonial world:

Right. To Latinos insisting on a legitimate role for Spanish. That language enables them to speak out against oppression and discrimination in a way that one can’t – at least so readily – in English, the language of the very group that is oppressing them… This echoes the finding of contemporary Lat-crit authors who write that Latinos are ‘perhaps more attached to their language than any other non-English speaking immigrant or minority group.'”

“I’m not surprised. Rao says that the colonial subject who adopts the language of the conqueror ‘has to convey in a language that is not one’s own the spirit that is one’s own. One has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought movement that looks maltreated in an alien language.’

“In fact,” Rodrigo replied, fishing a second piece of paper out of his pocket. “Simon During says much the same thing. I have it right here. ‘For the postcolonial to speak or write in the imperial tongues is to call forth a problem of identity, to be thrown into mimicry and ambivalence.”

“Trenchant,” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of Fanon’s words about psychiatric self-preservation. The native must take forceful action, or else he or she succumbs to despair and depression. Holding onto one’s language could be a potent way of achieving mental health for the colonized subject such as the Latino.” (Delgado, 2007: 1708 – 1709)

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‘Mate, I like your woman

If there’s a problem we’ll fix it

Maybe you don’t realise

But we like each other

If this comment hurts you

We’ll even shoot each other,’

Banda MS, Me Gusta Tu Vieja

It is important to highlight one more point in this context; predominantly male identities characterise mainstream Norteño music. You may be surprised that the lyrics ‘if she’s on her period, offer her an ice-cream’ were NOT written by a woman. Norteño is subject to the same sexism as the music industry in general (women are less likely to be taken seriously, more likely to be encouraged / expected to be sex symbols, etc). The majority of bands are made up of men, and they sing about their own emotions and experiences. For example, regarding the theme of immigration, Chew Sanchez that, ‘existing patriarchal hierarchies are also reinforced by limiting the representation of migrant experiences to those of men, on men’s terms and from their point of view’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 491).

Furthermore, women are cast as the passive receivers of men’s adoration or their scorn. Hyper masculinity is especially potent in Northern Mexico, so as Oliva Solis Hernandez puts it, when male Norteño singers position themselves in relation to women, they are either (or indeed at once) fervently macho, or they are suffering terribly for love (Solis Hernandez, 2016).[5] I might go so far as to say that suffering for love is actually the most macho you can be, though; ‘look how much pain I am withstanding. I am so strong to be battling onwards.’

However, lived gender identities, masculinity included, are constantly in flux, especially when migration comes into play. Although recognising the problems with the macho voice in Norteño, Chew Sanchez also suggests that corridos restore dignity to and re-humanise immigrant men facing racism and discrimination in the US, by showing them, ‘as people with multiple subjectivities, as parents, husbands, sons, workers, people who celebrate their culture, as survivors of racial scapegoating and low-intensity terrorism practised against them, as people with a joy of life who possess great humour, and who try to empower themselves’ (Chew Sanchez, 2004: 491).

Women have always been active in the Norteño scene, although this is hidden from the mainstream narrative (surprise, surprise). Many women recorded songs around the 1920s and 30s when Norteño was becoming commercialised. While they did enjoy success, they often stopped their singing careers when they started families (Villareal, 2006). What I find particularly interesting is that women played a valuable role in providing spaces for the music. ‘These women persevered as women bar and dancehall owners over a forty-year period in east and south Texas. Relying on Spanish-speaking customers who sought a specific type of music, their businesses thrived, even during economic depressions, particularly in rural areas… Texas Mexican American women pursued businesses that catered to a social network of Mexican Americans whose love for music and dancing demanded cultural spaces’ (Villareal, 2006: 47-48). This idea of place is particularly important, because a lot of the spaces that Mexicans occupied in the US in the first half of the 20th century have been literally wiped off the map because their existence does not fit with an ‘American’ narrative. This is one reason why senses of place created through Norteño music are especially important. Although they might not exist physically anymore, ‘these places are etched into people’s memories, memories not in the historical narrative or in the county or state museum, but memories that shaped their community’s identity.’ (Villareal, 2006: 51)

 

‘They made bets to conquer her,

But no young guy won her love’

– Los Tigres del Norte, Era Diferente

In 2015, a love song was released by Los Tigres Del Norte, Era Diferente, and it really was different.[6] It’s about a teenage lesbian who falls in love with her best friend. According to Los Tigres it’s the first gay love song in the history of Norteño music EVER. I’ll take their word for it, and although it could easily be classed as a tentative step (female homosexuality isn’t generally seen by homophobes as as much of a threat as male homosexuality, especially since usually lesbians are just waiting for the right man to come along and anyway they don’t have real sex do they?) it’s a certainly a move in an interesting direction.

So, I’ll take it on the chin as I always do when people laugh at my musical tastes, and let go (slowly) of the fact that my legitimately Norteño Mexican boyfriend did not take me to a traditional dance when we visited his family in Sonora. When I first heard Siempre Te Voy A Querer, it clearly spoke to me on a profound, sociopolitical level and I just knew that it would serve my intellectual development to become a massive fan of Calibre 50. The rolling Rs, accordions and men in matching hats and jazzy waistcoats are completely inconsequential.

 

 

Note – Featured images are my artwork; the words hasta paracen bonitas todas mis palabras sucias are from Amor Del Bueno by Calibre 50

References (ask me for PDFs):

[1] ‘Se trata de una narrativa popular en forma de canción, poesía y balada. Las canciones pueden tratar de temas políticos, de eventos históricos y de relaciones sentimentales. El corrido jugó un papel importante en la historia de México como una fuente de información sobre los movimientos, las victorias, y las pérdidas de la revolución.’ This quote comes from https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corrido_(México) and references Chew Sánchez, Martha I. (2006). «Corridos In Migrant Memory». Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[2] Some of the most famous historical corridos are the corridos villistas and the corridos zapatistas. They celebrate the revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Jose Zapata. I bet you’ll recognise this famous corrido villistahttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gp_7aieGEMQ

[3] Lina Mounzert does an amazing job of emphasizing exactly why this is the case, in her powerful article about translating first hand accounts of Syrians during the war. See: https://lithub.com/war-in-translation-giving-voice-to-the-women-of-syria/ WAR IN TRANSLATION: GIVING VOICE TO THE WOMEN OF SYRIA

[4] ‘Richard Delgado [the article’s author] enlists his alter ego, Rodrigo, to analyze Latino legal history and civil rights. Encountering “the Professor” after testifying at a hearing on an immigration bill, Rodrigo excitedly tells his old friend and mentor about a new body of writing he has come across.’ See References for full bibliographical info on this article.

[5] See El Papel de las Mujeres en el Discurso de la Música Norteña Mexicanahttp://www.scielo.org.ar/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1669-57042016000100013

[6] https://www.advocate.com/arts-entertainment/music/2015/03/21/los-tigres-del-norte-are-making-gay-norte-o-history

Caguamas Before Dramas*

* Caguama: pronounced ca-wa-ma. 32 ounces (940ml) of beer, usually Tecate, Carta Blanca, Victoria, Corona Familiar, Pacifico or Sol. Not 40oz cuz Mexican beer doesn’t come in that size. A Caguama is a sea turtle (loggerhead). That’s how the bottle is shaped like a little turtle, if you’re drunk enough. In Spainish [sic] Caguama is translated to English as simply turtle. Thanks Urban Dictionary .

The other night I was sitting drinking a can of Victoria straight from the freezer, thinking about why I always pick it over the rest of the Mexican beers. I have a love-hate relationship with alcohol, especially beer. It has played such a huge role in my life, much more than I really thought about until I went tee-total for about 6 months last year. Alcohol is woven through society so much so that it is as familiar, unremarkable and hidden in plain sight as the fine ridges in the texture of our favourite jeans. When I first began to write this piece, I just intended to talk about the design of the Victoria label, but as I started to think about what those beautiful bottles are all about I realised there is so much more to say. So from aesthetics to advertising to all-consuming colonialism, let’s look at what Victoria has to do with every day life here in Mexico.

Victoria is a hugely popular beer, it is the third most highly selling beer in the republic and is also widely sold in the US.[1] It is the oldest beer in Mexico, having been brewed for over 150 years, and it even has its own museum in Toluca.

I first picked Victoria because I’m a sucker for a nice design, as I think most people are, hence packaging existing in the first place. There is no bottle of beer more beautiful than a Victoria; the crisp white and custard yellow design screen-printed straight onto brown glass is really striking. The swirling font is reminiscent of the iconic Coca Cola logo, which gives it a classic feel. Gambrinus is the cover-boy, cheerfully chugging from his tankard of beer, as he has done since the early days of the Victoria label.[2] I sat in a bar one night in Mexico City drawing the bottle of Victoria that I had just ordered on a brown paper bag in a blue biro pen. It looked beautiful even on a scrap of paper.

The beer can I drank from when I started thinking about this article featured something else though; the slogan ‘Ni clara, ni oscura, mestiza’ (Not light, not dark, mixed). At first glance the line refers to the amber colour of the beer. However, it is actually a reference to Mexican mestizaje and links to an interesting and slightly controversial advertising campaign the company launched last year, which centres on celebrating Mexican culture and identity, and at the same time emphasizing Victoria’s position as the most Mexican of the beers.

The ni clara, ni oscura, mestiza slogan is part of a range of concentrated advertising by Victoria, beginning with #LadyPrieta and moving into #LoChingónEstáAquí. You can’t escape these adverts. Lady Prieta was a viral campaign featuring a video of a white model losing her shit after being rejected in favour of a darker skinned model. People didn’t know it at first but it was soon revealed that it was all a hoax orchestrated by Victoria themselves, which succeeded in getting people talking and thinking about racism (at least on their social media accounts!). Now, #LoChingónEstáAquí uses the most Mexican adjective (chingón: meaning cool, assertive, edgy, the word is only used in Mexican Spanish) to accompany bright and vibrant adverts featuring plenty of Mexican imagery and symbolism (designed only by Mexican designers/artists).

Now, there is a lot to be cynical about here, so let’s begin. Companies subvert sociopolitical causes for their own means, jumping on bandwagons in order to sell more products. It’s ugly, superficial capitalism. For example, something I especially hate is chucking the word feminism / feminist at all sorts of products in an attempt to attract more women buyers. It isn’t feminist to buy something that will allegedly make you a supposedly ‘better’ version of you, because it suggests that being your actual, natural self isn’t good enough. Also, it makes it seem as though feminism is trendy, and therefore superficial, silly or shallow, and something that will go out of fashion – rather than being a legitimate political cause.

Furthermore, this is alcohol we are talking about. Alcohol is a known carcinogen[3]; withdrawal can kill (which is even more impacting when you think that withdrawal from heroin cannot)[4]; and one study called alcohol the most dangerous drug in modern society, well above heroin and crack.[5] Mexico occupies the tenth place in Latin America for alcohol consumption. But let’s give that some global perspective; Europeans drink more alcohol than anyone else, and in both the USA and the UK the amount of alcohol consumed per capita is way higher than in Mexico.[6] Despite these statistics, the adverts could be interpreted as suggesting the beer drinking is a core part of Mexican identity, which of course is not a flattering (nor accurate) image.

So taking all of this into account, what is there to like about the campaign? Well, I would look favourably on most things that celebrate non-white identities, especially in previously colonised countries. There is far too much white washing in advertising campaigns.[7] In Mexico, like many Latin American countries, the majority of the population is not white yet adverts are saturated with white people. Happy families enjoying nice things with their smiling Labradors are always white, and the worst is that these adverts are often accompanied by slogans about ‘deserving’ the nice home, nice car, etc. It gives the impression that you must strive to be whiter in order to be worthy of enjoying these pleasures.

Celebrating other identities is especially necessary in a campaign for beer, which is mostly consumed by working and lower-middle class Mexicans, who themselves are usually on the more mestizo end of the colour scale. What is seen in adverts and the wider media today just repeats the messages that colonisers brought with them in the 16th century, except now the messages are neatly packaged and pasted across billboards, instead of being violently beaten into people and written into law. Just as people consume products, they consume ideas. In my own experience since living here, I have noticed that Mexicans often repeat negative things about their paisanos and blame each other for their so-called ‘third world’ status. Mexicans are lazy, Mexicans don’t read, it’s Mexican people’s fault the country is fucked are all things I have heard often from Mexican mouths, and something similar occurred in Ecuador. Ecuadorians lie, they take advantage, they’re lazy; all things I heard from Ecuadorians themselves.

So, can we comfortably enjoy a campaign which celebrates the mestizaje of Mexican identity, even though the real point is to make more money for a company which sells carginogenic drinks? When I put it like that, probably not! But while capitalism and alcohol consumption skip along hand in hand merrily and quietly gluing society as we know it together, I think it’s fair to recognise that what Victoria are doing is important on some level. So let’s raise a glass, and drink responsibly, if we chose to drink at all, to celebrating identities that aren’t just white, and hope that we’ll start to see a bit more mestizaje in the media.

References:

http://durango.com.mx/cerveza-victoria-150-anos-y-sigue-siendo-joven/

http://tolucalabellacd.com/toluca/museo-cerveceria-victoria/

http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/articulo/nacion/sociedad/2017/06/27/cerveza-victoria-revela-creativa-campana-contra-la

[1] http://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/empresas/cuales-son-las-cervezas-favoritas-de-los-mexicanos

[2] https://cervecerosdemexico.com/2017/08/29/las-primeras-4-etiquetas-de-cerveza-mexicanas/

[3] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/04/did-drinking-give-me-breast-cancer/

[4] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-addiction/201001/alcohol-benzos-and-opiates-withdrawal-might-kill-you

[5] https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/news/20101101/alcohol-more-harmful-than-crack-or-heroin#1

[6] https://www.animalpolitico.com/2014/05/mexico-decimo-lugar-en-consumo-de-alcohol-en-al-oms/

[7] http://banderasnews.com/0902/edop-whitewashed.htm for whitewashing in media and http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2016/03/09/whitewashed-troubling-term-undermining-hispanic-latino-identity/47717 for the difference between media white washing and using the term when talking about personal identity.

Death as Spectacle in Guanajuato

Death is both spectre and spectacle in Mexico.

Death in all its grim, gritty and violent essentialism is a reality in many people’s every day lives in Mexico; rocketing murder rates, forced disappearances and feminicides are widely reported in national and international media. Death the spectre accompanies many people in their day-to-day lives.

However, as one author puts it, ‘Mexico is known for its cultural braiding of life and death.’[1] Beyond cold and difficult facts, Mexicans also retain a close and amiable relationship with death, one that means it forms a part of every day life in a more spiritual and creative way. Balistreri states that, ‘There is a belief in Mexico that a person should fear life more than death, due to the relative difficulty of life versus the ease of death (Garciagodoy 1998:175)’[2] I touched on some of this in my previous posts here and here, and there is SO much more I could say. For now though, I’m going to look at how actual dead bodies are used as cultural spectacle, by focusing on two museums and a procession linked to one of them, all in the state of Guanajuato.

Years ago I saw a documentary (that I can’t for the life of me find online now) that fascinated me, and I added another bullet point on my mental list – alongside MANY other things – of stuff I’d love to see in the world but will probably never be able to. So when I was visiting Guanajuato for a day earlier this year I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a sign that meant my documentary dream had come true. I’d found the place where you can get up close to the world’s largest collection of naturally mummified bodies; the Museo de las Momias.

People have been paying to see the mummies in Guanjuato since around 1875, although the formal museum didn’t open until much later. Some historians suggest that as Mexico fought for independence, museums, ‘became essential for the political development of a new Mexican national identity. It would seem that Mexican museums were essentially created as state projects and were considered public-service institutions from the beginning (Florescano 1990:1244).’[3] Indeed, given Mexico’s unique relationship with death, it is fitting that they would designate the mummified bodies as cultural spectacle and officially, publically put them on display. The state of Guanajuato considers the mummies a key part of their regional identity and patrimony, and they have been part of national folklore and popular culture since the 19th century.

Just because the mummies are in Mexico, it doesn’t mean that only Mexicans are fascinated with visiting them. These days, a phenomenon called ‘dark tourism’ is on the rise, in which people travel with the intention of seeking out the creepy, unusual or morbid. According to Balistreri;

‘People are fascinated with death through a combination of respect, reverence, morbid curiosity, and superstition (Stone 2006:147)….The fact that exhibitions featuring death and human remains continue to be in existence, and seem to be growing in popularity, speaks to the contemporary, paradoxical fascination with and fear of death as well as an “intense desire for realism and authenticity” (Linke 2005:13), and the desire to understand one’s own mortality and death (Leiberich et al. 2006:569)’[4]

There are various explanations as to how bodies become naturally mummified in Guanajuato, although the most recent is that it is to do with the dryness of the air…and I presume various other more complex factors. Previously, people thought it was to do with minerals in the soil, but all of the mummies recovered in the cemetery in Guanajuato city came from over ground crypts. Slightly harder to explain is why only some bodies become mummified – only one in ten of those exhumed in the 19th century when the mummies were first discovered had succumbed to this phenomenon.[5]

The result is captivating and some might say gruesome. The author Ray Bradbury was left traumatised after his visit to the museum, although it did inspire him to write his short story The Next In Line.[6] Others are a little less impressed by the mummies; one reviewer has said; ‘The truth is seeing them is somewhat risqué, but exciting if you’re under 15 years old.’[7]

Although I’m 30, I found the museum more inspiring and exciting than that reviewer! I would say it’s eerie rather than gruesome. It is hard to believe that the mummies are real, which takes away a little of the intensity. Their skin is paper-like and those that still have hair have synthetic looking tufts sprouting from various body parts, so that call to mind poor quality and unloved mannequins.

For me the most interesting thing about the mummies’ appearance was to imagine how they would have impacted those who first pulled them out of their tombs in the late 19th century, when a newly introduced burial tax meant that those who couldn’t afford to pay the new fees had their loved ones’ remains excavated and moved to common graves. Their bodies and facial expressions are twisted and contorted, mouths open, hands clasped, eyeballs popping out of sockets. Not at all like the peaceful expression you may see on a deceased body in an open-casket wake, after make up and other techniques have been applied to give an impression of serenity. I imagined god-fearing gravediggers coming face-to-face with these twisted corpses. It must have looked like they were paralysed with fear on their way to some horrible underworld, adding fuel to religious beliefs of the day. Another creepy idea that is still popular in some sections of society today is that the mummies were people who were buried alive. Guanajuato was the epicentre of a plague in the late 19th century that paralysed its victims, giving the impression that they were dead and causing their burial.[8] Later of course they would wake up underground and twist, turn, fight and scream in terror.

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Each mummy in the collection has its accompanying story which supposedly tells us who they were and how they lived and died. Recently though, the director of the museum has said the stories are false, and that the lives of the mummies deserve proper investigation.[9] The mummies in the museum date from the 19th century, but the mummification phenomenon still exists. In 2017, another 210 mummies were discovered when authorities began to undertake renovation of the cemetery. However, their families are less keen for their loved ones to be used as spectacle, and have not agreed for them to be displayed publicly.[10]

There are also mummies on display in Celaya, another town in the state of Guanajuato, and their ‘lives’ are much more entwined with those of contemporary residents of Celaya, because they were discovered more recently.

In the 1970s, local authorities called families to inform them that the bodies of their deceased loved ones had been found mummified, when they were exhumed at the instruction of the administrator of the main cemetery, the Panteón Municipal Norte, due to requirements to move bodies after five years if charges had not been paid.

The mummies were stored in cemetery cellars and finally put on display in Celaya’s mummy museum in 2014, apparently to honour and respect them, especially since many of the deceased had lived impoverished and difficult lives.[11] Since then another 13 mummies have been discovered but their families won’t donate them to the museum, instead preferring to sell them or re-bury them.[12]

Every November, residents of Celaya mark another occasion in which bodies were exhumed and moved from one place to another. The Paseo de las Luminarias (The Walk of Lights) happens every year to recreate and remember the night in 1890 when, due to a change in national law, bodies were exhumed from private tombs and crypts and moved to the Panteón Municipal Norte.[13] The move happened in the middle of the night, so as to cause as little fear and upset as possible, and residents aided those working on carrying the bodies by placing small fires along the way to the cemetery to help them see. Today residents of Celaya honour that night by dressing up as Calaveras and Catrinas and go out with lights to march to the main cemetery.

Residents who want to exhume the bodies of loved ones from family crypts today in the state of Guanajuato can pay about 780 MXN (£31) and fill out some paperwork that takes about ten minutes.

Sources:

 

[1] Gisleson

[2] Balisteri, p31

[3] Balisteri, p20

[4] Balistreri, p35

[5] Bitto

[6] http://raybradbury.ru/library/story/47/11/0/

[7] ‘La verdad es que verlas es algo escabroso, pero emocionante si tienes menos de 15 años.’ García Barcala

[8] Navarro, Balistreri p.30

[9] Reyes

[10] Guardiola

[11] Staff Writer

[12] Staff Writer

[13] In 1859 the president Benito Juárez created the Ley Secularización de Cementerios, the law to secularise cemeteries. This prohibited the burial of bodies in the crypts of temples and monasteries. https://encelaya.com.mx/paseo-de-las-luminarias-celaya/

 

Skulls and Bones (Part 2)

I really began to be interested in using skulls and bones in my own art when it stopped being something I did for myself out of habit and expression, and became something more open and serious when I enrolled on a vocational etching and printmaking course in the Seville School of Art. Although my childhood sketchbooks recognise diversity a bit better, as they are full of all sorts of characters that I invented and include people of different races and dis/abilities, as I got older and more introspective I started placing white women and men like me and my peers at the centre of my paintings. Everyone around me was white, the men I loved were white, I am white. My paintings and sketches were a very private affair and everything I wanted to express was about me and for me! When I started studying and therefore sharing my work, it became clear that pages full of straight white people weren’t going to cut it anymore. Skeletons and skulls, as well as being fun to draw, have no race, gender or sexuality, or perhaps it’s better to say they have every race, gender and sexuality. I felt that everybody could relate to a skull, but not everybody could relate to something I tried to express through and white man and woman all tangled up together, for example.

For our final project on the etching course we were to choose a novel and use it as inspiration to create a series etchings or prints. I picked Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and set about retelling the story through etchings of skeletons hopelessly and eternally in love. During my research for that project I discovered the Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.

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Posada was a printmaker and engraver who created thousands of images for newspapers and political magazines which engaged with and critiqued contemporary society and politics. He was born in Aguascalientes in 1852, and later lived and worked in Guanajuato and Mexico City. Mexico was undergoing huge political and social changes during Posada’s lifetime; he lived to see the French invasion of Mexico, the presidency of Benito Juarez, the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, and the outbreak of the Mexican War of Independence. Through his work as a popular satirist he created ‘a chronical of Mexican life of the time or emphasise[d] the suffering of the pueblo under the oppression of great landowners. His satires of the most influential politicians of the time cost him jail on more than one occasion.’[1] He captured the ‘Mexican tragicomedy’ of everyday life through his depictions of ‘silence, marginality, tragedy, pain, laughter, irony, misery, cry, pleasure, life, death, white, black, sin, love; the Mexican.’[2]

Much like the appropriation and mass production of sugar skulls, Posada’s illustrations and prints of skulls and skeletons have been extensively reproduced on all kinds of souvenirs and other bits and pieces, and are widely sold in Mexico. Posada’s most well known etching, which made him famous thirteen months after his death, was La Garbancera, more commonly known as La Catrina.

Today you can see La Garbancera on postcards, mugs, bags, t-shirts and much more. When Posada was alive and producing his art work, it was also widely printed, but in newspapers, magazines and other publications which were meant as attention grabbing but throw-away. It was accesible to everyone and would have passed through many pairs of hands and been lapped up by many pairs of eyes. His work was very much alive.

Posada used skeletons with the intention of returning people to what they essentially were (so sadly I am not the first person to do that!), but his skeletons were caricatures laden with satire. They are expressive, funny and technically brilliant. By removing the superficiality of human appearance, he was critiquing Mexican high society in the late 19th century, and showing that despite outward shows of wealth we are all the same. He wanted to express that no matter how expensive or fashionable somebody’s clothes were, or how rich the politician, underneath everything we are all made of the same matter.

In 1913 Posada died of alcoholism and was buried in a common grave. He never became famous in his lifetime, but after his death, thanks in part to Diego Rivera and Jose Clemente Orozco, his work shot to fame and is now firmly part of Mexican history and art history.

Who knows how different things would have been if Posada had become famous in his lifetime? His work surely would have been less accessible to the general population, and certainly not something they could touch, hold and connect with. After all, his art was meant for a popular audience. It would not have been the same if it was framed and hung up behind the doors of museums and galleries, or in private collections.

Further Reading:

http://relatosehistorias.mx/nuestras-historias/el-mito-de-jose-guadalupe-posada

 

[1] https://www.biografiasyvidas.com/biografia/p/posada.htm

[2]http://www.aguascalientes.gob.mx/vivaags/posada100/inside/JoseGpePosada.html

Skulls and Bones (Part 1)

I have been racking my brains to try to remember when I first started drawing, and being drawn to, skulls.

There is something beautiful about placing contrasting images side by side. Skulls at once represent both life and death, a beginning and an end, solidity and fragility, and the natural and supernatural. In terms of skulls in art, nothing could be more contrasting than Mexican sugar skulls. A few years ago in the UK sugar skulls slipped into mainstream fashion and by now they have been used to death so that they seem gimmicky, something of a fad that’s had its day. Often they have a mass-produced-in-China feel to them and funnily enough appear emblazoned on many products that have been mass-produced in China. People certainly cash in on sugar skulls in Mexico too, with many of these mass-produced products on sale to tourists, although it was easy to see from a quick scour of a souvenir shop in the town where I live that the majority of sugar skull related products here are actually made in Mexico (often by hand). At their root, and in every day life, sugar skulls are not a fashion statement. Instead they are hand made pieces of edible art that are representative of Mexico culturally, aesthetically and historically.

Sugar skulls are emblematic of the mestizaje that characterises contemporary Mexico, that is, the mixture of cultures that was forced into existence upon colonisation. Mestizaje is an intriguing, labrinthyine thing that has painful and violent beginnings. As is the case in most[1] colonised countries, when indigenous beliefs and traditions were not stamped out they were appropriated and reworked to fit colonisers’ agendas.

Sugar skulls were inspired by the strings of human skulls found in the pre-Hispanic altars named tzompantli (from the indigenous language Nahua, tzontli meaning head and pantli for row or file). Skulls were celebrated artefacts for indigenous people in Mexico; historians believe that the still bleeding heads of warriors, winners of (pelota) and others were strung together and publicly displayed to honour gods and celebrate life. Images of those skulls were carved into stone walls in temples and pyramids so that their memory would be preserved, and there they remain to this day (see featured image from Chichen Itza, Q.Roo). Today it isn’t possible to see all of these carvings. Once the indigenous people were almost completely wiped out by the colonisers, their temples, pyramids and other cities were left to waste and over time they became buried beneath trees and earth as nature reclaimed its space. While many important ancient structures have been uncovered and explored, experts know that there are many, many more to be unearthed. As recently as 2015 a huge tzompantli containing around 650 skulls was uncovered underneath a colonial era house near the Templo Mayor in Mexico City, and it took until 2017 to find for the first time that women and children were also sacrificed, not just men, as had previously been believed (I’ll get to the misogyny of mainstream historiography in a future post I’m sure).

Tzompantli were not particularly pleasing to the Spanish so they sweetened up this custom with alfeñique – the name given to technique of sculpting with sugar. People began to make edible skulls with sugar paste to honour spirits and celebrate life, rather than continuing the unsavoury tradition of human sacrifice and decapitation. Today in Mexico different regions have their own customs; Puebla, Oaxaca and Estado de Mexico are all famous for their alfeñique creations, with each state specialising in different sculptures, including skulls, coffins, animals, fruit, and more. Today these sweets are a central part of the altars mounted in Mexican households every November which honour loved ones who have died.

Further Reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/aug/21/aztec-skull-trophy-rack-discovered-mexico-citys-templo-mayor-ruin-site

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/01/tower-human-skulls-mexico-city-aztec-sacrifices

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/15/laser-scanning-reveals-lost-ancient-mexican-city-had-as-many-buildings-as-manhattan

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-archaeology-skulls/tower-of-human-skulls-in-mexico-casts-new-light-on-aztecs-idUSKBN19M3Q6

http://oncetv-ipn.net/itinerario/?p=27147

[1] I would imagine all, but I can’t be certain…

So Why Mexico?

‘So why Mexico?’

 

It all began with an undefined but persistent and primal need for colours, and bit by bit began taking the form of skulls and bones. At least, as far as I am conscious it did, but who can say, perhaps the spirit of my grandfather’s mother is imprinted in my DNA memory, and like many things I have come to realise while living in Mexico, you cannot evade what flows within your bones and makes you who you essentially are.

 

Like individuals are made of layers of things we can see, taste and touch and perhaps more so by things we sense and know but cannot either literally or metaphorically put our finger on, so too is society. The things which are not tangible but which are visible every day seep into us and inform how we act and interact with each other and with our physical surroundings; they inform our values and attitudes, our mannerisms, what we say and how we say it, what we put our faith in, what we respect and what we fear.

 

Mexico’s layers are infinite, and several realities exist at once side-by-side and piled up on top of each other. It is also impossible to talk about Mexico as if it were one homogenous place – today it is made up of 32 states and is about 8 times bigger than the UK. Until 1848 Mexico also included Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and California. Each state has its own identity which is visible through clothing, art, dance, language and food, among other things.

 

Modern global politics also contributes to state identity but usually in more sinister ways – for example there are regions plagued by high levels of human trafficking and sexual exploitation (Tlaxcala), or poverty (Chiapas), or violence related to drug cartels (Sinaloa). Mainstream Western[1] press and other mass communication outlets tend to focus on these sorts of negative elements of Mexico, and condition us to believe that it is a homogenous and one-dimensional country. Mexico receives the same treatment as many other so-called developing countries and indeed continents. Generally, when they are mentioned in mainstream outlets it is in relation to an isolated incident that is of interest to the West, but always set apart from the West, as if every country in the world exists in a vacuum of time and space, never a product of hundreds of years of intricate imperial interaction.

 

No country’s problems emerge outside of history and interaction with other countries, and Mexico is especially globalised because of its geographical location as a bridge between the USA and Central America. It is also a site of production for products sold world wide, among them shoes, electrical parts, tequila and heroin. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of tourists from the USA, Europe, Russia and elsewhere freely enter and leave places like the Riviera Maya each year. And who is not familiar with the colourful sugar skulls that symbolise the day of the dead, suddenly ubiquitous now everywhere from high-brow art to pop art, body art, commercial art and popular or traditional Mexican art.

 

As I said, it was skulls and colour which drew me to Mexico in the first place. There is something so intriguing and compelling about a country whose identity is tied up in such contrasting symbols of colour, creativity, beliefs, magic, thrill, and richly textured history.

 

The purpose of this blog is two-fold, but both reasons are borne out of the inspiration I have found since being here.

 

On a personal level, I have a habit of getting carried away, especially when the second coffee of the morning kicks in, which results in one-sentence paragraphs, half thoughts discarded on a page before they are fully developed, doodles and sketches that never get painted onto, bullet point lists which merge into other bullet point lists which merge into others… Often it all gets too much so I just leave the ideas floating without tying weights to their tails so they fly away and disappear, and I have nothing to show for where I’ve been and what I’ve thought. I know I’m not alone in this!

 

Secondly, and outside of my own head, the point is to discuss every day Mexico, intriguing Mexico, rich Mexico – to talk about things which get obscured in mainstream communication by news of drugs and violence. The sheer luck of having been born in England, where the pound is strong and visas are easy to come by, makes it theoretically possible for anybody like me to move freely in the world (can we really talk about a post colonial world?). Like anything, with rights come responsibilities, and this blog is my own small contribution to the global effort to diversify the narratives we write about the world.

[1] When I say Western I really mean British, which I’m most familiar with, and US based, which you can’t help but be familiar with.

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