Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Colima Part 5: Suchitlan's mask craftsmen & Lago de Maria

Suchitlan craftsman puts finishing touches on a new creation. Gregonio Candelario Castro operates a small, rustic shop behind his house in the little town of Suchitlan, about 1/2 hour north of Colima. Carole and Maya and I wanted to see a mask craftsman at work, and Suchitlan has a reputation as the home of some of the best in the area. We also wanted to visit Lago de Maria, a scenic lake on the slopes of the Colima Volcano. For a map of the area, click here.

Suchitlan's plaza kiosko, simple but elegant. Suchitlan is a small town, with only about 1600 residents. It lies at an altitude of 4232 feet (1290 meters), about 1/2 way between Colima and the active volcano. We had to find El Centro and the plaza by continually heading down hill through the town from the main road, and occasionally asking directions. The whole area is wooded and very scenic, and the town was serenely quiet when we arrived. The serenity belied some of the town's history.

Friendly horse waits patiently outside the Suchitlan church. I have a soft spot for Mexico's animals and usually try to carry some carrots or an apple for the horses, who often lead hard lives. This one happily munched my little gift, and then posed with great dignity.

Near the church, I found a plaque detailing the origin of Suchitlan's "Fiesta de San Juan." During the Cristero War (1926-29) between the recently established revolutionary government and right-wing Catholic activists, Suchitlan was the scene of fierce fighting. One of the local Cristeros was named Maximino Avalos. Maximino ran low on ammunition and went to the plaza to find more. When he got there, he was amazed to find a piece of wood shaped in a human form by a smoldering campfire. Clutching the wood, he crawled through a storm of bullets to bring cartridges to his men. He figured his chances of survival were 100 to 1, but he made it and gave the credit for this "miracle" to the piece of wood he still carried. Maximino told his wife Tomasa all about it and she insisted they tell the local priest. The priest heard them out and decided that the piece of wood should be named after the saint of that day, St. John, or San Juan. Ever after, Maximino held an annual fiesta for San Juan in honor of the saint's help in saving his life. After he died, his relatives carried on the tradition, which Suchitlan still celebrates.

Gregonio's shop was not easy to find. When we asked various people for directions to the mask makers' shops, we got somewhat contradictory information. Finally, a little boy walked us up the street and pointed out a white house on the corner. There was no sign, but he indicated with a vigorous nod that this was the place. A young man finally answered the door and directed us to the rear of the house where we found Gregonio and a young assistant at work under a rustic, open shed. They were surrounded by masks in various stages of production.

Mask making is an ancient art, practiced with ancient tools and methods. For my picture above, Gregonio's assistant laid out a variety of adzes on the top of an old stump. These are handmade, probably by Gregonio himself, or the local blacksmith. An adze is a truly ancient tool, originating far back in the stone age. There are hieroglyphs from the Old Kingdom of ancient Egypt showing men using this tool, and it is found in cultures all over the New and Old World.

Early stage of mask making. We found various pieces like this scattered around the workshop. The inside of the mask is curved to fit the wearer's face, with eyeholes which may, or may not, correspond to the eyes of the mask itself.

Finished mask on the drying table. Mexican masks represent a variety of beliefs, mixing paganism, Catholicism, and history. The one above represents a handsome Spaniard on one side, but a figure of death on the other. This certainly seems to fit the indigenous people's experience with their Spanish conquerors.

Animals are another popular subject for mask carvers. Above, Gregonio's assistant models a jaguar mask. The jaguar is an extremely powerful animal, the third largest of the big cats, after lions and tigers. Jaguars have been a popular subject of indigenous carvers of Mexico back as far as the Olmecs, hundreds of years before Christ. In fact, the Olmecs would have related very well to the picture above, since one of their gods was the Were-Jaguar, half-man, half cat. To contact Gregonio Candelario Castro about his masks, go to his house on the corner of Lirio and Jasmin in Suchitlan, or call him on his cell phone at 044-312-100-6716.

Masks by Gregonio and other makers hung in this Suchitlan restaurant. Los Portales de Suchitlan can be found just off the plaza. From the outside, the restaurant is unimpressive, but a step inside brings a different picture.

Beautiful photos of Suchitlan and the Colima Volcano grace the walls. The restaurant has both inside and outside dining areas, with most of the tables outside under the trees.

Los Portales was once a coffee plantation. The outside dining area is much larger than this picture shows, capable of seating 200 people among a large grove of coffee trees. Food is traditional and quite good, and prices are very reasonable.

Lago de Maria was also on our agenda for the afternoon. The day was sunny with a light, cool breeze, perfect for a visit to this very scenic lake on the slopes of Volcan de Colima. There are areas for picnicking and camping a Lago de Maria, as well as a rustic motel. There were only a handful of people visiting that day and the overall scene was serene.

An agile duck. This little bird repeatedly outwitted a young Mexican trying to catch him. Apparently the ducks are used to this and this one seemed very unafraid. At one point, his pursuer dived for the bird and pitched headlong into the water. The Mexican's companions roared with laughter at his discomfiture and, with us, cheered for the bird.

A jungle rises from the water's edge. The drive from Suchitlan to Lago de Maria was wonderfully scenic as we rose up the skirts of the volcano. Deep forest alternated with wide-open views of the valleys leading down to Colima.

Maya enjoys a quiet moment beside the lake. Our friend Maya is a talented local artist who makes jewelry and collects folk art. I will soon be writing an article about her, and the highly unusual house where she lives, for a local on-line magazine called Mexico Insights.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.... A young Mexican girl snoozes in a hammock strung from a convenient low-hanging branch beside the lake. This was just the sort of afternoon for a quiet nap, but we had to return to Colima, and to our home in Ajijic.

This completes Part 5, my final part, of our visit to the City of Colima and its surrounding area. I hope you have enjoyed the series. Feel free to share the link with this blog with family or friends. If you would like to leave a comment, please so do below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego! Jim

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Colima Part 4: Museum of Popular Arts, a collection of Mexico's finest folk art

Masked figure is a caricature of a Spaniard. We found the masked figure above in Colima's Maria Teresa Pomar University Popular Arts Museum, a few blocks north of the Jardin Libertad in El Centro. Carole picked this museum as one of her priority visits because it is reputed to contain some of the finest examples of Mexico's folk art. The figure above wears a costume typical of those used in many fiesta parades. The pink face, blonde wig, and beard show the figure to be a caricature of a Spaniard. For information about hours, location and a walking map to this and a variety of other museums in Colima, click here.

Dances and celebrations

Detail from mural in Popular Arts Museum. The photo above shows a detail of the large mural found beside the staircase in the museum. Costumed indigenous dances--especially with masks--have been popular for thousands of years in Mexico. Despite their obviously pagan origins, many of these dances have been incorporated into fiestas celebrating Catholic religious holidays. The figure in the top middle, with the bull on his head, is carrying a mobile fireworks display, represented by the multicolored disks along the side. I have seen just such a flaming bull during a fiesta in Ajijic. The person carrying the popping, sparking bull headdress ran through the fiesta crowd causing a stampede and much laughter.

Wizard figure. I wasn't able to determine the meaning of this figure, other than his striking resemblance to a wizard. Perhaps he represents one of the Magi, or Three Kings. Perhaps it was just the creator's imagination run wild. While there is much symbolic meaning to the masks and costumes, there is also a great deal of fun. Although both sexes dress up in costumes and masks, the dancers are predominantly male.

Animals are heavily represented in the masks and costumes. Above, one figure wears a crocodile around his waist, while a robed figure with a cow mask looks on. The natural world played a major role in indigenous religious practices, and this continued after the domination of Spanish Catholicism began in the 16th Century. We saw a similar crocodile in the mask museum of Zacatecas, but it was not until I saw the display above that I understood how it was worn.

Mask from Guanajuato does double duty. The masks of each region and culture differ considerably in their details and the materials they use. However, it is not uncommon to find a large mask with a gaping mouth, within which is another face, as you can see above.

Only thing missing is the apple. Above, a devil mask is framed by a serpent. It is fairly common for masks to contain several animals, sometimes representing a nose or ears or other feature of the face.

Clothing and textiles

Huichol Indians have preserved much of their culture. The Huichols, from the mountainous area bordered by Jalisco and Nayarit States, still dress in the manner shown above. At first I thought it was a gimmick for the tourists who buy their wonderfully complex beadwork and embroidery. I have since seen recent photographs of Huichols working in their fields and performing day-to-day tasks around their mountain villages dressed in this clothing. Huichols are quite averse to being photographed, so I was glad to have this inanimate figure with which to work. Leaning against the Huichol's knee is a hide quiver for a hunting arrows. Around the figure are various other examples of Huichol artistry.

Huichol art is highly symbolic. One of their art forms is a flat surface closely stitched with vividly colored forms and figures, some abstract, some of animal or human figures. A textile work like this takes an unbelievable amount of time and expertise. I once asked a Huichol artisan how long it took to create a work like this. His reply: "Until it is finished."

Beautifully embroidery borders this huipil. A huipil is an embroidered indigenous blouse or dress. Many Mexican indigenous cultures make huipiles, but they appear to have originated among the Maya and the Zapotecs of central and southern Mexico. They are simple garments, gorgeously decorated by stitching. The embroidery on the traditional garments identified the wearer's village, marital status, and personal beliefs.

Another form of huipil. Instead of simply embroidering the neck or shoulder area, this huipil displays vivid designs all over the garment. The previous garment was more of a blouse, while this one is a tunic.

Unusual high-backed sandals. There was an extensive display of leather footwear in the Popular Arts Museum, but I was particularly taken by these sandals with the high backs, a form I had never seen before.

Lacquer ware.

Laquer work in Mexico goes back to prehispanic times. Most Mexican lacquer work comes from the states of Guerrero, Chiapas, or Michoacan. The tray above was created by the master lacquer artist Francisco Coronel. Beginning in the 16th Century, the Spanish imported some lacquer work from China.

Lacquer chest uses wood with lacquer, silver leaf, and paint. The incredibly fine detail of this work certainly justifies its placement in a museum of popular arts.

Animals in popular art

Cheerful cow balances on bamboo legs. This cow, with its cheery grin, appears to have been made from paper mache. The hump on the cow's back and the horns indicate that the animal represented is probably a brahman. The brahman originated in India, where it developed resistance to disease and insects, and tolerance to high heat. The Museum of Popular Arts contains a large variety of works relating to animals.

Jaguars are prominent in prehispanic mythology. Jaguar once ranged throughout western and southern Mexico, and as far south as Paraguay and Argentina, and as far north as Arizona in the US. It is now extinct in much of Mexico and all of the US. The only big cats larger than the jaguar are the lion and tiger. The jaguar is closely associated with water and enjoys swimming. Unlike other large cats which kill by gripping the throat and strangling their prey, the jaguar bites the skull of the victim with such power that its fangs penetrate to the brain. Probably because of its power and ability to take down the largest prey, it appears in all the major Mesoamerican mythologies. The jaguar was believed to have the ability to cross between the actual and spiritual worlds and was associated with vegetation and fertility.

Toys and other amusements

Dolls with an unusual history. These articulated wooden dolls rested in a glass cabinet with a wide array of other dolls. Our friend Maya told us that these particular dolls had a practical use. In brothels, when a woman was busy with a customer, she would place a doll such as this on a small chair outside her room, indicating that she was presently unavailable.

Hand-made wicker airplane. All parts of this plane, except possibly the thread holding it together, were made of natural materials, woven together skillfully

Another sort of doll. This was one of several giant dolls in the museum. The chairs in the background give some sense of the scale of the doll, which is probably about 12 feet tall. Dolls like this are carried in parades at fiestas, and the arms are raised and moved about with long sticks operated by people walking beside the person toting the doll on his or her shoulders.

Complex mannequin show. There were several small puppet theaters on display, but I found this one the most interesting and complex. Not only the bull and matador are capable of movement, but also the mounted picador and the two matadors behind the barrier. I would have loved to see this show in action. Puppet shows are still popular in Mexico, and kids in Ajijic flock to the ones they produce here.

I hope you enjoyed the Maria Teresa Pomar University Popular Arts Museum. This is a "don't miss" museum if you come to Colima. There are thousands of items in the museum, and I only photographed a few of the total. Of those few, I discarded many photos because of poor lighting or reflections from glass cases. I still came up with more than 50 images that I had to boil down to the 19 in this display. As always, I appreciate your reactions, which you can either leave in the comments section below or send to me by direct email. If you ask a question in the comments section PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond. Feel free to share the link to this blog with whomever you'd like.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, February 1, 2010

Colima Part 3: Mysterious ruins of Chanal & the Magic Pueblo of Comala

The pyramid of Colima's mysterious El Chanal ruins. I admit it. I am a sucker for ruins. Whether archaic cave dwellings or haciendas abandoned in the early 20th Century, something about the physical remains of people and their activities of bygone times fills me with curiosity and occasionally awe. The city of Colima encompasses within its boundaries not one, but two ancient sites that drew us like a magnet. Carole shares my passion, but of Maya, our companion, I was not so certain. As it turned out, she enjoyed herself hugely. The ruins of El Chanal and La Compana both lie on the northern outskirts of Colima. El Chanal lies near the end of Venustiano Carranza street just north of the Tercer Anillo Periferico (3rd ring highway). We didn't have time to visit La Compana, so you'll have to find that one on your own.

On the same day we visited El Chanal, we also stopped by the "Magic Pueblo" of Comala, famous for its folk arts and craftspeople, and its link with one of Mexico's greatest authors. The last part of this posting will focus on that wonderful little town.

The ruins of El Chanal are fairly compact, on a level plateau overlooking Colima. The site map above shows the principal areas of the ruins. The red dotted line shows the walking route we followed. By clicking twice on the map, you can enlarge it. At regular intervals, signs in both Spanish and English explained the meaning of the ancient structures and the culture which built them. We had the site to ourselves, except for some workmen who were taking a break. I most enjoy exploring ruins when they are at their loneliest. It frees the imagination. However, housing developments are starting to close in on the area, I hope not so closely that they ultimately destroy the serene atmosphere.

El Chanal was constructed around a series of large adjoining plazas. In the upper right of the photo is the central pyramid, which faces the Plaza del Tiempo (Plaza of Time). Behind the central pyramid is another ceremonial platform, separated from the central pyramid by the Plaza del Dia y la Noche (Plaza of Day and Night). To the center-left side of the photo is another ceremonial platform with the stumps of 4 columns that I nicknamed the Temple of Pillars. The name of El Chanal and those of the structures within it were given by people of a much later time, including modern archaeologists (and me). There is much that is unknown about El Chanal, including what ethnic group occupied it and what they called themselves. We do know that the site was occupied from approximately 1100 AD to 1400 AD, and was abandoned 120 years before the Spanish arrived. Archaeologists have also noted the evidence of strong influences from the other cultures of Mesoamerica. Symbols carved on stones used in the stairways indicate that the gods worshiped here were closely related to those of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Teotihuacan, the Toltecs, and the Aztecs, among others.

Various altars can be found around the site, including this unusual circular one. Archaeologists believe that, among other purposes, these were used for human sacrifice. The ancient people of many of the cultures of prehispanic Mexico believed that blood was the substance which ensured the continued rebirth of life. Human sacrifice was accomplished by cutting out the hearts of living people, or flaying them alive. Blood was also sacrificed through self-mutilation of the tongue and ears. All this was believed to help maintain the equilibrium of the universe, the balance between darkness and light. The Spanish were shocked and horrified by the human sacrifices they found everywhere. In their horror, they conveniently forgot the ongoing bloodlust of the Spanish Inquisition, with its own forms of horrifying human sacrifice.

The Ball Court, a key social and religious structure. The games played on the Ball Court symbolized the struggles of the gods to maintain the balance between the day and the night. This passage from day to night and back again was governed by the god Xolotl. He accompanied the sun on its night passage through the underworld and announced the rebirth of light through the Morning Star--Venus. This is the same Xolotl who was associated with the little clay dogs found in many tombs. The dogs, which have become a symbol of Colima, accompanied the soul as it traveled through the dark of the underworld to a sunny afterlife. Archaeologists believe that the struggle of balance day and night symbolized by the ball games also meant that they were accompanied by human sacrifice. Ball courts have been found in ruins of the Mayas of Central America all the way up to Anasazi ruins north of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Plaza of Palaces was surrounded by what may have been priests' residences. This area was not marked on the map or explained by a sign, but it had the appearance of a residential area so I nicknamed it the Plaza of Palaces. Since this was a theocratic society, with priests as rulers, it seemed logical to me that they would have lived here, near the main ceremonial sites.

The Temple of Day and Night. Maya and I took a break at the base of the temple, while Carole took a picture. We enjoyed Maya's company, since she was endlessly cheerful and interested in everything. The temple spaces on top of the platforms were for the priests and the gods, while the wide plazas were for the faithful multitudes. On top of the remaining stone platforms there were once perishable structures of wood. Many sahumadores, or incense burners, were found in this area, which indicates that ordinary inhabitants came here to burn fragrant incense as an individual homage to the gods. Over 120 years later, when Hernan Cortes and his men arrived, the indigenous people thought that they were gods. Conquistador Bernal Dias del Castillo often wrote of ceremonial "fumigations" by the native people at each encounter.

The ruined structures of El Chanal were substantial, but not overwhelming. Unlike ruins we have visited previously, such as Chichen Itza, these were not huge. The photo above, which shows Maya (left) and Carole (right) walking through the Plaza del Tiempo, gives a sense of scale to the plaza and the central pyramid, the tallest remaining structure.

The Temple of Pillars. The photo above shows three of the four remaining stumps of pillars that once rose above the platform. It is likely that the roof structure they supported was wood. This structure faces onto the Plaza del Tiempo and the central pyramid. The Plaza, the pyramid, and the Temple of Pillars are thought to have been restricted to the priestly rulers. The priests mediated between the gods and the people, and this gave them their authority to rule. The palm tree and forest beyond gives the appearance of remote jungle. However, just beyond the trees were homes with barking dogs and clucking chickens.

A broad stairway leads up into an area used by ordinary people. A notable feature of the culture of El Chanal was the existence of artisans who worked with obsidian, gold, and copper. The obsidian (volcanic glass) was available in massive quantities because of the two nearby volcanos. Obsidian was very valuable in ancient cultures because it could easily be worked into razor sharp tools and weapons, as well as jewelry and other decorations. Apparently the artisans formed guilds to govern their crafts. The products of the artisans were widely traded with other regions of Mexico. Other features of this area, called the Plaza del Agua, included stone cisterns to contain water and channels to control its movement.

Symbol of the gods. This symbol, found on stones in various areas of El Chanal, apparently represents one of the gods worshipped here through human sacrifice. The symbol is also evidence of the connection between El Chanal and that of other major cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica. The stone now lies at the foot of a non-descript, tumble-down stone wall along the edge of the site. How far the mighty have fallen.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Near the stone in the previous picture, we found this mano and metate. The grinding stone (mano) and grinding tray (metate) are at least six hundred years old, and may be far older. This technology may pre-exist agriculture, since wild seeds could be ground up with these tools. Ironically, in an age of space travel and the internet, I have found almost identical manos and metates for sale in village stores around Mexico. They are not sold as souvenirs or folk art decorations, but as functional tools for grinding corn to prepare tortillas, tamales and other Mexican staples.

The Magic Pueblo of Comala

Comala is a center for folk art, masks in particular. After our visit to El Chanal, we continued on to Comala, a small town about 6 miles north of Colima which has been continuously occupied for 3000 years. On our way back from Manzanillo last year, we had by-passed Colima to stop briefly in Comala, because Carole had heard about local indigenous masks. On that visit she picked up the first mask of our growing collection. On this trip, we stopped at the same little store on the Comala Plaza, and this time I chose one--the intricately carved and painted mask shown above. The style of the mask indicates that it was not locally made, but is from Michoacan. For those who may visit, the store is on the corner of the plaza between the Church and the Restaurant Comala. It is well stocked with folk art and the prices are very reasonable. The mask above cost about $19 USD.

Parrochia San Miguel dominates Comala's Plaza. At the time we visited, towering clouds had moved in, creating the dramatic backdrop to this photo. The name of Comala comes from the Nahuatl word meaning "place of clay griddles." In 1961, the town decided that all structures should be white with red-tiled roofs. It has largely maintained this custom, which gives it a quaint and attractive uniformity and no doubt contributed to its success in gaining Pueblo Magico status in 2002.

San Miguel's sanctuary shows simple grace. The Parrochia was built in the early 19th Century in the neoclassical style, which emphasizes clean lines and simplicity. Notice the prominent placement of the Virgen de Guadalupe above the crucified Jesus at the far end of the church. Theologically, Jesus is the more important figure, but the Virgen is the one to whom many Mexicans pray. As a mother-figure, she is someone to ask for intercession and special favors rather than the more remote figure of Jesus or the even more distant and forbidding figure of the Christian god. The Virgen de Guadalupe is also a powerful political symbol in Mexico, having been used to rally the campesinos and indigenous people to support the War of Independence against Spain.

One of many saints which lined the walls of the Parrochia San Miguel. I fell prey to a gentle scam while photographing the outside of the Parrochia. An elderly man motioned me to follow him inside the church, which I had assumed was closed for the day. He took me from saint to saint, urging me with gestures to photograph each. Finally we came to the Virgen of Guadalupe and he indicated I should donate something to the alms box. On the way out, he stuck out his hand, indicating that there was one more donation expected. Since I had allowed myself to be sucked into his little game, I good-naturedly paid up. The whole interaction took place without a single word spoken between us.

Bronze statue of Mexican author Juan Rulfo reads a story to a small bronze boy. The statues in the Comala Plaza commemorate the life of one Mexico's greatest authors. Juan Rulfo wrote only two short books in his life, "Pedro Paramo" and "The Burning Plain." Pedro Paramo was set in Comala, or a mythical town of the same name. His style greatly influenced his Colombian friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez to develop what is now widely known as "magical realism." He has been called one of the two most important Spanish-language writers of the 20th Century (the other being Jorge Luis Borges). Comala's role in Rulfo's book also contributed to its Magic Pueblo status.

Restaurant Comala serves fantastically abundant botanas. Located under the portales on the south side of the Plaza, the restaurant lies just across the street from our favorite folk art shop. While we waited on Maya (also known as Our Lady of Perpetual Shopping, Patron Saint of Folk Art Tiendas), to complete her voluminous business with the store, we decided to get something cold to drink. Sitting down at the table, we were soon overwhelmed with various un-ordered dishes which just kept arriving, seemingly without end. These were the famous botanas, or appetizers, served to anyone who orders a drink. They constituted a full meal in themselves, and we later found out that the restaurant is famous for them. The local Mexicans at the next table were highly entertained by our consternation and kept offering us one of their beers as a reward for our amusing performance.

Local artisan in action. Just before entering Comala, on the left, is sculpture garden featuring large works by Juan Soriano, and various buildings occupied by local artisans. Since the road is divided, you must enter town, make an immediate left and head back out again in order to access the gate of the facility, which is just beyond a large restaurant. In the building we visited, they were making furniture decorated with beautifully detailed paintings of birds and flowers.

Finely detailed quail filled the space on cabinet doors and drawers of this piece. Not only was the painting beautiful, but the furniture itself was exquisitely designed and crafted.

A small end-table with more quail. The top of this table was covered with leather, and then painted in precise and exquisite detail. Not being in the market for more furniture, we didn't inquire about prices. The artisans didn't seem to mind our poking about and photographing their work. Comala is a town worth a visit, because of its beauty, its literary history, its botanas, and its artisans and their beautiful work.

Thanks for coming along on the visit to El Chanal and Comala. Next week, I'll show our visit to the Museum of Popular Arts in Colima, a museum filled with local crafts from throughout Mexico. If you'd like to make a comment, you can use the section below, or email me directly. If you use the comments section to ask a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim