WITNESS TO HISTORY

FEAcasasolas1August 2009 rozinlapaz

It is a compelling, enigmatic image of the Mexican Revolution. The woman sits on the train tracks, stares into the camera’s lens. She’s dressed in men’s clothing. Her arms are filled with what look like branches. Behind her, there’s a crowd, most faces concealed in shadow.

The date of the photograph is 1915. The caption reads: “This woman, nicknamed La Destroyer, was famous for helping those who had fallen in battle to die a more rapid and less painful death.”

This photo is from the Casasola Archive, a collection of close to 500,000 images that document the history and culture of modern Mexico. The archive is the work of hundreds of photographers, but the cardinal figure is Agustín Víctor Casasola.

FEAcasasolas1Casasola is among the most important photojournalists of the 20th Century. He and the photographers who worked for his press agency took pictures of everybody: ordinary Mexicans and the famous, alike. They recorded Porfirio Díaz at the end of his 30-year reign; revolutionary leaders Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa in moments of triumph, and death; artistic and intellectual figures such as Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and exiled Russian Leon Trotsky.

FEAcasasolas2Here’s where you can learn more about the photographer and his pictures: Mexico: the Revolution and Beyond is a magnificent coffee-table book published by Aperture in cooperation with the Mexican government’s CONACULTA INAH. An excellent introduction by Peter Hamill puts the photographs into historical context. The ISBN number for the hardcover English edition published in 2003 is 1-931788-22-7.

Las Soldaderas: Women of the Mexican Revolution by Mexican journalist and novelist Elena Poniatowska is a slim English-language paperback crammed with fascinating stories, accompanied by Casasola’s photographs, about the women who travelled with the revolutionary armies and often fought alongside their men. Allende Books, La Paz’s English-language bookstore, has copies in stock. Allende Books is at Independencia #518, between Serdan and G. Prieto. Phone number: 612-125-9114.

(originally published August 2009)

DOLLS IN A STORM

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Walk into the La Paz home of Genoveva Pérez León and you enter a kaleidoscope: hot-pink ribbons, a rainbow of cloth swatches piled high, shelf after shelf of jars filled with beads and shells and sequins. And everywhere there are dolls — brilliantly costumed cloth dolls.

Genoveva is a maker of muñecas. It is an art learned from her grandmother and mother on the family ranch near Todos Santos during a hurricane season 60 years ago.

“I was the oldest of 10 children. I didn’t have time to make dolls because I would be doing the chores,” she tells me. But when the storms hit, everyone had to hunker down indoors. While the children waited for a break in the weather, they started making dolls to pass the time. “We called them chubasqueras (storm dolls).”

Genoveva lifts one doll after another from a large glassed-in cabinet and stands them on the table. She introduces each: This one with the braids is La Serena, from the ranch land of her own Sudcaliforniana hills. This one in the ruffled orange dress is La Costa, from the coast. And this beauty in elegant red satin, sequins and embroidered flowers is Florida Pitahaya.

Genoveva is 67. I am 60. But we could be girls again, playing with dolls. I pick up La Serena and stroke the ranchera doll’s thick yarn braids, tied with pink bows. Her lips are embroidered cherry-red. I lift the ruffled flower skirt and admire the white lace petticoat, knickers and black velvety slippers.

It takes Genoveva three days to make one doll. In her work, nothing goes to waste. “I do not like to throw out cloth,” she says. From small scraps, she makes dolls the size of a baby finger, each snug inside a bottle capped with a seashell.

Later, Genoveva takes me to meet her mother, Eulalia León Talamantes. Eulalia, who lives with another daughter a short drive away, has just celebrated her 91st birthday. She has lost sight in one eye, but has no problem threading a needle. And she is still making dolls.

Yes, Eulalia says, it is a little sad to say Adios to a doll when it comes time to sell it. “But then, I can make another. I love making dolls.” Her daughters estimate that their mother has made more than a thousand of them.

Eulalia is matriarch of five generations living nearby: there are 10 children, 41 grandchildren, 58 great grandchildren and 10 great-great grandchildren. The family hopes that someone among the youngsters will continue the tradition of making dolls.

But Genoveva isn’t taking any chances. As part of a government project a few years ago, she taught a course in doll-making to eight women in the ranch country where she grew up. She says five of the women are continuing the work.

I ask Genoveva if there is anything else she would like to say. “Tell people, if anyone wants to learn, I would be happy to teach them, so that this art isn’t lost. I love making dolls.”

Where to purchase the storm dolls: You can order by phone at 612-122-6349 or look for the dolls on sale on occasional Saturdays near the kiosko on the Malecón (at the foot of 16 de Septiembre). You may also find the dolls at Allende Books, Independencia 518, between Serdan and Prieto, or at Las Manitas on F. Madero between Constitución and Independencia.

(originally published March 2009)

WHAT THE SHELLS SAY

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Guillermo Gómez Macías is the creator of two popular sculptures in La Paz. An earlier feature told the story behind his piece El Viejo . . . y El Mar?, “The Old Man . . . and the Sea?”.  Now we learn about Caracoles Músicos (Seashell Musicians), the sculpture in the small plaza Ignacio Cabezud across from the tourist dock with the watchtower.

Guadalajara sculptor Guillermo Gómez Macías is trained as an agronomist. Some may think crop production and soil management an unlikely foundation for the creation of art, but the 48-year-old says his passion for biological sciences is an important influence.

“Although at the moment I do not practise my career,” he says, “the discipline needed to understand how nature works and the training to observe are very useful in the exploration of my projects.”

Here is what Gómez has to say about the inspiration for his Seashell Musicians.

“The act of fusing human shapes with those of shells is to stress the diversity. And the appeal of the music is that it is a universal language that brings together feelings, emotions, sensations, etc. The idea arose from the act of holding a seashell between the hands. We marvel at its shapes and colours, independent of the place from which it came. If we hold it close to our ears and we pay attention, it will surprise us in that we hear the song of the ocean, and that rouses in us the same sensations.

“The same thing happens with human beings, in spite of the diversity of their origins, their shapes and colours. If we really pay attention and listen deep down in our beings, we can hear the rhythm of our own hearts.”

I spoke by phone with Gómez in Guadalajara, where he lives, and we did the interview through e-mails, which I’ve translated and summarized. His work is on permanent exhibit in Puerto Vallarta at Galleria Dante.

(originally posted May 2008)