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)

1-EYED HORSE WINS GOLD

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August 2008 rozinlapaz

The 2008 Beijing Olympics is a good time to look back to an earlier Olympics: Mexico won its first gold medals in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. The fascinating story behind that victory involves a one-eyed horse,FEAolympic1 the pope and a military officer who defied his president.

Six months before the London Olympics, Humberto Mariles Cortés and his equestrian team were preparing to leave for European competitions leading up to the Games. They had the funding and accreditation – all the arrangements had been made.

Then Mariles got a phone call from Mexico’s president, Miguel Alemán, who said: “You know, Lieutenant-Colonel, the trip is cancelled.”

Mariles was visibly shaken by the news: “Can I know why, Mr. President?” Alemán’s response: “You can’t win with these cart-pulling horses, with this one-eyed stallion.”

That one-eyed horse, “tuerto” in Spanish, was named Arete (Earring). He was a favourite of Mariles. The equestrian team defied the president and left for Italy. In Rome, Mexico’s ambassador was waiting with an order to FEAolympic3apprehend the men for disobeying orders, embezzlement, desertion and other charges. Still, they refused to return to Mexico.

A visit with Pope Pius XII, who came to watch the Mexicans ride, and the equestrian team’s success in the European events may have helped their cause with Alemán. In London, the team triumphed. Mariles won gold medals for individual and team jumping. He also received a bronze medal in the three-day team event. And President Alemán sent a message to Mariles congratulating him and his companions on their accomplishments on behalf of Mexico.

Sources of information for this feature come from 1990 edition of Mexican Olympic Medalists by Ramón Márquez and Armando Satow and the article “An Amazing Ride,” by Ricardo Castillo, in the July/August edition of online publication Inside Mexico.

(originally published August 2008)