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)

SONG FROM THE HEART

April 2009 rozinlapaz

My heart opens itself to your voice
Like the flowers open
to the kisses of the dawn!

When soprano Loyda Vázquez sang these words from the French opera Samson et Dalila on stage in La Paz earlier this month, she was singing from her heart.

That’s partly because she had been preparing for the concert for a year.FEAsoprano1 And because she is passionate about bringing opera to life through voice and theatre. But what made the event especially heartfelt was that the pianist was her father, David Vázquez Cosío. He now lives in Mexico City. Because of this, father and daughter perform concerts together only once or twice a year.

“I don’t even have to look at him for us to understand one another,” Loyda tells me. She pauses to reflect for a moment, placing her hand on her heart. “He says, ‘Your heart and mine are the same.’ And so, it is a very special experience.”

Loyda Vázquez Lizárraga has been playing music with her father since she was six years old. Now she’s 38. Her dad is 73.

In Guadalajara, where Loyda grew up, there were always musicians in the family home. Singers, violinists, cellists and others came to play with her father. A concert pianist and professor of music at the University of FEAsoprano2Guadalajara, David Vázquez started by teaching his young daughter piano. But Loyda had other plans. “Being a pianist was not for me.” Asked why, Loyda is emphatic: “¡No soy yo, No soy yo! ” — she does not feel truly herself at the keyboard.

Even at the age of six, Loyda knew she wanted to be a singer. “When I sing, I feel as if I am flying.” She stretches out her arms like a paloma and laughs. The laughter is musical. Her sentences have the cadence of a song. But the effect is not theatrical. Loyda’s manner is natural. She simmers with warmth.

Loyda was 10 when she began voice lessons with her father. Singing is her passion: “I believethat when you sing, your soul is exposed.” Perhaps that is why, for her, performances are not without angst.

“Always, I’m nervous before going on stage,” she says. “But then, once I am on stage, I feel fine. For me, it’s a privilege to sing. My voice is a gift, something to share.”

Loyda came to La Paz on a family holiday and fell in love with the city — the Malecón, the beach, the tranquility. She moved here almost five years ago with her husband Gustavo and their son, who is now 11. In addition to performing, she teaches voice and choral work at the state music school.

Loyda’s favourite language for singing is Italian, followed by German — she says that’s because the words flow so freely. She enjoys singing in French, too: “It’s very delicate.” But what about her native language? “I don’t like to sing in Spanish,” she says, because some consonants are hard to sing in a way that’s easily understood. “The diction is very difficult.”

She is a performer who feels passionately that the voice reveals the person within. “I believe that when you sing, your soul is exposed,” she says. “When I sing, I say, ‘This is who I am. Listen to me. This is who I am.’ ”

(originally posted April 2009)

DOLLS IN A STORM

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarch 2009 rozinlapaz

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)