Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico at the Skirball Center, Los Angeles

Once the dust of Mexico settles on your heart,

you will have no rest in any other land.

On September 13, I joined Patrice Wynne and Gloria Orenstein at the Skirball Cultural Center in West Los Angeles for a curator-led preview tour of this landmark exhibition, Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico.

The exhibition runs through February 25, 2018.

The term promised land is rooted in a vision of freedom and liberation.  Emotionally, it has meaning for peoples seeking release from oppression who want a secure life where one can become fully realized without restraint. Jewish identity is intertwined with Israel as the promised land. African-American slaves looked to the north as a promised land. Oppressed peoples throughout the world continue to seek asylum in America, their hope of the promised land where opportunity and justice prevail. (We must be vigilant.)

Tina Modotti captures Anita Brenner in black and white

Anita Brenner (1905-1974), a Mexican-born Jewish writer who lived and worked during the Mexican Renaissance, saw the country adopted by her Latvian parents as a promised land for intellectual and artistic expression. Her own experience with prejudice and discrimination helped give her voice to bridge understanding.

Mexico was a haven for immigrants escaping Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Even today, Mexico has a welcoming immigration policy. Her people are a blend of indigenous, Spanish, African, Filipino, Chinese, German, and French — representing waves of conquest and immigration. Jews sought haven in Mexico when the gates were closed to the United States of America. (Thank you, Mexico!)

Diego Rivera, Dance in Tehuantepec, watercolor

Brenner was an integral part of the circle of Mexican modernists in the 1920s and played an important role in promoting and translating Mexican art, culture, and history for audiences in the U.S.

Jean Charlot, The Massacre in the Main Temple, fresco, Collegio San Ildefonso

Born during the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Brenner was close to the leading intellectuals and artists active in Mexico at the time. These are names we know well: painters José Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Jean Charlot, and photographer Tina Modotti. There were others whose name we do not widely know in the USA, including Rivera’s second wife, Guadalupe Marin, Frances Toor, Nahui Olin, Luz Jimenez and Concha Michel.   

Abraham Angel, La India

Art historian Karen Cordero says they would meet at Sanborn’s Casa de los Azulejos to talk about politics, social injustices, women’s rights, feminism, and other issues.

The exhibition introduces us to Brenner as an important figure who has been heretofore obscured by the more illustrious in her circle.  An influential and prolific writer on Mexican culture, Brenner is best known for her book Idols Behind Altars: Modern Mexican Art and Its Cultural Roots (1929). 

Cover of Mexico this month, February 1956

Her work is rooted in the shaping of post-Revolution Mexico, when a new identity for a new nation needed to be reassessed to reflect the persistent indigenous culture behind the Spanish conquest. The Revolution brought with it the need to create political, social and cultural change and artists turned to folk art as inspiration to re-imagine past with future.

Mathias Goeritz, Satellite Tower. He was close to Luis Barragan, architect.

She was also instrumental in creating cultural tourism for Mexico — promoting cultural exploration as a vacation activity by publishing the cultural travel magazine, Mexico this month. We can consider her a pioneer in learning about the people who live where you visit.

The Skirball’s exhibition includes a narrative of Brenner’s life. It features pre-Columbian art, paintings, prints, photographs and drawings by Miguel Covarrubias, Jean Charlot, Edward Weston, Leonora Cunningham, Maximo Pacheco, Lola Cueto, Abraham Angel, plus those we are more familiar with: Kahlo, Rivera, Orozco.

Lithograph by Orozco

Charlot was a disciple of Rivera who contributed to the murals at the Secretariat de Publica Education (SEP). He was in love with Brenner; they could never reconcile religious differences and did not marry, though they remained lifelong friends.

Cultural map of Oaxaca, Mexico/this month

Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than sixty cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty.

Gloria Orenstein, Norma Schafer and Patrice Wynne at the exhibition

Footnote: Los Angeles County has the second largest Jewish population and the largest Latino population in the United States.

Thank you to the Skirball Cultural Center for background information and photographs.

NY Times Mentions Norma Schafer: In Mexico, Weavers Embrace Natural Alternatives to Toxic Dyes

Click here to read article. 

First, a special call-out to Porfirio Gutierrez and his family for all they do to promote the use of natural dyes in the making of their hand-woven tapestries. His sister Juana is a master dyer and his brother-in-law Antonio innovates on design and materials. Congratulations on this feature story!

I was honored to be interviewed a couple of months ago by New York Times Science reporter Erica Goode to offer source information about the natural dye world in Teotitlan del Valle.

Of course, I emphasized that in addition to Porfirio’s family, there are about a dozen other families or family groups who are dedicated to preserving the natural dye culture. This includes my host family, Galeria Fe y Lola, Federico Chavez Sosa and Dolores Santiago Arrellanas. This takes time, commitment and an investment of more expensive materials.

Please join me on a one-day natural dye and weaving study tour to explore our weaving culture in more depth.

Bowers Museum of Art Invites Norma Schafer to Speak About Oaxaca, Mexico

Today, I arrive in Southern California to give a talk about Oaxaca, Mexico, art and culture at the Bowers Museum of Art in Santa Ana. The Collectors’ Club invited me about six months ago to make a presentation on Saturday afternoon, September 16, 2017.

There is so much about Oaxaca to cover.  I thought I would share my narrative outline with you:

Interior gold leaf, Templo Santo Domingo, Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of those rare places in the world that inspires creativity and artistic expression. A UNESCO World Heritage site colonized by the Spanish in 1521, its indigenous roots go back 8,000 years ago.

It is mestizo, mixed, a blend of ancient and contemporary, reflecting generations of invasion, migration and cultural identity. Walk her cobbled streets and feel Colonial history. Explore her villages and know the first peoples who lived here before – and now.

White corn tlayuda, indigenous, organic, non-GMO

Corn (maize) was first hybridized in nearby Yagul, Oaxaca, caves by Zapotec farmers. Carbon dating has pinpointed this at 6,000-8,000 years ago. The plant traveled worldwide to become an essential food source on every continent.

Barbecue served for local fiestas

Oaxaca’s culinary prowess is second to none. Her finest restaurants and humble comedors give way to innovative recipes rooted in native history, married with European influences. We know mole negro. There are six others.

Intricately embroidered blouse, San Bartolome Ayautla

Women sit at back strap looms, nested on packed earth floors in remote villages weaving beautiful garments with supplemental wefts embellished with figures from nature and the constellations, just as they did thousands of years ago. There is a revival of native natural dyes, including cochineal and indigo, as well as the use of native silk and wild cotton.

Indigo dye bath turns wild marigold colored wool to green

Pulque, the fermented juice of the agave plant evolved into mezcal, a leading artisanal beverage distilled from the roasted core of wild and cultivated cactus plants. Have you tried Gracias a Dios Gin Mezcal?

Health benefits of agua miel before it becomes pulque

Ceramic figures and cooking vessels are made today much like they were in 900 A.D. when Zapotecs artisans supplied the mountain-top kingdom of Monte Alban. Mixtec gold filigree jewelry unearthed at this archeological site is reproduced and offered for sale, made even more desirable by popular Frida Kahlo style. Contemporary silversmiths adapt traditional designs for practical daily wear.

Ancient traditions, making a clay comal for tortilla making

And, the contemporary art scene is unparalleled. Printmakers, graphic artists, painters and muralists actively produce extraordinary works that capture the essence of Mexican history, culture and politics. Their work is rooted in the pre-Revolutionary iconic work of Jose Guadalupe Posada and post-Revolutionary murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros.

Painter Gabo Mendoza talks about the subject of his works

Experimentation, innovation and design permeate a vibrant arts scene that encompasses all the senses.

Market scene, Teotitlan del Valle

Yet, Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico. It has pockets of poverty, social unrest and a widening economic gap. Rural, indigenous people have limited access to education, health care and public services. They demonstrate peacefully now to express their discontent.

Day of the Dead Altar

Despite this, Oaxaca is safe and welcoming.

During this presentation, Norma Schafer will lead a visual tour of Oaxaca city and villages, discuss artisanal crafts and contemporary art in the context of social history, bring examples for you to see and touch, and answer questions you may have.

At the confite, the church parade

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca to Durham–Pineapple-Lime Mezcal Cocktail Recipe: Serves Two

Is it a Mezcalini or a Mezcalita?

First you need tasty espadin joven mezcal. My limited stash in NC.

Most of the weight in my checked baggage from Oaxaca, Mexico to Durham, North Carolina, USA was attributed to three bottles of Gracias a Dios mezcal — two of Gin Mezcal and one of Cuixe (also spelled Cuishe, pronounced KWI-SHAY). I had four bottles packed and couldn’t move the luggage, so I reluctantly removed one.

(I buy my Gracias a Dios mezcal directly from Oscar Hernandez, the mezcalero, at his palenque in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, the world capital of mezcal making.) He blends the Gin Mezcal with 32 aromatics including lavendar and juniper berries, ginger and rosemary.

The first pour!

Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve experimented with mixed drinks in addition to loving the aroma and taste of mezcal straight with no flavor additives. A little sip goes a long way! Never throw back a mezcal shot. It’s not done that way.

Start with ripe pineapple (more yellow than this one) and squeezable limes.

For the uninitiated, a Mezcalini is like a Martini in appearance only. Mezcal and pulverized fresh fruit with a bit of simple sugar syrup, are shaken together with ice and strained. Then, the bartender pours the aromatic liquid into a stemmed cocktail glass. Sometimes herbs and spices are added, like rosemary or ginger, in the shaken (not stirred) motif. Serve it straight up.

The Tipsy Glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita

But, for my version of a Mezcalini, I prefer to adapt the Margarita, substituting mezcal for the more lowly (IMHO) tequila. In restaurants, I order this as a Mezcal Margarita so no one makes a mistake. I like it over the rocks with a salted rim, garnished with worm salt.

Cut off crown, then bottom, and whack the sides off.

Let’s all now rightfully call this a MEZCALITA.

The classic will be fresh squeezed lime juice, mezcal and Cointreau (in Mexico, look for Controy).

It will look like this when you trimmed off the spines.

In Mexico City, I ordered such a drink on the rooftop terrace of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, overlooking the Zocalo. So good, I returned again. And then, once more. It was blended with fresh pineapple and lime juice.

Section into quarters, then cut out the core.

I’ve been working on perfecting the recipe here in Durham, making it for every at-home occasion I can plan. I think I finally have it down, and I’m passing it along to you.  No cheating. You can’t use tequila.

Here’s how you cut out the core. No mess.

Cut into 1″ cubes. Get your lime squeezer ready.

Pineapple-Lime Mezcalita Cocktail — Serves 2

In a blender, add together:

4 ounces of Joven mezcal distilled from the Espadin cactus

2 ounces of Cointreau

2 T. simple syrup (dissolve 2 T. sugar in 4 T. boiling water until liquid is clear)

1 C. fresh ripe pineapple, cut into 1″ cubes

2 ounces of freshly squeeze lime juice

6-8  ice cubes, or more for a slushier consistency

Add all ingredients to your blender.

Pulse your blender a few times to mix the ingredients. Then, add the ice cubes and turn speed to LIQUIFY. In seconds, your drink will be ready.

Add your ice cubes, and then …

I have two wonderful, clear, Tipsy Glasses, hand-blown by Asheville glass artist Ben Greene-Colonnese. You can order them online. Not sure where you can find mezcal where you live but definitely worth the search!

Blend on LIQUIFY, pour and enjoy.

We use this lime squeezer throughout Mexico. It’s a part of every kitchen. Mine is the cheapest and totally functional, all aluminum. I’ve had it for years. Where to buy in the USA? Amazon, of course.

At home in Teotitlan del Valle, I have a collection of many favorite brands made from wild agaves like tepeztate and tobala. Some, I bought from the distiller and they are unlabeled and not available for export.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Afternoon on the Last Aztec Lagoon: Xochimilco

We packed it in. After a Sunday morning at Casa Azul followed by seeing the largest private collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings at the Museo Dolores Olmedo, we took an UBER (safe, easy, the only way to get around in Mexico City, despite USA negatives) to the Embarcadero de Nativitas in Xochimilco for a boat ride on the last Aztec canals in Mexico City.

Colorful fun. Fake flower crown vendors, Xochimilco.

Sunday is definitely the day to go. You get the full experience of what it is like to party on the trajineras — the flat bottom boat that can hold huge families,

How about some lively mariachi music? A Mexican tradition.

plus an entourage of mariachis playing guitars, trumpets, accordions and violins.

Sunday is the best day to be on the Xochimilco lagoons for people-watching.

It’s almost like riding a gondola in Venice, Italy. Maybe better. Much more colorful.

Dancing the afternoon away, Xochimilco

Sometimes families bring their own cook and the smell and smoke of grilling meats pervades the waterways. Sometimes families bring their own beer and the bottles pile up for the longer rides through the canals.

You can buy a pig en route, just transfer from their boat to yours.

It is festive, relaxing and the quintessential Mexican experience.  Is it touristy? Yes. But, it’s also real because locals do this as part of birthdays, anniversaries, and any other excuse to have a celebration.

Expand the party and tie two boats together

Sometimes, you see two trajineras tethered together, so groups of forty or more can jump between boats, dance, sing and generally carouse. Children find their entertainment, too, relaxing in the sun, playing games, and dancing along with the adults. Just being together.

It’s a perfect way to enjoy the family, just 45 minutes from city center

The rate is fixed per boat: 350 pesos per hour. We went out for two hours and the next time, I think being out on a four-hour excursion would be better.

Doll island. Some say its haunted.

Then, we could get into the more remote areas where birds and flowers are more prevalent than people.

I had fresh roasted native corn on the cob. Valeria chose esquites.

Hungry? A small boat will pull up and entrepreneurial vendors will sell you grilled corn on the cob slathered with mayonnaise, chili and lime juice. Thirsty? Beer and soft drinks are delivered the same way.

How about a pulque? Fermented agave sap for Aztec power.

Want a souvenir? Buy a fake flower crown in any color of the rainbow. Need a pit stop? Clean facilities offer service for five pesos.

Buy a synthetic shawl or a plastic doll. Cheap fun.

On the return trip to the docking area, we had a traffic jam.  Boats jammed up against each other, unable to move.

Moving the boat along. You can even buy plants from passing gondolas.

The gondoliers doing a ballet of pushing the long stick into the muck and against the next boat to jockey into a clear passageway.

Straining to move the boats on the last leg of our voyage.

Sometimes, they jumped boats to help each other out.  Muscles straining, taut. Bodies at forty-five degree angles to the water.

The push-pull of getting out of the traffic jam.

I never heard a curse, only the sound of laughter and music from the party-goers, only too happy to spend extra time on the water as the boatmen sorted it out.

A jumble of color at the docking station.

Xochimilco is the last remaining vestige of what the lake region looked like during the Aztec period, pre-Conquest 1521.

Local emptying, then anchoring his launch.

This is how people got around from one island to the next. The people who live here still do. They are gardeners, growers of fruits and vegetables. It used to be that not too long ago the boats were covered in fresh flowers. Today, they are adorned with painted wood.

A remote waterway off-the-beaten path, like a jungle.

The next time you are in Mexico City, allow yourself at least a half-day to enjoy this respite from city life. Perhaps I’ll spend my next birthday here, hire a mariachi band and dance the afternoon away.

A serenade from shore on an island by the lagoon

For now, I’m at my other home in North Carolina, enjoying August heat and humidity, and the comfort of friends.

Norma Lupita, followed by Mexico Lindo. Porsupuesto.