If you are a repeated visitor to Mexico and you are interested in a historical, social, political, cultural, artistic commentary, then this comprehensive, 700+-page tome by Earl Shorris is a must read. Shorris’ insights into why Mexico works the way it does is rooted in its experience as a Spanish outpost in the New World, an inherited conservative legal system rooted in a Latin judicial system, and Olmec creativity and Aztec stratified hierarchies that adapted to conquest. There is so much going on in this book that it can be at times overwhelming and dense. It took me over a month to read it, but it was well worth the investment of time.
If I were a psychologist, I might draw the conclusion that today’s Mexico is a bi-polar country, torn between its indigenous and Spanish heritage, and the tension of identity that this creates. Shorris talks about the metiszo or mestizaje, the Mexican who is the blend of Spanish and indigenous parentage, and the self-love/hate relationship that that promotes and promulgates. He discusses why it was so easy for the red-bearded Cortes to be embraced as the Quetzalcoatl, and how the Aztec emblem of the double-eagle which was also the coat of arms of the Spanish crown, became common symbols that were embraced by the conquered. When I toured the Ex-Convento Santa Rosa in Puebla recently, there was a clay sculpture that embodied this history. The base was adorned with Spanish soldiers and Aztec warriors, depicting the conquest of New Spain. At the top was La Malinche and Cortes, arms outstretched to heaven, holding a baby that represented the blending of the two and the future of the country. La Malinche was Cortes’ mistress who served as his translator and betrayed her people. These figures could be the Virgin Mary or the Virgin of Guadalupe and God, bringing forth the Baby Jesus who would become the saviour.
There remains in Mexico today a social class system based upon heritage. Criollos are those of “pure” Spanish descent. The mestizos are the mix of Spanish and indigenous. The indigenous, or indians, are usually darker, rural and less educated, with less access to social services and opportunities. Skin color can define a person’s opportunity to succeed and advance. The social movements that have turned to street activism are the result of a closed system where democratic principles are difficult to actualize. As Mexico seeks to expand it’s international partnerships with other nations, it will begin to break loose from the domination of its northern neighbor.
NAFTA, economic opportunity, immigration, the economic engine of Monterrey, Carlos Slim Helu (owner of Telmex and one of the richest men in the world), the 70-year “presidency” of Porfirio Diaz, the political leadership decisions to create Mexico as a labor market rather than a manufacturing/production market, the 1910 “revolution” and implications for democracy, and the incredible literary and arts contributions made to the world by Mexican writers and painters are all discussed in this extraordinary book.
When I read Shorris’ perspectives about the dream imagery of the ancient Mayans, Aztecs and Zapotecs that have influenced contemporary artists, I understand how my friend Pantaleon Ruiz Martinez in the village of Teotitlan del Valle is bringing forth the soul of his people to convey floating people, animals and symbology on canvas.
There is so much more than what I have touched on here. Please pick this up and settle in for a good read. You will love and understand Mexico so much more for it.
Five Meaningful Books About Mexico to Recommend and Why
I travel to Oaxaca, Mexico, regularly and someday, hopefully soon, I will be there more frequently for longer periods of time. I am fascinated by the richness and vibrancy of the culture, archeology, history and art. Art is everywhere. From the food in the markets to the textiles and crafts to fine art expressed through painting and sculpture and the ballads vocalized by Lila Downs and Susana Harp. There is tradition in Mexico that is manifested through form, color and texture.
As a consequence, I am most apt to select my reading material based on its relevancy to Mexico, Oaxaca, political and historical developments, and artistic expression. I recently completed reading (1) “The Lacuna” by Barbara Kingsolver. It is an extraordinary novel about a writer raised in Mexico and influenced by the icons of the thirties, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky The book explores the dichotomy of identity that is so prevalent among Mexican social and cultural position — the duality of indigenous and Spanish heritage, asking the question: Where do I belong?
(2) I just ordered and received “Oaxacan Ceramics: Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women” by Wellesley College professor Lois Wasserspring. I recently met Lois and we talked about the extraordinary pottery created by Dolores Porras who recently died and is featured in her book. I am fortunate to have a few of Dolores’ pieces.
(3) Another favorite is “Zapotec Women, Gender, Class and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca” by cultural anthropologist and professor Lynn Stephen who teaches at the University of Oregon. The title says it all. While it is a college text, it is a great read and if you are interested in women’s issues, roles and rights in Mexico, you’ll find this informative and not dense.
(4) Right next to that is “Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market” by W. Warner Wood, assistant professor of anthropology and museum studies at Central Washington University. He describes the economic forces that drive prices and production of handwoven textiles in Teotitlan del Valle.
(5) Finally, “Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan” by Andra Fischgrund Stanton features fabulous photographs of handwoven tapestry rugs and other textiles made by master weavers in the village, including my friend Federico Chavez Sosa. It includes personal stories and family histories, along with weaving techniques and materials used for dyeing wool.
I never cease to be amazed by the talent in Oaxaca. These books are treasures to enrich my understanding and appreciation of this incredible region.
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Posted in Books & Resources, Cultural Commentary, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Barbara Kingsolver, books about Mexico, folk art books, Mexico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca ceramics, women in Mexico