A Romanticization of Mexico

originally published on artluxmag.

I have a very Mexican mother in Texas who almost choked on her mid-afternoon pan dulce when I told her I was traveling to Mexico this past summer. The border violence and drug war circumstances--beheadings, sequestrations and drug cartel violence-- are what most media outlets cover in regard to Mexico. Oh, and of course immigration, the other hot topic. If a news story on Mexico isn’t about human bodies being hung from bridges, it’s some xenophobic diatribe about how undocumented immigrants are destroying the pristine United States of ‘Merica. The word ‘Mexico’ can sometimes feel like a bad word, highly charged and controversial. This is particularly problematic for me and many people I know because to many Mexican-Americans and Mexicans in the U.S., Mexico is the Motherland. There are untold histories about the ancient civilizations, cultural relics destroyed or hidden during colonization and a sinkhole of untapped art history.

I flew over the golden-sparkled cityscape of Mexico D.F. to land in the Mexican state of Oaxaca for a day of solitude before my friends’ arrival. The margins of the capital Oaxaca city are lined with mountains where many Oaxacans live. About 48% of the population in Oaxaca is indigenous and speaks an assortment of native languages-- the most of any other Mexican state. Streets are made from round stones and the walls that border the avenues are an amalgam of bright colors. My first morning in Oaxaca began at my hostel Casa Angel where ladies from the mountains cooked fried eggs with fresh salsa and bread for the guests.

Art is omnipresent here. Scattered around the city are open air galleries with centers of fountains and gardens, no roofs to halt the sun, like a Turrell skyspace but au natural without all the LED bullshit. Flyers for poetry readings, book discussions, film viewings and art-making workshops signify an active art community. And the political street art in the form of stencils, graffiti and murals critiquing the government, predatory corporations and political corruption make it known there is a politicized youth.

I talked art and politics with a few of these artists, most affiliated with the art collective ASARO, a collective aimed at creating public art with a social consciousness. Associated with the collective is an artspace and printmaking studio called Espacio Zapata where I spent a chunk of down time drinking jamaica-infused mezcal. The space has an attached cafe called Café Colectivo Atila del Sur where bohemian artist boys serve tasty breakfasts and lunches while graphic t-shirts, prints and stickers are for sale in the entrance. Things like the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata drawn as a punk with a mohawk are plastered on most objects.

Even though Oaxaca state had a 16.3% illiteracy rate in 2010, libraries are in abundance.* Home of the most calming menagerie of a study area, complete with drooping plants and fading sunlight, Biblioteca del Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca has the art book goods. They even had the recently published ‘Mexican Portraits’ by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio ready to peruse. Another library, Biblioteca Infantil de Oaxaca, a children’s library full of hot topics explaining religion, philosophy, and sex to young ones, was another beautifully planned out space with an open veranda, no shortage of trees or treasures.

After my first day of exploring libraries and art spaces, I began to saunter into unknown areas with glazed eyes, and I was outed as a tourist. A young guy asked me if I was German and told me he was a native Oaxacan, legit Zapotec, who knew everything about the city. He wanted to show me some sites! Woohoo, I met a local! He escorted me to Pochote, an organic market in Xochimilco where I drank Tejate, a drink made from cacao and other mountain-dwelling plants. Then, we sipped Espadín mezcal at a mezcalería closeby and talked politics until the topic turned to astrology and I had to make my way home.

My three Xicana power sisters from Austin, LA and Guatemala City showed up and we became the Oaxaca 4. Together, we tasted grasshopper-laden tlayudas (a giant fried tortilla like a tostada with beans, salsa and veggies,) bought textiles and artisan jewelry, and took a six-hour overnight bus to Mazunte, a beach where we moon-bathed and saw the sun dip out of the ocean. To access beaches in Oaxaca, you have to travel hours outside the capital through windy mountains, so yes dramamine was necessary. However, the beaches are godly. It’s like there’s no such thing as pollution; people are conscious of their waste and actively reuse and recycle. After eating a pineapple tamale on the beach, the seller asked me to return the corn husk.

And of course, the more institutional art world was not forgotten. We visited the contemporary art museum, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca, and Museo de Ferrocarril, an abandoned train yard beautified with murals, but Museo de Textil de Oaxaca really took the cake. Museo de Textil is a textile museum with tapestries, traditional dresses and other clothing made from organic fibers and dyes of the region showcasing the weaving techniques artists have passed down for generations. In addition to their permanent collection, they had an exhibit ‘The Decent Women of 58th Street’ by Elena Martinez, a show centering on the status of female prostitutes in Yucatán. Paintings of nude women like paleolithic venus figurines were depicted in soft blues and pinks lounging or flaunting themselves for the painter. Photographs, bare ink illustrations and stitchings of an array of women were displayed on the walls leading up to more sculptural installations. Then, a bed stitched with an image of a woman covering her face, a stream of red yarn bursting from her vulva. In spanish, the words stitched on the bed read, “I am the prostitute and the saint. Always respect me.”

There’s something sacred about the ground in Mexico, and it’s not just some romanticization or exoticization of the foreign. That earth teems with a buried history. One of the last places we visited was the Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo, which held Pre-Columbian artifacts from all over Mexico. Clay men and anthropomorphic animals from Aztec and Mayan civilizations stared out from behind glass. “They’re angry,” my friend Maribel said. “Their anger is palpable.” The true history of Mexico is what seemed most relevant to me after my trip. In the U.S., Mexico is degraded by sensationalistic media outlets with an agenda. It is also economically pimped out by the U.S. for it’s land and it’s people. There’s a tree I visited called “Arból de Tule” that was planted for the Aztec wind god Ehecatl. It’s magnificent and now thousands of years old, slowly dying a human-induced death. The ancient ruins of Mesoamerica speak for themselves.

View a slideshow of Oaxaca here.