Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Trials by fire unite two martyrs across time

Bearing a pair of eyes on a platter, Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy (283-304), watches all entering the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, home to El Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. The patron saint for safeguarding eyesight and writers, Santa Lucia always has ranked among my favorites.

Upon reaching what was considered a marriageable age, Santa Lucia opted to dedicate herself to God and pledge herself a virgin. Born into a wealthy family in Sicily, she began distributing her worldly goods to the poor.

Alas, Lucy’s mother previously had promised her daughter’s hand to a suitor, a man displeased with the dispersal of the family’s wealth perhaps more than the personal rejection. Vengeful, he reported her Christian beliefs to Roman authorities.

The Roman authorities sentenced Lucy to reside in a brothel and to be forced into prostitution. Divine intervention rendered her immovable, despite the soldiers’ repeated efforts to budge her in order to carry out the sentence. Thwarted, they gouged out her eyes and set her ablaze. But Lucy proved impervious to the flames so they resorted to ending her life by thrusting a sword through her throat.

This background is why Santa Lucia would seem ideal to offer temporary sanctuary to a Penny Siopsis’ powerful short film, Communion, relating to the end-of-life experience of a Dominican nun, Sister Mary Aidan (1914-1952). The Irish-born doctor, Elsie Quinlan, had devoted years to lovingly tending and healing Black South Africans in a clinic in New London, South Africa, when she turned her automobile into a public square in November of 1952.

Apartheid was institutionalized by the National Party of white rulers of the country, and public gatherings of Blacks were outlawed. The African National Congress spurred a protest in the square as part of the 1952 Defiance Campaign, and soldiers firing into the crowd killed several Blacks.

By the time Sister Aidan drove into the midst of the then angry mob, instead of recognizing a nun who had been helping them the rioters only saw yet another white person determined to harm them. She was stabbed seven times and set ablaze in her car.

The fire had fused my rosary beads….

“voice” of Sister Mary Aidan narrating Communion

The crowd still was determined to avenge the deaths of those shot by the soldiers. The first-person narration continues with the inquest:

Parts of my body were missing. Someone said a lady had a bread knife.

By the time police broke up the riot, the government admitted to fatal shootings of at least nine. Unofficial reports placed the number at closer to 200.

And that is all of the tragic tale I can bear to relate. What could be sadder than, as artist Siopsis described during a dialogue with artist William Kentridge, “being killed by people you love and who love you?”

The film is part of “Hacer Noche/Crossing Night: Arte Contemporaraneo del Sur de Africa,” an exhibit at the Museo de las Culturas closing February 5.

The dancing skeletons visible in the background of one of the photo’s of Simphiwe Ndzube’s “Rain Prayers” are a frame from Kentridge’s short film “30% of Life/30% de Vida.”

To see more of Kentridge’s work, visit an older post from Puebla in 2015. For more photos from the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, visit here.

‘Tree of Life’ bears bountiful crop of tales from the past

If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.

Rudyard Kipling

Assigned by the San Antonio River Foundation with the creation of a major work of public art to celebrate the community surrounding Mission San Francisco de la Espada and its strong connections to San Antonio’s ranching heritage, Margarita Cabrera envisioned a tree of life. A tree of life overflowing with fruit. “Arbol de la Vida: Voces de Tierra.”

The origin of colorful trees of life is rooted in Colonial Mexico. Missionaries worked with craftsmen in the Puebla region of Mexico to create clay sculptures to relay biblical stories, often branching upward and outward from Adam and Eve at the base.

Building on that tradition of rendering stories in clay, Cabrera has collaborated with more than 600 members of the community since May to capture their narrative memories. Workshops were held to help even novices record these chapters of San Antonio’s shared history in slab and coil based clay sculptures. The finishing touches on the final fruits of this labor of love involving so many are being completed in a studio at Mercury Project.

While many of the 700 pieces already have been fired, these photos are of works in progress. After firing, Cabrera says, each piece will be filled with epoxy so that, even if a piece is damaged, the sculpture will remain intact. The average weight of each of the suspended “fruits” will be in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. Serving as a portal linking the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River to Mission Espada, this tree will be immense.

An ostrich-plumed hat perched atop the head of “la patrona” made Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Balli (1752-1803) easy to spot on early Texas cattle drives, according to Merri Gutierrez, one of her descendants. Gutierrez chose to depict the signature hat to represent the story of the daughter of two Spanish aristocrats who was born in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Known as the first cattle queen of Texas, Hinojosa de Balli amassed more than one-million acres of land stretching across five Texas counties. She built chapels at all of her ranches for the ranchhands and served as godmother to more than 300 of their children.

Thelma Ortiz Muraida is crafting a truck to signify the lifestyle of her father, a migrant worker born in Floresville. An artist who has illustrated numerous children’s books, Muraida is enjoying working with the clay. Her father loved to create folk art from found objects, and her great-aunt worked with her husband alongside Dionicio Rodriguez, known for his landmark faux bois cement sculptures. The truck pays tribute to those who work with their hands and their appreciation of and respect for the land. She is filling her truck with family members and the things they would pack up to create a sense of home as they roamed to harvest crops in other parts of the country –  birds, chickens, the pet dog and the guitar her grandmother played.

The meaningful ornaments for Cabrera’s tree are taking shape within the walls of Mercury Project, a network of artists’ studios founded in 2012 by artists and designers Antonia Richardson and Warren Borror in a renovated factory on Roosevelt Avenue. When Borror’s mother first saw the structure, she said, “I know this building.” From 1945 to 1955, the building was the San Antonio home of Clicquot Club Beverages, distinguished by its Eskimo Boy logo. The owner was popular for giving neighborhood kids free ginger ales and root beers, and church socials often were held upstairs. Borror chose that part of Mercury Project’s past to highlight for his contribution to the tree, a Clicquot bottle cap.

But the scallops of the edge of the bottle cap reminded the fifth-generation San Antonian of another part of both the city’s and his family’s past. The flip side of the cap will represent the cranks for a bicycle chain. His family has a photo of his great-grandfather in San Antonio’s first bicycle parade in 1893, and one of his great grandfather’s sons operated Ullrich’s bicycle shop where La Frite is today. While relating some of the city’s early bicycle history, Borror also is celebrating San Antonio’s increasing transition into a bike-friendly city.

So, staring up at 700 individual clay sculptures, how will anyone glean the stories behind them? There will be an app for that, says Cabrera. After firing, each piece will be photographed on all sides and will be accompanied by narrative from the community storytellers.

While shading people below, this tree will be an incredible place to play “I Spy.” The bountiful tree of life will stimulate viewers’ memories, encouraging multi-generational sharing, reviving San Antonio’s rich oral tradition often drowned out by contemporary media.

Harvesting the tales hanging above will take multiple visits to the story-telling tree. I sure hope this magical tree comes with a couple of rocking chairs below for grandparents to hold their grandchildren in their laps while telling them about life when they were young.

February 23, 2019, Update: Tales told through clay are bursting into bloom as the “Arbol” nears completion.

Biannual roundup of your blog-reading habits

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Thanks for once again being so predictably unpredictable in your tastes. While postcards sent “from” and about San Antonio (“San Antonio Song” soundtrack) are still your favorites, you also seem to relish postcards sent “to” San Antonio from places we travel. Oh, and you like food from anywhere.

This list represents the most-read posts during 2016. The numbers in parentheses represent the rankings from six months ago:

  1. Don’t Let Battle Zealots Overrun the Crockett Block, 2016 (1)
  2. The Madarasz Murder Mystery: Might Helen Haunt Brackenridge Park?, 2012 (2)
  3. Postcards from San Antonio a Century Ago, 2016 (6)
  4. Please put this song on Tony’s pony and make it ride away, 2010 (5)
  5. Postcard from Oaxaca, Mexico: Settling into La Biznaga, 2016 (12)
  6. How would you feel about the Alamo with a crewcut?, 2011 (4)
  7. Postcard from Parma, Italy: City’s cuisine living up to its namesake ingredients, 2016
  8. Postcard from Ferrara, Italy: First tastes of Emilia Romagna, 2016
  9. Postcard from Sintra, Portugal: Masonic mysteries surface at Quinta da Regaleira, 2014 (11)
  10. Postcard from Puebla, Mexico: Uriarte ensures talavera traditions endure, 2016
  11. Introducing Otto Koehler through a Prohibition politics caper of yesteryear, 2016
  12. Postcard from Guanajuato, Mexico: Wishing these dining spots were not 600 miles away, 2016

Thanks for dropping by every once in a while. Love hearing your feedback.

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