Postcard from Bologna, Italy: A place to hang our hats

Bologna proved a great place to hang our hats for a month – both figuratively and literally.

We always travel with our sombreros. Although they fail to make a positive fashion statement, they are dermatologist prescribed.

But in Bologna there was scarcely a need to lift them off their hooks in our apartment. Close to 25 miles of arcades shade the sidewalks in Bologna. Rain or sunshine have little impact on your wanderings except when you cross streets.

Few porticos are alike, distinguished by varied treatments of columns, ceilings and sidewalks, which often are finished in artful patterns of terrazzo tile. Arcades were incorporated into the handsome architectural schemes of palaces and allowed landowners to maximize square footage on the upper floors above the public right-of-way.

San Antonio certainly would have benefitted from a program granting air rights in exchange for sheltering pedestrians from that strong Texas sun. Instead of gracefully incorporating porticos into their designs, many of our landmark structures originally had awkward awnings tacked onto their facades. Most of these did not age well and have been removed.

Alas, in San Antonio our sombreros are mandatory.

Postcard from San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico: Coke is for Everyone, Dead or Alive

Teaching “the world to sing in perfect harmony” might be great in many markets, even in Mexico.

But some niche markets are tougher to crack than others.

Take the residents of San Juan Chamula. Chamulans are so fiercely independent, they virtually are independent. Outsiders pay a toll to even enter the town.

Residents’ primary language is Tzotzil Mayan, and San Juan Chamula has its own laws (think legalized polygamy), syncretic religion (converts to Protestantism banished), police force and system of justice. Beribboned-hatted male judges solemnly gather on Sundays, perched prominently on a public plaza overlooking the market in front of the church. Disputes can be brought forward throughout the morning. At noon, court is adjourned with much pomp and ceremony, which, to an outsider, resembles one long game of musical chairs.

The Catholic Church seemingly has ceded the church to the shamans, or curanderos. Outsiders are, again, charged a fee to enter and are informed there is a strict ban on photography inside. Or, perhaps, you would like to go face those judges convened above the plaza?

San Juan, San Pedro and San Sebastian are among the most revered saints, but some of the statues of saints lining the walls have fared better than others under the stewardship of the leaders of the town’s unorthodox religious practices. Some, perhaps including even San Sebastian, were in the doghouse for a long time.

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San Sebastian’s church on the outskirts of town burned a century or so ago, and the faithful logically questioned how much faith should be put in saints who fail to prevent the church that houses them from burning. So in punishment, the hands of the surviving statues were chopped off. The handless saints were brought into the church, but sentenced to spend years shamefully facing the wall. Their time in limbo has ended. They don’t get many tributes, but the saints whose potency was questioned are allowed to face the center of the church again and have robes with flowing sleeves disguising the earlier maiming and necklaces with mirrors to deflect evil spirits.

This church has no pews. The floor is blanketed with fresh pine needles, slippery on the marble floor underfoot. Fresh is key because worshippers line and light up rows of slender candles on the floor (Perhaps dry pine needles sparked the earlier fire?). The scent from the crushed needles mingles with smoking copal incense filling the interior. A primitive-sounding band plays somewhere deep inside, where a priest traditionally would preside.

Chanting shamans are performing cleansing ceremonies for groups of families perched in front of the appropriate saints. When not chanting or passing a live chicken over the subject, the shamans might be spitting on the floor, spitting around the subject to physically expel potential evil lurking within. In cases of severe need, the chicken is sacrificed by snapped neck. The shamans must be powerful because the hen I witnessed did not utter one clucked objection to the ceremony. Perhaps in part due to this cooperation, she was allowed to live.

Drinking posh, a strong cane liquor, is encouraged to loosen up one’s inhibitions that might prohibit communication of your soul with the saints (I know some of my friends might suddenly be thinking this is their kind of church.). Some of the townspeople seemed to take this particular practice to heart, appearing to have gotten an early morning start on their personal supplies of moonshine.

And then, there’s Coca-Cola.

One would think a people who have rejected so many standards held by outsiders would not consider taking even one sip of a Coca-Cola. But expelling evil spirits from the body is key. Spitting helps, but burping is best. And what is better at inducing burping than a few shots of rapidly consumed Coke. Posh alone cannot produce such splendid resonating results as Coke.

But, what marketing genius convinced the Chamulans a half-century ago to incorporate Coke into not only their Sunday church going regimen, but everyday life? I mean, Chamulans need to continually maintain their guard against those invasive evil spirits, burping them out on a regular basis.

And, whoever the lucky holder of the local bottling franchise is, really struck a home run with this. The market is larger than just the living. On Dia de los Muertos, even the dead are served Cokes to quench their parched throats from so much time spent underground and to burp away any evil spirits hanging around the cemetery.

Just think how large Coca-Cola’s market share would soar if this practice spread to the dead everywhere.

Coke should just forget trying to teach the world to sing. Teach the world to burp.

Coke is for everyone. Dead or alive. Para todos.

Note about the traditional hats worn by Chamulan men: While I have no photographs of the men holding court in San Juan Chamula, I am including a photo of an antique Chamulan hat we purchased in San Cristobal de las Casas more than 30 years ago. The contemporary hats men sport now appear unnaturally bright white. How can they keep them so clean? While the distinctive sombreros are still woven in a similar style, they are, surprisingly, woven from spools of white plastic instead of natural materials.

 

 

Processing Art through Public Filters, Part One

UTSA Libraries Special Collections
UTSA Libraries Special Collections

When completed the Mission Drive‐in Theatre will serve as an icon for preservation and neighborhood re‐development….

The project goal is to complete the approved mural components of the Historic Mission Drive‐In Marquee in a way that follows recommendations of the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Buildings, and stays consistent with the historic period….

…all viable methods of re‐creating the mural, sign lettering and lighting feature will be considered, provided that the completed work re‐creates the style, color and graphic quality of the original mural and components as closely as possible.

Public Art San Antonio, 2012 RFP

Historic Mission Drive-In Marquee Re-Creation

The resulting illumination of the marquee mural instantly makes the old Mission Drive-In Theatre a striking night-time landmark on the south side.

Public Art San Antonio
Public Art San Antonio

But there is something missing.

KENS-5 TV
KENS-5 TV

The new mural is soul-less, devoid of the human presence that characterized the original.

Instead of a re-creation, the design was sanitized following public protests in several contentious meetings.

A sombrero-porting Latino leading a donkey, a beast of burden sparing many a worker from debilitating back injuries, and one napping under a sombrero are both regarded as racial stereotyping.

I concede there was a time when many Anglos viewed such images and uttered the racial slur “lazy Mexicans.” Call me naïve, but I like to think we have moved beyond that point.

Sombrerería in Mexico City, Late 1800s, Underwood & Underwood stereoview card: "The ordinary sombreros are made of palm-leaves and straw, but those of the wealthier classes are of expensive felt, and may be white, gray, or maroon in color. They are often very ornate, being embroidered with the wearer's monogram, or designs of flowers, and faced with gold or silver lace. In Mexico, only the men wear hats, and they are a very valued  possession. Sometimes a man will invest his entire fortune of thirty or forty dollars in his sombrero. They are frequently of vast dimensions. The larger the sombrero, in fact, the greater its aesthetic value in the eye of the average Mexican. The flourish with which he doffs it in salute is something never to be forgotten by the unaccustomed foreigner."
Sombrerería in Mexico City, late 1800s, Underwood & Underwood stereoview card: “The ordinary sombreros are made of palm-leaves and straw, but those of the wealthier classes are of expensive felt, and may be white, gray, or maroon in color. They are often very ornate, being embroidered with the wearer’s monogram, or designs of flowers, and faced with gold or silver lace. In Mexico, only the men wear hats, and they are a very valued possession. Sometimes a man will invest his entire fortune of thirty or forty dollars in his sombrero. They are frequently of vast dimensions. The larger the sombrero, in fact, the greater its aesthetic value in the eye of the average Mexican. The flourish with which he doffs it in salute is something never to be forgotten by the unaccustomed foreigner.”

My hope is, rather than erase the existence of sombreros from our collective memory, we honorably embrace them as part of our heritage in San Antonio.

Here is why:

  • San Antonio was part of Mexico for longer than it has been part of the United States.
  • Mexicans who worked outside in the hot sun wore sombreros. They were smart.
  • The crown of a sombrero can be angled to follow the sun like a sunflower, shading both the face and the neck.
  • Hardworking people who rose long before the sun and worked until after it went down could use their sombreros for shelter while taking well-deserved naps.
  • People who sport gimme caps get red necks. No additional comment necessary.
mi sombrero guapo
mi sombrero guapo

I’m all for a sombrero resurgence. I’m doing my part.

Yes, I know this aging gringa looks foolish wearing her broad-brimmed caballera hat, complete with a horsetail-hair stampede string to hold it in place when the wind threatens to send it swirling.

But time has taught me a few things. I grew up on a beach trying to keep up with tan people. I merely burned and freckled. A slow learner, I repeated the process over and over, summer after summer.

I’m part of a freckled race that old Dr. Pipkin said had no business south of Ireland. But I hate cold and love hot sauce.

Because I was not wise enough to learn from experience, I had, what I told the Mister was in his honor, an upside-down, backwards “L” carved in my chest. But that “L” actually represents the third letter of melanoma.

I’m only telling you this so, when you see me wearing my caballera hat walking along the Mission Reach, you won’t make fun of me in front of me. My sombrero represents a self-preservation technique I learned from old postcards, from photos of men like those who used to grace the Mission Drive-In marquee.

san-antonio-market

And, yes, some of the postcards were condescending in tone. But the photos were of real people, real people living in San Antonio who wore sensible hats when going about their daily business.

At this latitude, the sombrero-toting figure appears the smart one. Having a red neck is no sign of intelligence; it’s just asking to be branded with one of those “L’s.”

If only I had one of those back-saving burros to port that case of two-buck Chuck up to the kitchen….