I always enjoy creating art for my friends Kevin & James at Arte de La Vida... This fall, they are featuring works by local artists honoring the spirits of deceased pets. The art featured on the card is called "Into My Dreams Tonight", by Robin West.
This piece is fashioned after one of the 10th card in Mexico's national game, ¡Lotería!. The Mexican version of the card is simple (right), and has a companion dicho (saying):
El que a buen árbol se arrima, buena sombra le cobija.
(He who nears a good tree, is blanketed by good shade.)
However, I don't do anything simple, so I expanded my interpretation to symbolize a Tree of Life. I found inspiration from the fabulous yarn painting of the Huichol Indians of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, and "painted" with my computer mouse as if I was working with yarn. The paintings are all-digital, created using the software program, Adobe Illustrator.
The concept of a tree of life is a widespread archetype in the world's mythologies; a sacred tree in religious and philosophical tradition. The tree of knowledge, connecting to heaven and the underworld, and the tree of life, connecting all forms of creation, are both forms of the world tree or cosmic tree. My interpretation is one akin to connecting all forms of creation, and I include animals & insects found in our Sonoran corner of the world: the bat, bees, hummingbirds, the cardinal, the jaguar, sky-island squirrel, a pair of deer, the owl*, and of course, the mythical serpent, La Corua.
* The pinwheel design on the owl's breast is that of a peyote cactus bud - the spiritual hub of Huichol culture.
Long existing as an all-but-forgotten outpost in Mexico's northern frontier, Tucson's customs have deep indigenous/Mexican/Catholic roots. The annual calendar here is still defined by Catholic and folk celebrations, and June 24 marks St. John the Baptist's Feast Day - La Fiesta de San Juan. Without the Santa Cruz River, Tucson's existence would not have been possible, and as the desert hermit who baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, San Juan has special meaning for Mexican families. Tucson's seasonal calendar also turns around this time; from the dry summer months of May & June towards the summer monsoon season; which generally begins around the 1st of July.
El Día de San Juan is a day for musicians to serenade people named Juan or Juana at dawn, for family picnics by sources of water, and for engaging in water fights and bathing. Because water was used in the baptizing of Jesus, it was believed to have special powers on this day. For example, if one had eye problems, cures were sought by washing one's eyes in a stream.
La Fiesta de San Juan begins with a religious procession carrying a statue of St. John the Baptist to his customary altar to preside over the fiesta-- followed by a blessing ceremony performed by Aztec dancers. There follows an evening of live music and dance, games, piñata-breaking for kids, and food & craft vendors.
Historically, the fiesta also included lively celebrations and competitions on horseback. From the late 19th Century into the early 20th, there was a popular sport called Corrida de Gallos (Rooster Game). It involved burying a rooster up to its neck in sand while young men on horseback took turns racing towards it, attempting to pull it out of the ground as they galloped by. Due to its violence it was eventually discontinued. For many years, incredible young charras (horsewomen) known as Escaramuzas ("skirmish") put on rousing performances conducting elaborate dressage maneuvers at a full gallop, riding sidesaddle. Sadly, this rich tradition has been absent in recent Fiesta de San Juan's.
In my painting, I have tried to capture the essences of the many peoples and factions that give summer its meaning here in Sonoran Arizona:
Former La Corua clients, Kevin & James, remain good friends, and I love doing the occasional project for them. They have expanded their fabulous vintage folk art store to include an small art gallery. Check them out!
Doña Imelda is the quintessential essence of a desert wise-woman and healer. She came to me as inspiration from a real-life curandera named Huila in Luis Alberto Urrea's novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter.
Imelda walks barefoot with Mother Earth through a Sonoran sky-island landscape. The saguaro cactus is in the midst of spring bloom, surrounded by Chaparral (creosote bush). Edging up the hillside is a gnarly old mesquite tree with a great horned owl gazing at her in the distance. (In indigenous folklore, owls are believed to portend death; but I present it here as the symbol of transition, ready to help Imelda guide spirits of the suffering to the Spirit or Flower World.)
She walks with reverence to all living things and gazes fondly at the life she sees around her. She is greeted by hummingbirds, a horned lizard, and creatures of the spring; including a dragon fly. I gave the turtle a mystical quality because I see her as the spirit of my own artist mother who loved turtles. Another mystical, mythical creature is the water-serpent, La Corúa. A vanishing folktale of the Sonoran borderlands tells of La Corúa: a large water snake with a cross on its forehead that guards the spring and cleans the veins of water with its fangs. It is believed that if you kill the Corúa the spring will dry up.*
Imelda wears a simple huipil with embroidered flowers typical to the Yoeme (Pascua Yaqui) tribe. Around her neck is an Ojo de Venado (Dear Eye), a talisman to guard against evil spirits, and a handmade rosary with La Virgen de Guadalupe and shells for each mystery. She wears a golden rebozo (shawl) and a satchel for herbs and other healing talismans she finds.
Plants of medicinal significance:
Imelda is carrying Arizona/Summer poppies or Baiborín (Kallstroemia grandiflora) - used for fatigue, body pains, fever ... and mange in animals. Growing along the spring is a Passion-fruit vine (Passiflora mexicana) or Pasionaria, which grows in canyons of Southeastern Arizona and Mexico. A sedative, it quiets respiration and blood pressure.
The Chaparral, (Creosote bush), one of the most common, widely dispersed plants of the Desert Southwest, and has many medicinal properties. When applied as a salve to the skin, chaparral slows down the rate of bacterial growth and kills it with its antimicrobial activity.
Lastly is Toloache, Sacred Datura (Datura meteloides). Though highly toxic, this is one of the most beautiful plants of the Southwest. According to the Seri tribe, Datura was one of the first plants ever created. Therefore, it is said that humans should avoid contact with the plant as it is extremely sacred. Only shamans use the plant, as inappropriate use can be very dangerous. The Mixteca of Oaxaca, Mexico, believe that the plant spirit of Datura is an elderly wise woman.
*Tucson’s internationally renown folklorist, “Big Jim” Griffith has kept the tale of La Corúa alive through the years, and it became the inspiration for the name of my art business.)
In this homage, it is my intent to reach beyond the political wailing and gnashing of teeth to remind us that the Divine often comes through via the "least of these". The Christmas story has many parallels to the struggles of present day migrants crossing Arizona. It is my way of blending both historical and true-to-life contemporary elements, and of putting a human face on the "aliens" among us. My story goes like this:
The treacherous journey through Mexico and into the Sonoran desert overcomes the pregnant Maria, and she goes into labor. The pollero (coyote) of her group leaves her to fend for herself. She seeks shelter under the spreading branches of a mesquite tree.
Maria sits on her backpack, covered by her jacket. Her bare feet have blisters from many miles of walking. The man Jose is older than Maria and could be her husband, a relative, or a sympathetic fellow crosser. He wears dark clothing and the iconic back-pack with a gallon jug of water. In his right hand is a staff hewn from a mesquite branch, which may also indicate he's made this trek before.
Maria wraps the newborn Jesus in a bordado (hand-embroidered tortilla cloth) -- a memento given by her mother back home for her new life in the E.E.U.U. (United States). Hummingbirds are an auspicious blessing in most indigenous cultures, and three of them visit the baby.
The birth of this tiny human stirs the curiosity of some local desert wildlife... a javelina and her baby and a jackrabbit look on. A bobcat gazes from atop a saguaro behind the mesquite tree. ( Yes, they really do hang out on top of saguaros!) Crawling from the rocks towards Maria's battered shoes is a scorpion - a reminder that life is a precarious journey. (A scorpion logo also appears on many cartel drug packages.)
Instead of a star, there is a Border Patrol helicopter. It is not clear whether it has discovered Jose & Maria's hiding place...
Navidad en Arizona is part of the vision I seek to portray through art:
a compassion that can stand in awe of what "the least of these" carry -- rather than stand in judgement of how they carry it.
Located at the base of Sentinel Peak (A Mountain), Barrio Kroeger Lane is set down on the birthplace of Tucson; named Chuk: Shon by its original inhabitants, the Tohono O'odham. There are remnants of ancient Hohokam and Piman settlements scattered throughout the area. It is still considered sacred land by the families (mostly Mexican-American and devoutly Catholic), who have lived here for generations. As with so much else in Tucson with development potential, this rustic neighborhood is endangered by the pressures of progress.
Barrio Kroeger lane gets its namesake from an Anglo doctor who served the neighborhood as a general practitioner. Due to its location on the banks of the Santa Cruz River, the area was also nicknamed Sal Si Puedes due to occasional flooding leaving only one or two exits out of the area.
What distinguishes this humble little neighborhood from most of Tucson’s other barrios is the continuing ownership of horses and small livestock animals. In early years, Tucson’s annual Fiesta del Día de San Juan was graced with rousing performances by Escaramuzas (ladies in folklorico dresses riding sidesaddle) from Barrio Kroger Lane. The railroad-tie corral fence is a defining feature of the neighborhood.
A gallo (rooster) crows as the young vaquero practices his skills with his lasso.
The walkway to the adobe house is made from TPBCO (Tucson Pressed Brick Company) bricks. TPBCO and other brick manufacturing companies thrived on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and employed many of Barrio Kroger Lane’s residents.
The little hand-made capilla (chapel) was used to celebrate mass on special occasions. It was also built to honor elders unable to attend regular church. Succumbing to benign neglect, it has since been removed.
The cave high on the hillside is a tiny grotto-like cave honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe. The story goes that, in the 1950’s, a humble man with a devotion to Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was thrown in jail for a crime he did not commit. From the jail he could see the A Mountain hillside, and every day he prayed to La Virgen. He promised her that if the real criminal was found he would build a shrine to her on that hillside. Sure enough, eventually the true culprit came forward and the man was freed. True to his manda (promise), he created this shrine honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. The tiny grotto holds offerings to other saints, in particular San Judas, the saint of impossible causes, who is held dear by the neighborhood.
In more recent years, another shrine to the Lady was built on the mountain by local firefighters. She overlooks the sweeping intersection at Star Pass and Mission Roads, and is cleaned and seasonally decorated by Barrio Kroger Lane residents.
My thanks to Josefina Cardenas, long-time resident of Barrio Kroeger Lane, for helping me with this interpretation.
This is the first piece to promote a new store that will be opening on September 1st. It will feature fine Mexican Folk Art, vintage and new. Next projects will include designing the exterior sign for the store and then... the website! The owners are first class people and I am honored to be part of their endeavor.
(Click on the pictures to enlarge)
And here is the exterior sign for the store. It will hang in three sections swag-style, just as real papel picados do. (Papel picado literally means 'punched' or 'perforated' paper. Originally a highly-refined art form from China, this traditional cut paper folk art has been embraced throughout Mexico.) To learn more about the history of the papel picado, here is a link to a website chock full of them; along with many other great items:
El Día de los Muertos/Day of the Dead/All Souls Day has become more & more recognized and celebrated here in the greater American West in recent years. The Day of the Dead as it is celebrated in central and southern Mexico is an incredible amalgamation of native and Catholic beliefs, and honors departed members of the family. As the time of year when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest, it is believed that the departed actually come back, returning to visit their grave sites and the scenes of their lives.
One of the ways that Mexicans cope with loss is to view the concept of death in an almost playful manner. Markets are filled with candy skulls (complete with names) and statues and depictions of calacas (skeletons) engaged in everyday acts like playing music, celebrating weddings (and funerals!), riding skeleton horses, bikes, and countless other life delights.
Artists have participated in the long-standing tradition of creating calaveras (skulls) to celebrate this event - often satirizing the events, customs and personalities of the day. The most famous Mexican artist known for this is José Guadalupe Posada.
Here is a satirical image of myself - I call it "Sirena Me" (note long gray hair). I fashioned it after the famous image card of the Siren in Mexico's national game, ¡Lotería!. I play the guitar and sing (I jokingly refer to my voice as dizzying..) You can actually hear a few recordings from several years ago on my personal website, Victoria's Borderland. The turtle represents my mother (who loved turtles) and I am wearing morning glories, her favorite flower.
In the northern frontiers of Mexico and border regions, El Día de los Muertos is more muted but departed family members are honored just the same. Fall is when families of the departed clean grave sites, give them fresh paint, and decorate the graves with flowers--fresh, silk/plastic, and hand-made paper.
Of all the seasons of the year, Fall is my favorite. Here in the Sonoran Desert the temperatures begin to cool and there is a restful stillness in the air. Around the world, many cultures celebrate this time as the annual window when the veil between the spirit and physical world is the thinnest. In pre-Christian times, death was not a thing to be feared but a transition to be celebrated as another form of life. In this way, family members and ancestors were honored and kept close in the hearts of the living.
During this special fall window, many grand occurrences take place in nature that have helped people connect with those who have passed on. In North America, one of the most phenomenal is the mass migration of the Monarch butterfly. Every year, 60 million-one billion Monarchs make the journey from eastern Canada to the forests of western central Mexico. They arrive in the state of Michoacán every fall. The Purépecha Indians in the region have noticed the arrival of monarchs since pre-Hispanic times. In the native Purépecha language, the monarch butterfly is called the harvester butterfly, because monarchs appear when it's time to harvest the corn.
Monarchs and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos) also occurs when the monarchs appear. According to traditional belief, the monarchs are the souls of ancestors who are returning to Earth for their annual visit.
All Souls/All Saints/Day of the Dead occurs officially on November 2nd. In Mexico, however, it is a three-day celebration that begins on October 31st. More on this festive tradition next post.