El Maestro de Los Monos

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-5-45-19-pmBy Geri Anderson with photographer/translator Marcus Wilkinson

If you’ve ever wandered through Oaxaca City’s Jalatlaco neighborhood to the corner of Niños Heroes de Chapultepec and Calle Aldama, you’ve probably noticed José Octavio Azcona y Juárez, Mexico’s foremost monero (puppet maker) working in his shop, creating monos de calendas (huge dancing puppets). Until retirement three years ago, he might have been changing a tire on a semi-trailer truck right there on the Pan American highway! That was his life’s work for 30 years, that AND making monos, which are sometimes called gigantes because they truly are gigantic creations.

The sign on his rented workshop says “Espacio de la Cultura,” and monos certainly are part of Oaxaca’s culture. Two huge laurel trees between the street and sidewalk provide shade. “When I planted them, they were this big,” José recalls, “holding up his little finger.” Often, under the trees there are monos waiting for their buyers to pick them up. It’s a great photo op for tourists and visitors. One day in the shade of the two towering laurels stood Lila Downs and Paul Cohen in full wedding attire. José had created a recognizable likeness in the monos for the boda of this famous couple, she a multi-lingual award-winning singer, he a talented saxophonist. José says he spent twenty days creating the bride and groom.

If not representing famous people, politicians or TV personalities, José’s images just spill out of his head and onto his fingers which create the papier-maché heads. He paints the faces, sews the clothes and uses yarn or raffia for hair.

“Every mono is different, every mono is special,” he says. “Every one of them has a place in my heart.”

He began making gigantes at a young age, when for a fiesta in a village he wanted to dance inside a mono, but no one would loan him one, so he made his own. Then he got an order to make one, then another. Today he creates monos for people throughout Mexico and the United States. He points to a tall, blue-eyed blonde dressed in bright yellow decorated with bits of colored lace. She is Judit from Veracruz, towering in the back of his shop, above some others. He doesn’t rent the puppets and prices depende. There’s a different price for someone pobre than for someone rico, he explains.

While watching a parade led by the gigantes, you can’t help but smile, even laugh out loud as they dance and flap their huge arms, sometimes hitting a too-close bystander.

José says, “What I like most is that the dancing monos make people smile—Mexicans, foreigners and children. Every smile that is given is food for my soul. Enjoying the monos is completely democratic. The happiness goes to all, it does not matter about your economic position or religion. Oaxaca is always in a state of fiesta. When someone is born, there is a lot of music, also when someone dies. And in between the two, we dance and enjoy life.”

No one knows for sure the origin of the gigantes. There is no archeological evidence that they are a pre-Hispanic tradition. They date only to the colonial period. Although the humorous humanoids have migrated to other parts of Mexico and even to the United States, they definitely originated in Oaxaca. José suspects the first ones were created by workers on the haciendas. Customarily the hacienda owners didn’t live there all the time, and for comic relief the indigenous “slaves” made giant puppets that mocked their bosses. The tall, light skinned, blonde-haired Espanolas no doubt seemed as funny and odd looking to the short workers as the over-sized puppets look to us.

The large, flopping arms (jammed with pillow stuffing) may have mimicked the awkwardness of the rich Spanish conquerors who were not skilled craftsmen, nor adept cooks or housekeepers. They had servants, after all.

Today, José’s monos make people happy. Seeing children and adults alike smiling at his creation is “food for my soul,” he says. Forming the funny puppets is fun for him. His papier-maché facial features might resemble famous people, TV personalities, politicians or cartoon characters. Others just spill out of his head and onto his fingers which paint the face and sew the clothing.

He buys taffeta and other shiny material by the meter and stitches skirts and shirts on an old Singer sewing machine tucked away in a corner of his workshop. The costumes are not Prada perfect, but mismatched designs in bright, contrasting colors. The colorful clothing covers a skeleton fashioned from carrizo, a native reed similar to bamboo, but lighter. The razor-sharp edges of the slender stalks must be covered with cloth to prevent injury to the carrier/dancer.

There are peepholes at the waistline for the puppeteers, strong young men because the monos measure 10 to 12 feet high and weigh 10 kilos or more. The dancers must carry them for hours. “Spectators don’t notice them,” José explains. “They are too busy laughing.”

Years ago, José traded his house for a Harley Davidson and a Trans Am convertible. He drives them “only on Saturdays and Sundays when there’s less traffic.” He has rented his workshop space for decades, and sometimes you can see and smell a pot of guisado bubbling on a one-burner hot plate.

José admits he is self-taught and has no educational credentials or diplomas. He says, “Mi diploma es mi corazon” (My diploma is my heart). His heart and his talent has been recognized by the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, where three of his monos de calendas are on permanent display. He also has an exhibit in the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. There, the larger-than-life man and woman have the detailed facial features for which José Octavio Azcona is known, but they are dressed in traditional trajes (clothing). The exhibit is elegant, dignified, not floppy and funny.

Even when on deadline fulfilling customers’ orders, José always has time to talk with his gaggle of friends–a seemingly endless parade of folks pass by his workshop. When I asked him how much time he had for this interview, he replied: “Todo la vida” (all my life). He loves to talk to people about his monos almost as much as he loves to make them.

During our interview, he stopped talking for a few minutes and rushed to the sidewalk to embrace a woman dressed in an elegantly embroidered royal purple blouse. After they reminisced and caught up on news of each other’s lives, she walked away. Pepe, as his friends call him, explained that she was born and raised in Oaxaca, but was now just visiting because she married a Frenchman and lives in France.

A father of three and grandfather of five, José especially thrives on the smiles of children and tells the story of an autistic, non-talking child who will talk to the puppets. He makes lighter weight ones for children as young as five or six years old. “I figure if I get them interested when young, they’ll continue to have interest as an adult and the custom will continue. Folks remember their first mono.”

For more info, including a video interview by Marcus: http://www.mexicancorrido.com

click on “Monos de calenda” in the ‘M-Z’ portion of the index.

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