Category Archives: December 2021
By Jane Bauer
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” ~Pericles
A year ago we were counting down to say goodbye to 2020, which most people felt was one of our worst years. A year later I am not sure we are doing much better. I have been struggling for a week or so contemplating what I would say in my editorial and even as I latched onto something positive it would quickly spiral in my mind and the reality of our collective malaise would come into view.
I am writing this on the eve of American Thanksgiving and coming up with things I am grateful for on a personal level is an easy task. I love most aspects of my life. I have a job that I am excited to go to, I work with dedicated and kind people who exceed my expectations. My daughter is a smart and loving person who is doing well in school and we say ‘I love you’ with the same ease we did when she was four years old. My house is an oasis and a delicious meal is never too far off in the future. This week I have seen the faces of customers who over the years have become friends and I am thrilled that people are traveling again. The sun continues to shine in Huatulco, the ocean is refreshing, the economy is slowly recovering from pandemic shutdowns and I have an amazing support network of friends.
But looking beyond my bubble I am less optimistic. Groups of displaced people continue to push against borders in an effort to improve their lives or even just to survive. Today marks the 100th day since the Taliban took over Afghanistan and much of the population is struggling just to get enough food to survive. Women’s rights in the US are being challenged as violence breaks out on the streets in Wisconsin. Delhi is on lockdown because of poor air quality, while British Colombia is battling mud slides and heavy rains. This year saw record-breaking natural disasters from erupting volcanos, droughts, floods and hurricanes. Nearly two dozen species of birds, fish and wildlife were declared extinct this year.
So what can we do beyond recycling, eating less meat and all the other little acts that we do to make us feel like part of the solution instead of the problem? What can we learn from this coronavirus experience? We are interconnected. There is so way to move through the world bouncing only on the walls of our personal bubbles.
Our resolutions for 2022 should be to spread empathy and compassion all across the globe. To learn to have civilized conversations with people who don’t have the same political views as our own. Our goal should be to ensure everyone is safe from persecution, has food and shelter. We need to get kids out of immigration detention centers where they are held like prisoners without a place in the world. It’s no longer enough to resolve to exercise more and eat better in 2022- these are drastic times that call for BIG peaceful and loving action.
Let us embrace our interconnectedness and see the suffering of one as the suffering of all as we strive to make our world more inhabitable.
See you in 2022,
A Notable Mexican Artist … and a Noble Father
By Brooke Gazer
In 1951, Vicente Gandía immigrated. with his widowed mother and sisters, from Spain to Mexico. He was just sixteen, but within a few years he enrolled in UNAM to study architecture. After two years, he realized he preferred drawing existing buildings to designing new ones and left to pursue his career as an artist.
Those two years were not wasted, however; many of his pieces are grounded by detailed architectural elements like windows, patios, and doors. His work was strongly influenced by the great French impressionist and post-impressionist painters: Manet, Bonnard, Cezanne, and Matisse. This movement is inspired by the concept of capturing the moment. His paintings have a decorative quality with a bold use of color. Organic matter springs to life as landscapes, gardens, and floral arrangements seem to move within the canvas.
Like many artists, he struggled, but by the mid 1970s, Gandía began to achieve international acclaim. His work has appeared in museums and galleries throughout North and South America, as well major cities in Europe. In 1988, the catalogue for the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City, stated: “The work of Vicente Gandía is part of the best tradition of Spanish painting. It starts out from real, solid things, and makes them glow from within, as though with the hidden splendor of their true essence.”
I like the work of this artist, but even more, I believe I would have liked the man. He was my friend’s father, and she told me a touching story about him and one of his paintings.
When she was nine years old, Mariana walked into her father’s studio, which was part of their home in Cuernavaca. She’d fallen in love with an enormous canvas titled, Ventana con Magnolias, which he had recently completed. Even as a small child she was frugal and had been saving her pesos. Their Spanish conversation went something like this.
“Pappa, I love this painting and I want to buy it from you.”
“Oh, sweetheart, you don’t have to buy it, you can have it. It is yours.”
“No, this is your work. I want to pay for it, but I can only pay 9000 pesos because this is all I have saved. Will you sell it to me?”
“Of course, my love.”
This was 1985 and 9000 pesos might sound like a lot for a nine-year-old girl to have saved. To Mariana it was, but keep in mind that Mexico suffered a horrific devaluation in the 1980’s, and in 1985 it was the equivalent to about $40 USD.
Vicente was becoming “discovered.” The writer Gabriel García Márquez had heard his name mentioned in art circles, and asked to come to the house to see Vicente´s work. He intended to purchase a piece of this up-and-coming painter. This was a huge opportunity for any aspiring artist and of course Gandía was both honored and excited.
When Garcia arrived at their home, he was immediately drawn to the piece Mariana had purchased. Unaware that it was not for sale, he asked the price. Vicente told him it was not for sale because it belonged to his daughter. The writer’s ego could not accept that this artist, of some small acclaim, was refusing to sell him the piece of his choice. But he was infuriated that the man was withholding it in favor of a mere nine-year-old girl.
Gabriel García Márquez left in a huff, without making a purchase, and never returned. The sale to a famous writer might have advanced Gandía’s career, but to Vicente, a promise to his daughter was more important. This painting, which is currently valued at $50,000 USD, is prominently displayed in Mariana’s Mexico City apartment.
Vicente Gandía passed away in 2009 but both originals and prints can be found online and in several galleries.
On Sand and the Making of Castles
By Randy Jackson
To build a snow fort or sand castle? That is the (real) question. At this time of year, some northerners enjoying Huatulco might be wondering if their snow-fort building skills are transferable to constructing a sand castle. The short answer is no. But the desire to create an objet d’art out of something you try not to track in the house shows the right attitude. To build a moderately impressive sand castle involves five simple steps following the acronym LWBSF, and remembered by the phrase: Leave Winter Before Soul Freezes. Just two pieces of equipment are needed: A good sized bucket for hauling water, and something to sculpt with.
LOCATION: Choose a location. First choose a beach, one of the bays of Huatulco based on the type of sand. The more powdery the sand, the better it will compact for a lasting structure. Grainy beaches like Cacaluta are not good for sand castles. Once on the beach, choose the location of the castle itself. A place where the sand is moist below the surface is best. The farther from the water, the longer the water-hauling trips. And, of course, you want a spot above the high tide line.
Sand: As an avid hiker in the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes stand on some majestic rocky peak and grapple with the time scale it would take for the rock beneath my boots to become sand on a beach. It will, eventually. Sand is ground or eroded rock. Ocean waves do some of the work bashing against rocky shores, but streams bring most beach sand from rocky areas to rivers, then to oceans, where currents and tides deposit the granules back on land to make a sandy beach. Once a granule is chipped off a rock somewhere on a continent, it takes about one million years to move that granule each 100 miles along waterways. Think of the eons of time we could save if we all brought a jar of sand down on the plane.
WET DOWN THE AREA: Often a good location for a sand castle is closer to a beach restaurant where beverages can be supplied to the castle builder, but this usually means the sand is dry. Mark out a six-foot square with your foot. Then haul buckets of water up to this spot to soak the sand at least to the depth of one foot.
Sand: Not all sand is the same – there are some differences in the sand even among the bays of Huatulco. Around the world, sand comes in six different colours: white, grey, black, pink, green (yes, green – the most famous is a green beach in Hawaii), and the most common, golden or brown. Consistency of the grains also varies widely. Desert sand differs from beach sand. Beach sand and sand mined from river areas is in great demand, whereas desert sand has few uses. The issue with desert sand is that the grains of sand journey to the desert overland, blown by the wind. This makes the desert sand grains smooth and rounded, and rounded grains don’t bind well even in concrete. It’s the angular grains delivered through rivers and oceans that allow for bonding between grains and allows for compaction. Dubai, for example, has imported millions of tons of sand from Australia to build their new islands for condo towers. Their own nearby desert sand is of no use.
BUILD A VOLCANO: When the sand in your spot is sufficiently soaked, build a base in the shape of a volcano. Dig the sand up around the sides of a base about three feet across and keep piling it on, up to a height of about three feet. Keep flattening the top as you go. Once the sand volcano is high enough, scoop a crater out of the flattened top.
Sand: Sand is the second most-consumed natural resource on the planet, right after water. Cement is by far the biggest use for sand. But there are other substantial uses as well. Asphalt, glass and computer chips use significant quantities of sand. Civilization as we know it could not exist without the buildings, roads, and computer chips that are made from sand. Although in geological time, sand is a renewable resource, on a human timescale sand is a limited resource.
Demand for sand is outstripping supply. Most Southeast Asian countries have banned or restricted the export of sand. Sand mining has completely obliterated at least two dozen islands in Indonesia since 2005. The main culprit – Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer. Singapore wants to make more land, and sand is the best material for that. The Times of India has reported that the Illegal sand trade amounts to $2.3 billion per year. There have been hundreds of killings between “Sand Mafias” in India. Even beaches themselves are a source of demand for sand. The US Geological Survey estimated that two thirds of Southern California beaches may be gone by 2100 – only 80 years down the road. Moreover, virtually all of California’s water flows into the ocean are dammed and used upstream. This means the natural erosion of beaches is outstripping the natural sources of supply.
Remember in the movie, The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) says to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), “I just have one word for you – plastics”? He could have said “Sand.”
SOAK THE VOLCANO: Haul more water and pour it slowly into the crater on top of your sand volcano. Physics experiments have shown the optimum strength in sand structures has the ratio of eight parts sand to one part of water. Keep patting the sides of the volcano. Haul sufficient water until the flattened top of the volcano seems solid when you push down on it. Once this is done, flatten the top out further so it no longer looks as much like a volcano. You will now have the base of your sand castle, and it should last for more than a day.
Sand: Given sufficient geological time, with the gradual erosion of continental mountains into sand, will the earth one day be a planet of sand, as in the book/movie Dune? No: Very slooooooowly, rock makes sand, and sand eventually makes new rock. Sand settles in certain places where winds and currents leaves it. More gets added, and more and more, and the weight of the sand compacts and pushes the sand deeper and deeper into the earth. Pressure, temperature, and chemical reactions eventually transform sand into sedimentary rock. Yada yada … , and eventually tectonic plates push that sand-made-rock up to form new mountain ranges.
FREEHAND SCULPTURE: Here is where you need a wood sculpting tool. A wooden ruler is ideal, although one of the wooden book markers that vendors pedddle on the beach works OK, too. Begin by squaring out the sides of your flattened sand volcano. Next, scoop sand into your bucket, about 1/3rd full. Add to that enough water to easily cover the sand and let the sand settle into the bottom, below the surface of the water. After a minute or so, scoop out a handful of wet sand from the bucket and work it between your hands until enough water is pressed out to make a mucky ball. Place the ball on the top of your sand base, near the edge, making small piles about eight inches high. Each pile you make will become your castle turrets.
Once your blobs have been arranged all around the edge, use your sculpting tool to carve the sides into circular turrets. Notches can be carefully carved out of the turret tops. Use your sculpting tool to make a brick looking crosshatch in the turrets and the base of the castle. Use the soaked sand to add other features like walls between the turrets and a drawbridge.
Knowing a bit about sand makes the construction of a sand castle a kind of celebration. Celebrating that in the face of geological forces and time scales beyond our comprehension, we are here on a beach, making something from a substance the earth itself uses like playdough. True, our structure lasts a day, mountain ranges somewhat longer. Yet, both are temporary, on different time scales. But then again, who tries to contemplate all that when the air is warm, the waves are washing ashore, and you’ve built an outdoor structure without having to wear your snowsuit!
Ruben Orozco Loza’s Hyperrealistic Art
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Rubén Orozco, a Mexican hyperrealist artist, recently caused an international sensation with his latest installation, Bihar: Choosing Tomorrow. Bihar sends chills down your spine as you look at the head of a girl, eyes staring into the sky, placidly drowning in the River Nervión in Bilbao, Spain. The installation, created by Orozco and his co-artist Clara Inés Alcántara Dávalos, is an over 260-pound sculpture created from fiberglass and resin and embedded in underwater concrete and iron. The girl is submerged daily by the river tides. According to the BKK Foundation that sponsored this extraordinary artwork, Bihar is a plea for a sustainable future, “An expression of expectation for the decisions that we will make and that will determine if we live sunk or stick our heads out.”
Although Orozco has won international fame, acclaim and notoriety, he is a true Tapatío. Born in Guadalajara in 1979, his formal education took place in that city. He attended the University of Guadalajara majoring in visual arts. At age 27 he was awarded the State of Jalisco Prize for Youth. More recently he was given an honorable mention for the Juan Soriano Sculpture Award, named after the famed artist who was also a Tapatío. And he was selected to provide the city with a sculpture of Rita Pérez de Moreno, one of the heroes of the revolution; the statue was installed in Guadalajara near the Rotonda de Jaliscienses Ilustres in 2010 on the 149th anniversary of her death.
Orozco was born in the same decade (the 1970s) as hyperrealistic art first began to appear in art galleries. Drawing its roots from hyperrealistic photography, the art form in its earliest stages often reproduced photos of commonplace, everyday settings such as city streets, emphasizing details, such as gutter trash, that realistic artists ignored and romantic artists rejected. Orozco often draws from photos of celebrities to sculpt both his larger-than-life figures and his smaller sculptures. But his renditions incorporate, in many of his sculptures of men, a myriad of minute imperfections that are naturally occurring over time in humans. His sculptures that are larger than life size and small sculptures of women tend to portray hyper realistic beauty with each strand of hair (often real hair) in place, each eye lash long and perfectly aligned and each eyebrow consisting of perfectly symmetrical filaments. For one example, his bust of the actor and later princess, Grace Kelly, appears to radiate perfection.
The media used by Orozco vary from sculpture to sculpture, seemingly dependent on the tonal quality and emotions he is striving to evoke. Clay, wood, latex, resin, plasticine, and silicone are among the materials he uses to construct, shape and finish his works. The hyper attention to minute detail requires hours of painstaking labor. Even the smallest sculpture commonly requires close to two months of working 12 hours a day.
The work that goes into Orozco’s sculptures has been recorded in a series of videos that are available on Instagram and YouTube. It is fascinating to watch the process of his creations – including the Bihar installation from initial stage to final placement in the river. The videos allow one to witness how a slight adjustment, such as a minuscule change in the position of an eye, can radically change the overall appearance of a sculptured face.
Many of his works replicate the appearance of people who have achieved extreme international celebrity status including Frida Kahlo, Pope Francis, and David Bowie. Among his works are a sculpture of a fellow artist from Guadalajara, Guillermo del Toro, the film director, from who won four Oscars including those for The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth. He also captured the likeness of the great Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco, probably not related to Ruben through familial descent, but definitely related in dedication to depicting reality through a large lens.
Although some people have found the works of Ruben Orozco to be “eerie” in their verisimilitude, to Orozco the detail of representation is just a way of providing insights into human nature. In an interview with Microsoft News he said, “The most important detail of my work is not the portrait but capturing the essence of being. I want people to reflect on the greatness of being human despite the adversities.”
One of his most touching sculptures is not of a celebrity but rather a young African American child. The boy’s stance and expression indicate vulnerability. Yet he is carrying a sign advocating for humane actions. He literally stands for the causes that Orozco is attempting to promote: peace, human rights, and a sustainable world.
The Lure of Hawaiian Shirts
By Randy Redmon
Although the actual origin of this colorful shirt is kind of hard to find, the aloha shirt first appeared in Hawaii sometime between 1920 and 1930. Japanese women started making shirts from the same fabric that they used to make kimonos. The shirts started to get very popular with tourists in Hawaii at the time, but they really started taking off when they hit the mainland in about 1931.
In the 1930s, America was going through some pretty harsh times, a lot of folks were out of work, others struggled just to make ends meet. With hardship and anxiety riddling the country, people craved something happy – enter the Hawaiian shirt! The shirt became super en vogue, which seems a bit odd, because this was also when the superhero emerged. The Hawaiian shirt seemed to be in sharp contrast to the superhero mentality, but that didn’t seem to affect the explosive popularity of the flowery garment.
You have to be careful, though, these shirts can be addicting – some people have five or six of them in their closets. The shirt just seems to bring you back to a happier time, a warmer time. Hawaii can be everywhere, anywhere, even here in Huatulco! It is so fun to see peoples’ faces when they climb our spiral staircase to the second floor where our array of vintage Hawaiian shirts is displayed. You can’t help but have a smile on your face when you see these colorful gems.
Randy Redmon runs the Huatulco Surf Co., located in Tangolunda, Huatulco.
Year Two of Covid:Literary Favorites of 2021
By Carole Reedy
This second year of the pandemic has given us another opportunity for many hours to ponder our fates and read new literary selections. When asked what makes a good book and, of the good ones, what makes a book great, Salman Rushdie, the thought-inspiring and entertaining writer, replied:
“What I look for in a book is a voice that sounds fresh, a relationship with language that feels exciting, and a vision of the world that enlightens or challenges me, or, just occasionally, changes the way I see the world in some degree. When I find at least one of those things, then that’s what I’d probably call a good book. When I find all of them, then the adjective ‘great’ may come to mind.”
Keeping in mind Rushdie’s analysis, I’ve chosen ten books I feel meet those criteria. Coincidentally, they’re also among the most entertaining reads of the year. The first two books I would place in Rushdie’s “Great Literature” category, the rest just slightly less than great.
CROSSROADS: A NOVEL, by Jonathan Franzen (2021)
Franzen’s masterpiece is so compelling it could win all the major literary awards next year. What makes that probable? Exactly what Rushdie’s formula dictates.
We discover Franzen’s 1970s American family, the Hildebrants, as if through a microscope, every movement of their lives together and their individual emotional states and thoughts detailed in this 600-page stunner, the first of a trilogy to come. As we’re drawn into each character’s world, our own reactions and a slight shift in perspective add to the sheer enjoyment of the language and provocative twists with each turn of the page. I seldom need a dictionary when reading a novel, but Franzen’s books are exceptions.
THE MAGICIAN: A NOVEL, by Colm Tóibin (2021)
After reading Tóibin’s story of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann’s long life, a friend said to me, “The masterpiece written by Tóibin about Thomas Mann’s life is infinitely more compelling and introspective than any of Mann’s well-respected novels.” And I have to agree.
Tóibin took on an enormous responsibility when he sat down to write a novel based on the 80 years that Mann graced our planet. Mann basked in the limelight during his life, which encompassed two wars over two continents. But the outstanding characteristic of this grand tribute lies in the life beneath the exterior, delving into the inner workings of his mind and heart.
Similar yearnings and emotions are reflected in Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer, also appearing below on this list. In both cases, it is heartbreaking to read the pain these men suffer for emotions they feel which, at the time, are in conflict with society’s norms and must therefore remain hidden and nrequited.
SHOULD WE STAY OR SHOULD WE GO: A NOVEL, by Lionel Shriver (2021)
Only a writer as adept as Lionel Shriver can make us chuckle about death and, especially, suicide. When do we say enough is enough? The aging couple in Shriver’s latest novel has devised a plan for leaving this life when body and soul dictate.
Shriver creates several scenarios of the manner in which the end might come about for the couple and the various consequences that might arise. As always, she doesn’t leave a loose thread hanging or a conclusion sloppily rendered.
Shriver in each of her novels explores, dissects, and delights in a modern-day problem/challenge/fad/concern that is unique to the human condition. I’ve never been disappointed in her rendering or treatment of our delicate mentality.
THE GIVER OF STARS: A NOVEL, by Jojo Moyes (2019)
THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK, by Kim Michele Richardson (2019)
These two novels are similar in subject, characters, and history, but vary in their treatment. The overriding topic is books and reading, which would capture the interest of any reader of this column. Both novels are based in fact, taking place during the 1930s depression era in rural Kentucky, where an FDR government initiative is being enacted: books delivered to rural areas on horseback by librarians.
These women are brave, tenacious, and strong (even if they start out a bit weaker) pioneers in the advancement and acceptance of women’s physical strength and determination.
I paused before opening each of these books, as I wasn’t familiar with the writers, the situation, or the geography and sociology of the area. Though I was doubtful, I decided to give them a try. Once immersed, I saw that I’d rushed to judgment and had happily been proved wrong.
The difference between the books is in the storytelling and characters. Moyes concentrates on four women who fight the terrain, customs, and mores of the area in their pursuit of dispensing knowledge. Each is unique in style and the manner in which she handles her job and the resulting dissent. But in the end each triumphs in her own way.
Richardson takes a different approach, with one woman front and center. Also woven into the narrative is the phenomenon of the “blue people.” Here’s a fascinating historical twist to the story – as if these dedicated women needed any more problems!
ARCTIC SUMMER, by Damon Galgut (2014)
What Tóibin accomplishes in his in-depth analysis of Thomas Mann, Galgut parallels in this beautiful portrayal of the admirable yet suffering author E. M. Forster. Instead of 80 years, however, Galgut concentrates on a more specific time and travel period, when Forster lived in India and Egypt.
Forster is a gentle man, even more so when compared to his British comrades, his love deep and yet impossible.
On November 3 of this year, Galgut deservedly won the prestigious 2021 Booker Prize for his novel The Promise: A Novel, also one of my favorite reads of the year.
HARLEM SHUFFLE by Colson Whitehead (2021)
This time around, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Whitehead gives us a whirlwind tour of 1960s New York, specifically to honky-tonk Harlem. We see it all through the eyes of small-time crook Ray Carney, who delights us with his subtle criminal, yet seemingly normal, life in the colorful barrio.
The characters surrounding him in his pursuit for a comfortable life for his family are painted in brilliant color with shades of sepia. They are quirky, frightening at times, occasionally astute, downright funny, and never stereotyped.
It was pure delight to accompany Ray on his “just a bit bent” adventures with friends and family, to whom he demonstrates uncommon loyalty, and to his enemies, with whom he gets even eventually with demonstrated patience.
HOMELAND: A NOVEL, by Fernando Aramburu (2020)
Off to another country across the ocean, to a time in the near past and a culture little-known to most of us. Basque Country is an autonomous region nestled in northeast Spain on the border with France, where long-standing conflicts take place in its struggle for independence. Homeland is a story told over several decades of two opposing families who prove to us the futility of wars and maybe even of principles.
Interesting that the reader comes to understand the motives and reactions to situations that at first seem alien, but in the end prove to be not so distant. The delicacy of human emotions seems constant regardless the culture or era.
The true stars of the novel are the matriarchs, their strength and pain. There isn’t much joy in this novel, but it reflects the deep rage, sadness, commitment, and existential challenge of the family in a remote section of Spain. The plot weaves through past and present to offer a full picture of the struggles of the region. You can watch an excellent, though less satisfying than the book, serial version of the story on HBO, called Patria, also the title of the book in Spanish.
THE IMMORTALISTS: A NOVEL, by Chloe Benjamin (2018)
The premise behind the story is one of our grand metaphysical questions: would you like to know the exact date and time of your death?
In other hands, the telling could have come off as trite and manipulated, but Benjamin guides us through the separate but intertwined lives and deaths of four young siblings who visit a fortune teller to discover the timing of their future demises. The author, perhaps wisely, leaves us with more existential questions at the end of each life than when we’d first joined them many years previously; possibly that was her intent.
THE RUTH GALLOWAY MYSTERY SERIES by Elly Griffiths
Druids, detectives, archaeologists, extramarital affairs, and digging up bones are among the elements that make this one of the finest mystery series published in this century.
Ruth Galloway is our hero, a prominent forensic archaeologist bone expert who teaches at the University of North Norfolk in England. She is sought after by local detectives seeking to solve murders that involve buried treasure … the treasure usually being a body found deep in an archeological dig.
Fourteen books make up a series in which we connect with the emotions, frustrations, and decisions of the main players, who are engaging and beautifully drawn. The ease with which we’re able relate to the characters is what sets this series apart from others.
Griffiths doesn’t go into elaborate contortions to develop or resolve her crimes, as many modern crime writers feel they must do. The plots are challenging and often humorous, without stretching for a clever solution. An additional plus is the pleasure these books bring in learning about the history and geography of the English countryside.
Try the first and see if you’re hooked. I recommend reading the books in order, as the characters are fleshed out over the series and various scenarios. Start with The Crossing Places (2010). I predict the books will bring you great pleasure in the post-pandemic (we can hope!) year ahead.
We’ve been graced with a plethora of fine novels from this and previous years. As always, I look forward to 2022 for more literary gems from old friends and new writers. We close this year encouraged by the always poignant words of the admirable Rushdie:
“The future of fiction is assured. The novel will survive and thrive.”
By Julie Etra
Talavera refers to a type and style of ceramics, including tiles, that originated in Talavera de la Reina, Spain. King Philip II of Spain (1527-98) famously used these tiles to decorate the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, an enormous complex in the city of the same name northwest of Madrid.
Mexican talavera is referred to as Talavera Poblana to distinguish it from its Spanish relative. The clay used for Mexican Talavera is natural earth, the same used to produce terracotta. The best clay is found in Puebla and Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City and the center of Mexico’s Talavera production, while the Moorish and European work uses white clay.
The glazing technique is the same, though, and was brought by the Moors to Al-Andalus (Andalusia, in southern Spain) in the 14th century. Called “faïence” after Faenza, Italy, which became a major pottery production center, the glazing technique adds tin to the lead-based white “slip,” or liquid clay applied over the surface of the piece, to create a smooth surface for painted decoration. In addition to the metals incorporated into the glaze, the faïence technique requires very high-temperature kilns.
The pottery of Spain and Mexico retains the name Talavera from the city of its origin; tin-glazed pottery from Majorca, the Mediterranean island off the eastern coast of Spain was called “Majolica” or “maiolica,” and was shipped from the island to Italy, where, as noted, the glaze became known as faïence.
In Mexico, production is centered in four Puebla cities: Puebla itself, Atlixco, Cholula, and Tecali. Most likely introduced by Catholic monks, demand increased in the 17th century as Puebla grew and more churches and monasteries, that is, buildings subsidized by the Church, which was able to afford the lavish, ornate decorations. Elaborate tile façades of private homes were also indicative of wealth and prestige.
The terracotta clay is brick red (pun intended) and visible at the base of the pieces, left unglazed so the piece does not fuse to the shelf of the high-temperature kiln. To meet regulations for authenticity, Talavera pieces are hand thrown on a potter’s wheel – they cannot be mass produced. Glaze colors are limited to blue, yellow, black, green, orange, and mauve (pinkish purple), and must originate from natural pigments. Historically, blue was the dominant, if not only, color, derived from cobalt, prestigious due to its rarity. Cobalt does not typically occur in free form but is chemically combined, requiring smelting to be isolated. The bottom of the piece is signed by the artist, where the logo and location of the manufacturer also appears.
The production process of Talavera ceramics is slow, meticulous, and complicated. With the many steps come the risks of failure at each juncture, one explanation for the relatively high cost for such exceptional art. There are two firings, as with stoneware and porcelain ceramics. Following the first firing the pieces are hand painted, and then fired at a high temperature.
Talavera is a proprietary product, like tequila or Champagne, with production authorized only from a particular place – in this case Puebla (and Tlaxcala, surrounded by Puebla), with nine certified workshops regulated by the Talavera Regulatory Counsel (Consejo Regulador de la Talavera). Techniques and materials are very thoroughly scrutinized by the Board. The Consejo tests glazes to ensure that the glaze does not have lead content of more than 2.5 parts per million, since many pieces are used to serve food and beverages.
These days, you can find the workshops online and order pieces ranging from all sizes of tiles and full place settings. From my perspective there is no substitute for a trip to Puebla (also famous for its excellent cuisine) to admire and examine the beautiful architecture and associated ceramic embellishments, and to personally check out the workshops and markets. Talavera is Puebla!
Photo: Modern Talavera – Daniel LLerandi
The Mad Scientist of Mezcal
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
While women have always played an important part in making mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave distillate that is almost entirely produced in the state of Oaxaca, tradition has dictated that it is men who actively learn the trade, using a family recipe passed down from generation to generation with little if any deviation. And so when a young woman, not from a mezcal-making family, dives headfirst into the industry, we must take notice.
Twenty-nine-year-old Rosario Ángeles is not constrained by family tradition. While she hails from Santa Catarina Minas, the self-proclaimed “cradle of mezcal,” her parents are tomato farmers, and her siblings are similarly not involved with the industry; not growing the succulent, nor harvesting, baking, crushing, fermenting nor distilling … nada.
It’s not that Rosario is unique in that she is a female distiller. Indeed, there are other women who have learned the profession from family members integrally involved in the business. Where she differs is that she has not been compelled to carry on a longstanding family tradition, doing it just as fathers and grandfathers carried forward a centuries-old way of doing things. On the contrary, Rosario had to read, and more importantly, learn from the few in her village willing to tutor a woman in the idiosyncrasies of ancestral mezcal production.
More significantly, being bright and inquisitive, Rosario had always been an outside-of-the-box thinker. She spent several months in California, not picking grapes, but rather as an au pair girl. And she has taught English in downtown Oaxaca, having obtained a degree in linguistics. But mezcal became her calling. She had become intrigued by the processes employed by her neighbors, and admired what they were doing. However, Rosario has already leapt ahead of most of her fellow villagers, despite having been distilling for less than two years.
I often teach about the myriad of diverse influences impacting every batch of mezcal in a different way: terroir and changing climatic conditions from year to year; variability in the wood used to cook in that sealed in-ground chamber over several days and the impossibility of evenly baking every agave piña (agave heart); the differences in molds forming on the piñas from time to time; the ever-changing quality of the air borne yeasts and of the water from wells, rivers and mountain springs needed in fermentation; and the skill sets involved in distillation, including the impacts of small changes in equipment employed. It’s almost impossible to isolate one impact from another. And who would ever think of even trying, almost all palenqueros having been schooled in the one and only “right way,” since literally childhood?
Rosario is not held back, nor confined, and her innate tendency to experiment and push the bounds of a tradition she didn’t know have never been reined in, by anyone. And so she continually looks to improve upon her craft.
One way has been to examine the effect of isolating a single impact from the rest. The mad scientist does something, I would argue, akin to a medical specialist’s differential diagnosis. She looks for the best answer which will hopefully lead to the optimum outcome. Rosario has now done it three times.
In each case Rosario has kept all but one impact uniform: the same bake, the same means of crushing, the same wooden fermentation vats, the same clay pot stills fueled by the same type of firewood, and the same means by which she achieves a particular ABV (alcohol by volume). And there are several other constants she aims to maintain.
The first experiment was comparing water sources used to add to the baked, honey-sweet crushed agave sub-species known locally as tobasiche. She used well water for half, and river water for the rest. The mezcal using river water yielded a mezcal a little sweeter. For the second, she used a different varietal of agave, cuixe, and allowed half the batch to sit, baked, for six days prior to crushing, watching particular molds form atop. For the other half she waited two weeks prior to crushing. In this case, Rosario and I each had a different opinion regarding our preference, yet both of us acknowledged a subtle difference. And finally, she has decided to evaluate the more or less common belief that using a copper, rather than stainless steel, condenser yields a significantly better mezcal. In this case tepeztate was the species of agave used for the experiment. And yes, this time she threw tradition to the wind; we both agreed that while there was merely a slight though detectable difference in the character of each resultant agave distillate, each was of exceptional quality. So much for the wisdom of the men who know better after decades of production.
I predict that within a further three or so years, Rosario will have achieved a range of mezcals the quality of which will equal, and in some cases, surpass the agave distillates of her fellow villagers with a heritage dating back generations. Most mezcal aficionados I have taken to visit Rosario’s distillery believe she is already there, and some have opined that yes, Rosario’s stable of mezcal expressions is better and more balanced than those steeped in the tradition.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Photo: Andrea Johnson Photography
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