Sunday, June 30, 2013

The art and ethnography of "Mexico South" (Miguel Covarrubias, 1947)

The history of Mexico is a surprising story to most Americans, if they are aware of any events beyond the American defense of the Alamo. The familiar-to-Americans holiday of Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican military surprise victory over French occupying forces at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. It's not even considered the most important national patriotic holiday in Mexico, which occurs on September 16th, celebrating the country's declaration of Independence from Spain in 1810. Mexico's large history, like many of its artists, remains primarily an unexplored story north of the Rio Grande.

Mexico South is a mid-century history by one of the country's premier illustrators, Miguel Covarrubias -- it's an expansive and detailed volume, a witty and charming guide to the ancient pre-Columbian culture of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the area shared by the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Covarrubias in his various careers was also a filmmaker, ethnographer, linguist, and commercial artist who created covers for many magazines. He spent years researching the ancient Olmec culture, documenting the land and the people of Tehuantepec, as well as its seven languages. And this was only one of his cultural studies; his 1936 book, The Island of Bali, is still in print, and was republished in 2008.

Young tehunas carrying flowers, illustration by M. Covarrubias

Mexico South is filled with Covarrubias's own colorful paintings and detailed photographs. It's a travel book of the researched, historical past and the busy, daily life in the area stretching the 117 miles at Mexico's narrowest point between Juchitan on the west and Coatzacoalcos on the east. He illustrates the region's ancient history and details the peoples' complex relationship with the Spanish conquistadores who transformed the culture in the 16th century.

These ideas are part of a larger Covarrubias theme, which he developed over years: that the Indian cultures of Mexico became a dynamic force on Pacific Ocean civilizations as far away as Easter Island.

While some of his speculations have been described as the ideas of one who "talked too much, knew too much, and felt too deeply about his subject," some of Covarrubias's ideas have since been proven to have some basis in fact. In Mexico South, the study of the Tehuantepec festivals show how much the ancient religious beliefs melded with the Catholic, Spanish rituals of holy days and the role of the saints in daily life.

"It is difficult to understand the religious outlook of the people, and, for that matter, of most Mexicans, if measured from the orthodox Catholic point of view. The Indians first became Catholics at the point of a sword and they ended by sincerely believing in and loving the saints, not only because they found moral comfort andspiritual glamour in them, but also because the religious ceremonial provided an outlet for drama and fun.

... the Indians had a 
sumptuous and intensely dramatic ceremonial of their own before the coming of the Spaniards, with much music and dancing, with luxurious pageants and awesome rites staged in an outdoor setting of ample plazas, platforms, pyramids and pennants. ...Esoteric mysticism was one of their strongest traits, and in many instances their religious concepts coincided with those of their conquerors."

Miguel Covarrubias
Although Spanish Catholics discontinued the festival of Mardi Gras for a time during the 1700s in New Orleans, in Tehuantepec the spring festivals surrounding an area's patron saint took on some of the trappings familiar to anyone on Bourbon Street: brass bands, parades of colorful, decorated floats, food and trinkets tossed from a great height to a waiting -- and mostly drunk -- crowd below. Here's a description of the end of the Spring festival in Jucatan, which the author witnessed:

"The climax came when the clarinets announced the regional tune of Tehuantepec, the Zandunga. Cymbals clashed; the saxophone and trumpet and four clarinets played as if each man was playing for himself, a pandemonium of flowery variations punctuated by the stately, awkward beats on the bass drum. The band then played a diana to announce the culmination of the entire feast; the time had come for the Tirada de Fruta, the fruit-throwing ...

A group of handsome girls appeared at the end of the street. They bore on their heads brightly-colored xicalpextles, lacquered gourds full of fruit, cakes, and clay toys, topped by a monumental arrangement of tissue-paper flags cut into lacy patterns. It was a luscious spectacle of reds, yellows, black and gold , the little flags fluttering overhead.
The girls climbed the church steps to the roof, the bells tolled rapidly, firecrackers exploded, ragamuffins took positions. The flute and drum played an exciting "war" theme, and fruits of all sorts -- mangoes, bananas, large pineapples -- and toys began to fly down from the roof. ...
Bowl after bowl of fruit was emptied into the mostly-drunk crowd; coconuts and pineapples added a touch of danger to the sport. The excitement lasted until the last xicalpextle of fruit and toys was emptied. Then everybody went home to rest, some with bruises and bumps but proud of their prizes, not because of their intrinsic value, but because they were captured so dangerously."

Covarrubias ends Mexico South on a somber note. When he was traveling and writing after World War II, Covarrubias was aware that extremism could easily take root in the unsettled politics of Mexico and its poverty."Fascism lies defeated and broken in Europe, but it survives in the New World. The native variety is run on a more modest scale ... its ideal of society remains the pattern of a docile and serviceable lower class of pious, ignorant, and contented peasants ruled by that privileged triumverate: the Church, the Military, and the Landlord -- or his modern counterpart, the business executive." 

More than sixty years later, the threat of Fascism has receded while the poverty remains, even as American corporations find in Mexico a labor market -- and a troubled economy -- expanding with the ever-increasing speed of the 21st century.

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