Monthly Archives: February 2019

Silent Prey

Women’s heads and shoulders are fastened to wooden plaques displayed the way a hunter might exhibit an animal they have killed. On my first visit to the Nahualli Art Gallery in Merida I saw some sculptures titled Trophy that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Each of the Trophy sculptures featured women with different kinds of horns. Their faces were eerily similar.  I was to find out later that artist Melva Medina used her daughter Aura Metzli as the model for each piece. Aura is a fashion designer and her jewelry inspired the items in the Trophy sculptures. The women’s  jewelry looked like it might be giving them pain.  In this piece one imagines the thorns from the roses jabbing into the woman’s skin and scarring it. As I looked at the trophy sculptures I thought about the message they sent.  Although the feminist movement has tried to change the way we view women they are still so often regarded as possessions, as trophies to be hunted like prey, captured and displayed by men.  Just think about the common phrase ‘trophy wife’ and the casual, crude way the current president of the United States joked on a recording, about the ease with which he could possess a woman’s body and take advantage of it. Think about his succession of ‘trophy wives’ each one younger than the last.  While researching the Trophy pieces online I discovered they had been part of a 2016 exhibit at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida. The exhibit was called Silent Prey or in Spanish Presas del Silencio.  It included many of Melva’s sculptures as well as fashion and jewlery pieces by her daughter Aura Meztli. The Silent Prey exhibit was meant to draw attention to the ongoing physical and sexual abuse of women and young girls. There seemed to be little information about the exhibit online so one afternoon I asked my sister to return to the Nahualli Gallery with me so I could take some more photos.

Meeting Melva, Aura and Abel Vazquez on my first visit to the gallery

I hoped I might even have a chance to talk to Melva or Aura, both of whom we had met along with their husband and father Abel on our previous visit to the gallery. As luck would have it Melva was at the gallery and genuinely pleased about our interest in the Silent Prey exhibit.  Would my sister and I like to go over to her studio just a few blocks away and see the other pieces from the exhibit she had in storage there?  As we walked to her studio Melva told us that prior to creating the work for Silent Prey  she and her daughter Aura had spent eighteen months doing research by visiting and working at shelters and safe houses for abused women and children. When we entered Melva’s studio the first thing we noticed were these sculptures that certainly explained why the exhibit had been called Silent Prey.  My sister and I stood mesmerized and moved as we stared at a dozen naked female torsos with shaved heads bowed and eyes and mouths shut.  Their sorrow was palpable. The mantillas or prayer shawls on some of the women’s heads and the candles in front of them certainly implied the women were praying.  Did they pray for healing because they had been the prey of the men who abused them? Were they praying for the courage to tell their stories?  Later I saw some photos of the art installation when it had been on display at the Museo de la Ciudad de Merida.The women were arranged in a circle and all were draped in the mantillas traditionally worn by women to Catholic mass. The lighted candles in front of each sculpture flickered eerie shadows onto the women’s faces.  The religious connotations of the exhibit made me think of the centuries of abuse women and children have suffered at the hands of clergy, abuse that has been allowed to go unpunished and unrecognized in so many churches. 

Melva told us that all of the sculptures in the exhibit had been inspired by drawings her daughter had done. She then opened a portfolio of her daughter’s pieces and leafed through them one by one. The horrific story of the abuse of a young girl they detailed literally took our breath away.  I almost wished Melva would stop turning the pages in the portfolio as one terrifying and tragic image after another was revealed. In many of the pieces the girl’s lower body was a cage. In others it was clear to see that the perpetrator of the violence had seduced the girl and covered up his deathly evil intent with beautiful words.In this image he appears to have used music to trap her and leave her heart and body a tortured prisoner unable to escape. After looking at her daughter’s sketches it was clear their vision had been directly translated into Melva’s work. I couldn’t stop looking at the sculptures like this one where the girl’s heart is hanging, dangling and damaged inside the cage her body has become. She holds a skeleton’s head in her hand.  Is she contemplating death?  Look at the hair ornaments which are obviously instruments of torture and pain.  My sister and I were both moved to tears as we stood looking at Melva’s sculptures. My sister is a former nurse and I am a former high school teacher, and in those areas of work there is no escaping the fact that you will be witness to the stories of women and girls who have experienced violence and abuse. Later my sister and I would talk about how hearing stories of abuse and physical violence is difficult, but that seeing it in the visual way Melva and her daughter have portrayed it was in some ways even more disturbing.

Because the person telling the story is not right there you aren’t intent on helping them and listening to them.  The artwork has in some way more permanence than an oral story, and lets you focus and think and contemplate the horror of the womens’ experience. It transforms their stories into another medium that speaks to people in different ways and allows you to almost viscerally access the emotion the women feel.In this sculpture the young girl is literally split in two.  Melva said when it was exhibited a pendulum hung between the girl’s legs illustrating how she vaccilated about whether to choose death as a way to end the torture and escape her abuser. 

Melva told us after Silent Prey was intially exhibited she tried to look for other opportunities to display it but that has been difficult.  She believes people would still like to ignore the reality of physical and sexual abuse.  

While I was thinking about Silent Prey and preparing to write my newspaper column about it, Pope Francis was meeting in Rome with the heirarchy of the Catholic Church to discuss the issue of endemic abuse and violence against women and children by priests and clergy in his denomination. I kept wishing Silent Prey could have been on display at the Vatican during that meeting.  Artwork like Melva and Aura’s needs to have an important place amongst the masterpieces in the Vatican’s twenty billion dollar art collection as a visible sign the church is taking sexual abuse seriously.

There is a spiritual dimension to the work Melva and her daughter did to create Silent Prey. Melva believes the exhibit is the result of divine inspiration and guidance from God.  She feels she and her daughter are part of something bigger, a worldwide effort to protect the innocent.  Their stunning artwork inspires the viewer to support that cause in any way they can. 

Other posts………

King David Was A Rapist

Laughing at the Suffering of Others

Women Were Honored? Think Again John Kelly

 

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Puzzling With My Sister

My sister and I like doing jigsaw puzzles but neither of us had thought to bring one along to Merida, Mexico. It took a little searching but finally I found a good selection in an educational toy store in a large mall.  I bought one for our house in La Ceiba and one for my sister’s house in Merida. I decided to go with Mexican themes for both of them. The one at my house was a picture of Mexican food.  It was not an easy puzzle but over a period of a couple of weeks and in between visiting and eating and glasses of wine and lunches and phoning our Dad together and cups of coffee we got it done.  The puzzle at my sister’s house was very challenging!!  I admit I only put in a couple of pieces.  Luckily my sister had  friends visiting for a week and they are both excellent puzzlers so they helped Kaaren do the puzzle.  

I found a couple of websites that list all the benefits of adults doing jigsaw puzzles. It can improve your short term memory, develop problem solving and visual spacial skills and boost your intelligence quotient.  It can lift your mood,  help stave off dementia, lower stress levels, increase attention to detail and foster cooperation and collaboration.  And I would add  provide an opportunity to do something enjoyable, challenging and fun with your sister. 

Other posts about puzzling……….

I’m On My Own Now

Globe Trotting Vicariously

Puzzling with the T-4s

Puzzling a Family Christmas Tradition

 

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Indian Dinner

at the indian dinner in merida

Dave and me at the Indian dinner in Merida

My sister and her husband rented a home in Merida that wasn’t far from the English Library.   The place is full of English books to take out or buy but it also serves as a meeting place for all kinds of tours and events for English speaking residents and visitors to Merida. We decided to attend a dinner the library was hosting  in the home of the president of the library’s board of directors. It was catered by a chef from India.

The home where they had the dinner looked pretty plain from the outside but inside it was a beautifully restored old mansion filled with interesting art and furniture 

I was fascinated by this piece of art that showed Jesus on the cross in a boat surrounded by a variety of religious and church folk and then outside the boat some very interesting characters trying to get in. I showed this photo to my sister later and we found all kinds of small details in the painting to talk about.

I wished the dinner had been during the day because the home in which we enjoyed our meal had such interesting architecture and art but was also dimly lit for the dinner so I wasn’t able to see all the fascinating details of the beautifully restored turn of the century home.

The kitchen area from which our drinks were served. Check out the coat of arms on the fan over the stove. 

We sat near the door that opened onto the patio and pool area of the house

My sister chats with one of our table companions

We shared our table with a retired tax accountant and his friendly wife who told us they had homes here in Mexico, in Minneapolis, in Sarasota Florida and in upstate New York.  They talked about some of the positives of spending the winter in Merida but also some of the challenges.

Two more of our table mates at the dinner

Our other table mate was a middle aged man who seemed unsure of where his exact home was but he was working towards establishing a base in Merida on more of a full time basis and seemed to make his living giving travel talks and teaching travel courses to seniors. 

Our menu for the dinner

The buffet table adorned with India flags

Dave and our friend Rudy with their full plates

The house was packed with people and each place setting had a copy of the menu on the plate so we knew exactly what we would be enjoying for our dinner later on. 

The evening was interesting and took us to a part of Merida we hadn’t been to before. It also confirmed for us the diversity of the expat population here in Merida which includes folks from many different countries.

Other posts…………

Sweet, Sad and Spicy

Love in a Lunchbox

India Assaults the Senses

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Second Cenote Swim

A cenote swim was included in the recent tour we took of a henequen plantation near Merida. I had already been swimming in an open cenote near a Mayan archeological site we had visited. This cenote was different.  We climbed down a long flight of stairs through a small opening on the surface and descended into a fairly deep cave. The cave was full of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. The water was warm and lovely and refreshing especially after a couple of hours touring in the hot sun. After enjoying our swim in the ancient cave my sister and I capped off our cenote experience with a couple of delicious margaritas.  

Price of day long tour including cenote swim- $60.  Price of margaritas- $2.50.  Great time with my sister- priceless!!

Other posts about our henequen plantation visit……….

Mule Train Adventure

Green Gold

Antonio

Hacienda Visit

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Mule Train Adventures- A Lost Hat- An Athlete in Action- An Accident

My sister Kaaren, brother-in-law Ken and our friend Rudy on board the mule cart

On our recent tour of a henequen plantation near Merida we went from place to place on the large property on a mule train.

The carts’ wheels  rolled on rails and the mules walked between the rails

We rode on carts pulled by strong mules. The carts had wheels, kind of like a train does, and they rolled along a rail that ran through the plantation.

Our driver hangs onto his hat after losing it

We had only gone a little way on our first ride when our driver’s hat flew off so we had to do a big detour and turn to go and retrieve it. Here we are on another one of our rides. Dave had brought along a towel  for the cenote swim that was included in the tour.  Suddenly a gust of wind blew his towel off the cart. Dave the athlete simply jumped off the cart, ran back to get his towel and then speedily returned to the still moving cart and hopped nimbly back into his seat. The young man beside him who was from Utah commented on his speed for an old man. That led to a conversation where Dave mentioned he had just been in Utah in October to play in the senior world softball championship where his team had won a silver medal.  The young man commented that with athletes as fit as Dave on the team he could see why.  

Dave and our mule cart driver inspect the problem

On another one of our mule train trips our cart literally went off the rails at one turn. Our calm driver who didn’t speak a word of English unhitched our mule, went into the tall grass and came back with a long pole.

Dave lends his muscles to get the mule cart back on the track

 With the help of Dave and another tourist the driver was able to use the pole as a lever to get the rear set of wheels back on the rails.

With the help of the mule we got back on the track

Then he hitched up the mule who pulled the cart forward and got the other set of wheels aligned too.

During the lunch we had at the end of our tour we heard some raucous serenading from unhappy mules

Some of the mules didn’t appear too happy about their service on the plantation and let us know with long loud braying songs that some of our fellow tourists tried to capture on video.
The mules and the mule train added a nice bit of adventure and interest to our plantation visit.

Other posts about our plantation visit

Green Gold

Hacienda Visit

Antonio

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Antonio

Meet Antonio.  As a young man he worked on a henequen plantation in the Merida area and when we toured one recently he told us what his life had been like. While the owner of the plantation and his family lived in a luxurious hacienda the workers  lived in a simple house like the one behind Antonio. This house has been built to give tourists an idea of the living conditions for workers on henequen plantations.

Main room with an altar, a closet a chair and a hammock for sleeping. There is a thatched roof and dirt floors.

The kitchen was a simple enclosure behind the main house and would have been a cooler place to eat than inside.

A well provided water for the workers.

My brother-in-law noticed Antonio’s shoes which were made from henequen fibre. We had seen some pictures at the start of our tour showing the various ways the local Maya people used henequen before it became a thriving industry exporting fibre around the world.  One way was to make sandals with it.

Taking a look into a plantation worker’s home

Our guide Juan translated for Antonio who spoke Maya, a language that we have learned is still fairly widely spoken in the Yucatan especially by the older generation. Antonio showed us how he would have planted henequen and before we left he gave us a blessing asking that the creator to take care of us as we traveled back to our homes in various countries.  

Although working conditions had vastly improved on plantations by the time Antonio was born,  before the Mexican Revolution life for workers on the plantations was brutal and bleak.   I saw this painting in the governor’s palace in Merida which illustrates how the elite of the Yucatan became rich on the backs of the slave labor of the local Maya people. It shows a Maya worker carrying a huge bale of henequen or sisal on his back while the rich men behind him finger their money.

Harvesting-Henequen-Popular-Science-1922

Workers harvesting henequen in 1922

In an article called Green Gold by Elsie Montiel she says the economic boom of henequen sales came at the expense of Maya peasants who did the heaviest work for miserable wages and were tied to the plantations on which they worked by continually being in debt to the plantation store.

The church on the plantation we visited.

Most workers never left the plantations or haciendas which had churches, schools, hospitals, a store and even a cemetery. 

Worker’s home I photographed on the plantation during my visit.

The henequen plantations of the Yucatan tell a story that is all too familiar around the world in many times and places.  In the United States cotton growers got rich because of black workers they enslaved.  In England industry owners got rich employing child laborers and paying them a pittance.  In Canada we got a railroad by employing Chinese workers at scandalously low wages and endangering their lives. At the turn of the century in the Yucatan the local Maya people helped elite landowners get rich by working for low wages and being trapped in a system that essentially made them indentured servants or slaves.    

Other posts…………

Where Was It Made? 

China’s Unsung War Heroes

Servant or Slave? 

 

 

 

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Green Gold

Henequen fields on the Don Peón  plantation. Henequen is a hardy plant resistant to most diseases and pests and decay.  Note the spiky leaves which were harvested for henequen fibre. Plants take five to seven years to mature and continue to produce leaves for about 20 years. 

Green gold was the name given to the henequen plant in the Yucatan because this green member of the cactus family became a goldmine for local landowners in the late 1800s. In 1878 an American man named John Appleby patented a reaper/binder machine that could cut stalks of grain and bind them together. That invention made the Yucatan rich because the reaper/binder machine used twine. A cheap way of making twine was with the fiber of the henequen plant which grew in the Yucatan.

A bale of henequen fibre ready to be shipped. It takes about 9,000 henequen leaves to make a bale like this.

By 1915, 1.2 million bales of henequen was being exported from the Yucatan annually and nearly 70% of the cultivated land was planted in henequen.  Interestingly abroad henequen became known as sisal, because it was shipped out of a Yucatan port named Sisal and that name was stamped on all the containers holding the henequen.

Our friend Rudy talks to our tour guide Juan about the henequen industry in the Yucatan

We visited the former Sotutua de Peon plantation established by a man named Don Peón in the late 1800s near the village of Tecoh. It was one of thirteen plantations owned by the Peón family.

I have already blogged about the elegant hacienda on the plantation where the owner’s family spent their weekends.  Learning all about how the green gold or the henequen plant was processed was another aspect of our tour.

A henequen plant can only have thirteen leaves chopped from it a year- first seven and then at a later time six. Here the chopped and bundled leaves are waiting to be processed. 

First the henequen leaves were chopped with a macheteThen the stalks were fed into a machine that separated out the fibre inside and liquified the rest of the leaf to be used as fertilizer or animal feed.

Steam operated machine used to extract fibre from henequen plants in the past

The machine we saw was run by electricity but earlier versions were steam operated and before that operated by mules. The extracted fibre is dried on racks in the sun and finally packed into bales with another machine.   Then it was sent abroad.

Juan shows us one of the machines used in Europe to turn the bales of henequen fibre into rope

We also saw a whole variety of machines that were used in various European countries to turn the henequen fibre into twine or rope.

Our friend Rudy photographs some of the processed henequen fibre

The guys in our group talk about one of the machines used to turn henequen into twine

This machine could combine six strands of twine to make a strong rope but there were machines that could twist together up to 36 individual pieces of twine to make heavy duty ropes for ships

Some of this twine or rope was used for binding crops but also for many other purposes including making ropes to be used on ships, making burlap bags and weaving carpets.

Maya farmers would use a board with nails to comb the henequen fibre and then twist it into twine with their hands.

Our guide Juan showed us how before and after the great heyday of the henequen industry from 1880-1930 the Maya people continued to use a simple method they had devised to make the henequen fibre into twine and rope.

This machine twisted together lengths of twine to make a stronger rope

The Maya farmers had a machine that combined the twine lengths into ropes of various strengths for agricultural  use on their farms, and for making bags, sandals and hammocks.

The strength of your rope depended on how many strands of twine you had twisted together

Dave tests out the rope Juan made

The lucrative henequen trade ended in the late 1920s when plastic twine began to be used.  Interestingly henequen twine or rope has been making a comeback in recent years because it is so environmentally friendly and decomposes easily. I found several articles online advocating for a renewal of the henequen industry and one about a retired fashion designer who is trying to get Saks Avenue stores to sell henequen handbags made by local Maya women in the Yucatan. Who knows?  Maybe  in the future henequen or sisal will become green gold once again for the farmers of the Yucatan. 

Other posts………

A Day in the Cork Forest

The Way It Used To Be

Fair Trade Coffee and Hope For Laos

Happy About the USMCA?

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