January 27, 2006

First Person:

What a blessing; La Despedida

Part Four
(Part Three published January 13, 2006)

By Heriberto Escamilla

After breakfast, I helped Don Marcelino and Luciano load their luggage into the trunk of the blue Taurus. One of them, a huge black valise put up a noble fight but eventually resigned itself to the car’s cozy confines. It carried the artwork. Luciano, like many Huicholes produce beautiful yarn paintings and colorful beaded figurines. The paintings are simple pieces, brightly colored yarn attached to thin wooden panels. They invariably depict religious ceremonies, with the deer-mara’akame singing or performing rituals, hummingbirds, eagle feathers and jicuri (peyote) buttons. On the back of his panels, Luciano tells the reader about the ceremony or event. The figurines are carved in wood and covered with a veneer of wax into which the artists embeds tiny beads. They typically take the form of wolves, jaguars, deers and other sacred animals.

In the course of three days, accompanying my guests and helping them sell their art, I found myself appreciating the hard work that must go into these creations. But being the armchair philosopher that I am, also wondered how this group of people so tied to the land came into the business of selling art. Isn’t it terrible that I can’t leave well enough alone? People have to eat.

So how did this transition from living from the land to selling artwork begin? Each year the Huicholes, the Wirrarika people make a long and arduous pilgrimage from their homes in the Sierra Madre to the desert land near San Luis Potosi. The purpose, at least one objective, is to find Tamatz Kahullumary, the sacred blue deer. The pilgrimage, as others tell me also includes ascension of La’Unarre, the palace of the governor, where the sacred fire was born. I understand the climb is punishing and Don Marcelino’s scamper up Cowles Mountain was probably only a warm up exercise for scaling this peak.

As part of their ceremony, the Huichol prepare offerings that they leave on the mountain. It occurs to me that these handcrafted pieces are perhaps the prototypes of the Huichol art with which we are familiar. So in a way, we might say that Huichol art began and perhaps for many still is, an offering to the Creator, and that is why it tends to include ceremonial themes.

After dropping my wife off at work, Don Marcelino, Luciano and I pulled into one of the parking lots overseeing the ocean. My houseguests wanted to take their leave of the Ocean, Hara’Mara (Mother Ocean). In Latino cultures, and no doubt in many others as well we used to teach our children that upon entering a room they should greet everyone and that they should also announce their departure. This gesture expresses gratitude to others. It’s an indication that we value our companions. It’s their presence we appreciate enough to climb out of ourselves. Once upon a time, we were taught to recognize and remember the presence of those that support our existence.

So there before the Ocean, the altar boy scene that kept distracting me at home starts playing again. Don Marcelino in his colorful straw hat, with little wind chimes hanging off the rim, Luciano in his huaraches and white cotton clothes following behind and me, trying to look as “normal” as possible self-consciously pulling up the rear. We descend the sand covered stairs that lead down to the beach. Luckily for my vanity, it was a Friday morning and there were not many people testing the Pacific’s chilly waves.

Standing with our feet in the cool water, don Marcelino opens his sacred bundle, pulls out his eagle feather and in his native tongue begins blessing the four directions. Luciano lights the copal and gently brushing us with the aromatic smoke. After the cleansing, we turn our bodies toward the west, facing the continuous and muffled roar of the Ocean. Don Marcelino and Luciano are chanting in Wirrarika. I don’t understand their words, but I know what they are saying. They are thanking our Mother for the water we drink and for her cleansing tears. They are asking for protection for themselves, for their newly discovered brothers and sisters in San Diego and for their families back home. At the same time, they are promising to always remember her, to never forget that we owe our lives, our existence to her. I know that is what they are saying because those are the words coming out of my own mouth, and we are standing together.

I am not sure of the English translation for despedida, for an “unasking.” It’s something like taking one’s leave, like a departure. If you know it, perhaps you can let me know.

On the way up to Los Angeles, we are mostly quiet. My friends don’t talk all that much, or maybe it’s just me. I always struggle with my words, always wonder if they are the right ones, or how people are going to receive them. Mostly, I still believe they simply aren’t all that important.

I glance in my rear view mirror every once in a while and my mind has trouble reconciling a Huichol Mara’-akame with a red can of cola in his hand. I have trouble reconciling art for profit. I have trouble with change. I wonder to myself how long my brothers can hold on to their traditions, how long they can guard the secrets, how long they can remember, how long they can literally carry the torch. I appreciate their visit and the teachings they bring. But their visit is a sacrifice. They pay a price. The unforgiving jaws of globalization are at the base of their mountain. Maybe I am being too pessimistic or laying too much responsibility on them. They have after all survived at least 500 years of disrespect. Maybe they can survive a few more. Perhaps, I should pay attention to what I can do, to teach myself to be grateful, to remember to whom my life really belongs. Maybe you and I need to remember more and stop hoping that others will do it for us. Así será.

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