Wednesday, February 5, 2014

My Work in Mysterious Mexico

         Although I was a wheat farmer for twenty years and still live a reclusive life on the remnants of a family homestead in southwestern Nebraska, I also have an active relationship with Mexico (and other parts of Latin America) that dates back more than forty years.  I first traveled alone in Mexico during the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam Era, and I quickly began to realize that the official American version of what Mexico is like as a nation and a people was just as distorted as the official version of that Asian war.  Unfortunately, over four decades later, American conceptions of Mexico’s government, culture, and history, including the so-called Drug War at present, remain a politicized distortion in American schools, the American press, and the American psyche. 
I return to Mexico each year, in part, to remind myself that day-to-day humanity of my own local community and way of life is the same human nature to be found in rural and small town Mexico (and, would you believe, in most parts of the rest of the world):  love of family, devotion to a higher power, communal interaction for the betterment of all.  In short, decent human beings working out their lot in life exist everywhere.
I also return to Mexico each year because, well, I just like the life style there.  It reminds me of earlier times when my own American culture was more free spirited, less cynical, more informal in business, and less restrictive in personal freedoms.
I also travel frequently to Mexico because I am a historian and a writer with a scholarly relationship to Mexico past and present.  The country’s history and character imbue my work, whether I write fiction or historical narrative, and that work is always composed of personal experience and sound historical investigation, intended to inform and entertain my audience about some real and fascinating aspect of Mexico’s rich culture.
An example subject would be the Huichol and Cora Indians who live in the high sierras of northwestern Mexico where the states of Durango, Jalisco, and Nayarit meet.  So isolated and independent, their ancestors were never conquered by the Spanish colonists.  Their animistic religious lives, devoted to the worship of the deer, the corn plant, and the peyote cactus, have never been dominated by Christianity.  Their language is unwritten, its orthographies created by modern anthropologists who have studied their culture.  And Huichol art has come to be known worldwide for its uniqueness in form, style, and subject.  Merely Google “Huichol Art,” to verify this point.
The art is also a good example of how their culture has come under stress from outsiders and the modern world.  Early Huichol art was entirely devoted to a spiritual connection to and view of the universe and their gods.  In particular, the “yarn painting” is traditionally a small rectangular board coated in bee’s wax into which colorful yarns are inlaid in tight, concentric lines, and depicts a scene in which the artist receives a vision from the gods while under the hallucinogenic influence of peyote.  The yarn painting tells a story of the artist’s spiritual journey, and originally, such works were never intended to be sold to anyone.
            Having moved along the fringes of Huichol culture from time to time during forty years of travel, I’ve seen a subtle evolution in the yarn painting.  Once, the vision represented was purely symbolic of the spiritual, a depiction of interaction between the highest powers and the vision seeker.  The corn plant, the deer, the peyote, and so many other spiritually imbued creatures—scorpions, eagles, water serpents, grandfather fire, and more—were the elements and the life of the vision and the painting.  The yarn drawing on the cover of my novel, Something Like A Dream, is a good example.

But gradually, true spiritual stories have given way to nonrepresentational geometric designs and creatures talking to and for an audience of art buyers, not for the shaman—the Huichol religious leader who helps the visionary interpret his religious experience under the effects of peyote.  They have become consumer products.
In other ways, too, the Huichol culture has come under stress of onslaught by modern times.  Alcoholism and capitalism work like water seeping into the cracks of a granite mountain to freeze and thaw, expand and contract, until this particular cultural mountain erodes way to boulders, then to gravel, then sand.  But capitalism also helps keep the Huichol culture alive in some of its purer forms, too.  Those who recognize the artistry in Huichol craft and buy their art sustain a contemporary economic base for an ancient culture, allowing a people to adhere to their cultural values at a level of their choosing.  In communities in the highest sierras, some Huichols still follow the shaman in the old ways, never mixing with the outside forces. In flea markets and tourist resorts, some merely dress in native costume and sell their culture’s heritage.  As the saying goes, it’s complicated.  Two (and more) realities occupy the same human space.
I have tried to present this complication of different cultural realities occupying the same space in a mystery novel called, Something Like A Dream.  Set in 1982, at an early stage of corruption by infiltrating contemporary culture, the story is about the nature of Huichol life, and I include a list of anthropological references and a glossary of many Huichol terms at the end of the book.  The protagonist of the mystery is an outcast American expat who becomes obsessed with the beautiful wife as he helps her search for her famous husband in the sierra heart of Huichol territory.  On this strange pilgrimage he will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, on deceit and self-deception, on human spirituality, and a miraculous healing ceremony will change his life forever or simply end it.  You are invited to share the search and this look at ancient Huichol life in modern Mexico.  You may find that Mexico has much more to offer than its contemporary image portrays.


Sharon Arthur Moore said...

Very informative post, and your passion shines through. It's wonderful you have had such a long-standing relationship with the culture. Thanks for sharing your personal involvement.

jrlindermuth said...

We share a similar affection/opinion of Mexico and her people. Look forward to reading your book.

Eileen Obser said...

I'm usually in Puerto Vallarta for a week or more in February, Robert, but won't be there this year. I wonder if you're part of the PV Writer's group, like me.
Your post is very interesting, and I look forward to reading your book. Lots of luck with it!

Beryl Reichenberg said...

I too have traveled the world and found that many of the things we read or hear about other countries are only the tip of the iceberg with respect to their culture and history. Often we are too quick to judge other cultures and tend to lump individuals into categories. Thank you for detailing a part of Mexico I have never visited. I look forward to reading your book. Beryl