Snow on peaks

Snow on peaks

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tarahumara Mask Maker

Simon Morales, the mask maker
 Yesterday we left in the "burro negro" (the black van) and headed out the way we came in towards La Bandera to look for Simon Morales, the old mask maker. We stopped a Tarahumara woman herding her goats to ask for Simon's place. She indicated we needed to go back a bit. He was down a hill off the road.
We found the place, going down a steep incline. There appeared to be no one home, the 1st house was closed up tight. Beyond a cornfield was a  larger house with raised grain storage huts and animal pens. Both compounds had pens and were behind rock walls about 4 feet tall.  We could see a young woman stirring around outside the far compound.
As we passed the 1st smaller compound I could see "animalitos", or small toys on the window sill and I said to Beto, "this is Simon's place".

Beto at Simon's

When we approached the woman, Santiago asked if she knew Simon.  She indicated the 1st adobe home was his but he was not home. We headed back for the "burro negro" at the top of the hill.  It is steep and I struggled, pulling for air stopping to rest several times before I got to the top.  We climbed in the van and headed back to Nararachi.  It seems Simon has two homes with the 2nd located up on the mesa behind the church and towards the air strip.
The nurse, Marta, in the clinic told me before we left that Simon was probably at his home closer to Clause's place as he (Simon) had been especially invited to the party for the community. I asked if she'd seen Simon at the party and she said no, but there were a lot of people there!
As we headed back I looked to my right and saw an old man carrying a korima pail headed in the direction of Simon's.  I said "stop, that's him!" Santiago wanted to argue but Samuel stopped and got out and asked the man on the path if he were Simon. Yes, indeed it was him!
That was Christmas day miracle #1.
Beto and Santiago walked with the old man back to his home. I rode the van to the top of the "killer" hill with Samuel and walked down to Simon's for the second time.
We entered his home and visited with Simon. As the old man is deaf it was hard to make him understand we were interested in watching him make a mask.  But we did get the idea over to him that we wanted to buy two or three.
I began to ask if he had the wood to make one.  Santiago being passive. The old man said he'd have to go down to the arroyo to get the wood-- madrono.  The arroyo was not far so we asked to go with him to watch him get the wood for the mask.
Simon got his ax and off we went past the second compound, down into a ravine and up an incline. Simon knew where a large madrono was and he chopped a slab or chunk out, about 10" to 16" and we started back.
Miracle of Christmas day #2: watching a mask being made from tree to finish. I photographed his tools around the slab of wood that would beome my mask while Simon and the other men drank coffee and visited. We made arrangements to go back the next day (today) about 9-9:30 am.

 When we got to Simon's today he was seated outside his wall on a log, hard at work. He had already shaped the mask and begun the process of digging out the backside. I took digital shots of the process and made a video with the little Sony digital camera.
Simon's outdoor workshop has a view out across the field to the mountains and ravines beyond. Gorgeous!
The goats came to visit and graze on the corn stalk stubs and old cobs.
We broke for lunch at 12:45. We'd brought the pinic of saltines and portales (sardines), orange soda, jalapeno condiments, some serious cheese, and cookies.

The mask needed only finish work as the old man resumed.  His arm began to ache and we said "let's stop for the day". Simon agreed.  We'll pick up two masks-- mine and Beto's on Friday around 2 p.m.
Before I left I took a black and white protrait of Simon-- he was tired.  I'll try to do another on Friday.
I climbed the hill again and pulled for air.  It's a serious climb for me.

Aside: There were snapshots on Simon's wall, one of a young man holding a mask. That turned out to be his son, Felipe who now lives and works in Cuauhtemoc in agriculture.
I asked when Simon started making masks.  He said he couldn't remember-- a long time ago.  Clause had got him started.
He pulled out his ID card, Simon is officially 70 years old!

Simon wearing the finished mask

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Firelight Series

As a girl I spent summers in the Mellon Gallery looking at the old, forgotten world of the “Dutch Masters.” I suppose I carry the memory of their use of light --candle light-- with me. Later in my travels I would find that same light again.

I began photographing the Tarahumara people of Northwestern Mexico in 1998 and continued to do so for ten years. I was drawn to their traditional way of living. Today, as in ancient times, their customs are passed down through oral tradition and in their own language, Raramuri. Living in remote areas of the Sierras the Tarahumara have kept their sense of community through a rich and colorful ritual life. The use of ritual marks and celebrates the passing of the seasons, which are so important in their agrarian lives.

Fire Light was begun in 2007 during a Tutu Buri/Yumari celebration on a moonless, spring night out in the Mexican Sierras. I did not want to use a flash but the night was pitch-black except for scattered warming fires at the edge of the dance circle. I whined disappointedly at the lack of light. A fire was built for me just behind the Chapeyokos so that I could photograph their use of the mask. This was a project that I had begun for The Journal of the SouthWest out of the University of Arizona at Tucson.

I liked the tone captured by the camera in the firelight located so close to the Chapeyoko figures –mysterious larger than life images of masked figures. This series had the look and feel of the ritual I had experienced so many times before. The vexing question had always been, ‘how to move the fire around with me?’ My guide Santiago and I discussed this at length when it suddenly dawned on us to use the lanterns from the ball race to light the ritual of the dance. This would give me the mobility I so desperately wanted.

Two years later I was again in the highlands for the Mate chine dance and Tutu Buri/ Yumari. Santiago packed in two modified ball lanterns for us. The people camped overnight in the village dancing, cooking and drinking throughout the night of Dec. 11th. The dancing continued into the morning of the 12th then the food was passed out to feed the community. Along with video footage, I shot the remainder of The Fire Light Series. Two or three days later another Tutu Buri/ Yumari took place in honor of a Tarahumara woman who had recently passed away. So I was able to photograph these night dances using fire as my light source. Many of the images were made possible by the ball lanterns we used.

The Fire Light Series moves beyond documentation. It has the look and feel of the night—ritual acts, campfires, and celebration. Besides recording the dance I wanted to show the women’s involvement –the strong sense of community and tradition. Working in the back country for 10 years I had been to many such gatherings and felt relatively comfortable around the laughter, drinking, and carousing that goes on during breaks in the dancing. It’s not for everyone but I liked the challenge and the camaraderie.

And the Tarahumara grew accustomed to my presence. When we lit the lanterns they laughed and asked if we were going to run a race! The lanterns were familiar and unobtrusive. Success!

What began as an interest in “Native American “culture continued out of my growing respect for a people, who in the face of overwhelming odds continue to live their lives outside the mainstream comforts of the modern world. These people retain the skills and knowledge to survive in harsh conditions. My own culture has largely lost the sense of community. The community organization entrusted with governing and maintaining tradition also supports the individual in times of need. In short our families and communities are disunited. As individuals we no longer possess the skills to feed ourselves.

As with Gilpin, the guide is the key into a hidden culture. Her friend was the reservation nurse. Mine is a rascal who walks the canyons and knows the trails and customs. Santiago is well known and respected with many friends and connections in the World of the Tarahumara. This work would have been impossible without him. And then I have to acknowledge another guide, Tim Boole, a talented photographer who has worked and taught Photoshop to photographers since its introduction. In the beginning, the New Mexican photographer Douglas Hall, taught me to see –to visualize a body of work and then move the concept through the necessary choices to produce the final image on the wall.

If you have time, this link shows a video of  similar ritual celebrations. Tarahumara Ceremonies

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Santiago and the Devil's Crosses

Santiago and Beto

On Thursday, Dec. 12th when the dancing was done and most of the barbacoa had been eaten and the tesguino drinking was in full tilt, the Anglos lay in the shade of the hut sleeping and trying recover from being up all night and too much coffee and then tesguino.

The Alter
The Alter was still in the patio--that is the structure remained. The sacrificial bowls of meat had been removed much earlier and the cooked goat meat added to the beans. The copal incense bowl still lay centered under the altar. And the small crosses in the dirt at the rear of the alter along with the miniature offering bowls remained, but the cloth had been removed along with the decorative beads leaving only the wooden frame and the ritual objects on the ground.

Earlier in the evening on Wednesday Santiago had told me that the small crosses and tiny offering bowls on the ground were the Devil’s offerings (Give the Devil his Due). The devil could also eat without coming up to cause mischief or harm one of the humans.

At any rate Santiago late in the evening on Thursday told me he was going to ask for permission to take the “Devil’s Crosses”. There would be one for me, Beto and himself. Early Friday morning I was in the capella dressing and I heard Santiago ask for the crosses. (I could not see so I do not know who he asked but one of  the “important” elders). I could hear the response, in Spanish, which I understand as a polite but firm, NO! The responder explained that it would not be proper to take the Devil’s crosses because it could go badly for us. To take a cross might cause us bad luck on our travel home—something bad might happen to us.

Nabor ready to leave

Given the reason; I no longer wanted one of the small crosses.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Easter: The Time of the Drum


The bus from Chihuahua City to Creel was packed with people standing like sardines the whole time. It was the “local” run with starting and stopping for people on their way back home for Semana Santa. The mestizos were taking supplies home; the Tarahumara were taking wares to sell to tourists. The trip took closer to six hours and I was exhausted by the crowds—that was Tuesday.

Wednesday: The bus from Chihuahua City was due to leave Creel for Guachoche at noon but it arrived late, overcrowded, and over-heated in fact broken down and did not leave at all.

The young woman (girl) at the ticket counter had been brusque and downright rude to me when I tried to purchase a ticket. The bus driver and baggage handler both assured me that Estrella Blanca would send another bus.
As it turned out a slightly more demure ticket attendant refunded my money and drew me a map to the Red School Bus line. The family of “La Reina del los Buses” has enlarged their services to include a Guachoche run. Some 42 of us waited in a sandlot by the tracks for an hour and a half to crowd onto the little red bus. I tried to call Marta’s to tell Gabriel that I would arrive late in Rochiarchi but the phone (Marta’s) was out of service.
I sat beside a Tarahumara man on his way to Norogachi. We conversed sporadically along the way. I offered him a ride in Gabriel’s truck (which later would prove difficult with the taxi driver). When I arrived in Rochiarchi some two hours late Gabriel was there in his truck accompanied by his visiting son in law. The truck wouldn’t start of course until they added gasoline and came to an abrupt halt when it popped out of gear, but Gabriel used a wrench in lieu of a gear stick to get it running again. We drove to a small store in Rochiarchi where I bought cookies having not eaten since breakfast. Then we drove into the evening to Norogachi as the sun set in the sierras. The bon fires appeared on the mesas to mark the start of Semana Santa. It was good to see fires. At last the lights of Norogachi appeared.
We drove across the river and up the road to Marta’s. I was warmly greeted and ushered to my log cabin. Richard Speedy took the “hog,” my gear, around for me. The visiting ladies group from California hailed me as though I were a famous photographer and visiting dignitary. Just what the doctor ordered for a tired, emotional heap of me.
Santiago was glad to see me too and half way hoped I would have a “Beto” in my pocket with me — I did not. That was Wednesday.
Thursday I went to the plaza and Santiago took me to the place where the pasoleros would be painted. We met Antonio who is now THE TRUE BELIEVER. I had sold a portrait of Jesusita to Beto for $400 (the friendship discount) and so I brought Antonio $40 as the family’s share. Antonio was dressed in his Mate chine headdress and mask. I told him that I would like a portrait of him later. He agreed.

The wind was way up, blowing sand and it was slightly chilly. That night was a  full moon, still, and cold.

Thursday Semana started building with a group of Pintos, the women, the Capitanes, and the statues of Jesus and Mary being carried back up into the pueblo along the 12 Stations of the Cross route. I did not follow but instead went into the Mission to wait for their entrance. My cameras were put up and out of view. My intention was to observe.

The sight of the procession entering was quite moving. The elders were surprised to see me there. I heard “who is that?” and a reply—“one of Santiago’s group”.

I left quietly when the opening mass was over.

The Drum marks the Beginning of the Mass
I returned later at dusk. More Tarahumara had gathered and I practiced low-light, campfire photography on the group of Pintos before returning to Marta’s for the night. There have been times like this one when the Raramuri drumming has so energized me that I am compelled to get out of my bed and go stand alone out-of-doors in the crisp night air and gaze up at the brilliant, star filled heavens. These are my most “alive” times. At these times all thoughts of sleep and fatigue disappear. I am lost in time carried away on the sounds of rapid drumming echoing off mesa walls. When I do finally return to my bed to warm myself under heaps of blankets, I sleep fitfully while drumming washes over my dreams like ocean waves. I awaken often in the night to listen and feel the energies of the earth rising as they are called forth by the drums. Energy courses through me and static electricity snaps and pops lighting the cabin as I stir beneath the covers. That is the only electricity in the house.  I have stepped back in time and I am home.
(To hear and see the night drumming, click this link)   Easter in Chihuahua


About 3:30 in the afternoon Santiago spied a group of men and boys by the bridge painting themselves and asked if I might photograph the painting for my documentation. I photographed freely and then took Polaroids "instantanias" and gave them to the Pintos.

Later in the afternoon Santiago takes me to the cemetery and shows me Jesusita’s grave site. We stand silently for a time remembering our friend. It is March 2005.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Goat Sacrifice

Foreword:  “If you kill a goat to make yourself a sandwich, you have committed an error. If you kill a goat with reverence and gratitude in order to feed a community, you have taken responsibility for feeding yourself and your people and you have done an honorable thing.” 
 Loosely translated from the TIBETAN BOOK OF THE DEAD – Kitty Snead

By 10 a.m. two male goats, one white and one black appeared and they were tightly tied to small trees at the west end of the dance floor.  Nabor had tied the white one and it could stand, head bowed and contemplate its fate.  The black goat had more slack in its rope and could move and jerk at its tether when we walked by.
Lionilo built the simple altar near the center of the patio.  A raised, two plank table on 6 spindly legs with three crosses rising from the back.  It was unmistakably an altar-- stark, primal...sacred.  I photographed the simple structure from both front and back and I photographed the two hapless goats.  Then the thought occurred to me to stand in the ravine where the black pipe supplied us with mountain spring water.  So balanced on small rocks, trying not to get my feet wet, I found an angle where I might frame the goat in the foreground with the altar and the mountains behind.
I was a little anxious.  Nabor indicated with his finger that a knife would be inserted into the neck of the goats at the jugular.  We laughed.  Nabor gestured and spoke of sending the goat to heaven to be with God and then he pointed to his stomach and I replied stumbling through, "gracias por su sacrificio por neuestra comida--barbocoa!"  Then for just a second our eyes met in a serious moment between us.
By noon, I was hot and tired of waiting on the sacrificing part to start.  I was determined to photograph the ritual.  But the Raramuri were waiting--(I think now) for the hot, still part of the day when women grind corn and visit and babies sleep.  That exact moment to commit the very deliberate act of taking a life without hesitancy, or trifling or any sort of dishonor.  I know this now but on Wednesday I was only hot, tired and restless so I told Lionilo and Clemente to "wake me for the sacrifice."  They nodded in agreement and I went off behind the hut to rest in the shade.  I dozed but awoke when I heard a muffled cry.  I jerked to my feet, grabbed my camera bag and shot around the corner to see the white goat on the ground, feet bound, with two holes--on each side of its neck-- being bled out into a large wooden bowl.  My first thought was "shit, I've missed the stabbing part!"  I noticed Chico and Lionilo held the goat's head still and one held its mouth closed to muffle its cries.  It was eerily quiet, the mood was somber, nothing stirred--no breath of air in the heat and glare of the mid day sun.
I began to photograph the event: the head, the bowl of blood, the long dagger with blood on its pointed end.  At some point in my photographing, the reality of the situation worked its way into my subconsious.  This death was both slow and painful and the men were very patient and quiet in the their handling of the animal.  When the goat was bled out, the bowl of blood was removed and raised to the sky, a prayer was offered which I could barely hear and certainly could not understand and blood was flung on the patio floor in a circular motion to the 4 directions.  Then the bowl was set upon the altar.
If I had missed the stabbing of the white goat, I was fully present for the second, black goat's mortal wounds.  The entire process seemed like a long time because I wanted the killing part to be instantaneous and painless like dying in one's sleep.  But most of the time death takes a while or rather life takes its time leaving.  THE HEART, the mind, the body struggles to overcome death, almost to the end--bleeding out.

There was one moment when the black goat was "left for dead" when the prayers and blood had been offered up to the heavens and scattered on the earth, and I photographed the head resting on its horns, chin pointed skyward, mouth slightly ajar, the opened eye's blank death stare and the altar in the background.
I was low to the ground on both knees, the animal jerked one last time and I shot to my feet.  Dusting the dirt and small rocks from my pants, I noticed I had knelt in some of the offered blood.  I walked rapidly and consciously washed my pants in the nearby running water.  My prayer--"keep death from my door a little while longer."
That was the last conscious thing I did for a while.  The men asked if I was alright--I nodded, yes, yes, I was fine but somewhat dazed and thinking about death, both my own and that of my friends and family.  It was time for honoring death and the part it plays in nurturing the living--the dancing, the drinking and the feasting, all saluting life.
Reading my notes from that day and sitting here now in this room in Dallas, sliding in and out of time between worlds, I feel strangely disorientated.  So I offer these journal notes and photographs as proof of this existing, parallel world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Expedition Notes December 2008

This is the day we load the mules and leave the warmth and comfort of Marta’s Norogachi B & B. We will not travel far in order to camp in lovely caves our first night out. Of course I’m more than a little anxious & excited. I’ve made this trip before during spring, climbing up over the Continental Divide and dropping down into the valley at Nararachi. In spring just before Easter the world warms & wakes. Now in early December the world grows cold and the nights, long. This is the time for earth’s energies to retreat & rest.
Day Two:  Yesterday’s ride was over easy terrain through high pine forests and rancherias. Santiago and Hiram scouted the trails earlier in November and for our first camp site Santiago chose the perfect cave for me –clean & private. This was my first night to use the new cot and I’m already addicted to the comfort of not having to crawl around on the ground.   
                During the night the drums started and echoed through out the night. There’s a ritual going on over the next hill, possibly a peyote healing. This is the season. Earlier in the evening I saw two men on the path just below our camp pushing a wheel barrel filled with wood. These are signs of a communal gathering.
My cave is warmed by the early morning sun. The view of fallow corn fields stretching out to meet low mountains on the horizon glows golden in this light. Nearby a determined pine grows out of a boulder. These craggy rocks, fields, pines and distant mountains are a photograph waiting in silence.  I linger here in my warm cocoon just a while longer. Santiago is bringing me coffee in bed!! This is a first. How delicious. And then the journey begins again; the trail stretches out before us.