Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wonder Women: Don't mess with the old women of Cherán, Mexico

Photo from Los Angeles Times article

The Wonder Women series was born out of my awe at what immigrant women are doing around Lake Chapala. I kept asking why so many amazing projects had been started by women coming from other lands. Many answers surfaced, largely boiling down to … because they want to and they can.

My first interview with Xill Fessenden confirmed that idea, but also opened up a whole new world of Wonder Women … indigenous women defending their homes and families when pushed too far by cartels and corrupt politicians.

Cherán is an amazing story born in the fierce history of the Purépecha, once the second largest empire in what is now Mexico and the only group of indigenous peoples never conquered by the Aztecs. They are still determinedly independent and committed to retaining their way of life. These are forest people living in the mountains of Michoacán, harvesting pine resin and converting it in their communal factory into an industrial product used in everything from chewing gum to prescription drugs, as well as paint varnish and cosmetics. 

The resin can be harvested without cutting down the pine trees, thus creating a sacred environment and sustainable income for the Cherán community. At least it did until 2008, when the cartels moved in and began clear cutting the forest. Bandits with machine guns patrolled the forest while loggers drove huge trucks through the town and the local police and government officials would do nothing. If the villagers tried to stop the loggers, they faced threats, beatings and even death.

The village was dealing with one of the most violent drug cartels, La Familia Michoacana, which claimed a divine right to murder its enemies and once tossed five severed heads onto a dance floor to prove its point. The villagers could do nothing against the cartel as they watched their ancestral forests being destroyed and the men of the town leaving for work in the United States.

Until one April day in 2011, that is, when five elderly Purépecha women, said, “Enough!” Their families, villages, sacred forest, and now their water supply were all being destroyed. It was time to act.

In a documentary titled “Cherán: tierra para soñar” (Land of our dreams), one of the women who took part describes the events of that fateful day:

“When we set out it was dawn and still dark, around 6:30 in the morning. The church bells were ringing calling people to mass […] I never really thought this would go far […] We were just five women from here, from this neighbourhood, a bunch of older women, there were no men, maybe a few men but mostly women […] We chased after the cars throwing stones, one woman even got hit and scraped all the skin off her knee when a car backed into her…”

An article in the Los Angeles Times reports, "Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks. Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls.”

That day led the village of about 18,000 people to revolt and invoke a Mexican law giving indigenous people the right to self-government.They threw out the political parties, the police and all the politicians and set up their own self-governing processes, including armed guards at all the access points to the village and the forest. 

When the cartel came after them, the villagers blocked all the entry points, building bonfires as they stood guard and fought back for almost a year. The cartel tried to wait them out but the village was determined, and, in the end, they won. In 2014, the law of self-governance was upheld by the Mexican Supreme Court.

For the past seven years, they have had literally no violent crime and have peacefully governed themselves. Today they have a massive pine forest nursery of over a million seedlings and are working to reforest their mountains and build up their pine resin factory.

Update: January, 2018

Cherán activist Guadalupe Campanur, 32, was found strangled on the side of a highway. The Attorney General of the State of Michoacán has announced that a investigation is in process in coordination with the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders through the Secretariat of State Government.

More Information:

Wonder Woman: Xill Fessenden, Photographer, Artist, Activist

Alcatraz by Xill Fessenden
I expected little from the art auction in the plaza, perhaps a piece by a local artist for my new apartment. I definitely didn’t expect to see a large, luminous image of an alcatraz (cala lilly) that left me breathless. Who was this artist? …  a digital artist here in this small village in Mexico? Could I possibly afford this incredible piece?

I did manage to bring that piece home and the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to meet Xill (Jill) Fessenden and know about her work and her story. Finally, we connected in her studio/home and I discovered far more than an amazing photographer and artist. I found someone who set the standards for a Wonder Woman.

The Mexico part of Xill's story began after a serious accident when she decided to reinvent her life. She knew it meant a move but she wasn’t sure where to go. Deciding to sleep on it and wait for an omen, she slipped notes with the names Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Mexico under her pillow. And omens did appear … one sublime and one ridiculous. 

The first omen came during a visit to the high desert, spring poppy fields in California. In the distance, hovering over the poppies, she saw a dark smudge. As she approached, she saw that it was a flock of birds with a bigger bird in the center. And when she got closer, she recognized the bigger bird as a golden eagle. And, in it’s beak was a snake … the national symbol of Mexico. The second omen, the seemingly ridiculous one, appeared when she spilled chili on her shirt and recognized the shape of Mexico. 

Mixed media piece by Xill Fessenden
It was enough to point her toward Mexico and by June of 1985 she was living on the shores of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico, intending to devote herself to photography. Her intentions expanded when she began to explore the villages of Mexico and experienced the generous nature of the people and their culture. 

A November, 2017, interview with El Ojo del Lago, (page 32) reported, "... the most important things she learned while traveling to indigenous villages was how a community functions as a whole: where the land, the community, the family and the individual have the same identity, and they all work together as a unit. They build each others’ houses, share the harvest, and help each others’ children—the way it should be. It moved her, and formed a desire for her to help preserve that culture."

Book featuring Xill Fessenden's work
Recognized as a serious and successful photographer and digital artist, Xill told writer Rob Mohr, My works are not manipulation of a photo, rather an intervention creating a statement of feeling. I don’t feel like I take a picture, but am given a picture.
Xill is also widely recognized as an activist who makes things happen. She opened the Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) art center with sculptor Estela Hidalgo to help teach art to local children. 

In 1998, she started the local Purépecha Festival to honor the food, culture and art of what was once the second largest empire in Mexico. She wants her photography to engage people outside the world of art galleries, and created Galeria al Aire Libre Axixic (GALA) so everyone could enjoy open air exhibits focused on local families, animals, children’s art and, currently, on the history of Ajijic.

Peregrinos Wixárikas from Banamex book
In 2000, she prompted a Hands Across the Lake event to hug the lake and increase awareness of the importance of protecting it. This photo taken by John Frost shows how low the water level was at that point when you could actually walk to Scorpion Island (Isla Alacranes), so named because of its shape not its inhabitants. 

Poster outside Xill's door
Today, in addition to making art, working with the Purépecha people to bring their culture to Ajijic, and her other environmental interests, now as a Mexican citizen, she is turning her attention to the political situation in Mexico, especially with the indigenous movements such as the example in Cherán in Michoacán, which the Los Angeles Times calls, "a bastion of tranquillity within one of Mexico’s most violent regions." 

In an area where illegal timber trucks belonging to criminal syndicates raided the community's communal forests, the authorities refused to help.  The community revolted.
On April 15, 2011, before dawn, the people of Cheran sounded the bells at the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Calvary and set off homemade fireworks to summon help. Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks.
Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls. -- Los Angeles Times
The community went on to throw out all the political parties, all the police, the entire system. The Times article reports, "In 2014 Cheran’s provisional system of self-government was declared legal. The town remains part of Mexico but runs its own show."

Historically, artists have always been involved in political movements. Xill Fessenden follows in that long tradition and continues to earn her designation as a Wonder Woman.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Wonder Women of Mexico

Goddess of the Lake
Ajijic startled me. 

Rather, the goddess who walks through the small villages on the shores of the largest lake in Mexico, the stunningly beautiful one with almost perfect weather, surprised and shocked me. I can hear you groan, but the longer I’m here, the more I’m convinced that something amazing happens here (and, admittedly, in other places in Mexico).

Families and horses
I’ve never seen the goddess, nor do I know her name, although the goddess-fish princess of Pre-Columbian Mexico is named Teomichicihualli. For obvious reasons, we will simply refer to her as the goddess and ponder her touch which transforms ordinary folks from foreign lands into Wonder Women, brimming with compassion, creativity, confidence, and a contributing spirit. I’ve met some of the Wonder Women here, glowing with the touch of the goddess and spreading hope and new possibilities like floating milkweed seeds across the land.

Meeting them has made me wonder what happens here that frees their spirits and gives them the golden touch of compassionate creativity. In a short conversation with Judith Faith Stanley, who has created an art center here, I mentioned this curiosity about what people do when they come to Mexico and she said, “Whatever they want to do.”

Shore dogs reveling in freedom
Simple, but brilliant. This lakeside village, and many other places in Mexico, are perfect convergences of needs, wants and talents, known and unknown. Wherever a Wonder Women looks, there are opportunities: art to be made from the vibrant colors and culture, street dogs that need care, music to be sung to shut-ins and people making their final transitions, children who need homes, health care, and education; indigenous artisans whose traditional arts needs to be shared and supported; villages that need clean water; lakes and mountains to be protected; injured birds and animals to be rescued.

Iglesia de San Antonia de Padua
In Canada and the US, people who have sufficient means tend to choose neighborhoods that are pretty: tree-lined streets, flowered yards, easy access to supermarkets offering a endless choice of everything. We carefully choose an environment of prosperity, security and well-being.

When we move to Mexico, we are often living in the midst of the nitty-gritty for the first time. Even if we choose to live in a gated community, our lives inevitably wind through the plazas and tiendas of real life. Suddenly, we see tiny children selling green beans, mothers carrying small mountains of embroidered purses and painted bookmarks through coffee shops and plazas in an unending effort to feed their children, skinny street dogs scouting for food, cars held together with spit and ingenuity, and families of four on a motorcycle.

Young girl in parade
Life in Mexico is close to the bone and what happens next
can be surprising, sometimes even shocking. Living in the midst of visible needs changes the way we see the world … with the help of the goddess, of course. And, while everyone responds to their changed conditions in their own ways, some find themselves drawn into new challenges, responding to the needs closest to their hearts with creativity and ingenuity. Under the touch of the goddess, they grow and become Wonder Women (and Wonder Men).

Dancer at Water Ceremony
The first several months of living in Mexico is often a sensory feast, gorging on the sunshine and color, the friendliness and slower pace, the kaleidoscope of culture, the freedom from former expectations and responsibilities. However, at some point, there is a turning, a realization that we’re here, actually living in a new world, a world with incredible beauty and heartbreaking needs. Everywhere we look, laced through the color and charm, there are problems … big ones we’ll never be able to fix, and small ones that perhaps we could do something about. So, we begin and the stories unfold.

Friends here were having work done on their house. One of the workers started telling them about his family and his son who attended a nearby school. The goddess winked as the conversation unfolded, and my friends heard about a school with problems: not enough supplies, a lack of books, broken toilets. Since coming to Mexico, they have rescued three health-challenged dogs. Now, they have adopted a school.

Crested caracara
At a fund raiser for the Tepehua Community Center in Chapala, I met a couple who rescue animals which, because of injuries or other reasons, will never be able to be released back into the wild. They introduced me to a crested caracara, a raptor sacred to the Aztecs.

Looking into the eyes of that incredible bird, I saw a fierceness of spirit which made me think that's part of the goddess's touch, a fierce determination to make a difference and generously give back to this country that touches us every day with it's open friendliness and beauty.

This blog is dedicated to sharing some of the Mexico stories I find as I explore the country, including the stories of fierce compassion of Wonder Women and their contributions.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Finding Heart Dreams through the eyes of the Fool

Susa Silvermarie, Open Circle, April 1, 2018
One of the many things I love about being here in Ajijic, Mexico, is Open Circle, a free, weekly presentation designed to inform, inspire or entertain. Since I’ve been here, subjects have ranged from fairy stories to the state of Lake Chapala, from the possibility of a financial crisis to an opera performance.  The quality of the presentations are incredible for this small village and this week’s presentation … on April 1st continued the tradition of excellence with Susa Silvermarie’s, “Fool’s Way to Joyful Aging.” 

Susa is a poet, philosopher and performer and she enchanted us with her powerful words and encouragement to follow the Fool. One of her thoughts that struck me was … what if we are actually in the third trimester of a different form of pregnancy … standing on the brink, being born into a new world?

As we deal with the normal things that come our way during this stage of life … death of friends and family, illness, loss of identity and status … according to Silvermarie, we are invited to play with the Fool, an archetype in the Tarot deck often represented as someone standing on the edge of a high cliff while gazing upward into the Infinite. Perched on the threshold where one journey ends and another begins, the Fool seems unafraid, and indeed, somewhat “fool hardy.”

Silvermarie suggests that the Fool is an ideal archetype, not only for this third stage of life, but "for new beginnings, freedom, and an adventurous spirit,” a description of all of us who sat listening to her … we immigrants to this land, this new life.

Having invited men to stretch in order to feel included, she used feminine pronouns throughout the presentation and in many of her shared poems, including:
An Archetype for Immigrants

She comes to the new land
to begin a fresh life,

She comes for freedom.
She doesn’t name herself
ex-anything, not she.

The Fool doesn’t look back
or define herself by what
she used to be.

Forward she steps,
off the cliff of control—
into the unfamiliar,
into the mysterious,
into adventure!

And, as we step into this new part of an ancient journey, Silvermarie tells us that the Ojibwe term for a female elder is mindi-muyén … one who holds things together and asks how we might feel and how our culture and our lives might be different if we elders, male and female, were known as the ones who hold things together? Might we begin to think of this stage as one of power and importance?

With that ground work, Silvermarie began to weave a message that could change our way of thinking about aging, sharing her own poems and words from Ashton Applewhite, author of This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism:
For movements to have power, their members have to embrace the thing that is stigmatized, whether it’s being black, loving someone of the same gender—or growing old! That means moving from denying aging to accepting it, and finally, to embracing it.

Trying to pass for younger is like a gay person trying to pass for straight, or a person of color for white. These trying-to-pass behaviors are rooted in shame over something that in not shameful. And, these behaviors give a pass to the underlying discrimination that makes them necessary.

Joining forces against ageism is a big task. Open any women’s magazine and advertisements shout, “How can you expect to be desired if you ‘let yourself go?’” But none of that stigma is natural, none of it is fixed, and change is underway. One magazine has banned the term “anti-aging” from its pages; instead, defining aging as: “the long-awaited, utterly necessary celebration of growing into your own skin, wrinkles and all.”

Silvermarie invited us to stop, reflect and celebrate growing into our own skins.  Allure magazine, the one that has recently banned the term “anti-aging,” also asked readers to repeat, "Growing older is a wonderful thing because it means that we get a chance, every day, to live a full, happy life.” 

Silvermarie left me, and the Open Circle audience, feeling alive, inspired, and a little more powerful. 
Heart Dreams by Joyce Wycoff
As I looked around the audience and thought of the people I have met in my almost-one-year here, I am awed by what I’ve seen. Immigrants to this region by the lake have created powerful and generous projects to improve life here … such as water projects bringing clean water to villages, orphanages, community centers, school support and rebuilding projects, pet rescue and spaying programs, art programs for children. 
I see people starting to make art, play musical instruments, write books, learn Spanish, participate in little theater, and dozens of other things that make their lives full and happy. I see them following their own Heart Dreams.

A recent Good Housekeeping magazine article recognized several powerful women over 50 and my favorite was Marie Wilson, 77, who said, "What keeps people strong and healthy is the ability to make change — in their job, in their community or in their home.”  In their own lives.
Silvermarie’s presentation was an inspiration to follow the Fool, step off the precipice and celebrate growing into our full selves. Thanks, Susa!