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Tickling the Ivories (well, wood) with Toca Conmigo

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At four am on random mornings the past week or so the neighbors of Rio de Jainero Plaza have been treated to a piano recital outside their bedroom windows.

Not everyone appreciates this phantom of the opera performance, but a piano in a public plaza is just asking to be played in the middle of night.

Supposedly the mystery player is a homeless virtuoso who comes from a family of renowned piano players. “Toca Conmigo” is definitely bringing the piano players out of the woodwork. Check out this guy:

His name is Gabriel and we saw him play on that same Rio de Jainero piano. He had just come from the main plaza in Coyoacan, on a mini Toca Conmigo tour.

Before that, Ariel, who had never seen a piano before, and his sister, who yes, had played one once, tapped out Mary had a Little Lamb, giggling nervously.

The best part is that in a city of 28 million people, five of us talked to one another lydia_carey_toca_conmigo2for the first time.

That was artist Luke Jerram’s original intention when he created the street pianos project. In the last 6 years 1,400 pianos have been installed in 45 cities across the world and hundreds of thousands of conversations have sprung up.

According to the website, 20 pianos are scattered across Mexico City. Last Friday, on a search to find them, we came up empty in the Santo Domingo Plaza and the Alameda downtown but found them alive and well in the Rio de Jainero and Luis Cabrera Plazas of the Roma.

I’ve always thought that piano players were a special breed, but the ones we saw playing, I mean really playing, not just tapping out Yankee Doodle like me, practically snuck up to the piano, put their heads down shyly and then regaled us with these five minute sets. Afterward, they demurred at the applause and timidly skulked off. It was only passion for the piano that had brought them to the plaza, they were visibly embarrassed by the attention.

lydia_carey_toca_conmigoThere once was a time when pianos reigned supreme in homes and classrooms in the Western world. When they represented entertainment, good breeding and even flirtation. But who has pianos anymore? Besides family heirlooms so out of tune they are practically unplayable? How many of the kids in Luis Cabrera Park are seeing pianos for the first (and maybe the last) time in their lives? They’re their model-Ts and phonographs.

Toca Conmigo will only be around until the 13th of April, and even though there have been some whispers that the pianos may stick around longer, it’s something you’ll want to see just in case, just as they were suddenly there, they will suddenly disappear.

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Upcoming April Events in Mexico City

jacarandaHere are just a few upcoming events in April as I build my regular calendar, click on the comments above to add more to my list.

Outdoor Movies all month @ the Cineteca Nacional

April 1 to 6 – Poesía en Vos Alta: El Sonido que Delira www.casadellago.unam.mx

April 4,5,6 – Bazar Art District: primavera 2014, 11:00 a 19:00 on Pedro Antonio de los Santos 96, in Colonia San Miguel Chapultepec.

April 5 & 6 – Food Truck Bazaar in Coapa/ follow them on twitter for more info @FoodTruckBazar

April 8, 9, 23, & 24- Book Presentations @ Casa del Poeta

April 11 & 12 – Garden Festival @ Huerto Roma Verde

Until April 13 – James Lee Byars: ½ An Autobiography @ Fundacion Jumex and Archivo de María Izquierdo @ the Museo de Arte Moderno

April 13 to 21 – Semana Santa (more info about events later)

April 23 – Feria de Libro y de la Rosa @ UNAM cultura.unam.mx/fiesta2014

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Noche de Museos at El Chopo

I must once again wax poetic about Noche de Museos here in Mexico City. Like lots of similar programs around the world,it’s a monthly event when museums around the city stay open late, offer free or discounted entry, guided tours and often program special musical or artistic shows. For me there is something so satisfying about staying at a museum past 9 o’clock or listening to a rock band while appreciating contemporary art.

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This last Wednesday, when I hit the Museo Universitario del Chopo, I really had no idea what I was in for. All I’ve ever known of El Chopo is its infamous El Chopo Sunday market (named for the museum, where it began) where the heavies, freaks and black-clad rockers hang out, buying and selling cds and talking about their piercings.

Turns out there is much more to the place than that.

An Alternative Past

The Chopo museum looks more like a cathedral than a museum. An Art Nouveau glass and steel structure reminiscent of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, the building was shipped in pieces from Germany and arrived by train at the nearby Buenavista station. Originally meant as an exhibition space for industrial art and design, it ended up serving as the city’s Natural History museum from 1913 to 1964 — when the building’s deteriorating condition caused its collection to be distributed among the Natural History Museum in Chapultepec, the Geology Museum and various institutes of the UNAM.

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They started repairing the building in the mid-seventies as an artistic and cultural space, particularly focused on the work of young, emerging artists. In 1980s the Chopo Market began, originally as a place for music lovers to trade lps, and they hosted the first Gay Culture week in 1987 (which was an annual event for 15 years).

The Tradition Continues

Their latest show? Sex, Drugs and RocknRoll: Art and Culture of the Mexican Masses from 1963-1971.

hippies_el_Chopo_lydia_careyWhile Sex, Drugs and RocknRoll is full of the drug-induced short films, drug-induced art and drug-induced music of the 60s in Mexico, not all the current exhibits are quite so rowdy. The Return of the Dinosaur by Erick Meyenberg and Liminal Animal by Mariana Magdaleno are shout-outs to the building’s past — fossil displays, old taxonomy books and freakish looking baby pigs floating in formaldehyde. Liminal Animal also includes these incredible images of creatures and insects drawn on the blank, towering walls with scientific precision.

Each exhibit inhabits its own little corner of El Chopo’s liminal_animal_el_chopoexpansive warehouse-style space. Upstairs there’s a cafe and last Wednesday a local rock band jammed out the El Chopo soundtrack.

I probably wouldn’t have gone and seen any of this if it weren’t for Noche de Museos, which lists all the participating museums on their website, divided into areas of the city. So I just wanted to say that this program rocks – especially at El Chopo.

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Fundación Jumex in Polanco

I finally made it to the Jumex Foundation Museum over the weekend and while I still think that the building is ugly as sin from the outside, the curation and interior design of the space rocks. James Lee Byars: 1/2 an Autobiography will be at the museum until the 13th of March, and Habitar el Tiempo until May 18th. Here are some photos.

 

 

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My Map

I started my map-making class last night and this was my first map… the Centro Medico park where I take my dogs in the morning to walk.

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Saturday Afternoon Pit Stop at Al-malak

  • Al-malak jocoque
  • Al-malak keebe bolas
  • Al-malak facade

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A Oaxacan Primer at Guzina Oaxaca

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I’m sitting at Guzina Oaxaca, a new restaurant in Polanco with an old friend from San Miguel days. Foodie companion and chef extraordinaire Shaw, has a serious love affair with Oaxacan food and is giving me a list of instructions on what to eat during my upcoming trip in May when hopefully the two of us can meet up amongst the mole.

Tlayudas, hot chocolate, pan de yema, emoladas fragranced with avocado leaf, enfrijoladas, mole verde, mole amarillo … the best food is in the market stalls. Last time I was there it was for work and everything was condensed into 20-minute intervals. This time around I’m going to spend a whole week watching the guy who grinds the chocolate.”

As she speaks, our waiter is making us a tableside salsa with moritas – small, guzina_salsa_ingridientssmoked jalapeno peppers, peeled Roma tomatoes, small tomatillos called tomatillos milperos, cilantro and onion – a molcajete full of an ever so acrid blend of peppers with a lite bite and heavy complexity. He offers us blue corn tortillas toasted on the comal.

Guzina is the new brainchild of Alex Ruiz, known for his restaurant Casa Oaxaca in Oaxaca City and as one of Mexico’s young chefs taking traditional Mexican food to haute cuisine heights. For a Thursday night in a new restaurant that’s getting lots of press, the place is pretty calm – we agree it would be better with outdoor seating on a tree-lined street in the Condesa than in the high-end strip mall it shares with AirFrance in Polanco.

guzina_oaxacan_empanadasLocation and empty tables are set aside though – we came for the food. We order creamy black bean tacos wrapped in hoja santa, Oaxacan empanadas with chicken in yellow mole (a sacred Oaxacan combination, says Shaw) and chichilo rojo mole on braised porkchops.

The chichilo mole is the more savory cousin of the traditional mole negro that has come to represent Mexican mole all over the world. It has burnt chiles, no chocolate and “actually ends up looking black on the plate,” according to my night’s Oaxacan food guide. This version, the chichilo rojo, is slightly lighter in color, with a nutty, smoked flavor – the result of its hodgepodge of dried chiles and dashes of clove and allspice.

We are definitely not struggling to get our food down.

“This food tastes right,” says Shaw. “Sometimes the problem with these vanguard places is that the food just doesn’t taste like it’s supposed to, and this tastes Oaxacan.”

Two mezcal martinis, one with cucumber and mint, the other, maracuyá (passion fruit) and apple, are followed by an El Portal Oaxacan stout and two shots of Alipus to sip – the place has over 40 brands of mezcal behind the bar.

guzina_cocadaDinner finishes up with toasted coconut atop a smear of maracuyá sauce and some rose petal sorbet. Even though I say I’m not interested (“I prefer to drink my dessert”) I end up eating half of it anyway, only because I feel it’s my journalistic duty.

By the time we’re done (around 10:30), the place is a little livelier but it’s still not as packed as I expected.

The food has passed the expert’s (and the novice’s) taste test and I personally think it’s a great new edition to regional cuisine in Mexico City. I can’t wait to get to Oaxaca and eat some of the down-home cooking that inspired the menu.

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Taller Tlamaxcalli’s Toybox

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Toys have no nationality, no origin, according to Álvaro Santillán. Children invented toys.

That being said, Álvaro seems to have a beginning, a story, a little detail of origin for every item in the Tlamaxcalli toy workshop.

A Playful History

The cramped space on Chihuahua Street in the Roma is overflowing with dust, wood-working equipment, two dogs, canisters of paint and toys of all colors and shapes.

“You see this one,” he points to a wooden monkey with metal spring arms that when shaken beats on a little drum. “This one was originally made from resistencias, bought by junk men from rich people.”

“And this one,” he shows us noisemakers with thin metal strips that form a globe and spin in circles when you slide the ring around their base up and down. “These used to be made in the colors of the French flag. During the centennial celebrations in Mexico, the government passed them out to all the children to greet the dignitaries with because, you know, Porfirio Díaz was a lover of all things French.”

There are papier-mâché devils and dolls that originated from Valencia, Spain, Taller_Tlamaxcalli_cartoneriagarbanceras, the forebearer of José Gaudalupe Posada’s famous catrinas and matracas, noisemakers used during Semana Santa’s Holy Sabbath to keep the demons at bay until Christ rises again on Easter Sunday.

A Workshop is Born

“I am a storyteller by trade,” Álvaro says matter–of–factly. “And when I went looking for toys to use to illustrate my stories, everyone told me that the ones I wanted were no longer made. So we had to start making them ourselves.”

Álvaro and his partner Jazmín Juárez, a shy, round-faced girl who looks younger than she probably is, met when he was working for the Museo Universitario de Ciencias and she was there studying on a scholarship. She became his pupil then, but by Álvaro’s account has far surpassed his skills in her particular specialty — cartonería or papier-mâché sculpture.

“She’s the expert now,” he says, “She could run this shop without me, but I could never run it without her.”

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_calibrinAll the dragons and alebrijes and garbanceras are Jazmín’s work, spread out across a work bench surrounded by endless bottles of paint and straight–edge knives. Today she’s working on a giant chess piece for the outdoor chess board at a school. I ask her how she decided on papier–mâché.

“It’s just want I liked the best,” she says, immediately drowning her timidity by picking up a toy and showing me what it can do.

These two toy makers opened up the Taller Tlamazcalli to the public only four years ago after several years working on commissioned pieces for museums and private collectors.

“What really struck us,” says Álvaro, “is that even though the toys are covered in sawdust, people like coming and seeing us working, I don’t know what it is … they like the smell of paint and glue. We decided to keep the shop a workshop.”

The Tlamaxcalli has been recognized by some of Mexico’s major cultural institutions like the Museo de Arte Popular and Museo de la Ciudad de México. They are the only surviving toy workshop in all of Mexico City.

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A Personal Philosophy

“I would be angry if you gave me a beautiful toy and said ‘when you want to play with it, let me know and we’ll get it down.’ No, no, no, it has to be designed in a way that I can say, ‘I don’t want to play with this anymore’ (he tosses a noisemaker angrily onto the table) and then tomorrow, when I find it again and want to play, I pick it up and keep playing.”

This is almost word for word what he told us last time we came by the workshop. P1050196It summons up Álvaro’s attitude about toymaking. If you paint a toy too beautifully, he believes, you turn it into a piece of art and it loses its utility.

If you want, he will teach you how to make toys the way he does, but you’ll have to start with the basics. Both Álvaro and Jazmín give classes at their shop and at schools and organizations.

“Before you can make a chair, you have to learn to saw a straight line,” Álvaro says while demonstrating how to use what he calls a San José — an old–fashioned wire saw. (Did you know that this tool is Biblical, he asks us.)

All their students start out making papier-mâché (because you need few tools not because it’s easy, he insists) and then slowly move on to wooden toys, like the fighting boxers or the pull-apart wooden robot. And every person goes through the step-by-step process so that “when they’ve gone home, they’ve really learned something.”

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_ferris_wheelOutside, a wooden ferris wheel on a high table and a devil that hangs down with a sign reading “We make devils!” attract all kinds of people through the door, from kids with 10 pesos in their pockets to nostalgic parents to foreigners who want to take home a piece of “artesanía.” This last kind of customers irks Álvaro, but it’s unavoidable — regardless of how “rustic” he says he wants their finished products, they’re all still breathtakingly beautiful.

An Endangered Species

Jazmín is quick to assure me that she plans to carry on the toy-making tradition Taller_Tlamaxcalli_dogswhen I ask, but it’s still something that Álvaro worries about in his own whimsical way.

“You know what happened when those f***ing Crocs appeared? There went the guaracha makers,” he says referring to sandals made once upon a time in Mexico out of used tires. “You see these beautifully dressed indigenous people wearing Dallas Cowboys hats and you know why? There are no more sombrero makers. Que lástima! If you’re looking for toys and you ask around someone might say, ‘oh, yes, Don Jorge still makes toys’ … and he’s 98 years old.”

He calls it an oral tradition — befitting of his personality I would say — and believes in training the next generation of toy makers, but is not interested in writing an instructional manual or copying down his patterns.

“If you want to make a duck, go ahead, draw a duck. How? However you imagine it in your head,” he tells me.

Taller_Tlamaxcalli_diablosAfter years of pouring over books about toys, watching old movies and sifting through jail archives (at one time in Mexico most childrens’ toy were made and sold by inmates) both Álvaro and Jazmín still believe that creativity and practice are the only things that will make you good.

“It’s dignified, the work we do,” he says proudly.  “We are an endangered species; it’s your job to make sure we don’t disappear.”

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A Very Public Break-up at the MODO

MODO_music_boxYou know how that old saying goes “One man’s break-up is another man’s art.” Well maybe that’s not the exact phrasing but it’s appropriate for the MODO‘s new exhibit, part of a traveling break-up show from Croatia.

Officially called The Museum of Broken Relationships, the concept was created by Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubisic, two artists whose break-up inspired them to set up an art installation in an old shipping container in downtown Zagreb, Croatia. I can just imagine the conversation …

“You know what? We should take this pain, misery and anger, make it into art and invite all our friends to come and see the mess.” And that’s what they did, collecting their objects, writing descriptions for them, and exposing the end of their relationship to the world. Turns out, it was a phenom of an idea. Because, after all, everybody loves a good break-up story.

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The Museum of Broken Relationships has toured all over the world, and in each city (Paris, Berlin, Maribor, etc.) the project organizers (those same two former lovers) asked locals to send in their very own lovelorn objects to add to the show.

“We usually get 100 to 200,” said Vištica at the exhibit’s opening, “but in Mexico we received over 1500 objects, our biggest donation yet. I think that means we’re in a place that likes to talk about love.” They received so many donations that on the 23rd of April, the show’s mid-way point, the MODO is going to switch them all out for others and give everyone’s pain an equal opportunity to have its fifteen minutes of fame.

It’s true, Mexico is for lovers, maybe even more so than Virginia. All you have to  MODO_shaverdo is walk through a public park in the afternoon and you will see young, old, gay, straight, rich and poor lovers passionately making out on leaf-shaded benches. A lot of love inevitably means a lot of heartbreak.

So why not start with the shaving kit bought for an older, married man by his lover ten years his junior, whom he confesses to have never stopped loving. Or the forty-year old music box that symbolizes a first love that its owner can’t forget. How about the painting of a bright red vagina with a plaque beside it that says “this is a tiny representation of the “gift” given to me by my ex, that and the gynecologist bills.” Or the video of an eighty-year-old woman talking about a soldier she once knew or a chopped off handful of dreads or the puppet or the baby shoe. The crazy things that remind us of love…

This exhibit is proof positive that we imbue things with a significance that they don’t deserve, that doesn’t make sense, but that we can’t let go of. Donors’ stories, alongside each item, were full of catharsis. I could almost hear them heaving a sigh of relief as they dropped their donations in the mail – ridding themselves of the memories along with the object.

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“It was a rainy April night and it was love at first sight” and “Now I understand that falling in love with the right person at the wrong time may be the saddest thing to happen in life” ooze love’s cheesiness at the spectators. But I dare you to not enjoy the sappy, stinky and overwhelming cloud of love that fills the room. In each story you’ll find something of yourself. We’re all a little masochistic and melancholic deep down.

MODO_olympicsSome objects bring us together and some pull us apart, said one of the show’s presenters. If that’s true, these objects happen to be on the losing end of that equation, but they live on in infamy at The Museum of Broken Relationships and you can see them at the MODO for a limited time only — one more reason to love this museum.

The show runs until June 8th at the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (MODO) on 145 Colima Street in Roma Norte.

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A Synagogue Hidden in the Crowd

 

sierra_justo_facadeFrom the outside it is a building like any other in Mexico City’s historic center – colonial façade and wrought-iron railings curling around the windows. Across the street is the Loredo Park, named for the Catholic church at its perimeter and the streets are crammed with the rows of tiny shopfronts and snaking passageways that accommodate the thousands of people that live and sell here every day. The only difference you will notice on the facade of the Sierra Justo synagogue are two Stars of David carved into the archways above each wooden door.

Long before Jewish families shopped at Kosher Palace in Tecamachalco or orthodox Jews walked to temple through the leafy suburban streets of Polanco, there was a large and enterprising Jewish population in the Centro Histórico. Jewish families from the Middle East (Sephardis) and Eastern Europe (Ashkenazis) came to live on Jesús María Street, Loredo Street and the surrounding grid of downtown blocks in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They weren’t the first wave of Jewish immigrants – who were believed to be converted Spanish Jews that came with Hernán Cortés to escape persecution during the Spanish Inquisition – but definitely the wave that held tightest to their original culture and traditions.

On these streets in the city center, Jewish merchants started as most immigrants to Mexico have – selling trinkets in the streets and working their way up to stands and storefronts. The community began to prosper and adopt the Mexican culture and language, but barriers, some self-imposed and some involuntary, still kept them from fully assimilating.

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There was persecution – during the first wave of Jewish immigration in the 16th century, immigrants were forced to worship in secret to escape the watchful eyes of the Mexican Inquisition. There was prejudice – “My grandmother told me that when she was young the kids would say that the Jews had tails,” says my friend Arturo with an embarrassed roll of his eyes, “and so they used to try and lift up the girls’ skirts to see.” Sounds like an excuse to lift up little girls’ skirts to me, but still a nasty thing to hear at 8 years old.

There was elitism – Jews married only within their community, and many Mexican women who worked as medicine women to  members of the Jewish community eventually became the single mothers of pale skinned, curly-haired babies.

And there was solidarity – In the thirties, fascist groups demanded that the Jews get out of Mexico and the community rallied to form the Comité Central Isrealita de México, an organization that defended Jews’ right to remain in the country, strengthening ties within the community and with wider Mexican society.

Despite bumps in the road, Jews in Mexico were offered a kind of religious freedom unheard of in many of their home countries and are now very much immersed in Latino life, even, as one Inside Mexico article describes it, “eating guacamole on their bagels and interchanging pozole for matzoh ball soup, blintzes for quesadillas.”

In 1912 the Sociedad de Beneficencia Alianza Monte Sinaí brought together Jews throughout the area, and in 1918 they built Mexico’s first synagogue, Monte Sinaí – which just happens to be a few buildings down from Sierra Justo synagogue on Sierra Justo Street. In 1938, 20 years later, the first stone was set for Sierra Justo.

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Twenty steps past the building’s main entrance and you are in front the structure’s true facade – whitewashed walls with blue and white colored stained-glass windows that shimmer in the sun. Facing that entrance is a wall of photos from the Manuel Taifled Archive which chronicle the history of the temple, Dusia Kreimerman and Miguel Vestel’s wedding – the synagogue’s first – and images of community banquets celebrating Jewish holidays. Up the first flight of stairs is the synagogue’s main room with intricately painted doomed ceilings, a golden four-postered platform in the middle and the temple’s holiness of holy spaces, the aron ha-kodesh (or Holy Ark) on the eastern wall of the room cloaked in a royal blue curtain, or a parokhet. The Holy texts have long been removed from this sanctuary, but services are still held here every once in a while, like the Hanukkah celebration that Arturo attended this year.

sierra_justo_above“The majority of the people at the service weren’t Jewish,” he told me, “but we were all very respectful and the Rabbi invited us all pray along with him and join in singing traditional Hebrew songs.”

The church’s Holy Ark and its platform are decorated with carvings of Middle Eastern fruit – pomegranates, grapes and pears – and the deer and mythical grifos important to Jewish tradition. The back upstairs wall is painted with an incredibly peaceful scene from the Garden of Eden (despite that tricky snake you’ll see wrapped around one tree).

This building was the focus of life for the centro‘s Ashkenazim Jews from the time of its founding up until the mid-eighties. For decades before that, the Jewish community had been slowly moving out of Mexico City’s center to more affluent areas like La Condesa, La Roma and Alamos. Fewer and fewer members attended services and the synagogue was eventually left abandoned. It wasn’t until 2008 that a team led by Jorge Abraham organized a restoration of the building and re-inaugurated it as a cultural space.sierra_justo_hebrew_books

The synagogue, now a kind of museum, hosts various exhibits on its third floor, once the reserved space for women and children during the orthodox services. When we visited, Hebrew books from the famous Palafoxiana library in Puebla were on display. Texts used by Catholic monks studying the Bible and the life of Christ – just one more way that Jewish and non-Jewish Mexicans are intricately connected.

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