Chapter 2: Mexican Magic

On the plane to Mexico City from Montreal I happened to sit beside Lilia, a young woman who had been part of Mexico’s Olympic gymnastics team during the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

On the plane to Mexico City from Montreal I happened to sit beside Lilia, a young woman who had been part of Mexico’s Olympic gymnastics team during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. She was returning home to Mexico City from visiting friends in Montreal. I had great respect for the sport, although my own success as a gymnast had peaked in High School when my brother Casey and I won the City of Ottawa team championship. The shared interest meant I could carry on a conversation, which was my primary goal having sat beside a woman of my age. It was December 30th, 1977, my 22nd year. She invited me to join her and her brothers Arturo and Alejandro at their parents’ home for New Year’s Eve dinner and a Mexican ritual: eating grapes and making wishes while counting down to midnight. I returned afterwards to the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México on Mexico’s famous main square, the Zócalo. My parents had treated me to two nights in this 5 star hotel to cement my pledge to re-engage with the world outside of Dawson City. They were afraid Casey and I would become stuck in the Yukon, a place they considered isolated and lonely. I did not share their worry, but I loved the coloured lights and grandeur of the Zócalo. A few days later I was in San Miguel de Allende a few hours north of Mexico City, where I would study art for the next 18 months.

My arrival in Mexico from the Yukon broke my isolation and launched a period of intense exploration of earthly delights. I took a three-month Spanish language course for four hours every morning at the Institute, and spent the afternoon at the market eating Aztec soup and trying to figure out what people were saying and doing. I learned about epazote, an herb routinely added to beans, quesadillas and mole, and its contribution to relief of flatulence and stomach cramps. I drank red hibiscus iced tea and dos equis beer, and ate elotes, a grilled corn on the cob dipped in salt water and flavoured with lemon and chille power. Walking past the bus station, I would stand entranced by the performance of ticket-takers calling out destinations near and far. “Celaya, Celaya!” So many delightful sounds and so many world foods that have their origin in Mexico.

I discovered a small pulque bar on the edge of town serving peasants and small-scale entrepreneurs a fermented drink from the ubiquitious maguey plant. I watched as they played a curious version of crokinole, involving a small wooden plate with a hole in the middle men would toss coins at and win if it found the mark. Walking along narrow cobble stone streets on the outskirts of town I would come across women washing clothes at a public sink and unexpected devotion places with small statues and burning candles. The wooden firework castillos, castles made of pine sticks and bamboo braces, offered a different religious experience as they gyrated, popped loudly and spun wildly into the air and across the main square in front of the Gothic parroquia in the centre of town. Curious, and blessed with a young brain, I learned the language quickly. After three months I could speak well and by six months my accent was good enough to distinguish myself from the normal Canadian and American attempts to enunciate vowels and rolling “r’s”.

Image: Morning pulque delivery.

Image: Late afternoon guest.

Facility with the language put me in a good position to be accepted into a unique program at the art institute. I was one of about 10 students and faculty selected to travel by train to Tenosique, a town in the south-west corner of the state Tobasco. It was the jumping off point for a short flight on a small plane into a grass airfield at one of Mexico’s most remote archaeological sites, Yaxchilán, on the border between Mexico and Guatemala in the heart of the Lacandon jungle.

We gathered first at the Central Train Station in Mexico City, loaded down with supplies for a two month stay. The gear was too much for the baggage handler at the Central Train Station so half was left in the Grand Hall. As the most fluent Spanish speaker in our group, the coordinator asked me to stay with the remaining baggage while everyone else boarded the train. Twenty minutes later the baggage handler returned. He was agitated as he loaded the remaining bags on his cart. I remained calm. We went down the platform towards the baggage car. The train began to move. The baggage handler tried to match its movement. I responded, too. The train slowly gained speed. It departed the station without me or the baggage.

This was the first train I ever missed, a scene repeated many years later when I tried to board a train in Mumbai, India only to find that I could not squeeze myself into the coach door while also hanging onto my luggage.

The next day I boarded the train for the same 24 hour journey to Tenosique and was greeted on the platform with great fanfare by faculty and students desperate for their bags and supplies. An instant hero. Oddly, they had arrived only 10 hours before me. Their train had jumped the tracks shortly after leaving Mexico City, and they had spent hours being shuffled from one track to another until they finally arrived at their destination.

Image: Temple 33 (Shield Jaguar ruler).

Life at Yaxchilán involved a level of discomfort not dissimilar to camping out in the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon. For three months we slept in hammocks under a communal palm roof and ate rice and beans for every meal. We dug our own outhouse, closing it in and starting over every week. The tall Ceiba trees and other tropical vegetation protected us from the direct rays of the sun, but the intense humidity drove us every afternoon into the Usumacinta River for relief. Guatemala was across the river. I knew nothing of the country’s violent politics but was told by one of the young archaeologists of a headless body spotted floating down the river the previous year. One morning I tapped out the shoes I left on the ground below my hammock and out popped a black shelled scorpion. Mexico has the highest biodiversity of scorpions in the world, and at least 300 human deaths very year. I took the risk in stride by developing a shoe-tapping ritual every time I rolled out of the hammock.

Image: Yaxchilán workers, on a break.

The Usumacinta River was also the point of access for thieves who came to the archeological site to steal artifacts. One incident after my time ended in a shootout and one dead attendant, described in an issue of National Geographic about Ian Graham, an American illustrator from the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. I met Ian at the site, and watched him do illustrations of unusual hieroglyphs decorating a recently discovered circular stone altar more than a metre in diameter. He worked in the morning hours, then returned at night with a flashlight to cast shadows on the fine details and adjust his rendering. The throne was later re-buried to preserve it from the heavy rains, and thieves.

Image: From palms to sky.

Falling in love with the details

This is an excerpt from my journal about Yaxchilán excavations I witnessed:

April 20, 1978. I went with Roberto today to draw a burial at temple 33. The bones lay between the building and a three-metre tall stalagmite that had been removed from a cave centuries ago and erected at the top of a stairway far above the main plaza. Roberto began to clean the dirt from around the bones with a number-one paint brush, an ice pick and a pointed trowel. He cleaned the cranium, the vertebre, the humerus and other bones to make the position of the body clear for photographs and the drawing he asked me to make. We sweated, both exposed to the hot sun high above the Huitz and Ceiba trees spread out among and on top of the many buildings of Yaxchilán. The Usumacinta River, which also forms the border between the Mexican state of Chiapas and Guatemala, meandered below in an oxbow along the edge of Yaxchilán towards Piedras Negras and Palenque, other cities of the Classic Maya period. Bonampack, with its well-preserved fresco murals, was due west.

I drew a map of the bones at a 1 cm to 10 cm scale, with both a top and a lateral view. Later analysis of the cranium and the humerus indicated that the buried man was probably low in the social hierarchy of the Maya, and may have been sacrificed as the tomb of a ruler was backfilled. Roberto told me that “More information about the Maya can be gained from two or three burials than the great building before us.” After the drawing was done, he slowly collected all the bones, separating the skull and teeth, vertebrae, pelvis, arm bones, fine hand bones, legs and feet into separate plastic bags. Now excavation in search of the ruler could continue.

April 30, 1978. Digging over the last few days revealed a wall at the same level as the base of the stalagmite, suggesting that it was part of an older structure beneath temple 33 and its elaborate roof comb, stuccoed walls and carved doorway lintels dedicated to the life of Bird Jaguar. According to the date hieroglyphs, he and his predecessor Shield Jaguar, had ruled Yaxchilán between 708 and 790 A.D. The archaeologists had already removed the remains from several other burials, some with a large ceramic plate covering the head and others with small ceramic heads representing the nine Maya gods of the night.

Ernesto, Roberto’s senior assistant, was in charge when the workers, themselves Maya from the distant town of Oxkutzcab in the Yucatán, opened a cavity in the ground. He got down on hands and knees, flashlight ready, and peered into the hole. He could see, stretched full length among jade beads and two large obsidian blades, the bones of a ruler. As it was near 2 pm, quitting time during the heat of the summer months, he covered the opening with a stone and returned to camp for lunch. Shortly afterwards, he announced to Roberto, “I’ve found the tomb of Shield Jaguar.” He and Roberto then went running up the building stairs to have a look. That night, Roberto brought out from a secret stash several bottles of wine.

Image: Profile drawing of Temple 33 tomb site.

Image: Conch necklace from the Shield Jaguar toomb site.

I wrote a full description of the excavation as part of my assignment, handed in along with photographs and drawings that became the property of Mexico’s famed National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Without these contextual elements, the jade, gold and pottery artefacts themselves had little archaeological value. Still, when work stopped every afternoon, the excavation was covered and two armed guards posted until the archeologists could return in the morning. Arturo Romano, the director of the department of Physical Anthropology at the INAH, was visiting the site at the time and reported to the group about the bones: male, 25-30 years of age at the time of death, strong build, with three teeth intentionally modified (one with an inlay of jade). Among the human bones were two bones from the retracting mechanism of a jaguar’s paw. Two obsidian blades, each 16 inches in length, were found with the body, one across the chest and the other between the legs. A stinger from a Manta Ray, heavily encrusted with jade, and a concha shell lay at the heart. Jade beads, more than sixty in all, had been carefully sifted from fine sand near the ankles, wrists, neck and head. Next to the central tomb were the remains of a women who was probably the rulers’ wife. Her tomb also contained details from her life, including a ceramic bowl I documented, placed there to support her after life. I felt the thrill of Indiana Jones as he encountered ancient artifacts in a cave, several years before the film _Raiders of the Lost Ark_ was made.

Image: Ceramic bowl, drawn to show the profile.

Image: Rendering of Lintel 23, Bird Jaguar convening with his predecessor Shield Jaguar.

Learning the craft of technical illustration took me in a completely different direction from the loose water colours of Yukon landscapes and the cubist renderings in oil paint during my Montreal studies. In Yaxchilán, I learned to pay attention to detail but also the overall coherence of my subjects. When a pen and ink drawing of a Mayan temple I had been working on for days became muddled and confused, the teacher overseeing the illustration work told me to sit down and redo it in a single session. I did, making a successful product and prompting him to remark that I had the makings of a professional artist. I later used my journal, along with an interpretation of how the Maya reckoned time, to create a book of precise ink drawings of Mayan hieroglyphs as a wedding gift for my brother Steve and his bride. My mother was proud of this work, encouraging me to pursue the artist’s life even though to my father it was a direction as ephemeral and impractical as the crumpled buildings I used for inspiration. She understood. While a nurse by profession, she worked with beauty in the form of her own good looks, flare with clothes and skill in dance. She was, as my father might say, a stunner. Thick and curly red hair, blue eyes and broad smile made her the talk of Englehart, a tiny railroad town in northern Ontario where she grew up in a household with 9 siblings. The young men there wooed her doggedly until my father met her while she was studying in Toronto and whisked her away. Surrounded by stoic and stolid men in her household, she yearned for expressive outlets. My study of art connected us in ways that made us kindred spirits.

Image: Temple 23, one of my Yaxchilán assignments.

The Magician

Gerald, a history teacher at the art school in San Miguel, deepened my introduction to contemporary Mexican culture and history. For one semester I was his only student. He taught me about the great revolutions of the 20th Century, and the radical politics of his life as a student in the UK. A Mexican born of English parents that had settled in Mexico after the Second World War, Gerald was a Trotskyite. This was a new term to me, but one I learned to respect for its commitment to the downtrodden and willingness to put skin in the game. Gerald told me of how, before returning to Mexico for his first job as a history teacher, he and other Trotskyites regularly went toe-to-toe with fascist skin-heads demonstrating on the streets of London. The resolve in his voice, despite his frail physique, was evident as he described the importance of confronting racism and anti-semitism directly and forcefully.

Gerald was also my roommate for almost a year. Already an alcoholic when I met him, he meticulously planned each evening’s drinking session at Mama Mía, San Miguel’s most frequented live music and restaurant venue. To stave off dehydration, he set out a tall glass of water next to his bed before heading out. He also laid out the clothes he would wear the following morning. I used these tips myself on a few occasions, until some years later I quit drinking altogether. We were fast friends, and I learned much from him about Latin America’s revolutionary spirit. He inspired in me the desire to be political, even though his own days of activism had begun to sink into a fog. When my wife Debra met him on a visit to San Miguel in the 1990s, his most valuable possessions had just been taken by a collection agency, including several paintings by a well-known American artist we had both dated. One painting still hung on a wall at his house. It was one of mine, a brush and ink scene from the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The collection agency knew nothing of me, an art student painting in many different styles and producing competent images but no work worthy of name recognition. They left it behind. Gerald was broke, but still happy with a glass of wine in his hand.

Image: Gerald.

Image: A view of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

A few months after returning to San Miguel from Yaxchilán I set out on a journey to get to know other parts of my new-found country, enroute to Guatemala. I purchased second-class bus tickets for towns or cities a day’s ride away. Often I wouldn’t get far, instead jumping off the bus with my small backpack whenever it stopped somewhere that looked interesting from the bus window. After visiting a local market or hanging out in the main square, I would purchase another ticket to continue the day’s journey on a later bus. Even on an art student’s savings I could afford to do this without hesitation, allowing me to touch and taste the offerings of many small communities and overlooked places along the byways of central and southern Mexico.

Image: Touching the telephone pole.

One village square I visited in Oaxaca had a small crowd of people gathered around a busker telling stories and performing magic tricks with a large and menacing iguana at his side. He would announce once in a while that the iguana was also a magician, and that it would soon perform a trick. I stood nearby, waiting and enjoying the man’s tricks and stories for quite some time as people came, dropped coins in his hat, and moved on. After more than an hour watching I realized that the iguana was not going to do a trick of its own at all. It was a bystander to the main act, just like me. Whenever the man mentioned the upcoming trick, however, the crowd murmured interest, dropped money in the hat, and watched as long as their schedules would permit. I imagine I was the only one to wait very long, like Vladimir or Estragon in Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, thinking the trick was imminent. It never appeared.

Image: A future build.

Slight-of-hand magic took on a different meaning in the market stalls, restaurants, and bus stops on my way south. Bus drivers and their ticket agents used hand signals to signal stop and go, pounding on the side of the bus, holding up two fingers in a pinching gesture, and showing the back of their coxed wrist to show readiness, ask for patience or express displeasure with a passenger. I learned from a rancher how to indicate the height of a beast using the side of the open hand, the height of plants using the palm face down and the height of a man using the index finger and thumb pointed to the sky. The language of Mexico involved the whole body as a vehicle for expression, crude at times, often joyful, and always laced with ironic humour.

Eventually I crossed over the boarder to villages in the highlands above Huehuetenango in Guatemala. I met a blonde Swiss woman on the bus making its way up the twisting road, and invited her to share a bed with me in the tiny hostel available in the village. She agreed, even though she could easily afford her own bed. It cost the equivalent of $0.25, even less than the hostels I had stayed at on my cross-country journey of Canada a few years earlier. We witnessed a procession through the village that stopped for a few minutes at each house to share the blessing of the religious statue four men carried on a wooden litter. I saw many similar processions in Pajapan, Veracruz where I would latter do my PhD research.

We conversed with a young priest who recounted how the military was disappearing people in what I later came to know was the beginning of a systematic campaign of terror against the highland Maya. The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from the 1980s through to 1996, reaching its peak under Presidents Ríos Mont and Lucas Garcia. Gerald’s teaching of the 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état and years of CIA support for the military dictatorship had prepared me with some background, but I was shaken by the strange mix of quiet resignation and resolve in the priest’s voice. I wondered how it is he had such commitment in the face of clear and present danger, and what would became of him.

Image: Holy site.

My Swiss companion and I returned to lower lands together, through Chichicastenango and on to Lake Atitlán. Confident in my boating skills, I rented a dugout canoe so we could explore the villages around the shore of the lake. It took us three days to circumnavigate, marvelling at the diversity of people and products in each village. Some villages cultivated Nanche (Byrsonima crassifolia) and Pitahaya (Stenocereus), small tropical fruits native to Central America. Others grew Sisal (Agave sisalana) from which they made rope. Green onions were a speciality in another village. All had small fields of corn, squash and beans, the “three sisters” of Mexican and Central American cuisine. We learned that sellers from each village gathered once a week in the market at Panajachel, each distinguished not only by their wares but also by distinctive clothing from home villages. In one, the men wore red and white striped pants cut-off below the knee like pirate attire while the women wore a solid colour skirt and precisely patterned heavy cotton blouses cinched tight with a waist band. Each village was different, and each villager dressed the same by gender, boy or man, woman or girl. A fisherman, surprised to see gringos piloting their own boat around the lake, observed, “Ahh, you are going around the world.” It was a world of human and natural diversity far beyond my own home range.

Image: Washing clothes at the shore of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala.

We spent our last night together in San Pedro, a village that in 1978 was a prime destination for young people backpacking their way through Guatemala. In the late afternoon, we witnessed a small group of men and women from Quebec strip naked at a point of land along the shore and jump into the lake. A fisherman in his canoe was livid at the sight, and shouted at them until they returned to shore and donned their clothes. I spoke with him later, hearing his words of anger at the deep disrespect shown to his community. The bathers, when I spoke with them, were perplexed by the ruckus. Were they not in a land where people are close to the earth, native and natural in every way, including their experience of the body? I too was exploring the beauty of the body, and did not confront them with their lack of regard for the lives and ideas of the place they were in.

Image: Self-portrait at a river.

Image: Woman and camera.

I learned different lessons from Steve Larson, an American man with a PhD in psychology and a penchant for eating peyote and practicing consciousness bending tasks assigned in books by the Russian mystic George Gurdjieff. He told me of a trip he made from San Miguel to a highland village in Chiapas, Mexico, and daily encounter with the farm family he lived with for several weeks. Every morning the man would sit down to a breakfast of beans and tortillas, which he ate enthusiastically. His young daughter brought him a lunch for mid day comprised of beans with fresh tortillas wrapped in an embroidered cloth. When Steve sat with him for the evening meal, and watched the joy of the man as he ate beans and tortillas for dinner, he couldn’t help but remark on his own culinary practice at home in Phoenix, Arizona. There, Steve said, he found all kinds of foods from many different countries. East Asian dishes, Indian curries, Italian pasta, German weinerschnitzel, and British fish and chips were all ready at hand. His host listened carefully, using a scrap of tortilla to wipe the edge of the bowl clean as he finished his meal. “Very interesting,” said the man, “But, haven’t you found something you like yet?”

As my brothers will attest, after living in Mexico I came to love rice and beans, and for a change, beans and rice. Even today, these two items always satisfy. Steve Larson had told me the story with deadly seriousness, not even smiling when he gave the punchline but then breaking out into a belly laugh like he had caught me unawares. A Gurdjieff journey into the unexpected, perhaps. I never learned to relate the humour in the story as well as he had, but I tried, frequently. Some months later he told me he was going back to the States to learn to become a small engine mechanic, a skill he thought he could use to support himself travelling anywhere in the world. Later, when he set out from his home town, he wrote me a postcard I still have tucked away in my papers with a quote I have never forgotten: “We cannot live for ourselves alone.”

Image: Campesino.

Image: Walking inside.

My photographs from that journey, while numerous, are all a little cockeyed because while in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas I put a container of yogurt in the bag that also held my camera. Predictably, it leaked into the camera, the now vintage Olympus OM1 recommended to me by my Dawson friend Grant. The camera still took pictures but the mirror that permits the photographer to see through the lens directly was stuck. I could point and shoot, but could never be sure of what was in and what was outside of the frame. The constraint prompted me to compose photographs with an ample background, stepping back further than the subject seemed to require and setting the focus to infinity. The light metre worked, so I could use the f stops and shutter speed to increase or decrease the depth of field and render the light. Context, soft focus and even light became part of my photographic repertoire and artistic journey.

A Political Turn

Once I was back in San Miguel I got down to making art of what I saw and imagined, in many styles and medium as expected of art students exploring the world of art. I made portraits of Mexican peasants and working people and painted views of the dry highland landscape. For assignments in courses, I made copies of the works of European and Mexican grand masters, in conté, pencil, ink and watercolour. The Institute’s printing studio provided the means to make lithographs inspired by José Guadalupe Posada’s illustrations with skulls and bones to convey satirical and political messages. In the middle of the night I nervously posted one of my lithographs, decrying the hegemony of the PRI, Mexico’s ruling party for more than half a century, on the wall of the municipal building in the town square. The next afternoon when I went back to check, it had been torn down. I was not brave enough to post it a second time.

Image: My copy of a Renaissance master.

In that same town hall on the main square of the village I photographed police guarding the local jail. I had been allowed in to visit a Mexican man, younger than myself, who had been jailed for petty theft. His family, who I knew, had asked me to check in on him as a way of showing that foreigners were watching out for their son’s welfare. As the sun set, teenagers continued their daily ritual in the square nestled between the town hall and jail on one side and the gothic church steeple on the other. Girls, arm in arm, walked clockwise around the square while boys, also arm in arm, walked counterclockwise, smiling and joking with each other unconcerned that one of their own was shut away nearby.

Image: Jail in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

Image: Posing with a cigarette.

Some of my photography was inspired by George Kraus, an accomplished American photographer teaching at the institute who introduced me to the possibility of constructed drama in photography. This stood in sharp contrast to the documentary style of photographers such as Robert Frank I had studied in Montreal and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Mexico’s most acclaimed photographer. Rather than revealing what is found in nature, at its best an approach to photography without artifice, Kraus used imagination and models to create fantastical scenes. I never fully embraced his approach, although I produced a few images inspired by Kraus and the fertile art of the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Sigueiros displayed on the walls of the Ciudad Universitaria and Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City.

Image: Brujo at the lake.

Image: Union.

Outside of the art studio, I learned to weave on a hand loom and dye wool using Cochineal, a red coloured dye extracted from an insect (Dactylopius coccus costa) that makes its home in cactus plants. I chose this dye because Gerald had taught me of its use by the Aztecs, and its export to Europe during the Spanish colonization of Mexico. In the 1500s, Cochineal was regularly traded on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Today, it has no stock ticker but demand for natural food additives and dyes has revived cultivation in the Mexican state of Oaxaca and in the highlands of Peru.

Image: Cactus flower.

Before finishing my degree, I mounted an exhibit of 30 photographs for the Institute’s Galeria Conde, selling many of them at the same $25 I charged for water colour sketches in Dawson City. They were framed by a local artisan in thin brass tubes used to make glass boxes. Money to mount the exhibit came from gifts I received from my parents and fees for posing nude for the Institute’s life drawing class. The drawing teacher liked to use me as a model because I could hold an athletic pose for a long time, giving the students a chance to render details of muscles bulging under strain.

Money was a constraint, so I jumped at an offer from Eleanor Millard to accompany her to Cuba as her translator. She was working in the Yukon as a specialist in adult education, and wanted to see a museum in Havana dedicated to Cuba’s 1961 Literacy Campaign. Che Guevara had asked Fidel Castro to make 1961 the year of education, laying the foundation for many other improvements to Cuban life that followed. In a few years, the campaign successfully lifted Cuba’s literacy rate to virtually 100%. Eleanor wanted to understand the techniques and significance of the campaign and see what Cuba was currently doing to support literacy. While no longer a political figure in the Yukon — she had been elected in 1974 as the youngest ever Member of the territorial Legislative Assembly and was the Minister of Education in the Yukon Government for a term — Eleanor was committed to working with the Yukon’s First Nations and other communities marginalized from the benefits of literacy. We knew each other from her frequent visits to Dawson.

Our two weeks in Cuba began in Havana on New Year's Eve, the anniversary of the revolution. We watched Fidel Castro's long speech on the hotel TV while sipping Jamaican rum Eleanor had brought from her father’s home in Kingston, Jamaica. In the following days, I made arrangements for us to travel to the Isla de Joventud, the second-largest Cuban island. It hosted residential colleges for youth from Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. Cuba’s ties to African socialist movements had begun a decade earlier, and involved thousands of troops in Angola. Cuba had a strategic influence too on Namibian struggles against apartheid policies imposed there by South Africa. Eleanor interviewed African youth in several schools, while I translated.

There were four or five large buildings at one of the schools, which had been a jail for political dissidents in Batista's time. The buildings reminded Eleanor of First Nations residential schools, albeit with different social dynamics. The residents came to Cuba voluntarily for a high school and university education. They were expected to work in Cuba for some time before returning home after their education. This might mean ten years away. They would work in the gardens and orchards around the school, up at 6:00 a.m., and study through the afternoon.

They had their own student committee that ran the residence with rules written up on a large poster. We told them we were from a democratic country, and they responded saying they were too. The difference, they said, was that they contributed to guiding their country by working, not simply by voting in elections. Years later, Jacques told me of his experience evaluating the Cuban component of a Canada World Youth program on civic and community engagement. The Canadians involved defined their civic engagement primarily in relation to individual lifestyle choices like recycling, volunteering, and voting. By contrast, the Cubans focused on the professional choices they made, including entering teaching and helping professions such as medicine and social work. I realized later that the two notions of politics and civic engagement, expressed by African, Cuban and Canadian youth, reflected very different ideas about democracy and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Contributions to the collective can be scheduled, mainly for weekends and evenings, or they can be part and parcel of a professional life. I eventually chose the later.

`Eleanor’s progressive politics, and the socialist art on the streets of Havana, had a strong impact on me. So too did the beautiful Latin American women that were also taking in the sites and nightlife of Cuba. While Eleanor took time on her own to visit the literacy museum, I travelled with an Argentinian woman to the town of Trinidad on the south coast. She was living in Mexico, forced out of Buenes Aires when her boyfriend had disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship, which lasted until 1983. We had difficulty finding a hotel in Trinidad because we had strayed from the pre-paid route and hotels all tourists had to book before entering Cuba. Eventually, we found a vacancy on the edge of town, only to be awakened an hour after checking in. “Your time is up”, the hotel attendant told us, “move on or pay for another hour.”

Image: Self portrait.

Mexico stirred my sexual life as well as my politics. I had traded my Yukon plaid for the white Mexican peasant shirt, still paired with brown corduroy pants and thick leather belts. I introduced myself as a Canadian from Dawson City, Yukon. While not entirely truthful — I had grown up in many different Canadian towns and lived for two years with my military family in a small German village — the Yukon package was attractive. San Miguel, with its large expatriate community, two art schools and many language institutes serving travelling youth was a sexually active community. Young American and Latin American women and men immigrating to or travelling in Mexico were open to sex. Unlike most Mexican communities of the time, openly gay men and women were safe from harassment. The AIDS crisis had not yet started, and the ethos of the town still echoed the closing years of the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s. By the time my parents came to visit for Christmas, a year after my arrival in Mexico, I had lost most of my earlier shyness and was enjoying the sensual pleasures in life. I was carefree, and hedonistic within the bounds of a quiet and introverted personality. The pleasure seeking included discipline and attention to detail in my art and photography but no commitment to any one style, or any one person. I was opening to the politics of the time and place, wanting to commit to others but finding satisfaction in simple discovery and beauty. At 24, I was in no hurry: Mexican time one could say.

My younger brother Casey was the focus of my parent’s attention by that time. My father, retired from the Air Force and working as an Aviation Inspector for Transport Canada, invited Casey to join the rest of the family at my house in Mexico. He wanted to draw Casey out of the Yukon and the bush hippie lifestyle, like he and my mother had done for me. Casey flew, while Steve, his girl friend Janis and their dog Cabrón arrived in a Westphalia Volkswagon camper van. Steve, older than me by four years, was by then a licensed helicopter pilot. They had no daughters to worry about. After a few days in San Miguel, we set off in search of sunshine and adventure.

Our destination was a hotel in Barra de Sontecomapan, Veracruz, a tiny Mestizo community on the Gulf of Mexico. As fate would have it, the hotel was a stone’s throw from the “fourth world” indigenous community my future colleague Jacques and I visited years later (Chapter 4) and that became the region for my PhD research. For our family vacation, however, the Gulf of Mexico in December proved inhospitable due to the constant rain and wind of a Norte, driving us after a few days to the glorious highland city of Oaxaca. There we lounged around a hotel pool, drinking Margaritas and probing Casey’s interests. His journey, and mine, had been very different despite being so close in age. I was the serious one, and had few of the angsts of youth other than a natural obsession with sex. I had no links to mend or chains to break. We had both learned independence from our father, who, on a family trip to London, U.K. gave each of us a pass and map for “the Tube” and told us to explore. Casey was 11 and I was 12. Casey’s challenge in Oaxaca was to find purpose. He did, soon after becoming a helicopter pilot expert at “long line” operations, dropping heavy loads into tight spaces for the Canadian Coast Guard. Years later, my oldest son, Daniel, continued the family aviation tradition by becoming a helicopter engineer.

The poolside in Oaxaca launched my parent’s youngest son on a path to success. From their point of view, their middle son, me, was probably destined to a life of poverty but at least I was doing something that was not limited to living in a cabin in the Yukon woods. The Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree from the University of Guanajuato I was about to earn, which my brother Steve referred to as a Bachelor of Fuck All, turned out to be an asset as it helped me get a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts ($4,623) to support my return to Dawson. In the spring of 1979 I headed north in an early 1970s Chevy Impala owned and driven by Carole King, a print maker I had recently met in San Miguel. She was originally from Chicago (no relation to the songwriter), and was willing to take me there after a stopover in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to visit some of the world’s best printmaking studios.

At the border the Mexican authorities asked me what was in the cardboard box sealed with tape sitting on the back seat. “Cosas” (things), I replied with a shrug. He then asked me how I learned to speak Spanish so well, and joked about how women are the best teachers. The American border agents had a different, less social agenda. They took a kitchen knife and very carefully dug out the lint trapped in the seam of the bench seat of the vehicle. They were looking for marijuana seeds that might have rolled down the seat into the seam during the act of rolling a spliff. Fortunately, there were none.

Later that summer Carole joined me in Dawson as my first live-in girl friend. I was excited but also daunted by the challenge of the Canada Council, a prestigious funder of art production. I’d experienced the pleasure in learning my craft and in the discovery of women. I’d seen something dramatic and beautiful in the Mexican people and in the tactile details of their lives and history. The idea of commitment and the politics of life in the wider world had also broken through my relative isolation in the Yukon. Now that I was back, what satisfaction would I find in the Canadian north?

61 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All