My little Manuel is finding his way into the hearts of many readers. Get your copy and learn about the magic that is Mexico…the magic that changed my life…the magic that led me to my students and their families. If you follow your own bliss like Manuel does with his art, the meaning of life emerges in its full spectrum of colors with rewards never imagined.
Manuel’s Murals as been honored as a “Finalist” in the “Children’s Picture Book: Softcover Fiction” category of the 2012 USA Best Book Awards!
My Mexican Me
I stride confidently among the people with a purpose, a yearning from ancient memories burned into my DNA. Like liquid gold, the history of this nation flows rife with blood, maiz and amor. Skin of silk chocolate makes my sun-freckled skin seem half-baked and inconsequential. They know I am one of them, only inside-out. The old ones look into my eyes with a knowing recollection. The young ones want to share their language and their dreams. Those in the middle acknowledge shared experiences.
My life changed when I learned Spanish in my early forties. The language of my ancestors, hidden on branches from both sides of my family tree, felt familiar and safe. I changed teaching positions so that I could use Spanish in my everyday work. I didn’t know I would fall so hard for a culture, and, more importantly, for the people whom it represents. Once the language was becoming secured in my consciousness, and the colorful Mexican culture surrounding me became part of my daily fabric, it was time to meet the motherland.
I quickly learned that a country is not bound by territory or invisible borders. A country is what happens between people, what is read between the lines of communication, and a patriotic respect developed from a shared history. Therefore, it has been the people and the shared connections that have taken me back to Mexico, my ancestral home. It is a journey I will make over and over until my ashes drift on Pacific currents like the aguilas (eagles) who soar from the highest pyramid of Teotihuacan.
The Power of Ancestry. Part 2.
I believe we all have specific journeys that were predestined at some point along our paths as human beings on this earth. As a woman climbing to the top of her life’s journey mountain (figuratively speaking), my destiny is only just starting to become evident. As I have written countless times before, I didn’t know where I belonged metaphysically until I discovered the Mexicanista part of me. It wasn’t something that I planned; it just ‘happened.’ However, I don’t believe in coincidence when it comes to actualizing who we are before we leave this life. So, that realization that just ‘happened’ is continuing to pull me in a direction that feels more and more familiar.
This is where I believe our ancestors come in to the equation. I was raised in a multicultural family where I am the only truly white-skinned member. My mother and brother have the olive skin and black hair of my mother’s half Spanish blood. My father had olive skin, black hair and green eyes from his French and Indian blood. My stepfather is one hundred percent Italian and his daughters are half Italian and half Mexican. On family outings, I was always perceived to be a ‘friend’ of the family because of my sunbleached light brown hair, blue-green eyes and light skin. I hated being different. I know I got the bulk of my coloring from my grandmother’s northern European blood, but that wasn’t enough to placate me. I wanted to belong to a specific race; specifically, a race with olive skin and dark hair. I wanted to find out what happened to my diluted genetic code.
I began to travel and learn about cultures when I was fresh out of high school. I took French in high school because of my surname, Escallier. However, my backpacking forays into Europe only left me feeling more adrift. People judged me as an American rather than a lover of world cultures. It was hard to hide behind the stereotype until I made connections with people in Europe. Then they could see how open I was to all people. Yet, I still felt like an outsider. In college, I took a few Latino Studies classes and, unbeknownst to me, the seed was planted. Real life demands came along after I graduated from college and interrupted my fascination with the history of Mexico, but I never forgot how comforted I felt learning about it.
But from the moment I began to learn Spanish seriously, everything changed. That was twelve years ago. When I traveled through Central America and Mexico using my Spanish, I was astounded by how the people viewed me; and, I was more astounded that I never felt afraid travelling alone (as I had in Europe). They never once viewed me as an American who was learning Spanish, they viewed me as a fellow countryman who had decided to come home. (It was then that I realized my Spanish blood was the dominant force in my overly animated and passionate character traits.) I wish I had a nickel for every time I heard, “You have the soul of a Mexican. You are one of us.” The amazing thing is that I never told my new friends that I felt more Latina than white. I was just being the only me I knew up to that point.
It was becoming more and more apparent to me that somewhere in my atavistic past, my ancestors must have come from Mexico. When I am there, I feel more present, more alive, more confident and more like someone who belongs to this race that lives closer to the earth. I have seen me in the faces of the people; I feel me in their dances; I have even had wise old women tell me that they know me from another time. The fact that I have changed my life to conform to the Mexican culture is a testiment to that which I write here.
It was time to investigate. I went on Ancestry.com already knowing that I had Spanish blood, French blood, English-Irish blood, and proof that my great grandmother was listed on the Indian census as a Pechanga Indian. Still no documentation of being from Mexico. My destiny pushed me to look deeper until I found it- my great great grandparents were Evaristo and Tirsa Ayala from Mexico. I am nearing the end of a great career, at which point I have vowed to look deeper into my past. I believe it is there where I will find the secrets that unlock who I truly am.
The Power of Ancestry, Part 1.
Unfortunately, I just lost an hour of my time. I blogged my sentiments exactly as I was feeling them, then didn’t set it to my blog page. Alas, it is lost in cyber heaven, swirling around with the debris of other well-intentioned wordsmiths who inadvertantly hit the wrong buttons…ah, such is the life of a writer and her technological ineptitude.
Suffice it to say, this is part 1. Since I have lost the initial juices of this topic, I will recap quickly and get back to it when my mojo returns. (There is such a thing as getting on with the evening before it is totally gone…)
As you can surmise by my other entries, I have an insatiable thirst for anything Mexican. By finding Frida Kahlo, hence Mexico, my true love, I have also found the very soul of who I am. So many fateful events have occured since I began my journey into the Mexican culture, I must adhere to the notion that I am led by my ancestral beginnings to be the exact person I am at this moment, writing these words. Stay tuned for part 2.
Catching up to our Heroes
Everything I have ever done since I learned Spanish in 1999 has led me on a wonderful journey to follow my heroes- specifically, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Once I began reading about their lives, I planned trips to visit their homes, view their art, and Google searched the ones they left behind. Here are a couple of events that brought me up and close and personal to the vestiges of their lives. I liken these occurances to being able to touch the Pope’s robe when in Italy amidst the multitudes of Catholics who clamor for just a glimpse of the papal icon.
Lucienne Bloch, one of Diego Rivera’s assistants on the Detroit murals during the 1930’s, took many photos of Frida and Diego because she became a dear friend to both artists. She even accompanied Frida from Detroit to Mexico by train when Frida’s mother passed away. Diego stayed back in Detroit to finish his murals. When Lucienne married and gave birth to her first child, she asked Frida to be the godmother (Lucienne was also present when Frida miscarried a son during those Detroit days). Now, fast forward to 2004-05 in Sacramento, California.
I happened to be volunteering at La Raza Galeria Posada, a Latino art gallery, when Lucienne’s original prints of Frida and Diego were on display (made from the original negatives). You can imagine the thrill I experienced when I was told that they were for sale. I bought the one where Frida is sitting in the New York City Barbizon Hotel room under her own painting. (She was always clowning for the camera.) The gallery curator at the time told me that Lucienne’s granddaughter, also named Lucienne, was in charge of the exhibition travelling through the country at that time. She told me that she would contact her for me so I could talk to her about the pictures. To make a long story, somewhat shorter, I ended up driving up the northern California coast to meet the contemporary Lucienne and her lovely family. Not only did I learn about Frida and Lucienne’s friendship, but I was able to try on the actual jewelry that Frida gave to her BFF almost 80 years ago- and I have pictures to prove it. The young Lucienne is as beautiful inside as she is on the outside, and contains an exotic essence that I imagine her grandmother must have also had. My husband and I spent a glorious day at her home along the Pacific coast. We still communicate via Facebook.
During that same time frame, I read a fascinating book about Diego (“Diego Rivera The Red”) written by his daughter, Guadalupe Rivera Marin, born in 1922. I wrote to her immediately extolling the virtues of her book; and, she actually wrote me back- a lovely woman who heads Diego’s foundation in Coyoacan, Mexico, as well as heading several art organizations in and around Mexico City. She continues to carry Diego’s dream of educating all Mexicans as to the artistic, historical beauty of their culture.
Fast forward to today. I wrote to Senora Rivera Marin again last night asking her if she would like me to send her a copy of my book, “Manuel’s Murals”, since it is dedicated to her famous father, Diego Rivera. She wrote me back this afternoon with a resounding ’yes’. As soon as I type the last words of this sentence, that is precisely what I intend to do- get it ready for the morning mail. In 2003, when I imagined this book, I actually heard Diego whisper to me, “Teach the children about their history.” I was sitting in front of his “History of Mexico” murals at the National Palace in the heart of Mexico City for 8 hours when my main character, Manuel, came to fruition in my mind. Nine years later, the book is finally published. Now, it will return, signed, sealed and delivered to where it belongs- in the hands of Diego Rivera’s daughter.
Maybe it’s best to capture one’s passion in prose…
I’ve just reviewed what I’ve posted about my trek into my Mexicanism, and to try to explain the magic of this journey is like nailing jello to the wall. How does one cage sensory experiences into structured thought? One doesn’t because it’s virtually impossible. Now I know why people write poetry- it’s an attempt to get back to the feelings of the experience. Entonces, I am moved in this moment to recreate the theme of a post I recently reblogged, “The Last Time I Was In Mexico,” into some kind of prose. I’ll get back to narrative when this mood passes…
The last time I was in Mexico…
I danced the salsa in a tiny club to a Cuban band with young men who didn’t care I could be their mother
I hugged an ancient Indian woman sitting on the street selling her knitted scarves and told her she was beautiful
I watched a young girl through blurry eyes as she led her blind parents in and out of traffic
A crazy man spit on me through the bars of a cafe window because I asked him politely not to blow smoke in my face
I prayed on my knees in cathedrals made of gold
I walked in the poor sections of the city until my feet were covered in blisters
I touched the clouds from ancient ruin sites
I finally understood the subjunctive form in Spanish because my teacher said, “One must feel the subjunctive because it expresses the soul of my people. When you feel our culture without words, the subjunctive comes.”
I cried in a rooftop patio restaurant because the smell of jasmine, the sight of lightning over the mountains, the sound of live Latin music, and the kindness of the people were spilling out of my heart and filling my soul…
I know my great, great grandparents, Evaristo and Tirsa Ayala, send me these gifts to get me back to my land, my Mexico.
Formula versus Instinct
A few nights ago, I spoke about my book journey to a monthly writer’s group. The theme of my talk centered around ‘knowing when to change or stay with your creative vision.’ My children’s book, Manuel’s Murals, was picked up by 3L Publishing because I trusted my basic vision. For years, I gave big name editors and publishers carte blanche to make suggestions and change my story to fit their guidelines because there was always an interest in what this little book represents. And even then, they found some reason to reject it. That’s cool. I always believed there would be a home for ‘my baby’ sooner or later.
Now I am enjoying the journey of this book exactly how I envisioned it on the steps of the National Palace in Mexico City in 2003. So, back to the writer’s meeting. A woman of great standing and experience in the publishing world seemed very interested in my journey, but she just couldn’t get past the fact that my upper elementary picture book is just too wordy and literary. When my publisher and I explained that this book defies a formula because of the nature of the story, this woman didn’t want to hear about where this story takes the reader, or why it defies gravity. After all was said and done and various people congratulated me, and I might add, bought copies of the book, this woman editor took me aside, gave me her card, and said, “When you write your next book, I will help you pare it down to 600 words.” Really? My mother said it best: “Jeaninne, you were born to defy convention, and nothing or no one will ever change that.” Thank God!
The Way Life Works
An interviewer asked me today how my book came to be; if I planned on writing it. The answer I gave, without thinking, surprised me. “No, I mean, the inception of this book was out of my hands before it even became a thought in my head. Like the perfect storm, events in our lives sometimes collide to make magic. No planning. No conscious thoughts. Just simply living our bliss, not expecting anything.”
In my previous blog, I told of how Mexico reached out and grabbed me by the lapel. I didn’t choose to fall in love with this culture, it found me. So, after I spent the day in Frida’s life, I ventured out into the big world of Mexico City. It was time to chase down Diego Rivera.
In the taxi, on the way to El Zocalo, the largest town square in the Western world (I believe only The Red Square in the Soviet Union and The Forbidden City in Beijing, China are bigger), I saw many children selling gum, papier mache dolls, puppets, trinkets and food. I knew those children had families that depended on their sales. I also knew they couldn’t afford to go to school. I jotted these notes in my journal and forced myself to think of Diego’s murals that would soon greet me.
As I describe in my book when Manuel sees the murals for the first time, I was simply gobsmacked by the enormity of the murals. Enormity in this sense of the word means not only size, but story, emotion, history and culture. The work made me dizzy. Everything I had ever read about Diego’s art was displayed before me. I felt like I had just climbed Mt. Everest and was harpooning the earth with a flag of the world. Something big was welling up in me.
So, I sat on the concrete floor for eight hours and just stared. I stared at the painted history of a culture that had become my friend. I finally understood why Diego painted his history. He wanted the people who couldn’t read to learn of their magnificent past. With a numb backside and a grumbling stomach, I had to ask Diego one more question in my head before catching a taxi back to my hotel. I simply spoke out the words to no one, “What do you want me to learn?” Then in my head, Diego answered back, “Teach the children about their past.”
A half an hour later I was sitting outside at a cafe table. I couldn’t wait to pull the journal out of my bag. I simply wrote the notes that would morph many times into the story it is now: Manuel Jesus Ramirez Rodriguez, a nine year-old boy from Mexico City.