Last saturday night we went over to the Museum of Northern Cultures, just a few blocks from the house. The occasion was the opening of a display of paintings by area painters, american and mexican, and a talk by a famous mexican sculptor named Sebastián. He has a last name. In fact he has two of them. All mexicans do. One’s first last name is the first last name of one’s father; the second last name is the first last name of one’s mother. But when a woman marries, she takes her husband’s first last name in place of her mother’s, preceded by “de” to show she is a married woman. Clear enough? The two last names are called apellido paterno and apellido materno. In any case I do not know Sebastián’s apellidos. And apparently he is well enough known not to need apellidos; on the museum program he is just called Sebastián.
Casas Grandes means “large houses”. A people called Paquimé came here about AD 1000 and built buildings four to six storeys tall, whence we get the name of today’s town. There was some other people here before the Paquimé. After them came various indian tribes. One of these, the Tarahumara, still has members living in the area. The spanish first visited the area in 1565 and put down a settlement in 1661. So this town has a history going back well over a thousand years, and has hosted four major cultures in that time. Hence the name of the museum.
Casas Grandes is partly built over ruins of these previous cultures. Old structures here are almost never torn down unless and until their space is needed for some other use. Even then, if the other use is a structure, often the old structure will be incorporated into the new. Not only does one live among ruins here; the ruins are sometimes part of one’s house.
A railroad was built through this area in 1898. The nearest station is five miles from Casas Grandes. Local lore holds that the movers and shakers of the town in 1898 were aware of the unique nature of the place and of the effect that would be had if, as originally planned, a station were located in Casas Grandes. So they caused the station to be built some miles away and on the other side of the river.
As one would expect, most subsequent development took place around the station. Today, the station, itself a museum now, lies at the center of a new town, Nuevo [new] Casas Grandes, of maybe fifty thousand head of population, while Casas Grandes has perhaps four thousand.
To this day local folks refer to Casas Grandes as the pueblo [village], while Nuevo Casas Grandes is the estación [station]. The river and its bottom land, which is intensively cultivated, form a natural barrier between the towns. But there always was a road between the two. The road was paved about forty years ago and this led to more population and more development in the pueblo. One elderly lady of the town whose house stands on that paved highway still grows angry when she thinks about it. She growls, –Progress has just ruined this place.– She is not comforted by the fact that a divided four-lane is coming in, though that means she will no longer be on the main road.
But I was going to talk about the museum.
The museum and its permanent exhibits document the history of the area and its four major cultures. Other exhibits come and go. And then there are lectures and concerts, often combined with the opening of an exhibit. The museum stands in the midst of the Paquimé ruins and in summer sees a great flow of archaeologists. During the school year there are busloads of students, and always there are the busloads of tourists. So the museum stays busy.
A museum event here is always a rich affair. There are seldom as many as a hundred present. Among those present the majority are from the local area so one soon becomes acquainted with many of them.
On saturday a few scholars, mostly guests, said a few words before the exhibit of new paintings was opened. Next came an extended pause for seeing the paintings and taking refreshments. And finally the main event. Sebastián the sculptor said very little about sculpture. Rather he demonstrated some cubes he had made.
“Cubes” is not much of a description. These cubes were about 10 inches on a side and were made of cardboard or plastic. They opened; they unfolded, to reveal an almost infinite number of arrangements of their inner faces, of many colors and shapes.
You have taken IQ tests where in one section you will be shown a two dimensioned drawing, as of a piece of paper, cut in a certain way and with dashed lines to indicate folds. Then you are shown perspective drawings of four or five solids and asked to indicate which one shows what the paper, folded, would look like. Well, the drawing for one of Sebastián’s cubes would be to the IQ test drawings as the Eiffel tower is to a Tinkertoy tower.
I think as I see these cubes unfold, what an incredible mind, what an overwhelming intelligence, this man has. But he says, as if he could hear me thinking, that he is not a mathematician but a sculptor, and that these cubes are sculptures, not mathematical objects. He builds them intuitively, as an artist, not mechanically, as an engineer.
I said we had refreshments between the two parts of the day’s program. Refreshments are always sumptuous, comprising hors d’oeuvres and beverages, the latter usually including sotol, taken to the gentle sounds of music. Saturday night’s music was a variety of mostly european classical pieces. But an occasional mexican traditional song came through, with that vibrant, lively rhythm yet mournful progression of chords that characterizes so much mexican music.
As for sotol, it is the traditional local hooch of this area. It is made from an extract of the sotol plant, a variety of yucca. It was developed by the native indians of the area. The best known brand of today’s sotol is El Indio Juh. Juh is pronounced as “hoo” or “who”. He was one of the last great warrior chiefs of the Chiricahua Apache. His portrait, reeking with indian dignity, looks out from the label of each bottle of sotol.
While we eat and drink I fall into conversation with Martín. He is some sort of government official exploring this area for a site for a new teachers’ college. He introduces us to Miguel, a painter from Chihuahua City, who has two paintings in the exhibition. They have come up together from Chihuahua City.
At the end of the evening one of these chaps is saying something about where can they buy beer. Well, why buy it? We have a little beer in the house, so we invite the men to come drink our beer.
They do. And when they arrive their party has grown to four, with the addition of Ana, a teacher, and Bety, just elected to take her seat as a congresswoman in the mexican congress this fall.
There is not enough beer for two full rounds. Delia’s end of the table, with Ana and Martín, goes to wine; my end, with Bety and Miguel, to whiskey. Conversation flows as freely as the liquor—Delia’s old house; Bety’s aspirations as politician; Miguel’s grappling with the mysticism of Mexico, with that strange pull it exerts on some souls. I with my experience as one of those souls. The clock is nearly at one when we break up, and the liter of whiskey nearly empty.
The next morning I cannot write. I am overwhelmed with sorrow that I am seldom able to see my grandsons. This always happens. It is why I almost never have more than two drinks in an evening.
© 2004 Joseph Mansfield