Flor Amargo

A few days ago, my husband forwarded a YouTube video. In the subject line, he wrote: “You’ll enjoy this, in fact, you’ll be fascinated.” Jorge does not usually predict how I’ll feel about what he sends me, and I opened the link not knowing what to expect. OMG! I should have remembered how well he knows my taste in music –  fascinating – does not begin to describe this artist. Her name is Flor Amargo.

Apparently she first gained a wide audience through her participation in one of those TV network-sponsored talent shows. I rarely watch those programs so probably this is why I’ve never seen or heard of her before.  However, I bet that the producers of that show did not know what to do with Flor Amargo,  because she is certainly not a pop princess.

In the clip Jorge sent me, she is playing her accordion and singing, “La Bruja”, inside a moving wagon of the Mexico City metro. At times she had to stop as the train swerved and lurched, but she kept on belting it out. I heard jazz, swing, bebop, rock and roll, and even some sweeping classical chords in her interpretation. “La Bruja” is not her own composition, but she “owns” it.  She’s as authentic as I’ve ever seen.

But something distressed me about the video – her fellow passengers were not happy – in fact they looked extremely displeased with this beautiful and talented young woman who had interrupted their daily commute.

It struck me that lots of us claim to admire women with the guts to be who they really are. We “love” Frida Khalo’s art, Chabela Vargas’ throaty voice, Leonara Carrington’s surreal sculpture, Elena Poniatowska’s  brave writing. These icons are not close enough to touch; we remain at a comfortable distance from their non-conformity and unconventional acts. However, when a young person with the same kind of individuality shows up in our midst, many people do not feel blessed; they feel their personal space has been invaded.

Flor Amargo’s birth name is Emma Mayte Carballo Hernández , and from an early age she showed uncommon talent and determination to perform. She is an actress; she composes, sings and plays multiple instruments. She tap dances too. In an interview she said:

“My message is love, made into music. We are all one, and – what you do to, and for others – you do to, and for yourself.”

She explains that her music is the result of deep self-searching. She finds shelter in music, poetry and her own way of life. She wants to reach her fans but also those, who by chance, happen to hear her voice. (Like me, and maybe you too?)

“Through my messages, I urge others to search inside themselves, find their essence, and share it with as many people as they can, just as I have done. I took painful roads before I got to the point where I could say: I am Flor Amargo.”

Some insist that introspective reflection, soul searching, and the like are a luxury of youth. But others seem to feel it is vital to never stop exploring our deepest recesses, and to use the gifts we find to improve our lives and those of others.

I think the women I mentioned earlier, the unconventional, non-conforming, ones we admire – Frida Khalo, Chabela Vargas, Leonara Carrington, and Elena Poniatowska – have done precisely that.

Maybe several decades from now, the same will be said of Flor Amargo.

Poster for the Flor Amargo concert in Auditorio Nacional

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A Red Rose in her Hair (1)

Last week I attended the Merida Writers’ Group that meets each Thursday at the Merida English Library. Everyone had something to read, and today I started a story that I’ll add to from time to time.

A Red Rose in her Hair

Monica pulled aside the curtains to breathe in the aroma of the early dawn. Outside, the light was still muted but the glow in the east promised a sunny day. Although she’d have enjoyed a few more minutes of musing, the Melita’s spluttering and hissing called her back to the kitchen counter. I should get a quieter machine, she thought, but it does make good coffee, so what’s a bit of extra noise?  Ten minutes later, she sipped her first cup of cafe con leche; and while her laptop booted-up, she wondered what miracles this day would hold.

Leaning back in her pink padded chair, she looked up at the orchids and ferns hanging in her studio window – her mini jungle thrived in this space – and so did she. A quick glance at the still-in-progress watercolour perched on her easel, confirmed that yesterday’s changes had improved the piece. I’ll keep working on this one, she decided.

The lap top pinged, alerting her to unread messages, but she ignored the queue in favor of Craig’s List. She got a kick out of reading about Houses to Rent or Buy, Employment Opportunities, and Used Furniture – not that she needed a single thing – but on occasion she found a treasure. Sadly, today didn’t look like a day of discovery  – until she noticed the small post in the Travel section. She read it three times. A hot-cold tingle ran down her back; excitement flushed her face and her heart pumped like a runner’s.

– If you are a Canadian named Monica Turner, I have an offer for you. Please email me at: jilted2018@hotmail.com –

“That’s me,” Monica said out loud. Her curiosity intensified until it felt like a hot flash. Should she ask her daughter whether or not she should contact “jilted 2018”? Or maybe one of the women in her book club or knitting circle?  She weighed the pros and cons of sharing this startling news, and realized she did not need anyone’s input because she had already made up her mind. She would find out what this was all about; she didn’t need anyone seeding fear and negative worries into her soul. Clicking on the hotmail website, she opened a new account: gobsmacked2018@hotmail.com and sent off her message right away:

– I have the name you’re looking for. I am Canadian. Do I know you –

Within the hour, he wrote back:

– I am Peter McLeod, and I was engaged to a woman who shares your name and nationality. Hopefully that is all you share, because if you are anything like her – in looks or personality – I will revoke my offer. That said, you must be wondering what this is all about. So, here’s the deal – I bought a dream honeymoon package for Monica and me – it is non-refundable and can only be used by a woman with my ex’s moniker. I assure you, I don’t expect “anything”; I just hate to see money go to waste.  If you join me, you’ll receive a free first class ticket, and your own wing in the villa that I rented for a month in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. If we mutually decide to spend some of our time together; that’s fine. If not, we’ll meet-up again at the Merida airport for our return flight to Vancouver.

Monica couldn’t wait to discuss this highly unusual proposal with Peter. He suggested they meet at noon in a popular restaurant at the Lonsdale Key. “I’ll wear a red rose in my hair,” she said. “That way you’ll recognise me.”

She was right; walking into the crowded eatery he had no trouble picking her out – not only did she have a rose in her hair – she looked to be about 80 years old.

***

 

 

 

 

 

 

A River Runs Through It…

Kamloops is a thriving small city with all the services and conveniences one needs… and it is a natural wonder. Yesterday I took a long walk along the river, and I could not help but think of the romantic title of a film directed by Robert Redford back in 1992  This is a sample of all I saw…

 

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Am I a dinosaur?

 

Yee gads! Are bloggers like the dinosaurs? If so, will we be allowed to go softly into the night? Or will we be suddenly eliminated from the cyber world just as the mammoth reptiles were frozen out of our physical one?

A couple of weeks ago, a favorite blogger announced that she had written her last post. And just the other day, another popular wordsmith threatened to do likewise. And have you noticed that even the most prolific of the English-language blogs, Mexfiles, no longer appears daily.

Fortunately, my colleagues had a change of heart. They are in fact still blogging, but perhaps not with their previous regularity or enthusiasm. And there are others like me, who have changed their blog’s focus as well as their publishing frequency.

Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and a host of special interest social media groups are now more popular than blogs. Anyone who has a tablet or smart phone can easily post – with or without photos – about whatever interests them. Dogs and cats (especially rescue ones), parties and other social events, home renovations, the mysteries of the Mexican Immigration law, intricacies of banking, and surprises when shopping are all popular topics. Scams and scandals in the community are circulated. But the lion’s share of polemic is reserved for politics.

Some bloggers write politically, but after a few forays into that particular Never-Never Land, I have opted to skirt around it. I have NOT changed my views but discretion is the better part of valor – why risk getting my name on some no-fly list or worse?

Indeed, from time to time, bloggers are accused of writing tepidly. Actually that is one of the hardest parts about blogging – we want to be brave, to let the truth shine, to write with integrity, and from the heart. But we also need to keep one finger hovering above the “auto censor” key – we are lone voices. We don’t have the backing of a newspaper chain or the legal protection of a publishing house. We put ourselves out there and because of that, I think most of us have had some negative experiences. I’ve asked myself why we persevere.

Do we think we have insights that no one else has? Do we presume we can educate and inform our readers? Well, maybe a little bit – but mostly it is the process. The bloggers I know truly enjoy writing. They love searching for just the right words and composing sentences that express exactly what they need to say. It’s easy to write a few lines of facebook feed but a well thought out blog post takes time. Sometimes I spend ages getting the language just right – and appropriate visuals also take a while to find.

I enjoy getting comments  – I’ve been blogging for a long time and it’s easy to get stale.  I appreciate those who faithfully read Changes in Our Lives – they know who they are – and so will you if you scan my comments. Some of them contribute almost as much as I do.

This has been a different year for me and if not for my blog, I would have done precious little writing. Getting regular practice is another advantage to blogging. So, provided no meterorite crashes into Earth, I plan to keep on just as I am, and I hope my colleagues will do likewise.

Remembrance Day in Kamloops

 

 

Shelley Joyce is the anchor of CBC Kamloops’ morning radio program, “Daybreak”. Yesterday she prerecorded a short  interview with me about a presentation I’ll give to commemorate Remembrance Day. The talk will be held at:

  • The downtown Kamloops Library, Wednesday November 8th , 7:00 pm

I told Ms.Joyce that from 1939 until 1945, my father served as a private in the BC Engineering Corps of the Royal Canadian Armed Forces. He was only 19 years old when he signed up, and just before he shipped out, his father gave him the address of a first cousin, Gisèle – If Dad ever found himself in Amsterdam, Granddad wanted him to visit her.

In 1945, my father did indeed end up in Amsterdam – his division was among those that participated in the liberation of the Netherlands – and he could hardly wait to join in the victory celebrations. But first, he wanted to honor his father’s request. When he got leave, he and his friend made their way to her home, a small apartment on the Herengracht.  Coincidentally this is the same canal street where my grandfather was born. What Dad found there dampened every bit of enthusiasm for partying.

During occupation by the Nazi forces, Gisèle hid her Jewish friends. They survived, but on the day Dad met them, before food distribution was reestablished, he figured none of them weighed more than 80 pounds. All plans for his celebration were cancelled – Dad and his friend returned to their base, got food and fuel and returned to Gisèle’s home as quickly as they could.

Almost six decades later in 2003, my sister and I travelled to Amsterdam and met Gisèle – she was 91 years old and still living in the same building. She showed my sister and me where she’d hidden her friends during the raids (in the dumbwaiter) and she told us about the hardship and fear they endured. She jumped over to one of the front windows, and said she’d looked out from there and seen Dad.  She added that the provisions he and his friend brought to her and her friends, had saved their lives.

In memory of my father and to honor her, I wrote my book, CIRCLES. Reflecting on their lives, I am impressed by how both of them went on to live happy, full lives – and in the case of Gisèle – a famous one. She was a painter and a writer. She lived a 100 year-long life of curiosity and joy.

Her bravery was officially recognized by three countries. Initially Gisèle came to the attention of the German government. She received the Bundesverdienstkreuz, the federal cross awarded to people of great valor.. The second citation bestowed on Gisèle was that of Righteous Among Nations. This honor is the highest tribute a non-Jewish person can be given by Israel. Gisèle’s third honor, Ridder in de Orde van Oranje-Nassau — “Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau,” pleased her immensely – it is presented to Dutch citizens who deserve appreciation and recognition from society for special service to the country.

With characteristic humility and generosity, my father said his award was life itself. He added that Mom and us eight children filled him with all the joy and recognition he wanted.

I look forward to Wednesday and the opportunity to share the story of my dad and his Dutch cousin. I hope those who come to the Library will also bring photos or other mementoes of their loved ones who served Canada. I would like them to tell their stories too.

I am not sure if my interview will air today (Tuesday Nov. 7) or tomorrow (Wedneday Nov. 8) but you can listen live to ”Daybreak” with Shelley Joyce at this link: http://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/daybreak-kamloops

And to end today’s post, I will reprint one of the most iconic of all poems written about war.  Those who attended elementary school in Canada,  no doubt memorized it – and perhaps still remember it – as I do.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

– by John McCrae, May 1915

A Writer? You?

Yesterday I met a young woman who told me her dream is to write a book.  She said she has never taken any writing courses, and she has no writing experience.  She said she has no idea how to start writing. She feels her dream is unattainable.

Later in the evening, my mind returned to our conversation.  I thought back to the time when I first turned to writing.  I was 24, newly-married and living far away from my family. I wanted everyone to feel part of my adventures, and so I wrote letters. Lots and lots of them. I tried to write as expressively as I could, and in the process, I built up my vocabulary and I learned to trim my sentences for clarity.

A few years later, a friend showed one of my letters to Joe Nash, a legendary editor at “The Mexico City News”. Before the internet, the paper was the largest English language daily in Latin America. Joe invited me to be the correspondent for Yucatan – a unique learning experience that lasted 12 years. People read my column and some of them asked me to write for their publications – travel articles mostly. I did make sporadic attempts at structuring a longer piece but I never got far.

Then one January night in 2007, I woke up with an idea that would not leave me alone – I wanted to write something “long”.  Literary terms like: “genre”, “point of view”, “the story arch” or “the hero’s journey” meant nothing to me. But I sat down at the computer and began. I typed my first paragraph:

I’ve often wondered what would happen if we could recognize pivotal times in our personal journeys – the “forks in the road” that present themselves. Do we ever see them coming? Does a vague premonition warn us that certain decisions are destined to truly change our path? If we could anticipate these critical junctions, would we have the nerve to follow through? Thirty-plus years ago, I surely did not sense that my life was about to veer radically off course. I had no idea what was in store for me for the rest of my days. I was caught completely unawares… and I went headlong through the door that opened to me…”

And that was it – I followed my own advice – I went headlong through the door that opened to me. Since that night, four books, many short stories and umpteen blog posts have been composed, letter by letter, on my trusty HP.

I can’t fully explain why I need to write, but I can describe how I write.

No mincing of words here – determination is essential. When I want to write, I sit in the chair with my fingers on the keyboard – this is the only way I can get going. I get up to drink water or to stretch a bit – but I stay in place until I finish – or am forced to leave.

Even when not writing, my thoughts are always wandering through the years and my life experiences – to such an extent that it sometimes feels as though I’m reliving them. When I write, I draw on those experiences and feelings.

I watch people – how they move and how emotions show on their faces. This helps me portray my characters.

My head is always full of ideas, memories, and plans. This helps me to spin plots, to create characters and find the words to develop them.

After pondering my afternoon’s encounter – this is what I wish l had said to that young woman:

NEVER give up on your dream. The time to start your book might not be here yet, but you will absolutely know when it has arrived. Meanwhile, you need to practice. Start a journal and write something every day, even if it is just a few lines. Read as much as you can, and try to figure out how authors craft their sentences. You could benefit from some creative writing workshops and learn a lot at book presentations. Watch Ted Talks by authors (Anne Lamott has an amazing one)

Be an observer – watch how an old man trudges up a hill, and how a little girl scampers down the front steps. You need to remember how a kiss tastes, and how it sounds when your mother calls your name. Fill your word bank so that you have a healthy balance – just in case you need to withdraw some – to describe the smell of the rain, or the sound of your boots crunching in the snow. Little by little, you will learn to put your thoughts and emotions into words, and then write those words down for others.

That’s what a writer does – and you can do it too.

Four Sisters and a Passel of Other People

The first page…

I have seen lots of my sisters, Anne, Barb, Cathy since arriving in Kamloops last June. We have cooked, shopped, wine tasted, gone for drives along back roads and dog walked. Not earth-shattering entertainment – but just the sorts of things that sisters enjoy together.

We have all recently moved into new digs. I am in Canada just part time, but still, I’ve had an apartment to fix up. My sisters have all downsized. Not having so much house to care for is great, but the inconvenience of a smaller place is less storage. My sisters wonder what to do with the memorabilia they have collected over the years – their children don’t want it – and they have nowhere to keep it. The photographs are fading and the letters are dog-eared – but they can’t bear to throw the stuff out. And really, it would be a shame to lose all that history. So, we came up with the idea of a “posterity project”.

It did not take long to collect four big plastic storage bins of “treasure”. The apartment where I live in Kamloops seemed like the logical place to keep it all  – I don’t have much space either but I am the one with the most time to separate, cull and organize.

We call our project: “The vdG Repository”.  My dictionary defines repository as : a central location in which data is stored and managed. Perfect, eh?

And we are off to a great start. In the living room, next to the window, we’ve placed an old photograph of our granddad’s family in Amsterdam, and below it, a photograph of the family taken at my grandmother’s 65th birthday party. Above the couch, we have three of Granddad’s paintings –  and the family memoir I wrote about Aunt Gisele’s life is on the book shelf – as are other books written by family members.

We’ve sorted the letters, photos and keepsakes into piles and have started to make scrap books. We don’t have much of cataloguing system. The four are called: “Granddad and Further Back”, “Dad, his Siblings and Cousins”, “Us Kids and Our Cousins”, and “Our Kids and Their Kids”

We have a copy of the family tree that Aunt Gisele put together, and the chart that accompanies it. Her birth, 105 years ago is the last recorded entry, so obviously we have a lot of catching up to do.

The van der Gracht family is an interesting mix of characters. Artists, explorers, pirates, n’er-do-wells, humanitarians, businessmen, real estate developers, teachers, farmers, nurses – and even a saint! We hope that future generations will want to know more about us than just our birth and death dates, so we are adding stories to the scrap books, and postcards, kid’s drawings, first communion photos, and wedding invitations.

It goes without saying that this project is also a tribute to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They instilled in us a love of family, and we want to carry that on.

We hope that other family members will send us the missing links and data, but if not, we’ll do the best we can.

Do you or anyone you know have a project like ours?  Any suggestions?

Loving Vincent and other surprises in store

Mid October already – fall has definitely arrived here in the interior of British Columbia. Outside, the air feels like the inside of a fridge set on the coldest setting. Not as cold as a freezer yet, although that is not far away. The other day I was downtown early and I saw cars with snow on their roofs. They must have come into Kamloops from slightly higher elevations.

However, I have my winter clothes all ready for the day when I spy the white stuff on the lawn. I tried the whole “ensemble” on the other day and I felt so constricted. So many layers!

As winter approaches, the city’s recreation & arts dept. has lined up a long roster of activities to keep the citizens happily occupied. The library and the university offer courses, lectures, and field trips. There are book clubs, writers’ groups, chess competitions, and lots more. For $60.00 CAD a month, I can take advantage of the YMCA’s recreation facilities – they have a 25 m. pool, exercise machine room, yoga, and just about any other health-related interest you can think of. Kamloops also has a small classical orchestra and a beautiful theater. Plays, recitals, concerts and film nights happen often.

On Thursday, I will have a pot-luck dinner at my apartment with three friends, and then we are going to see “Loving Vincent” a film about the life of Vincent van Gogh. It is the first full feature crafted entirely from hand-painted oils. Forty artists from all over the globe have participated in the project. I CAN’T WAIT to see the finished product. You can watch the trailer at this link:

Then on Saturday, I will attend a still life painting workshop. When I asked what I need to bring, I was told – “Yourself and an open mind.” That sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?

Another of my activities this week is all about Halloween. My sister Anne designed a dragon costume for our grand niece. She got the gorgeous wings made and I am helping to sew them on to the body of the costume. The dragon is glittery purple and besides the huge scaled wings, she’ll also have a long spiked tail and 3 inch claws attached to her hands and feet. Little Emily is so excited – I will post a photo when the outfit is ready.

When I don’t have any special activity planned, I sometimes play Scrabble with one of my neighbors. She and I are different kinds of players. She is a genius at placing two or three tiles across one of the existing words already on the board. 40 points is not an uncommon  tally for one of her moves. But on Thursday night I made: C-L-O-I-S-T-E-R-S. You got it – I used my seven tiles! 50 extra points!

I live right downtown, so shopping and all my entertainment are close by. I walk everywhere and carry home all my purchases – it’s a practical way to get exercise.

But the best news is that this “winter wonderland” lifestyle will only last for a short time. I won’t have a chance to grow weary of the short-cold days or even-colder-and-longer nights. In two months time, I will return to Merida and the balmy December temperatures.

I can’t say what the future will hold, but so far I like this 6 months in Canada – 6 months in Mexico arrangement. I like it very much. Jorge has not embraced the idea as I have. He is a Yucatecan through and through. He is happiest in his home town – and we all need to choose what makes us happy – right?

All of us have different priorities; we make different decisions and take different paths. Life offers so many options. But one fact is constant for us all – these “golden years” are NOT what any of expected them to be. Just when we think we have everything figured out, a bolt from the blue can turn it all upside down.

All the more reason to remain flexible as we grow older and stay open to the ever-surprising changes in our lives.

Words and pictures together

“Angels are needed in the world right now. Aren’t they always?”

Something I enjoy about blogging is getting to know other bloggers. We form a friendship online, and sometimes we get the opportunity to meet in person. On occasion, I discover that someone I already know is a blogger. This happened with Alexandra Wallner, a woman I often see at the symphony and other musical events. I now find out she is the author of a delightful weekly blog – Sylvia Saltwater ( http://www.sylviasaltwater.com )

Alex, as she prefers to be called, was born in Germany after WWII, and at six years of age she immigrated with her family to the U. S.  She found first grade torturous because she did not understand English. There were no learning assistance programs – everyone sank or swam – and she was sinking fast. Her father, a doctor working in tuberculosis sanatoriums, already knew several languages, and he came up with a way to improve his daughter’s “F” grades. He read comic books to her and his wife – words and pictures together – Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, Little Lulu, and Katy Keene became learning tools.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were fewer new TB cases, and the sanatoriums were closing. Alex told me that her family moved many times, but mostly to towns in upstate New York.

She attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N. Y. for her BFA, and was then accepted to the Tyler Institute of Art’s MFA program at Temple University in Philadelphia. But her mother passed away the summer between her senior year at Pratt and the start of the MFA program. Devastated by her loss, Alex decided to stay put. She knew and loved New York and had friends there who would support her.

Sitting in her first class, on the first day of her MFA studies at Pratt, serendipity stepped in. “I believe my mother was my angel,” she says, “I was wearing a silk dress and alligator pumps, and John sported a coat and tie. Nobody dressed like that in art school during the 1960’s.” Alex and John must have looked like a pair of swans in a pond of common ducks – they married three years later.

Once she finished her MFA, she worked as an associate art director for American Home Magazine and New Ingénue Magazines. And after a few years, she and John found themselves working together in their own place, Greywood Studios.

Collaborating on the illustrations for children’s books made their career. The comic books Alex’s father read to her left a deep impression, and in the 1990s, she started writing and illustrating her own works.  Like wet cement sticking to Daisy Duck’s oversized shoes – a love for words and pictures together had firmly adhered to Alexandra Wallner’s alligator pumps.

(See samples of Alex’s books at:  www.alexandrawallner.com  )

Alex gets her inspiration from real life. She says that when she and John lived in Maine, they belonged to “probably one of the worst homeowner’s associations in the U. S. A.” The couple kept sane by making up humorous stories about Sylvia and Max Saltwater, a retired catering couple who believe they have moved to an upscale island community, only to find out it is anything but.

“It was rough living there,” says Alex, “but the place provided me with lots of material. I tell the story of Sylvia and Max in my as-yet-unpublished book, PINOCCHIO ISLAND.”

Eventually Alex and John left the USA and they now live in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. Every Wednesday she publishes a charming and insightful post, inspired by characters from her novel, but set in her new home. (You can see her latest one today)

Always enthused, Alex is now writing her memoir. She laughs, “I have old family photos and stories to go with them – more words and pictures together,” she laughs. Mornings find her painting angels. “Angels are needed in the world right now,” she states emphatically. That said, she peeks out from under her floppy hat and asks rhetorically, “Aren’t they always?”

“Merida is an excellent place for writers and painters,” says Alex. “The colors, the textures of the city, the warmth of the people, the music, the rich Mayan / Spanish culture all blend to stimulate creativity. Often artists and writers live in a vacuum and being able to mingle with other artistic people and those who support the arts is inspiring and stimulating.”

Alex and John have just celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.  Remembering how they met, she says, “We were two squares meant for each other” – like words and pictures together.

El Claustro de Sor Juana Ines dela Cruz

In 1651, Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born in San Miguel de Nepantla. Juana learned to read and write at the age of three, and unable to handle her precocious daughter, Juana’s mother sent her to live with well-to-do relatives in Mexico City.  Her talents in literature and music, as well as her beauty caught the attention of the Spanish Vice-regal court, and Juana was invited to be the maid-in-waiting to the Viceroy’s wife. Juana impressed the court and professors with her knowledge, her debating skills.

In XVII century Mexico the Inquisition was powerful and much-feared. There were only three paths open to a lady: become a wife, become a courtesan, or become a nun.

Because she was illegitimate, she was deemed unmarriageable. Nonetheless she was devout, so the courtesan role would not fit. That left only the third option – and indeed, she spent 26 of her 44 years as a nun. On the day of her final vows, she took the name, Juana Ines de la Cruz.

Her order of contemplative sisters lived at the Convent of San Geronimo, less than a kilometer from Mexico City’s Zocalo – the Main Square. She constantly defied the authority of the Catholic Church by writing – poems, prose, plays, essays and letters – that today are recognized as the most brilliant, but subversive literary works of the colonial period. As a woman (and a nun at that) she was not supposed to write at all). She died in the convent in 1695.

368 years after Sor Juana’s death, the cloister is now a liberal arts university that bears her name – Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana. I think she would be pleased to know that her former prison is now a place of enlightenment and learning.

Jorge and I visited the university’s on-site museum that features several portraits and sculptures of – La Musa – The Muse.  Her resting place, her cell, confessional, and even her blue-tiled bathtub can be viewed. A section of the convent that sunk over the centuries has been excavated and covered with thick acrylic panels, so visitors can tiptoe over top of the foundation of the former kitchen and annexed patio.  Later, as we strolled along the worn garden pathways and under the stone arches, I tried to imagine what it would have been like, to be an exceptionally intelligent woman, forced to conform to the laws of ignorant, misogynist clerics.

Sor Juana was Latin America’s first feminist, and she quickly shot down the theological dogma and cultural constraints of the Spanish colonial society. At the time, the secular and religious leaders proclaimed women to be intellectually inferior. Sor Juana insisted that she (and in fact all women) had a God-given, intellectual right to read, study, write, publish, and teach.

In her convent cell, Sor Juana had as much liberty as the times would allow. The space was large enough to house a telescope, thousands of books, scientific and musical instruments. After compliance with her strict religious observances, she would escape to her sanctuary to study, and of course, write—poetry, plays, romances, dramas, letters, and songs.

Much to the dismay of her clerical critics, Sor Juana’s work was smuggled out of the convent and printed. She became extremely popular in New Spain and even Spain itself. Fear, manifested by envy and resentment spurred the Archbishop to launch a campaign that he hoped would break her spirit.  Self-flagellation, penance, and mortification of the flesh became daily requirements. She was forced her to renew her vows and then sign the document with her own blood. After that, the Archbishop removed her books and writing tools:

The plague of 1695 claimed Sor Juana’s life, but her work lives on.

In a thoughtful mood, Jorge and I joined our author friends, Michael Schussler and CM Mayo for lunch at the Zèfiro Restaurant. We enjoyed a delightful meal and of course we talked about Sor Juana and her legacy. Thanks to her and others like her, we have the freedoms we have today.

Authors’ and journalists’ rights of expression are constantly challenged and questioned by society, and we auto-censor as well. If I had even 1% of Sor Juana’s bravery and conviction, my writing would be riskier. Maybe this is one of the changes coming into my life?