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?

 

The Miniaturist

What to do on a hot day? Maybe it’s best to give up on the idea of running errands and slogging through the chores? Why not play hooky and spend the day with a good book? I did that last week, and am still savoring my escape into the golden era of the Dutch masters, XVII century guilds, silk roads and sailing ships.

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton begins with 18 year old Petronella (Nella) Oortman, arriving into Amsterdam from the Dutch countryside. Poised on the stoop of her new home – with a caged parakeet and suitcases at her feet – she feels alone and out of her depth. Her husband, Johannes Brandt is a rich merchant, almost double her age. This is a marriage of convenience – and no one pretends otherwise.

When the young bride is given entrance, she feels overcome by the scent of pungent spices – especially cinnamon and cardamom – swirling through the opulent canal house. Johannes has commissioned so many paintings that they crowd the walls. Oriental rugs cover the floors and maps of lands unknown to Nella lie scattered about. The exotic feathers and dried bones she discovers make her curious about her husband’s travels.

She soon realizes that he, his sister Marin, and their servants Cornelia and Otto, have secrets that both fascinate and terrify her. Brandt does not make himself available to Nella in any way, but eventually Marin convinces him to take his wife to a splendid Guild banquet, where she again feels unsettled by the wealthy world she is now part of.

Johannes gives her an unusual wedding present – a dollhouse – a reduced replica of their own home on the Herengracht. Her sister-in-law provides her with the address of a local artisan, the miniaturist, who will make furnishings and dolls for the house.

Nella orders a few pieces and is delighted with the detail and craftsmanship, but she’s taken aback when she receives items that she has not ordered. She cannot understand the significance of the tiny pieces. But as strange events unfold around her, it seems as though the miniaturist is warning her of what is to come.

The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s first novel. As an author I am impressed by her writing style – her depiction of the historical period drew me right in. Because of my Dutch background, I found the tale absorbing even though sometimes the characters confused me with inconsistencies. Never to the point though – that I stopped enjoying the read.

The scenes of frigid canals and the even-chillier puritanical society that Nella Oortman has to navigate, captured my imagination and transported me to a world, both miles and eons away – a welcome diversion on a sweaty, steamy day in the month of May!

La Ciudad Blanca

Normalmente, escribo en inglés, pero hoy redacto en español, para que todo el mundo se entere:

A primera hora del día de hoy, leí un artículo en La Jornada Maya, escrito por Ricardo Tatto, titulado: “Mérida: una ciudad viva” y subtitulado: “Pide silencio la otra ‘elite blanca’ ” (SIC). (https://www.lajornadamaya.mx/2017-03-27/Merida–una-ciudad-viva )

Desde hace tiempo, esperaba un artículo con este enfoque. Por desgracia, las relaciones entre México y sus vecinos al norte nunca han estado peor. Los mexicanos tienen toda la razón de estar molestos y ofendidos. También yo lo estoy. Pero no es lo apropiado, sacar la ira contra un grupo de expatriados viviendo en Mérida, como tampoco es el trato tradicional de la gente del sureste de México. Al contrario, desde hace un siglo los peninsulares han dado la bienvenida a los turistas extranjeros y a los foráneos que han establecido sus hogares aquí – todos han recibido los beneficios de esta convivencia.

Yo nací en Canadá y llegué a vivir a Mérida, hace 41 años. Me sentí muy bien recibida. Me case con mi novio yucateco y aquí hemos vivido durante las últimas cuatro décadas. En los años 70 había una población de apenas 250.000 habitantes, y el centro de Mérida era un lugar muy vivo. Recuerdo como mis suegros sacaban sus sillones a la puerta de su casa, sobre la Calle 56 para “tomar fresco”. Recuerdo cuando muchos “taxis” eran calesas jaladas por caballos. También recuerdo cuando casi no había supermercados y todo el mundo compraba en los mercados.  Recuerdo con nostalgia cuando los centros de diversión eran “Los Tulipanes”, “La Prosperidad”, y “El Aloa”.

Luego, en los años 80, muchos de los vecinos y negocios se mudaron al norte de la ciudad. Pronto el centro se convirtió en un lugar de tristes edificios abandonados y calles oscuras. Unos años después, hubo una especie de renacimiento, y el centro se transformó nuevamente en un lugar precioso. ¿Y quiénes empezaron esta restauración? ¿El gobierno? ¿Los comerciantes? ¿La sociedad yucateca? ¡No – no – y otra vez – no! Aunque no quieren creerlo, fueron los extranjeros jubilados que llegaron a nuestra ciudad en busca de un lugar tranquilo.

Es verdad – desde la época del Presidente Reagan, muchos ciudadanos de los EEUU han salido de su país porque están en desacuerdo con la política. Compraban los predios vacíos – casitas y casonas por igual – y les devolvieron su belleza. Corrió la voz de lo lindo y tranquilo que es Mérida, y en los años 90 llegaron más estadounidenses, canadienses, europeos y nacionales de otros estados de la República, quienes también compraron las casas en ruinas, y las transformaron en sus hogares. Ya para los principios del siglo XXI, los gobiernos municipales y estatales siguieron el ejemplo – poco a poco – la ciudad volvió a lucir como la ciudad blanca que hoy en día nos llena de orgullo.

Vivo en la García Ginerés, pero desde hace 27 años mi esposo y yo tenemos una escuela de educación superior en el mero centro de la ciudad – en un predio familiar que adquirió mi suegro en 1956, razón por la que vamos al centro histórico todos los días, mas de una vez.

En los últimos años, hemos observado que muchos negocios se han establecido sobre las calles y alrededor de las parques del centro. Otros negocios, existentes desde hace muchos años, han modificado su imagen y ahora gozan de mucha popularidad. Están aprovechando el flujo de gente y no hay nada malo en esto. ¡Qué bueno que hay vida de nuevo y más prosperidad en el centro histórico de nuestra ciudad! Pero, por las noches, realmente es un escándalo – el ruido es insoportable en muchas casas y negocios vecinos de ciertos bares y antros.

Como es de esperar, los vecinos (nacionales y extranjeros) están desesperados porque no pueden ni dormir. Acudieron a las autoridades municipales, mismas que han ha convocado a dos reuniones para escuchar opiniones de los vecinos, comerciantes y  propietarios de bares. El artículo en La Jornada Maya menciona que no todo el mundo fue invitado.

Yo estuve presente, y me consta que por lo menos la mitad de los asistentes era gente de negocios de Mérida y sus trabajadores. Una persona de este grupo estaba sentada junto a mí, y me comentó que ella fue invitada a la reunión. Si ella fue invitada, yo creo que los demás también lo fueron.

Realmente, asistir a esta reunión fue una experiencia desagradable. Me lleno de vergüenza escuchar las acusaciones a gritos de parte de algunas personas de Mérida – hacia los extranjeros – una señora norte americana, me dijo después de esta reunión, que alguien pateo su silla – ¿Qué es esto? No es la Mérida que yo conozco.

Al terminar su artículo, el reportero de La Jornada Maya pregunta:

“¿Al final del día, sin afán de ser reduccionista, todo recae en preguntarnos qué clase de ciudad queremos, ¿un centro de retiro para los expatriados jubilados que sólo vienen a Mérida a morir…” (SIC)

Pues yo quiero una ciudad donde “la paz empieza con el respeto al derecho ajeno.” (Juarez)

  • Hay que dialogar – no insular
  • Las autoridades necesitan establecer reglas y normas para todos – y todos tienen la obligación de respetarlas.
  • Si no lo hacemos – todos vamos a perder
  • Si no nos cuidamos de nuestras acciones y modales, caeremos al nivel de una ciudad sin leyes.

Somos mucho mejor que esto – todos tenemos que comportarnos como gente civilizada – no como bárbaros.

FILEY – International Readers Fesitival of Yucatan

This coming week, if you wander into the Siglo XXI Convention Center from the parking lot, you’ll see the length of the corridor is decorated in a bright red and yellow motif, with traditional Chinese paper lanterns hanging overhead.

If you come through the side access, you’ll feel as though you’ve wandered into a Campeche landscape; reminiscent of colonial times.

The changes in décor are part of the attractions of FILEY – the International Readers Festival of Yucatan, to be held at the convention center from Saturday March 11th until Saturday March 18th. Each year, a state in Mexico and an international country are the honored guests at FILEY – for 2017, the featured state is Campeche and the country is the People’s Republic of China.

FILEY is sponsored by the University of Yucatan (UADY) and the organizational committee has spent more than a year planning the event. This week, the convention center looked like a beehive or ant hill with so many people working  ‘round the clock, to set up the Chinese and Campeche pavilions, the mega book fair, and an art garden. This year the FILEY is offering more than 1,200 activities, and many will be held in the convention center’s salons and cinema.

130 book publishers, sellers and other culture-focused business have stands at the book fair, located in the Salon Chichen Itza. Most of the titles are in Spanish, but even if you cannot read the language, you will thoroughly enjoy the people watching and the energy of this once-a-year extravaganza.

A bilingual presentation, “Intercultural Writers in Yucatan – Escritoras Interculturales en Yucatán” is slated for Thursday March 16th at 8 pm. The invited writers are Marianne Kehoe, Linda Lindhlom and me!  I won’t give away the surprise by giving you the details of our presentation. But we hope you’ll come out and support us.

To read more about the FILEY, click on this link to the Yucatan Expat Life website: http://yucatanexpatlife.com/book-fair-returns-with-english-language-authors/

The full FILEY program can be downloaded from the Diario de Yucatan site: http://filey.org.mx/docs/Programa%20FILEY%202017.pdf

Frida Kahlo

My painting of Frida Kahlo - 2015
My painting of Frida Kahlo – 2015

In high school – Art was definitely my favorite class. In fact, had my father gone along with the idea, my career would have headed in that direction. Maybe I would never have met my husband, Jorge, and spent forty years in Mexico?

But I definitely would have traveled there because Frida Kahlo lived there. Mr. Lange, my 11th grade art teacher introduced her to me through one of his slide shows.

I could not imagine a character quite as “out there” as Frida – I loved her work – especially her strong brightly colored self portraits. And the Edward Weston photographs portrayed her other side – solitary, romantic, and thoughtful.

When I moved to Merida, Yucatan in 1976, Frida was not as commercialized as she is now. Her husband, Diego Rivera, certainly an accomplished painter, used his talent to promote his political causes. Frida used painting and prose to portray her inner demons, and her heart’s desire.

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