October/November 2009 Volume 59Welcome to this bi-monthly edition of our newsletter! You will find these columns contained in our October/November issue:
Carla Woody, Founder
Metaphors for Life
On my Parents
For most of us the two most influential people in our lives are often our parents. This certainly was the case for me.
My father, a Tzeltal Maya from a village called Tenejapa, was soon swept up in a wave of scholarship and readily participated in some of the most important studies on ethnobotany, linguistics and ethnography. Anthropologists abounded (in the area). Some scholars today joke that during this time when academic census were done on the typical Maya household, the results were always Mom, Dad, four to six children, several dogs, chickens, and an anthropologist.
Into this world my mother also arrived, but not as a scholar. She was an artist far removed from an academic motivation. Born in Coney Island to a Polish-Jewish heritage, she left the United States partly due, she claimed, to her disenchantment with the Cold War and the current economic policies of the US against Cuba. But I think that deep inside she was drawn in fascination to ancient cultures and a way of life that was grounded in spirit and tradition. She arrived to San Cristóbal de las Casas (in the highlands of Chiapas) in the late 1950s and, in some ways, was also caught up in the undertow of the academics. Her first years were spent as one of the first volunteers at Na Bolom under the tyrannical and watchful eye of Trudy Blom and the more benevolent Franz Blom. Almost immediately she began to work with Franz on the daunting task of transcribing all of Fran's archaeological field notes.
It was during this time she came face to face with the most life-changing elements and the main motive for her great transformation. This, of course, was love and it came dressed in a dark woolen chamarro, beribboned hat and sandals. At this moment two great forces collided, and in the ensuing turbulence that faced Woman and Man, West and Indigenous, many preconceived notions about what was socially or academically correct were challenged. It wasn't until many years later when at college, I learned about the poignant face-off between objective and subjective approaches in anthropology, that I finally understood the reaction of the anthropological community to my mother's choices.
I understood for the first time the heroic nature of my mother's choice to experience and understand a culture by becoming part of it. It was not enough for her to stand apart from the culture and to perceive it without the distortion of personal feelings or personal experience. In fact, it was impossible. Scholarship and formal logic that stood observing from the bank, in her mind, could never truly understand and describe a culture unless it allowed itself to be swept into the current. At the same time, I also was made aware of the sometimes painful realization; that no matter how much one tried to carefully walk into a pristine and delicate environment, one inevitably left behind a footprint, and often a profound effect on that system. My mother, however, was willing to take that risk, and in doing so committed herself to being Maya in the full sense of the word. She married my father, and then we were born.
Alonso's mother, Lucia, and weavers
She began her immersion into the Maya under the guiding hand of her new mother-in-law, and promptly learned the Tzeltal language. Much to the amazement of many scholars who struggled with the language barrier, she had accomplished in only a few years what many of them could not do in lifetimes of study. As a boy I was witness to her almost seamless entry into the culture, and we became an indelible, though unique part of the community As my siblings and I grew, we were, of course, subjected to countless analysis by the anthropological society. And so we became part of a curious experiment, that sought to find out how half-Maya, half-Jewish children would fair in the Western academic world.
During the years of my higher education, I was conscious of an inner struggle, perhaps a product of witnessing first-hand many of my parents' challenges. Through high school and college I, too, was being trained to stand apart and logically dissect nature in a scientific way. But In my heart, another desire was latent. I knew there was another way of seeing things. A more experiential way of learning. I was being called back to my roots.
To learn more about Alonso's unique Maya world view, join us in January 2010 for Entering the Maya Mysteries.Carla Woody will return to the column in the next issue. She may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone (928) 778-1058.
More often than not, the publications or music you will find reviewed here will not be new or "bestsellers." Websites or organizations may not be well known. But all are spotlighted by virtue of their impact and value.
The Painter from Shanghai
I'm always attracted by novels with a backdrop of art, controversial times and exotic locales and quickly became engrossed in The Painter from Shanghai. Only at the end did I realize the central character and many of the supporting ones actually lived. The times were dangerous and the daring commitment of those chronicled in the book's pages is penetrating.
The author has written a fictional account of Pan Yuliang, a Chinese artist often known in her own country as the "Famous Western-Style Woman Painter" a title she abhorred because it noted her gender. As a young girl in the early 1900s she was sold to a brothel by her uncle. This is the story of her origins and how she managed to leave that life to enter the world of art, something unheard of in those times, to become a well-known international artist and professor. The reader travels with her from China to Paris to Rome and back to China as she maneuvers between the strong pressures of Chinese tradition, dedication to her art and the political, sometimes deadly upheaval of the 1930s and 1940s. The book provides excellent entertainment as a novel. But it also educates about strict Chinese conventions, some of the heart-breaking practices Chinese women had to endure, and the intersection of Communism and Chiang Kai-shek's Republicans. Above all it's about the inner life of an artist and hard choices she makes to adhere to her dream.
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