MICHOACAN – CITY OF CUANAJO
By Travis M. Whitehead
CUANAJO – A trogon, its cherry red neck gleaming against a body of emerald green, crawls up the side of a cuadrado (picture frame), followed by a chattering monkey. Mickey Mouse, decked out in a blue jacket and red trousers, offers a rose to a demure Minnie Mouse carved into the headboard of a bed frame. A cross-eyed Dalmatian puppy stares from a colgante (wall-hanging), its blue ears flopping over its face as the canine waits to decorate some child’s room; the pup bursts from a doorway along the cobblestone streets of Cuanajo, one voice in a visual chorus of images protected by the imagination of innocence.
This little gem of a town west of Morelia – complete with a charming colonial church, a carnival of eye candy, and a mesmerizingly slow place – beckons visitors looking for a trip to another time, a place where nothing can disrupt the fantasies of youth. Like Superman leaping from a phone booth, blocks of wood enter the town’s workshops and reappear days later transformed into a circus of shapes and colors. Homes sheltered with terracotta roofs harbor the workshops where artisans spend long hours practicing their trade secrets to produce masterpieces of both form and function.
Each family has its own technique - an endless number of approaches to familiar motifs show themselves throughout the town, where residents have found a way to escape the monotony of daily life with a delightful chaos that has become their livelihood; through their systematic labor, they indulge the necessities of routine existence by endowing that routine with joyous escape.
To get there, take Highway 14 west toward Patzcuaro. Before getting to Patzcuaro, you’ll pass the turnoff for Tiripetio before observing signs directing you to head back in the opposite direction to find the road to Cuanajo.After making the turnoff, you’ll take a slow winding road a few miles to Cuanajo, passing first through Tupataro, another picturesque community with a colonial church and a handmade furniture tradition of its own.
Once in Cuanajo, take the twisting road up a hill and turn left to arrive at the plaza and the church. The dramatic power of the church is enhanced by its simple façade: a stone entrance adorned with scallop and leaf motifs set into a stucco face. One Sunday just a few minutes before noon, tiny microbial birds spun their webs of shrill tunes, cutting through the silence before someone in the tower spun a huge iron bell mounted in a tulip-shaped housing.
The bell coughed up a deep-throated gong that ricocheted over the tiny community, followed by the high-pitched sound of a second tocsin and the beating of an even lower chime. A slow trickle of people moved up the stone walkways toward the gaping mouth of the church through a courtyard manicured with pink roses and birds of paradise.
A man in khaki pants limped shakily toward the structure; a woman doubled over and shrouded in her blue-striped rebozo walked in tiny measured steps; a man in leather sandals creeped toward the church with a cane. A young man with a cell phone strapped to his belt approached with his wife and two children.
They came in groups or as solitary seekers of security in their quiet world, blessed with the sanctity of remem-brance and connection, their footsteps casting faint whispers on the stone steps. Perhaps those soft-thronged shadows of sound joined the lingering memories of their generations past, for this was an ageless community where the passage of years had crept by leaving tangible traces of itself in the crevices of every memory.
Before the altar, an image of Christ rose through a picture of sunlit clouds behind him, and festoons of green, pink and blue lace seemed to flower overhead. Before the Christ image stood vases of white lilies, gladioluses, and pink roses. White candles, with beads of wax like sweat frozen, flickered from glistening holders. On the left stood an image of Christ in a glass casket and carved wooden panels of calla lilies, sunflowers, and grapes boiling from vases in the Cuanajo style. On the right was an image of the Lady of Guadalupe.
Two teenage boys sat joking amongst themselves outside, as if postponing the inevitable; teenage girls in tight jeans and tennis shoes, sandals, and heels, still within the grasp of a humorous story, emptied the courtyard and flooded into the church. The parishioners sat now in quiet respect; they stood, a strumming guitar leading them into a song that flooded into the ceiling crisscrossed by panels of light blue and trimmed with gold flourishesand festooned with lace curtains before rolling into the churchyard and the plaza.
The plaza was a rather simple affair, small and manicured with hedges around small gardens of roses and palm trees, with ficus trees providing shade for the iron benches along the walkways. Broad eaves of terracotta hung over sidewalks leading to small grocery stores and carved furniture establishments. Muebleria Ambakity Muebles Rusticos y Tallados sold a number of furniture items in varying styles, fashioned by members of the same family. A wardrobe depicted a man drowsing beneath sombreros next to a blazing fire, crafted in a tranquil floating effect with fluid lines. The headboard, with sunflowers painted the colors of solar flares against emerald green leaves and aqua blue stems, was done in the same style. However, a china cabinet with a rustic, earthy look bore images with a choppy, more energetic effect, revealing apples, pears, bananas and grapes that seemed to scramble nervously from a basket. A table and chairs struck a balance between the two styles, a graceful approach that evoked lively movement.
At Dona Ofe, Ofelia Prudencio Cabrera’s family sold fragments of their imagination that had crawled into their wooden pieces and received the ointment of paint giving to give them their final sparkle. A carved picture of a familiar maiden with her back turned showed her in a red pleated skirt facing a bundle of flowers in light shades of lavender, orange, red, and gold. This piece, like many of the painted works in the store (made up of several rooms) had more of a crackled appearance, unlike the spotted look of Angel Cuin’s work, which gives his work an entirely different impression.
The motif of the familiar maiden with her back turned and holding a bundle of flowers deserves special mention here. She appears often in drastically different guises, holding loads of flowers on trunks, headboards, tables, and other pieces of furniture. At Muebleria Ambakity Muebles Rusticos, she was seen on a headboard with her head turned slightly, but not enough to see her face. She wore a striped blue rebozo and red skirt, and the position of her arms, heavy with a load of flowers, evoked an impression of strength, as if she had born the burden for many years.
Elsewhere in town, Hector Paque had a servilleta depicting the maiden as a little girl, and a framed picture depicted her with brown hair and her feet showing beneath her black dress.
Next door, at Cruz Vega’s place of business, the maiden was carved into a very large picture in which she was in an open meadow. Her skin was much darker in this rendition, and she grasped the stems of a balloon-shaped bundle of calla lilies and sunflowers about three times her size while her feet poked out beneath her red dress.
Just up the street at El Pina Muebleria, there were even more renditions of the maiden with flowers; in one carved picture, she wore a bright red dress and had dirty blonde hair, quite a different treatment of the subject. In another she wore a brown dress that matched her hair, and she grasped a bulging bouquet of calla lilies. A blue shawl was draped across her white blouse, and a single lily lay on the ground at her side. Back at Prudencio’s shop, another picture in more earthy colors showed the same woman with flowers but much older because of her more sophisticated dress, a deep dark indigo top with shoulder pads before a bundle of sunflowers the colors of peeled mangos and glowing embers.
Robert Toy and his friend Joan James, both American expatriates living in Patzcuaro, were both enjoying their little shopping trip to Cuanajo.
“I think everybody who comes here initially wants to decorate the entire house like this,” said Toy, 67. “But eventually you settle down to one piece. If you walk around enough, every store has its style. It’s very subtle, but it’s very different. Some, I would consider gaudy, some very rustic, some are very high end.”
Walking down one of the streets will give you an idea of what he’s talking about. Peak inside a plain brick dwelling and you might see sunlight flooding the face of a sad moon, painted carvings of Pope John Paul II and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and a crib with the Three Little Pigs and the Gingerbread Man. A crouching Spiderman shoots a web from the confines of an unpainted headboard leaning against a wall.
On this Sunday morning, truckloads of lattice-backed chairs, stools, carved trunks, and corner shelves rumbled slowly down a road and out of town. A woman stirred potato chips in a hot skillet before bagging them for sale; a man with a deeply-pitted face hung out a doorway, his dugout eyes frowning against the sun.
At El Pina Muebleria, Winnie the Pooh got into a tussle with Tigger on a headboard, capturing the imagination of a little girl who scrambled down from her mother’s arms to explore the playground of images inside; an older boy climbed around two wooden Don Quixotes sitting on logs and poised as Augustin Rodin's "The Thinker". Here, however, the maiden finally showed her face on a trunk. It was in profile, but she cautiously surrendered a glimpse of her wonders: full cheeks with thin cherry lips and sharp glistening black eyes. The store also had tables carved with men leading horses through hillside villages where women with gourds gathered around fountains and a sun rose over church steeples and green hills.
In the village of Cuanajo, fragmented images from discarded memories find new life through the talented workmanship of the local artisans. A playful puppy, a squawking parrot, and baskets of fruit remind visitors of life’s vitality and the power of play. Man’s destiny to return to the timeless joys of life form the fabric of this community where the pace of life has made the daily instruction of this lesson possible.
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