Monday, April 13, 2009

Beauty Amid Danger in Michoacan

Dear readers:
This is a column that ran in The Brownsville Herald on April 12.

By Travis M. Whitehead
The Brownsville Herald
URUAPAN — Francisco Barocio Jacobo and his wife, Maria, were having a good run.
On the second day of the Domingo de Ramos Crafts Fair in Uruapan, the second-largest city in the Mexican state of Michoacan, the young couple from the village of Capula had already made some significant sales of their clay Catrines and Catrinas, images of skeletons adorned in a variety of clothing. Their garb ranged from elegant evening gowns to sombreros and ammo belts. One image depicted a skeleton weeping as he held his dead fighting rooster.

I was glad Francisco and his lovely wife were enjoying good sales; I had wondered if some of the artisans would even show up for the fair this year after the media and native Michoacanos told me things were getting even more dangerous there. I had planned to drive from Brownsville to Michoacan, which is west of Mexico City, but I heeded their warnings and took a bus.

At one point I wondered if I should even go at all. Just before I left, a friend told me that more than six people had been killed in a shootout near the home where I had lived last year with a local family, and I now imagined a repeat of the Sept. 15 attack in downtown Morelia that had killed eight people and wounded more than 100.

However, my host family said no one had been killed in this more recent incident, and I learned later that the incident had involved an attack on a police officer’s house and had wounded four people, but no one had died. There had also been recent shootouts in other areas of the city with which I was familiar, and along nearby highways, and some native Michoacanos told me Uruapan was very dangerous, while some American expatriates told me it was no more dangerous than any other time.

None of the problems seemed to be on anyone’s mind as I strolled through the fair, and I felt charmed by the burst of colorful images arising all around me: textiles from Cocucho embroidered with colorful flowers; copperware from Santa Clara del Cobre; handcarved wooden furniture from Cuanajo; woven baskets and furniture from Ihuatzio — just to name a few.

Furthermore, there were plenty of shoppers strolling through the fair. Perhaps not as many as the artisans and I would have liked, but I did see some Americans, although I suspect many of them were expatriates living in Mexico. After I relaxed and began to enjoy myself, I regretted not driving my car. I would like to have purchased some larger Catrinas from Francisco and Maria, but I felt that returning by bus with anything larger than the two smaller figures I bought would risk breakage.

I was delighted to see my friends, David, his wife, and their two small boys, from the village of Cocucho. I had visited them last year in their home on several occasions and observed them making their elegant clay pots. He had a station at the fair, as did his mother, whom I met a little later.

"When did you get here?" asked his mother, Juana Alonso Hernandez, a delightful and inspiring Purepecha woman who makes pots, decorates blouses with needlepoint, and raises her own fighting roosters.

"This morning about 8 a.m.," I answered her.

"And you didn’t come by and visit me?" she chided good naturedly.

I then explained that I had arrived in Morelia at 8 a.m., and after arriving in Uruapan in mid-afternoon, I had passed through her area and had not see her. I came by and visited with her a little later and bought a guanengo, a cotton blouse with colorful needlepoint, which I planned to sell.

When I visited Juana again the following day, she didn’t look so good. Was she concerned about the violence in Michoacan? I wondered. I asked her how she was doing, and she pointed to her right cheek to indicate a throbbing toothache, which explained the small box of Ibuprofen next to her. Was the Ibuprofen doing any good?

She shook her head. I told her I was sorry she was feeling so poorly and hoped she felt better. I purchased one of her Cocucha pots, wishing I could have purchased more from her. Because I was traveling by bus, I couldn’t buy as much from Juana. I feared I would be one of many examples of lost sales, and I wondered if the lack of sales would add a cranky headache to Juana’s ills.

It's a pity that the criminal elements are causing such economic hardship to the artisans through lost sales. I would like to have purchased some reed baskets from my friend, Santiago, who lives in the village of Ihuatzio. I had visited him in his workshop last year, where he and his family make not only reed baskets but also rebozos and key chains. They also make gladiolus flowers from dyed corn husks.

Santiago looked strong and healthy as always, but just a few months ago he had been beaten so badly in Morelia that he had landed in the hospital. His attackers had stolen his day pack and the cell phone I’d bought him. I was saddened to hear of this attack on such a proud soul; although he’s in his 60s, he still has the thick stoutness of a younger man. He’s not someone I would expect to be a target of violence.

Santiago, however, appeared unfazed by the incident. We talked awhile about his family, about the fair. Everyone seemed to be doing fine; he invited me to dinner, but I had just eaten, and I vowed to take him up on his offer on another one of my many visits to fabulous Michoacan.

The reality is, yes, there is some danger, and visitors must be careful. It’s also the reality that many wonderful things are happening in Michoacan and the rest of Mexico, and I hear the same stories about muggings and shootings in the United States every day while I go about my business.

In my opinion, those who are creating problems in Mexico are receiving a great deal of attention, and it’s important that we also give publicity to those who are creating positive experiences in that grand nation. They outnumber by far the criminal elements there.


Laura Lowdermilk said...

Im so glad you have posted blogs reguarding Uruapan. I am an American, have 2 daughters ages 5 and 6. Their father owns a home in Uruapan, and is being deported from the United States on June 29th. I have decided to take my girls and go with him. Ive been reading as much as I can, I have never been there, and because of my girls, I do have some fear. They say life is different, I guess I will be seeing what they mean. Take Care..-Laurie

Travis M. Whitehead said...

Hi, Laura:
I'm extremely jealous that you're going to live in Michoacan. Uruapan doesn't have a lot of things to do in comparison to some of the other communities, except for Cupatitzio park. I think your daughters will love it. Plus, Uruapan is within close proximity to lots of wonderful things, such as the waterfalls of Tzararacua. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

Hello Travis,
Thank You for your response...I was curious, I am only 37 years old and since my last post I had a heart attack, and had to have a double bi pass. Do you know anything about the doctors or healthcare in Mexico, especially Uruapan? If so your input would be greatly appreciated. Thanks, Laura

Anonymous said...

Are there any parts of Uruapan that are safer or more prone to violence than others? I'd like to rent a place before I get there and knowing the neighborhoods before I go would be very helpful.