If you are a Norteno living in San Miguel de Allende, you either know Susan Page or you will at some point. Susan put San Miguel on the literary map when she founded the San Miguel Writer’s Conference in 2004. She and her husband, Mayer, also travel all over Mexico to collect Mexican folk art. This is the story of a wooden box I saw in one of their galleries.
The box is old and colorful and painted on four sides with birds. It made me crazy with happiness, so when I saw Susan yesterday, I mentioned it. She explained that it was originally made to hold puppets and came from a remote village in Puebla state. Then we started talking about something else.
Curious about the box, I went back to the gallery today with my credit card. Elsa was there. She minds the store, which doesn’t describe her talents. Elsa is an artist herself and an expert in Mexican folk art. She couldn’t wait to explain how the box tells a wonderful story about Mexican history.
When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, she said, they were determined to convert indigenous communities to Catholicism. One of the ways they did that was to murder the unconverted. Another way was a little nicer. They taught some members of the community to perform puppet shows in which good and evil would battle it out. Of course, the puppet shows espoused the values of the Catholic Church, which always triumphed. (Elsa says pinatas are another way the Spaniards preached good and evil — the pinatas represented evil, and those who whacked them to pieces were rewarded with a shower of candy.)
As the performers traveled from pueblo to pueblo, they stored their proselytizing puppets in beautiful handmade boxes. These performers belonged to communities with deep religious connections to the natural environment, which were antithetical to their Catholic converters. One of the most important symbols of this relationship with nature was the woodpecker. The woodpeckers on the box signalled puppet show audiences that, whatever message they may take away from the puppet shows, the performers retained their traditional beliefs. Such a wonderful bit of mischief!
I bought the box, which became even more wonderful after knowing its story. I am so delighted to have this playful reminder of Mexican history!
“Home is where the art is…”