Alameda de León, Oaxaca, Oax., 1982
PHOTOGRAPH BY JULES SIEGEL
A Minor Miracle in Oaxaca, 1982
By Jules Siegel
Eli was born October 5, 1981, in Newport, Washington. Seven weeks
later Anita and I and my daughter Faera, then 10, took him to
Mexico, leaving my literary agent to complete the negotiations
with Doubleday to publish The Real Mexico. This project
soon vanished without even the proverbial puff of smoke. I don't
think they like you to live in Mexico. Luckily, in the remote
locations we favored, there were no press agents, few people who
speak English, no way to make brochures. Here my skills as a writer
and graphic designer were in great demand.
I worked for the Hotel Misión de los Angeles, in the city
of Oaxaca, in return for room and board and laundry. No cash.
I mean no cash. Every once in a while I would get desperate and
submit a phony expense account for about ten dollars, which Oscar
Holm, the manager, a really great guy, would approve without asking
for receipts. Anita and I used to walk downtown with Eli (then
not even a year old) and buy some personal necessities such as
toothpaste. Then we would go to a store called Flamma on a beautiful
park a few blocks from the hotel and buy cherry-filled chocolates.
We sat on a bench in the park and ate the chocolates one by one,
I had learned graphic design and typography in the days before
they had computer typesetters, when all work was set in metal
type, and many projects were still printed letterpress. When I
began producing printed materials here, I was fortunate to find
myself in a time warp. Print shops in Mexico were actively using
equipment that I had last seen in the Bowne & Co. printing
museum at the New York South Street Sea Port.
One newspaper print shop that I worked in briefly was located
in a semi-abandoned Colonial building. They had a Compugraphic
Editwriteran early computerized photographic typesettersitting
on a dirt floor in a windowless stone vaulted ceiling room that
might have once been a storage area. I had seen this equipment
in the United States and even set a few lines of type on one when
I worked briefly as a graphic designer in Mendocino, California.
This Editwriter in Oaxaca had one type family, Helvetica, a modern
face, the typographic equivalent of hydraulic cement. The
Edwriter's manual was missing, so I had to figure it how to operate
it by trial and error. The single line calculator-type LED screen
did not work. I had to set the type and then print it out in order
to see my mistakes, then set it again, completely blind. It was
a bit like learning how to play a piano without being able to
hear the notes.
I was producing a brochure for the main tourism event of the
year, the Acapulco Tourism Tianguis. A tianguis is a native market
place. Much business in Mexico still operates according to principles
going back to the days when the pyramids were new. There's lots
of mingling and talking and haggling. Even today, many businessmen
do not conduct business by telephone, but use it only to coordinate
decisions made in personal meetings.
Brochures in Oaxaca in 1982 were at about the level of late 19th
Century "wanted" posters in the Old West. Mark Twain would have
considered them a bit outdated in style and technique. Few hotels
had color flyers, which had to be produced in Mexico City. Because
of the primitive printing facilities, I had designed and produced
a set of mainly typographical materials that had the classical
dignity of type faces based on Roman monuments. Oscar, an up-to-date
executive, insisted on an elaborate folder with photographs. I
got the feeling that my job depended on my being able to deliver
it in the forty-eight hours that remained before he left.
There was one fairly modern offset printing company, but the
hotel customarily did business with a letterpress shop, Impresos
Sánchez, also in an 18th Century building with dirt floors,
that had among other presses an ancient hand-fed Chandler. The
decision to create the brochure had been made at the last minute.
There was no way that the modern shop was going to accept a rush
job from a new customer. Printers in Oaxaca were clannish and
jealous of their rights. One day while I was supervising a job
at Impresos Sánchez, a messenger from the state government
arrived with a large order. Sr. Sánchez coldly turned him
"They always come to me last," he said. "If they came to me it's
because no one else can do it for them. Why should I help them
out?" On another occasion, the hotel printed full color menus
in Mexico City, lacking only the prices, which were left blank,
as we were then in the middle of an insane cycle of currency devaluations.
I can still recall going to the bank with Anita to cash a money
order we had received from the United States, only to find the
foreign exchange window closed. The exchange rate was so volatile
that the bank was refusing dollars, much less documents, no matter
how good. Anita recalls a crowd of people "waving funny pieces
of paper" chasing the bank manager as he ran across the floor
to hide in a private office.
I brought the blank menus to Sr. Sánchez to imprint the
prices. He examined them disdainfully and assured me that the
ink would just smear. When I protested, he waved me away. "Next
time, tell them to print the menus in my shop so that I can make
sure that the ink for the prices won't smear," he said with an
amused sneer. I tried to explain that they wanted full color menus.
He searched around in his desk and brought out a gorgeously printed
full-color magazine from a printer in Monterrey, an industrial
city at the other end of the Republic, near Texas. "I can get
them any kind of printing they want," he said. "This is my wife's
cousin's friend's shop." How long would it take? "Not very long,"
he replied. "I just need a little advance notice. We visit my
wife's cousin's family every year or so." I had to get the prices
imprinted by silk screen.
To print photographs letterpress, I would have had to make zinc
engravings, which had to be ordered from Mexico City. Time was
running out. After much searching, I found a shop near the Soledad
church that had a two-color Heidelberg offset press. This is one
of the finest presses that money can buy, the absolute standard
of perfection. It looked as if it had never been cleaned. Multicolored
drips of dried printing ink formed patterns rather like a Jackson
Pollack painting all over the case of the press, but the cylinders
looked all right. The owner, a smartly dressed young man dripping
gold chains and bracelets, assured me effusively that they would
have no problems printing photographs. He introduced me to Chalo
and Lalo, the printers, and after taking my order, gave the bookkeeper
instructions, and pocketed all the cash in the till. Clinking
keys and chains, he zipped away in a late model automobile of
the Batmobile persuasion. That was the last time I saw him.
When I returned later that afternoon with the deposit, Lalo was
delivering a box of half-tone screens, used to make the negatives
for the printing plates. He handed them over reverently to Chalo,
the head technician, a burly chap with a kind of stupid expression.
"Here are the screens," Lalo said, as if presenting rare treasures.
"See, Don Julio, here are the screens," Chalo said. Lalo beamed
positive ratification. Sodden ashes of doubt began smothering
the anxious fire in my chest. It was clear they hadn't seen screens
in this shop in many a year.
The darkroom was a small improvised plywood and Masonite booth
that reminded me of a tarpaper shack. With a deep sense of foreboding,
I gave them the deposit and the photographs and originals. When
I came back at the appointed time, the negatives were ready. I
inspected them. The half-tones seemed a bit light, but I guessed
they were going to be good enough. In the first printed proof,
however, the pictures were absolutely black. They had the exposure
wrong. They changed the exposure, developed the negatives, made
the plates over again. One picture was barely visible. It looked
like a rubber stamp printed with chimney soot. Lots of smiles.
Come back later. No problem.
I wandered the streets in a state of depressed terror and found
myself on the street above the courtyard of Soledad. This is one
of the most magnificent churches in the city of Oaxaca, a city
filled with some of Mexico's greatest religious buildings. You
turn any corner and there's yet another Baroque Colonial cathedral
made of green stone with a fabulous hand-carved wooden retablo
behind a monumental marble altar. The main cathedral in the center
of the city has a side chapel filled with silver hearts.
Soledad sits at the end of town in a niche on a cliff overlooking
the valley of Oaxaca. You walk down a stone stairway to the courtyard,
which is filled with vendors of candles and small silver artifacts
in the shape of the afflicted body part or organ that the Lady
is to cure. The building looks like a fortress, with massive walls
and occasional slit-like windows. Inside, the ivory walls are trimmed with gilded moldings under a cream-colored
ceiling lost in the darkness. There's a life-sized image of the
Our Lady of Soledad in a crystal case. She is made of ivory on
a cedar base with amethyst eyes, just like the ancient Greek images
of Aphrodite, wearing a gold embroidered dress right out of some
painting by Velasquez. It's said that she even has silk underwear.
It was well past sunset. Hundreds of creamy votive candles of
many different sizes oozed dim yellow light in the gloom of the
main chapel. Indians in coarse white peasant clothing kneeled
before a huge candle on a great brass holder and chanted in an
unknown language, probably Zapotec. I sat down in a wooden pew
and put my face in my hands, not quite ready to weep in despair,
but pretty close. I felt a strange presence in the space just
behind my eyes. Oh well, I am going crazy, I thought, but what
choice do I have? Here I was, a Jewish guy from the Bronx, a militant
agnostic, a follower of Darwin, Freud and Einstein, and I was
sitting in a Catholic church in Oaxaca and I was feeling the presence
of another spirit in my tattered mind.
"Please, Lady," I prayed silently in my awful Spanish, "Please
let my printing job come out OK in time for the Acapulco Tourism
Tianguis." I felt something like an unearthly laugh. "Oh, you
crazy gringo," it seemed to say, "in all the eons no one has ever
come here and prayed for a printing job. Go back and I will help
you." I guess I was pretty far out there on anxiety. I went back
to the print shop through narrow streets lined with shops and
stands selling transistor radios, quartz watches, plastic sandals.
Vegetation grew out of the tops of the thick adobe walls of some
of the older buildings. Others were cement block painted in stirring
shades of hot peach, incandescent blue and acid green. Occasional
buildings were made of Oaxaca's famous emerald-colored stone.
The print shop did not have doors but was open to the street like
a large stall in the market place, with aluminum framed glass
showcases selling stationery and office supplies. A female employee
with a braid of dense black hair reaching her waist was rolling
the metal shutters down for the night.
The one picture now looked rather attractive in an antique sort
of way. The rest were just horrible smears. Chalo and Lalo smiled
at me. Don't worry. We'll get it right before long. Ding! An inspiration
came to me. I could just use the text and the one picture on a
single sheet of interesting rough paper called cartoncillo. It
would look like something printed in Spain in the sixteenth century,
very appropriate for Oaxaca. Picture a small horizontal oval image
of the arched entrances to a tile-roofed dining room. Hanging
below this is a list of major corporate and institutional events,
beginning with Miguel de la Madrid's presidential campaign meeting.
The combination of the austere, modern Helvetica and the moody
picture was the intersection of tradition and progress.
Chalo couldn't seem to understand my Spanish. Apparently I was
trying to tell him to discard all the work and just print one
panel on cheap gray paper? Dissolving my civilian disguise, I
displayed the Field Marshall's batons tattooed on my shoulders,
and ordered Chalo to cut the negatives and strip up the new imposition.
He looked at me in baffled disappointment, motionless. I picked
up the scissors and cut the negatives myself and taped them together.
When I brought the job back to the hotel the following evening,
Oscar was quite dubious and did not smile. I was afraid he was
going to fire me on the spot, but he was too busy getting ready
to leave for Acapulco. Fortunately, the supporting materials,
which I had printed at Impresos Sánchez, looked quite good.
The whole package was very well received in Acapulco. Well, there
are big miracles and small miracles, and Einstein would have been
the first to agree that relativity includes myriads of conflicting
realities. In my father's house there are many mansions, and one
of them contains the Cathedral of Our Lady of Soledad with a Jewish
guy from The Bronx praying for a printing job to come out right
in time for the Acapulco Tourism Tiangus.