Connecting Some Personal Dots
“Connecting People, Culture and Nature,” was the phrase we chose when we created The Canelo Project. To this day, I think it describes our work better than anything else. It’s what comes easy to us and I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that connecting people from different cultural contexts is something that we do as well, if not better than most. And even though we are mostly known for straw bale building and clay, our work really has more to do with making connections than anything else.
This is a personal story. As I write, it occurs to me that it’s probably more for me than anyone else, but also for a young girl and her family and if you like, read along with me. And for that matter, I’m not totally sure why I’m writing it, there’s a lot about my life at the moment that I don’t understand. However, as this story goes, its roots go back almost 25 years when I made my first trip to the Rio Sonora Valley. I did so partially to fulfill a request to my recently deceased mother, to visit the area where my grandfather was born. On that trip, in the little town of San Felipe de Jesus, I met Dimas Lopez and his wife Angelita. I was told that he was one of the finer mescal makers in the region. The relationship that I formed with them had as much to do with our choosing the phrase “connecting people, culture and nature” than almost anything else. They connected us with the culture, people and the landscape of Mexico’s borderland region.
Athena and I developed a wonderful relationship with Dimas and his wife Angelita that lasted until his death last spring. She had passed on some years earlier. Before knowing them, I had spent much of my life traveling in Mexico, and like many others who visit that country, I shared the same enchantment for the pyramids, ancient cultures, beach towns and the marvelous complexities of Mexican cuisine. In contrast, they opened the door for me to the rural culture of northern Sonora, its people, their way of life and foods. In contrast to the Mexico most know, it’s simpler, less obvious and to the casual eye, can be totally missed. One Mexican author described it as the place where “civilization ends and carne asada (grilled meat) begins. That is to say that Sonora is often thought to lack the cultural complexity and cuisine of many other parts of Mexico. However, if you look a little deeper you find a people and a place that is very special. I think you only find it through the people, their way of life and their love for the place they live. As a whole, they embody grace, open heartedness and a generosity, that in my experience, is typically found in relatively undeveloped rural areas.
Angelita on the left with harvest of chiltepins, Dimas with Benito and Oso.
In addition to the time we spent with them in Mexico, Dimas and Angelita also spent time with us in Canelo. Since we have a large population of agaves on the land where live, it was a unique opportunity for a totally new kind of experience. With Dimas’s guidance, we built a traditional Sonoran style still and made several batches of mescal together. I can’t say for sure, but more than likely, Athena and I are the only two Americans in recent times to have made mescal here in the States. Those were fabulous times, not only did I learn a lot about mescal, I learned much about life. Our lives were much richer because of them. They also elevated the process of making mescal Bacanora to something resembling a simple elegant art form. To this day, I think the still we built together, although simple, is the most beautiful I have seen to date.
Canelo Still approximately 1991. Athena in foreground.
As times passed and with the publication of our book The Straw Bale House, our time in Mexico shifted to the city of Obregon where we spent much of the next 6 years working. During that time Angelita passed away, our visits to Dimas were few, but they always held a special place in our hearts even though their memories faded increasingly into the past. When I heard that Dimas had passed away this last spring, I really didn’t know if there remained anything in their little town of San Felipe that would take me back there. All our activities and contacts along the Rio Sonora seemed to have shifted to other areas. Whether or not I would see the remaining members of the family was something uncertain.
Early mescal Bacanora purchase in Dimas and Angelita’s kitchen with Athena’s father Ralph and friend John Ronstadt.
Now I’ll try to bring this story into the present and reveal the reason I’m writing it. This past January I was walking down a street in the town of Banamichi, a street where I rarely walk. A car stopped in front of me and to my surprise, Dimas and Angelita’s one daughter, Rosa Lidia and her husband Francisco, got out of the car with their youngest daughter, Viridiana. It was a most unlikely meeting, I had not seen them in about 5 years. What invisible forces put us together on that day, at that exact moment, in that location, who can say. A few seconds one way or the other would have not resulted in that meeting. The first thing I noticed was a notable sadness about them. I invited them to come along with me to the hotel La Posada to see Athena, she’s always better at cheering people up than I am. We sat and talked for a while. It was comforting to see them as I had always felt close to them, but relations were sometimes difficult because in years before Dimas’s passing, they had some differences within the family and there was an estrangement between them. I always felt stuck in an awkward place somewhere between them all. But the conversation that morning had a closeness to it that only comes with those with whom one shares deep connections.
Father Francisco, Mother Rosa Lidia and Viridiana.
We talked, they asked what we were doing there and I told them that we had been working with the Xunutzi dance group and that we were very excited because we were there to present the van for which we had raised the money to the Xunutzi group that night. I asked their daughter Viridiana if she knew any of the kids in the group and she just about floored me when she told me she was part of it. We had never known because she had not been part of any of the performances we had seen and even if she had been, we wouldn’t have known who she was. As I understand it, another reason she hadn’t been present is that her parents, in order to ensure that she dedicated herself fully to her studies, requested that she not continue with the dance group because a lot of time was required for practices.
I’m not sure exactly what happened, what I do know for sure is that she rejoined the group shortly after our meeting and for the first time, we saw her perform on a beautiful Sunday afternoon last month in the tiny town of Huepac. Besides the dances she did with the group as a whole, she danced a solo polka-like dance from the state of Chihuahua with her partner Marco Baca that was nothing less than mesmerizing. For me it was a very emotional performance, I could feel many invisible pieces begin to move inside myself, coming together in ways I couldn’t begin to explain. Perhaps the best part of this piece is the youtube link to this dance, I think you’ll enjoy it. Chihuahua Polka – Viridiana Olivas and Marco Baco
Viridiana with Marco Baco on the Huepac Plaza.
Thinking about it now, I would guess that the young girl I was watching dance, was playing her part in bringing about a healing not possible without her using dance and music as the vehicle. As it so happened, I was standing with her parents after the performance and we began to talk about the group. I was telling them how special we felt the group was, how those kids had affected our lives and that in the States, we really didn’t have anything equivalent. As I spoke, I watched tears began to form in her father’s eyes, I reached out to touch his shoulder as our eyes met. For the moment I restrained mine and returned to taking photos of the dances that followed. It was in every way the kind of experience described in the article I posted a little bit back about the role of the arts and music in healing.
Viri and her parents. Photo from one week ago.
Later that evening, once again on the rooftop of the hotel, we sat with friends who had come as part of a group, reminiscing the day, the weekend. I guess I didn’t fully appreciate what had taken place inside me earlier that day, but as I began to recount to the others the story of the father, his tears, I could no longer restrain mine. As I sat there, in an instant, years of memories flashed by – parents, grandparents and now a new face, a beautiful legacy of the past giving smiles to the future. She was connecting the dots of the past into the future.
As I began to think about writing this story, I realized that Viridiana never knew her grandmother, Angelita had died when Viri was very young. I remembered that I had stored away in boxes, images/slides I had taken during those early years, when she was a baby. After a morning with the slide scanner I began sending these precious memories to them via Facebook. The best part was having Viridiana and her parents sitting there at the computer viewing the images as they appeared on their computer screen and sharing their excitement over what had previously been little more than vague memories. The connection that I once experienced between her parents, Dimas and Angelita felt more alive than ever.
Viri with grandmother Angelita.
Their appreciation on the receiving end of those photos, as also holds true for the rest of the group, I value more than all the money and riches in the world. And I have to tell you that the process of using Facebook, to communicate and transfer photos to these kids and their families in these tiny Sonora, Mexico towns, at times seems to almost border on the Twilight Zone.
Viri with Marco.
Prior to all this we had developed a remarkable relationship with the Xunutzi dance group – the kids, their teachers and now, little by little, their parents which by itself was more than enough, but this addition to that story makes it all that much the better, meaningful and unimaginably richer. Today I look back upon a time when I was more concerned about the events and happenings in the world, the fate of the planet. For now, I stand here amazed just how easily, the dances of a group of high school students can make the world seem absolutely fine and ever so perfect.
Dancing with the Xunutzi group.
I find it absolutely amazing that this whole story started with my searching out Sonora’s mysterious magical alcoholic beverage called Bacanora. With that search began many lasting bonds of friendship that I’m sure will continue well into the future. There is a saying that with every sip of Bacanora, stories of friendship, courage and sacrifice are woven. In this case, at least for me, it’s totally true.