The room was cold: cement block walls, a high ceiling with exposed beams, cracked linoleum over a concrete floor. I was with a friend in a working class neighborhood in the industrial north of Mexico City. The earthquakes of 1985 had not yet leveled large areas of the city, many much like this one, a barrio that saw few young gringa faces.
I stood just inside the metal door, awestruck by the artwork that covered every inch, floor to ceiling, of the ten foot walls. Bold, powerful paintings. I didn’t know how to respond to the work that surrounded me: a Parisian salon in Mexican concrete, a room full of paintings in one of the poorest barrios in the capitol.
My friend had brought me to meet his uncle and aunt, Antonio and Domi, both political activists and talented artists. I tried to follow the conversation as we stood in the first of a string of connected rooms that formed the apartment, one room running into the next through a single door, no wasted space for hallways, no luxury of privacy. My Spanish was good, but still I struggled, comprehension floating just beyond my grasp.
“La mesa,” Antonio said. “The table is all that is needed.”
And, indeed, a large, rough hewn table and a scattering of chairs were the only furniture in the large, cold room.
“La mesa is used for all. For preparing and eating the food. For painting and making the clothes. For love making and sleeping. La mesa is the center of the proletariat life.”
Domi smiled, calm and silent. She excused herself with a nod to cook a simple meal of beans and tortillas in a dark, corner kitchen as I followed my friend and his uncle into the next room. This one was a clutter of books, drawings and political pamphlets. A mimeograph machine stood in the middle of the room. There were several easels and shelves lined with paints. Brushes stood, bristles up, in empty glass jars. I was unable to understand the stream of rapid-fire conversation between the two men and soon lost interest, impatient to return to the first room.
Like most old Mexican buildings, the apartment was dark with few windows. How was it possible to create such vivid, powerful images in such darkness, I wondered as I slipped back through the open doorway. Intense, haunting paintings in deep, rich, dark oils hung from every wall. Some in rustic wood frames, others only stretched canvases. Images of campesinos doing fieldwork and obreros in urban factories, street scenes that reached out and grabbed me. These paintings told the story of the life and struggles of the disenfranchised, the working poor, the campesinos who left their subsistence farms to seek a better life in the capitol only to find themselves struggling to survive. Daily life depicted in dark oil with thick, heavy brush strokes. These were the images, the contrasts of wealth and poverty, beauty and squalor, that I struggled to capture in my own black and white photography. I stood overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and dismay before the injustices that stared me in the face.
I moved around room like a sleepwalker, staring at the images, large and small, absorbing, smelling, savoring the world through Antonio’s brushstrokes. I knew nothing of art, only that I was in the presence of immense beauty and unrewarded talent. I lost sense of time until I felt someone at my side.
“Which you like?” Antonio asked.
“All of them,” I whispered.
His deep, hearty laugh startled me. “Ahhh, but I cannot give you all,” he said. “But one, yes, you take one.”
“You must. I sad if you no take.”
These words, spoken in broken English, I understood with total clarity, and I was stunned silent. I knew I couldn’t pay him. I was earning pesos, but often paying tourist prices. More importantly, I knew that even the offer would be an insult.
“Which one?” he insisted.
“That one,” I said. I pointed to a painting I’d returned to several times as I wandered through the room. A campesina wrapped in a reboso, her body round, a cloth bag heavy in the crook of her bent arm. She walked along railroad tracks at the end of a long day. I knew before Antonio told me that Domi had posed for this painting, that Domi posed for many of his paintings.
“You like this one, yes?” Antonio said from behind me as I stared up at the painting.
“Yes,” I said.
I watched in disbelief as he took the painting from the wall where it was tacked to crumbling concrete and handed it to me. “It is yours,” he said. “Now we eat.”
* * *
For almost thirty years that painting has been with me, moving from Mexico City back to Seattle, through divorce and remarriage, motherhood to middle age. For most of those years the painting remained unprotected in the rustic wooden frame that held it when Antonio removed it from the wall.
Odd how we live many lives, how we bury the relics of our past lives when we begin new adventures. When I remarried in Seattle, most of the mementos and the associated memories of my years in Mexico were pushed aside, boxed and shoved out of sight. For over twenty years, Antonio’s painting hung in a dark corner of a basement bedroom. I suppose I wanted a new beginning, a new life, so I pushed aside the intense memories of that young woman who lived in Mexico City. But like all memories, they needed air and surfaced of their own accord.
It was a late morning Sunday in early autumn. With coffee in hand, my husband and I stood in the living room of our small West Seattle home.
“We need to get some real artwork,” Tom muttered.
“Tired of the prints from Italy?” I asked.
“Tired of prints in general.”
“We could put up some of your work. We have a few pieces in the attic.”
“Too big. All wrong,” he said.
My husband, the artist, spends his life doing murals and room designs for others. Our home is a classic example of the proverbial shoemaker’s barefoot children. His years of art school and fine art are boxed in the attic, packed away along with my life in Mexico. Both of us buried large parts of ourselves and our personal histories as we ended first marriages and the pain that patterned their failures. I hesitated before speaking.
“What about that painting downstairs?” I asked.
“I’ve always liked that piece. It doesn’t belong in the basement.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
He looked at me with that expression of his. The one of shallow patience.
“I thought you didn’t like it,” I said. I thought you didn’t want the reminder of my past life, my past husband, staring you in the face each day was what I was really saying.
“The only thing I ever said was that it needs a decent frame,” he said.
“I thought that was just an excuse,” I said.
“Yeah, I thought you didn’t want Mexico on these walls.”
“I want good art,” he said. “That piece is good art.”
Later that day, I removed the framed print from above the piano and replaced it with the painting Antonio gifted me in Mexico some thirty years earlier. The canvas hung loose from the rough frame.
“It can’t stay there without a decent frame and some protective glass,” Tom said when he walked into the room. “The sunlight will ruin it.”
Now, Antonio’s painting hangs in a hardwood frame, behind museum quality glass on our dining room wall. A peasant woman in a long skirt, dark reboso and huaraches walks home at twilight. A woman like so many I knew at a distance and respected without reserve during my years in their city. The women whose children could never attend the English classes I was hired to teach, could never afford the schools of the privileged class. These were the women who sold me their fruits and vegetables in open air markets, who prepared my comida corrida in the cafes of the working class, who sold cobs of corn from iron grills or tamales from large kettles on every street corner.
The railroad crossing signs stand stark against a cobalt evening sky. In burnt sienna and brown ochre, Domi walks through my middle class, middle American life, reminding me each day of all I have and all I cherish.