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    mexico's gift to chicago
by Victor M. Cassidy
Miguel Linares family
Cementerio panteon

Pedro Linares
Mariachi Musicians

Felipe Linares
Skeleton decorated with
animal and plant forms

El Gusano (The Dragon)
Miguel Linares at work
on a dragon

Craft demonstration at the
Mexican Fine Arts
Center Museum
Dance of the Old Man
Masked dancer with
wooden mask by Juan Orta
Anonymous Mexican artist
The Eternal Father Painting
the Virgen Guadalupe

18th century
Jose Mota
Third Apparition of the Virgen Guadalupe

Crown offered by
the Diocese of Puebla...

Mariana Yampolsky

Mariana Yampolsky
Waiting for Mass

Good things are happening for Chicago's Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM). The museum has now celebrated 11 years in its permanent home, which is located in a Mexican-American neighborhood about five miles southwest of the central city. Last July, the MFACM received full accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Just ten percent of all U.S. museums and only one other ethnic-based institution -- the Studio Museum in Harlem -- are accredited. The AAM accreditation committee declared that the MFACM has established "an enviable reputation for excellent exhibitions, publications and public programs in its first decade of existence."

Breaking ground
In October, the museum broke ground for a $7-million, two-year expansion that will increase its total space from 13,200 to about 70,000 square feet. MFACM's home was designed in 1911 as a park bath house, transformed during the 1950s into a boat construction and repair facility, and converted for museum use in 1987. One-half of the present structure is a high-ceilinged, multi-room art exhibition space. The other half includes an auditorium, entrance lobby, shop, and offices for the 32-person staff. Big exhibitions go in the main space, but smaller shows hang makeshift-style on the auditorium and lobby walls.

When the construction dust settles, the MFACM will have a two-story addition to the north of the present structure and an annex to the east. The permanent collection will have its own 6,000-square-foot space and two additional galleries will house temporary shows. The museum will have an educational center, a library, a workshop, a media center, improved offices and storage facilities and a very grand gift shop. Expansion will create an outdoor plaza that honors Mexicans who served in the U.S. armed forces.

All this would be a major achievement for any museum in these days of shrinking government support. It is all the more remarkable because MFACM represents a community with limited political clout and almost no established wealth. Though it is the youngest of Chicago's ten or so ethnic art museums and centers, MFACM is one of very few that the art world takes seriously.

Started with $900
The MFACM combines a presenting organization with a small art museum. Drawing upon Mexico's rich regional culture, it has brought art, music, dance and literature to Chicago that other cities do without. By building bridges beyond its primary constituency, the museum has achieved credibility and raised funds that helped it grow.

Carlos Tortolero, founder and executive director of MFACM, came to Chicago from Mexico as a small child, grew up wanting to be a baseball player, but became a high school history teacher instead. In 1982, he and several friends founded the Museum with just $900. For about five years, until they could afford a permanent home, they presented cultural events and art exhibitions in temporary spaces.

Tortolero has "always wanted to reach outside" the Mexican community. "See how wrongly Mexicans are portrayed on television," he says. "We want to teach non-Mexicans what we really are like so they understand and honor us. To connect with them, we've made our museum a welcoming place. Mi casa, su casa -- My house is your house."

Of the 100,000+ people who visit the museum each year, roughly 66 percent are Mexican and Puerto Rican, 30 percent are Anglo, and four percent are black, says Tortolero. The Museum has 1,600 members. Events and openings draw all races and ages, including numerous children. The MFACM charges no admission and attracts humble people from the neighborhood who never set foot in mainstream museums.

Forging links with Anglos has paid off in support from Chicago's city government, the National Endowment for the Arts, and corporations and foundations. Tortolero likes to call himself an oppressed "person of color" and to speechify about confronting the establishment ("I don't want to be liked," he says. "It gives people power over me"). But he knows the museum would be nowhere without money from downtown.

"Damned good job"
Since it is not led by art professionals, the MFACM has pursued a cautious exhibition policy. It books many touring shows on Mexican themes, originates occasional exhibitions and gives shows (not always wisely) to local Mexican-American artists. There are 1,200 objects in its permanent collection and an endowment to buy more.

"We do a damned good job," says Tortolero. "We exhibit everything from ancient art to abstraction. But Mexico's roots are its indigenous population. Remember that the Indians lost in the US, but won in Mexico!

"We don't have a heavy schedule of art history lectures," he continues. "We've published catalogues but they aren't academic. It's more important for us to present living artists and artisans. We give shows to young people and even hang art by children."

A typical exhibition at MFACM is "Surcando la Cultura" (rough translation: "Making Culture Flourish"), which filled the main exhibition space from mid-January of this year until the end of May. "Surcando la Cultura" celebrates Mexico's arte popular (popular art) tradition by presenting work of four craft-artist families from different regions of the country. These people make ceramics, masks, papier-mâché objects, and elaborate painted clay constructions called trees of life. Each family was in residence at the museum for two weeks during the show, giving daily demonstrations of its craft.

Though they work in a traditional vein, the "Surcando la Cultura" artists are far more skillful and inventive than the people who make familiar souvenir shop crafts. The Miguel Linares family of Mexico City, for example, creates papier-mâché skulls, skeletons and assemblages which celebrate the Day of the Dead (Nov. 2) when Mexicans visit cemeteries to decorate the graves of their ancestors. The origins of this custom and its accompanying imagery are lost in antiquity. When missionaries arrived in Mexico, they absorbed the Day of the Dead into the church calendar, placing it after All Saints' Day (Nov. 1).

Very lively corpse
Cementerio panteon, by the Linares family, is an installation of about 40 painted and costumed life-sized papier-mâché skeleton figures, coffins and tombs. In the most exuberant grouping, four pallbearers, led by a priest and followed by mourners, carry a coffin containing a very lively corpse which sits up, shouts and raises its arms. Other figures in Cementerio panteon socialize at a wake and weep over a grave. The whole is a wonderfully vital celebration of death.

Equally rewarding are the masks of monsters, skulls, mermaids, jaguars, toothless hags, old men and devils carved from wood and painted in bright glossy colors by the Juan Orta family of Michoacan. Since pre-conquest times, the P'urepecha Indians of this region have made masks and costumes which they used in rites of worship.

Missionaries introduced religious pageants that featured masked participants. In Michoacan today, the traditional masked dances are performed on the holiest days of the Church calendar. Only males are permitted to carve the masks and dance.

The Orta family exhibits at least 100 masks in "Surcando la Cultura." Among these are los viejitos (little old men) masks with pale features, rosy cheeks, tiny mustaches and white hair. These masks are worn in the Danza del Viejito (Dance of the Old Man), which is performed by men of all ages as a Christian duty or to secure spiritual benefits from the Church.

Another important exhibition at MFACM was "La Reina de las Americas (Queen of the Americas): Works of Art from the Museum of the Basilica de Guadalupe," which ran from January through May of 1997. This show comprised about 80 religious objects which were seen outside of Mexico for the first time.

According to Catholic tradition, in 1531 a dark-skinned Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an indigenous Mexican, and asked that a church be built in her honor. When the local clergy scoffed at this story, a beautiful image of the Virgin appeared on Juan Diego's cloak which is preserved in the Basilica de Guadalupe. This church was built near the site of the apparition in present-day Mexico City.

In 1754, the Pope recognized the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe and declared her "Patroness of Mexico." In 1895, another papal decree proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe La Reina de las Americas. Carlos Tortolero calls the Virgin of Guadalupe a "symbol of deep significance for all Mexicans." The faithful "cherish her," he states. Others see her as "a symbol of mexicanidad."

Mexican women
Events at MFACM are just as important as the art exhibitions. The Del Corazon (Of the Heart) Performing Arts Festival features film, folk music, children's theater, drama and accompanying lectures and workshops. The annual Sor Juana Festival honors Mexican women. Her life symbolizes their frustrations and achievements.

Sor (Sister) Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-1695), a child prodigy, learned to read at the age of three and soon began to read everything in her grandfather's library in Mexico City. By the time she reached her teens, Juana was intellectually adult and determined to devote her life to writing and study.

In 17th-century Mexico, education was controlled by the Church, and Juana had to enter a convent to realize her ambitions. For 20 years, she discharged her responsibilities as a nun while she published poetry, plays, essays and philosophy. In about 1691, she wrote a document that disputed a religious theory. Shortly after that, she was forced to renounce literature, had her books taken away, and saw many of her documents burned. Feeling that her life was over, Sor Juana volunteered to care for the victims of an epidemic, fell ill and died at the age of 44.

The 1997 Sor Juana Festival featured music from Veracruz, an all-black musical ensemble from Chicago, readings by a Mexican novelist, two indigenous storytellers, a Puerto Rican educator, and four film screenings. One of the more absorbing events was a talk in English by Marianna Yampolsky, an American-born photographer who went to Mexico in 1944 to study art and took citizenship the next year. She has spent her entire life in Mexico, traveling absolutely everywhere, taking thousands of photographs, and publishing several books on Mexican architecture and culture.

Yampolsky's lecture at MFACM accompanied "On the Edge of Time," a traveling exhibition of 60 of her black and white photographs. Yampolsky's work conveys an acute understanding of the "feel" of Mexico -- the unique things that visitors see and sense there, but cannot quite explain.

Instead of making a presentation about her work, Yampolsky showed slides she had taken and told how Mexicans use color in architecture, costume and decorations of all kinds. Her manner was informal and unacademic, but careful listeners learned much. Most of all, they spent an hour with a gracious and intelligent woman, who knows Mexico inside-out and loves its people.

Not everyone admires the MFACM. Enemies call Carlos Tortolero power-hungry and say he's taken credit for much that he did not do. Others declare that the museum sentimentalizes a country with widespread poverty and political corruption. All we know is that the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum has enriched cultural life in Chicago and made the city a better place to live.

VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.