In 1953, I finally arrived in Mexico with a scholarship to the Instituto Allende in San Miguel. For the first time I lived in a small, rural town and actually witnessed the arduous daily rhythms of campesino life that centered around coaxing the earth to produce the food staples, corn, beans, and chile. Prayers for rain and honoring the earth's fertility were an important part of the process. There were daily and seasonal rituals and prayers, and celebrations for the Virgin. Her blessing was much needed to insure the continuity of all life forms.
I sketched women before sunrise grinding, kneading, and then slapping small balls of corn masa, or dough, to form tortillas cooked on a flat clay dish over an open fire. At the market the women patiently sat beside their tortilla-filled baskets waiting for customers, so they could earn enough to begin the process all over again.
fig. 5: Sculpture Studio, Instituto Allende
Mexico, 1953, © Betty LaDuke
At the Instituto Allende Sculpture Studio (fig. 5) my work began to evolve under the guidance of my teachers from expressionism to cubism and then to monumental forms inspired by visits to pre-Columbian Aztec and Mayan archaeological sites. I especially enjoyed Palenque, as temples and stone carvings were just in the process of being uncovered and touched by sunlight after centuries of jungle encroachment. In my paintings, the forms of Market Women and Campesinos (fig. 6) were now embraced by dark outlines suggesting the heavy shadows of time.
fig. 6: Betty LaDuke and Paintings
Instituto Allende, San Miguel, 1953
© Betty LaDuke
I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to visit with Diego Rivera, David Alfredo Siquieros, and Rufino Tamayo and observe them as they paint murals. I appreciated each of their unique styles and commitment to portray with pride Mexico's indigenous cultural roots, which had been submerged during colonization.
The following year I decided to detach myself from school and live alone in Guanajuato. This was an extremely creative and productive period, and I was honored with five shows of my drawings and paintings, mostly sponsored by the Mexican government. They were held in Leon, Durango, Touxtila Guttierez, and two in Mexico City.
fig. 7: Otomi Mother and Maguey, 1955
© Betty LaDuke
In 1956 I was invited to work in the Ixmiquilpan region where the clouds were sterile, the soil arid, and only the Otomi Indians and the maguey plant survived. The Maguey (fig. 7), the source of pulque, a nutritious fermented beverage, thrived. For centuries the indigenous Otomis had maintained their language and traditions as a nation within a nation. Now the government was intent upon "mainstreaming" them. Construction of a big dam was planned for this region so that their land would be valuable for cash crops. The Otomi culture had survived the Spanish conquest and the missionaries, but could they outlive the powerful new colonizers, government and big business?
I was hired by the Patrimonio Indigenista del Valley de Mesquital, or PIVM, a United Nations-Mexican government sponsored organization, to paint murals on the outer patio wall of their recently constructed one-room schools. For payroll purposes, my identity was altered and I was listed as Pedro Bernadino and paid the wages of a chief bricklayer. My murals, I was told, should reflect Otomi reality and should inspire them toward future goals for "progress." Therefore, in one mural I remember painting large hands emerging from water, holding a maguey, as it was temporarily important to forestall the planting of corn in order to increase the soil nutrients for future fertility.
fig. 8: Betty LaDuke with Otomis
Patria Nueva, 1955, © Betty LaDuke
During My Year with the Otomis (fig. 8), in villages such as San Juanico, Arbolitos, and Patria Nueva, I learned how the maguey was the staff of life. While pulque was produced through a tapping of the thick inner core of the plant, the tip of the maguey leaves served as roof thatch for their bamboo huts. The inner part of the leaf supplied fiber for weaving a basic coarse cloth or ayate. Men wore two ayates criss-crossed over their shoulders. Women used ayates suspended from their heads and backs for carrying babies and produce. The maguey fiber was also woven into carrying bags and other items which were traded at the weekly market for staples. However, Otomis were dependent upon the Spanish-speaking urban entrepreneurs who bought their craft projects at a minimal price, perpetuating the cycle of exploitation.
Survival was precarious and life expectancy short. Death was a frequent visitor, but I also witnessed many births. Years later I realized the significance of my experience of the Otomi life cycle, as their survival paralleled the subsistence conditions and the exploitation experienced by many indigenous peoples in other world areas.
I was reluctant to leave Mexico in 1956, as I had successfully followed my vision away from the Bronx toward the goals instilled by my first art teachers, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. I had matured from art student to artist. But at this time, other needs were compelling; a lasting personal relationship, children, and shared community. This had not happened in Mexico, and I now hoped it would in the U.S.
All text and images © Betty LaDuke.