In search of Auxilio Lacouture

Students reading and talking  In the southern part of Mexico City, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is a 425,000 student campus with many departments. Its graduates form a backbone of recent Mexican history. The current campus replaced a metropolitan location in the 1950s, but the school traces its lineage back to 1551.

I’m not as big a recreational reader as I’d like to be. I’m not that fast a reader and I feel like after I’ve waded through all the web and print articles and news reports I’m interested in there isn’t a lot of extra time left over. But before going to Mexico City I set a goal of reading several books about the city and Mexico, and one of them was Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I have a hard time understanding why this book isn’t generally known and acknowledged to be one of the great novels of the 20th century. Bolaño, a Chilean who lived mostly in Mexico City and Barcelona, was an enfant terrible of the literary world and a complicated, evocative writer. I haven’t read his masterpiece 2666 yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

The outside surfaces of the university library are covered with a wrap-around mural by Juan O’Gorman depicting different periods of Mexican history. The generally huge scale of the campus is home to other building-sized murals.

Savage Detectives is mostly set in Mexico City and strings together a story of a group of young scruffy Mexican poets searching for a woman (Cesárea Tinajero) who had disappeared from the city several decades before. They considered her to be the mother of Visceral Realism, their faction of the Mexican poetry world. In a complex weave the story line touches many subplots, and one of them involves a character who is a Uruguayan female poet and teacher named Auxilio Lacouture.

Auxilio Lacouture taught at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) for several years. According to her own narrative, she was not quite sure what those years were, but one event fixes her as being there in 1968. That event was the Mexican army and riot police killing an unknown number of students in Tlatelolco, a section of Mexico City. A sadly familiar story having a contemporary ring.

UNAM students on lunch break.

Subsequently, the Army occupied UNAM.

Auxilio Lacouture had the distinction of spending thirteen days in September of 1968 shut up in the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature as a protest against the Army’s occupation of the campus. She had been reading a book of poetry of Pedro Garfías in a toilet stall and simply stayed there undiscovered – alone and stubborn – standing up (or sitting down!) against tanks and militarism until they left thirteen days later.

I thought it would be interesting to go to UNAM and see if I could find the her fourth floor perch. I was also interested because our friend, Magda, had gone to Medical School there and I wanted to see where she had spent that time.

A more conventional look at the unconventional exterior of the central university library. The mural wraps around all four sides.

UNAM is a huge campus – there are almost 400,000 students. To be a student there involves a lot of competition and carries prestige. UNAM reflects both a tradition of academic freedom and social activism that seems part of Mexico.

The feeling on campus was not especially comfortable for me. It was obvious that I was an outsider, as well as being several decades older than almost everyone we saw.

We tracked down the building and floor that Auxilio had been in. A narrow staircase led to the fourth floor. A small – almost claustrophobic – hallway formed a central corridor with many closed wooden doors. The interesting fact was that no one save one student had heard of Roberto Bolaño, and on the subject of Auxilio Lacouture – a complete blank. We found a locked women’s bathroom, but the closest we got to Auxilio’s memory were raised eyebrows as an adult staff member and secretary Googled her. A picture of me outside the bathroom was on the phone stolen later in the day on the Metrobus. It really doesn’t matter to me that Auxilio Lacouture never actually existed. She was fashioned after a real person who was at UNAM (Alcira Soust Scaffo), herself a Uruguayan poet. Considering the position of both Bolaño as a writer and Savages as a book, there should have been no hesitation recognizing him as a writer and Lacouture as a character …

I’m not sure what all of this says. A friend in Montreal who is from South America said it’s typical in Columbia, where she grew up, for the government to eradicate memory. This may be an example of that same phenomena in Mexico.

Sometimes, I have to admit, I feel the same way about the 1960s here.


Posted in Artists, Mexico
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Who said you have to smile for photos?

Not a smile to be seen anywhere  Three sisters, about 1885. Cropped tintype from US Library of Congress.

Lena Dunham (of the TV show Girls fame) has been having a public spat with a Spanish magazine, accusing the publishers of using Photoshop to improve her thigh. Usually, being “improved” is something people like. Objecting is a twist. Dunham says her problem is the result of a recent change that leaves her against the retouching of photos – even to her benefit. Never one to miss good dialogue, she put it crisply: “I want to be able to pick my own thigh out of a lineup.”

From a personal point of view, I smell a publicity stunt – she’s a master of that sort of thing. But a large part of me hopes that she’s actually being honest.

I’ve photographed people a lot and I know that everyone has some part of their body that they’d rather be without – or at least not reminded of. For me it’s the back of my head. For others their nose, their chin.

Catherine Natoli, rue Gruze, Paris, 1976.

The way this insecurity often manifests itself is in heavy breathing that ensues after a photo portrait. I’m not surprised about it, it seems normal. The common refrain goes like this: “It isn’t that the photos are bad, I just can’t stand the way my [fill in the blank] looks.”

Beth Adams, Montreal, 2016.

This insecurity seems almost an universal attribute, at least in our culture. Probably, as a photographer, the kindest approach would be to sit down and interview each person about to be photographed. Usually there’s an unstated tension around portraiture, and it would be easier (and kinder) to have it out in the open. But it’s not like I haven’t experimented. I have one close friend who’s always complained about the way she looked in my photos. Finally, out of some frustration, I let her determine all the variables. What she wanted was a Vogue-style experience, complete with fancy makeup and hair, rim lighting, and styled clothes. I did it. She liked it – I didn’t.

Joseph Losey, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1971.

I’ve always been attracted to portraits that say something about the person. It can be a relatively unadorned physical representation of that person – how they looked in a specific period of time in their lives – or it can dig deeper down. I like both. It’s not that I want to make people look bad, and I hope I don’t do that. That’s not my intention, of course, it’s just that I think being human means a lot besides a smiley face.

So I do want to applaud Lena Dunham. She’s a good enough artist and show-person that I’m sure she’ll be in the public eye for a long time, and it will be interesting to see if she adheres to her current position. But for now, she seems on the right track. I will be following her and hope her new-found conversion will include pictures with more than a pretty smile.

Posted in Portraits

Eating camel

I probably have the distinction of being the only member of my family ever to have eaten camel. Or is it the shame? My father was so shocked when I told him what I had done that his normally eloquent vocabulary left him stammering. I think he was, in reality, half-horrified and half-amused.

Camel meat restaurant in centre with vertical windows. The street vendor on the far right is selling fresh almonds. Al Malek Faisal Street, Damascus, 2000.

There was a comment in the last thread about how different my experiences seem. I’ve always enjoyed a kind of rough-and-tumble form of travel, which is how I ended up in the camel restaurant. But in a larger and more general sense I’ve been wondering if I gloss over the negative sides of places too much – Montreal and Mexico City, for example.

I’ve also been thinking how I could, just as easily, take my photographs from Mexico City and paint a rather dismal picture of the place – make it into a place that no sane person would want to travel to.

Is this the sort of thing you want to breathe? Afternoon in Mexico City…  This hurts both the eyes and the lungs. According to WHO statistics, Mexico has the dubious distinction of placing four cities in the top 35 pollution rankings worldwide. Mexico City ranks 23rd. Above it are Torino (12), Milano (16), Beirut (18), Athens (20) and just below Paris (28). Full rankings here, based on 2009 data. View from Torre Latinoamericano late in the day, March 2016.

Do you see what I mean? And that’s not all, by any means … there’s plenty that I have photographed – and could show – to back up an argument about the badnesses and injustices in Mexico, or Montreal, or even Vermont.

It’s a requirement in journalistic photography that you’re supposed to be honest about what’s shown, but the warp lies in what’s not shown (or talked about). I certainly am showing what I like about Mexico, but I also have plenty of negative opinions (and photos to support them), and not limited to Mexico.

I do think, however, that it’s important to see both sides of a coin. Is that glossing over? Yes, I think it is sometimes. But I think it’s also useful to talk in different terms, especially about a place that gets editorially stomped on. I said in an early post, before going there, that I wanted to present a positive view, since so much of what’s published is negative.

On our last day in Mexico I was speaking to a young Mexican man who was working behind the desk in our hotel. He was young and hip-city-relaxed, with spiky black hair and lime-green framed glasses. He and I had just settled up the bill so he knew we had been there for a relatively long period of time and he wanted to know why. It’s not a hotel frequented by North Americans – most of the people who stay there come up from the South instead. In an abbreviated answer I said we liked the hotel and the neighborhood. He response was that most North Americans – by which I assume he meant Americans – complain about staying there because they don’t want to stay in a “ghetto”.

Well, if that’s a “ghetto”, then I guess I’m really out to lunch. But I don’t think I am. It’s a relatively affluent upper class neighborhood, nothing like the rich ones but nothing like the poor ones either.

I’ve always liked living in these in-between neighborhoods. In Montreal we live in a pretty swanky part of town – The Plateau – but under the caché it too has its rough edges (though nothing like the other places).

I hope I won’t avoid politics, the environment, and social issues on this blog. But most of the time I’d rather not go at them head-on. There is a lot to talk about, in Canada as well as in Mexico.  I’m not blind about this, but personally I get tired of feeling inundated by other points of view. I know that mine seep out, and whether you agree or disagree, I hope most of all that you will feel welcome here (and able to say what you think). That’s the way I’d like it to be, and it’s a roundabout answer in my general approach to this blog. I hope it comes through, because it’s not always easy.

Perhaps you remember the market photo a few posts ago (scroll down). I thought, as a contrast, a photo from last weekend would be fun. It’s Montrealers coming out of the winter funk and flocking to one of our largest markets – the stalls are still confined to the indoors but in everyone’s mind it’s already spring!

Jean-Talon Market the first weekend in March.


Posted in Mexico, Montreal

It’s about more than food

It’s ironic that Bernie Sanders gets tagged as insensitive to race issues – it’s not his problem – it’s Vermont’s. Vermont has a lot of positive qualities, but one is not ethnic diversity.

The situation was worse in the 1960s though.

As a kid I always felt like I didn’t fit in. I didn’t. My classmates, almost without exception, came from old New England stock and to me, a youngster, it felt like cultural and personal exclusion. In our family we ate different foods, we talked about different things, and we were almost completely ignorant of pop culture. It may not have been exclusion, but it certainly was difference.

I don’t know what I was thinking dressing in a coat and tie, it certainly didn’t help. Perhaps my warped mind thought if I did wear a tie I’d be mistaken for a teacher, and I could hide behind that.

Directly below me is the only other person (I believe in the school of about 200 children) who didn’t fit into the white ethos – she is part Native American.

People often think of Montreal as being binary between French and English, but the delicious reality is that it’s a jumbled pastiche of many ethnic groups. That’s been something that has greatly enhanced our lives. Even the people who think of themselves as “Francophone” or “Anglophone” are often quite sophisticated in their knowledge of other cultures, and often follow that up with speaking other languages. We had not always dreamed of Mexico. Our interest sprung from two sources.

One source was two of our best friends – Éric and Diana.  Their lives are a jumbled mix of both their Francophone and Spanish families. Diana grew up in Cartagena. Their home resonates with Spanish, which they speak as their base language, French, and English and the warm smells of a lot of good food. Éric and I became fast friends based on interests and personalities. Diana too loves her heritage and language (which she teaches at a college level) and has done a lot to encourage our interests in Latin America.

The second source, and where the interest in Mexico specifically started, is with our friend Magda. She has a quiet centering and wisdom that’s rare and which I greatly admire. When we first told her we wanted to go to Mexico (four years ago) she sat down with us and made a list of all her favorite places in the City, and it was from that list that we started our attachments.

I didn’t talk about it at the time (because I didn’t have his permission) but we were with Pablo, Magda’s brother, when my phone was stolen. He was angry because he hadn’t picked up on what was happening either. This photo of him was the same day, on the Metrobus, after things calmed down and we coming back down towards the Centro.

I would be totally remiss if I made it sound like solely Mexico connects personally with Montreal. There are many strong ties especially to the US, to England, and to France. Another of my earliest and best friends is from Bangladesh (with many other places in-between). His mother, Gayatri (here visiting), and I have developed an affection for each other. She visits each summer, and in this photo she is with our good friend Vivian.

I’ve been thinking about these ethnic mixings because last night I watched the documentary film Discordia detailing the student conflict at Concordia surrounding the (attempted) visit by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2003. It’s not a pretty story, but it’s emblematic of society trying to work out differences in a way more profound than superficial sharing of foods. I recommend it if you are at all interested. This link should play to all countries.


Posted in Montreal

How different and goodbye to a Montreal institution

Since moving to Montreal in 2006 we’ve done a steady rotation of food shopping which consists of visits to an Arab-derived supermarket (Marché Adonis, now a province super-star), Kim Phat (an “oriental” supermarket), Costco, the farmer’s produce market just north of us (Jean-Talon), and a kind of mongrel restaurant supply warehouse full of food called Mayrand. I say “mongrel” because I’ve never been able to identify its ethnic group. It’s housed in an old industrial building with loading docks shoved right into the aisles, and its employees speak various languages. Unlike other places here, Mayrand seems to have no particular ethnic focus. It’s also seemed an odd place because it’s never appeared to have any particular ambition to be anything other than what it is. Which is a noisy warehouse with hand-lettered signs catering to the restaurant trade but accepting anyone as customer. Unlike modern box stores, there are no flashing-light barricades put up when a forklift is working, and it’s up to you to dodge the wheeled traffic and figure out the signage, which is often creative.

All that is about to change. Next week, after probably decades in its current form, Mayrand is about to move to a new location which promises to be more – what ever that means. In honesty it may be a good move for them. From personal experience I can say that we’ve converted some of our friends to shopping in places like Adonis (the Arab market), but I don’t believe a single soul has visited Mayrand. I don’t know why. Perhaps there’s a dark secret I am not privy to, or that it’s just too free-form and gritty.

We’ll see – I have a feeling the new space will be a lot different plus they are positioning it close to a Costco.

I’ll actually be sad to see the old store go. I like the bustle and the amorphous nature of it … that it’s all by itself in how it sees retailing and it makes no pretensions. If you like it you are welcome to shop there, and if you don’t there are a lot of other places just up the road.

This shows restocking by forklift. Normally there would be more people in the aisles, but this was late Sunday afternoon during a snow an ice storm, so there were fewer customers than usual.

Now the different part

Part of why I enjoy travelling so much are the contrasts. We have market shopping in Montreal too but in our reality it’s seasonal. Jean-Talon, our “outdoor” market, retreats into a heated space (much smaller) during the winter so it’s still possible to shop there. But there’s a big difference between biking to the market for a few vegetables, and hassling with the car for the same. So during the winter we tend towards the warehouses, and in the summer we eat market food.

But last week shopping in Mexico looked like this for us:

Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a contrast in style but a contrast in content as well.

I look on the boxes in Montreal and most of the fruit and vegetables are either from the US or Mexico, but none of it is as fresh and abundant as is easily available in this local market.


I lamented earlier in these posts about how there hadn’t been a red plum tomato sighted in Montreal since the end of October. I can report currently that the situation has eased somewhat but still what’s available looks nothing like these unwaxed and fresh tomatoes.

Or the vegetables this woman is bagging.

But Mexico wasn’t ahead everywhere! Quebec really shines in cheeses, which I am grateful have no season. We bought one farmer’s type cheese in Mexico that was mixed with jalapeño peppers (that was okay), but there was none of the variety (and quality) that we have up here.

But I’d be lying to say that I don’t like the idea of being able to shop year-round in a market, and a market close to home. But we do the best we can. Like I said, it’s a snow and ice storm today, which really does not mix with this lifestyle.

Posted in Mexico, Montreal
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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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