Article and Paintings by Anita Rodríguez
I remember the whisper of snow pelting the antique glass in my grandmother’s deep windows while struggling to stay awake and hear the end of the story. The blizzard whipped and whistled outside, but embraced by thick adobe walls we cousins snuggled like a litter of puppies under layers of Chimayó blankets. The fire chuckled, throwing warm flickers of light on the latilla ceiling. I fell asleep and dreamed of La Tuerta’s one eye bobbing and dipping just above the horizon. She grew bony hands and, like a giant puppeteer, made people dance on her strings.
La Envidia (envy) was a constant theme in Grandma’s stories, in adult conversation and popular belief. Some variation of “Eeeeee! La Raza is so envidioso that we will never get anywhere!” was intoned with almost the same monotonous regularity as the rosary. That was long ago, and I have ceased to believe we are more envious than anyone else, or that envy is an adequate name for something so universal, it must have some survival function. Seven decades of winters have passed since I fell asleep dreaming of La Tuerta. I have had plenty of time to observe and think about envy and evil.
I have seen that—depending on psychological and political conditions—envy is sometimes motivational and creative, sometimes pathological and destructive. From Cain and Abel to Huitzlipotzli and Quetzalcoatl, to Osiris and Set, there is no continent or culture where envy has not furnished storytelling, literature, drama, myth and art with subject matter.
The painting (above) called Envidia, is a death scene. The scorpion-like puppeteer above is La Tuerta. The drama below is so charged with emotion that the wallpaper is twisted with its force, and each character, each detail, is part of the narrative. On the left an altar and menorah suggest a Crypto-Jewish family, comfortable with the synergy of Catholicism. Beside it a statue of the Virgin is covering her face. Does she weep in grief and shame at the spectacle unfolding in the room? One skeleton is lifting a gilded mirror off the wall, but his reflection is that of a man of flesh and blood, giving a surreal twist to the script. Another skeleton hunched in the shameful posture of a thief seems to be slipping something into a purse and sneaking off. The dying figure, reaching weakly for a glass of water, spills it, while at the foot of the bed someone is going through an ammunition box—searching for documents? Notice the character at the head of the bed. Gripping the headboard as if in rage, he is listening to a cloaked character whispering in his ear. Why the gesture toward the fireplace poker? Does this suggest murder?
Perhaps making art out of something painful or dark sanctifies it, de-claws or neutralizes it. Turning a trauma into art commits the artist to engage in a prolonged symbolic process, an indirect encounter with the trauma. It requires thoughtful placing of charged symbols in a balanced composition, making it “work,” integrating it. It requires containing a painful narrative within the boundaries of a frame. The colors must be harmonized. The act of taking a dark, scary thing and making it beautiful heals the artist—and the viewer. It bears witness and puts the trauma “outside” in the magical container of art. This painting is a healing ceremony. I hope that it can serve someone as a map to guide him or her through the universal experience of envying and being envied.
That long-ago storytelling voice evokes another figure that lived from the landscape of my childhood, El Diablo. He was particularly prone to accost daughters who disobeyed their parents and went to bailes without permission, as I recall. The legend about how the devil appeared to dance with a young girl and then, exactly at midnight, vanished in a flash of sulfurous smoke was one of Grandma’s stories. At a bar called Los Compadres in Taos, there was a stain on the wall where patrons claimed the devil had passed through the adobes at midnight.
“El Diablo Volviendo de las Parranda” (The Devil Coming Home from a Night Out)
The painting above, El Diablo Volviendo de las Parranda (The Devil Coming Home from a Night Out), tells a story that speaks to temptation. You can see from the smoke on the right that wherever the devil has been, he was up to no good. Ever eager for new prey, here he steps out of his sinister Ford Victoria, tipping his hat, making an offer that would be wise to decline. The devil is never shabbily outfitted. Here he is elegant in cashmere, he has fire-engine-red velvet diamond tuck upholstery, and a $100 bill floats from his aerial. Notice his cloven hoof and horns. This painting is a universal metaphor for the seductive approach of evil, the offer that is too good to be true, the allure of addiction.
“Nuestra Señora de los Remedios” (Our Lady of Remedies)
But there was always a refuge—Our Lady. She never let you down. Earthly flesh-and-blood mothers are human, but She does not fail those who love Her. My Indo-Hispano soul is drawn to the archetype of the Great Mother, perhaps more than any other theme in my body of work. Images of the Divine Feminine keep appearing. Among them is (above) Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our Lady of Remedies), more beloved in the Americas than even the Guadalupana.
Her image was brought to this continent by a soldier of Cortez named Gonzalo Rodríguez. He buried it under a maguey, promising that if he survived the coming battle he would build her a shrine. But he vanishes from history on the night of La Noche Triste, when the Aztecs drove the Spaniards out of Tenochitlán. About 30 years later a campesino found it and took it home. In the morning it was gone. He went back to the maguey and there it was. This happened several times, and then everyone understood that Our Lady wanted her shrine. So the church in the center panel was erected to her on the site of the biggest pyramid in the Western Hemisphere; one of the most sacred sites in the Americas—Cholula, outside of México City. Her specialty is that she heals the wounds of the conquest—which are still bleeding today.
From this powerful site in the center of the Americas her shrines have spread across the continent. She is the mother whose mixed-blood children were born of violent conflict and creative confluence in a great, agonizing birth trauma that shook a continent. A new race was born—Indo-Hispanos, mestizos—whose language is second only to Chinese in the sheer number of speakers.
We carry the colonizer and the colonized in our blood and karma, along with the blood of all races. We are European, Chinese, African and indigenous. Our Lady of Remedies is the Mother who heals our historical trauma, reconciles our cultural differences and gives us the wisdom to accept our contradictions. She rises out of the land; the mountains are her body and her head towers into the sky—where angels swirl in the clouds. She holds the caduceus (European symbol of healing) in one hand, and out of the other hand flow healing waters. Who could doubt her power?
At her feet are narratives of recovery—in the center are two veterans with the dove of peace over their heads. A man is getting out of a wheelchair, mothers are bathing their children in medicinal waters, someone is being carried in a litter, a child holds up a puppy with a bandaged paw. Nopales rise in the foreground. Nopales are only a staple food in México, enshrined on the flag and in myth; they are a remedy for diabetes—a legacy of historical trauma and the colonization of food production. Under the triptych is a repiso, or shelf, studded with milagros, ready to receive offerings of candles, flowers, crystals. (Milagros are little silver charms that you can buy in the churches of Central America. You pick the one for the thing that needs healing—an eye, heart or leg, your car or hand—and pin it to the robe of Our Lady or your favorite saint.)
This triptych is a marriage of art with curanderismo, a healing ceremony in traditional folk art form. Ranging from a mini-altar to the household altar to the gilded altars in a cathedral, this particular form creates a locus of power or focused concentration. Our ancestors knew the power of a simple ritual that engages the body, the psyche and the emotions.
This triptych is 7 feet long, and belongs in a hospital, church or healer’s reception room. I imagined people sitting in a doctor’s office, worried, “Is it cancer? How will I pay for it?” I wanted to create something beautiful to look at, something to inspire and activate the mystery of healing.
Anita Rodríguez’s family goes back to De Vargas in her beloved Taos Valley. Creating art and “making things”—unique in style and content—has been a lifelong love. Rodríguez has traveled the world, observing many cultures. She conducts workshops on subjects such as envy and racism, tamales and painting. She has published Coyota in the Kitchen, a book of thought-provoking stories around food (including recipes) that range from historical to funny to tragic. Prints of her triptych painting are available through her web site: anitarodriguez.com