Friday, July 21, 2006

In Search of Multicultural Portland: The Library

Portland has an incredible library system that just kicks ass over the Oakland Public Library. These are the kind of libraries I grew up visiting, with lots of people walking and bike-riding there, rather than jams of cars vying for parking. Maxito and Jenny and I head over without even checking the hours first, because most branches are open every day and into the evening. The librarians are laid back and courteous, and never seem to jump on people about fines. The hold system is stellar--you can put movies on hold and keep them out for 3 weeks.

So I hesitate to complain. And yet. And yet--what is wrong with the collection? I was in Hollywood branch yesterday and was seeking board books for Genevieve and I to read (and, okay, for her to munch on just a little bit) and there was not a single board book in the room that was about a child of color. Okay, okay, there was one--The Snowy Day. That's it! Book after book of animals or white people--in a library, where someone is conscientiously reading reviews, consulting books lists, and ordering books. It's a travesty! As I told the librarian there, "I guess I'm just used to the collection at the North Portland branch." That's the branch near my house, and it has tons of muliticultural and multilingual books.

I guess the rationale in Portland is that, if you live in a white neighborhood, you only order books about white people. I can see how this city--which I truly have come to like and which is why I become frustrated when this issue of homogeneity rears its ugly head--has remained pretty segregated over the years.

I'm considering some ways to wage my one-woman revolution at the Hollywood library:
--Put it multiple requests for multicultural books.
--Check out multicultural books from other branches and return them to the Hollywood branch.
--Donate multicultural books to the Hollywood branch.
--Volunteer to run some type of multicultural program there.
--Every time I go, doggedly go through the search for multiculti books and be vocal about the lack of results.
--Go back to my North Portland branch and give up on the gringo branch.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Baby Jenny is 10 1/2 months old. She's a big goof.

Art Collecting on the Mexican Backroads

I've been writing articles on lowbrow, outsider, and folk art for Aishti Magazine. I thought I'd post one of the pieces here.

Tope. There was a word I’d never encountered in five years of Spanish classes. Maybe it’s the name of a town, I thought, just as the driver of the gypsy cab hit the road hard and bounced the four of us who were squeezed together in the back seat. So now I knew that tope meant bump. You learn some Spanish vocabulary the hard way.

If you ask me, the hard way is the best way. That’s how we wound up shopping for art sold out of farms and ranchitos in Oaxacan villages, when we could have settled for boutique-hopping around the city center.

That morning, we had trekked to Oaxaca’s Centro de Abastos, the main marketplace, and wound our way to the back, where an empty lot was filled with signs listing different villages. Groups gathered at each sign, waiting for colectivos—cabs with designated routes—to transport them to the valle de Oaxaca.

My boyfriend and I had a solitary goal: adding to our collection of alebrijes, small wooden carvings of fantastical creatures that are meticulously painted in brilliant colors and designs. Each alebrije begins its life as part of the copal tree. Artists use machetes and knives to carve the soft wood into iguanas, fire-breathing aliens, grasshoppers, bandas of devils, and other creatures, imaginary and real. Then they paint the carvings, sometimes wielding toothpicks to complete the intricate patterns.

We were headed down the tope-filled road to Arrazola, home to the workshop of Manuel JimĂ©nez Ramirez and his family, the supposed originators of the Oaxacan alebrije craft. Ramirez’s success has inspired many villagers to turn from farming to carving, transforming Arrazola into a destination for galleries and collectors.

The cabbie deposited us in the town square and three boys ran up to us, offering their services as guides through the town. As Felix, the eldest, walked us across a dirt lot inhabited by baby goats, I spotted the signs—wooden signs, painted with family names, or with the word figuras, or simply a picture of an armadillo or turtle. I reached for my boyfriend’s hand to signal him: I’m about to drop some pesos.

We never made it to the Ramirez workshop. Instead, we found an empty town square, surrounded by dark buildings with concrete floors. Brilliant painted creatures filled shelves, while iguanas with elaborately curled tails were attached to the walls. As we approached, a man stepped forward and pulled the cord suspended next to a single, naked light bulb, illuminating his makeshift gallery. We cleaned him out.

Then Felix and company led us to a long building alongside towering crops. A group of women stood behind tables that were filled with alebrijes as well as the lunch they were preparing. We filled our backpacks and placed orders for some friends.

As we staggered to a fonda for lunch, we spotted a small sign hanging outside someone’s kitchen that said animalitos. A married couple stood inside. The wife was proud to show us her original creation: a frog with an intricately tattooed penis. She also had a simply carved snail covered in Matisse-like patterns. We tried bargaining for the snail, but she wouldn’t budge.

We grabbed a second-class bus back home to Oaxaca city. We hardly noticed the topes as we unwrapped the pale pink paper clinging to our alebrijes. And we began what would become our traditional conversation after a day of buying art: “Next time, I’m getting that one that she wouldn’t bargain over.” Next time.