Lila Downs produces an Extravaganza for the Guadalupe Musalén Fund:

For those of you who may not know, Guadalupe Musalén was one of the organizers of the Casa de Mujer (women’s house) in Oaxaca . She is celebrated in one of our earliest stories, “A Tale of Three Guadalupes”. Bilingual, brilliant, beautiful and dedicated, she produced the first benefit concert for the Casa during my second year here. Held in the Macedonio Alcalá opera house, it featured an evening of music by two gifted concert performers: Cicely Winter, a pianist, organist, teacher and organizer of the ongoing effort to restore and replace 16 th and 17 th century organs in Oaxaca state; and Cynthia Stokes , who was at the time principal flautist with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. They built the program over many weeks of e-mail correspondence and phone calls, topped with only a few days of practice together, and the result was brilliant; and the Casa’s profit was a significant share of its operating budget for the year.

Lupe was so dedicated, so busy, that she ignored the early signs of the ovarian cancer that killed her; or the doctors that treated her didn’t catch it, depending on who’s telling the tale; but before she checked in to the hospital in Mexico City where she would spend the last weeks of her life, she forged an alliance between the women who worked at the Casa and a group of Gringa snowbirds who named themselves “Las Amigas de la Casa”, and who have worked (some have dropped out, others have come in) every January and February to drum up interest in the foreign community about – and sell “sponsorships” for – the yearly benefit concert. [The masthead photo is of Lila speaking at the Sponsors’ reception in the Casa de la Ciudád.]

After Lupe’s death, the Casa made the decision to honor her memory by establishing a fund to help young women who would otherwise have to go to work instead continuing their education. Since then, all proceeds from the annual benefit have gone into the Fund.

Lila came on board during the next year, and has performed every year since, at first in the Macedonio Alcalá, then in the larger Alvaro Carrillo theater, then adding a second night at the Carrillo, and last year (the Carillo having been taken over by the Chamber of Deputies) back for multiple performances at the Alcalá.

This year, Lila requested, and the Casa agreed, to hold the concert in the Guelaguetza amphitheater, a 12,000 seat outdoor venue located at the “top” of the city. To help fill the seats, Lila reached out to Eugenia León, a fine singer of romantica and traditional music, to open the show, and to Celso Peña, an accordionist and acknowledged “king” of the Cumbia dance form, to close. All the side-people were paid; the headliners were not. At least 75% of the seats were filled. Although the figures are not in yet, it appears to have been a success.

There were grumblings among the “old gringos” about the backless concrete benches and the lack of handicap access for old knees (there are a lot of stairs to climb); and some (me included) were hoping for more concert and less spectacle; but even so it was quite a night, with a lot of surprises, such as Lila singing a few numbers accompanied by the Oaxaca Symphony Orchestra, and a few with a local Mariachi band.

The general perception was that while these breaks were fun and added to the night’s experience, both might have benefited from a little more practice. Personally, I liked the “sponteneous” feeling and look forward to next year.

San Augustine Art Center heading for a March opening (maybe):

It’s big. It’s beautiful. It’s empty. The grounds are nearly finished, and they are lush. There are dozens of workers on the inside, and on the outside, struggling to prepare for opening day. A blend between the modern (twin flowing fountains flanking the entrance stairway), the traditional (native Oaxaca plantings) and the industrial (the original building), the former textile mill has plans to house galleries, studios, classes and performance spaces.

On the scale of Oaxaca , the new Center, the brainchild and the ward of artistic enfant teríble Francisco Toledo, rivals Versailles . Grand in scale and extravagant in detail, it will probably be Toledo ‘s most lasting monument.

Over the last few years, as the project progressed and the Chilangos (residents of Mexico City) and other foreigners began buying up nearby farmland to build extravagant edifices of their own, much grumbling has been heard from the local residents about the urbanization and gentrification of their area, bringing with it water crises, traffic problems, land disputes, “spoilage” of favorite vistas, etc. The most vocal, not surprisingly, are those whose own land was purchased not-so-recently, when they moved to what they hoped would remain a low-density rural scene.

We were out there last week taking pictures and checking out the scene. My view is that while the area has changed from rural to exurban, it is far from suburban at this stage. Still, rumored plans for new restaurants, bars, coffee shops and boutiques are being bandied about; and the fact that these rumors have legs suggests that more – and more upscale – development may indeed be on the way.

Specialty Hospital not quite ready for prime time:

Out past San Bartolo Coyotepec, the “black pottery” town, are two new, modern, “state of the art” hospitals. Both were the brainchild of ex-Governor Jose Murát. One is for children, and as far as I can tell, it is functioning pretty well. The other is meant to be for old geezers like me: “tercer edad”, third age, elderly. The building is modern, beautifully designed, as is attested to by the two photos below. Everything you’d expect from an up-to-date, technologically advanced health facility – except…

While the list of specialties on the board in the lobby (see photo at left) lists all he major medical groupings, many are not yet completely on line. Take for instance the cardiology department. The hospital has a totally modern state-of-the-art operating room in which, a few days ago, for the first time, a successful bypass operation was performed. But it doesn’t have a catheter lab for performing less invasive surgeries such as angiograms (and angioplasties). The room is there; there is a sign on the door. All that is lacking is the equipment.

When I asked a cardiologist I met in the hallway when the equipment would be installed, he smiled and said “pronto” (soon). When I asked him how long was “pronto” he frowned. “Maybe six months”.

In Mexico , where appearances are at least as important as realities, such questions are not welcome. When Murát dedicated the hospital (Vicente Fox came in for the ceremony); when the plaque went up on the wall; when the newspaper praise became old news, the important work had been done. After that, what benefit was it to the politicians to complete the job?

I suppose that some day there actually will be a catheter lab, along with a permanent staff (much of the current staff – including the bypass team – rotates in from MexCity for a few days a week), and a laboratory that is equipped completely enough to actually do all the tests that are needed. Meanwhile, some specialties are functioning fully, there are doctors seeing patients (by referral is preferred), and for many there is no hardship in finding their way to the out-of-the-way location.

We’ll go back in six months and see how things are progressing. Meanwhile, the nearest catheter lab is in MexCity…

Ethno-botanical garden, round three:

All but ten of the grounds-keeping staff at the garden have been fired. According to sources, they have not yet been replaced. There is a controversy about whether the terminations were motivated by a desire to further isolate Alejandro, now forced to share his Director position with a political appointee; or whether the newly unemployed were “dead wood”, fired for not performing their jobs. In any case, the entire affair has served to demoralize the workers and volunteers who did so much to make the garden one of Oaxaca’s most in-demand tourist attractions, as witness the fact that the number of tours in English have been cut in half, and all three are being conducted by one docent where there used to be four.

The garden, designed by artists Zarate and Toledo , and run by an “ngo” (non-governmental organization), was, as reported in this Newsletter, recently appropriated by the State, and a new Director named. According to one source, remaining staff and volunteers have stopped collecting voluntary donations amid rumors that the money would be funneled into the coffers of “a certain political party” (read, “Roberto Madrazo’s PRI presidential campaign). Expect the tours to become fee generators, much the same as all museums, archeological sites, and other such installations – a scheme which so far had been resisted by the non-political ngo that was displaced.

Inexplicably, neither the local newspapers nor the various non-governmental organizations that usually take up such causes, have had much to say about what appears to many to be a political “balancing of accounts”.

Batter Up:

Heard wafting over the rooftops in our quiet neighborhood once again: the sound loop of “ta-ta-ta-RA-ta-taaaa”, recorded by a great organ and played over the much-too-loud speakers at the baseball stadium about a kilometer away from our house. The ball park is being tuned up for the grand opening of the 2006 season, due in a few days. The always-in-contention Guerreros will once again take the field along with the half-naked, peroxided, surgically enhanced cheer leaders and the “chicken” mascot, and we hope to be in attendance; but even if we are not, we will be able to hear the announcer saying “Y ahora (and now) el equipo (the team) de los Gerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrréros de Oaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaxáca!”

Next issue:

We are looking at a few stories, including an attack on the Frente Común Contra el SIDA, the bottom line for the Lila benefit concert, a report on Sam Dillon and Julia Preston’s book “Opening Mexico”, and other breaking news. See you then.