Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Monday, June 20, 2011

Guest Writer: Robert Richter

Perhaps it's because I was born in Texas, but whatever the reason, I'm enthralled by Mexico and it's rich and varied history. When Robert contacted me and said he'd be happy to write a blog about Mexico, I jumped at the opportunity. Robert writes both mystery and history set in Mexico and his most recent novel is set against the Huichol culture of northwestern Mexico, one of Mexico's most mysterious and isolated indigenous people. I find it fascinating and I hope you will to. Please welcome Robert!

Although I was a wheat farmer for twenty years and still live a reclusive life on the remnants of a family homestead in southwestern Nebraska, I also have an active relationship with Mexico (and other parts of Latin America) that dates back more than forty years. I first traveled alone in Mexico during the cultural turmoil of the Vietnam Era, and I quickly began to realize that the official American version of what Mexico is like as a nation and a people was just as distorted as the official version of that Asian war. Unfortunately, over four decades later, American conceptions of Mexico’s government, culture, and history, including the so-called Drug War at present, remain a politicized distortion in American schools, the American press, and the American psyche.

Perhaps our collective national consciousness is still in denial (and cover up mode) about the fact that we stole nearly half of Mexico’s sovereign territory in the 1840s. Did you know that what American schools gloss over as the U.S.-Mexican War is taught in Mexican history class as The U.S. Invasion of Mexico because, well, that’s just what it was? (You can find verification of this version in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.) A hundred a sixty-five years of Mexico bashing has been a noisy rationale of just desserts all around: the U.S. is superior; Mexico is still lawless and dangerous. This is just one example of how two different cultural realities and perspectives can occupy the same historical space.

While I could rant about such injustices, my only real suggestion is merely that a person ought to travel to Mexico to see for oneself what life is really like there. And by “Mexico,” I mean a place other than the beach resorts—rural and village Mexico, and wild nature Mexico, exotic Mexico.

I return to Mexico each year, in part, to remind myself that day-to-day humanity of my own local community and way of life is the same human nature to be found in rural and small town Mexico (and, would you believe, in most parts of the rest of the world): love of family, devotion to a higher power, communal interaction for the betterment of all. In short, decent human beings working out their lot in life exist everywhere.

I also return to Mexico each year because, well, I just like the life style there. It reminds me of earlier times when my own American culture was more free spirited, less cynical, more informal in business, and less restrictive in personal freedoms. And you can’t beat the affordability compared to the American cost of living. But mostly, I return to Mexico because the history and culture fascinate me with their blend of Spanish colonial and indigenous character. There is still magic in Mexico, different realities side by side, and places where the passage of time means nothing.

I also travel frequently to Mexico because I am a historian and a writer with a scholarly relationship to Mexico past and present. The country’s history and character imbue my work, whether I write fiction or historical narrative, and that work is always composed of personal experience and sound historical investigation, intended to inform and entertain my audience about some real and fascinating aspect of Mexico’s rich culture.

An example subject would be the Huichol and Cora Indians who live in the high sierras of northwestern Mexico where the states of Durango, Jalisco, and Nayarit meet. So isolated and independent, their ancestors were never conquered by the Spanish colonists. Their animistic religious lives, devoted to the worship of the deer, the corn plant, and the peyote cactus, have never been dominated by Christianity. Their language is unwritten, its orthographies created by modern anthropologists who have studied their culture. And Huichol art has come to be known worldwide for its uniqueness in form, style, and subject. Merely Google “Huichol Art,” to verify this point.

The art is also a good example of how their culture has come under stress from outsiders and the modern world. Early Huichol art was entirely devoted to a spiritual connection to and view of the universe and their gods. In particular, the “yarn painting” is traditionally a small rectangular board coated in bee’s wax into which colorful yarns are inlaid in tight, concentric lines, and depicts a scene in which the artist receives a vision from the gods while under the hallucinogenic influence of peyote. The yarn painting tells a story of the artist’s spiritual journey, and originally, such works were never intended to be sold to anyone.

Now, yarn painting is a cottage industry, along with other well-known Huichol art forms like “god’s eyes” and bead inlaid busts of jaguars. This industrial output has been supported by outside do-gooders, including Mexico’s own Ministry of Culture, in well-meaning efforts to help the Huichols preserve their ancient and traditional culture in their homeland sierras. In the evolving production of art goods, the spiritual messages and symbols inherent in early works that found their way into art boutiques and tourist shops have all but disappeared into secular, geometric design. It is still unique Huichol art, but art for contemporary mass capitalistic consumption.

Having moved along the fringes of Huichol culture from time to time during forty years of travel, I’ve seen a subtle evolution in the yarn painting. Once, the vision represented was purely symbolic of the spiritual, a depiction of interaction between the highest powers and the vision seeker. The corn plant, the deer, the peyote, and so many other spiritually imbued creatures—scorpions, eagles, water serpents, grandfather fire, and more—were the elements and the life of the vision and the painting. But gradually, true spiritual stories have given way to nonrepresentational geometric designs and creatures talking to and for an audience of art buyers, not for the shaman—the Huichol religious leader who helps the visionary interpret his religious experience under the effects of peyote.

In other ways, too, the Huichol culture has come under stress of onslaught by modern times. Alcoholism and capitalism work like water seeping into the cracks of a granite mountain to freeze and thaw, expand and contract, until this particular cultural mountain erodes way to boulders, then to gravel, then sand. But capitalism also helps keep the Huichol culture alive in some of its purer forms, too. Those who recognize the artistry in Huichol craft and buy their art sustain a contemporary economic base for an ancient culture, allowing a people to adhere to their cultural values at a level of their choosing. In communities in the highest sierras, some Huichols still follow the shaman in the old ways, never mixing with the outside forces. In flea markets and tourist resorts, some merely dress in native costume and sell their culture’s heritage. As the saying goes, it’s complicated. Two (and more) realities occupy the same human space.

I have tried to present this complication of different cultural realities occupying the same space in a mystery novel called, Something Like A Dream ( ). Set in 1982, at an early stage of corruption by infiltrating contemporary culture, the story is meant to introduce readers to the Huichol people, their cultural and religious life centered on peyote visions and a spiritual relationship to their environment. While I set a contemporary mystery about a wife’s search for her lost anthropologist husband against this indigenous cultural background, the story is really about the nature of Huichol life, and I include a list of anthropological references and a glossary of many Huichol terms. The protagonist of the mystery is an outcast American expat who becomes obsessed with the beautiful wife as he helps her search for her famous husband in the sierra heart of Huichol territory. On this strange pilgrimage he will find a whole new perspective on reality and dream, on deceit and self-deception, on human spirituality, and a miraculous healing ceremony that will change his life forever or simply end it. You are invited to share the search and this look at ancient Huichol life in modern Mexico. You may find that Mexico has much more to offer than its contemporary image portrays.

You can get more information about Robert's books at or at his personal website at . I hope you'll give him a visit.

1 comment:

Kit Sloane said...

What a thoroughly fascinating and thought provoking article. I'm lucky enough to have inherited two large Huichols made in the 1950s and brought back from Mexico. They are the crown pieces of our living room and I love answering questions about them. Thanks, Robert, for all the history and new data. Now I can spread the knowledge.

Kit Sloane