A recent edition of Jeopardy featured Los Tres Grandes, the three famous muralists who challenged the social order in Mexico in the mid-20th Century. The correct response was Diego Rivera, the best known of the three. But the other two, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, also played important roles—important enough to be thrown into prison on charges such as “social dissolution.” This was the charge against Siqueiros who spent four years in Cell No. 36 in the Lecumberri Prison in Mexico City.
I was reminded of my one and only tenuous connection with Siqueiros. This must have happened ten or fifteen years after his death in 1974. I was visiting my expat friends in Oaxaca, Rex and Lolly. It was Christmas.
Also visiting was their niece, Shari, from San Antonio. Shari was about my age. The three were very close; Rex and Lolly had raised Shari, mostly in Mexico, as though she were their daughter.
My friends had recently sold The Mill in the mountains 20 km north of Oaxaca, which they had run as a Bed and Breakfast Inn for a number of years. (This was how I first met them.) It was a hard-to-reach, but idyllic location in the Sierra Juarez mountains overlooking the entire Oaxaca Valley—the perfect spot from which to observe the sun setting behind Monte Alban while enjoying a margarita. But that's an earlier chapter.
Rex and Lolly had moved into town, one of the more upscale neighborhoods called Xochimilco. At the time of this visit, they had already embarked on their next project, the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca. They had paired up with a prominent local couple I shall call C, and L.
It seemed like a good match-up. Rex had run the cultural exchange program at the US Embassy in Mexico City for a number of years. Lolly, in her former life, had been an English teacher with a master's degree from Columbia. At the time, C. was the Secretario B for the state of Oaxaca ("roughly equivalent to a Lt. Governor in the States," Rex once told me). L, was the local authority for archaeological affairs for the federal government in Mexico City.
Here, I digress: I had half hoped to acquire one of C's business cards without actually asking. But he never volunteered one, in spite of several bottles of Jack Daniels carried down from California. In Mexico, such a card would get one excused from any number of minor (and not so minor) transgressions. But, alas, it never happened. And fortunately, I never had need of it.
The Institute already had a campus, most of a city block, just off the Pan-American Highway on the south side of town. They had attracted and hired some teaching talent, both Mexican and American. The idea, not all that original, was that sudents, from 18 to 80 would come to Oaxaca for a week or a month for a full-immersion culture/language program while living with a Mexican family. At the time I am remembering (mid-to-late 80s), the venture seemed to be prospering in spite of early signs of strain in the four-way partnership. I made my own very modest contribution by planting a plug in the Follow the Reader column in the SF Chronicle. (Sin verguenza—shameless!) It worked.
Christmas Eve dawned bright and sunny, with that fathomless blue sky one finds at higher altitudes and southern latitudes. But my hosts were not feeling well. In fact, they could barely get out of bed. “You and Shari are our emissaries today,” Lolly told me. “We need you to take a special Christmas present to our friends, C. and L.” It was a small, framed bit of artwork. I got a glimpse before they wrapped it. All these years later, I can't even say if it was a painting or a drawing and I would be at a loss to describe the content. But I did note the small inscription in the corner, “Siqueiros, Lecumberri” and a date. It may have portrayed another prisoner, mostly naked, crouched on the cement floor of his cell, but I can't vouch for that.
The present between us on the front seat of the battered Ford van, Shari and I roared up the steep driveway out of the compound. Shari was in high spirits. Over the clatter of empty Negra Modelo cans rolling to the back of the truck, she punched up the Eagles on the cassette player. "You're riding with me today, Stewart," she yelled over the noise.
C. and L. had just moved into their new luxurious home on a hilltop outside the city. We drove up the long, winding dirt driveway and parked among half a dozen other cars at the back of the house. Present in hand, we approached the back door. We were warmly greeted and Christmas greetings were exchanged. In the living room with other guests looking on, Shari handed over the small package. L. unwrapped it with care. When she saw what it was, she was visibly shocked. "¡Un Siqueiros!" She exclaimed, showing it to her husband. "From the prison period," she said in Spanish. She passed it around for the other guests to see. The silence was hushed, if not stunned.
Gradually, conversation resumed and I did the best I could in my feeble Spanish. (Perhaps this gringo should have been first in line for langusge lessons at the institute.) Drinks and savories were offered. The drawing reposed in a temporary place of honor atop a credenza. I now know that it was one of 204 pieces done by Siqueiros during his four years in Cell No. 36 before being pardoned by Presidente Lopez Mateos in 1964. He died in January 1974, perhaps only a dozen years before this story took place.
The absurd epilog: An hour or so had passed at the Christmas party and conviviality reigned. Shari was on her second or third Modelo. In a lull in the conversation, she said “Pues (well), Estewarte, what's next?” I answered incautiously. “You're in charge. I'm in your hands.” She translated the second sentence into Spanish for the room at large, which erupted in laughter.