It’s time to bring back The High Chaparral

It’s time to bring back The High Chaparral

I have a suggestion or two how to fix Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem.

Well, maybe not fix. But at least make a good start.

The problem in perspective

In a recent commentary for CNN, Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, noted that Latinos are 18% of the US population, but 23% of the movie-going public. At the same time Latinos are the most under-cast demographic. Latinos in leading roles decreased precipitously over the last decade.

Last year, NPR reported on the findings of a study done by the University of Southern California which concluded there is an “epidemic of invisibility” and “an inclusion crisis.” According to the study, “across TV and film, the underrepresentation of non-white characters falls mostly on Hispanics. Among more than 10,000 characters whose race could be identified, proportions of white, black and Asian characters came close to U.S. population figures. But Hispanics were just 5.8 percent of characters.”

Whatever happened to “follow the money?”

I’m scratching my head over the economic angle. If such a large segment of the population is interested in cinematic entertainment and has proven itself willing to spend money on this entertainment, why doesn’t the entertainment better reflect that audience?

In an essay posted on whosay.com, award-winning actress Gina Rodriguez wrote “I am told time and time again ‘Latinos don’t watch Latino Movies. Latinos don’t support each other’ and sadly that is true . . . The industry sees money, the excuse can’t be racism . . . Let’s start making noise with where it matters most, where we put our dollars. Go support these films, watch these shows.”

To follow the money, then, we should have more projects that appeal to multiple audience segments while featuring Latinos in realistic and relatable roles.

If done right, such projects would be ripe for distribtion across the Western Hemisphere in both English and Spanish, creating powerful economic entertainment brands and paving the way for greater Latino actor opportunities.

Moment of honesty

Yes, I’m thinking of the potential of a Emilia Cruz television series or movie. Tough Latina protagonist, Acapulco in all its grime and glory under a hot sun. Danger, betrayal, corruption. Tentative attempts to have a personal life with an American lover.

All the elements of a commercial blockbuster for audiences across the Western Hemisphere, able to make a real dent in Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem with realistic characters whose issues resonate across ethnic lines.

Next best thing

If a Detective Emilia Cruz series never happens, I offer an equally compelling solution.

Remake The High Chaparral.

I grew up in the Golden Age of Westerns. Gunsmoke. The Rifleman. Laredo. All great shows but for my family, the standouts were The Big Valley and The High Chaparral.

My older sisters and I played play-acted on Saturday mornings as we did chores, with both shows as the setting. My sisters swooned over Lee Majors as Heath in The Big Valley, the saga of the rich Barkley family, and never really recovered when he later became the Six Million Dollar Man. Both wanted to link up with him in our play-acting, although now and then one of them threw a sop to actor Peter Breck, cast as middle brother Nick Barkley, and claimed him. No one ever wanted to marry Jarrod Barkley, the bookish oldest brother on the show. He wore suits and worked in an office. Nick and Heath wore six-shooters and were always outside fixing fences.

As much as we all loved The Big Valley and Barkley matriarch Barbara Stanwyck, the show that most captured our attention was The High Chaparral. Although none of us could articulate it at the time, the show stood out for its well-crafted backstory and layered relationships between family members.

Before its time

In The High Chaparral (1967-71) widowed rancher John Cannon moves to Arizona after the Civil War to make a new start for himself and his teenaged son, Blue. John’s brother Buck, a professional wanderer, comes along for the ride.

John buys ranch land from a wily Mexican, Don Sebastian Montoya, who throws in his daughter to clinch the deal. Victoria is beautiful, headstrong, and getting long in the tooth. John and Victoria reluctantly marry and she moves out to the Cannon ranch. Along with Victoria, John realizes he’s also got her brother on his hands. Manolito is charming and handsome but flighty. Everybody now has to figure out how to live together amid frontier drama and a lot of cows.

The High Chaparral had all the right stuff:

  1. A rocky marriage that becomes a true romance,
  2. Awkward stepmother-stepson relationship, with Blue trying to come to grips with his father’s iron will and find his own path,
  3. Respectful multicultural elements, with authentic Latino characters instead of caricatures or stereotypes.
  4. Sibling rivalry: John Cannon owns the ranch, Buck owns his horse and saddle. Manolito doesn’t want to be tied down; Victoria wants him to grow up.
  5. The bromance between Buck and Manolito provided comic relief with peppery dialogue and plots that got them off the ranch and into trouble. Neither man was completely trustworthy.

Both my sisters were in love with Henry Darrow, who played Manolito.  Cameron Mitchell as Buck Cannon, however, sat out Saturday mornings in the corner with Jarrod Barkley.

High Chaparral group photo

Photo courtesy thehighchaparral.com L-R Leif Erickson (John Cannon), Mark Slade (Blue Cannon), Linda Cristal (Victoria Cannon), Henry Darrow (Manolito Montoya), Cameron Mitchell (Buck Cannon)

Updating The High Chaparral

The High Chaparral broke ground but I’d update it a bit for today’s audience. Still a multi-cultural, multi-generational show, but with a few tweaks:

  • Close the age range between Victoria and John. Give her more of a backstory and reason of her own to marry John. Possibly make her a widow with a young child.
  • Both John and Buck are veterans of the Civil War. Emphasize this to reflect today’s veterans’ experience and what we know about PTSD.
  • Emphasize the dramatic landscape with overhead shots to emphasize the difficulty of scraping out a life in the old West and the tension it brings to interpersonal relationships.

Something for everybody

A new version of The High Chaparral would have something for everybody:

The Latino audience = true-to-life characters, no stereotypes or caricatures

Romantics = the evolution of John and Victoria’s love story

Bromantics = the Buck and Manolito show

Millenials = Blue as millennial character navigating stern father, plus “mentors” Buck and Manolito

Blue Bloods viewers = Multi-age cast, family values, overdue return of the Western

Blended family advocates = Sibling rivalries, Victoria as stepmother, John as stepfather, plus troublesome brothers and scheming father-in-law

Solving problems, one show at a time

There you have it. A Detective Emilia Cruz show and a remake of The High Chaparral. Two suggestions for solving Hollywood’s Latino diversity problem.

I’m now off to tackle world peace.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

When Detective Emilia Cruz Meets Santa Muerte

When Detective Emilia Cruz Meets Santa Muerte

Every Detective Emilia Cruz novel uses unique aspects of Mexican culture to create crimes and situations that would not be possible anywhere else.

In PACIFIC REAPER, Emilia confronts the cult of Santa Muerte, the saint of death embraced by drug cartels. Someone is killing gang members and leaving altars to Santa Muerte next to the victims. Emilia doesn’t believe in the power of the Skeleton Saint, as some call her, but when something bad happens to everyone who is important to Emilia, she jumps at the chance to go undercover as a worshipper.

Related post: Coming soon! PACIFIC REAPER

Who or what is Santa Muerte?

Condemned by the Catholic Church, the popularity of Santa Muerte continues to grow. She’s the personification of death but wears many hats: angel of death, miracle worker, love doctor, supernatural healer, protector of believers.

In 2013, as US law enforcement saw more evidence of Santa Muerte associated with narco crimes in the US, the FBI published a 3 part report on Santa Muerte, with the warning that  “Law enforcement professionals who encounter Santa Muerte artifacts and related narcotics cult paraphernalia at crime scenes should not dismiss them hastily.”

Read the whole report. Intended for law enforcement officials, it is a bit dry but fascinating reading nonetheless.

Santa Muerte gallery

The cult of Santa Muerte is rich in visual drama. The saint is usually depicted as a skeleton holding a sythe in one hand and a globe in the other and wearing a hooded robe akin to the West’s Grim Reaper figure.

Photo credit FBI — A white Santa Muerte statue surrounded by candles and liquor

Photo credit AP Photo/Guillermo Arias — Santa Muerte charm found along with a weapons haul from a cartel-related crime scene

Colors have different meanings in the Santa Muerte universe. In PACIFIC REAPER, Emilia first encounters a black altar, which is intended for power against enemies. Later, undercover as a worshipper, she carries a yellow robed Santa Muerte statue to a ritual event. Emilia’s cover is that she is there to ask for her mother to be healed.

Related post: Book Review: Devoted to Death

Business insider had a great gallery of Santa Muerte photos when it reported on Pope Francis’s trip to Mexico.

Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut’s website has a blog on the home page with the street view of Santa Muerte, including this post about a shrine in the state of Michoacan.

Photo credit: Reuters/Claudia Daut — Tequila is poured over a white (for purity) Santa Muerte statue carried in a young girl’s pink backpack.

Emilia’s undercover adventure as a Santa Muerte worshipper is part evangelical happening, part criminal mastermind at work. The result is shocking, to say the least and a milestone for both reader and writer . . .

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

When a Favorite Teacher Shows Creativity and Compassion

When a Favorite Teacher Shows Creativity and Compassion

My favorite teacher was Mr. Taverna. He was the only male teacher in the elementary school and undoubtedly the most famous. Everyone in town knew that Mr. Taverna was a great teacher and it was quite a coup if you got in his fourth grade class.

First, his math technique was called Delicious Fractions. We got to have fudge and pizza while we learned math! Second, there were his stories. Mr. Taverna wrote a series about a mythical town in Italy featuring Professor Pasta and the pepper bomb. He read an excerpt to the class once a week. We lived for that magical once-a-week story hour. It was never long enough.

Years later, as I began writing my own stories, I realized how lucky I was to have experienced his class and the natural creativity he offered his students. As I struggle with the intricacies of my own mystery series, I wonder now how he came up with the plots. I wonder, too, if Mr. Taverna’s stories were meant to ease concerns of youngsters living in the shadow of a Strategic Air Command base during the height of the Cold War.

But mostly I wonder why I was lucky enough to have Mr. Taverna as an influence in my life. He was the first person I ever met who wrote stories others wanted to hear. I wanted to do that, too. How did I end up in the right classroom at the perfect time, ready to be impressed by an authority figure who showed that it was astoundingly okay to make stuff up and write it down?

I’d like to think every child is lucky enough to encounter at least one influential teacher but also know that plenty of children around the world never get any decent schooling at all.

Not cool.

As a writer, I want to see global literacy rates improve. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the global literacy rate is 86.3%, which isn’t too bad. But there are some countries like Afghanistan, Chad, and Mali where the rate is 40% or less.

Literacy is just one indicator of well-being but it’s also a tool to help children and CompassionBloggers.com is doing a great job of doing just that. Bloggers affiliated with the site spread the word and visit child advocacy programs in places like Nicaragua where I saw firsthand the meagre educational opportunities for children in rural areas.

If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I’m a strong supporter of Water.org for the same reason. Global communities under stress need the basics in order to boost education and become economically viable.

As I write this post, in my mind’s eye I see Mr. Taverna: Curly gray hair, wide 1970’s tie, an open notebook on his lap as he reads the latest thrilling installment. He showed us that we could do more than be a bunch of small-town kids.

And he did it with compassion.

Who was your favorite teacher?

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Fiesta Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Fiesta Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexico’s rich culture is a big part of my Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco and inspired a new project: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. This free guide is a collection of great stories from 36 experts who shared their insider tales of where to eat, play, swim, and stay in Mexico. Here are a few of the fiestas from the free Insider’s Guide, which you can get here.

Merida Weekends

Mexican fiesta in MeridaMérida weekends are all about fun. The Plaza Grande is huge and inviting. Flanked by the oldest cathedral on mainland America, it’s filled with covered stands selling the colorful embroidered clothing of the region, toys, and musical instruments. Food stands ring the edges. The people of this region are the friendliest in all Mexico. Sunday is the day for people to bloom. It begins with everyone headed to church in puffy jackets, since the temperature can plummet overnight to 72º Fahrenheit.

On the Paseo Montejo, a Victorian promenade boulevard, white horse-drawn carriages beckon. When sisal fiber, a product of the agave plant, was developed for rope and clothing in the 1880s, the wealthy planters built their townhouses on this street. France offered design ideas, and the influence of the Second Empire was strong. Here their daughters were introduced into society, and their sons into business. This was the only period of great wealth the Yucatán ever had. When artificial fibers came in, it was over within 75 years.

On Sunday, the Paseo’s outbound direction is closed to traffic. It streams with families on foot and on bicycles. The greatest of these mansions, the Palacio Cantón, is now the Anthropology and History Museum, which houses a stunning collection of artifacts from the surrounding jungle cities.

John Scherber, author of the Paul Zacher mystery series and other books, www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

San Blas Day

San Blas is a centuries-old west coast port town, rich in history and character but always struggling to outgrow its status as a second class tourist town. Still more kin to Bogart’s Casablanca than to contemporary Cancún, the town is too old to put on Riviera airs. Long accustomed to conquistadors, adventurers, and schemers, San Blas has come to comfortable terms with itself, past and present, mellow and wise with endurance, unimpressed with the slick and pretentious; a Mexican port town of hard-working fishermen, shopkeepers, and restauranteurs, not a resort catering to the pampered tourist.

San Blas dayNamed after the martyr St. Blaise, fourth century physician and Bishop of Sebastia, Armenia, San Blas celebrates its namesake Feast Day on February 3 each year with religious processions, a parade of floats and local children in native costume, dances in the plaza, and the old-style firework tower of screaming, smoking, whistling, whirring explosive madness that would cause strokes in State-side mothers and OSHA inspectors.

The fiesta highlight comes with a procession taking the saint’s statue from the church, parading him through town with a brass band, then transporting him on a shrimp boat out the estuary to the Rock of the Virgin with all the local fishermen and their families following in a fleet of decorated boats.

On the open Pacific waters each boat passes under St. Blaise in the shrimp boat bow to receive blessing of sprinkled holy water and a prayer for year’s bounteous catch.

Then there’s fiesta.

Robert Richter, author of the Cotton Waters mystery series, http://www.robertrichterauthor.com/

Related: Why set a Mystery in Mexico

Monumental Alebrije Parade

The story goes that alebrijes, colorful monsters with parts of various animals, were first seen in the nightmares of cartonería (paper maché) artist Pedro Linares in the 1950s, who claimed they whispered their name to him.

Paper float from MexicoTrue or not, this story is part of the lore that the creatures have as both scary and magical at the same time. Their allure in Mexico City and beyond has only grown over the decades and can be credited with saving cartonerìa. In 2007, the Popular Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular) decided to challenge artisans to create “monster-sized” versions which have over the years exceeded over two meters in height and five meters in length. My husband and I have been fortunate to work with this innovative museum and receive special permission to cover this event and others for Wikipedia and my blog.

The giant creatures are created as a labor of love, to appear only in one parade, taking months to make, not to mention many kilos of paper, paste, wire and more. Each year the alebrijes become more creative, both in design and the materials used, although cartonería is always the base. On the day of the parade in October, these creations are wheeled by their makers and others from the main square of Mexico City to the Angel of Independence monument. The event draws thousands of spectators as well as extensive local media coverage.

Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, Professor in English as a Second/Foreign Language, Tec de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México, Mexico City creativehandsofMexicodotorg.wordpress.com

Ready for the rest? Get the FREE Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico here.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

As a mystery writer, my Detective Emilia Cruz police procedural series usually explores the dark side of Mexico: cartel violence, police corruption, and missing persons.

But Mexico’s rich culture is as much of a character in the books as Emilia herself. Mexico’s art, food, landscapes, and history create a dramatic setting for a mystery series.

I’m not the only one inspired by Mexico’s cultural riches: 36 experts got together to write The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Read this excerpt about Mexico’s art world then get the FREE Guide here.

The Otomí Embroidery of Hidalgo

The colorful embroidery work of Mexico’s Otomí women has become a popular textile around the world. The cheerful combination of animals (birds, rabbits, deer, dogs, insects) with swirling flowers is frequently seen in many American design magazines and can be used for bedspreads, tablecloths, headboard covers, wall hangings lampshades and other creative craft projects. These large textiles, known as “Tenangos” because of the region they come from in Hidalgo (Tenango de Doria), come in many different colors and a few standard sizes. The textile is not available as a bolt of fabric (as many people request) but in a few standard sizes.

Otomi cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon

Usually Otomi embroideries  are done on an off-white muslin background, occasionally on black or gray cotton. The lore is that they are a more recent development in the traditional arts of Mexico and some say they are based on some cave paintings in Hidalgo state. That’s been hard to verify. Many of the small towns within the Tenango region are home to women’s collectives who make and sell these beautiful works of art.

Each 6′ by 6′ piece is one-of-a-kind and takes a approximately three months to complete. The designs are drawn in water-soluble pencil or marker on off-white 100% cotton muslin and then hand-embroidered. Women often work together on a piece using their embroidery hoops and sitting and chatting.

The Otomí live in various regions of Mexico–Hidalgo, Puebla, Oaxaca, Mexico–and their textiles can be found throughout the country due to a very good distribution system. If you purchase an Otomí piece on a vacation to the coasts of Mexico be careful about the quality, for it can vary widely depending on the skill of the artisan. If you are interested in a high quality piece that has been personally selected, take a look at our current stock!

Anne Damon, Owner of Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

Mural Art in Ajijic

I first visited the small village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala in 1980, looking for art. Ajijic had gained the reputation of being the artistic center of the Chapala Riviera. Over the years the village had attracted many foreign artists, including such famous names as Sylvia Fein and Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson). More recently, art education programs, now managed by the Lake Chapala Society, have helped stimulate a formidable pool of local talent.

Mexican mural

Photo courtesy Tony Burton

Ajijic does have its studios and galleries, but much of the art on view today is public. Colorful murals and artwork provide interesting diversions on any stroll around the village. A large tree stump on the plaza has been given an extraordinary new lease of life by local sculptor Estela Hidalgo. The centerpiece of the Ajijic Cultural Center is a vivid mural by Jesús López Vega telling the story of the lake’s mythological fish-princess Teo-michicihualli. More than a dozen other murals grace this lively artistic village, where the art scene today is even more vibrant and creative than ever before.

Tony Burton, author of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury, and Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales, http://sombrerobooks.com

Emilio Sosa Medina: Scary and Beautiful

Tucked into a small space near the corner of Hidalgo and López Mateos, sits an unassuming little store, Artesanías Glenssy.  The walls are hung with brilliantly colored, very scary creatures.

artisit profile

Photo courtesy Lynda Lock

The artist’s name is Emilio Sosa Medina, and he was born in Yobain Yucatan in 1955. A political activist since he was a teenager, Emilio left his home town in 1974 to move to Isla Mujeres.

In 1986 Emilio took lessons at the local Casa de la Cultura to learn paper maché techniques and he was intrigued by the possibilities. Using up to 40 kilos (87 pounds) of newsprint for some of his larger sculptures Emilio creates supernatural beings from Mayan mythology, plus his own fantastic monsters.

Crafting each intricate piece is a slow process. Layer upon layer of newsprint are carefully formed over a wire frame and left for several days to dry naturally in the warm Caribbean climate. Several coats of vivid acrylics, followed by a final glaze of clear polymer resin, give the paper maché vibrancy and character.

Even though Mexican mask folk art has been in existence for thousands of years, Emilio brings new life to the art form. His one-of-a-kind pieces enhance interior spaces in homes on Isla Mujeres, and around the world. His legacy of scary and beautiful sculptures will live on beyond his time.

Lynda Lock, author and blogger, www.amazon.com/author/lyndalock

Retablos

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. 

–Excerpt, The Hidden Light of Mexico City 

religious retablo inspires a mystey series

Photo courtesy of Carmen Amato

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capture a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.

In one, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from an ox (el buey) in Jalisco. The other depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetery in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey.

Just like you.

Carmen Amato, author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, carmenamato.net

The Collective Muse

As an artist, I have found that I have become a much more enriched artist by travelling to Mexico. In fact, I can directly attribute my journey in expansion of form from writing to painting to photography to my annual trips to Mexico. When you develop a passion for a place and for its people, you develop a way of seeing that culture in a way that you can’t with that which has become familiar. You begin to appreciate differences, rather than sameness and you feel safe in this unfamiliarity. You are more willing to step outside of yourself and there is a natural sensation that is triggered that requires one to have an appetite for more than just the local cuisine. Language, skin color, mannerisms, landscape, design choices and leisure preferences all become intriguing and an inspiration for the development of new works of art. I have travelled the world and I have settled finally in a place with people and customs that I am so happy to collectively call my muse: Guayabitos, Mexico.

Kim Peto, painter and photographer, http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/kim-peto.html

Insider Guide to the Best of MexicoThe Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico was written by 36 experts who want to share their best Mexican stories with you. Download the free guide today.

You’ll also get the free monthly Mystery Ahead with featuring protips, reviews, book news, and interviews with my fellow mystery and thriller authors. The Emilia Cruz series has already been optioned for film and readers of Mystery Ahead will be the first to hear all the production details. 

 

 

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Art and the Greek Economic Crisis

Art and the Greek Economic Crisis

Although many of my books are set in Mexico, and I write frequently about current events there, the years I spent in Greece also live in my heart. So I can’t help worrying about how the Greek economic crisis will impact the friends who still live there.

The crisis grows

CNN and Fortune and the Wall Street Journal can explain what is going on in Greece better than a mystery author, of course. But I know that Europe is tired of bailing out Greece’s years of poor economic decisions. As a result, Greece is likely to default on the billions it owes.

Deadlines are looming. Greek banks have closed, the Greek stockmarket is in a death spiral, and tourists are being advised that their credit cards might not be welcome because people need cash now. Watch CNN’s coverage here. Fortune magazine predicted the current trouble back in April.

Greece’s new government was elected on a “no knuckling under” to Europe platform, which was popular and patriotic. But the consequences of not building a bailout partnership with the rest of Europe were possibly not sufficiently understood.

Related post: One heart, three tragedies

The art flows

One friend who is in Greece is Amalia Melis, a writer and artist whose Aegean Arts Circle writing workshops are held annually on the Greek island of Andros. She has channeled her energies into sculptures made of found items that symbolize what is going on in the country. I keep promising to help her set up a website to showcase her absorbing works, which have been shown in juried shows in both the US and Europe, as well as her writing and photography.

She recently gifted me with one of her sculptures, an assemblage she called “Carmen’s Mystery.”

sculpture by Amalia Melis

The curved pieces of iron are old bedsprings. The disk in the center is perforated metal and I wonder where it came from; what curious bit of European machinery it once enabled. I love the contrast between the flash of the shiny strip of steel and the old darkened disk. The bead looks to be tiger eye; a nod to Detective Emilia Cruz’s fighting spirit, perhaps. The overall circle is not wholly complete, smaller circles branch off and create more motion and intrigue.

No matter how crazy the Greek economic crisis gets, when I look at this piece of imagination, I have to believe that the talent and spirit of the Greeks will carry them through.

Related post: 10 Ways to Think About Greece

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Can a mystery author who writes about sunny Mexico really love cold places?

Yep. Besides Mexico, where my mystery series is set, my favorite country (except for home) is Norway. Not only does the country have superb natural vistas of mountains and fjords, but Norway’s history is likewise fairly amazing, if little known. Yes, Virginia, there’s more to Norway than Vikings, Voss water, and fellow mystery author Jo Nesbo.

Spectacular moments and singular people

Amundsen with dogsled and flag

Picture of Roald Amundsen courtesy The Sunday Times, UK

  • Norwegian Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to the South Pole, beating out British explorer Robert Scott
Nansen passport

Picture courtesy World Digital Library

  • Norwegian explorer and statesman Fritjof Nansen’s Nansen Passport enabled WWI refugees to remake their lives
Norwegian resistance fighters

Picture courtesy cryptomuseum.com

  • The Norwegian Resistance fought during WWII  with courage and distinction

Related post: Remembering Resistance 

  • The nation of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy looked eerily like Norway’s traditional architecture. Okay, so this is the fabled battle scene when the Rohirrim ride against the orcs, not anything architectural. But a great bit of film and you should watch it.

Museums

Stave Church

Stave Church

I’ve been lucky to visit Norway twice and fell in love with the cobalt blue sky, crystal clear water, excellent (albeit pricey) shopping, and terrific museums. The Fram Museum houses the specially built polar ship that carried Nansen north and Amundsen south. The Folk Museum, where the Stave Church is located–the interior of which was very dark and smelled like bacon–is an immense meadow outside of Oslo filled with period homes.

Related post: The Kitchen UN

It was at the Folk Museum that I learned the Norwegian words for King (Konge) and Queen (Dronning) when I bought a huge paper doll poster. Awkward to carry home, I had notions of framing it. I still do.

King, Queen, and costumes

If cut out, Konge and Dronning would be bigger than Barbie and Ken. Each doll has several different costumes, just like these smaller paper doll postcards of Norwegian folk costumes also purchased at the Folk Museum.Unni and Elin paper dollspaper doll from Norwaytraditional Norwegian paper dollsAllied costumes

The last paper doll postcard is the most interesting of all, as it looks like 1940’s fashions. Norway struggled under German occupation 1940-1945. When reading accounts of those days it doesn’t seem that many women were wearing ball gowns or fancy dresses.

Another mystery?

For a couple of years, I’ve been gathering notes for a thriller set in Oslo during WWII. It is loosely inspired by OSLO INTRIGUE, the real-life account of Helen Astrup, a British woman who worked for the Norwegian Resistance during the war.

I don’t know when I’ll write the thriller. Maybe after I finish the latest Detective Emilia Cruz.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

If you read this blog with any regularity you know the following;

Talavera Pottery

The latest thing to jog my imagination is talavera, the beautiful and colorful Mexican pottery. The only authentic talavera comes from Puebla and the surrounding villages “because of the quality of the natural clay found there and the tradition of production which goes back to the 16th century.

talavera

Traditional talavera pieces. The store owner eyed me suspiciously when I took the picture but was less suspicious when ringing up my purchases.

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

You can buy talavera online at La Fuente and Direct from Mexico.

Tasty Writing

Talavera was featured in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. The main protagonist, Eddo Cortez Castillo, is from Puebla. His family runs one of the oldest and wealthiest talavera companies.

Talavera,” Tomás said. “The Cortez family owns Marca Cortez, half of Puebla, and the land the new Volkswagen factory is on. Eddo is still the family’s legal advisor and sits on the board of directors. Don’t know how he finds the time. It helps that he never sleeps.”

Eddo is rich. Richer than the Vegas, even richer than the Portillos. “Puebla,” Luz said. “The city or the state?”

“Both.”

Phenomenally rich.

Real talavera is relatively expensive, although when I lived in Mexico City it was popular to go to Puebla and order service for 8 of a particular pattern. I knew of one family in Mexico City that refused to let their domestic help eat off of their talavera plates, prompting this intense scene in HIDDEN LIGHT.

Luz blinked at her sister. Lupe’s bottom lip was trembling. “Okay,” Luz said, drawing it out. A tiny white lie could put this awkward conversation to rest and Maria could be told the truth later. Luz took a deep breath as if embarrassed. “I . . . uh . . . broke a dish.”

“Six hundred fifty pesos for a dish?” Tío shouted. Everyone jumped. Someone’s spoon clattered to the floor.

Luz shrugged. “It was talavera.

Tío’s hand hit Luz’s cheekbone with a stinging smack. Her head snapped back, her eyes watered, the room sparkled with vertigo and she tasted blood.

Through a curtain of dizziness, Luz watched Juan Pablo rise up and throw a wide looping punch across the table. He put his weight behind it, his chair spurting out behind him, his feet nearly coming off the floor. Fist connected with jaw and Tío spilled to the floor.

“Don’t you touch my sister!” Juan Pablo yelled furiously.

“She’s a stupid girl,” Tío roared, scrambling to his feet. “Breaking dishes when her family needs the money.”

“So you can drink it?” Juan Pablo was barely in control.

“Lupe is pregnant,” Tío shouted.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you get a job?”

Tío threw a counterpunch across the table but Juan Pablo was younger and faster and sober. He jerked back to avoid the blow, then lunged forward, and suddenly they were snarling and grappling like two wild dogs, hands locked in each other’s shirts. The table between them rocked wildly as they wrestled over the dishes and the tortillas and the clay cazuela full of rice and seafood, ready to kill each other in the small cramped kitchen with everyone else sitting like shocked statues. Plastic glasses spun crazily and tipped over, flatware clattered to the floor, and Luz’s plate slid onto her lap.

I have a few pieces of talavera and this fishy pitcher is my favorite.

Carmen Amato bookshelf

My talavera pottery fish serves a noble purpose

 

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s  Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Little Silver Miracles

Little Silver Miracles

I’ve been thinking about visual inspiration lately, as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Thankfully, Mexico is replete with visual cues to creativity, from large (the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City’s Zocalo, assorted volcanoes) to small (shots of tequila, Chupa Pops, silver milagros).

The word milagro means “miracle.” Milagros are small charms, typically silver or tin, that represent an intention. The Zanzibar art website, which carries folk art from around the world, talks about milagros on its page devoted to Mexico.

The bearer typically is asking a saint to intercede on their behalf. They may be asking for health after an injury or illness, a successful romance, or the survival of their livestock. The charms are in the shape of an item related to the request, such as arms, legs, hearts, animals, etc.

The requestor leaves the milagro at the shrine of the saint that they are asking to intercede on their behalf. Mexico is full of statues and crosses covered with the silver charms, including those pinned to ribbons or threads adorning a statue. In many cases, the milagros are pinned to clothing worn by a statue. A milagro can also be carried for protection and good luck, in the way Detective Emilia Cruz carried her rosary with her in DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.

I used a milagro as visual inspiration in The Angler, a stand-alone short story that takes place before the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

When I left Mexico, I took some milagros with me, in the form of this crucifix and a shape known as a Sacred Heart.silver charms adorn a purple cross

Mexican milagros charms

I’m writing in the room where they hang. KING PESO is coming together, albeit slowly.

Not that I’m praying for an intercession, mind you.

But visual inspiration that turns into faster typing wouldn’t hurt.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

She came back a moment later with a box decorated in the traditional rayada carved lacquer technique. It was the size of a loaf of bread and the bottom was fitted with a small drawer with a tiny gold knob.

This is a most special and precious item,” Tifani said as she moved the other items aside and spread a velvet cloth over the glass-topped counter. Lupita placed the box reverently on the fabric. “A relic of the most holy martyr Padre Pro.”

Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. “Really? Padre Pro?”

“Who’s that?” Kurt asked.

“Padre Pro,” Emilia said, as her heart thumped. She was glad she was already sitting down. The rayada box was lacquered in blue and black with an etched design of crosses rather than the usual animal motifs. “He was a priest. A martyr of the Cristero War.”  (DIABLO NIGHTS)

As I start work on the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO,  I’ve been collecting (at least mentally) the unique Mexican influences that will underpin the story. Visual inspiration is important to me, as readers of this blog might have guessed by now, and I’ve done the same for all of the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Related post: Acapulco: Locating the Emilia Cruz Series

The quote above from the first chapter of DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd book in the mystery series, narrowed the country’s turbulent religious history down to a riveting moment in a Catholic shop. But my favorite detail was about the box containing a purported relic from Padre Pro, the real-life Catholic martyr.

In DIABLO NIGHTS, the relic is housed in a rayada box. Rayada is the Mexican technique of carving lacquer. Markets in Mexico are never without trays, boxes, and even gourds decorated with this painstaking technique. When we lived in Mexico City, I was picky, always looking for the right shade of red or bypassing pieces that weren’t as finely made.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

I now wish I’d bought more besides the two below. The red box, with its exceptionally detailed lacquer carving, has long contained my desk supplies and directly inspired Padre Pro’s relic box. The small tray functions as a coaster for my coffee mug.red rayada laquer box from mystery serieslacquer box from Emilia Cruz mystery seriesrayada technique tray from mystery series author Carmen Amato

I never knew just how much effort went into these little artistic gems, until I read ta description from worldexperience.com. Possibly as much time as it took me to write DIABLO NIGHTS, if you don’t count the time I spent rearranging sticky notes on the master outline, pretending to be both characters during Emilia-Silvio argument scenes, and drinking coffee.

Diablo Nights by Carmen AmatoSo what happens in DIABLO NIGHTS after the infamous rayada box is opened?

Tifani slid the drawer closed and opened the lid of the box. She took out two pieces of styrofoam and set them aside. She reached back inside the box and drew out a small rectangular display case. Lupita whisked aside the now-empty enamel box and Tifani set the glass case on the velvet pad and turned it so that the front faced Emilia and Kurt.

The sides and top of the display case were made of clear glass. The wooden base was stained a dark mahogany and bore a small brass plaque with an inscription that read A Relic of the Most Holy Martyr Blessed Padre Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J. 1891-1927.

The back was decorated with a color picture of a priest in a bloody cassock lying with arms outstretched at the feet of an officer holding a sword and wearing a garish Napoleon-style uniform.

But it was the object inside the display case that took Emilia’s breath away. A long-lost relic of Padre Pro. Her life had come full circle.

 

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

One Heart, Three Tragedies

One Heart, Three Tragedies

Three places I love are bleeding and all I can do is watch and pray.

Mexico

As many readers know, my years in Mexico and Central America provided the impetus for my mystery and thriller novels and part of my heart will always be in Mexico. But the country has been rocked by the horrific story of the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the rural teacher training college in Ayotzinapa, “a college with a tradition of left-wing political activism,” according to BBC reporting.

flag printAuthorities in Mexico City say the students were rounded up by police “allegedly on the orders of the mayor of the nearby town of Iguala, “who wanted to prevent them from disrupting a speech his wife was giving at a public event that evening.” The students were then handed over to a gang known for violence. Gang members killed the students, burned the bodies, and discarded the remains in trash bags. One student has been identified from the remains. No closure for the other 42 families as of yet, despite more arrests.

Gang members, the mayor, his wife, and the police chief have all been arrested. Now there is a call for an investigation into the army. Meanwhile, the hashtag #YaMeCanse (I am tired) has become a rallying cry against Mexico’s drug violence and the mounting numbers of missing.

Related post: Entitlement, Mexico Style

If all this wasn’t enough, as federal investigators were combing the hillsides of the state of Guerrero (where the Emilia Cruz mystery series is set) they kept finding other mass graves. How much is too much!?

Surely there will be an end to the violence someday. In the meantime, I’m praying for answers.

Greece

I also have wonderful memories of living in Greece and regularly correspond with friends who are still there. In fact, Greece is where I wrote the first, 800-page (!) draft of The Hidden Light of Mexico City. We treated the crazy Greek bureaucracy, radical protests, and garbage strikes with humor. But in time we realized these events reflected systemic failure.

broken old potteryThis coming Sunday, Greeks will take to the polls in yet another drama related to the country’s ongoing financial crisis and overwrought political scene. Riding high is Alexis Tsipras, from the far radical left Syriza Party which would do away with the austerity measures Greece was forced to adopt in order to get billions in bailout money from the EU. The Wall Street Journal reported that the already beseiged Greek economy is in a tailspin over a potential Syriza win at the polls.

Should Tsipras win and make good on his promises to walk away from Greece’s promises to the EU, it would mean an epic financial crisis. But maybe he’s got support because austerity has simply exhausted the Greek spirit. The Economist reports that “Although the economy is now growing again, Greek voters remain understandably enraged that GDP should have shrunk by almost 20% since 2010 and that unemployment is still as high as 26%.” According to UK newspaper The Guardian, “Many Greeks will be inclined to vote for the insurgents as much out of hopelessness as helplessness.”

No matter what the outcome, I’m praying for restraint.

France

I went to college for a year in Paris, long before there were euros and the internet. My best friend and I lived in the 17th Arondissment–the high rent district. It was a year of important life experiences, set against the backdrop of the City of Lights.

Girl Meets Paris book coverBut the news coming out of Paris this month has been nothing like that. Terrorist rampages, manhunts, sleeper cells, mass shootings. Like so many others, I’ve been glued to the news, remembering locations and events that brought me so much joy, and shocked by what today’s  journalists are reporting.

I’ve been tinkering with a memoir, based on my letters, of my year in Paris. “Girl Meets Paris” captures all the joy and excitement of discovering Paris.

Maybe publishing could be part of the healing process, because I’m praying for recovery.

 

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