Friday, March 9, 2012

Ex Voto

SEFFERINO VALDERRAMA SE QUEDO DORMiDO FUMANDO Y EN SUEÑOS SE LE PARESiO LA VIRGEN DE ZAPOPAN QUE LE DiJO—DISPiERTA HIJO QUE ESTAS EN PELiGRO Y EL DESPERTO Y ViO SU COJiBA QUE SE iNSENDiABA Y iSO JUSTO EN TiENPO PARA CORRER A LA COSiNA POR AGUA Y APAGAR EL FUEGO Y ANTE ESE PORTENTOSO MiLAGRO LO DiVULGA CON ESTA RETABLO EL 25 DE ENERO DEL AÑO DE 1943

While our own house gets painted, we’ve moved into a friend’s around the corner for two weeks. The place we’ve borrowed is nostalgic and understated, a rebuilt fisherman’s cottage on the bluff above the dunes, and here and there a little quirky: it’s full of testimonies to our friend’s eye for the beauty of small and often unassuming objects. Antique patent medicine bottles in pale sea-green glass line the mantle of the fieldstone hearth; scallop shells from the beach cover a counter in the bathroom.

Along a narrow span of wall between the stairs and an office nook hangs a vertical row of five “primitive” paintings on tin panels, each depicting a narrowly averted disaster in a naïve style that might elicit more amusement than empathy if you’re not used to seeing such pictures. Two young women sit on rocks by a stream with their feet in the water, mouths round in astonishment as three cartoonish crocodiles swim toward them. In another scene, two more women bathe in a river oblivious to the men lurking in the bushes behind them. A youth dives to the bottom of a lake where another young man lies unconscious. A man leaps from a canoe to rescue an infant. A sleeper awakes to find his bed in flames, a cigarette visible on the quilt just to the side of a blaze obligingly contained between the dreamer’s feet and knees. In an upper corner of each painting appears an image of the Virgin Mary that that looks as though it might have been incompetently sculpted out of marzipan.

And then you read the testimonial added in crude script in a blank strip at the bottom of the last of these panels: “Sefferino Valderrama fell asleep smoking and in his dreams there appeared to him the Virgin of Zapopan who said to him awake son because you are in danger and he woke up and saw the coverlet which was burning up and just in time to run to the kitchen for water and to quench the fire and in view of the portentous miracle he makes it known with this retablo on 25 January in the year 1943.”

These five panels are retablos, a deep tradition of Mexican folk art, paintings in thanksgiving for deliverance from danger. I don’t know how I feel about seeing them displayed as charming objects on par with the seashells and the glass bottles. Seventy years ago Sefferino saw his survival not as blind fortune but as miracle, and presumably hung this expression of gratitude in a local church in Mexico, alongside countless other testimonials like it. Whoever he was, he chose in the very act of offering this panel to unite himself to something larger than himself: to the Power that he saw as sustaining his life; to a community disposed to affirm the presence of the Holy in deliverance from danger, rather than chalk it up to dumb luck. He performed this act of devotion to inspire reverence in the viewer, not momentary arm’s-length pleasure.

And I find myself asking, what would it be like to claim the making of retablos for myself, as a way to reflect on what’s sustained and empowered my life? What are the events, who are the people, who’ve thrown me a lifeline when I’ve needed one most? Could I make these occasions of deliverance into visible material for further reflection? Could I, like Sefferino, choose thus to bear witness to the hand of God in my life? What would a gay man’s retablo look like? Where might it be displayed, and who might see it?

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