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Cornelio Garcia Photos: Carlos Idigoras

Culture during times of Skinny Cows
Interview with Cornelio García

by Juan C. Idigoras

Culture during times of Skinny Cows
Interview with Cornelio García

You may be able to take the boy out of the countryside, but for Cornelio Garcia, unconventional spokesperson for Mexico's traditional arts, the countryside can never be removed from the boy.
Hailing from Tenamaxtlán, Jalisco, where, during his youth, his family managed a small ranch, Garcia is an old hand when it comes to promoting Mexican culture. From roving musician and globe-trotter during his youthful years, to accomplished print-maker with a degree from the prestigious San Carlos Institute in Mexico City, this prolific artist has dedicated his life to celebrating the rural roots of Mexican music, traditions and arts. With more than 20 years experience directing and producing television and radio programs on the area's most picturesque little-known places, this gregarious artist is a respected, and colorful, expert on the region's cultural scene.
We met with don Cornelio in his Guadalajara print-making studio (which he shares with artists such as Luis Valsoto, Carmen Bordes, Sergio Garval and others) to talk about his early beginnings in the world of Mexican arts.

Talking about your values, what place does culture hold for you?
Culture is very important to me. Good luck rains on privileged people who work hard. They will always reap good fortune, rain or shine, day and night, because they harvest what they sow. In my case, I was lucky enough to be able to travel all over the world with my guitar in hand. I was in the south of Spain, Florence, Amsterdam and in Paris offering to perform. A friend of mine from San Carlos said that our instruments were like our scholarships we were poor back then. One of the achievements that I'm most proud of is doing a recital in Santiago, Chile in 1973 with Victor Jara. I've had the opportunity to travel and live in great cities thanks to music and art. I may be travelling to Chile in April as a singer for a theater production sponsored by the Secretary of Education. If not, I'll go to Tecolotlán.
He continues:
Sometimes I think that culture is more important than love, because if you cultivate it you are a man of breeding, a creator, a privileged man... just like Donald Trump or Bill Gates, who have lots of money. Or like Lucerito, happy with what she has done with her life. I don't have a lot of money, but I do get a lot of invitations. In January I'm going to the experimental graphic arts studio, El Obraje, for 5 days. It is run by Rafael Zepeda, in Aguascalientes. I've been invited to do some etchings and lithographs, plus they are paying my hotel and travel expenses. I'm happy. It is an example of the small gifts culture has given me. Culture makes one think about everything. What's more, I think that during lean times culture has even more to give. Look at the Cuban people, for example, who live day by day. They recycle paper to make their etchings. The community pulls together and continues creating in order to move ahead. I have dedicated my life to this, and I'm almost always willing to collaborate in any kind of cultural project.
Your outlook, dedicating your life to promoting culture, where does that come from?
I think one should try to be a complete person. I hate it when people say I was going to be an artist, but my mother died, or I was going to be a writer, but I had to go to work. I think that should give one even more reason to paint, expressing the pain of the situation. Octavio Paz said that from misfortune springs creation. I once asked a friend why women are attracted to artists. She said, because they are free. Women love free men, so I guess there is a reason for our sentence.
How did you first get into lithography?
I studied art at the San Carlos Institute. I wanted to become a painter, but I liked lithography more. It is an art form that has been popular since Posadas. Mexico actually has a lot of international prestige in this field. In our country, the art can be traced back to the Tlacuhilos, the indigenous chroniclers who created the Mayan and Aztec codices. Indigenous drawings, they remind one of Giotto. Since then, Mexico has been known as a country of good artists and draftsmen, not to mention good narrators as well.
Besides your work producing radio programs, we understand that you are also involved in a local artist co-op.
La Torre de los Grillos. It is a collective project involving seven artists, all professionals, from painters to lithographers, and some who do both. In March 2003, we celebrated our second anniversary. It is a democratic project, completely independent from any institution. Each one of us scratches out our best, but we also support each other through meetings and agreements. Each member has certain responsibilities, and the group now runs well. Among some of our best accomplishments are the Garval awards, and meeting and working with new colleagues. I also have a space where I can paint, apart from the lithograph studio that I run with my partner, Lourdes Sosa, in the Mezquitan neighborhood.
During the beginning of our interview, you mentioned that you don't believe you are working to rescue culture....
When I worked with the Secretary of Culture, a sociologist from Mexicali who hated the word rescue because it refers to a tradition that is dying believed that some traditions and customs have to die in order for new ones to develop. While I understand what he meant, I don't agree with him. I just interviewed a person from La Yesca, Nayarit, who plays the chirimías with his grandson, a drummer. He explained that this tradition was becoming lost because many young people aren't interested in learning how to play the instrument. He showed me four chirimías with eagle heads that he had carved from wood and decorated with small mosaics and feathers. He talked about the pre-Hispanic origin of the instrument, and about his own philosophy on life and love. I guess that over the years this tradition will be lost, but in the meantime those who still carry it on are thankful for those of us who try to promote culture. I say that if this tradition is going to die, we need to do something to promote it now, while it is still alive, like making a recording for example. It is like me not knowing my grandfather, Felípe Ramirez, because he refused to have his photograph taken.
My love of Mexico's traditions began at a very early age. Being the youngest of the family, I grew up almost like an only child the penultimate brother is seven years older than I am. Unlike my siblings, I didn't have to endure the day to day toil in the fields. I guess you could say that I was a little spoiled. I spent most of my time with my mother. I'm sure she had her hands full with me. When I was four, she bought me a guitar, and a little later, a sketch pad with colored pencils, so I could sing and draw while she was doing chores around the house. It was a big house, right in front of the San Ambrosio plaza in Tenamaxtlán. My mother used to sing all the time, she was good, so more than likely that is where my love of song developed. So, I learned to play music, sing and draw as a youngster. I even wrote my own songs, I liked writing.
Outgoing by nature, Garcia warms up to the conversation by recalling memories of his father, who he says was a pivotal figure during his developing years.
I learned how to be macho from my father. He taught me how to be loyal to my beliefs, to love horses and nature, to understand carpentry and how to work the land. He also taught me how to make all kinds of things. He was very good with his hands, and, as I remember, with women too (he laughs). Actually, there was turmoil between my parents because my father was a real lady's man. His nickname was the Lightbulb (el Foco), because he was always hot. Thanks to one of his encounters, we had to move to San Buenaventura, about 10 miles from our home town, when I was seven or so. He was very loving, but also very tough at times. Before hitting you never more than three times, with a riding crop he would explain that this will build character.
A few years later, another lamentable incident caused the family to pack up and head north.
When I was eleven, one of my brothers was killed in Tecolotlán over a dispute with a mariachi. As you can imagine, this was a tremendous tragedy for my mother, who saw his body sprawled out there, practically in front of the house. In order to avoid passing the spot where the body was found every single day on his way to the mill, my father decided we should move. That's when we immigrated to the United States. We lived in Los Angeles for eight years. My father loved taking us to the Million Dollar, a theater that catered to Mexicans. We'd go see Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Luis Pérez Meza, Javier Solís, and practically all of the great singers of the time.
It was during those years in the U.S. that García's religious beliefs developed, thanks in part to his Uncle Goyo, a person he remembers fondly as forerunner to the modern day liberal-intellectual-atheist. According to García, he was a very well-read man who loved politics, polemic and imparting his convictions. A firm believer in tolerance and freedom, Garcia philosophises:
You could say I'm an atheist, because I don't believe in God. I believe in the universe, in the cosmos. When I see the sun, the moon or the stars, I think, I believe in this. While the rest of the people put their faith in God, when I have a problem I think about a painting by Tamayo call Hombre contemplando las estrellas (Man contemplating the stars). I go up to the roof, have a few tequilas, cry and think about how small I am compared to the universe. Why should my pain hurt so? The stars are millions of years old, and I am just beginning. So I realize that my problem must have an answer and that I just need to find it, especially since I'm going to be here for such a short time.
Have you ever thought about writing a book on your different experiences?
No, that's not my cup of tea. I'm happy talking, telling jokes in front of the camera or microphone. That is why I like radio and television so much. I love talking, playing with words, communicating with people. I'm sure it is because I was alone a lot as a boy. Even though I had brothers, I pretty much grew up as an only child, with my mother all day long. That's why I love being with women and talking. With the help of Bernardo Bocardo, a geographer who assisted me with a project in the countryside, we edited a piece on birria and cuachala for the Mexico City program Culturas Populares. I was in charge of the project, and he of going to the small towns in Tecalitlán, Pihuamá, Ciudad Guzmán and in southern Jalisco, where these dishes originated, to get the information. But no, I wouldn't write a book because I enjoy talking.
Cornelio García, who is also responsible for an African-Anglo-Mexican mariachi group that plays in Osaka, Zambia, talks about his plans for a recording of old Jalisco songs (soon to be released).
Yes, it is called Pa que sepas que te quiero, and is recorded with Luis Santillán's mariachi from Tecolotlán, Jalisco, and another group from Tecalitlán. The recording is currently in the works, thanks to the help of Astrid Hadad and Lucía Maya. We did an auction to raise funds, and now we are cutting a thousand cds and a thousand cassettes to start. Once I'm rich, I'll have more copies made (he smiles).
Cornelio García is like a little boy -his love of simple pleasures allows him the luxury of enjoying life to its fullest.