Since my last post I’ve been to a film festival in Mexico.
I was invited to speak at a university in the border town of Mexicali, in a fertile farming region east of San Diego. The UABC, Auotnomous University of Baja California, held its first film festival and I had the honor of opening the event with a presentation on the Writer’s Journey. My host was the head of the UABC film school, Professor Sergio Ortiz, a passionate documentarian of Mexican life and a renowned teacher of film-making. He filled my head with tales of “magic Mexico” and introduced me to a rich world bubbling with creativity and spirit.
Like most North Americans I knew next to nothing about Mexicali but quickly discovered it is the center of a unique universe, a separate world as distinct as Portugal, South Korea or Bavaria, with many surprising influences. The region is a below-sea-level desert like Death Valley, with some of the hottest temperatures anywhere, but enterprising explorers recognized that it had once been an ancient seabed, and that its soil and sunshine could produce abundant crops if water could be provided. So railroads and a canal were built by Chinese laborers, bringing water from the Colorado River. Chinese far outnumbered Mexicans in those days because the tycoons refused to hire Mexican laborers, and Mexicali still has a thriving Chinese population, largest in Mexico, and a Chinatown-style district, called La Chinesca. The desert floor was turned into huge farms growing cotton, fruits and vegetables and the area is still a major supplier of food to the U. S. It’s also become another Silicon Valley with tech companies building “maquiladoras” or factories near the border. Nearby are other towns where French, German and British influences can be found in customs and cuisine because of early attempts to colonize or exploit the resources of the place.
Like all places in the world it is haunted, swarming with the spirits and ideas of all those who have lived and died there, peopled by dream figures, heroes and monsters, devils and temptresses. We jumped at the chance to take a drive with a young film professor, Paulina, and a student, Luis, out to a mysterious region known as La Rumorosa, a high plateau amidst stony mountains, whose name suggests the wind that constantly whispers up there. We wanted to see some rock paintings made by the people who lived there as nomads a thousand years ago, including one famous image of a figure with strange snaky horns sprouting from his head, called El Diablito, the Little Devil. Supposedly the winter solstice sun shines through a cleft in the rocks, sending a shaft of light that illuminates just the eyes of the figure. He looked like a playful shaman to me, a Trickster.
All summer and fall I traveled to different countries to conduct my workshops and feel like a stone being tumbled in a mechanical rock polisher. Each country has done something to me, grinding away at what I thought was an already fully-formed personality. I emerge from the tumbler smoother, calmer somehow. It has to do with the people in all these countries. They have changed me. It started in Portugal, where I could see that people were warmer and more open, more human, than is ordinary in L.A. I enjoyed this feeling and tried to bring it back with me to the city, discarding the nervous, guarded, suspicious attitude that is the L.A. social norm. I found if I greeted strangers with the open, curious, accepting view I had seen in Portugal, they soon relaxed and treated me more humanly, even in L.A.