Cesar Ivan: Dreaming Downtown El Paso

Artist Cesar Ivan has been living on the top floor of that goofy but wonderful pie-shaped building on the southwest corner of Mesa and Texas for eight or nine years now, cobbling together a living from his art, his hand-made puppets, steel furniture and other bits and pieces of imaginative capitalism. For a number of years, he had three paintings hanging in now-disappeared Lumenbrite (reborn now as el Percolator)--"El Carnaval Social," "El Hombre Fuerte" and "La Mujer de Dos Cabezas." Those paintings, for many of us, have become an emblem of Downtown El Paso of the last 15 years. They are fine art and important cultural artefacts. Cesar has been dreaming downtown El Paso much like Diego Rivera dreamed La Alameda in DF around 80 years ago.

I'd like to say this loudly: I cannot understand why the art museum hasn't strong-armed some angel to buy those pieces to help us document the cultural and imaginative ferment of El Paso here at the cusp between centuries.

In the near future I'll be writing a blog entry or two about those works, but in the meantime I wanted to put this short video up on youtube and on my blog. It documents a recent visit to Cesar's home and studio. I carried along my little FLIP video camera which has lousy sound but sure makes for a quick and dirty way to get something up on the internet. Enjoy Cesar Ivan. He's becoming an important element of our collective imagination in El Paso.

Here's "El Carnaval Social"--


Rules for Burying Your Mother

Darl Bundren, the one who they sent off to the insane asylum in Jackson, said this:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I dont know what I am. I dont know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that brought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because the wagon is was, and Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.

Darl’s brother Cash, the carpenter who crafted his mother’s coffin, said this:

I made it on the bevel.

1. There is more surface for the nails to
2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up and down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress comes slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel.
10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down on the bevel.
11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress being up-and-down.
12. So I made it on the bevel.
13. It makes a neater job.

And Vardaman, the half-wit little brother of Darl and Cash, said this:

My mother is a fish.

▲ ▲

All this of course is from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. I listened to it recently on a superb recording that I bought from audible.com. The production by Random House Audio included four actors (two men, two women) performing the fifteen different characters. The recording is superb. All of the performers really had a taste for Faulkner’s dialects as well as his understanding. I was blown away. This section I have quoted is just before (I believe, I took my library copy back) Addie Bundren dies and the Bundren family puts her in the box to carry her off to Jefferson. Darl, sort of a white trash savant who will be carted off to an insane asylum at the end of the novel for trying to burn up his mother’s coffin by setting fire to a barn, has been watching his brother make the coffin; Cash is the carpenter who methodically has put the coffin together; and Vardaman is the youngest brother who caught an enormous fish in the creek and with the audacity of a wise idiocy announces that his mother is that fish and not the shrunken woman about to become a corpse. I was driving down Texas Avenue on the way to work when I heard it. It was truly like listening to a wonderful poem. The language is so surprising and sure, so improvisational and true. I had to stop and make a note to myself to go get the book from the library and type it up for my journal. I just wanted to feel and see how it sounded in my own voice. And since I did that I felt I should put it on my blog.

Many times in the last ten years I have gone back and read or listened to novels that were important to me as a young man and found them wanting. Not Faulkner, not As I Lay Dying. The language is masterful. Earlier in the year I had listened to Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian, an author who is many times mentioned as the spiritual (if that is the right word) successor to Faulkner. That may or may not be true. But really, where MacCarthy seems so much about landscape and two or three characters in his dark books, Faulkner really gives the reader full-blooded characters where you get to know them all the way down to the hair on their toes. And so much comes from the character’s own mouth as he or she speaks about others. No one has done this so well in the English language since Shakespeare. And none have done it like that since.

By the way, since I am a publisher, two things to note--Faulkner said he wrote this novel in six weeks (eight weeks by some accounts) while he worked night shift stoking coal at a power plant. It was his fifth novel, and he thought of it as his “tour de force.” It arrived at the publishers with very minor changes required. I read somewhere that the first edition didn’t even sell 3,000 copies, the size of the first printing—the engine for selling books (still is, in fact, but in a much lesser degree) at the time a good reception from the Eastern establishment.


Lost in the pain of Juarez

This 6-foot square mural decorates the wall of a tattoo shop on Avenida Juárez across the river from where we live (photo from June 2008). Certainly created by a man, this idealized depiction of a beautiful Disney-esque young woman with nails piercing her head, face and neck is tragically unreal. There’s no blood, no tears, no one counting the dead. On this side of the river we don’t see the blood or the tears or the dead up close, but certainly on the other side the people see the blood every day. There’s a war going on, but it’s lost in the white noise of our national and regional media.

Since the beginning of the year in Juárez, Chihuahua (a 15 minute walk from my desk here on Texas Avenue in downtown El Paso) men with guns have murdered over 800 people as part of an never-ending drug war between rival gangs of narco-traficantes—the remnants of the Juárez Cartel founded by the Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who supposedly died on a plastic surgeon’s operating table getting himself a new face, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. Their bloody struggle is for control of the Juárez “plaza” (or “franchise,” perhaps a better term for American ears). Whoever wins controls the smuggling of drugs and human beings and any other illegal product that is valued north of the Rio Grande. This business, worth billions of dollars, dwarfs any other enterprise on the border.

Below is the body count between Monday 4th thru Friday the 8th, August 2008 (El Paso Times / Chihuahua State Police):

Monday: Two separate quadruple-homicides. Plus, seven other homicides.
Tuesday: A man is fatally shot in a boot shop in the village of Guadalupe Distrito Bravos. Plus, three other deaths.
Wednesday: Eight men are killed and five wounded in a Juárez drug rehab center. Plus, five other deaths.
Thursday: Three men are gunned down and another man wounded at a junkyard. Plus, nine other deaths.
Friday: The bodies of two men are found wrapped in blankets. Their hands were cut off and left next to the bodies, which showed signs of torture. Six others were slain, including Cristian Alcantar, 16, and Jesus Villanueva Dominguez, 19, who were shot and killed while riding in a Saturn Ion with Texas plates.
This sadness seems to have no end.

To begin to grasp what’s going on Juárez and here on the border, I strongly suggest you read the following articles that have recently appeared in newspapertree.com, an online magazine that covers El Paso and the region.

In the first--My Brother's Body, A True Story--Rachel Showery documents how drugs and incredible piles of money seduced first her brother and then her husband. The über-text is about her journey to retrieve her brother’s body from the morgue in Juárez in 2002. Ms. Showery decided to write this tragic and terrible family tale after reading day after day about the murderous violence that has gripped Juárez. She wrote it somehow to exorcise her own ghosts and as an offering for peace. Here, like in so many articles about the violence in Juárez and Mexico, the line between the men in uniforms (police or army) and the narco-traficantes seems very nebulous.

The second--15 Minutes of Hell in an Juarez Prayer Meeting--is by Molly Molloy, a librarian by trade and a long-time observer of the border and the issues that affect it. Since January the violence across river has exacerbated everyday and Molly, because she can’t find sufficient news in U.S. regional or national papers, spends her mornings reading the Juárez dailies. She counts the dead. It’s her obsession. Like all of us, she has good friends across the river, and she loves the city. The constant news of the murders has overwhelmed her. She has felt powerless and angry. Then she read about the massacre of eight people on August 13, 2008, at the CIAD (Center for Drug and Alcohol Integration) Rehabilitation Center #8 in the Colonia First of September in the foothills of the Sierra Juárez in the southwest part of the city was just too much. People had come together to offer themselves to God. It reminded her of her own upbringing in Louisiana, the little church where she learned the tenets of Christianity. She had no choice but to go went to investigate for herself. This is her report, and it’s frightening. It appears that the narco-traficantes even consider drug rehabilitation centers as competitors and therefore enemies. They must believe, like Amado Carillo Fuentes before them, that “Only the dead are innocent.”

For further news on this continuing tragedy, I suggest you sign up for the newspapertree.com newsletter on their home page. Their news will be personal and local and so, like the Showery and Molloy pieces, will give you a true taste of what’s going on.


The man has done enough harm to the planet.

To quote Jon Stewart almost correctly (he's a comedian and I'm a poet), I am looking forward to the end of the Bush administration “as a poet, as a person, as a citizen, as a mammal.”

I loved Jon Stewart's statement so I googled up this image via "george bush absurd" on the Celibrity Hijinx blog--his Valentine to the American People, February 2007. Click on the image for the large view to read the valentine. It's a cornucopia of george's quotes. It's quite miraculous all the good stuff on the web.