I began to doubt the written-in-stone qualities of American values and realized that in reality they were just cultural values. They were implied values. They were not God-given values. They were not necessarily RIGHT values. They were cultural values and their depth was according to their validity in each particular culture.
At that point I dismissed a lot of my rather staid, straight values about what was right and wrong and I suspended my judgment on those particular qualities. A lot of the stories I tell are about that, are about the validity of the other values in other countries.
I'd like to elaborate on the story of Rudolfo Torres, my wife Carmen's teacher and friend. Rudolfo had a unique family situation.
The Torres family, as I said, was famous for the reproductions of pre-Colombian artwork they make. The whole family stuck together. There was one big old building in Chapala that was their home where some of them lived and most of them worked. There were innumerable family members including children, nephews, nieces, and other extended family doing this work. They were all involved and each person had a particular job.
One girl, for example, painted the pictures on one style of pot with a skinny brush and did Aztec Gods and chieftains with all their feathers – whatever designs the ancients had done. There were some kids who just wedged clay, who were working their way up. Some people were sculptors specializing in the styles of different regions, each of which had their own unique pottery. They all lived pretty harmoniously in a functioning home-based industry.
The Torres family have always been mono sculptors, makers of Mexican clay figures and especially those in the pre-Colombian style. For a thousand years, they were makers of these figures and were noted throughout Mexico as masters. Rudolfo's lineage was recognized by the Mexican government.
When I knew him, Rudolfo was the maestro, the head of the Torres family. He was the eldest and most skilled of the artisans and was very personable as well. He had the ability to organize people and keep them from bickering and fighting with each other. As was traditional in his family, when the old master died, the leadership was passed on to Rudolfo. For all these reasons, he was an acknowledged master, the teacher of his family's particular form of art.
Rudolfo was married to his childhood sweetheart. They had four children. Rudolfo's wife had a very dear friend who had grown up with her since they were little bitty girls. They had always loved each other and hung around together even when they were grown women.
When Rudolfo's children were in their pre-teens, his wife got very sick and really incapacitated and started thinking that she was going to die. She was talking to her friend about this and the woman comforted her by saying, "Well, it's okay because you had a wonderful life with Rudolfo and you have a family. Your journey has been well-rounded. It'll be okay."
This made Rudolfo's wife think about her best friend's situation. The woman had never married, had never had children, and had nothing going on in the family way. This made Rudolfo's wife feel sorry for her best friend. She decided that maybe she could help change her friend's situation.
Her friend had always loved Rudolfo too, so the wife went to him and told him, "You know, I feel so sorry for my friend. She has never had any children, she doesn't have a husband. She is just a single woman."
In Catholic Mexico a single woman was not a particularly good thing to be. The wife continued, "Would you mind…would you do me a favor? Would you start another family with my best friend? I would so love it if she could have children and know the joy that I have. I know you are a wonderful man and that you love each other anyway. I would consider it a real favor to me if you would do this."
Rudolfo thought about it and said, "Yeah, okay. I'll do that. That makes sense to me." He set up another little house in another little town, what the Mexicans call a "casa chica" and raised two families, starting kids again with his wife's friend.
His wife, over time, got better and life went on. Rudolfo had two families working in the pottery. They were all members of one big extended family.
At one point, after he was already a master potter, Rudolfo went blind. He continued his work anyway. He developed ways to work the clay by feel. He was totally blind for about eight years, and then, one day he was able to see out of one of his eyes again. He kept right on working.
I remember watching him attaching ribbons and buttons to one of the figurines he was working on one day. It did not matter which way the figure was facing. Rudolfo placed each bit of detailing on the figures precisely by feel. All of the buttons were the same size; everything was in order.
I asked him once what was the most difficult thing when he was blind. He said he had a hard time with aging the reproductions he produced. All the existing pre-Colombian pottery pieces have been in the ground so long that most examples of it are broken somehow. A Colima dog would have an ear broken off. Something as fine as its tail just didn't last 2,000 years.
Rudolfo said that when he was blind he could not line the shards up properly. He would glue the nose where the ear went, glue all these bits and pieces in all kinds of crazy ways. The one thing he could not do when he was blind was put the pieces back together after he hit them with a hammer. Someone else had to do it for him.
One day I was sitting with Rudolfo as he worked through a great big cardboard box filled with supposed pre-Colombian clay shards, figurines, plaques, and who-knows-what-all was in there. A government museum sent the box to Rudolfo and he was in charge of separating the authentically ancient pieces from the ones that were not.
The maestro sat there with this box and a five-gallon can of water. I watched him pick up a piece out of the box, then shove it into the water. He would bring it out of the water and smell it. Then he would either place the shard into the real pile or toss it into the fake pile.
Finally I had to ask him, "How do you tell the difference?"
He dropped a clay bit into the water then held it out to me. "Smell this," he said. I smelled it and it smelled like clay, just like fresh baked dirt. Then he dipped another piece into the water and I smelled that one too. It smelled ancient.
"That's how you tell the difference," he explained. "You can't fake the smell of 2,000 years under the earth."
One funny story. In pre-Colombian times there was a fertility god that was quite realistic. He was a little guy with a droopy hat and an enormous erection. The figure was tipped up staring at his penis in amazement. A black guy came in and ordered 80 of these fertility gods. He paid the agreed-upon down payment so Rudolfo made up the order.
However, the customer never came back to pick up his order and nobody ever knew what to do with the little guys. They filled up a whole shelf in the shop for a while.
Rudolfo had a strong work ethic. His idea of "work" was 18-hour work days until the work was done. As befitted a maestro, he was incredibly skillful. Rudolfo stayed with Beryl for at least six months, helping her to refine the detailing of the birds and improve the molds she used to produce her bird sculptures. He showed her how to carve in eyelids and other details onto each bird that made them even more realistic, more alive. The work he did on Beryl's gull sculptures made them so real that Louis' Doberman jumped out of the car and kept pointing at the finished birds standing around in the yard.
By the time we got to Beryl's shop with the clay he needed for the Mexican masks commission, he had completed his work on the gulls.