02 July 2008

The White Umbrella

As I reflect upon my time spent living and working in México I get the feeling that history is once again repeating itself or as Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees baseball team once said, "It's like déjà vu all over again". During the past ten years I have witnessed an acceleration of events, almost as if we are being drawn towards the center of a maelstrom. Change is in the air and change is everywhere and as we approach the Mexican bicentennial celebration there is a lot of “fixing up” and “painting over” going on. I guess this isn’t unusual when you look back to the 1976 bicentennial celebration in the United States and consider how much money was spent in order to tidy things up a bit. I remember 1976 just like it was yesterday. The first commercial Concorde flight took off, Apple Computer Company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the Viking One Lander successfully landed on Mars, Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China died, Jimmy Carter won the U.S. presidential campaign, and the name "Microsoft" was first registered by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. However, since the median age of the population in the U.S. is currently 35 years that means that in 1976 almost half of the people in the U.S weren’t even born yet. On top of that, the median age for the Mexican population is only 25 years so it is probably safe to say that the majority of people here have never witnessed a national event of this magnitude and really have no idea what to expect. Prior to any great national event there seems to be a great urge to “do something” and as the event draws near this feeling is whipped up into a frenzy of activity just like we see now with the upcoming Beijing Olympics. In order to imagine this feeling all you have to do (you older folks that is) is picture the Statue of Liberty completely enclosed in scaffolding. Do you remember the excitement?

I have a modest library of books about Mexican history and from what I glean from them the 1910 Mexican centennial was no exception. One of my favorite books is titled “A White Umbrella in Mexico”. It was written by a very talented and able individual named Francis Hopkinson Smith and “F. Hopkinson Smith”, as he was known professionally, came from a remarkable family. He was named after his great grandfather, Hopkinson Smith, who was a musical composer, writer, politician, and one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Although the great grandson Francis Hopkinson Smith came from good stock his father was a scholar not particularly wealthy and Francis could not go to college because of financial difficulties so he rolled up his sleeves and went to work instead for his older brother. Eventually Francis struck out on his own and he and a partner achieved great success in constructing the foundations for light houses, breakwaters, sea walls, and other difficult projects including the foundation for the pedestal upon which rests the aforementioned Statue of Liberty.

Francis took up painting as a hobby and became a very accomplished self taught painter of watercolors. He also discovered a talent for writing and public speaking. As he began to enjoy modest success in his construction engineering career he began to travel to other countries. In 1888 after already having learned to speak Spanish from his travels to Cuba and Spain, he came to Mexico to observe and to paint. One of his many books, “A White Umbrella in Mexico” is a fascinating story of that journey and just like his fabulous watercolors it is like a “snapshot” in time. One of the interesting things that Francis mentions in his book is that he wanted to see Mexico before the man with the brush and the bucket of whitewash arrived. It was during the time during the “porfiriato” leading up to the Mexican centennial and the President/Dictator of Mexico Porfirio Díaz and his band of “Cientificos” and “Wizards of Progress” were trying to convince the industrialized world that Mexico was a good place to invest money. Many old churches, municipal buildings, and other significant places of interest were being gutted, remodeled, and painted over with whitewash.

Whitewash, or “limewash”, as it is also known, is called “lechada de cal” in Spanish. It is nothing more than slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and water. Other ingredients such as chalk, water glass (sodium silicate), glue, tallow, egg white, cement, salt, soap, milk, flour, earth, and pig's blood are sometimes added. It is a very old method for painting structures and it goes back thousands of years. It is cheap, easy to prepare, and easy to apply. For certain types of porous materials such as adobe and hand made brick, it works much better than modern paint. Whitewash breathes and lets moisture out of the adobe and brick while modern paint traps the moisture in. Whitewash is also a natural fungicide and anti bacterial agent and most creepy crawly type insects hate it. In Mexico whitewash was often made with slaked lime and the juice of the Nopal (prickly pear) cactus which is more of a mucilage than a juice. This made the whitewash hard and shiny and water resistant and less likely to wash off in heavy rains. The problem with whitewash is that it hides the natural patina of buildings and destroys the quaint old character that appeals to tourists. William Dean Howells wrote in 1913: “The universal use of limewash (whitewash) gives a uniform tint to the monuments, blunts the lines of the architecture, effaces the ornamentation, and forbids you to read their age…you cannot know the wall of a century ago from the wall of yesterday”. This is exactly what F. Hopkinson Smith was trying to avoid. He wanted to capture the beauty of Mexico before it was covered over with whitewash.

Almost every time I go to the historical cities of Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel de Allende in the “Cuna de Independencia” (Cradle of Independence) I see evidence that the “man with the bucket of whitewash” has risen from his slumbers and is working his vengeance on anything and everything that looks “old”. Of course, there is a difference of opinion between native Mexican residents and many of the interlopers who come here from other lands. The Mexican people are proud of their heritage and want to show it off in the best possible light and to them that means the clean and shiny look that the paint that is now used instead of whitewash gives their village or town. Sadly enough, the modern paints are going to do more harm than good. The oldest buildings will deteriorate much faster under paint than they would under whitewash and besides, with whitewash there are no V.O.C.’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) to deal with. White wash is a natural product. In any case, I don’t think Mexico will ever be the same again and I am so thankful to have had the chance to see it before the man with the bucket of whitewash returned. I tip my hat to Francis Hopkinson Smith. The likes of him will probably never come again either. I just wish that I could paint and write half as well as he did.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.