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Evolving a totally Mexican art

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MUCH of real education takes place around the edges of the classroom. My graduate school experience was especially like that. Those of us plodding through a common curriculum developed an extraordinary camaraderie. Some of the things I learned from informal discussions in parking lots, coffee shops, and pizza houses are more vivid now, 15 years later, than the classwork. The university was famous for its Latin American studies program, and though that had nothing to do with my degree program, it did turn out to be a specialization in my ``graduate education.'' It's also where my appreciation for the work of Diego Rivera (1886-1957) began. Some of my friends were ``Anglos'' involved in producing the first computer-based dictionary of Nahuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, and some with great pride called themselves ``Chicanos.'' At first I had been indifferent to the Mexican cultural heritage. What a revelation it was when I looked at it from my own Western European viewpoint. What if, through the deprivations of imperialism and religious zealotry, much of my cultural heritage were destroyed? If the Parthenon were only footings, Leonardo da Vinci only a name, Magna Carta a vague memory, Shakespeare's plays only a fragmentary listing of titles, I too might count on pride to fill in the gaps.

Diego Rivera had a deep pride in his Mexican cultural heritage. There is a quiet dignity and integrity in this painting. The young Mexican peasant woman is poor but not impoverished. Her homespun clothes are painted in even textured, simplified roundness. The purple ribbon braided into her solidly perfect hair adds a festive touch, a grace note to her poverty. With her back to us she could be ``Everywoman.'' We do not see her face, but we see the rhythm of her life. She lives close to the earth, the changing seasons, the rising and setting of the sun. The rhythmic repetitions are everywhere, her toes and fingers, the gathers of her blouse, the black braids laced with ribbon, the stamens of the lilies, their hexagonal stems. Nowhere does Rivera skip a beat. The measures of her life are counted out on the surface of the painting.

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