JUAN QUEZADA CELADO
Juan sat on a peeled wooden stool and breathed deep into the smell of his home, his patio, the dust and the clay, the frijoles that his wife had fried in the morning.
The trees beyond the low wall of reddish adobe bricks were still green and with each gust of wind came the rustle of their leaves, covered at times by the nervous barking of a dog. He had been working for three months “on the other side” and every day he had been dreaming of coming home, sitting on that stool, and doing nothing. Just contemplating his patio and his sky. His children and his ollas.
He breathed even deeper. He rose and headed for the storage room on the opposite side of the patio. He pulled out a wooden table, and put it in a corner, under one of the fruit trees. He came back and from an old box pulled out four of his ollas and then a fifth, larger one with a chipped edge. He lined them up on the table, in the very same order he had lined them up the day before he left for Texas, three months earlier.
He grabbed the stool, turned his back on the sun, and sat looking at the ollas.
Nearly twenty years had passed since he was used to wander on the sierra without shoes, on his burro Minuto, looking for firewood to sell and mysterious shards to keep to himself. At that time, he didn’t know what to do with those pieces, but it all became clear when, at just 15, he started boxing to raise more money.
He immediately realized he had a flair for the boxing ring. He was nervous, agile, fast, gifted with the perfect mixture of every good boxer: fire, silence, and intelligence. His lifelong friend, Pino “Pinito” Molina, offered to manage his boxing matches and the money began to rain. Not a heavy rain, to be honest, but a beneficial, unexpected, and constant drizzle (he never lost a fight). His mother, who had always supported him, however, got suddenly in his way. One day she looked right into his eyes:
– Tu no vas a seguir con el boxeo. No me hagas repetir.
Juan felt a knot in his stomach: he realized that his mother loved him, she had always loved him, and she was feeling shitty. He felt shitty too. He did not retort and quit boxing.
Not for a moment did he consider pointless that experience. Boxing taught him a truth: just as radios were battery-operated, he was operated by challenges. But unlike radios, which all worked with the same batteries, he didn’t work with the same challenges loved by his friends. He realized he was a maverick even before becoming a man, and understood it without feeling any emotion. He just felt he needed to face a challenge, and then another, and another, again and again, always hoofing along that narrow and slippery path poised between common sense and madness that, like a mule track, climbs along the slopes of a sierra. He ferociously needed to live on top of a mountain, otherwise the fire constantly burning inside his core would have roasted him like a pollo asado.
In his way, at just 15, he understood what many understand when they have white hair and it’s too late: that living below our capabilities kills us slowly, inexorably and mercilessly.
Would he ever be able to create such perfect ollas as those made by los viejos?
Would he ever be able to find the right clay? to process it? to model it without a potter’s wheel, creating perfectly round ollas with thin and smooth walls? Would he ever be able to polish and paint them with the same mysterious yet imposing geometries?
And with what colors? with what brushes?
How to paint bare hand those red spirals and those black, thin lines, perfectly straight but able to go suddenly crazy breaking into nervous zigzags?
How to cook his ollas without a kiln? without breaking them, without fading the colors, without tarnishing the drawings?
And where to cook? with what?
Finally, there was the mother of all challenges: how to overcome each of these challenges all alone, by himself, without spending the money he didn’t have?
In Mata Ortiz and Nuevo Casas Grandes, no one knew how to make those ollas anymore: he was alone in the face of his challenges. But he was free as well.
As for the chronic lack of money, he told himself that los viejos were certainly not gringos and had to be as pobres as he was. They were not loaded and the ollas they made, scattered throughout the plateau, must have been made with materials the plateau itself offered them freely. Hence, it was an equal challenge, in a way.
It took him nearly twenty years to overcome almost all of the challenges, even the unexpected ones.
In those twenty years, he had learned the secret of a real vaquero from his father José and the secrets of love from his mother Paulita. He had married, built a new adobe bricks house a block from his parents’, learned how to work in the Mormon orchards, and how to find a seasonal job in the ranches on the other side. He had had four children, whose perfume he could recognize in his sleep, but he had never ceased to feed the avid fire in his core. He had never stopped working on his challenges. On his ollas.
He looked at them in line on the table. He compared his ollas with the larger and chipped one: that was la vieja. His new thin-walled jars were smaller but truly beautiful. Their surface was white and smooth, their shape flawlessly round and amazingly potbellied. Whenever he held one of them, his hand was forced to say: mijito, this olla is perfect! His eye, however, remained silent and disappointed. The drawings traced on his vases looked perfect but they weren’t. Up close, the black trait appeared imperceptibly uncertain. It wasn’t a matter of hand: it was a brush problem. He had built many of them by using the threads of the agave leaves, the beard of some shrubs, the pig bristles, the hairs of mule, horse, calf…
He sighed. He stood up. He took la vieja in his hands and began to question her.
He felt a little hand grabbing a fold of his jeans under his right hip. He smelled his daughter. The second one. Mireya.
The little girl slightly swung, shifted the weight on her right leg and then on the left, crossed her feet, tilted against her father’s side, and put a lock of hair in her mouth. Juan noticed it with one eye. He put la vieja on the table, and with one hand – a callous and large hand compared to his lean and nervous body – gently removed the hair from her mouth. He caressed her back without saying anything. He stroked her black, smooth and straight hair, like his wife’s. He had always had a mass of thick hair, as strong as a foal’s mane, with the same soft waves that chase each other on the Palanganas river when the evening wind did not want to calm down. His girls, on the contrary, had silky, thin hair, so fine, impalpable…
He suddenly gasped.
He called his wife so loudly that the little girl was frightened, stumbled, and fell. He lifted her with strength and kindness, took the dust out of her shirt, and looked at his wife who had appeared on the patio with a baby in her arms.
– Guille tráeme tijeras, por favor.
She looked at him with that gaze with which you may caress someone you love without understanding his mystery.
She came back with the baby and a pair of scissors in her hand. He stroked his daughter’s hair and then cut off a thin, long lock of four hair.
The little girl looked at him timidly but he did not return her gaze. His eyes had already gone elsewhere, on top of a mountain.
He had finally figured out how to make the perfect brush.
Juan Quezada near his current ranch in Mata Ortiz, Chihuahua, August 2007.
This photo is by one of the creative photographers I love the most: her name is Raechel Running from Tucson, Arizona.