20" x 16", oil on canvas.
Pedro Rafael Gonzalez Chavajay
This painting is one of Rafaelís most beautiful because of the light. We see three people who have have gotten up early to pick coffee berries in the cool of the early morning. The sun seems to still be low in the sky because a warm yellowish light suffuses the sky, the tops of the coffee plants and the hats and shoulders of the standing workers.
Picking coffee is the most common theme of the Tzíutuhil artists. Every art gallery in Santiago AtitlŠn and San Pedro la Laguna has at least five and often many more paintings of picking coffee. Most of them are small and quickly done, designed to appeal to passing tourists who want an inexpensive memento of their trip. By contrast this painting is of the highest quality. The composition is unusualóa vertical format rather than the customary horizontal one. Because of their size and placement we focus our attention mainly on the two coffee pickers in the foreground. They both appear to be working in silence with contemplating other things.
Looking at paintings we make assumptions from what we observe. These assumptions are based on our life experiences and cultural inheritances. Take the standing figure in the foregroundóa woman with her hair pulled up in a bun and stuffed under her hat, a hat similar to the hat of the woman in the back. This red lipped woman has on sandals, her sweater is tied around her waist, and her raised leg seems to be moving in a feminine way. In trying to write about this painting it seemed important to determine just which town these coffee pickers are from. The standing woman in the foreground has a shirt in the style of San Antonio Palopů and but the huipiles of the other two women are probably of a style no longer used. I looked through a few books I have about the Mayan dress, but could not find any huipiles like the one shown here, but even the very good books are not by any means complete. I started thinking about the womanís white sandalsóthey look like the clear plastic sandals commonly worn by Mayan women, but it seemed odd that Pedro Rafael would put plastic sandals in a painting about Mayan life and traditions. The other two women are barefoot. It is common among poor Mayan families for the men to buy themselves shoes while their wives and children go barefoot. It was with this thought that I realized the standing foreground figure was not a woman (as I had assumed for eight years) but a man. The red lips were a stylistic trait of Pedro Rafaelís painting, perhaps to contrast strongly with the skin tones. The shoes are a light natural colored leather. The "sweater" around her waist is a woven wool garment worn by men in some Mayan towns and used to keep them warm on cold mornings. Why had I not thought it was odd that a woman was wearing pants and a manís shirt. I have never seen a traditional Mayan woman, one who would be picking coffee, wearing pants or borrowing her husbandís traditional shirt. It never is done, but Iím used to women in the San Francisco wearing clothes like this. When I first saw the painting in December of 1981 in Pedro Rafaelís studio I immediately assumed this was a woman, and so strong was my certainty of this I never thought to question it. To ascertain my new idea I looked very closely at the personís hair in the shadow of the hat. The strands are short and not continuous, and the ear is just barely visible in the shadow. Clearly this was a man and I had misinterpreted the signals.
I had a similar experience on one of my first trips to Guatemala. I was staying in Guatemala City and my usual hotel was full, so I found a nearby Hospedaje a little one story hotel with maybe ten rooms, where the family lived upstairs. A it was late and a young man of the family had the responsibility of unlocking the door for latecomers. I talked with him a while. The night had gotten chilly so I put on a warm flannel shirt. He had on a short sleeved shirt and seemed cold, so I asked him why he didnít put on another shirt. He said his other shirt was being washed. I realized that I had more clothes in my small backpack than this Guatemalan young man had in his house. Cultural differences can profound, what appears reasonable in one culture maybe totally unreasonable in another, and yet the two sides may not see the differences.
was not familiar with this style of dress so I had quickly made an assumption from clues in the painting, clues which I misinterpreted, and because the assumption determine which town they come from. The clue which broke through my assumptions was the white shoes. They look like the clear whitish plastic shoes which many of the women wear. I thought why would Rafael put in plastic shoes? No, they must be leather. O.K. one woman dressed in slacks and two women with bare feet. The woman with shoes must be more affluent that the other two. Then I thought: men usually buy shoes for themselves first before they buy shoes for their wives and families. Then it hit me. This may be a man. Why would a Mayan woman have her own or borrow her husbands typical pants? Neither thing would ever be done. The sweater is brown and not a sweater but the brown wool wrap worn around their waste by the men in this area, and finally I examined the hair very closely. It is painted in a shadow and is very hard to see, but there is an ear there, and the hair appears cut short, not pulled back like my eye first read it. Eight years I had thought this man was a woman. Now it makes sense, I recognize the manís shirt is from San Antonio Palopů. I had thought of this figure being a woman for eight years, an assumption I probably made in the the first few moments of seeing the painting, and since it was so basic I never thought about doubting it until a deeper analysis of the whole painting. Sometimes because we have not consciously and carefully thought them out, they are wrong. A common mistake the viewers make (because they are not familiar with the dress of the Mayan Indians, the colorful dress of Mayan men, and the differences between the menís dress style and the womanís) is thinking the people in the paintings are all women.