by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
Young adults should be careful with all “personal” photographs!
As stated before in the One Summer In Mexico series, I never read the 74 page journal that I kept while in Mexico the first time, until moving to this house in 2018. It was written in the summer that I turned 21, but lay forgotten in a box of “Mexico things” for five decades. The biggest surprise in the journal . . . that I had forgotten . . . was the stark difference in attitudes toward sexuality and male-female relationships between middle class Mexicans and the indigenous peoples in southern Mexico.
Middle Class Mexicans were just coming out of the Inquisition Era. My surrogate Mexican mother, Guadalupe Soto, was about the only middle-aged wife I met in Mexico City, who wasn’t miserable. Her husband was about the only Mexican professional I met, who didn’t have at least one mistress in addition to his neglected wife . . . plus two or more families.
In regard to male-female relationships, the Mayas, Zoques, Tamultes, Kekchi and Itza were the original hippies. The marriages were much happier and egalitarian in the South. I admired how middle-aged and elderly couples in the south were so affectionate with each other, but totally did not know how to deal with their attitudes toward their (what we consider) teenage children, 16 an older. They considered it normal and desirable for their 16 year old daughters to be intimate with men 21-40 years old. Maya, Tamulte and Zoque mothers considered it a major tenet of hospitality to offer their older teenage daughters to an esteemed male guest in their home. Gringos considered that hospitality . . . a felony. LOL
These exact same cultural traits of Southern Mexico are what drove “proper Georgians” up the wall during the colonial time and early days of the state. Anglican priests were horrified that Creek married couples constantly hugged and kissed each other in public. One repeatedly reads complaints about Creek women being able to vote and hold office. British officials were horrified when Creek women stood up and spoke their opinions at meetings between British and Creek leaders. The Rev. John Wesley complained that “so many male and female colonists were marrying Creeks and Uchees , thus diluting proud Anglo-Saxon blood, that soon the colony would be a land of mongrels like Mexico.”
* Scottish and Irish widows often married Creek men because they were more skilled at putting food on the table! Also, Creek men bathed, shaved and combed their hair everyday, whereas such things were quite rarely done by white men on the frontier.
Upon the opening of Franklin College (later the University of Georgia) in the mid-1780s, scantily clad Creek girls began wading into the Oconee River to entice the college’s all male student body “to abandon their studies and Christian virtues.” State officials solved the problem of carnal temptation by purchasing a strip of land on the west side of Oconee River from the Creek Confederacy.
I also never looked at most of the 2500+ slides. The stipulations of the fellowship included a requirement that I immediately give copies of all the slides to the Georgia Tech Library, upon my return to Atlanta and that I teach classes in Pre-Columbian Architecture, while enrolled at Georgia Tech. So in a matter of a few days after returning to Atlanta, students could see the buildings that I saw, only weeks before.
My students in Pre-Columbian Architecture did see the other slides. For homework, they were required to look at all of them for a particular archaeological zone. They had to pick out one slide, run a color Xerox copy of it and then make a report on all the details that they discerned from the image.
For my personal photographs of friends, señoritas and parties, I used Kodak color print film, which I paid for out of my pocket. The wording of the fellowship grant was somewhat flexible as expenditures in Mexico, but I knew that the professors would not be happy, if over a hundred photos of parties and pretty ladies were financed by their endowment.
When preparing for the Pre-Columbian Architecture class, I quickly pulled about 320 slides, representative of all the major city sites and loaded them into Kodak Carousels. In the decades that followed, I always just used those same carousels to give slide lectures to university archaeology classes or historical societies. That was the most simple approach, because I had long memorized what would be said in conjunction with each slide.
The Sunday Morning Surprise!
However, now I am examining and digitizing every slide. Just as in the case of the journal, there have been quite few surprises. On the morning of September 6, 2020 I began work on a video about the Gulf Coast Civilizations. I batch digitized a roll of slides, which were developed by a lab on September 7, 1970. I was relieved that the color slides were in excellent condition and therefore would need little restoration.
Then I reached Slide No. 36. “What the <expletive deleted>. It was not an ancient building. It was a woman, completely au naturelle . . . asleep in a bed in a European style bedroom. It quickly dawned on me that this slide had been sitting in the Georgia Tech Library for 50 years . . . with my name on it as the photographer. I raced to my journal and scanned the notes from the two days that I had been at that archaeological zone. There was only a hint: “The French archaeologists here are very friendly – from southern France. They are not druggies like the ones at Tres Zapotes.” At first, my mind still drew a blank.
What I remembered first was that each quarter, when I got to the section at the end of the quarter on the Gulf Coast Civilizations, the students would start laughing at me, giggling, making strange statements and passing notes. I never could figure out what was funny.
Okay, give me a break. How many of you remember every date that you went on when you were 21? What I finally, but vaguely remembered after looking closely at the woman’s magnified face on the computer monitor was this: An older woman among the French archaeological team . . . she was at least 25 . . . came up to me and asked me in perfect English, if I was a Canadian Métis. I told her that I was a Gringo Métis . We chatted a bit then she went back to work. Later, she came up to me and invited me to join her for lunch. At lunch, she told me that the local hotel was filled with petroleum workers. Several foreigners had been beaten up and robbed there. She invited me to stay at her rental house. The rest is a blur, caused by Tequila cocktails. I don’t even remember her name.
I do remember that in the morning, I decided to make her coffee and breakfast like Yvette did for me near Oaxaca. I came back with her coffee to see her embracing my pillow in her sleep. I thought it was cute, so took a snapshot with the intent of pulling the slide and making her a print of it, but I forgot to do so. The rest is history. Now I know why generations of Georgia Tech students have been laughing at me.