Zarco Guerrero

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Master mask maker and multimedia artist Zarco Guerrero talks about his trip to China, where he performed and taught workshops.

José Cárdenas: Zarco Guerrero is known throughout the country for his creativity in making sculptures and masks. He was invited to perform and conduct mask workshops in China over the summer. Joining me to talk about this experience is Zarco Guerrero. Zarco, there's a whole lot more you're known for and we do want to talk about your experiences in China. Before we get to that, last week marked what I think is the last of celebrations of day of the dead. One issue that seemed to be inject flood the last set of celebrations is whether the event is becoming too commercialized of a Cinco de Mayo by people who it's not part of their cultural tradition.

Zarco Guerrero: Culture is always changing and adopting from other cultures and the fact in a culture is an expression of our humanity and meant to be shared with others than ourselves and what I see happen is not so much the commercialization, I see a magnificent amount of energy going into the production of artwork for sharing and for selling. You have a lot of artists coming out from our communities and all different aspects of our communities that are expressing the theme about day of the dead and in the form of arts and crafts and that people are interested if seeing and want to buy it and the artists are delighted to be making it. I see it as becoming more and more popular, not just among the Chicanos, but the everybody. It's our gift to the community. What kind of commercialization, if any, do you think would be inappropriate? For years, we've shied away from being sponsored by beer companies and radio stations. We don't want that kind of sponsorship because then they start to dictate how the events are run the we prefer to work with community groups in order 0 keep it close to the people and about the people and for the people.

José Cárdenas: The last time you were on the show, you told us you were going to go to China. Now you're back. Tell us how it came about and where you went.

Zarco Guerrero: I went to a place in southwest China. Very close to Tibet and Burma. It's an agricultural region of China. And there's literally no industry whatsoever in this particular area. It's all agriculture. And the city is the most beautifully preserved ancient city in all of China.

José Cárdenas: So it really is a site to behold. It's an UNESCO heritage site. There's no auto traffic allowed in the city and there's other things they do to preserve the historical qualities of the city.

Zarco Guerrero: Exactly. For me, it was like going back in time and I've made 12 trips to Asia throughout the years. I've been to Thailand and never had I expected to find a place to beautiful in China. It was very much like Japan.

José Cárdenas: And physically, where is it located?

Zarco Guerrero: It's located in southwestern China. Near Burma. You can see the Himalayas and you can see Tibet. And it's like Tibetan culture.

José Cárdenas: And it's an ethnic group.

Zarco Guerrero: The people there, they look like indigenous people of Mexico and have their own culture and language and own form of writing and very vibrant ancient culture, still very much alive in modern China.

José Cárdenas: Tell us about the program you participated in.

Zarco Guerrero: I was invited by an international friendship exchange and it's a summer program that invites artists, English-speaking from the U.S. and Europe and Canada to teach various art forms.

José Cárdenas: We have pictures on the screen. These are your students?

Zarco Guerrero: Uh-huh. And they learn music and dance and guitar and study English and Chinese history as well and come interest all over China and scholarships are given to the local children who couldn't afford to attend.

José Cárdenas: Some pay a considerable sum to be there.

Zarco Guerrero: Some are very highly educated and I was extremely impressed with their facility to speak English and some were studying French around German as third languages and they're very gifted.

José Cárdenas: You mentioned that in many respects they resemble Mexicans in physical appearance. You mentioned before we got on the set, they looked at you and some of the people you brought, and thought, you aren't Americans.

Zarco Guerrero: They looked at me and two of the other teachers who are Mexican-Americans and they said I thought our teachers were going to be Americans. So we had to describe ourselves as ethnic Americans. That's a term they understand because they have their own ethnic groups in China.

José Cárdenas: Of which they are one.

Zarco Guerrero: There was no problem with that at all.

José Cárdenas: Let's talk about what you thought them. It was guitar and mask making. Tell us about the mask making class.

Zarco Guerrero: I did my own style of mask making I use with kids in the U.S. It was an opportunity for them to get involved in a creative process, to collaborate with each other in making a mask, to make something that was three-dimensional that they could paint and the best part, was when they wore their mask and incorporate it had into their dance.

José Cárdenas: We showed on the screen, a picture. Is it a typical street scene there?

Zarco Guerrero: Yeah, and there's one of your typical natives with a hat they make out of a fox and these very small like midget horses that are from that area. And you see the people dress this way, performing their music and dance. I heard some of the most magnificent singing in lie life coming from the people there.

José Cárdenas: We were talking about China's mask making tradition and you explained that they had been suppressed by the Communists and centuries, the famous Japanese masks, and you studied there, and were an outgrowth of that Chinese tradition. When you were there, how did the students relate to the concept of mask making?

Zarco Guerrero: It was something new for them. Even though China has a great mask making tradition, it's not something they've been exposed to. You know, in Chinese culture or media. So it was totally new for them. It's funny to have someone like myself coming from so far away introducing them to an art form that was such a great extent cultural and in form of sophistication, hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

José Cárdenas: Part of their culture.

Zarco Guerrero: I feel an obligation to give back what I've learned from Asia and particularly the Chinese.

José Cárdenas: The last time you were in China was before Tiananmen square.

Zarco Guerrero: Uh-huh.

José Cárdenas: Observations about the differences?

Zarco Guerrero: There's a whole different world. When I was there, before Tiananmen square, everyone was dressed in blue, wearing a mouse suit and everyone was on bicycles and there were hardly any motor vehicles at all and now everyone was very dressed in western clothing and you know, even though we were closed off, it's closed off to automobile traffic around the city, almost everybody has a vehicle. And becoming very, very western in many respects, but then you have the artists, not only are they -- you know, resurrecting the ancient art forms but also incorporating different aspects of western art as culture so it's a world that's changing dramatically from day to day.

José Cárdenas: I understand that it's a tourist center but not necessarily for foreigners. It's actually for the Chinese themselves.

Zarco Guerrero: They don't bother to cater to the foreign tourists because they have so many tourists from China who go there and now it's becoming the number one tourist destination in China because they have a new airport. So now you have people come interesting all over China to escape the pollution, the -- you know, the -- just the stress of living in big industrialized cities to come to this place at the hill -- the Foothills of the Himalayas where the air is, you know, so wonderful and clean and sweet. And there's no industry, no traffic. And people are speaking another language within China. So that, for them, is a big thrill.

José Cárdenas: Tell us about the food. I know that was something that was of particular significance to you on this trip.

Zarco Guerrero: The biggest impression was the food. First, everything we ate was picked that morning at 5:00 in the morning and people were always referring to the health benefits of the food we ate. Most of what we ate, of course, was rice, but was a lot of mushrooms, a lot of chili and a lot of tofu, and my favorite was Yak yogurt. Every food had some benefit for you, as opposed to when we eat here, we're talking about I'm going to get my fit of cholesterol or this is my day's supply of calories. There was a whole different attitude about food and health and I enjoyed that and the food Iowa superb and excellent and I miss it profoundly.

José Cárdenas: A couple of other things you remarked. One is the perception of American universities in our education system among the Chinese.

Zarco Guerrero: All the kid where's there to learn English and we had a whole staff of university students as assistants and they spoke perfect English and they had aspiration to study in the United States because they feel that the United States still have the best educational system in the world. This is where they want to come to receive a higher education. I was impressed by that. We're still number one in the world and I agree we have to continue that whole emphasis on higher education, not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.

José Cárdenas: I understand that Obama mania has reached the city you were at.

Zarco Guerrero: Every time people found out we were Americans, they would say, "Obama, Obama." And artists were printing T-shirt was Obama's images, like we have pictures of say Jimi Hendrix, they had pictures -- T-shirt was Obama as well.

José Cárdenas: We look forward to your next trip and talking about it.

Zarco Guerrero: Thanks so much.

Zarco Guerrero:Master mask maker and multimedia artist;

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