Pepe speaks about his work as many artists do: “I didn’t choose the monos, the monos chose me. The circumstances brought us together.”
Anyone who has spent more than 72 hours in Oaxaca has seen them: the looming papier-mâché characters who twirl through the streets, leading the calendas. These giant puppets are dressed to impress and to inspire merrymaking, as novios in a wedding, in festive colours for graduations, quinceñeras, and holidays, as historical figures for Día de la Independencía, and even as a Medusa figure, Yalateca, for a religious procession.
Every morning as his neighbours sweep the sidewalks and open their shops, as they set up their taco stands and ladle out steaming cups of atole, Pepe opens his small workshop. One by one, he pulls out the giant monos and positions them along the boulevard. The monos that he made the day before are placed further down the street in a prime spot for the sun to dry their layers of glue. “I’ve tried heat lamps and fans. It just doesn’t work. I have had many apprentices but the sun is my partner.”
Pepe pulls out stacks of paper: newspapers, advertisements, discarded phone books. He also sorts through piles of scrap fabrics. “I have always been a sustainable artist.” It’s a joke told with a hearty laugh, but it is also true. Almost all of the materials he uses are recycled. The framework is made from easily replenished bamboo stalks. Buttons are made from bottle caps, earrings from painted cardboard box scraps. With layers of glue and water, paint and patience, Pepe creates his monos.
“I don’t know how many I have made. When you are happy, you aren’t keeping lists.”
Before Pepe was a mono-maker, he repaired tyres in the same space on Niños Heroes de Chapultepec. One day, over 30 years ago, he asked a mono-handler to let him take a turn dancing under the mono’s frame in a parade. “Ahorita,” he said.
“And of course, ‘ahorita’ never comes.” Pepe laughed when recalling the last song of the parade. “I was frustrated. I was angry. So I made my own mono.” Pepe had experience in the art form from making piñatas for his mother over years of parties and community events. Circumstances.
With his own mono, he was able to join any calenda he wanted. Then someone borrowed his mono and never returned it. So he made one more, then he made a pair. He rented the pair, sold another, gifted another. All of the sudden, he was a monero.
“I love monos because they are for the rich, the poor, all the same. They are for happiness and celebration and that is something we all experience.” Pepe can count the years and his memories one layer of paper and glue at a time. Even on one of the saddest nights of his life, his mother’s death, while his friends gathered at the family home, he left to deliver a mono. “It was important because it went to a boy who was autistic. I have a friend who does equine-therapy. It is amazing! Do you know it? Well, I do mono-therapy.”
Pepe has three decades of these stories. “One boy just loved the monos. He would come by… Then he was very sick. He received chemotherapy. I made him a mono and took it to the hospital. It was July. I told him, ‘We will take the mono out together in December to dance for the Virgin of Guadalupe.’ That was 21 years ago. His children love the monos now, too.”
Pepe works outside on the street. To the panadero, he shouts “Animo!” and to the tamalera, he says “save me one” every time he passes her stand, coming and going. Every few minutes a friend drives by his shop and honks their horn. Every half hour another friend shows up to sit on the bench and chat a while. He puts most of his friends to work. “Will you hold this tape here? Fold this stuffing three times. Can you find the scissors?”
For Pepe, joining the parade under a mono is “sweaty and the happiest. From the little hole, the umbilical eye, we can see everyone… They are dancing without artifice. Sometimes they can see us, they can catch our look, and they get shy. I try not to be noticed. But I notice everyone. I notice the… what is the word? Yes, the authenticity.”
Pepe continues, “It is wonderful to grow older. You get to settle into that authenticity. I am on my motorcycle – Pepe. I am walking on the street to buy a tamal – Pepe. I am with my helpers – Pepe. I am with children – Pepe. I am under a mono – Pepe.”
As Pepe has grown older, he has embraced the joy that his work brings him. He also is proud of his work and its recognition. He is quick to tell me that his monos have been displayed in the San Francisco airport, Mexico City, European museums, and are part of a permanent display in the museum at Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. “I have had three great loves in my life: the mountains, the sea, and the calenda. I am lucky to have them all in abundance.”