Concrete Jungle in the Jungle
The Fantastical Creations of Las Pozas, Mexico, Reveal The Ultimate Reality of a Country Insistently Labeled “Surreal”
In June of 1929, an image appeared in the Belgian magazine Variétés. The author of the map is unknown, though it has been attributed to the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. It was called Le monde au temps des surréalistes, and depicted a gleefully distorted map of the world, representing regions not according to their geographical size but instead according to the value the surrealist movement placed on them. Papua New Guinea and Easter Island dwarf Australia. Europe is reduced to Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Paris. On the other side of the Pacific—central in the surrealist worldview—Canada and the United States are unmarked, shrunken almost out of existence, so that North America is converted into a weird triangle made up of Alaska, Labrador, and Mexico. Mexico itself is bigger than all of South America. Years before any of the surrealists traveled there, Mexico was already mapped out as a surrealist space.
“Mexico is definitely a surrealistic country,” my friend Luis said. We were sitting on the patio of a bar next to the main square in a town called Xilitla, in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. It looked like it was going to rain. I had heard this argument—that Mexico is a surreal country—many times before, sometimes from Mexicans, like Luis, sometimes from foreigners. And for those who believe in it, Xilitla is one of the principal shrines and manifestations of Mexican surrealism.
“In what way?” I asked.
Luis pointed out of the bar to an ivy-draped wall across the street, one of the steep, terraced, cobblestone walkways that led up to the square. A tangle of dozens of telephone and electrical wires was tacked unconvincingly to the bricks. The wires glinted in the moisture. It did look hazardous. “What is that?” he said. “It’s crazy. I think that’s very Mexican.”
“It’s true, you wouldn’t see that in the U.S.,” I said.
“Or Europe,” Luis said. “It’s absurd.”
Sitting by the square, Xilitla looked like most of the small Mexican pueblos I had been to. We had come there to see what made it different: a group of sculptures located just outside of town that an amazingly wealthy and eccentric Englishman named Edward James worked on until his death, in 1984. James was born in 1907, and as a young man inherited the vast fortunes of his father, Willy, and his uncle, Frank. In the 1930s, eager to break free from his restrictive Edwardian youth, he became involved with the surrealist circles of continental Europe, and soon became a vital patron to still-struggling artists like Dalí, Magritte, and Tchelitchew. Dalí called him “crazier than all the surrealists put together.” James went on to amass a collection of surrealist art that, according to the U.K. Guardian, was at one point “the finest private collection” in the world. After a highly damaging divorce trial, he moved to Mexico in the 1940s. In Guadalajara he hired a young man named Plutarco Gastelum—who would later become James’s manager, close friend, and possibly lover—as a guide. Together, they stumbled upon the tiny town of Xilitla, hidden in the lush mountains of the Sierra Huasteca, and began building a series of fantastic, brightly colored, and highly impractical concrete structures in the jungle. This became Las Pozas (“The Pools”), a private dreamworld that James called home for the rest of his life. Reportedly, he spent five million dollars on the project, and sold many of his surrealist paintings to fund it.
I still wasn’t sure what I would make of Las Pozas. The standard guidebook entries and magazine articles I had read set the surrealistic bar pretty high: James’s “surrealist retreat,” a “surrealist labyrinth,” “the surrealistic Shangri-La.”
It was past 9 p.m. on a Saturday night, the night before Easter. We were going to see Las Pozas the next morning. There was an unusual amount of activity on Xilitla’s main square. Some sort of stage had been erected in front of the big sixteenth-century church, with microphones and speakers, multicolored stage lights, and a huge projection screen. It looked elaborate. “Maybe they’re going to do a Stations of the Cross performance,” Luis said.
“Maybe they’re going to do Jesus Christ Superstar,” I replied. We laughed.
Eventually we decided to see what the performance would be. The square was filled with hundreds of plastic folding chairs, but we had difficulty finding empty seats. On a platform next to the stage a very nontraditional band was tuning up: two electric guitars, drums, bass, a horn section, male and female backup singers in tuxedo shirts. The conductor flipped through his music nervously. Suddenly the rain stopped and the music started: heavy rock beats, wah-wah, gospel harmonies. Pixilated images of deserts rolled across the projection screen. A guy with spiky hair and a leather vest leaped onstage, belting operatically.
“What the hell is this?” I asked Luis.
“Jesuscristo Superestrella,” he replied. “Jesus Christ Superstar.”