the rambling boy
Discovering the author and podcast maker C.M. Mayo
By LONN TAYLOR
I have just discovered a new Texas author. She writes under the name C.M. Mayo and she was born in El Paso and lives in Mexico City, where she is married to Agustín Guillermo Carstens Carstens, the governor of the Bank of Mexico. She hasn’t published a book about Texas yet but she is about to. It will be about the Big Bend and it will be a doozy, to judge from her other work.
I met Mayo by e-mail several months ago when I was working on a column about Agustín de Iturbide y Green, Emperor Maximilian’s adopted son, the last prince of Mexico. I discovered that Mayo had written a novel about him, called The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, published in 2010 by Unbridled Books. The novel won the Library Journal’s Best Book of the Year award the year it came out, which is nothing to sneeze at. It was Mayo’s first novel.
Mayo told me that she got interested in the subject when she was living in Washington, D.C., where her husband was a deputy director of the International Monetary Fund, and discovered that Agustín de Iturbide y Green had also lived there while teaching at Georgetown University and that Catholic University had a large collection of his personal papers. Although Mayo was trained as an economist she has the instincts of a historian, and her novel is good history as well as good fiction. It even includes a bibliography.
After our initial e-mail exchange Mayo sent me a box of her books, which included Miraculous Air (Milkwood Editions, 2002), a travel book about Baja California. In the 1990s Mayo drove 1,000 miles from San Jose del Cabo to Tijuana, talking to people, collecting stories, and keeping her eyes open. The result is one of the best travel books I have ever read, a cross between John Graves’s Goodbye to a River and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s two accounts of his walk across Europe in 1934, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Like Graves, she has a sensitivity to the landscape, especially the bleak landscape of the desert; like Fermor, she has an appreciation for quirky behavior and personal stories that border on fantasy. As a North American with a Mexican husband, she also has a sense of how the two cultures can clash. She begins Miraculous Air with a description of the rival claims of Halloween and the Día de los Muertos in the tourist town of San Jose del Cabo, where so many signs are in English that the 10-year old son of friends from Mexico City asked his parents if they were in the United States the first time they took him there.
Mayo told me that her forthcoming book on the Big Bend would be like Miraculous Air, with one important exception. As with her Baja book, she has been driving around the Big Bend, taking in the landscape and talking to people. But this time she has turned her interviews into a series of podcasts, which she calls Marfa Mornings (she told me that she chose that title because no one in New York knew where the Big Bend was but everyone had heard of Marfa). So far she has created 14 podcasts out of a planed 24, which are available on her website, cmmayo.com. They include interviews with artists Mary Baxter and Avram Dumitrescu, curator Mary Bones, jeweler Paul Graybeal, Cenizo founder Dallas Baxter, biologist Cynthia McAllister, guide Charles Angell, and meditations on adobe architecture, the Marfa lights, cowboy songs, and other Big Bend phenomena. The subjects of the podcasts are clues to Mayo’s conception of the Big Bend and foreshadow her book. Cynthia McAllister talks about bees; Dallas Baxter talks about the attractions of silence and sparseness, the aesthetics of pickup trucks, and the strange separation of Marfa, Alpine, and Fort Davis from each other; Paul Graybeal discusses the gemstones produced by the region’s prehistoric volcanic activity. One of the most interesting is an hour-long interview with John Tutino, a professor of history at Georgetown University, who talks about new ways of looking at Mexico and the United States, which he describes as having inseparable histories.
Mayo first visited the Big Bend in 2002, when she was working on her Baja California book, and immediately decided that she wanted to write about it, but she did not get back for 10 years. She started her podcast project in 2012 but in the spring of 2013 she was interrupted by her discovery, in the archives of the Mexican Ministry of Finance, of a small volume of mystical writing entitled Spiritist Manual, essentially an instruction book for mediums. The author was Francisco I. Madero, the Mexican president whose assassination in 1913 led to the civil war that engulfed Mexico for 7 years. Madero was distantly related to her husband, and Mayo says that she knew “instantly and absolutely” that she had to translate and publish this work before she could do anything else. The book, with a long introduction by Mayo, came out last year under the title Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual (Palo Alto, California: Dancing Chiva Literary Arts) and Mayo is now back to interviewing people and producing podcasts. Her latest, about a hike over Burro Mesa coupled with a reading of an account of a visit by ambassadors from the Kickapoo Indians to the court of the Mexican emperor Maximilian, has just been posted.
The dual nature of this podcast is indicative of Mayo’s interest in the Big Bend’s past as well as its present. Her website includes the best bibliography/filmography of the Big Bend that I have ever seen, a significant scholarly production in itself. It is also a sober reminder of how much has already been written about the Big Bend and particularly about Marfa. Can Mayo produce something that will avoid all of the clichés that have appeared over and over again? I’m betting a dinner at Cochineal that she will.
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Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Marfa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.