The First ‘Expat’ I Ever Met

In the Time of COVID. Day 103

June 29, 2020.

The First ‘Expat’ I Ever Met

In our fourth month of COVID stay-at-homeism we dream of getting out of here. but, the crowded airplanes frighten us and the out-landers who surge into our village Friday through Monday isolate us 4 days a week. Even with mask directives from our governor many visitors disregard the rules and here it is 4th of July week. Still, we dream of travel. Now we hear that the E.U. Will ban travelers from the US when they reopen in July and the people of Mexico blame Americans for bringing the virus to them. The future of international travel is uncertain.

String of Burros

Millions of our fellow countrymen live aboard, and have for years. Our nephew has lived in Mexico for 20 years, our daughter now lives in Vietnam and before that in Indonesia, Tanzania and the Philippines. We lived in Guadalajara for 1 year, and in our travels, over the years, we have met many “Expats”. Expatriates run the gambit from economic opportunists who find meaningful employment abroad to fixed-income retirees who move into expat enclaves the world over. Then there are the exiles. Historically the US has been known to welcome exiles until Trump. Americans have also gone into exile, have left the US, for political, intellectual and philosophical reasons. Expats are a mixed bag.

We subscribe to a magazine called ‘International Living’. It is of, by and for Expats and Expat wannabes. The articles highlight different enclaves the world over. It is a fun dream mag.

The first Expatriate I ever met was in 1973 in Mexico. His name was Howard Leigh. We met in Mitla, Oaxaca, 320 miles south of Mexico City. My pal Billy and I were fleeing a Hippie Dragnet in Ciudad Oaxaca so we took the first bus out of town, on the Pan American Highway, a local bus that had a turn-around 25 miles south in Mitla. We hopped off at the plaza. At that time Mitla was a dusty little village with next to no tourists but it had an archeological Zapotec burial site of renown.

Mitla 1895

50 years ago very few cars ventured south of Oaxaca. Mitla seemed abandoned. Just a few streets of whitewashed adobe houses with mud splatter up the walls. Strings of burros brought firewood and carbon down from the mountains and gathered at the plaza near the vegetable vendors that had gotten off the bus with us. cartwheels of bougainvillea blossoms were made to dance by dust devils in the dirt paths. The 500 year old cathedral of San Pablo, was secure behind massive walls. Above the village “The Place of the Dead” (In Zapotec “Mitla”) one of Mexico’s most famous ruins. Across the plaza an old man sat propped back in a chair on a veranda. The Building had a humble little sign ‘Museo Frissell’.

The Exterior Of Museo Frissell

Howard Leigh wore a rough tailored suit of some thin gray black material with lighter gray stripes. It’s tailoring was rustic. He must of had it made when he weighed more. His shirt was smokers-teeth yellow and the collar was frayed. He had long given up trimming hair from his ears or nose and he had several days of stubble. We hailed him and he invited us to sit.

The Museo was established by an American real estate investor named Edwin Robert Frissell who had purchased the 200 year old dilapidated hacienda in the 1920’s. He did repairs and started a modest Zapotec museum. Frissell was one of many intellectuals who traveled to Mexico after the revolution . Those adventurers included Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, photographers who associated with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City, Nelson Rockefeller who collected folk art around Oaxaca and William Spratling an architect and designer who invigorated silversmithing in Taxco. By the mid 1930’s Howard Leigh, an American Painter and printmaker, was lured to Mexico. He fell for and married Margarita Figueroa, the sister of famous Mexican painter Fidel Figueroa of Taxco. By the 1940’s Howard Leigh and his wife dedicated their lives to the study of the Zapotec culture, moved to Mitla and collected items unearthed at the Ruins. After Frissell died the Leigh’s took over the management of Museo Frissell.

When we met Howard Leigh, the Museo had well over 70,000 items of pots, pot shards, obsidian spear heads , hatchets, knives, clay and and jade pre-Columbian figurines and intricately designed Zapotec lintels. There was a room of manuscripts of Zapotec lore and line drawings of Zapotec gods and unique designs all drawn and written by Howard Leigh.

Howard’s wife died some years before I met him and he was a solitary man living out his days surrounded by his life’s passion. As we talked to him we became aware that he possessed absolutely no interest in The United States. He said that America had a blood-lust for war and he’d seen enough of that in World War I to last a life time. He came south in 1934 to make a new start. When we met him he had been in Mexico for 39 years and had not returned to the US once in that time.

We toured ‘The Place of The Dead ‘ with rumored burial labyrinths below the ruins which are the pathway to the Zapotec underworld. It is believed that the entrance to the labyrinth is hidden behind the alter of The cathedral of San Pablo, which was constructed in 1521. The Spaniards attempted to deface and erase all vestiges of Miso-American religion and history. It is very likely the doorway to the underworld was hidden by the friars.

We walked down toward the plaza, bought some tamales and fruit to tuck away in our packs and went back to the Museo to grab our bags. Howard Leigh was sleeping in that chair , shaded by the veranda overhang, a little drool escaping a corner of his mouth. I like to think he was dreaming of his sweetheart Margarita or was talking to her in the underworld. We walked out to the road and caught a bus south to Tehuantepec, several hours down out of the Valley of Oaxaca to the pacific coast.

Post Script:

Much of what I learned about Howard Leigh, I learned later through research. When I met him I was 25 and knew very little about anything. Leigh lived another 8 years and died at 85 in 1981. Frissell’ s Last Will and Testament specified that as a whole the Museo collection was to be gifted to a university in Mexico City. That none of it could be sold, nor could the Museo building be sold. But by 1995 the entire collection disappeared. The university denied receiving the collection. The Governor of Oaxaca tried to sell the hacienda. It was boarder up and remains so.

At the end of World War I , Howard Leigh was commissioned to do drawings and lithos of old French buildings in Paris and Rouen that had been damaged during the war. His efforts are still part of the Louvre Museum in Paris. His art work was critically accepted in New York, London and Paris and he was financially successful as an artist. He was a professor at Earlham College but was drawn to Mexico in 1934.

Howard Leigh and Margarita Figueroa de Leigh are safe together in the labyrinth of the Zapotec Underworld. They deserve their rest

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