I start my work in a most humble way–pulling clay from the wet ground of Mexican riverbanks alongside women who are washing the family clothing. The washerwomen and I share both a common history and a conviction that this is the only way to get things "right." I mold and model my barro figures with a deep appreciation of the originals they are inspired by. Sometimes I wrap my figurines in large banana leaves so that they retain their moisture for the following day's continued work. Invariably, there is always a brujo around to bless the work in progress. All of this seemingly ritualistic process is important to me in the development of the work because only then is it in keeping with what I like to think of as the integrity of my ancestors.
I am fortunate in that I understand Mexico from both sides of the Rio Grande. Because of this, I can bring to my oeuvre a viewpoint that is not tunnel visioned–rather it is expansive, panoramic, and all-inclusive.
A la Catrina le latió la rola
In Mexico the dramatic observance of the Day of the Dead is one of the most important Christian-Pagan rituals still celebrated in this, the twenty-first century. This is not a trick-or-treat, door-to-door block party. Throughout this country, great pilgrimage processions head to the cemeteries by candle light to spend an entire night's vigil by the graves of the dearly departed. Food offerings are placed on the tombs so that the dead can also partake merrily of the observance, and it is all taken very seriously with total respect by the worshipers. This is the tradition from pre-Christian times that forms the foundation for the Catrina evolved. She is a living skeleton, a reminder of our mortality. She dresses coquettishly and flirts with every passerby, trying no doubt to lure him to "the other side." A sort of happy-go-lucky Hispanic grim reaper. On the Day of the Dead, Mexicans and Chicanos do not mourn; rather they celebrate the fiesta of death.
El Ángel de Chilangolandia
The United States has the Statue of Liberty as its symbol of what the nation stands for. Well, in Old Mexico the Angel is a powerful icon that represents what this country stands for. Whereas Liberty is a "real" woman (as logical Calvinism would have it), the Mexican Angel is also a woman, but that is where the resemblances begin and end. Whereas Liberty is stark blue-gray, the Angel is magical golden like the rays of a Sierra sunrise or a sunset in Chichen Itza. Whereas Liberty carries a torch to light the way, the Angel carries a laurel to crown the people. Whereas Liberty hugs a book to her breast, the Angel breaks the chains of oppression and displays them for all to see that Mexicans are at least free. The Angel flies above the Avenida de la Reforma as if to say: "I am your hope, your future, your dream."
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
When the Virgin appeared to the simple campesino, Juan Diego, it rocked the Catholic Church to its very foundation. Here was the Mother Queen made present on a journeyman's poncho. The Virgin had instructed Juan Diego to gather up flowers and when he dropped them from his garment, the flowers had lost their color to the cloth. She was painted on his poncho. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe was then made visible. She who was only imagined was now before us, come from heaven to bring us eternal hope. In Riley's interpretation, she has now come forth once again, a Virgin of flesh and blood breathing and living as a bronze image not to be worshipped, but to be held close to the hearts of all Chicanos.