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It Sure Beats Living in a Shoe : Hallucinatory Relic? Civic Sculpture? “La Mona,” Armando Munoz Garcia’s House in Tijuana, is All Those Things--as Well as a Monument to Ingenuity, Courage and Visionary Zeal.

Ralph Rugoff is the author of the recently published "Circus Americanus" (Verso). His last piece in the magazine was on the Los Altos apartments

Every night, Armando Munoz Garcia goes to sleep inside a large woman who is not his wife but to whom he has been married, in a sense, for the last seven years. Garcia’s home in Tijuana is a 53-foot concrete statue of a nude, her right arm raised in a power salute as she towers precariously over a trash-strewn residential ravine. His bedroom is nestled in the cozy confines of a breast; his bare kitchen is located in the statue’s stomach, and the bathroom--which one reaches by crawling down a narrow intestinal passageway--is tucked away in the hollows of her rear end.

Never have art and life been more closely aligned. Yet Garcia’s house, which he built alone over a year and a half in what he calls “a state of obsession,” has become far more than an idiosyncratic aesthetic gesture. To neighbors in Tijuana’s Colonia Aeropuerto, a low-income area where mangy strays patrol unpaved roads, his sculptural abode is a luminous landmark. When I get lost on my first visit and foolishly ask for directions to Garcia’s street address, people shrug blankly, but as soon as I mention “La Mona,” as the house is known locally, I’m greeted by a bright burst of smiles from residents who gleefully point out the way.

When I find his house, Garcia, 41 years old and neatly dressed in jeans and a polo shirt filigreed with plaster dust and paint, is looking over a set of homemade building plans on his dining room table. “I’m in the middle of brain surgery,” he explains. “I’m going to put in a little office in her head where I can write.”

Garcia shows off his home with the grace of a well-practiced host, gently correcting me when I refer to it as La Mona--Spanish for “the doll.” “They used to make plaster tourist statues in this area, so people started calling it that, but its real name is Tijuana,” he says. “But I realize that the public has given new names to many very famous paintings and sculptures in the world, like Whistler’s ‘Mother’ or Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘La Giconda.’ ”

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Like many autodidacts, Garcia sprinkles his conversation with tidbits gleaned from far-flung sources: a Roy Orbison tune from a neighbor’s radio provokes a brief digression on Pavarotti, which sidetracks into French cooking (a love he developed while working in San Diego restaurants in his youth), until, eventually, he launches into an earnest explication of the house’s symbolism. Initially, he says, he designed the structure not to live in but to commemorate Tijuana’s centenary in 1989. “That is why her right knee is bent, because at 100 years, a young city like Tijuana is just starting to walk. And if you look at her raised hand, notice the pinky pointing up and to the left? This is Tijuana’s place on a map of Mexico.”

Garcia goes on to expound upon the civic significance of her broad chest and strong legs, but La Mona seems far too surreal to be merely a municipal statue. Seen amid a hillside littered with civilization’s refuse--automotive carcasses, rusted bedsprings, supporting walls made from stacks of old tires--it could be a monument excavated from an archeological site, a hallucinatory relic of a lost society.

With its irregularly-shaped interior, Garcia’s house harbors an atmosphere that can leave visitors dizzy. Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, you find yourself in a world of unsettling scale. Trapped in a giant dollhouse, your own dimensions can seem curiously skewed. Just as disorienting, though, is the feeling that in climbing up to the head, where an eye-like window offers a view of the sprawling city, you have entered not another room but a different area of consciousness.

La Mona is an enchanted space, but its architect’s fairy-tale vision has become firmly anchored to a down-to-earth practicality: Garcia’s most recent building, a fantastic mermaid-shaped house overlooking the seaside town of Puerto Nuevo, is only half-finished, but he is already looking for buyers (“I’m going to need a crazy American,” he says). In the meantime, he’s meeting with a local entrepreneur to discuss building a 150-foot-tall man that would house part of a resort complex. And in the not-too-distant future, he hopes to tackle a figurative housing development--an entire street lined with a forest of variously shaped bodies.

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These are ambitious visions, especially considering that Garcia left school at the age of 11. “There is no university for inventors,” he says. “Inventions come from nothing.”

It’s an assessment born of personal experience. In 1987, Garcia was a penniless part-time art student at a city cultural center when he was first inspired to build a monument in honor of Tijuana’s approaching centenary. He broached the idea with his teacher and was duly given a lecture on the complexity and immense cost of such an undertaking. After mulling it over for several months, he devised a plan that borrowed techniques from construction rather than traditional sculpture. When his teacher remained skeptical and fellow students laughed off his request for help, Garcia began work on the statue by himself, raising money for materials by working at a succession of odd jobs.

“When I look back on that time now, I remember many hard nights when I was unsure I would ever finish it,” he says. “I was alone with no money and no help--and sometimes not even soap to wash my clothes. I sold off my furniture and my car. But I felt it was something very new I had thought of,” he adds, “and I felt I had to prove it could work.”

While building the statue’s midsection, Garcia decided to forego using conventional supports and, on a whim, installed an elliptical beam that engirdled the figure’s waist and left the interior hollow. “At that moment I decided, ‘Well, if I have this room, I have to live inside it.’ ”

Novelist George Sand once commented that there are two types of people: those who wish to live in palaces and others who long for life in a cottage. Garcia, who has opted to live inside a work of art, clearly belongs to a select third group. That this particular art work is a huge, voluptuous woman has led some to speculate on Garcia’s Oedipal history. “He can imagine he’s inside the womb of a woman, like something parallel to his mother,” says psychology professor Paul Paredes, a longtime friend.

But La Mona also evokes a long history of corporeal metaphors. If the body is the house of the soul, our homes are a second skin, a heroic outer shell. And psychologists such as Carl Jung have used the house as a metaphor in describing the structure of the psyche; occupying the ground floor, Jung observed, we are frightened by noises we hear in the attic or cellar. Garcia’s peculiarly literal poetics, in which everyday events--even a trip to the toilet--are charged with resonance, belongs to this same tradition.

When he was first struck with his obsession, Garcia had wanted to build his monument in downtown Tijuana, but in the end, downtown came to La Mona. On March 22, 1990, Baja California Governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel, assisted by a crowd of dignitaries, officially unveiled the statue.

Three years later, Maria del Refugio Saldivar, a young woman Garcia had met and wooed in Zacatecas, officially made it her home. “I told my wife, ‘Well, you have a house in Tijuana,’ but I didn’t say more than that,” Garcia recalls.

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“I never thought I was going to live in a naked woman,” Maria says. “But as soon as I started living here and cleaning the house, I felt closer to it.”

“She started to feel like La Mona,” Garcia quips.

Apparently, she is not the only one. “People in the area have taken this sculpture into their hearts, as something of their own, something they identify with,” says Paredes. Even those who initially disapproved of its nudity have been impressed by the steady stream of visitors, including television crews from as far away as Japan and Holland. “Armando is from this area,” Paredes adds, “and the people now accept his success as their own.”

Although local architects have been lukewarm in their response, Garcia counts among his admirers Luis Alonza Valenzuela, an award-winning architect from Mexico City who first sought Garcia out at a 1990 conference in Mexicali. “What Armando is doing has a profound humanistic aspect,” he says. “Many times artists don’t want to do adventurous things because they are not willing to sacrifice. Armando sacrificed everything to make his statue, and his courage to experiment is very valuable to me.”

Garcia’s story, however, is not the simple tale of an inspired outsider artist. Despite the personal and civic significance of his iconic home, he is presently trying to sell [it] and is negotiating with one buyer who would turn La Mona into a logo for a cement company.

An old saw holds that the artist sees the world like a newborn. For that reason alone, it’s sad to think of Garcia leaving La Mona. Because now, each morning, walking out into daylight from the dark womb of a gigantic woman, he can feel he is born anew. But Garcia has other passions to attend to: a book on his construction techniques, a “literary love story” and a play. Then he intends to take up painting again and, ultimately, to study psychology--a field, he says, where new theories are needed.

“The next 2,000 years'-worth of ideas are already in the air. If we find the right frequency, we can tune into them, like a radio, but most people don’t pay attention. Newton didn’t invent gravity or the roundness of the world,” he says. “He paid attention to what was there.” When Garcia was building his statue, he confides, he found himself listening to an insistent inner voice: “You are just an ordinary man who found has his frequency,” it said. “Now you you have to work on it.”


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