Dream House

April 16, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: This is the story about a man in San Francisco who filled his house with Mexican dolls and Mexican paintings, who stenciled the walls of his kitchen with Mexican designs and assembled Mexican Virgin Marys in the living room. This is a story about obsession and the way objects collected sometimes give us pleasure. The man who owned this house–Rex May was his name–grew up not far from San Antonio, Texas.

I do not want to intrude too much into his private life to say more than that his was not a happy childhood. Look at these photos. Here is how Rex looked 50 years ago as a boy, smiling shyly at the camera. His parents quarreled; there was violence in the house and madness.

In their lucid moments his parents warned him away from Mexico and from Mexicans. “Stay away from the Mexican side of town,” they said. “Keep clear of Mexicans.”

The boy ended up as a man making many trips to Mexico. Years later, a lifetime, Rex came to San Francisco. He worked as a graphic designer. Four years ago he died of AIDS. Because of a devoted friend the house remains as Rex left it. This was his work room. This was the bedroom, almost Spartan. But this is a house where the greatest secrets are in its public rooms. Here you will find Mexico–in the kitchen–in the hallways–and most of all this living room. “Stay away from Mexico,” his parents warned.

The son promptly recreated Mexico with every bit and piece he could gather. Look at this living room: Virgenes, Santos, skeletons, dolls and more dolls. The living room, with its idealized setting of Mexican villages which Rex constructed himself, looks like a child’s dream of a Mexican heaven. Psychoanalysts speak of some early trauma as being a reason why some people become collectors of old milk bottles or 19th century dolls or Superman comic books.

Tennessee Williams in his best play wrote of a character who, unable to face reality, was obsessed with a glass menagerie. I tend to shy away from psychoanalytic reductionism. If pain created these rooms, there is joy here also. Among collectors there are hoarders and there are arrangers. Rex was an arranger. He choreographed these dolls, painted these tiny stage settings where every day was a fiesta. When he died, Rex died in this room over there on the love seat, surrounded by Mexican masks and carved dogs and angels and the resurrected Christ.

The executor of this estate has offered to several museums this entire collection of Mexican folk art for free. His hope is that a museum might also accept the installation of this Victorian parlor as part of the exhibit, for to truly understand the impact of this Mexican folk art, one should see it as it existed for its collector, as a transforming environment. These dolls take their fiercest meaning, after all, not as individual objects but as they ended up here, en masse, in the house of a dying man who was told as a boy to stay away from Mexico.

I’m Richard Rodriguez.