Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fools and Food

In Mexico two especially fun holidays follow Christmas.  Unlike many holidays, which involve travel plans for long weekends, without any consideration of the meaning of the holiday, these two involve activities appropriate to each of the days.  Neither one is a civil holiday involving a day off work 

The first of these is today, December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents. It recalls the boys under the age of two killed by King Herod when he learned from the Three Kings that He who was to be King of the Jews had been born in his realms and might be competing with him for power.  (Lest you think my last sentence confusing because of the use of the word 'him' referring to two different persons, please do note that one is in upper case and the other lower.)  Of course the placement of the commemoration of this day, in the calendar, is way off base -- if we chose to accept the placement of two other important days in the Christian calendar.   The Kings arrived on January 6th, and On February 2nd Mary hadn't yet left on her flight to Egypt, she was presenting her child in the temple in Jerusalem forty days after His birth.  Nevertheless, in but another example of the vagaries of the Christian calendar, December 28th is the designated day.  

Despite its gruesome origin, Day of the Holy Innocents has converted into one of great fun for Mexicans and much of the Spanish-speaking world. In some ways it is like April Fools day in the English speaking world.  Traditionally the objective is to get someone to lend you something, which then does not need to be returned for a full year.  When the loan is obtained the laugh will be on the one who has been tricked, by saying "inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar, sabiendo que en este día nada se puede prestar" ("innocent little dove who allowed yourself to be tricked, knowing that on this day nothing can be lent."); or a variation thereof.   I don't know how the dove got into the equation, but that's the way it is.

In a different manifestation of the day, even staid and serious newspapers will publish a whole page of news which is credible but steps over the line of 'too good or too bad to be true'.  Ask your news vendor today for papers which have done this.  It's not always the same papers, however this year, with Julian Assange's contributions, I expect there will be many participating newspapers.  You might also listen carefully to what you hear on radio or TV news programs, being leery of repeating it, lest you become the brunt of the joke. 

While Santa Claus makes greater inroads into Mexico with each passing year, by now he has been banished til next year. Until January 6th, Santa’s place has been taken by the Three Kings of Orient and their appropriate beasts of burden.  

Set some time aside one of these evenings to go to downtown Mexico City and walk the length of Alameda Park.  You don't need to be a child to enjoy it --  if you  have children, so much the better.  Even though you take your camera, I suggest you let a photographer at one of the dioramas set up along the length of the park take your picture atop an elephant, camel, or horse, or standing next to them in the company of Balthasar, of Nubia; Gaspar, of Tharsus; and Melchior of Sheba.

In Mexico, January 6th, Epiphany, is the second day of great fun for children and adults alike.  It is a hectic time for parents; children are expecting gifts, just as Baby Jesus received gifts from the Wise Men.  On the night of January 5th, many of Mexico's toy stores will stay open til the last customer leaves -- double and triple parked cars out in 
front often can cause traffic congestion in the middle of the night.

You're probably already seeing roscas in the bakeries, don't be fooled into thinking this is just a wreath of sweet bread that it is to be consumed today.  Roscas are essential for the Mexican celebration of Epiphany.  Inside each baked rosca is at least one tiny Baby Jesus.  At Epiphany parties you'll slice your own piece of rosca; if it should contain a Baby Jesus you have entertaining in your future, for you will be expected to host a tamale party on February 2nd, Candlemass Day.

The bread is sweet and tasty; that tends to override the temptation of cutting a very thin slice.  Buen provecho.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Let's Save Our Water Supply -- The Forest of Water

By area, Morelos is the second smallest state in Mexico (after Tlaxcala); so small that on a clear day, from the Mexico-Cuernavaca expressway, you see about 80% of the state.  To the east, on the border with Puebla, the highest point in Morelos is the peak of Popocatepetl (17,980').  To the south the Sierra Madre del Sur is the border with Guerrero, to the west the State of Mexico, and to the north the Federal District.  Though you can drive through Morelos, from north to south, in an hour, it contains an amazing ecological and geological diversity.  

Traversing this tiny state are three parallel mountain ranges running east to west, each providing important resources. The ridge you cross on the highway from Mexico City is the Neovolcanic Axis.  Imagine a string of 8,000 volcanos all lined up!  It starts in Colima and cuts right through central Mexico exiting out on the other coast at about the latitude of the port of Veracruz.  Every flat-topped mountain and every pointed mountain in the ridge is a volcano.  

The limestone ridge, since prehispanic times, has been an important source of construction material; both as building blocks and limestone cement. It is one of the principal ingredients in today's Portland cement. Xochicalco, the Cacahuamilpa Caves, and the giant cement factory visible from the highway are located in the limestone ridge. An unusual use of limestone is as an ingredient in tortillas.  In order to grind the corn to make the dough to pat into the shape of a tortilla, the corn first has to be soaked in water and limestone and subjected to heat for 24 hours. 

The Sierra Madre, to the south, is a source of a variety of mineral wealth; Taxco’s famous silver mines are located just beyond Morelos in Guerrero. But many other minerals are also found in these rich mountains.
Many of you will make the trip over the ridge to Cuernavaca during the holidays.  It is one of the world's more beautiful drives.  Since we're in the tropics, where climate is determined more by elevation above sea level than latitude, the quick change in elevation we experience takes us through several ecoregions.  In all of Mexico there are nine great ecoregions of terrestrial vegetation, Morelos harbors seven of the nine (missing are mangroves and rain forests). The drive over the mountain from Cuernavaca into Mexico City takes us through most of them.  

Leaving Cuernavaca, passing the state university campus, we get into a pine forest; desert vegetation is in the area of the switchback named La Pera; followed by an oak forest, characteristic of a much colder climate, left over from the last glaciation; back into a pine forest near Coajumulco; and then Zacaton grasses as the highway takes us through a 9,300' pass over the continental divide and into the Federal District.  As you go through the pass look higher on the ridge, into fir forests.  

As you're making your way up the mountain also notice the dark and porous volcanic rock, most easily seen in the cuts made for highway construction. The porous nature of the rock makes the ridge a natural reservoir.  An average of six feet of water fall per year in central Mexico.  Each drop of rainwater that falls on the volcanic ridge immediately, and instinctively, wants to race down the mountainside, join a raging river, and feel fulfilled by reaching the Ocean.  But when it runs into a blade of grass, a bush, or tree, it comes to a standstill and gets absorbed by the ridge, acting like a giant sponge.  It percolates down inside the mountain and with time, years perhaps, joins an underground river and will finally emerge at one of the many springs located along the base of the ridge.  Thirty percent of the population of Mexico lives on either side of the Volcanic Axis; not because they want to live dangerously, but because that's where the water is. The key to this marvelous reservoir is the forest.  It is for this reason that, even though water is not visible, it is known world-wide as the Great Forest of Water.  Water flows from its abundant springs into Morelos, the State of Mexico, and Mexico City year ‘round, regardless of whether it is rainy season or dry.  If the forest is destroyed there indeed will be a raging river during the rainy season but there will be less and less water flowing from the springs.  The current autopista crosses through the Great Forest of Water and has already affected the amount of water stored in the mountain.  Environmentalists are deeply concerned about the impact on water supply of proposed plans to build another highway along the top of the ridge, connecting Lerma to the autopista and bypassing Mexico City. 

It is hard to quantify the value of a forest, but number crunchers can easily calculate the cost of transporting water from distant sources, and compare it to the cost of the fresh, clean, and free water delivered in abundance year 'round by the Forest of Water right to the doorstep of the Federal District. If you are interested in more information on this topic send me an email and I'll forward two very interesting articles about this environmental threat.  One from The News itself, and the other from the Journal of Wilderness.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Priests Painting Piñatas

Piñata sales are booming.  Though they are popular year round at children's birthday parties, they are essential for the posadas which start on Thursday and are hosted every night from the 16th to the 24th.  Some say that the piñata originated in China, others that it's a prehispanic Mesoamerican idea, but the Franciscans say they introduced the current version of piñatas to Mesoamerica at their monastery in Acolman, State of Mexico, shortly after the conquest. 

The classic piñata is not in the shape of Sponge Bob, it's a clay pot to which seven giant cones -- today, made of cardboard -- are attached, and then the whole assemblage is decorated with bright colored tissue paper.   There are as many cones as there are Cardinal Sins.  After beating them with a stick and destroying them all, the good stuff falls out, as a reward.  The Franciscans used it as a teaching tool in the evangelization process; they were probably a lot more fun than the dour Dominicans or the stern Jesuits.
I wonder how the early friars made their piñatas.  It seems that bright colored paper would have been hard to come by and pricey besides.  But they did have clay pots, bark paper, and lots of bright colored dyes and paint.  

Acolman is one of those places we race past on our way to Teotihuacan.  It's church is visible from the highway; plain, simple, and functional, as Franciscan architecture tends to be.  Understandable since they were the poorest of the religious orders to arrive in the 16th century.  

Faced with a huge population to embrace into the Church, the Catholic religious orders divided New Spain geographically among themselves, so as to not duplicate  efforts.  As you travel through Mexico, and into Guatemala, you'll only find one style of early church architecture in each region.  Only in the capital cities of Mexico and Antigua do you find the whole array of church architecture (although Antiguas' is not as old as Mexico City's).  

Interestingly, Acolman has two styles of architecture.  The Franciscans turned the area over to the Augustine Order which added a fancier façade to the church and a second cloister to the monastery.  The church continues to serve the community; the monastery is a marvelous museum of colonial religious art under the care of the INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History).  

On the second floor level of the monastery is an open chapel with exceptional acoustics. It faces the atrium in front of the church.  It is fun to have one of the members of your party go up to the open chapel and face the altar as a priest would have done during Mass, with his back to the congregation, and speak in a soft voice.  The voice will be heard clearly by those of you gathered in front of the church.  

During the colonial period Acolman flooded and sediment accumulated up to about ten feet high (3 meters). Only a portion of it has been dug out, hence the incline in front of the church, and the damage to the sculpture on the façade up to flood level.  

Another teaching tool, for which Acolman is famous, is its Atrial Cross; a characteristic of early colonial churches (in Acolman's case it is outside the walls in front of the church's door).   Carved into the cross are the 'visuals' you'd need to tell the story of Jesus' crucifixion. Picture the priest telling the story, to a group of Indigenous people sitting around the cross, while pointing out the crown of thorns, the rooster that crowed three times, the hammer, nails, ladder, dice, Jesus' face carved in stone at the intersection of the cross, the human skull at the base of the cross representing Golgotha -- the hill on which Jesus was crucified -- which means skull.  Or is the skull something slipped in by the Indigenous sculptor?   And how does the coiled serpent fit into the story?  This is getting much to syncretic.  Time to go break a piñata.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Carrying the Light of Our Lady of Guadalupe

Four hills in the Valley of Mexico were considered sacred by its prehispanic inhabitants and, by many, still are today.   Tepeyac, to the north, Chapultepec to the west, Cerro de los Baños on the east, and the Hill of the Stars to the south.  The Basilica of Guadalupe is at the base of Tepeyac.  Chapultepec Castle is at the top of the sacred hill of the west.  The airport radar is on top of the Hill of Los Baños.  The Cerro de las Estrellas is in Iztapalapa in southern Mexico City.  

Tepeyac, located at the northern terminus of the causeway connecting Tlatelolco with the north shore of the Lake of Mexico, is where the Aztec goddess of fertility, Tonantzin, was worshiped.  In 1531, it was also where the Virgin Mary, in her manifestation as Guadalupe, appeared to Juan Diego, a recently converted Indigenous merchant.  In the minds of people of the time, María Guadalupe was very much a Spanish manifestation of the Virgin.  In fact, before setting off on the dangerous trip across the Atlantic, many Spaniards had entrusted themselves to Guadalupe de Extremadura, a dark Mary, legended to have been carved by St. Luke.  Yet here, at Tepeyac, she appeared as a living, beautiful woman, to an Indian, asking him to serve as her messenger to Bishop Zumarraga requesting that a church, dedicated to her, be built on that spot where she would be able to heal and care for her people.   

Unlike most portraits of Mary, on Juan Diego’s cape she is dark skinned and stands alone, though visibly pregnant.  Believers can find all kinds of symbolism in her clothing, the stars on her cape, the crescent moon she stands on, even the reflections in her pupils.  And they can find a syncretism between her and Tonantzin. 

Within very little time, Guadalupe became the dominant religious figure throughout New Spain, and areas it influenced.  As the centuries passed her importance in the Church grew; to the point that now her shrine is more visited than St. Peter's in Rome. 

Guadalupe is portrayed on Miguel Hidalgo's Insurgent Army's banner (see your new 200 peso note) and again carried into battle by Zapata's army during the Revolution; in the 20th Century right-wing Catholic groups began to rally around the Virgin of Guadalupe.  In the 1970's Theologians of Liberation realized that she is the example to be followed:  she appeared to an Indian, not a Spaniard, she met him on the outskirts of the center of power, she spoke to him in his language, Nahuatl; not Spanish, the language of the conquerors; she offered to help and to heal.  Now both extremes of the political spectrum within the Church hold up the banner of Guadalupe.  She permeates Mexican thought and culture.  I've even met a Mexican Presbyterian minister who told me he is a Presbiteriano Guadalupano! 

Guadalupe is becoming a strengthening link between North American nations.  Last week I told you about the torch-running that goes on throughout Mexico with communities each getting their returning light and statue of Guadalupe home in time for December 12th’s morning mass.  In recent years the torch-running has become an annual event from Mexico City to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC.
This year the International Antorcha Guadalupana departed the Basilica on October 3rd.  It crossed the U.S. Mexican border on November 2 and  will reach St. Patrick’s on December 12th.  Along the way the torch will have been carried by thousands of runners and the flame will have been shared with hundreds of churches along the way.  Each year the relay draws attention to the plight of immigrants in the U.S.  

Families of migrants, documented and undocumented, are invited to participate in relaying the torch on the Mexican side of the border; their migrant brethren are among those who carry the torch in the U.S. 

In 1945, Pius XII designated Guadalupe, Empress of the Americas, hence the flags of the American nations, and the silver crown above her image, in the Basilica.  Her feast day, December 12, was officially recognized by all Catholic dioceses in the United States in 1988.  In 1991, John Paul II declared it a Liturgical Holy Day throughout the continents, subsequently proclaiming her patroness of this hemisphere.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Remembering Our Lady of Guadalupe

“Lupe Reyes” (Lupe, a shortening of Guadalupe; Reyes, referring to the Three Kings) sounds like a woman's name, but in fact is the nickname for a frenzy of celebration bracketed by December 12, Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the front end and Epiphany, January 6, the celebration of Los Tres Reyes, at its close.  In between fall 9 days of posadas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, December 28, Day of the Holy Innocents (Mexico’s April Fools’ equivalent), January 1, The Circumcision of Jesus; and January 6, when Mexican children expect gifts just as the baby Jesus received such from the Wise Men and all ages participate in cutting the rosca.  

Lupe Reyes may be the official start of the Christmas holidays but for many throughout Mexico the preparations have already begun. Driving in Chiapas two weeks ago I was stopped multiple times along the highway by young people collecting money for their pueblo’s pilgrimage to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Across Mexico groups are fundraising and assembling their caravans to make the journey, light a torch at the Basilica, and return home by December 12.  They arrive at the Basilica on foot, bicycle or in highly decorated trucks carrying the Guadalupe of their home church.  The return is usually a torch running relay with trucks and buses dropping off the runners ahead.  In the days immediately preceding the 12th you'll see these relays on country roads, federal highways, even the autopistas;  they can take a week of running night and day. 

On the 9th, 10th and 12th of December of 1531 the Virgin Mary, in her manifestation as Guadalupe, appeared to Juan Diego, a recently baptized Indigenous merchant.  She was a beautiful, life-size, woman hovering slightly above the ground. Most any Mexican will be glad to tell you his or her understanding of these momentous events and the conversations which ensued.  The four encounters -- three apparitions to Juan Diego, the fourth when her image appeared on Juan Diego’s cape in the presence of Bishop Zumarraga -- are so important in Mexican thought that portrayals of them frequently replace the four evangelists in the four medallions at the base of domes in catholic churches.
December 12, from morning to night, may be the loudest day of the year in Mexico. Traditions of celebrating the Feast Day of Guadalupe are as varied as those of the Days of the Dead but none of them are quiet.  In most parts of Mexico the bells call the people to a pre-dawn mass. The cohetes (rockets) start at midnight and will continue until the following nightfall.  

Parres, a charming small pueblo on the outskirts of Cuernavaca has it’s own Virgin of Guadalupe traditions, starting on December 2 with a daily novena consisting of prayers, saying of the rosary, and moving the statue of Guadalupe from one house to the next.  As she moves through the streets the people sing devotional songs.  When they reach her new home for the night there will be more prayers, rosaries, singing, followed by atole and treats for the children. Our Lady of Guadalupe is returned to the church on the night of December 11 when a large mass receives her and the pilgrims who have accompanied her on her journey either through the pueblo or with her light from the Basilica.  After the mass cohetes resume their vigil.   The men charged with this task stay awake all night helped by freely partaking in a jug of pulque. By morning one does well to stay out of range of the rockets.

In the pre-dawn of December 12, church bells ring and the band and community play and sing the Mexican traditional birthday song of Las Mañanitas to the Virgin before the first mass of the day. When Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego she said, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?”  From that day Mexicans have all had two mothers, the one they share with their brothers and sisters and the one who is mother to the nation.  A special verse of Las Mañanitas is sung on this occasion. 
For the moon I’d give a peso, For the sun, I’d give a half
For my mother, and the Virgin, My life and my heart.
The town band and cohetes accompany the singers.  The mass includes numerous songs, celebrating Mary which everyone sings.  After mass the town assembles for atole and pan dulce.   A few hours later the church's statue of Guadalupe is carried into the street and, followed by the band and the community, makes numerous stops as the rosary is said.  Masses, cohetes, bell-ringing and the band continue throughout the day until nightfall. Silence finally descends.  But this is only the beginning of Lupe Reyes.  There will be much more bell-ringing and many more cohetes in the weeks that follow.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Revolution, 'Viva Zapata!'

“Viva Zapata!” is the ubiquitous call for social justice heard ‘round the world. Pueblos, towns, and schools throughout Mexico bear his name.  Why does his fame endure? What in the legend of Zapata is based in myth; what in truth?  The hagiography of Zapata began at the moment of his 1919 death with many claiming that he survived the assassination, escaped to Arabia, and lived the remaining years of his life protected by an Arab compadre. 

Zapata was branded a traitor and assassinated by government forces yet within days of his death, he was celebrated in art, music, and prose throughout the Republic. In Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace one finds Diego Rivera’s extraordinary mural, The Conquest of Cuanahuac, depicting Zapata, a mere ten years after his assassination, as the hero of the revolution. 

The strength of Zapata’s legacy is a deeply ingrained love, respect, and devotion found in the hearts of millions of Mexicans, particularly the poor and campesinos who hunger for land and a better life for their children. Though only one of the many generals of the revolution, martyred Zapata remains the spiritual heart of the intent of that epoch. 

Mexico’s view of its Revolution is conflicted.  Some look back on this time as folly, a stain on Mexican history best relegated to a footnote in the history books.  Other historians and social scientists argue that the goals of the Revolution, as articulated in the Plan de Ayala and The Constitution, were stillborn with little re-distribution of land and resources or amelioration of the dismal conditions of the peon.   This view better explains the rise of many successive movements, most often invoking the name of Zapata, in the nearly hundred years since his death. 

Loved by many throughout The Republic, in Morelos Zapata is revered. His legacy remains alive, visible to this day in social movements fighting for land and water rights.  The most well-known of the post-Zapata, Morelos, struggles was that of Ruben Jaramillo (1900-1962), who at 17 served as a Captain in the Zapata army and spent the remaining years of his life trying to fulfill the goals of the Revolution. 

On May 23, 1962, Ruben, his wife, sons and unborn child were taken from their home by government forces and massacred at Xochicalco.   The following day 8,000 campesinos marched at his funeral. Carlos Fuentes, famed Mexican author, traveled to Morelos with other well-known writers to document Jaramillo’s work and death. Fuentes interviewed numerous witnesses, fellow Jaramillistas, family members, and chronicled the poignant, well-known The Death of Ruben Jaramillo in contemporaneous, first-hand accounts of Jaramillo’s legacy as a direct descendent of Zapata.  Like Zapata, Jaramillo is honored for refusing profit from his work on behalf of the campesinos. One of the witnesses said, “Maybe they thought that by killing off the entire Jaramillo family there would be no more Jaramillos to go on fighting.  They did not realize that the death of five Jaramillos was the best fertilizer for the next five hundred, the next five thousand Jaramillos…. They killed our leader.  Now we are all Jaramillos.”

This prediction became palpable to me on the night of November 2.  I led that portion of this years’ Day of the Dead trip (to which you may remember you were all invited) on a study trip to Xoxocotla and Ocotopec, two indigenous communities with very different ways of celebrating.  Outside the church of Xoxocotla we met a friendly woman, the sacristan of the church.  She graciously invited our group to view her home ofrenda.  Although her house was adjacent to the back wall of the church we walked a block around the festivities to get there. En route she introduced us to her husband at his small newsstand. He is Saul Roque, the leader of the 13 Pueblos, winner of this years’ Don Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize!  When we reached their centuries old home we learned that Zapata had been a guest of Don Saul’s grandfather in the very room in which we were standing and that Ruben Jaramillo had often shared comida at the table on which the ofrenda was laid and had been the close friend and mentor of a much younger Saul. 

From Zapata came Jaramillo, from Jaramillo descended the leaders of Morelos’ 13 Pueblos, a consortium of indigenous people still fighting non-violently for their ancient land and water rights, rights guaranteed in written titles given to the indigenous people by the Spanish Crown at the time of the conquest and preserved to this day.  Here in the South, the Mexican Revolution was fought to enforce those rights; Zapata and Jaramillo died for them. The grito “Zapata vive! La lucha sigue!” is one you hear whenever there are land or civil rights protests anywhere in Mexico.  

Perhaps the legend of Zapata’s survival of the assassination attempt is not an exaggeration after all.  He may not have lived out the remainder of his life in Arabia but he does live in the hearts of his countrymen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Revolution: Traversing 'Zapataland'

Morelos is the Tierra de Zapata.  Though now a world-wide icon, Zapata only rarely journeyed outside the boundaries of the second smallest state in the Republic. In a day one can visit the most important places in his life. Unfortunately, in the interest of time, it is best to go out of chronological order

When I take groups on a Zapata study trip, I like to start with the train station in Cuautla.  There you can see locomotive 279, of the kind famous for carrying Zapata and his army throughout Morelos.  Not only a means of transportation, moving trains often served as meeting places and temporary headquarters.  Similar trains were used by Pancho Villa and the northern armies.

In a plaza, a few blocks walk from the Cuautla train station, is a colossal statue of Zapata standing guard over his remains. It’s worth the walk as you pass through the heart of this well kept, but little visited city.  

The horse-whisperer of his day, Zapata trained horses and was friend and employee of Ignacio de la Torre, son-in-law of Porfirio Diaz.  After six months working for De la Torre in Mexico City, he returned to Morelos and trained horses at the Hacienda Cuautlixco, a few miles outside Cuautla and within view of Anenecuilco.  Now a huge burned out shell the ex-hacienda is still worth the effort to visit; I’ve found it a perfect place for a group picnic (and occasional siesta) under the trees.

There are a trio of Zapata museums found in Anenecuilco, Chinameca and Tlatizapan. My favorite of the three museums is that of Anenecuilco, a picture postcard town proud to be the birthplace of Mexico’s most well-known citizen.  On the grounds of the museum are the remains of the house in which Zapata was born, and to one side a stunning 20 meter mural depicting a somewhat mythologized version of Zapata’s life.  From its inception the museum has been the dream of Lucino Luna Dominguez, a passionate devotee of Zapata, who has dedicated himself to this project for many years. Since there are few photos of that epoch, Lucino contracted for a series of large paintings to visually tell the story of Zapata’s life, Hacienda life and the Revolution.  Several of these canvases are already in place each reflecting years of research and a great attention to accurately detailing the conditions of 1910-1919.

The museum itself is a small, nearly perfect space, containing numerous artifacts collected by the Director with the help of the Anenecuilco community.  Lucino once told me he only had to ask for these items for the people to proudly give up treasures that could easily have been auctioned in the open market.   

Our next stop, a short distance away by kilometers, but light years away in ambience, is Chinameca, the dismal town where Zapata was ambushed and assassinated. The site museum is currently being refurbished for the Centenario and hopefully, by the time you arrive, will reflect better on the town and its place in history however despised.  Despite its poor museum, the town is worth visiting if for no other reason than to see the bullet holes from the Zapata ambush still visible in the walls. 

Tlaltizapan, home of Zapata’s revolutionary headquarters is my recommended next stop.  The headquarters building itself is home to another excellent small museum.  Tlaltizapan is a beautiful little town and, like Anenecuilco, well worth a visit on its own merits.  Tlatizapan has a heroic revolutionary history, being famous for protecting Zapata from the federal army that, on August 13, 1916, massacred 250 men, women, children, and elderly who died at the hands of the army rather than reveal information that would lead to Zapata’s capture. 

If you choose to make this trip on your own, I strongly urge you to take John Womack’s Zapata with you.  It is memorable to read the pertinent sections while visiting the various sites.  If you prefer a guided field study, an excursion to “Zapataland” is one of my favorites and available with a 10 person minimum.  If you are interested in being on a list for this trip or getting a group together, please email me at the address below.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Mexican Revolution through the Eyes of Foreigners

Today is the last of the Days of the Dead; if you haven't done so, make a point of stopping in at a cemetery to see the transformation of the last 24 hours; be sure to take your camera.  Once Days of the Dead is behind us, the media, government, and commercial enterprises will shift gears and bombard us, not with Thanksgiving, but with the centennial anniversary of the beginning days of the Revolution of 1910.   

Interestingly, four outstanding authors who wrote about the Revolution are English-speaking foreigners.  John Womack, Jr.'s, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution is considered, both in Mexico and around the world, the definitive history of the Revolution. Describing the social upheaval as it affected central Mexico, Zapata is a fascinating weave of Emiliano Zapata's motivation and his leadership role in the social upheaval.  With facts and figures Womack gives us cultural and socio-economic information to help us understand the motivation and point of view of the various groups in society.  You will want to read this book with map in hand as he takes you through the state of Morelos and occasionally into Puebla, Guerrero, and Mexico City.  Womack, a U.S. academic, writes in a well-documented, footnoted, style.  

Englishwoman, Rosa King doesn't have a single footnote in Tempest Over Mexico (available free at <tempestovermexico.com/download.html>).  In contrast to Womack's statistics, Mrs. King poignantly narrates the pain, suffering, and death  she witnesses, involving people from every social class, many of whom she knew personally. From the vantage point of her little English tea shop on Cuernavaca’s main square, Mrs. King seems to see it all.  The powerful came through her front door, the poor through the kitchen.  From her you receive a visceral 'feeling' for the social conflicts of the Revolution.   Most every landmark she mentions still stands open for visiting.      

Mrs. King empathized with the peasants and the conditions leading to the Revolution.  Nonetheless, when the war began she found herself caught in the middle, dependent upon government forces to make the grueling, tragically costly, evacuation from Cuernavaca. 

Mrs. King, like many of the readers of this newspaper, held the citizenship of a country in which she was not born and never lived for extended periods of time.  Some of us are travelers vacationing in Mexico, some are here temporarily on business, some  self-proclaimed “expats,” have moved from abroad and intend to stay and make our residence here. There are even some of us, an unusual lot, who live in Mexico but may never have lived in our country of nationality.

Journalist John Reed, author of Insurgent Mexico, covered the Mexican Revolution for Metropolitan Magazine, at a time when the U.S. was considering intervention and annexation.  Reed traveled with Pancho Villa’s army, shared their deprivation, and came to understand the motivations of these peasant soldiers.  Reed deeply sympathized with the peons and vehemently opposed the U.S. intervention that began after he left.  Insurgent Mexico is the compilation of his war correspondent stories, many of them so timeless they could have appeared in yesterday’s paper.

In contrast to Rosa King’s personal narrative,  John Womack’s academic masterpiece, and John Reed’s intense journalism, is John Steinbeck’s "Viva Zapata!", starring Marlon Brando, 1952.  A  dramatization of the revolution through the eyes of General Emiliano Zapata, it was nominated for multiple Oscars. What most people don’t know is that Steinbeck lived for some time in Mexico, loved this country, and, in preparation for writing the script, was a student of the conditions that led to the Revolution.  Zapata, a hard to find, but excellent, book includes the background information and narrative he used in writing the script for "Viva Zapata!", and also two quite different versions of the familiar script. 

All four of these books (and the movie too) are excellent and may help readers to a better understanding of why revolutionary ideals are considered sacred to so many in this country.   Next week will be an excursion through the rich revolutionary geography of Morelos with ideas for trips one might enjoy.    

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Sergio Mendez Arceo's 103rd birthday

Today would be Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo's 103rd birthday.  In 1959 he consecrated Cuernavaca's cathedral -- now world famous not because it was built during the time of Cortez, not because it's open chapel is the oldest Spanish building in the western hemisphere, but because of the man responsible for its consecration as a cathedral.  

Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo known, affectionately and simply, throughout the world, as Don Sergio was as beloved by the people of Cuernavaca as he was scorned by the hierarchy of the Church, but that will have to be the beginning of another story.

Sergio Mendez Arceo put the diocese of Cuernavaca on the map by making a simple and plain cathedral the most visited spot in Morelos.  Never meant to be a cathedral, the church of the Ascension of the Virgin Mary has a single nave and numerous glaring architectural mistakes; even to the point of having Roman arches with no keystones.  The Franciscan architects were amateurs and the Indigenous laborers had never built a Roman arch or vaulted ceiling.  Construction on the church building started in 1529, eight years after the conquest, and was completed in 1552.  In 1891 the diocese of Cuernavaca was created with the same boundaries as the new state of Morelos;  the ancient church was chosen as a temporary cathedral. Over time its walls had been filled with niches and side altars. On Don Sergio’s instruction, they were all removed.  The details of this transformation is, again, another story for another day.

Don Sergio’s Cathedral’s elegance now lies in its simplicity and reflects the vision and philosophy of the man.   Don Sergio often said that without "clutter" the church could get down to the basics of what Christian life is all about in a simple and austere cathedral.  The ability to have his cathedral reflect his vision was an opportunity very few bishops have.  Most receive their cathedral already consecrated.  You might think it is easy to pick up the furniture and move it around, but it’s not done.  Once consecrated there are rarely interior changes.  By starting with a temporary cathedral Mendez Arceo made the changes he wanted before the consecration.  Those changes in the cathedral reflected his personal philosophy visualized as simplicity, Christ’s ministry to the poor and commitment to fight against injustice.   

From his pulpit he taught those values to overflow crowds each Sunday.  In his walk of life he lived them.  Depending upon one’s political point of view he became known as the “Bishop to the Poor” or “The Red Bishop.”   

The man is dead, buried beneath the very altar of his Cathedral, but his work continues. Upon his death in 1992, as the community mourned, the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation was founded to continue his legacy.  Each year the Foundation gives a human right’s prize to the Mexican individual/group recognized as continuing the work begun by Don Sergio.

In 2007, Ignacio del Valle, leader of the people of San Salvador Atenco, imprisoned for  defending his town and its land, received the prize.  Amnesty International proclaimed the defiled female prisoners of Atenco, Prisoners of Conscience.  On the day of the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo award ceremony, Nacho received word in his cell of a sentence of 111 years.   His wife Trini and dozens of Atencans came, dancing with their machetes, to the Open Chapel at the Cuernavaca cathedral.  They accepted and celebrated the national prize in his name.  This year the sentences of the imprisoned Atencans, including Nacho’s, were overturned and tomorrow at Don Sergio’s birthday celebration, Nacho will finally receive in person the award Don Sergio would be proud to have given in his name.    It will be a wonderful birthday party for Don Sergio as well as a celebration for the freedom of Nacho and the Atencans and you, dear reader, are invited to attend.  5 pm, tomorrow, October 29, Casa de Encuentros, Humboldt 46-B, Cuernavaca Centro. 

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Days of the Dead: Observing and experiencing Dias de los Muertos

In pre-hispanic Mesoamerican tradition death is not the end of life, it is merely a transition to another level of life.   A person's destination upon dying is determined by the type of life led.  Those that die by forces of water -- drowning, being struck by lightening, or from diseases in which their bodies bloat with fluids, are privileged and invited by the god of rain to go and be with him in his paradise Tlalocan, right here on this same flat earth on which we live, but in an area inaccessible to the living.  Other individuals will be invited by the sun to accompany him on his daily journey through the sky:  priests, warriors who die in battle, women who die in childbirth -- considered another type of warrior --, those who offered their hearts in sacrifice, and those who committed suicide -- a very brave death, having taken by their own hand that which is most valuable to us. 

The rest of us will go on a long and dangerous trip to the lowest of the underworlds.  The extremes of danger we experience are determined by the life we led.  Those who have followed all the rules of social order and have not committed many 'sins', if we want to call them that, will have an easy trip.  But every possible thing that can go wrong will go wrong for those who have committed many 'sins'.   Nevertheless, eventually, everyone makes it to the final resting place where all is provided for the rest of time.  It is an idea similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory and accounting for ones sins immediately after death.  However, Paul Kirchoff, the German anthropologist who coined and defined the word Mesoamaerica, says that the idea is very much a Mesoamerican one, firmly in place before contact with Europeans. 

Whether it is syncretism, as often inferred, or the same story told in a different way, the Catholic church made space for the Mesoamerican idea as part of the observations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1st and 2nd, which were already included in the Catholic calendar of the saints.

Though Days of the Dead (it is a multiday event) is an indigenous celebration, you'll see organizations, businesses, and governments taking advantage of the days for marketing events of various kinds.  The most unusual, I have come across, are car dealerships with skeletons in the drivers' seats of their new cars -- hardly the image you would think car manufacturers would like to convey!  Municipal, state and even federal offices often offer prizes to the best altar for days of the dead.  As the days pass one wonders where so many marigolds come from to decorate graves, home altars, and exhibits.   A trip to any pueblo in October will answer that question.  The countryside is ablaze with the golden flower.

Every town and village has its own particular way of celebrating, but the one common thread is the belief that souls of the departed come back and visit with their living family members for at least a full day.  Souls always return to where they lived.  That’s the only place a soul would know to return.  You couldn’t expect a soul from a rural village in Oaxaca to find its family which has migrated to Monterrey or New York.  Hence it becomes the biggest travel day in Mexico as people make an effort to get back to where they came from, where their deceased, family members lived. An altar set up in another place may be soothing to the people who have set it up, but in the grand scheme of things is purely decorative because the souls or spirits of the deceased won't find their way to that altar. 

In its classic definition, an altar is a table, in this case set with an offering, ofrenda, of items the deceased enjoyed.  Food, including something sweet, liquor, cigarettes, toys for deceased children, photos of the deceased, clothing, are standard fare on the altars. Water, matches, salt, special bread, candles, and incense are essential items.  The dead are thirsty from their long journey, matches are used to light the way for the return, and salt is always craved by the dead.  Preparing an ofrenda is not something one does hurriedly.  A loved one who was a poker enthusiast would not be particularly attracted to a checker board.  So in the weeks before preparing the ofrenda one begins to look for special treats that will be pleasing to the soul who will return… a little tequila, a mirror, a favorite teddybear?

The ofrenda is usually spoken about as if it is set on a dining room table, however it tends to look more like a home altar set up against a wall.  The social level of the people setting up most of the altars for the dead isn't such that they have a proper dining room and the altar is frequently in a bedroom, or a room which functions as a bedroom at night and a multipurpose room during the day; awkward for the type of people who read this newspaper to get into a home and see the altar, or even be invited in, in the first place.  The altars in homes usually aren't set up for visitors other than very close family friends.     

Another source of awkwardness, especially for USn's is that we don't have experience in dealing with a holiday like Days of the Dead.  We've deformed the Hallowed Evening before All Saints Day into a commercial bonanza called Halloween.  We've even somehow morphed 'vacation' out of 'holy day'. It is hard in many sectors of our society to think of drinking hard liquor -- common fare at traditional Days of the Dead celebrations -- and not have it spill over into a party.

What may be most distressing for our need for choreography is that Days of the Dead events don't move quickly enough for our tastes.  We tend to expect constant action and much of the Mesoamerican celebration is mindful preparation and waiting.  Those involved want the festivities to go as slowly as possible.   Days of the Dead isn't a somber time but is not particularly festive either.  It is a rare opportunity for an annual tending of the graves, a visit with and paying of respect to deceased family members who have preceded us.  Why would they want to hasten it along?  

How then are we, outsiders, to be able to get more than a glimpse of the Days of the Dead celebrations?  I like to follow the whole process.  A good place to start is at the Thursday market in Yecapixtla, Morelos, on the Thursday before Days of the Dead.  This year it will be October 28th.  Vendors from all over central Mexico will be selling everything necessary to set up an ofrenda.  As you drive to Yecapixtla keep your eyes on the roadside crosses indicating where someone has died a violent death, usually in a vehicle accident.  Customarily these are decorated on October 28th, allowing the family of the deceased to attend to the needs of those who died far from where they lived, and still return home for those who died a natural death in their very own town.

This could also be a good day to visit the villages you plan to visit on Days of the Dead, in order see the transformation of the towns and cemeteries.  Drive through town, visit  cemeteries, peek inside doorways -- this is easiest to do in the evening, when lights are on and you more easily see inside homes.  Get an idea of what the town is like on 'regular' days.

Try to stay away from the places which the government tourism departments advertise as "the places" to "experience" the Days of the Dead.  They will be overrun with outsiders and in many cases the government tourism departments distribute candles and flowers and hustle villagers to decorate their cemetery to be ready for the tour busses' arrival.  

One place where the doors are open for everyone is the church.  The souls who are alone, who have no family members setting up an altar for them in their former homes, know there will be an ofrenda for them there.

It is common to set up altars for deceased children on the night of the 31st of October and for adults on the 1st of November.  However there are exceptions.  Xoxocotla just south of the city of Oaxaca draws huge crowds of visitors because it decorates the tombs in its cemetery on the night of the 31st of October, and the surrounding villages and city of Oaxaca do so on the night of the 1st or during the day of the 2nd of November.  

Decorating the tomb is an extended family event.  It goes on for hours, with weeding, cleaning, painting, decorating often with whole armloads of marigolds, known by their Nahuatl name of cempasuchitl.  Other flowers are used too, especially a red felt-like flower (cockscomb).  Both of these flowers are very fragrant.  I’ve been told their pungency is particularly attractive to the dead.  Many families sit, talk, eat, and visit with each other and the 'neighbors' decorating the tombs on either side.

In some villages trails of marigold petals lead the way from the tomb to the home altar, in others a line of petals from the street leads the way to the home altar.   In some villages men take turns tolling the church bells to guide the souls back; at the end the bells ring to make sure souls know it is time to leave.  Souls should not stay beyond their allotted time.

If invited in to see a home altar by all means take advantage of the opportunity.  Just as it is appropriate to make the sign of the cross in front of the altar in a Catholic church, it is also appropriate in front of a home altar.  If you're Catholic it will come naturally.  If you're not, have a Catholic friend teach you how.  A proper gift is candles.  Brand new candles, as most everything on the altar will also be new.  It is not your role as the guest to light the candle or even expect that it will be put on the altar while you are there.  The family will decide where and when it will be lit.  The easiest candles to carry are the long thin ones, two or three feet long.  White and plain.  You can buy them in main markets by the kilo.  Three or four candles is enough for each altar you visit.

Days of the Dead only come around once a year and in two days they are over and won't be back until next year; you need to use your time wisely.  You don't want to spend it caught in traffic or on long drives from one town to another.    In the years I've lived in Mexico I've gone to places famous for their Days of the Dead:  Tzintzuntzan and Janitzio Island in Michoacan; Xoxocotla, and villages in the Valley of Oaxaca; the highlands of Chiapas; Mixquic, in Milpa Alta, D.F.  As so often happens, the best and most meaningful places I've found are right here close to home in the state of Morelos. 

Ahehuehuetzingo, south of Cuernavaca, a couple of kilometers west of the free road to Acapulco, is where I've seen altars being put up for children on the night of October 31.  It is also the only place where I have seen crying at the altar for the dead -- only once, in one home, but to be expected when welcoming back the soul of a child.  Women make special bread for the little angels, as they are known.  The place to meet them is in the evening at the bakery where they pay a fee to be able to bake their very own bread in the domed wood-fired oven.  That's also a place to meet people who might invite you to visit their home altar. 

Ocotepec, the first village on the old road from Cuernavaca to Tepoztlan, is the most welcoming of towns I've found for Days of the Dead.  In addition to being very welcoming Ocotepec has one of the most unusual ways of setting up its altars.  The homes which are open for visiting are those in which a person has died in the previous 365 days; if a child, it will be on the night of October 31, if an adult on November 1.  You'll know where those homes are by seeing a line of people outside waiting to get in.  Or, do as I do and go there the day before; drive up and down the streets and make a map indicating the houses being decorated.  The streets will be too crowded to drive on the night of November 1.  You will need to park and walk. 

In Ocotopec the body of the deceased is laid out on a table the size of a dining room table.  It is wearing new clothes and shoes and surrounded by the other things you'd expect to see in a Day of the Dead offering on an altar.  Don't worry, the deceased's face is a life sized sugar skull, the clothing is stuffed to appear to be the deceased lying on the table.  Nevertheless, upon entering that room you are in the presence of the deceased.  The family is hoping to receive, as gifts from the visitors, enough candles to be able to keep a set of them lit throughout the following year.  It would be in bad form for the family to have to purchase them.  After leaving the room and exiting into the patio you will be offered tamales, sweet rolls, and a hot drink as well as a place to sit and enjoy them.

Farther along that road you will get to Tepoztlan.  People there will have set up their altars, however you would have to be invited inside their homes to see them.  Throughout most of Mesoamerica the Days of the Dead are October 31st to November 2nd.  Tepoztlan is among the few towns which continue the celebrations/observances for another nine days bringing them to a conclusion on November 9th, a day which is as busy at the cemetery as November 2nd, with bands available for hire to play at the gravesite.

On November 2nd cemeteries everywhere will be decorated.  I find it interesting to go back to villages visited the previous days to see the changes the town has gone through. 

So far we have been observers, not participants.  Most readers of this newspaper have been in Mexico for only a short while and have no dead buried here.  And even if we do, we don't tend to follow the Mesoamerican customs.  However if you do have deceased friends or relatives, I'm sure they would appreciate a place to visit and be received.  An expat friend of mine in Cuernavaca prepares an ofrenda each year.  She decides months before which relatives, friends, or even deceased pets, she will honor and then begins to collect items special to them.  She’s had everything from martinis to golf balls to dog bones on her ofrenda.  The central market of every town generally has an area available for seasonal items.  There you can find the chocolate skulls, papel picado, copal and other traditional items. 

If you would like to participate in decorating a tomb let me know.  I'll be glad to have you accompany me to decorate the gravesite of a dear friend who died in Cuernavaca, he had no children, and has no relatives in Mexico.  I would be glad to have company and be able to tell you his story -- a fascinating one.