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.