Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Christmas Mystery

As this Advent season comes to a close I’d like to share with you how I celebrate Christmas.  Many years ago a friend introduced me to The Christmas Mystery, a delightful book written by Norwegian philosopher Jostein Gaarder.  The Christmas Mystery is an Advent calendar, mystery, and beautiful story all in one -- a magical Christmas tale! 

There are 24 chapters in the book; one for each day in Advent.  The story begins in Norway with young Joachim going with his father to buy an Advent calendar.  In an out-of-the-way bookstore Joachim finds a very old, homemade calendar. The next morning, when Joachim opens door #1, a little slip of paper with tiny writing falls out of the calendar. Thus begins a story of 24 parts.  In the first chapter, December 1, the young Norwegian child Elisabet runs after a toy lamb as it makes its escape from a department store.  In the following chapter, December 2, she is joined by the angel Ephiriel who explains to Elisabet that they are on a holy pilgrimage to Bethlehem to be present at the birth of Jesus.  As they travel from Norway to Bethlehem they will also “run through time” from 1948 back to 0000.  

In each chapter the pilgrimage is joined by another participant who will be present at the birth of Jesus.  Their journey, through Europe, the Fertile Crescent, and the centuries, becomes a geography, history, and philosophy lesson.   As the story unfolds, Joachim’s mother remembers a child named Elisabet Hansen who really did disappear, many years before, from a department store in their town.  Is the Advent calendar a clue to her disappearance? How will Joachim unravel the mystery?  What will happen when the pilgrims reach Bethlehem?

It is a wonderful book to read aloud each day.  Over the years I have introduced it to a number of friends of all ages and read aloud with them through the season.  In turn they have introduced it to their friends and family.  It is as engrossing for children as it is for adults. The Christmas Mystery is available in many different editions -- all of them magical.  I hope that by December 1 of next year you will have your very own copy.  It would be nice to know if there are Digs readers sharing the Mystery.

Hopefully you’ve attended a posada or two during the past few days.  If not you still have four more nights of street posadas, culminating December 24, with the celebration of Christmas Eve Mass.  In many Mexican churches, as in Christian churches throughout the world, there will be Christmas pageants with children and live animals playing the various roles of the nativity figures.

On Christmas Eve the baby Jesus will finally appear in nativity scenes (nacimientos) throughout Mexico. In many homes nativity scenes stay in place until Candelaria, February 2. 

In Mexico nacimientos may not be limited to the usual holy family, angels, a few sheep, shepherds and wise men.  If you have been to a large market seasonally selling nacimiento figures you may wonder what possible connection some of these figures could have with the Christmas story.  At the Soumaya Museum in Mexico City there is an elaborate Mexican nacimiento.  Hundreds of figures, representing all classes and occupations, are in an enormous 19th century gilded retablo.  It represents the whole town of Bethlehem; not just those present in the stable. 

On Epiphany, January 6, the Wise Men present their gifts to the Child.  Though more and more Mexican families also exchange gifts at Christmas, it is traditionally on the Day of the Three Kings that Mexican children receive presents.  Tamales and atole is the usual food and drink.  If you don’t have your tamales pre-ordered don’t expect to find them at the last minute on January 6; you’ll be disappointed. The meal culminates with the cutting of the rosca, a large sweet-bread ring.  Baked inside the rosca is a tiny baby Jesus.  If you cut off the piece of the rosca that has the Niño, you are responsible for providing tamales and atole for Candelaria.

Christmas ends with Candelaria.  Forty days after his birth, Jesus was ritually presented at the temple.  There Mary and Joseph encountered Simeon the Righteous who had been promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.  In the Gospel of Luke, Simeon says Jesus will be a "light for revelation to the Gentiles."  It is for this that candles, representing light, are associated with Candelaria.  Baby Jesus is removed from the nacimiento and dressed for his presentation in the temple.  Visiting a central market in the days before February 2 you can see an array of clothes available for Jesus’ as small as your thumb, or three feet tall, and every size in between.   At the mass of Candelaria, these newly dressed Jesus’ are presented.  At night the family enjoys tamales and atole, courtesy of whoever had the baby Jesus in her or his piece of rosca on Ephiphany.  So ends another Christmas in Mexico.

But for those of us following the Christmas Mystery, it is only December 20.  Elizabet, Ephiriel and their fellow pilgrims are in Tarsus in the year 238.  Will they make it to Bethlehem in time for the birth of the Child? 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas flavors

The holidays are underway.  Stores are crammed with seasonal ingredients to make Mexico’s traditional holiday dishes.  A trip to a central market fills your senses with the smells and colors of this favorite time of year.  Unlike north of the border where Christmas essentially ends on December 25, the Mexican Christmas season will extend until Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd, Candlemass Day.  In between there are many special feast days with their own traditional foods and customs.

December 16th is the beginning of nine nights of posadas.  The reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem search for an inn (posada) is celebrated in small towns and urban neighborhoods throughout Mexico. Some posadas are modest, others quite grand.  In many an image of the Virgin Mary, accompanied by a statue of St. Joseph, leaves the local church on the night of December 16th

Although an event especially designed for children, many adults participate.  In some posadas a child dressed as Mary sits atop a burro led by a young boy dressed as Joseph.  Accompanying children may be dressed as shepherds, wisemen, angels, even King Herod.  The procession passes through the streets singing songs celebrating the Virgin.  At homes along the way the children sing and beg for lodging.  Those inside the home sing traditional replies and send them on their way.  Finally, at the house appointed for that night, the people inside welcome the saints or their diminutive representatives. If it is the saints from the church they will remain there until the following night when the posada resumes from that home. 

After the saints have been carefully lodged for the night, celebration begins.  Hot ponche is served to all. A syrupy, sweet drink, it combines many seasonal fruits as well as sugar cane and cinnamon.  If the “innkeeper” can afford it, sweet tamales accompany the ponche.  For the children there are also piñatas with toys and candy.  Though considered a great honor to house the Virgin and St. Joseph for a night it can be an expensive proposition! 

The posadas continue each night until Christmas Eve when Mary and Joseph return to the church and the nativity scene where the birth of Jesus is celebrated in a special mass.

Christmas Eve dinners don’t usually start until late in the evening and extend until the wee hours of the morning.  For some the dinner will be simple tamales and atole but, depending upon the economics of the family, it is usually a more extensive meal with a number of dishes particular to Mexico.

Perhaps the most unusual of Mexico’s Christmas dishes is romeritos.  Romeritos are an essential part of Mexican Christmas and Lenten cooking and by now huge baskets of romeritos have appeared in the markets.  Though some think the romerito is related to rosemary, it is in fact a wild herb, one of many quelites.  Quelites are the edible, tender parts of wild (though in some cases now cultivated) plants.  Quelites can be buds, flowers, shoots or even new leaves. The word quelite comes from the Nahuatl quili-ti.  In ancient times romerito grew in the swampy areas of the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.

In addition to romerito, there are many other quelites common to the Mexican marketplace and kitchen.  A sampling of those found in the market include the delicious verdolagas (Mexican watercress), flor de calabasa (squash blossom), and hoja santa (used for seasoning and tamales).  Quelites, generally high in nutritional value, are frequently gathered from public land. 

Though the romerito itself has a distinctive, pleasant peppery flavor, it can be hard to detect in the traditional Christmas Eve dish that includes so many other ingredients.  Tender poached romerito leaves are mixed with nopal, nuts, and chiles, served over fried patties of potato and dried shrimp, and covered with a spicy mole.  It’s my suggestion that before trying to prepare this complex dish you sample it to be sure you like it enough to have it on your holiday table.  Some say it is an acquired taste.  I’ve had it every Christmas Eve for 37 years and I’m not there yet.

Another popular Christmas Eve dish is bacalao a la Vizcaina, the base of which is salted cod.  The cod requires several days of soaking and draining.  If you skip that step it will be unbearably salty.  Cod was probably brought to Mexico by Spanish sailors.  Bacalao, in one form or another, is a celebratory dish throughout the Spanish and Portuguese world.   

Guajolote con Mmle poblano (see 12/6/2011 Digs) is another ubiquitous Christmas Eve dish.  By now you'll probably need an antidote to the rich and savory dishes of the night.  Jicama  (Nahuatl  xicamatlla) salad is a Christmas favorite.  Sweet and savory recipe variations are available.  The jicama with its crisp apple flavor combines well and is a welcome contrast to some of the heavier Christmas plates.  

Cidra (sparkling cider), ponche, or other spirits accompany this gala meal. In between attacks on piñatas, sparklers (luces de bengala) are lit by children – perhaps to recreate the star leading the Wise Men to Bethlehem.  

This is just the beginning of the holiday celebrations.  Pace yourself; you’ll still be celebrating until February 2.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The turkey's pre-Columbian history

Our two northern neighbors recently celebrated their respective Thanksgiving days.  In both Canada and the United States roast turkey is the main dish and even the symbol for these annual feasts.
Surprise! The turkey, like the poinsettia of last week's column, is another of Mexico’s many gifts to the world.

Unlike other cradles of civilization, Mesoamerica had few domesticated animals.  The only domesticated fowl were the muscovy duck and the turkey.  Signs of turkey domestication in Maya sites such as Cobá dated about 100 BC to 100 AD. The signs include the construction of animal pens, healed long bone fractures in turkey bones found far from natural habitats, ritual burial, and the presence of large quantities of egg shells. Turkey bones have also been found as musical instruments and tools. 

Unlike today’s large-breasted and mostly grounded birds, early turkeys were strong flyers able to reach speeds of up to 90 kph (55 mph) for short distances. They could run 25-50 kph (15-30 mph)! This would have been a very lean and tough bird. Though turkeys were used by pre-Columbians for meat and egg consumption, there is good evidence they were prized primarily for their feathers, not their meat.  Like the shearing of sheep, one can pluck the feathers from the turkey and they will regrow.  Early Spaniards wrote about half-naked turkeys wandering around.  Feathers were used to make clothing, decorative headdresses, and weapons. Turkeys fed a maize diet became more desirable for their meat.

There were a number of varieties of turkey but even more Mesoamerican names for this prolific bird.  In 1941 Lawrence B. Kiddle claimed in an article titled “The Names for Turkey in the Modern Mexican Dialect” that he had found thirty names for the turkey – 26 still in use!   Even stretching etymology, the Inuit only have 20 words for snow.  Guajolote or pavo are currently the most common names though in some places it is still called ave de los ricos or bird of the rich.  

Some varieties of native turkeys were more resistant to domestication but could still be caged and were prized for their bright plumage.  Even today the Yucatan native ocellated turkey can be seen wandering through the ruins of the ancient cities such as Tikal, Toniná, and Bonampak.

For the pre-Columbians turkeys also had religious and ceremonial significance.  Archeologists have found buried remains of whole turkey skeletons, headless turkeys, even turkeys buried alongside humans.  By some accounts the Aztec turkey god, Chalchiuhtotolin  (nahuatl for jade turkey) was one of the nahuals (animal manifestations) of Tepeyollotl, a major Aztec god.  Tepeyollotl is more typically depicted in his nagual manifestation as a jaguar.

The Spanish returned to Europe with this new food where it quickly replaced the difficult-to-eat peacock on European banquet tables. Each ship returning to Spain was ordered to take five male and five female turkeys.  It is likely the Aztecs had also used the turkey as a banquet dish and that Cortez himself may have enjoyed turkey mole on a visit to the royal palace. 

Mole (from the nahuatl mulli, molle or chimulli describing an indigenous sauce usually with a chili pepper base) comes in all colors and all flavors.  In any large central market you can see the blaze of colors of prepared moles.  Outside of Mexico the best known mole is the legendary mole poblano originating in Puebla in the Convent of Santa Rosa.  Poor nuns panicked when they were surprised by the visit of the archbishop (or was it the viceroy?).  They pooled their meager resources (including chocolate) into a sauce, killed an old turkey, prayed a lot, and then served the first guajolote con mole poblano to great acclaim.   Because mole poblano contains some European ingredients it is considered an example of mestizaje cooking. 
Guajolote con mole poblano remains a favorite Mexican dish.  No Mexican wedding is complete without it.  There are hundreds of variations of the recipe and some recipes contain no ingredients not available before the conquest.  It is a dish particularly enjoyed at Christmas.  ¡Buen provecho!.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


As soon as the last Day of the Dead’s cempazuchitl were swept away, noche buenas appeared by the roadsides.  By now they bedeck stores, office buildings, gardens and homes. Because the cut poinsettia quickly wilts, we see them in pots of all shapes and sizes, or planted in the soil in park settings or boulevard medians.

Surprisingly, poinsettias are a relatively recent addition to Christmas tradition outside of Mexico.  Native to central Mexico, likely the areas around Cuernavaca and Taxco, the poinsettia was known by its Nahuatl name, Cuitlaxochitl and valued for the curative nature of the milky substance in the stem as well as the red leaves’ natural dye. Requiring repeated periods of 12-14 hours of darkness, the poinsettia’s bloom cycle serendipitously coincides with Christmas.

Early in Mexico’s Christian church the poinsettia became linked with Christmas through a myth of a poor child traveling on Christmas Eve to visit the nativity scene but without a gift to take to the baby Jesus.  Believing Jesus would welcome any gift offered in love the child stopped by a field and picked up some dry branches.  When carefully laid before the nativity, the branches transformed to crimson noche buenas.  It was the first manger scene adorned with the beautiful poinsettia.  It would not be the last.  

Like the bougainvillea, the brilliant red “flower” is actually the leaves of the plant, more properly known as bracts.  The flower, in the center of each leaf bunch, is tiny and yellow.
Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851), first U.S. minister to Mexico after independence from Spain, popularized the flower, and in doing so, managed to have his name become a household word in the English-speaking world.  He first saw the plant in 1823 when visiting a church in Taxco.  By all accounts the flower became his life’s passion.
Poinsett sent plants from Mexico to his home in Charleston, South Carolina. Soon the “star flower” was growing in his neighbors' gardens.  Poinsett, an ardent amateur botanist, spent the latter years of his life propagating flowers and making the “poinsettia” a symbol of Christmas. Whatever it is called, poinsettia, noche buena, star flower or Cuitlaxochitl, it is one of Mexico’s many gifts to the world.

In the early 1900’s German Albert Ecke immigrated to the U.S. and also succumbed to the poinsettia’s seduction.  For three generations the California Ecke Ranch has promoted the poinsettia as a Christmas flower.  Albert’s son Paul developed a secret grafting technique that allowed for the fuller plant we see today.

More recently, in the 1990s, a Canadian priest, entrusted with Cuernavaca's Church of the Three Kings, asked English sculptor John Spencer (1928-2005) if he would design some gates for the 17th century church.  He was startled by Spencer's reply.  "How can I design gates without walls?"  Spencer accepted the commission and designed many gates -- though only two are functional.  Just as the poinsettia's flower is outshone by the showier bracts, Spencer's gates are marvelous pieces of sculpture that are often overlooked because of the immense, intriguing, fantasy of the walls.

In his designs for both gates and walls Spencer focused on events revolving around the church's annual festival, Epiphany, when the visit of the three kings to the Christ Child is celebrated.  They were guided by the star of Bethlehem and Mexico's star flower is featured.
The grandest of Spencer’s gates is the Poinsettia Gate, with enormous steel bracts and brass flowers.  Towering over the gate is the Star of Bethlehem with an interesting twist.  Rather than the traditional five-pointed star, Spencer designed a three dimensional Star of David -- made of two intertwined pyramids, one right side up, one upside down.  Beneath it are three crowns.
The gate is the beginning of a path laid out in the shape of the cross.  The path appropriately leads to and ends at the altar inside the church.  Only by including the portion of the path doubling as the aisle in the sanctuary does Spencer's cross have the proportions of a Latin cross.  At the end of each arm of the cross are two other gates. It is likely that Spencer’s design was meant to incorporate the poinsettia’s relationship to the crucifixion.  The deep crimson color of the poinsettia may be a reminder of the blood of Christ.

These next few weeks leading to Epiphany are appropriate ones to visit Spencer's walls and gates.  They are easily accessible to all visitors traveling to Cuernavaca.  They are located at the north end of town and easily accessible from both Mexico City highways.  If you'd like a locater map please send me an email.

Until two weeks ago Spencer's tomb in the churchyard was covered with an intricate design made of cempazuchitl petals.  The seasons pass. From now til Epiphany I'll try to keep a potted poinsettia on Spencer's tombstone in the churchyard.  Perhaps you’ll bring one too.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The history behind the holidays

In 2006 federal law changed the dates of three of five fiestas patrias to allow for holiday celebrations to be on Mondays so as to enjoy long weekends.  The Anniversary of the Revolution, November 20th, was one of those changed by the new law and is now celebrated on the third Monday in November -- hence yesterday's puente.  I wonder if many of those weekending in Acapulco knew, or cared, why they had this extra holiday.  

Yesterday's observance brought the centennial year of the Revolution to an end. Fought throughout Mexico, La Revolución lasted ten long, bloody years.  One in ten Mexicans died in what was one of the great social upheavals of the 20th century.  Though it began as a revolt against the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, it fragmented into a multi-sided civil war of socialist, liberal, anarchist, populist, union, and agrarian movements -- each with separate goals and ideals.  The shared objective was the overthrow of the Diaz regime. 

Several events are widely believed to have provided sparks that eventually lit the Revolution.  In 1906 the army, under orders of Diaz, brutally repressed a miners strike in Sonora.  The massacre of Cananea led to labor unrest throughout the nation.  The Porfiriato brought industrialization and wide use of the railroad.  Large sugar cane haciendas modernized.  To increase profits they demanded increased land and water.   They usurped both from indigenous populations, leading to an increasing number of landless peasants who were soon serfs on their own ancestral lands.  The 1910 election of Emiliano Zapata as leader of his village council almost immediately gave voice to the campesino demand for the return of land.  Zapata became, for many, the heart of the Revolution.  

Another spark was a 1908 Porfirio Diaz interview with a U.S. journalist.  Diaz said “Mexico is ready for democracy and free elections” and that he would step down to allow other candidates to run in 1910.  Young, wealthy, and idealistic Francisco Madero took Diaz at his word and spent the bulk of 1908 writing a book about the upcoming 1910 election.  He formed a political party devoted to “anti-reelection” and announced his own candidacy for the presidency.   Madero traveled across Mexico and was received by huge, enthusiastic crowds.
Angered, humiliated, or both by Madero’s popularity, Diaz again ran for the presidency. In June 1910, prior to the election, Madero was arrested and held in a San Luis Potosi prison. Despite wide support for Madero and the Anti-Reelection party, the Diaz machine assured the dictator’s victory. 

In Mexico City in September 1910, oblivious to the increasing ire of his countrymen, Porfirio Diaz prepared a lavish, ostentatious celebration of his 30 years in power and the 100th anniversary of Independence.  It would be the last straw as Mexico hurtled to the precipice of revolution.

The next month, October 1910, Madero escaped to San Antonio, Texas, and issued The Plan of San Luis Potosi.  Though Madero had been a pacifist, The Plan proclaimed the recent election null and void and called for armed revolution to begin at 6 pm on November 20, 1910. He said that once the revolution began he would declare himself provisional President of Mexico and asked the people to no longer acknowledge the Diaz government.  Madero also called for restitution of land to villages and indigenous communities as well as freedom for political prisoners. 

It was a grand plan that fizzled in its execution.  On November 20 Madero arrived at the border planning to meet up with his uncle and 400 men recruited to the cause.  His uncle showed up late and with only ten men; Madero “postponed” the revolution and retreated to New Orleans. 
An immediate effect of the November 20 date was the discovery by the Diaz regime that Aguiles Serdan of Puebla was a supporter of Madero.  On November 18 he was attacked in his home and killed. Serdan is considered the first martyr of the Revolution.

The Diaz presidency did not survive long.  In early 1911 Madero was defeated in his attack on Casas Grandes but on May 10, 2011, Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa successfully captured Ciudad Juarez. On May 21 Madero and Porfirio Diaz signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez requiring the immediate resignation and exile of Diaz. Madero would be the new president.  Madero insisted on another election and in November won overwhelmingly.  
This might have been the end but it was only the beginning of a bloody decade.  Madero was soon betrayed, overthrown and assassinated.  Of the presidents elected or otherwise that followed in that troubled decade, few would die in their beds.

Appropriately the next Fiesta Patria is the Anniversary of the Constitution, commemorating the February 5, 1917 signing of the new constitution.  Like the Day of the Revolution, law has changed the date of this holiday from February 5 to the first Monday in February.  In 2012 it will be February 6.  You could book now for Acapulco or, better yet, make a date with yourself to visit the wonderful National History Museum in Chapultepec Castle and learn more about the fascinating and tumultuous years framed by these two holidays.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Scenic drive offers look into the past

This is my favorite time to make the drive between Cuernavaca and Mexico City.  I am always transported in both time and place to 16th century Flanders and Pieter Breugel's famous painting, The Harvesters.   

At the top of the Chichinautzin ridge one forgets the tropics of the valleys on either side.  With a cold climate and frequent rain, there are no lush swimming pools and no bougainvillea. Sheep outnumber people. Instead of shorts and t-shirts, residents are more frequently seen in warm jackets. 

Though the entire area looks like one big farm it is cooperatively-cultivated ejido land and for the ejido farmer, the oats harvest is now in full swing.  Just as the oats were planted and fertilized by hand they will be harvested by hand. Then the are left in the field to dry in conical stacks without separating the grain from the stalk. Though oats, not wheat, the golden stacks of the 21st century are no different from those of Bruegel’s 16th century landscape.

There are no fences between farms but each farmer knows exactly where the boundaries are and harvests only his or her crop.  It is only during the harvest that one can see how many holdings there are.  On some farms stalks are still standing, in others they are in the process of being cut. In still others, they are already stacked in conical piles.  The only difference in the harvesting methods used in Bruegel’s time and that of modern farmers on this ridge is that in a few weeks stationary baling machines will be brought to the fields and bales will be hand-loaded onto trucks.  Harvesting remains a very labor-intensive process.  

The ejido farm is a uniquely Mexican type of land holding system. Although the government of Mexico parceled out fields to landless peasant farmers, giving them the right to use it is as their own, the nation retains the title.  An ejidatario cannot use his land for any purpose other than farming, nor can it be rented or sold.  If it isn't cultivated or farmed appropriately it reverts back to the community and is given to one who will.  Lázaro Cardenas, perhaps Mexico’s most beloved president as well as a general in the Revolution, believed the tremendous number of landless peasants was the spark that led to the violent social upheaval. He embraced Zapata’s ideas for land reform and the ejido is a legal concept that was his answer to the question "How do we give land to landless peasants and make sure they don’t turn around, sell it, becoming landless peasants again?"  Finding an answer to the question could provide insurance against a future revolution.  The ejido, modeled on prehispanic land use, without ownership, seemed to be an answer. 
This is a grand time of year to travel over the ridge.  From either direction on a clear day, both on the ascent and descent of the highway, one can see snow-capped Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.  Though much of the ridge is part of the Federal District and well-protected, when one enters the Valley of Mexico, one of the most densely populated areas of the world, trees and forests give way to miles upon miles of human habitation.

Along this storied Cuernavaca-Mexico City route are also the paths of Zapata and the Revolutionary Army, dozens of inactive volcanoes, even burros walking along modern superhighways.  For the acute observer, there is always that moment when the centuries blur.  With a little imagination you can enter Bruegel’s 16th century European world.  Or, even Jose Maria Velasco’s 19th century landscape portrayals of Mexico as an amalgam of modernity and tropical naturalism.  Bruegel’s painting even depicts a large distant lake.  If the lakes of the Valley of Mexico had not been filled in would The Harvesters even more closely resemble today’s Chichinautzin ridge?  

Take your choice.  At great expense and dislocation you can fly five hours to New York City and see the original Bruegel painting or you could drive to the Chichinautzin ridge and be in the painting itself.  In the lower right of the painting are picnickers and nappers.  I suggest you take a picnic and a blanket and share a torta

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Celebrate Sor Juana

Mexico is unusual in having portraits of poets and artists featured on its currency.  Literature Nobel laureate Octavio Paz (1914-1998) is on the twenty peso coin.  Nahuatl poet and ruler of Texcoco Netzahualcoyotl (1402-1472) is on the hundred peso bill.  Poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-1695) is on both versions of the two-hundred peso bill.  Artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are on the five-hundred peso bill.    

Sor Juana's birthday is this Saturday, November 12th.  She may be a Valentine’s baby; particularly appropriate for a love-child.  Juana’s mother, criolla Isabel Ramírez, was born on the slopes of Popocatépetl and baptized in Yecapixtla in present-day Morelos.  Her first three children were born out of wedlock.  Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana is registered on her birth certificate as a “daughter of the Church,” a euphemism for the unmarried state of her parents.  The paternal figure in Juana's life was her highly literate maternal grandfather.  

Though an hacendado, Juana’s grandfather Pedro Ramírez de Santillana didn't own his two haciendas.  They were leased from the church for the span of three “lifetimes.”   This interesting arrangement was typical of the time.  Juana's mother inherited the contract for the second generation, Juana's sister Maria, the third.  It was a family of strong women and Juana was no exception.

Juana Inés was born in Nepantla, now in the state of Mexico, in 1648, though some say 1651. There she lived for three years before she and her family moved to Hacienda Panoayan, at a higher elevation and closer to both Popocatépetl and Iztlaccíhuatl.  

Unless they were cloud-covered, Juana saw those snow-capped peaks every day of her life.  The corridor running from Yecapixtla through Nepantla and Panoayan to the historical center of Mexico City was the extent of the area she lived and traveled during her 46 (or 43) years.  Yet even in her lifetime, her poems, plays, and prose permeated the Spanish-speaking world and have grown ever more appreciated through the following centuries. 

By all accounts Juana devoured knowledge from the earliest age.  Bilingual in Spanish and Nahuatl, she read by the age of 3.  She had access to her grandfather’s extensive, esoteric, and multi-lingual library allowing self-education in many academic subjects. Through the library Juana gained access to a world mostly unknown to women of that day.  At the precocious age of 8 she won a town prize for a surprisingly mature poem about the Eucharist.

Juana was soon sent to Mexico City to live with her aunt and uncle, Juan de Mata, a man of influence in the viceregal palace.  At 15 she was presented at court.  From ages 16 to 20 she lived at the palace as the personal companion to the vicereine and soon was well-known for both intellect and beauty.  When she was 17 the Viceroy Marquis de Mancera famously tested Juana’s learning and intelligence by inviting great minds from New Spain to examine her on theology as well as various scientific and literary subjects.  Her performance is legendary.  The viceroy celebrated the accomplishment by saying “she defended herself as a galleon against a slew of canoes.” 

Juana resisted pressure to marry.  At 19 she chose the other available option -- entering religious life.  Her first incursion was harsh and did not allow intellectual development.  She returned to the court and after some months a wealthy donor provided the required dowry for her to enter the more comfortable Order of San Jeronimo.  

San Jeronimo required seclusion but allowed visitors and in the case of Sor Juana, the continued pursuit of her intellectual activities.  Indeed, Sor Juana’s multi-storied “cell” with an extensive library, scientific and musical instruments was a sought after salon for discussion and learning -- the world came to Sor Juana.  Convents of that day enhanced the cultural lives of the aristocracy by providing theater, concerts, and schools.  Juana became known as the Tenth Muse.  Her life and work have made her a model for modern-day feminists. 

Sor Juana enjoyed protection and friendship of successive viceroys, one of whom was also archbishop.  The departure in 1686 of Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and Vicereine Countess of Paredes led to Juana’s poetry and drama being published in Spain to enthusiastic reviews.   Unfortunately their exit also led to closer scrutiny of Sor Juana’s work by a misogynistic, jealous clergy and she became a target of the Inquisition. 

In 1693 Juana signed a penitential document in her own blood.  “Yo, la peor de todas.”  I, the worst of all.  Promising to no longer write, she allowed the church to sell her library of 4000 books and her musical and scientific instruments and requested proceeds be donated to charity.  Octavio Paz, among others speculates that instead of being an act of penitence this was the last act of an unrepentant, cornered intellect.  On April 17, 1695, after nursing her fellow nuns, Sor Juana died of the plague. 

Delve into your pocket for 200 peso bills.  Not for a donation but to see some views of Sor Juana’s life.  Both old and new bills have Miguel Cabrera’s portrait of the poet. Background to the portrait on both bills are books and writing materials, symbols of her literary life.  There are even five miniature lines of one of her most famous poems!  On the back of the new 200 peso bill is Hacienda Panoayan framed by her beloved Popocatépetl and Iztlaccíhuatl.  On the old bill is the Convent of San Jeronimo.  It is noteworthy that both bills use her secular name Juana de Asbaje.  Might that have been her preference?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Participating in Dia de los Muertos

Strict separation of church and state leads to peculiar relationships between Mexico's very religious population and secular law.  Today and tomorrow are two of Mexico's most important holidays -- Days of the Dead.  Not recognized by labor law, they end up being the days of highest absenteeism.  Firmly rooted in prehispanic Mesoamerican thought and culture they survive with a veneer of Christianity. 
Each town celebrates Dias de los Muertos in a different way.  Some decorate their tombs on the night of the 31st of October, some on November 1st. All will have done it by the 2nd.  The lower the income level the more decorated the tombs.

Families not only decorate tombs, they set up altars in their homes.  Most will graciously welcome visitors to see their altars.  As in a Catholic church, it's appropriate to make the sign of the Cross upon approaching a home altar for the dead.  If that isn't your custom have a Catholic or Episcopal friend teach you.  

Ocotepec, just north of Cuernavaca, has one of the most unusual ways of commemorating Days of the Dead.  Families in which there has been a death in the previous 365 days will open their homes to hundreds of visitors tonight.  The body of the deceased will be on display -- don't worry, it's an imitation life-sized body.  Last year this column was about Ocotepec.  Send me an email if you would like a copy of it and I'll respond before noon.   

To visit with departed family members, the living must return to where the deceased resided in life.  The souls of the deceased know their way back to where they lived, not to where their living family members may have moved or migrated -- making it difficult for most readers of this column.  If "our dead" did not live here all we can do is look in on the way others observe this day. 

However, I'll let you in on a loosely held secret and another way in which you too can be a participant in this day's celebration.  At midnight on March 16-17, 2005, a very dear friend died as I held him in my arms.   We buried John Spencer that afternoon in the beautiful churchyard of the Church of Los Reyes Magos on Calzada de los Reyes in northern Cuernavaca.  John had ringed that churchyard with fantastic stone walls of his design, making it a landmark in his adopted town.  

The "we" who buried him were his many friends.  John had no children, and his wife Lady Elizabeth had preceded him by many years.  Word of his death spread through Cuernavaca.  His wake was attended by people from all walks of life who congregated in his magnificent home for Mass; followed by another service across the street in the Cathedral; and then burial in the churchyard -- requiring special permission from the church and municipality, since it no longer functions as a cemetery. 

John had friends from many circles who didn't necessarily know one other.  This made for the most unusual wake I have ever attended.  "We" didn't offer condolences to anyone; no family members were present.  "We" had only ourselves to console.  I asked people how they knew John.  Some gave me snooty replies along the lines of "who are you to be asking me that?"  From others came fascinating stories.  One had known him when she and he were residents of La Casona, then a tenement-like building housing sixty apartments.  Another the widow of the welder whom John would contract to do the heavy lifting in his sculpture projects.  A student told me she didn't know him; she had always wanted to talk with him but was afraid to.  She finally found the nerve to approach the man considered by many to be a living/walking monument in Cuernavaca, went to his door -- and realized his home was open for a wake.  

Another woman knocked on the door early in the morning.  Word was relayed upstairs that she wanted to know if she could come in.  I replied, "Of course.  Everyone is welcome."  As she climbed the staircase I recognized the street sweeper.  She didn't know that John had passed away during the night.  She was coming because she hadn't seen him for several days and was concerned about him.

John’s grave is marked by a simple stone -- one of only a few gravestones in the churchyard.   For the first years after his death I placed flowers on his grave for his birthday, deathday, and on Day of the Dead.  A few years ago a group of students from the University of Minnesota were here for a semester-long service-learning project studying Mexican culture.  Carol Hopkins, also a friend of John’s and co-teacher of the class, and I decided that rather than just visit cemeteries it would be good for the students to have the experience of creating an altar and decorating a tomb.  It became an elaborate all-day event with ten of us using rebar and marigolds to copy portions of John’s walls in flowers.  

Each year since then we have created an elaborate decoration.  We'll be there again today, starting at noon, and will welcome any volunteers.  

Another event honoring recent dead, in which you can be a welcomed participant, is a 5 pm march today from Cuernavaca's Glorieta de la Paz to its Zocalo.  Though called by the movement headed by Javier Sicilia, it will be leaderless, without political or religious affiliation, silent, spanning all sectors of society.  White clothing and a votive candle are appropriate. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Converging in Yecapixtla

Located in the higher portion of the State of Morelos, above the altitude in which sugar cane grows, Yecapixtla survived the 19th century sugar boom and the many haciendas’ insatiable demand for labor that subsumed many of Morelos’ villages.  It survives as a town of prehispanic origin at the base of snowcapped Popocatepetl.  As an important population center it was chosen by the Order of St. Augustine to be the location of one of its more stunning church and monastery complexes.  Thursday of this week would be a grand day to visit that town just north of Cuautla.      

Thursdays and Sundays are market days but this Thursday, in addition to its regular food market, Yecapixtla's will be one of the largest Days of the Dead markets in all of Mexico.  Vendors from surrounding states will travel to Yecapixtla to sell everything one might need to decorate an altar, to host the return of the departed next week when they come back to visit their living relatives.  Yecapixtla's market on the Thursday before Days of the Dead is its largest market of the year and has its origins in a pre-Hispanic festival honoring the birth of Yacapitzauac, a deity who acted as a guide for travelers and protector of merchants.  In Yexapixtla this festival/market has been observed in one form or another since the 1330’s making it another example of the syncretism of Catholicism and prehispanic religious practice.

The State of Morelos' contribution to Mexican cuisine is usually thought of as Cecina de Yecapixtla.  Cecina is very thinly sliced beef, salted enough to preserve short-term without refrigeration.  The market is ringed with small restaurants and 'puestos' offering 'tacos de cecina'.  You'll be asked if you want them "con todo" which includes cheese, sliced and grilled flat leaf catus (nopal), avocado, and onions.  It is one of the grandest tacos you'll ever eat.  In order to savor the pure cecina taste, I recommend that you order a plain cecina taco too.

Although the town is prehispanic, Yecapixtla is centered  around a 16th century Augustine Order monastery.  It is part of the Ruta de los Conventos, an unusual UNESCO World Heritage site -- the Route includes monasteries  scattered throughout Morelos.   Originally constructed by the Franciscans, a small church was built on top of a sacred site of Yacapitzauac.  After a fire destroyed the Franciscan church the Augustinians (1535-40) rebuilt a much larger church and monastery dedicated to St. John the Baptist.  It has been speculated that Yacapitzauac, like St. John, is depicted with a staff and that this would be more acceptable to the indigenous population. 

Be sure to have two old two-hundred peso bills with you -- the larger of the two types of 200 peso bills which are currently in circulation.  In the top left corner of the front of the bill there is an intricately designed half circle.  Invert another, similar bill, over it to make the full circle and you'll have a copy of the gothic rose window over the main entry.  It is one of the very few rose windows in Mexico from this time period.  Though the window appears pure Gothic it was, like most of the work in the churches of that time, executed by skilled indigenous artisans who perhaps surreptitiously inserted elements of their culture and faith in the window frame. 
Happily the exterior of the monastery conserves its original austere and elegant design.  The interior of the sanctuary was gaudily redecorated in the early twentieth century and is so tasteless that a metal plaque in the ground level corridor of the monastery laments changes that damaged the beauty of the interior and the originality of its design.   In the cloistered monastery portion of the building, under INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) supervision, the walls and vaulted ceilings have been taken back to the original 16th century decoration revealing stunning multi-colored geometric designs.  Upon entering the walkway your eyes will be drawn to the ceiling as in religious buildings of Moorish design.  This is natural, as after eight hundred years of Moorish domination, Muslim architecture had been fully integrated by Spain.  Christian religious scenes with portraits of church leaders were added later as Augustinians developed their own artistic style.  
If you return to your 200 peso note you'll find a portion of Miguel Cabrera’s portrait of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.  One might wonder why she is connected to the rose window of Yexapitla?  The famous poet, dramatist, theologian’s mother Isabel Ramirez, was baptized in the sanctuary of San Juan Bautista.  Sor Juana’s birthday is next month.  We’ll celebrate her birthday with a special column in her honor. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


It may seem strange to be reading about death in the Living section of the paper, but the
Days of the Dead are quickly approaching and we're going to be increasingly aware of them wherever we look.  Bakeries will be the first to be decorated with skeletons as they begin to offer us their pan de muerto -- bread for the dead – but particularly enjoyed by the living.  

As we get closer to November 1st and 2nd -- All Saints Day and All Souls Day in the Catholic calendar -- we'll see businesses of all kinds decorating their display windows, lobbies, and sales areas with decorations allusive to dead returning to visit their living relatives.  Even automobile dealerships will have skeletons behind the wheels of new cars in their showrooms.  Municipal, delegational, state, and Federal District governments will award prizes to the best Days of the Dead altars in competitions in parks and government buildings.  In 2010 this column was inaugurated with a three part series about Days of the Dead and the traditional Mesoamerican way of observing them.  (Please Email me if you would like copies of them.) 

Today I'd like to deal with two aspects of dealing with death and the dead.  Both are associated with Latin American printed media.  Particularly interesting is the printing of esquelas in the newspapers.  There is no English word for such a notice though I translate it as a death announcement.  Whereas in English-speaking countries newspapers will have an obituary section with extensive biographical information about those who recently died, in Latin America articles about the recently deceased are treated as news items and are usually only about particularly famous people.   Some newspapers will publish funeral home advertisements titled obituario but they are limited to listing the names of people who died the day before, accompanied by the time and place of their burial.  Biographical information about the deceased is not included. 

In an esquela a person, family, company, government official or office, laments the death of the featured person and offers consolation to that person's family.  Esquelas are framed with a black border enclosing what is mostly empty space -- very little text is included.  They usually do not include the cause of death nor the age of the deceased.  Only those inserted by the family of the deceased would indicate the place and time of funeral services and burial or cremation.   What they usually do include is reference to the relationship between the deceased and whoever is placing the notice in the newspaper.  On occasion there may be dozens of esquelas for the same person in the same issue of the newspaper.  They do not make reference to one another.  

Upon the death of a person who was important in the business community they become particularly interesting to read and compare.  In them you can see how many boards of directors the deceased was a member. You see individuals, boards and companies positioning themselves in relation to the deceased.  By tracking the first and second surnames, the observant reader can become aware of family relationships and business links.  The religion, or lack thereof, of the deceased is evident by symbols centered at the top of the esquela, the most common being a cross, a star of David, or a black ribbon.  
Esquelas are an important source of income for newspapers and they are not inexpensive. The size of an esquela is important. The largest I've seen is a full page. but I’m waiting for a two-page centerfold esquela.  That certainly would be memorable and impressive.  If the esquela happens to be the notice of the death of a relative of an important person in business or government the name of the relative is also included.   It's not unusual for the name of the living relative and some reference to his or her position in government or business to be printed in larger sized font than the name of the deceased -- another great source of information for those skilled at reading between the lines.  For some, esquelas are places in which they can name-drop with abandon.
Another Mexican journalistic tradition is the printing of calaveras.  In proper Spanish, that would translate as skulls.  However in Mexican newspapers and magazines calaveras are short witty poems about living people referring to them as if they are dead -- in fact, mourning their recent death.  Unlike esquelas, calaveras will tell us their cause of death.  Newspapers and magazines are already asking their readers to submit calaveras and cartoonists are working on portraits, to accompany the poems.  They are drawn with such skill that we will be able to recognize people we see over and over in the daily press but when drawn to accompany calaveras they will be skeletons; some with no flesh, not even on their skulls.  Watch for them on November 2nd.  Despite the cutting humor, those portrayed in the calaveras are expected to be able to laugh at themselves from this side of the divide.  It's all part of the particularly Mexican way of dealing with the inevitable.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mexican art and customs in Manhattan

I began last week's column with a whimsical line about Frida returning to Cuernavaca's Brady Museum from Beijing.  I emailed it to The News while seated in a pew in Trinity Church located in the heart of New York's Financial District.  I knew I was pushing my welcome by plugging my computer into a church electric socket and using a portable wi-fi to connect to the Internet.  Still, it was the quietest and most comfortable place I'd found in which to work, while camped at Liberty Park, a block away.  As I clicked 'send' I smiled to myself at the thought of referring to Kahlo's self-portrait as Frida.  I would top that minutes later.

As I stepped out of Trinity Church onto Broadway at Wall Street I suddenly realized I was stepping out into a scene in Diego Rivera's mural in Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts -- the one in which Rivera gives us a view of Wall Street with Trinity Church at the end of a chasm of buildings.  The street sign in Rivera's mural indicates the corner of Wall Street and 2nd Avenue.  Second Avenue has been renamed, but the scene is very much the same today as when Rivera painted it in the 1930's; even to the point of having police presence.

No longer on horseback, blue uniformed NYPD officers are now mounted on motor scooters.  By riding them single-file, bumper-to-bumper, they confine the Occupy Wall Street marchers to the sidewalk.  Nonetheless the demonstrators carry signs much like those portrayed by Rivera in the mural intended for, ultimately rejected by, Rockefeller Center.  

Rivera wisely added a clause in the contract he signed with the Rockefellers.  If, for any reason, he were not allowed to finish the mural he would still be paid in full.  Nelson Rockefeller adhered to the contract and, with the received payment Rivera re-painted it for free in Mexico City.  I suspect it's the only mural in public space in Mexico in which all the text is in English; no Spanish is used.  

It was a fascinating week I spent at Liberty Plaza.  On Saint Michael Day's eve I delivered four pericón crosses sent by Cuernavaca's Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation to be tied to trees at the four corners of Liberty Park.  They were to protect the park, which has become the epicenter of one of our biggest ongoing, and growing, news stories.  Even though the custom of posting pericón crosses predates Christianity in what is now Mexico, I had feared they would not be well received because of the religious connection, in people's minds, between crosses and religion.  

I was surprised and gratified with the welcoming cheer from the occupiers.  Reverence is a hallmark of the Wall Street occupier.  Before each march a moment of silence is observed; frequently there is a respected prayer.  Indeed, last Friday Kol Nidre, the opening of Judaism's holiest observance, Yom Kippur, was held in an esplanade across the street from Liberty Park as police looked on. 

Respecting the NYPD's prohibition of using microphones the readings and songs were relayed though the crowd by what has become known as the “people’s mike.”   Speaker’s words are repeated, relayed, until the whole crowd hears.  It is a reverent process.  Even if one disagrees with the words spoken, they are repeated faithfully.  Observant Jews do not use vehicles or the subway on Yom Kippur so, after the service, many of them crossed the street and camped in Liberty Park.  There they slept side-by-side with Moslems, Christians, Buddhists, and atheists.  I had goose bumps thinking about what it would mean for the world if this could be a new model of reconciliation.

I remembered another connection with Mexican art and New York City upon taking a short walk from Wall Street to Battery Park.  From that southernmost tip of Manhattan I could see the Statue of Liberty.  Mind and memory took me back in time to the day I visited Ana Pellicer in her home in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacan -- the Mexican village world-famous for its production of hand-hammered copper.  

It is France, not Santa Clara, that produced the largest piece of hand-hammered copper, the Statue of Liberty, gifted to the United States in 1886.  Perhaps as an attempt to salvage some of Mexico's prestige in the field of hand-hammered copper, Mexican sculptress Pellicer produced, in Mexican style hand-hammered copper, a necklace and earrings in proportion to Liberty herself.  She requested permission of the National Park Service to hang them on Lady Liberty for one day during the Statue's hundredth anniversary celebrations.  Permission was denied.  Not accepting defeat, Pellicer displayed them in a Manhattan art gallery.  I had felt privileged to see them in her living room with the necklace hanging from the ceiling, going down to the floor, back up to the ceiling, over and over again.   

It was delightful to think of these three Mexican contributions to New York City.  Even though Rivera's and Pellicer's were rejected, they stand nevertheless -- perhaps more prominently for having been rejected.  And the pericón crosses?  Last I checked (which was last Tuesday) two were still there.  The police only seemed to have spotted -- and removed -- the two on the Broadway side of Liberty Park. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brady's legacy became a treasure

Frida just returned from Beijing!  She's once again in residence at Robert Brady's home on Netzahualcoyotl Street in Cuernavaca.  

No, that's not a fictional statement.  Last week I drove to Mexico City with Sally Sloan, Director of the Brady Museum; she told me as much, as she spoke about Frida's famous Self Portrait with Monkey as if it were Frida herself.  She also told me that in Beijing more people saw Frida in one day than in a whole year in the Brady Museum.  

Museo Brady is one of Cuernavaca's gems.  I like to think of it as like a Russian Babushka nesting doll.  From the street the building itself is impressive.  It is adjacent to the Cathedral -- formerly part of the bishop's residence. You walk through massive doors; go up a flight of stairs to enter a beautiful garden.  From the garden you see the façade of the home itself, another treasure.  Inside are multiple rooms, each one of them distinct and memorable.  You can visit each and every room -- even the kitchen and the bathrooms, all exactly as left by Robert Brady himself.  In fact, that was one of the conditions of Brady’s will when he left his home and all its possessions in trust to the Brady Foundation.  

Wherever you are in the museum there is another treasure to be admired.  Each room has a different theme -- laminated cards name each of the items on display; wonderfully knowledgeable guides are also available to answer questions.  

And you will have plenty of questions. After a few moments in the museum you will not only want to know about the artwork but about Brady’s intriguing life and those with whom he shared it.  There are tantalizing clues everywhere you look.  Brady was a personal friend of many famous artists whose work is on display; among them, Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo.  In addition he had lifelong influential relationships with heiress Peggy Guggenheim and world-renowned singer dancer Josephine Baker.  They both are featured prominently in the museum. 
If familiar with the Barnes Foundation one will immediately notice that influence as well.

Wonderfully eccentric New York heiress Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) was his neighbor in Venice during the five years he lived there after completing his studies at the Barnes.  It is probably thanks to her that Robert Brady created the Brady Foundation and chose to leave his home as a museum.  Like her he is buried in the garden of his home side by side with his beloved dogs.  Their gravesites are almost identical.

Brady met and befriended Josephine Baker (1906-75) while she was traveling and touring in the U.S.  Ms. Baker was born in St. Louis to a single mother.  A desperately poor childhood led her to street corner dancing for tips.  She was discovered, became a hit in the Harlem Renaissance and ultimately moved to Paris, married a Frenchman and renounced U.S. citizenship.  Ms. Baker was married and divorced four times; no longer interested in romantic love she craved platonic companionship. In Acapulco, September 1973, she exchanged private marriage vows with flamboyantly homosexual Robert Brady.  She and Brady maintained their close relationship for the rest of her life.  Josephine Baker is renowned not only for her talent but for her courageous work in the Civil Rights Movement.  African-American, she refused to perform in any theater that was not fully integrated.

Robert Brady (1928-1986) was born into a wealthy Iowa trucking family.  His mother encouraged him in his love of art and he studied at The Chicago Art Institute, Temple University and, finally, The Barnes Foundation.  

Albert Barnes (1872–1951), founder of the Barnes Foundation, self-made multi-millionaire, developed Argyrol, an early treatment for gonorrhea and related blindness.  He made a timely sale of his pharmaceutical company in 1929, immediately before the depression and thus had millions to spend on art during a time when people were trying to unload art in order to keep a roof over their heads.  Like Brady, Barnes too left his home and art collection in an irrevocable trust that it be maintained as it was during his lifetime.  Sadly, Barnes' trust has not been honored as documented in the 2009 award-winning film, The Art of the Steal.

Brady was heavily influenced by Albert Barnes and his Foundation. In turn, Barnes was heavily influenced by beloved educational philosopher John Dewey.  In 1934 Barnes and Dewey collaborated on Art as Experience; a book theorizing that art is something natural to all human beings and should not be overly explained before being experienced. 

Barnes tried to limit admission to his collection and its associated art school to the underprivileged.  Famously, he even refused admission to author James Michener who ultimately gained access to the collection by posing as an illiterate steelworker.  Brady applied to the school and gained admission as a “trucker” not mentioning that, in fact, his family owned the trucking business. 

Brady’s study at the Barnes profoundly influenced his own collecting and its display.  Albert Barnes displayed his vast collection to show relationships between paintings and objects.  Paintings were placed near furniture and objects intended to complement one another.  Cuernavaca's Museo Brady is the only museum in the world established by a student of the Barnes Foundation that has adopted this pleasing philosophy.  But perhaps I should allow you to form your own opinion when you visit Frida at her home in Cuernavaca.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Flowers scare the devil away

Yellow pericón flowers start blooming in mid-September in the fields around Cuernavaca.  Like clockwork, regardless of what the weather has been, they are always in bloom by September 28th.  You can go out on the highway and cut them yourself, or you can buy them on street corners or in the market.  They'll be sold everywhere in the state of Morelos today and tomorrow, but nowhere on Thursday.  The custom in Morelos, and bordering communities, is to make crosses out of pericón stalks and flowers.  On the night of the 28th, yellow crosses are placed over front doors of homes and businesses, and on automobiles, trucks, and busses. Upon putting up the new cross, the previous one, now a year old, and looking like straw, is taken down and burned or buried.  

They are called Saint Michael's crosses; Saint Michael comes down on the eve of his feast day (September 29) and blesses his crosses and the places where they are hung.  Urban lore is that the devil is loose on the 28th and St. Michael can protect the places where his crosses hang by using the cross as his make-shift sword to keep the devil at bay.  

Pericón, known as yautli in Nahuatl, and linked in people's minds to St. Michael's Day, is of the same genus -- tagetes -- as the cempoalxochitl (also zempasúchitl), or marigold, so characteristic of Days of the Dead.

St. Michael is one of two patron saints of Cuernavaca's Colonia Acapantzingo.  Its 16th century church -- right across the street from Emperor Maximilian's estate known as the Ex-casa de Maximiliano -- hosts an annual grand feria to mark the occasion.  Acapantzingo's other patron is Saint Isidore the Farmer, whose feast day is May 15.  San Isidro Labrador and San Miguel Arcángel bracket the Mesoamerican growing season.  The rainy season begins in late May and is about over by now in late September.   May 15 was when the farming implements and animals that pull the plows were blessed; September 29th is the beginning of the harvest season.  

Rural lore determines the formation of the pericón crosses to be in the shape of a Greek cross with all arms of equal length.  In addition to putting them over the doors to their homes, campesinos also place them at the four corners of their milpa.  Very probably the idea is of prehispanic origin with the cross being an emblem of the four cardinal directions.   Yet another aspect of syncretism is St. Michael took on Tlaloc's role as patron of rain.  September 29 became one of the important dates in the farming and ritual cycle associated with agricultural production and fertility -- especially rain and Mesoamerica's staple food, corn -- all under the cover of important Christian holy days.  

Although February 2nd, Dia de la Candelaria -- Candlemass Day -- was an important day in 16th century Spain, it took on much more importance in Mexico where campesinos not only take their images of the Baby Jesus to their churches to be blessed, but also know it is the day to bless the seeds they'll plant in May.  

May 3rd, Day of the Holy Cross, is set in the hottest, driest part of the year.  During the nine days before and after that important holiday crosses, which have been on top of hills, are brought down to the village churches to be repaired, painted, blessed and returned to their proper places on the hilltops.  Those are the days on which to pray for rain. Mesoamerican thought maintains that it is inside hills and mountains that water is stored.  From them come the clouds that deliver rain that nurtures corn.  June 24, St. John the Baptist's Day, is an appropriate day to offer thankful prayer for rainfall within the growing season. 

According to Johanna Broda, who has written extensively on Mesoamerican rituals and the overlapping of symbolism after the conquest, "the dead make their appearance during St. Michael's fiesta, and share, with their family members, their happiness over the first corn cobs.  In this way the dead show their intimate link with the agricultural cycle, and the welfare of the living."  

Broda, maintains that the agricultural cycle ends with the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, and points out that the profuse agricultural symbolism which permeates that festival is usually overlooked. 

I was especially pleased to be introduced to that idea by Broda since it was very late on a 28th of September that my wife's aunt Estrella Garro died.  The florist shops were closed.  It may have been very appropriate that we decorated her simple pinewood casket with bunches of pericón flowers -- the only flower available.   

If you're in or near Cuernavaca tomorrow evening, Acapantzingo will be a fun place to be.  Wherever you are in Central Mexico, be on the lookout Thursday morning to notice the yellow crosses all around you.