Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Celebrating Light in February

Candlemas Day  (Candelaria in Mexico) is a week from tomorrow.  If you found a baby Jesus in your piece of the rosca on January 6th, you acquired the responsibility of hosting a meal on February 2nd for all of those with whom you shared the rosca.  It’s not an onerous responsibility to fulfill; you just need tamales and atole, the traditional drink that accompanies Mexican tamales.   You’d best be putting in your order with your tamale vendor now.  Good tamale vendors are almost always fully booked ahead for February 2.   If your tamale person has a proper shop s/he may also provide the atole.  In the absence of atole, hot chocolate is an acceptable substitute.   

Despite Mexico's popular cultural link between the cutting of the rosca on January 6th, and Candlemas, on February 2nd, the real link is based on instructions given in the Book of Leviticus (chapter 12, verses 1-8).  Teenage Mary, like all observant Jewish women, counted out two sets of days after giving birth to a first-born baby boy in the manger in Bethlehem.  First she counted the eight days to His circumcision and naming, a requirement for all Jewish baby boys.  And then, from that day, she counted an additional 33 days to mark the day she would take her newborn son to the Temple in Jerusalem, a requirement for first-born sons, in that way completing her own purification after having given birth.  

Perhaps understandably, our male dominated Christian clergy chooses to tone down the celebration of the circumcision of the baby Jesus -- prancing around its central meaning by calling it some variation of the Feast of the Name of Jesus -- yet it is a very important ceremony in a Jewish boy's life.  It is at his circumcision ceremony that he is given a name, becoming a member of the covenant established between Abraham and God.   On the eighth day after his birth Jesus joined the Jewish people, following the instructions given in the Book of Genesis (chapter 17, verse 12).  In other words, Jesus didn't become Jesus until eight days after He was born.  Though there is much debate about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, could this be the reason we start the Christian calendar on January 1st, not on Christmas Day?

At the Temple in Jerusalem the old man Simeon took the newborn baby in his arms and called Him a "light for revelation to the Gentiles,"  (Luke 2, verse 32) hence the name Candlemas in English, or Candelaria in Spanish. So while the circumcision of Jesus is a purely Jewish event, the Presentation in the Temple and the words of Simeon predicted the inclusion of gentiles.  

For many in Mexico, Día de la Candelaria brings the Christmas celebrations to conclusion.  The baby Jesus is removed from the manger scene dressed in new clothes, taken to Mass where it is blessed, and then put in a special place, usually on a chair, or throne, in a home altar for the rest of the year.  

Start noticing hand written signs in homes or shops which advertise "Se visten niños Diós".  Some baby Jesuses have been passed down through generations and are ceramic or made of carved wood so you'll also see signs reading "Se reparan niños Diós".  The traditional clothing is white and lacy, and white clothes are required for the first dressing of a recently acquired baby Jesus.  

The best place to see the baby Jesus hospitals and dressmaking is any large central market. In the week before Candelaria there will be seamstresses and repair people offering their services.  It is a fun place to spend a few hours and is a festival honored by all economic strata.  In the last days before Candelaria, baby Jesuses arrive at the markets and, whether they have traveled by foot, bus, or chauffeur, they will be lovingly carried in the arms of their owners. Tiny fingers will be carefully repaired, damaged eyes replaced, missing paint carefully reapplied.  Owners may choose to dress the baby Jesus in traditional baby clothes, or as the Pope, or one of the saints. However, some will choose miniature soccer uniforms, wrestler costumes, or whatever clothing has been made popular by recent television coverage of events.   

On Candelaria itself, the restored baby Jesuses, wearing their new finery and often seated in their chairs, are carried like Jesus himself, for presentation in the church.  There they will be blessed and, in turn, equally bless, by their presence, squatter's shacks and the homes of the very wealthy.     

While the Candelaria festival is observed in just about every Catholic church all over Mexico, the town most famous for celebrating the day is Tlacotalpan, Veracruz, a river port city at the mouth of the Papaloapan River, whose patron is the Virgen de la Candelaria.  On February 2nd the image of the Virgin will be taken in procession from her church to the pier where aboard a specially decorated fishing boat -- accompanied by a flotilla -- she will go out for a paseo on the wide river.  The festival begins on January 31 and lasts until February 9.  Part of it entails a running of the bulls much like in Pamplona, Spain.  

Tlacotalpan has been included in UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites because of its preservation of Spanish colonial and Caribbean architecture and urban layout.  Though the town suffered flooding last year I'm sure there has been a rush to get it in shape for this year's Candelaria festival.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Picnicking at the Sierra de Montenegro

Last month I hosted an evening picnic for a group of environmentalists and researchers in the scenic Canyon de Lobos.  I met them as they emerged from the Sierra de Montenegro Reserve onto the Cuernavaca-Cuautla highway.  What had been planned as a four-hour reconnaissance hike through the Sierra de Montenegro, just east of Cuernavaca, turned into an all day traverse -- literally bushwhacking towards the end, as they pressed on to get to the highway before susnset.  Early that morning I had dropped the group of fifteen off on the side of the mountain in Zapata territory, halfway between Cuernavaca and Tlaltizapan.  Though they were in cell phone communication, occasionally even in sight of Cuernavaca, they were hiking through some of the last of Morelos' pristine forests for the purpose of monitoring its status of conservation. 

Morelos is the second smallest state in Mexico, occupying only a quarter of one percent of the national territory, yet it is one of the most biologically diverse states.  It is home to seven of the nine great ecosystems of Mexico (missing are mangroves and rain forests) along with 10% of the fauna, 33% of the species of birds, 14% of the reptiles, and 21% of Mexico's mammals.  Tragically, in the last five decades it has lost more than 70% of its forests.  Of the remaining 30%, two thirds is seriously deteriorated and only a third -- or 10% of the original forest cover -- hasn't been affected by our species.  Sadly, Morelos is in second place (after Tabasco) with regard to the percentage of its territory suffering from the transformation of its original ecosystems.   

One of the principal strategies to conserve Morelos' biodiversity has been the creation of Protected Natural Areas (ANP), foremost of which is the Sierra Montenegro State Reserve which runs parallel to, and just to the east of, the Cuernavaca-Acapulco highway.  It is part of the limestone ridge and hence is where a huge cement factory, visible from the highway, is located -- limestone being one of the principal ingredients in Portland cement.  

One of the most important characteristics of the Sierra Montenegro state reserve is that it is a bridge, or biological corridor, between two other protected areas: the Chichinautzin Biological Corridor, running along the volcanic ridge we cross over when driving between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, and the Sierra de Huautla in southeastern Morelos.  Despite its protected status, the Sierra Montenegro is seriously threatened by human activity threatening to reduce the width of the protected area.  If it should be severed completely the continuity of natural vegetation from the northern to the southern part of the state will be lost. 

The threat is coming from both extremes of the social spectrum.  Poor squatters, on the outskirts of the Cuernavaca metropolitan area, are seizing land and building houses, and the cement company -- on whose board sit representatives of the wealthiest person on the planet -- has recently been given the right, by executive decree, without any compensation to the State, to exploit 300 hectares of what had been part of the Montenegro Reserve.  This exploitation involves clearing all vegetation and dynamiting the limestone.  The result will be a canyon that breaks the continuity of the biological corridor.   Legally, the decree cannot be reversed. As the only remaining option, environmentalists are doing their best to demand, through changes in the mitigating measures required by the environmental impact statement, that the cement company restore the flora after extracting the limestone.  Obviously that will be impossible, but the attempt is to force the company to mitigate damages to the extent they can.     

The northern end of the Montenegro Reserve is known as the Canyon de Lobos -- through which runs the Cuernavaca-Cuautla highway.  It is the narrowest part of the corridor, only about 400 meters wide in places.   This is the most vulnerable part of the Reserve with the highway making it easy to be encroached upon by illegal construction by squatters. 

Over the evening picnic, and during the drive back to Cuernavaca, I learned about the Unified System of Natural Regions of Land and Freshwater Lakes of the World for Purposes of Conservation.   Biologist Fernando Jaramillo, of UNAM's staff, told those of us in the van that the Sierra de Montenegro is at the northernmost part of the overlap of the Nearctic Realm and the Neotropical Realm.  The area between the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrowest part of Mexico, and where we are in Central Mexico is where flora and fauna of those two realms mix.  Pumas, white tailed deer, mountain cats, and Gila Monsters from the Nearctic coexist with ocelots, jaguarundis, and boa constrictors of the Neotropical realm.  The most obvious flora, which seems out of place, is the oak forest, reason for the name of the Sierra de Montenegro -- the forest is so thick on that ridge that sunlight is blocked,. We drive through similar oak forests, left over from the last glaciation, when we are are slightly above the switchback known as La Pera (because of its shape) on the Mexico City-Cuernavaca autopista. 

It seems clear to me that enforcement of the legislation establishing the Sierra Montenegro Reserve is essential and should be strengthened.  The Sierra Montenegro Reserves merits being elevated to the status of a federally designated reserve with stiff enforcement of rules and regulations governing Protected Areas.   Furthermore, each of us should do what we can to honor and to save what is left of this marvelous ecological corridor; yes, even you Carlos.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

John Ross, enroute continued

If the first paragraph of an article is the most important one; could the same be said about the first chapter of a book?  The first chapter of John Ross’s El Monstruo, Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009) focuses on room 102 of Hotel Isabel in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, and its immediate surroundings.  John uses his intimacy with his neighbors and neighborhood, on what was the ancient island of Tenochtitlan, to skillfully extrapolate understanding from the micro community to interpret the macro community of the largest city in the world and even the Republic.  

On Wednesday, December 29, Carol Hopkins and I had the privilege to be in room 102, helping JRvacate the address made famous by John’s frequent reference to his one room residence. With the dust of his papers, photographs, even his Human Shield Brigade t-shirt, still on our hands, we walked through John’s neighborhood letting the people, noises and colors he so often described seep under our skin, hoping that doing so would allow us to more easily understand JR’s insight. 

They are the same streets walked by 20th Century famed expatriate authors from D H Lawrence to Steinbeck. The stories told in the first chapter of El Monstruo display John’s encyclopedic memory of these haunted souls and the tragedies that befell many of them.  John, too, played out his dramas but never lost sight of his primary task, clarification of the complexities of today’s Mexico in an historical framework.  In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hour rule - the necessary 10,000 hours a talented professional must put in to become an “outlier” or genius in one’s field.  John was certainly an outlier with an easy100,000 hours plus. It is unlikely we will know his like again. 

Mexicans, unlike their northern neighbors, are intensely interested in their politics and history: local, national and even international. They like nothing better than to sit, talk, and speculate about the latest dramas in the Mexican political scene. Even relatively uneducated Mexicans are well aware of the geography of their country as well as the stories surrounding their various wars. Most Mexicans can easily name their presidents, the states, even the capitals. They even know which US cities are within “former” Mexican territory.   Newspapers, of every persuasion, can be found on every newsstand.   For the illiterate there is TV, radio and, of course, the ubiquitous streetcorner chatter.   

Back in room 102, John, Carol, and I carried out that most Mexican of traditions.  We probed John about his fascinating recent supposition that Subcomandante Marcos was somehow involved in the kidnapping of Diego Fernández de Cevallos.  John’s theories are based on years of being with Marcos in Chiapas, knowing him well, and having an intimate knowledge of the Sub's unique writing style and great humor which, he says, give the communiqués issued by the Misteriosos Desaparecedores (Misterious Disappearers) telltale signs of Marcos' writing; such as speaking about the Archduke of Escobedo and a "whole series of things which could only have been Marcos.  Kidnappers don't kid around like that.  Only Marcos kids around like that.  I don't think that he did the kidnapping, though perhaps he's involved in the scripting of it.  Marcos as far as I understand was not on very good terms with the leadership of the Zapatistas and I think there was some kind of mutual understanding that he would move on to something else.  The other thing is that [in my analysis of this] I used the model of the kidnapping of [former Chiapas governor]Absalón Castellanos Domínguez as being a clue; where they put him on public trial in the jungle and then released him, which is what they've done with [Diego].  The rigid part of the left is very resistant to this idea, but I think I'm going to be vindicated one of these days." 

John firmly stated that if Marcos was involved, he did not involve the Zapatista Army nor hold Fernández de Cevallos in Chiapas.  His speculation about motive was more vague.  

John has spent many years believing fervently in the Zapatista cause, backing Marcos, but on this day in room 102 he was critical of the Sub.  He faulted him for not supporting Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the 2006 post electoral struggle when millions of people in the country no longer believed in the electoral system and yet he continued to attack Lopez Obrador. 
"I think my books have contributed to creating this cult of personality and that was a grievous injury to the Mexican political physiognomy by making Marcos the center of the situation instead of the catalyst in a situation in which the people were much more involved." 

We asked John about recent charges that La Jornada was no longer carrying real news about the Zapatistas in exchange for the Chiapas government's paid ads and gazetillas (paid ads presented as articles).  JR was reluctant to be critical of La Jornada but he did express his regret that La Jornada’s coverage of the Zapatistas has been seriously eroded. 

Thank you readers for your responses to Part 1 on John Ross (online at < http://www.thenews.com.mx/index.php/charliesdigs/charlie-5337.htm>).  Dorothy Wick, a retired archivist from the New York University faculty in their Archives Administration program, has generously offered her considerable skills to help archive the John Ross material before their transfer to a major university library.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

John Ross, enroute

John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, has been a walking monument in Mexico's City's Centro Historico for decades.  He is easily recognizable with his signature goatee, ponytail, and a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck.  More remarkable than his singular appearance is his life-long adherence to the pursuit of social justice and the impact he has had on his adopted country. 

John is now in the terminal stages of a cancer he has battled as valiantly as he’s fought for every social justice issue of the past 50 years.  By the time you read this he will have left his hotel room on Isabel la Católica steet, where he has lived since the week after the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, to be with friends on the shores of Lake Patzcuaro, preparing for passage to the other side. That passing will be a loss to Mexico, the press, oppressed people the world over, and his compañeros.  

Since 1957, the beginning of John’s life in Mexico, he has covered every major story from political upheavals to environmental crises.  JR broke the story of the impending Zapatista uprising in Chiapas weeks before it happened and anticipated the negative impact proposed laws would have on the fragile ejido system before they were passed.

Strange as it may seem, this beat poet, performance artist, eminent journalist from Brooklyn, may well be the conscience of the progressive movement of the country he adopted, as well as being a bridge to help Mexicans and Anglophone readers understand each other and the Deeper Mexico.  

On December 29, I went with my colleague and John’s friend, Carol Hopkins, to move John’s Mexico archives from his hotel room to their temporary storage at the Cemanahuac Educational Community in Cuernavaca.  While I moved boxes, Carol interviewed a weak and sick John.  Though physically challenged, JR’s mind remains an amazing repository of a lifetime of stories. We told him we would like to write a two-part column for The News and asked his permission to record.  John agreed and with some amusement told us that he had been a correspondent for The News decades ago.  So, we come full circle.  

"The first rule of journalism" John told us, is “be there.  You can’t report stories you haven’t witnessed personally.  Develop your sources.  Over the years I have maintained sources as diverse as a homeless beggar and those in lofty positions of power.” 

John spent his early years in Mexico quietly living in Michoacan, intending to write the Great American Novel.  But his philosophical roots were in progressive social movements and he became increasingly involved with campesino struggles.  He used his writing skills to draw attention to their efforts to protect the land against the depradations of land hungry international corporations.  For John, this seizing of the land was a reprise of the Morelos hacendados requiring more and more land, squeezing the campesinos, until the inevitable revolution of 1910.  Indeed, John said, “little has changed for the campesino from the pre-Revolutionary period to today and the promises of the Revolution are largely unfulfilled.” 

In addition to the breadth of his Mexican work, John Ross was the first U.S. citizen imprisoned in protest against the Vietnam draft; he was the leader of the Human Shield Brigade in Baghdad at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Though a lifetime Jew, John fervently opposes Israeli suppression of the Palestinians and has traveled to Palestine to help with the annual olive picking. 

John has published eight books of fiction and non-fiction. Though already struggling with cancer, in May of this year JR finished a grueling three-month, 66-stop book tour from San Francisco to New York presenting his 493 page El Monstruo, Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009).  As the book jacket tells us, "never before has anyone told from the ground level the gritty, vibrant histories of this city of 23 million faceless, fearless souls, listened to the stories of those who have not been crushed by the Monster, deconstructed the Montruo's very monstrousness, and lived to tell its secrets."  It is the story of the Valley of Mexico from its volcanic origins right up to the year of its publication.

His earlier Murdered by Capitalism (2004), is John’s personal story of 40 years “on the barricades of social justice issues in the two Americas.”  Since 1996, John has written a newsletter series, Blindman’s Buff.  A few are available online to those thirsty for an in depth understanding of the development of Mexico’s current political, social, and economic situation.   Blindman’s Buff is not written for those wanting to be spoon fed pablum.  They are brilliantly written, heuristic, and deserve a careful read.  John's archives contain all of them and hopefully, someday soon, they will be published in book form.