Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Traces of Mexican history

An often neglected archeological site is mysteriously fascinating Chalcatzingo, known for its rock and cave carvings.  An easy day trip from either Mexico City or Cuernavaca it’s a perfect location for a day of walking, picnicking -- under giant amate trees -- and imagining how this amazing place came to be.  

On a clear day you can see Chalcatzingo’s peaks from the Mexico City-Cuernavaca highway -- off in the distance -- beyond Cuautla.   Cerro Jantetelco, Cerro Delgado and Cerro Chalcatzingo rise a formidable 300 meters straight up from the Amatzinac valley floor.  On the drive from Cuernavaca to Puebla the mountains are tantalizingly close.  Geologically it is actually a submerged mountain; we see only the three highest protrusions.  The rest of the mountain is below ground.  

A beautiful little museum is at the entrance to the site and one can often find people from the nearby village more than willing to walk with you and help you locate the various archeological findings.  I encourage you to accept the offer of their services -- it's important that the community see preservation of the site as a source of income.  However, you can be very well prepared for the visit by doing some reading in advance.  Ancient Chalcatzingo (1987), edited by David Grove, is still the definitive book about the place.  The 571-page tome has extensive maps, drawings, and photos.  It can be either a heavy, or a light, read.  Each chapter can be read independently and each is summarized in Spanish; some are summarized in English as well.  Best of all, you already have the book.  In a tremendous act of generosity Professor Grove negotiated with the University of Texas to buy the copyright and he has put the entire volume online in its original format; you can scroll through it at <www.famsi.org/research/grove/chalcatzingo/index.html>. On a self-guided excursion, it is helpful to print out those pages describing the various carvings to use as reference. 

Chalcatzingo is nahuatl meaning “the revered place of the Chalcos” or alternatively “revered place of the sacred water.”  A spring on the mountain may be the reason for much of what we see at Chalcatzingo today. 
Several years ago I had the privilege of sharing a long dinner with Professor Grove and he wife.  He was the chief archeologist in a decades long INAH project at Chalcatzingo.  We talked at length about the possible origins of Chalcatzingo.  He pointed out -- as he has written -- that it is on the simplest trade route between the Pacific and the Valley of Mexico, which would account for it being a major hub and, in addition to that, it is such a grand setting that it called out for sacred meaning.    
Chalcatzingo artifacts go back to the Formative or Preclassic era (2500 BC – 200AD) a time period when the key elements of Mesoamerican civilization developed, large-scale ceremonial architecture, building of temple mounds, cities, permanent village farming, writing, human sacrifice, the ball game, jaguar-worship, complex calendar, along with other elements of religion.  During this period the Olmecs developed along the Southern Gulf Coast, flourished, and declined -- towards the end of it Teotihuacan arose in the Valley of Mexico, the Zapotecs in Oaxaca and the Mayas in Guatemala and the Yucatan. There was constant trading of resources and ideas between these cultures.

Major stone carvings and wall paintings at Chalcatzingo bear strong resemblance to Olmec work of the same period.  However, smaller artifacts found onsite are more similar to those found at Teotihuacan. 
There are dozens of well-preserved carvings and wall-paintings to be seen on the sides of the mountains.  The most well-known of these is El Rey, a side-perspective, bas-relief of a full-size man in elaborate headdress, seated on a throne in a circular niche. Grove, speculates that this scene was an early depiction of agricultural fertility and possibly an ancestor god of Tlaloc, god of rain.  Above the niche are rain clouds and ceremonial rain falling in the form of exclamation (!) points.  Out of the mouth of the niche are large speech-like loops or scroll elements that may represent thunder.  Above the niche is an oval eye motif serving to identify the niche as an earth-monster mouth, a symbol usually representing a cave.  Corn-like plants are depicted on and outside the cave walls. 

While you’re walking be on the lookout for caves.  The caves of Chalcatzingo are legended to have figured prominently in the Mexican Revolution; used for hiding corn, animals, people, even some of the major figures of the Revolution.  The mountains also served as excellent lookout stations for the revolutionaries.  If you run into one of the local guides they’ll happily provide colorful stories about the role of the nearby village during the Revolution.  

The village is known for making miniatures of the corn granaries -- cuexcomates -- used since ancient times and still used today.  Throughout the village you will see large cuexcomates in the patios or yards of many of the homes.  If lucky you may pick up a miniature to take home with you as a souvenir of your day.

On another matter:  Remember that tonight you're invited to Una Memoria Combativa -- Homenaje a John Ross in the Teatro de la Ciudad, Donceles 36, 7:00 pm, free admission. A top rate array of speakers will share their stories -- Journalists Blanche Petrich, Jaime Avilés, and Elizabeth Mistry; Human Rights specialist Pablo Romo; and Mexico City's Secretary of Culture Elena Cepeda.  Larry Russell and Carlos Gallegos will play the jazz John liked so much; Oscar Gomezcesar will play a special request of John's on his saxophone.  John's children Dante and Carla will speak.  The City government will host the toast at the conclusion of the event.  More information about this is posted at <www.homenajejohnross.com>.  See you there!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Be careful what you toss

Along the  road from Cuernavaca to Xochicalco are two separate, interconnected stories of waste and hope. For years the children living at the garbage dump outside Alpuyeca were treated as disposable as the garbage and the land.  There was little hope for the lives of the children or for the environment.  It took an individual with a dream to change that reality.

The road from Cuernavaca to Xochicalco goes through Alpuyeca, a town whose story is much like that in the movie Erin Brockovich -- a disproportionate percentage of the population suffers from liver cancer and thyroid problems traced to the garbage dump just eight kilometers farther along the highway.  An intense and successful citizens' movement led to the dump closing in 2006.  Experts say toxic ooze will continue contaminating Alpuyeca's water supply for decades.  

The open-air dump was receiving 1200 tons of garbage daily from Cuernavaca and nearby municipalities.  At the dump each garbage truck was followed by dozens of scavengers -- pepenadores -- who would pick out whatever they considered recyclable -- paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum, tin, batteries.  They had to work quickly; another truck would be arriving in minutes.  Whole families worked together.  More hands meant more income.  Scavengers could earn the equivalent of minimum wage per person selling recyclable material to purchasers who came for it weekly. Not just anyone could walk in and start scavenging -- pepenadores were members of a union; a closed union with two ways to join:  to marry into it, or be born in.  Approximately two hundred families lived along the dirt road leading up to the dump.  Scavengers do a tremendous service to society by recycling our trash.  Unfortunately they must do it using a method both unhealthy and unhygienic.       

Just after passing the dump there is a fork in the road; to the right to the World Heritage archeological site of Xochicalco -- the way I usually go -- to the left to Miacatlan about twenty minutes ahead.  For the sake of today's story lets curve to the left.   That's where the main Casa Hogar of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos y Hermanas (NPH) is located -- a home for orphaned, abandoned, or children at risk due to extreme poverty, founded by William Wasson from Arizona.  

Wasson studied to be a priest.  When it came time to be ordained he was devastated to learn that the bishop of his diocese would not ordain him, nor would any other bishop in the USA.  He was suffering a serious thyroid problem.  No bishop wanted to take on his health care expense.  From seminary, in 1948, he went to San Luis Rey College in California where he received a masters degree in social sciences, from there, to Mexico on vacation financed by his father.  In Cuernavaca he spoke with recently appointed Bishop Sergio Méndez Arcéo who told him to not worry, "I will ordain you."  In addition to that Don Sergio went out on a limb and gave Wasson a tiny church on Tepetates street in downtown Cuernavaca -- at a time when foreign clergy were not allowed in Mexico.  Imagine the elation and fulfillment 29-year-old Father Wasson must have felt!  

A year later Wasson received a summons from a judge.   A 14 year-old had been caught stealing from the offering box in his church.  What a scolding that boy must have gotten, if not from the priest, certainly from the judge.  When it was his turn to talk the boy said that not only did he steal from the offering box in order to buy food, he also lived under the church.  There was no basement, just crawl space where he could make a bed of cardboard. Wasson asked for, and received, custody of the child.  Within a week the judge called again, and said, "I have eight more."  From there it grew.  Within five months there were 32 boys, by 1965, 400 boys and girls, in 1977 he passed the 1,000 mark.  NPH's policy is that it will not split up siblings; all siblings enter NPH together.  They become part of the NPH family and live there until entering adulthood or finishing their studies -- elementary through 12th grade in a fully accredited first rate private school right on NPH's campus.  Wasson's early policy was to encourage the pequeños to study to be teachers.  Until recently an elementary school teachers' certificate could be procured with the completion of a 12th grade education; the last three of which are in a Normal School.   Not all of the graduates would necessarily want to be teachers, but they would have a certificate, which would open doors for them in the labor market or allow them to continue on in university studies.  Now the pequeños can study any career or occupation; NPH covers all of the expenses involved. 

In addition NPH offers educational programs for some deserving students who live with their own families whom it refers to as "our extended family".  One such group is children born into the families of scavengers at the dump near Alpuyeca.  In 1997 an agreement was worked out with the heads of households at the dump.  NPH started sending two school busses every morning to pick up ninety children and drive them to NPH's Home in Miacatlan.  Upon arrival children shower, change into school uniforms, breakfast, attend school, have lunch, change back into their own clothes and are bussed back to the dump where they would help their parents for the remainder of the afternoon.  Outsiders are often aghast to learn that children would be returned to the dump at the end of the day, without realizing what a breakthrough it was to get their parents to give up 180 hands for three quarters of a day, in exchange for the hope of a better life for their children.  

Father Wasson died on August 16, 2006.  Five weeks later, in an unrelated decision, the garbage dump was closed by Morelos' state congress.  

Father Wasson left a strong foundation.  There are now NPH Homes in nine Latin American countries with support coming from donors, God-parents, volunteers, dedicated teachers and staff, and the pequeños themselves who, when of age to be able to do so, help in animal husbandry, vegetable gardening, and other chores which go along with being a member of a family and household. 

Many of the families who scavenged at the dump have moved away.  With no more garbage coming in there is no more income for them.  However there are still many families living along that dirt road whose heads of household prefer to commute to jobs elsewhere, distant as they may be, rather than leave.  NPH keeps its word and the busses keep transporting over a hundred children back and forth to school where they receive a quality education and full health care.  

Not only were lives reclaimed by the vision of Father Wasson -- but there is now a cleanup program of the land and water table.  In fact, the extended family from the dump now has its first Licenciada -- in sociology.  She graduated from a private university in Monterrey last year.  

Reclamation of the land and of lives -- a direct legacy of a man to whom the church had had not shown compassion but, given the opportunity, proved himself to be one of its greatest treasures. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Combative Memoir

Last week I had an appointment to visit Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad "Esperanza Iris" on tree-lined Donceles street in the Centro Historico.  The front door was locked.  The security guard told me to go to the offices located behind the theater on Cuba Street.  I ended up entering the theater by walking right out onto stage.  It is grand!  There are 340 luxurious red-velvet seats on the ground floor, a mezzanine balcony, and several floors of intimate box seats.  Elaborate plaster work finished off with gold leaf and curlicues, an enormous chandelier overhead; red carpet underfoot.  I felt like I was stepping back a hundred years into the heyday of Latin American theater. 

There were booming economies in this hemisphere in the late 19th century.  At the turn of the 20th century, Merida, Yucatan, with fortunes based on henequen fiber (sisal) production, was the city with the world's highest percentage of millionaires.  San José, Costa Rica was riding high on coffee exports.  Manaus, a Brazilian Amazon river port was enjoying the rubber bonanza.  Guanajuato was producing two-thirds of Mexico's silver, as it had been for several centuries. Even little El Oro, in the State of Mexico was, as its name implies, experiencing a gold rush.  Indeed it was a very small part of the population that lived extravagantly in each of these places, but those that did wanted to show, or flaunt, their wealth and status.  What better place to do it than at the theater?  

Perhaps the most extravagant were the patrons of the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus who, if the story is to be believed, instructed their carriage drivers, waiting outside the theater, to serve their horses champagne in sterling silver buckets. There is no record that the carriage drivers were treated so well.

By the late 1800s electric lights were available to illuminate interior spaces, steam ships made for dependable itineraries, trains were running from the ports to capital cities.  Those elements, along with a European opera season and, by the same token, an off-season when orchestras, singers, actresses and actors were left unemployed, spawned a brief golden era of theater in Latin America -- the Americas became the place in which theater troupes would spend that other part of the year.  Grand theaters patterned on La Scala, or the Opéra in Paris --scaled down, of course --, opened in the late 19th or early 20th centuries in many Latin American cities.
Latin American ambassadors in European capitals who would vouch for the quality of the performers often contracted opera and theater troupes.  Some troupes spent the whole season in a single city presenting various operas and theater presentations.  Troupes with a more limited repertoire traveled through the Americas from north to south. 

Mexico City's theater legacy goes back to Viceregal times.  One of the foremost playwrights of the colonial period was Mexico's own Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.  Still today Mexico carries on with a theater and opera tradition making it number three, after London and New York as a theater center.  

Before the city acquired it, the theater on Donceles Street was the Teatro Esperanza Iris, the name of the actress who built and owned the building, and lived there too -- in the foyer.  She kept a box seat for herself from which she would watch the plays in which she wasn't performing.  It was the premier theater in Mexico City until eclipsed by the Palace of Fine Arts when it finally opened in 1932.

My reason for visiting the Teatro de la Ciudad was in preparation for an homenaje (homage) for John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico who died on January 17th.  Mexico City’s Secretary of Culture, Elena Cepeda, will host this rare event honoring a foreigner.

In May of last year Ross completed a 66-stop book tour which took him from San Francisco to New York, promoting his most recent book El Monstruo, Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (2009), which is not easy to find in Mexico, but is available on Kindle and through Amazon.  One of his many obituaries calls the 493-page tome a “love letter to Mexico City,” and Mexico City is responding in kind.  

My columns dated January 4 and 11, 2011 are about John Ross -- if you'd like a copy of them drop me a line and I'll email pdf's of them to you.  Friends, fans, even detractors of John are all welcome to celebrate, and toast the life of the rebel journalist, through stories and testimonies of journalists who knew him, live jazz by the renowned Larry Russell, and John Ross himself on video. 

John Ross, Una Memoria Combatiente (A Combative Memoir) will be Tuesday, February 22, at the Teatro de la Ciudad, Calle Donceles 36, Centro Historico, Mexico City. Free admission.  Doors open at 7:00 pm.  Parking is available across the street from the theater.  The Allende metro station is on the other side of the block.  I hope to see you there.  In addition to honoring John, you will see for yourself the grandeur of Mexico’s early theaters.   As the date approaches please check <homenajejohnross.com> for more information about John and updates about the homenaje.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tatic Walks On

Another great man died last month.  He was known by many names, El Caminante (The Walker), Tatic (Little Father in Tzotzil), Bishop of the Poor, and the more formal honorific, Don Samuel.  Bishop Emeritus Samuel Ruiz Garcia, 86, of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, died January 24th -- the 51st anniversary of his arrival as Bishop in San Cristobal.  Outside of Chiapas, he is best known for his role as an intermediary in the peace process and negotiations begun in 1994 between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the federal government.  Inside Chiapas he is deeply mourned by his beloved indigenous people as The Bishop of the Poor.  

Don Samuel was born and raised in religiously conservative Guanajuato.  As a promising young priest/theologian he obtained a Ph.D. in Rome and at the precocious age of 35 was appointed Bishop of the then Diocese of Chiapas.  Four years later, still a conservative bishop, he attended all sessions of the Second Vatican Council.  By 1968 he experienced a conversion, or as he referred to it, “my road to Damascus experience", as he blended the findings of Vatican II, incipient Liberation Theology and his experiences with his largely indigenous Maya population. “The people of Chiapas transformed Ruiz into the man God was calling him to be -- a fearless prophet, an aggressive shepherd, a man of peace.” (Huffington Post, January 25, 2011)  Don Samuel earned the name El Caminante by traveling, often by foot, to the most difficult to reach of the villages in his diocese.  An amateur ham radio operator, it became his “handle.”

Four hundred years after indigenous advocate Fray Bartolome de las Casas -- second bishop of Chiapas -- Ruiz still found the origin of poverty and oppression in a legacy of racist and economic domination born in the conquest and still exercised by the Chiapas oligarchy over the indigenous population.  Don Samuel, one of the presenters at the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, spoke of what was then precedent setting indigenous pastoral work.  At this meeting the bishops addressed the tremendous shortage of clergy in Latin America, a shortage historically filled by Irish and Spanish priests.  Mexico's constitution did not allow the inclusion of foreign clergy.  

Mexican bishops, Ruiz among them, tried to meet this shortage by encouraging the creation of Christian Base Communities headed by lay members. These base communities read the Bible together, often comparing their plight to that of the liberation of the Hebrew people described in Exodus.  The inception of these Communities coincided with the spread of the Theology of Liberation and its emphasis on speaking “truth to power.”  Theologians of liberation believe the church should be the bearer of that prophetic voice today and should speak out on behalf of those whose voice is never heard by those in positions of power.  

The Tatic frequently expressed his long-frustrated hope to ordain a Maya Indigenous man as a priest. In Maya thought a single man, without a woman and family at his side, is an incomplete person and cannot be entrusted with important duties within the community.  In 2000 when Don Samuel was forced, by age, to retire, there were only 58 priests, 100 missionaries, and 173 nuns in his diocese.  Nonetheless he was able to extend pastoral services to a population of 1.5 million grouped in more than 2,000 villages.  He accomplished this Herculean task by embracing Vatican II's reinstatement of the office of permanent deacon and, taking into account the Maya importance given to the married couple.  After study, service and examination, Don Samuel ordained 411 married men, wives at their side, as permanent indigenous deacons.  Highly criticized by conservative elements in the church, the Vatican opened an investigation to determine whether Bishop Ruiz had, as accused, ordained deaconesses.  The results of that investigation are still secret.  In 2002, succeeding Bishop Felipe Arizmendi was ordered by the Vatican to dismantle the permanent deacon training program. His request to the Vatican to re-instate the program has been denied.

When new priests arrived in his diocese Don Samuel required them to experience poverty by living with a poor family for an extended period of time.  With the idea that God is universal and has acted among all peoples he also asked them to respect and to learn as much as possible about Maya religion, 

In 1993, Bishop Ruiz was the first recipient of the annual Don Sergio Mendez Arceo National Human Rights Prize.  In past years, as a board member of the foundation that awards the prize, I've been fortunate to spend time with the esteemed Bishop of the Poor. I attended the mass held within hours of his death at the CUC (Dominican Center) in Mexico City.  There I had the unexpected honor to serve as a pallbearer.  After the Mexico City mass the casket was transported to Chiapas where multiple masses were held and tens of thousands of indigenous walked by the open casket to honor their Tatic.  Sub-comandate Marcos emerged from a two-year self-imposed silence to publish a written homage to the Bishop.  Despite their frequent criticism of him during his lifetime, many high-ranking politicians and leaders of the church were in attendance at the various masses held in Don Samuel's honor.