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.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cruising the Castle's interior

Last Tuesday was the anniversary of the heroic defense of Chapultepec Castle by the Niños Heroes on September 13, 1847.  Though an important event which has shaped Mexico's thought, there are many more reasons to visit that historic place.  

The hill on which the Castle is built was known as Grasshopper Hill, sacred to the Aztecs, a favorite retreat of their emperors; its spring a source of water for Tenochtitlan, later to be Mexico City. Mexicans use the Nahuatl derived word for grasshoppers -- chapulin; hence Chapultepec -- rather than the Spanish saltamontes -- hill jumper.  

In 1785 Viceroy Bernardo de Galvez built what was to be the first component of a sprawling Castle that has grown as it has gone through different uses.  During two extended periods it housed the Military Academy; for more than 50 years the Presidential residence, and since 1944 the National History Museum.  

Despite the Castle’s extensive history, it has become identified with French imposed Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta even though Maximilian did not build the Castle and only lived there a brief two years. Chapultepec is the only Royal Castle in North America used to actually house sovereigns.

In keeping with Mexico's museumography the displays are excellent and follow a theme.  Once inside the building you'll choose a route to follow.   One area contains National History exhibits.  As to be expected there are swords and military uniforms, but exhibits of historical periods also go into surprising depth. Murals by O’Gorman, Orozco, and Siquieros are history lessons in themselves.  Another route takes you through the living quarters portion of the Castle looking northeast along Paseo de la Reforma.  As palatial as any European castle, and kept in excellent condition, the rooms are decorated as they were by different occupants.  Some are as Maximilian and Carlotta may have used them, others furnished as they were when Porfirio Diaz lived in them; the last room is furnished as it was under President Lazaro Cardenas.  Cardenas felt it inappropriate for a revolutionary president to be living in such opulence and moved the official residence to Los Pinos, also located in Chapultepec Park.   

Over the years The Castle has gained prestige as a setting for dialog.  Is the open feeling of the glass enclosed space with the buffering effect of the forest and the secure feeling at the top of the promontory conducive to understanding?  The 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accord put an end to the civil war in El Salvador.  This year meetings have been hosted in the Castle for dialog between the movement headed by Javier Sicilia and the highest ranking members of both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. 

Most visitors walk a wide path that spirals around the hill and soon has them above tree level looking out over Chapultepec forest, the largest urban park in Latin America.   A few visitors with special needs or VIP status are allowed to ride the elevator from the base of the hill and step out inside the Castle at the top. 

I rode that elevator once -- in the company of a U.S. high-school student with extensive knowledge of the 1846-47 war and a desire to see the parapet where Juan Escutia jumped to his death.  Remembering my previous visit on a windy day, when the French doors in the residential palace area were banging between the walls and the ends of chains attached to their doorknobs, we took forty rubber doorstoppers purchased from a street vendor on Tacuba street.  Once inside the building I asked to see the director of the museum.  "Not available," we were told, "perhaps later."  Upon finishing our visit I asked again and got the same reply.  I told the security guard I'd try another day, and that the reason for my query was to make a gift to the museum. 

Benjamin Weems, his aunt and I proceeded to walk down the long exit path.  Just as we reached the bottom a guard came running down the walkway calling after us.  In the absence of the Director, the Administrator would see us!  We were hustled, like dignitaries, through a tunnel, to the elevator, escorted by two guards to the Administrative Offices.  Perhaps they thought I had a valuable artifact to contribute.  I suddenly was struck by the possibility the administrator might think my doorstops irreverent or worse, irrelevant and a waste of his time.   With some trepidation we were ushered into the presence of the Administrator where I had to finally open my bag and present my matching rubber doorstops.  I was afraid that what had seemed like such a wonderful idea would appear to be mere silliness.  

The Administrator betrayed neither amusement nor annoyance.  He expressed appreciation and charmingly explained that rubber doorstops, made in China, would not be in keeping with 19th century doors; he agreed that something along their lines was necessary and graciously accepted our gift. 

Benjamin maintained perfect decorum until we were once again descending the walkway and were out of earshot of the guards.  The three of us broke into relieved and sustained laughter.  Since then we have referred to this visit as the Doorstop Caper.

I highly recommend a visit to this enchanting Castle.  If you go, please let me know if rubber doorstoppers are in place, or even better a 19th century rendition.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Patriotism in Chapultepec

Entering Mexico City from the south, signs point off to the right to the military academy.  The name of the institution is always preceeded by the capital letter H, for Heroic -- an award given to it by Congress after the heroic defense of Chapultepec Castle on September 13, 1847, during what the U.S. refers to as the Mexican-American War, known in Mexico as the North American Invasion -- 164 years ago today.  

Though the H. Colegio Militar's campus abuts the highway, the first indication it is an army installation is not a sign but six eagles on a rocky ledge found just north of the toll booth.  These eagles never fly away.  They are concrete eagles representing the Niños Heroes, six heroic cadets who died in defense of the Military Academy when it was attacked and seized by U.S. soldiers and marines.  The current location of the Heróico Colegio Militar dates from 1976.  In 1847 the institution was located in Chapultepec Castle, atop Chapultepec Hill, considered by ancient Mesoamericans to be one of the four sacred mountains in the Valley of Mexico (the others being the Cerro de Tepeyac, location of the Basilica of Guadalupe; the Peñon de los Baños overlooking the Mexico City airport; and the Cerro de la Estrella in southern Mexico City).  

Accounts of the battle for Chapultepec Castle vary, not just from the points of view of the opposing sides, but also in the way each side remembers the battle.  The account I prefer is that upon being told that an attack by the U.S. Army and Marines was imminent, six cadets signed entered into solemn pact to never surrender.  If necessary they would offer their lives in defense of both their institution and their nation.  Other cadets also fought heroically but were either killed in battle or taken prisoner.  When the last of the six heroes realized he couldn't possibly hold off the enemy by himself, he lowered the flag, wrapped himself in it and jumped off the cliff.  

Mexican school children know the names of the six heroic cadets by heart. Los Ninos ranged in age from 14 to 20.  School children know who the oldest and youngest were; they know it was Juan Escutia who wrapped himself in the flag.  

The Mexican-American War is glossed over in US elementary and secondary educational textbooks, probably for the same reasons President Grant expressed in his memoirs, writing of the war as a massive land grab.  “For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the [annexation of Texas], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

Nevertheless U.S. school children do learn the Marine Anthem though I would be very surprised if many of them know the “Halls of Montezuma” is, in fact, Chapultepec Castle. To this day, tradition maintains that the bright red stripe running the length of the outside of the trouser leg of the U.S. Marine dress uniform is a reminder of Marine blood shed at Chapultepec Castle.

Each September 13th the Mexican President, along with representatives of the Mexican legislative and judicial branches of the federal government, accompanied by H. Colegio Militar cadets, lay wreaths to honor the Niños Heroes at the Altar a la Pátria monument  located at the base of Chapultepec Hill.  The monument includes six marble columns, each topped by an eagle with outstretched wings.  In fact if you see six of any type of monument in Mexico -- columns, obelisks, flagpoles -- it is likely to be a symbolic representation of the Niños Heroes.

Visiting heads of state often lay wreaths at the monument.  Understandably, it isn't common for U.S. Presidents to do so.  Nevertheless President Truman, in 1947, and President Clinton in 1997, included wreath laying ceremonies in their schedules.  U.S. Ambassador Patrick Lucey, appointed by President Carter, earned goodwill, making his first official act placement of a wreath in honor of the Niños Heroes. 

Rumor has it that the new U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Earl Anthony Wayne, will present his credentials today at the National Palace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Symbolic seats of power

Chairs are providing a subtle subtext to recent national and international news.  As September progresses we'll probably see even more chairs in newspaper photos.  Last month we were treated to views of King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia welcoming Pope Benedict XVI to Madrid.  The three of them sat on a platform in towering high-backed chairs with gold fringe around the seat. Those seated beside them were on lower risers and in chairs with backrests that didn't even reach their shoulders.  The size and placement of chairs served to indicate the importance of the occupants.  The Spanish monarchs distinguished their guest by offering him a chair equal in size and comfort to theirs. As with his predecessor, John Paul II, who visited Madrid in 2003, Benedict XVI was seated between the King and Queen.  Those who remember the prior visit noted a striking change:  John Paul's white chair was higher backed than that of the King and Queen's red chairs.  In contrast, Benedict's red chair was identical to the King and Queen's chairs.  Protocol officers ponder over such subtlenesses.  Was the chair an indication of Spain's increasing secularization?

During September, known as Mes de la Patria, Mexico will be fêted with avenues and buildings decorated with the colors of the flag, ephemeral displays of patriotic scenes in mosaics of tens of thousands of light bulbs, and we'll be treated to a series of festivities hosted by civic and religious powers -- and their chairs.

Whereas Mexico's northern neighbor gives more importance to the location than to the chair, in Mexico the chair is the icon of political power.   The US president's image is linked more to the Oval Office, and the building that houses it, rather than to his chair.  US Supreme Court justices sit in chairs of their own choosing, giving the Latin American visitor a sense of disarray when in their courtroom.  While legislative chambers in Washington do have matching chairs they are lacking in names for them. 

With Mexico's new legislative year getting underway this month we'll be seeing a lot of news coverage of both houses of the federal legislature as they analyze the president's Informe -- his September 1 report to Congress on the state of the nation.  Press photographers will make a point of portraying the members of Congress in their chairs.  Though the chairs in the Chamber of Deputies seem to be similar in design to those of their counterparts in the Senate, they have different names.  Federal Deputies occupy a curul, while Senators occupy an escaño (both words of Latin origin with the first referring to a chair and the latter to a bench with a backrest).  Straight-backed at a ninety-degree angle to the seat, and not particularly comfortable, they, nevertheless, convey the importance of the office.  Over and over again we’ll see photos of the curules and escanos and their occupants.  Additionally we'll see photographs of the meeting chambers allowing us to gauge attendance at the sessions by comparing occupied curules or escaños to empty ones.  

This month we'll also probably see views of the presidential chair inside the National Palace.  A high backed armchair, with the eagle as the shield of Mexico at the very top of the arched backrest; the grandest chair in Mexico is referred to simply as La Silla Presidencial.   It, more than the National Palace, is the symbol of the presidency.  Though occupied successively by presidents through Mexico's history, the most famous photograph of the chair is one taken when it was occupied during the Revolution, if only fleetingly, by one who was never president:  Pancho Villa.   Emiliano Zapata is beside him in a much simpler chair after having refused to sit in the symbolic seat of power.

On the north side of Mexico City's Zocalo lies a whole building named after a chair.  The root word for cathedral is the Latin cathedra (seat) in turn from Greek kathedra.  By definition, cathedrals house the bishop's chair, and hence the name.  In an interesting sidenote, on the 16th of this month, the Metropolitan Cathedral will host one of the most unusual of all ecclesiastical events  -- a commemorative Mass for an excommunicated Catholic priest, Father Miguel Hidalgo.

The Mexican military don't have an emblematic chair.  La Silla is occupied by the commander-in-chief.  Historically, in other countries, there are renowned chairs used by famous generals -- usually elegant, easily transportable folding curules.  In the absence of chairs the president and his Secretaries of Defense and Navy will stand in the central balcony of the National Palace on the 16th of this month reviewing one of the world's grandest military parades.

Of all chairs, from thrones to figurative seats and chairs, my favorite is the simplest – a scissor legged stool with a canvas seat which my groups and I sling over our shoulders and create portable classrooms or meeting rooms out of any archeological site, park, or museum.  Magically they keep the largest group compact and avoid the inevitable problem of people leaning on walls and displays.  Best of all they extend the attention span of participants.  Interestingly the word catedra is used in Spanish to refer to imparting education; impartir catedra -- probably originating from the same idea of sitting in a curul imparting ideas to students sitting on the ground or on escaños.  Thus my simple stools are in the highest tradition of learning.