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.