Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Xochicalco's ancient observatory

A mere 45 minutes' drive south of Cuernavaca, Xochicalco's underground astronomical observatory is again open after almost three years of closure.   I was fortunate to visit it twice last week while leading study trips for four visiting North American university groups:  Carleton, McMaster, and St. Francis Xavier Universities of Canada, and the University of Minnesota.

We usually think of observatories as domed buildings where astronomers look into the center of the night sky with accurate modern telescopes allowing comparison of photos of the sky taken years ago with those taken tonight.  Lacking such precision if, with the naked eye, we look through a hole in the ceiling of a building there is no guarantee that when we return next year to confirm the observation, we’ll again look along the same sightline -- our point of reference, the ceiling, is so close that any change in our position distorts observations.  However, if we make our observations on the distant horizon from a high point, such as the doorway of a temple at the top of an ancient pyramid, it won’t much matter whether we lean against the temple’s right-hand doorjamb and next year the left-hand doorjamb.

It’s likely most ancient Mesoamerican astronomical observations were made watching for astronomical events occurring between peaks or landmarks on the horizon. Heights of pyramids at various archeological sites seem determined by how high a building must be for clear views of the horizon.  At Tikal, with 50-meter high forests, temples appear perched on treetops. At Chichen-Itza, with only 15-meter high trees, buildings also seem perched on the treetops.
Unlike other Mesoamerican astronomers, Xochicalcans were apparently not content with observing the horizon and wanted to record accurate observations in the center of the sky.  They accomplished this feat by creating underground observatories, with ceilings so thick you can only see the sky when directly beneath what I will call a "shaft". The almost vertical shaft of Xochicalco’s reopened observatory is about 7-meters long. Adding three meters from floor to ceiling of the observation chamber makes the focal distance, from the floor of the observation chamber to the outside, 10 meters.  The shaft angles slightly north to where the sun is at noon on the summer solstice, allowing direct sunlight to hit the floor of the underground room on that day.

Additionally, since the diameter of the shaft is about 45 centimeters, the sun shines directly into the underground room for 52 days before the solstice and 52 days after. Add to this the solstice itself and for 105 days a year, starting on April 30, the sun shines directly in. For 260 days it does not. Interestingly Mesoamericans had a 260-day ritual calendar!

During daylight hours a one-meter wide circle of diffuse light forms on the floor of the observatory chamber.  On days when the direct sunlight hits the floor, shortly before noon a needle point of direct sunlight appears on the west side of the diffuse circle and makes its way across the circle from west to east.  As it travels it gets larger until it resembles the size and shape of an American football in the center of the circle. Continuing east it becomes smaller until once again a needle point of light on the east side of the circle. All this in less than an hour.  Direct sunlight on the observatory floor will not reappear until the following day.
The fact that direct sunlight makes its way across the floor from west to east as the sun moves through the sky from east to west always made me think of a pinhole camera, in which everything is inverted.  I wanted to try to focus it and see if we'd be able to see an image of the sun.  In 1991 there was a total eclipse of the sun at midday in July -- the time of day when the sun shines into the observatory.  Imagine my excitement at the prospect of focusing the image of the eclipse in such an ancient observatory!
To prove the possibility of this I enlisted volunteers to go into the observation chamber and place posterboard on the floor creating a smooth white surface.  In the plaza above the observatory I covered the top of the shaft with cardboard with a ten-centimeter diameter cut-out covered with aluminum foil.   I had various diameters of wire with me -- a needle, followed by a pin, a paper clip, a coat hanger and, as a last resort, scissors.  I poked the needle through the foil and shouted down "Anything happening?"  The answer from below was "Nothing."

I enlarged the hole with the pin.  Still, "Nothing."  When I pierced it with the straightened paper clip, I heard an exultant cry, "It's in focus!"  I raced to the tunnel entrance and into the chamber.  There, on the floor of the observatory was a 12 centimeter diameter image of the sun in perfect focus; we could even see its sunspots as it moved across the floor from west to east.  Spectacular!  Imagine Xochicalco's observatory housing a focused and accurate telescope for solar observations 105 days a year, and year-long nighttime observations.  I celebrate it’s reopening.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Organization goes the extra mile

Last month I picked up a group of Camden, New Jersey, high school and community college students at the Mexico City airport.   They’d raised $10,000 dollars for a service-learning trip with Cuernavaca’s social services agency VAMOS! -- founded in 1986 to work with the “poorest of the poor”.  Aboard the van, Djvonn Brown, one of two returning students, asked, "are you going to tell us about things as we drive?"

He had finagled a front seat, put away electronic devices and was asking to learn about this foreign country.  I answered with a question addressed to the chaperones "Shall we take a slightly longer route and go through downtown Mexico City?" We approached downtown by way of La Merced Market, skirted what had been the south shore of the island of Tenochtitlan, passing Sor Juana’s Convent of San Jeronimo.  We turned north in front of the ancient aqueduct terminal; it brought water to the old city from the springs at Chapultepec.  I dropped the group in front of the bandstand Diego Rivera incorporated into his mural "A Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park," promising to meet them at the Juarez monument on the other side of the park.  I expected them to arrive before me.  Wrong.  I watched them cross the park while keeping an eye out for the pesky electric-powered police trucks, thereby avoiding a 'boot' on my tire.   They unhurriedly danced with similar-aged kids at the bandstand, bought churros from a street vendor, had a group photo taken with President Juarez in the background while drinking in the pulsating city park.
We drove through the Centro Historico past sinking and tilting buildings. They heard about the Count of Orizaba and saw his family's talavera tile-covered palace.  Progress was slow as we passed the National Palace, Zocalo, and Cathedral. Each site, and such a responsive group, invites stories of past and present Mexico.  As we left the city, Father Jeff Puttoff, founder of Hopeworks ‘n Camden, guided the conversation with incisive questions of social content.  Father Jeff apparently multi-tasked, sending photos and comments to the group blog.  They were already posted when I checked that evening.

The following day another chaperone, Dr. Kathleen Duffy, recorded in her journal -- later included in an article about the trip: "As I stood in the brilliant Mexican sunshine on the afternoon of January 13, a wave of panic washed over me. "My trepidation was not the result of being one of the adults responsible for six youth from Hopeworks ‘n Camden nearly 3,000 miles from home, nor was it caused by warnings of cartel violence published on the U.S. State Department website. I was fearful that the one liter bottle of Jarritos soda my gracious hostess was pouring was not going to fill all the cups of her 12 guests. With each cup she poured, I analyzed how much was left, and how this simple expression of generosity might cause her family not to have enough money to eat that night. All the members of my group reflected on these events that evening. We were saddened that only one of the five children in the family was able to attend school, as well as the fact that there was no running water or cooking facilities in the house, save for a hot plate in the bedroom."

"This was not the only expression of kindness from a stranger that left me speechless on my six-day journey to Cuernavaca.  The next morning we visited a community center run by the agency VAMOS!, where I had the opportunity to read to children and give each of them a paperback book to take home.  I admired a doll skirt that one of the moms was crocheting for her child.  At the end of the session, tiny 3-year-old Monse tapped me and handed me the skirt.  It was beautiful, and I felt blessed to be given something out of want, not excess."

The VAMOS! board holds its annual meeting this week.  Board-members direct the organization and cover all fund-raising and administrative expenses.  Donors are guaranteed every donated penny goes directly to projects for the poor.  Not many organizations make that guarantee. VAMOS!'s 2011 annual report records ten community centers open for 2,170 service days. 170,000 three-course meals were served -- each included a vitamin.  Mobile medical and dental services regularly visit each project site.  After-school educational programs serve children, ages 3 to 15.  Canadian Friends of Vamos' mobile computer lab provided 12,700 hours of computer training for girls (49%), boys (42%), and adults (9%, mostly women).   Teens participating in the computer program report “better school performance as well as broadened expectations.”

VAMOS! was conceived after Vermonters Bill and Patty Coleman participated in a 1986 Cuernavaca retreat.  Like many visitors, they enjoyed the artisan market but their attention was drawn under the sales tables.  They saw babies sleeping, children playing.  They also saw school-age children working with their parents selling on the streets.  After returning home they resolved to do something.  From this humble beginning grew VAMOS! -- translatable as "lets do this together."

Last Saturday’s memorial Mass for Bill Coleman was attended by widow Patty and more than a 150 people involved with VAMOS!.  VAMOS! is now a charitable organization transforming lives of young people on both sides of the only border in the world shared by the first world and the third world.  For not only does VAMOS! provide help to Mexicans in need but it gives the opportunity for dozens of young service-learning U.S. students to experience Mexico and  learn that, like Bill and Patty Coleman, one person can make a difference.  Enthusiastic, wide-eyed, generous-hearted young people like Djvonn can even transform a routine airport-run into a grand adventure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mexico’s original organic dye

Mexico is the second largest producer of silver in the world. For several centuries it was number one. The Spanish empire thrived on wealth created by silver bullion exported through Veracruz to Seville. From there it spread throughout Spain creating tremendous inflation before settling into the pockets of German and Dutch bankers. But silver wasn’t Mexico’s only valuable export.

I frequently ask members of the groups who travel with me if they can identify the second most important source of wealth extracted from Mexico by the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Rarely does anyone have the correct answer. I usually ask this question at Teotihuacan just before entering the Quetzalcoatl Quadrangle. This is not because the answer had a particular relationship to that place. It’s because I know we’ll soon encounter one of the Castro brothers who will show us a sampling of that second most important source of wealth for Spain. The Castros, as their late father before them, sell postcards – ten postcards in a white envelope for sixty pesos.

The Castro brothers have one of the most marvelous marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. Using a stick and a nopal cactus leaf infested with white clusters of insects and eggs, the Castros carefully scrape off a cluster, squishing it on the envelope containing postcards. It instantly changes to crimson red. Using the same small stick they gather sap from the leaf, cover the red, sealing the color onto the envelope. Even if you rub your finger over the color it won’t come off. I urge members of my group “Buy a packet of postcards, send them to your friends but keep the envelope. Put it away in your desk drawer. Pull it out ten years from now and it will be just as red as it is today.”

The Castros use a fast-track process. The proper way to harvest cochineal is to go through a nopal cactus orchard with a whisk broom and gourd, collect female insects, kill them by immersion in hot water and put them in the sun to dry. When dry they resemble tiny dark red, almost black, pellets. Ground on a metate, they become a fine red powder. Added to a vat of boiling water it becomes dye. The longer cloth is left in the water, the redder it will be, and once dry will not fade. To imagine the color, think of British red-coat soldiers. That red was created by cochineal dye. The bright red permanent dye enthralled Europeans, most had no idea the treasured dye was insects.

Sent west from Acapulco to Asia, cochineal pellets were sold in Manila – not in the market – but in jewelry stores for a set price known to all. A common language was unnecessary. Customers merely pointed to glass containers of dark, tiny, pellets, indicating to the jeweler how much was wanted by putting that much gold on the jeweler’s scale. In Manila, dried cochineal sold for equal its weight in gold!

Though never as expensive in Europe, cochineal was consumed by the wealthy with prices quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges. Realizing the value of the dye, Spain put an embargo on the export of any live insects from Mexico or the colonies. In 1777 a French botanist smuggled both insects and nopal cactus to a French Caribbean Island. Fortunately for Mexico’s monopoly the insects died. In 1788 The British also smuggled cochineal insects and cactus to Australia. These insects also died but the cactus thrived and ultimately overran 100,000 square miles of eastern Australia. The bottom fell out of the cochineal market in the 1860’s when a German chemist discovered how to artificially make the same-colored dye. With renewed interest in organic dyes, cochineal has made a recovery and is again in demand. Though I doubt cochineal will again compete with silver or gold, it is an interesting chapter in Mexico’s history.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Collaborating with me on Charlie's Digs

We are in the second year of Charlie’s Digs. I want to pause to thank both The News and readers for the success of this column. I appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive, never tiring of the excitement of seeing the column in print each Tuesday. My customary venue is speaking/telling stories in the classroom or at archeological and historical sites, museums, in Mesoamerican craftpeoples’ workshops, off the beaten path or on board a bus as I lead study trips. Although also rewarding, it is by nature fleeting. Charlie’s Digs allows me to put those ideas and stories down on paper. It is a journey made easier with encouragement and the assistance of friend/colleague Carol Hopkins.

Carol is a Cuernavaca resident and former school administrator. We’ve co-taught courses for the University of Minnesota’s Mexico program, and together have planned and led group study tours. From the beginning, Carol has been an important part of Charlie’s Digs in myriad ways: encouraging me to do it, choosing topics, researching, fact checking, editing, and helping to write the column. In recognition, Carol’s name will appear as collaborator.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mexico's Third Constitution

Last weekend we enjoyed another long puente commemorating February 5th -- the anniversary of the signing of both the 1857 and 1917 Constitutions. I carry a copy of the Mexican Constitution with me in my car. It's a small book with almost illegibly tiny print but it’s a reminder of the promise the 1917 document brought to Mexico. The 1917 Political Constitution of the United Mexican States, as it is properly called, is Mexico’s third Constitution, after those of 1824 and 1857. The 1824 Federal Constitution of the United Mexican States was implemented after the overthrow of Emperor Augustín de Iturbide in 1823.

Yes, the first government after independence was yet another empire! The 1824 Constitution replaced a centrist government overseeing loosely defined provinces with a federal government of nineteen free and independent states. After it was implemented, dissent and constant conflict ensued among Federalists, Centrists, and a small but powerful minority seeking return to an empire. States surrounding Mexico City were federalist but the federal government had decreasing support farther from the capital. At the outer regions there was merely a loose confederacy.

In 1835 Centrists returned to power. Voiding the Constitution of 1824, they proclaimed seven constitutional laws and divided Mexico into departments with Mexico City as the administrative head of the nation. Political instability and open conflict between the former states and the central government ensued. There were armed rebellions, even secessions.

During that time the 1846-48 North American Invasion -- known in the U.S. as the Mexican-American War – led to the loss of 55% of Mexico’s territory to its northern neighbor. The 1857 Constitution, ratified by a Constituent Congress on Feb. 5, 1857, was shaped by the liberal, secular thinking of respected lawyer, judge, and legal scholar, Benito Juarez. An amazingly avantgarde document, it established freedoms of speech, conscience, press, and assembly. It guaranteed education free of religion and abolished slavery, debtor’s prisons, the death penalty, and cruel and unusual punishment. Juarez, a full-blooded Zapotec, had been instrumental in drafting and securing passage of the Ley Juárez (Juárez’s Law) of 1855, declaring all citizens equal before the law and severely restricting the privileges of the Catholic Church. Juarez was the first President under the 1857 Constitution.

Not surprisingly, the new government was in immediate direct conflict with the church and conservatives, culminating in the Reform War and the brief restoration of empire as Emperor Maximilian was brought from Europe to rule Mexico from 1864 until his overthrow in 1867. Benito Juarez claimed to be president during Maximilian’s tenure, though he did so from northern Mexico.

For the three-year period, Maximilian, with the support of the French army, controlled Mexico City and much of the national territory. Juarez did not recognize him as Emperor and referred to him as an invader and impostor, only addressing him with his European title of “Archduke”. For Maximilian the Constitution of 1857 was void. For Juarez it remained the law. The last half of the 1800’s was tumultuous for the federal government.

It suffered onslaughts not only from the church and royalists but, essentially, continued sedition from Santa Anna who immersed himself in conspiracies to overthrow whoever was in power. By the end of the century, the ground was ripe for the 30-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz and the decade-long Revolution that followed in the early 1900’s. Mexico lost one million of its citizens in that conflict.

As the Revolution wound down under President Carranza, a Constitutional Congress was convened -- spawned by the fervent hope that just law might immunize the nation from further violence. The resulting Constitution of 1917 is recognized as the first in the world to set out specific social rights, along with general concepts of liberty and limited government and the same basic rights of the 1857 Constitution. Like the U.S. Constitution, Mexico’s 1917 Constitution was written to provide a specific guide for responsibility of government. But unlike the U.S. Constitution, the 1917 Constitution is long and detailed in its description of the rights of the Mexican people to freedom from political and religious repression, foreign intervention and economic hardship. It provides for land redistribution, the nation’s ownership of all natural resources, free and obligatory education, strict separation of church and state, even labor reform and housing rights. It is highly regarded by the citizens of Mexico who are often otherwise quite jaded by politics.

There is debate going in the Senate over an amendment which would modify the way the Constitution relates to that issue that has been present throughout Mexico’s life as an independent nation -- the rights of churches. It will be interesting to follow.