Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A wave of holidays

A series of holidays is quickly approaching.  In a little over two weeks we'll go through seven special days.  Even though we may not be participants in some of them we will be aware of them.  As you’ll see you’ll probably even be celebrated on one or more of these days.

April 30th is Children's Day.  Dia del Niño is a festive school day honoring children.  It's a big day for school field trips, especially to parks.  I wonder if children on field trips to Xochicalco will notice that April 30th is the first day this year that the sun will shine directly into the underground observatory at Xochicalco. 

May 1st is celebrated under various names as Labor Day in most countries and called the Día del Trabajo in Mexico.  The date commemorates workers movements demanding the eight-hour workday.  It is frequently mentioned as honoring the martyrs of Chicago, the protesters killed in the Haymarket Massacre though one of the few countries that does not commemorate the day is the one in which the events occurred.  Perhaps the only place where the U.S. observes May 1st as Labor Day is in its embassies and consulates -- one of nineteen holidays observed by U.S. diplomats in Mexico.

In Mexico the Labor Day march was the largest for most of the 20th century. It was presided over by the president and the leaders of the Central Labor Confederation (CTM), long led by Fidel Velazquez.  Towards the end of the century the official march was followed by marches by independent unions.  During the last three administrations the march has been toned down considerably.

May 3rd is Holy Cross Day.  Crosses on hilltops are brought to the parish churches for repairs, painting, and blessings before returning to the hilltop.  Crosses in churches and home altars are decorated with fresh flowers -- a big day for florists.  Also considered brickmason's day in Mexico, anyone with a construction project under way is expected to host dinner for the workers at the construction site.  Months after this day you will see flower-decorated crosses at construction sites indicating that construction was going on there on May 3rd.   Of the holidays in late April and early May, this is the noisiest -- announced by fireworks the night before. 

The Battle of Puebla (1862) is commemorated on May 5th.  Interestingly, with the exception of the State of Puebla, it is no longer even a banking holiday in Mexico. Yet a U.S. Congress Concurrent Resolution in 2005 called on the President to encourage the people to celebrate the day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. 

Although Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the U.S. as a Hispanic culture day, it might more appropriately be recognized as the day that shaped U.S. history.

Many historians maintain that Napoleon III had the intention of supporting the Confederate States in the U.S. Civil War through a French-imposed Mexican emperor.  The French defeat at the Battle of Puebla set those plans back by almost exactly a year.  After regrouping and licking its wounds in Veracruz, the French army returned to Puebla in May 1863, secured the surrender of Mexico's Army of the East, and continued on to take control of Mexico City.  The Gettysburg Battle, the turning point in the U.S. Civil War, was fought July 1-3, 1863.  How would U.S. history have changed had the French entered Mexico City and imposed Maximilian as emperor in May1862?

Mothers' Day is celebrated on May 10th.  The most revered member of a Mexican family is feted as elegantly as each family can afford.  Stores of all kinds will be having Dia de las Madres sales.  

As the school year approaches completion, Teacher's Day is celebrated May 15th.  Public school teachers are federal employees in Mexico.  In fact the teachers union is the largest labor union in Latin America with over one million members.  Traditionally the president announces teachers' salary increases on May 15th.  If not considered sufficient, his announcement is frequently followed by teachers' strikes among dissident sections of the union just weeks before the end of the school year. 

Saint Isidore Labrador's Day is also celebrated on May 15.  As patron saint of farmers, he is frequently portrayed with a plow pulled by a team of oxen. This is particularly fitting for central Mexico's farmers who are plowing and getting their fields ready in anticipation of the rainy season which should be starting by late May.  

Last Tuesday on the slope of Popocatepetl between Amecameca and Tlamacas I stopped to talk with a farmer planting with a metal tipped planting stick.  Into each hole he tossed three corn seeds before covering it over with his foot.  He had previously plowed the fertile volcanic soil with a team of oxen.  He seemed oblivious to mass media coverage of Popocatepetl's increased activity and that access to Paso de Cortes between Popocatepetl and Ixtlaccihuatl had been closed. He was planting as usual.  I thanked him for the effort he puts into feeding us and he thanked me for buying the fruit of his harvest.  "We're all linked," he told me. 

So, if you are a worker, a mother, a child, a farmer, a teacher, a brickmason, or involved in a construction project, a celebration in your honor is around the corner.  ¡Felicidades!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo

Thirty-one years ago April 17 fell on Friday of Holy Week.  Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo led the Good Friday Mass.  Sitting in a pew in Cuernavaca’s cathedral that day I couldn't foresee the long lasting effect his words would have.

Don Sergio, as he was affectionately known, was comfortable in his setting, a sanctuary he had designed. And he was comfortable with his congregation; he had been their bishop for almost thirty years. 

Though the cathedral building had been completed in 1552, Mendez Arceo led the remodeling of the sanctuary with tasteful mid-twentieth century modernity.  He often said that without "clutter" the church could get down to the basics of what Christian life is all about in a simple and austere cathedral. His thinking was very much in tune with the cathedral’s original Franciscan design.  With changes to the interior, Mendez Arceo transformed the old sanctuary into a liturgically correct cathedral for contemporary needs. 

Likewise he was in tune with contemporary social needs. 

He was a leader in Latin America's contribution to world-wide Christianity, the Theology of Liberation.  It's a theological model based heavily on the books of the Old Testament in which the prophets so frequently tell their kings that what they were doing was evil and offensive to God.  

Mendez Arceo, like other theologians of liberation, believed that it is the role of the Church to speak out on behalf of those whose voice is rarely heard -- especially the poor and the oppressed. 

For his followers and admirers he was a Bishop of the Poor. For his detractors he was the Red Bishop of Cuernavaca. Yet all knew that he always treated liturgy with utmost respect and followed cannon law to the letter. 

Detractors and admirers alike were stunned by what he did thirty-one years ago today at that Good Friday Mass.  Before walking the aisle to the altar area Don Sergio took the microphone, welcomed the congregation, and then told us that he expected the ceremony would last much longer than we had expected -- perhaps three or four hours!  He asked anyone who did not have three or four hours to spend with him to please leave because all exits would soon be closed.  He told us where the restrooms were located but added that going to the restroom was not going to be a way to slip out of the church building.  All access to the outside would be locked.  Some people did get up and leave.

Only after the massive doors were bolted shut did he tell us he was going to carry out an excommunication ceremony.  I'd never been to one before and have never been to one since.  He described the severity of the ceremony, what those to be excommunicated would have to do to return to communion with the Church, and what would befall them if they participated in the sacrament of communion while excommunicated.  

He proceeded to excommunicate anyone who tortured another human being in the Diocese of Cuernavaca, the only area over which he held jurisdiction, whether in a government building, the back set of a police car, or in a family home. He mentioned no names and to me his decree seemed to have no teeth -- but that lasted only a few moments. 

Then he issued a decree that reverberated throughout Mexico and was heard in Christian circles worldwide.  He went on to excommunicate all people in government who knew torturing was occurring, who could stop it, but who chose to do nothing. 

The Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation which carries his name honors similar courage in speaking out against abuses and injustices by giving out two human rights prizes each year close to April 17.  The 2012 awards will be presented this Friday.  This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Don Sergio's death as well as the twentieth awarding of the prize.

The group prize will be awarded to Citizens in Support of Human Rights (CADHAC) of Monterrey which offers effective legal assistance to victims of human rights violations.     

The individual prize will be given to Javier Sicilia for his work since 1980 on behalf of human rights and being a bridge between social classes.   Through poetry, news analysis and theological commentary his voice is heard by sectors of society that normally don't interact with each other. 

Friday’s events will start with a Human Rights Forum in the Federal District's Human Rights Commission headquarters at 9:30 a.m.   The keynote speaker will be The Reverend José Luis César Pérez Guzmán of the Mexican Methodist Church.  The awards themselves will be given out at 4 p.m. at the San Pedro Martir church in Tlalpan, D.F. where Bishop Raul Vera of Saltillo, Coahuila will be one of the speakers.  I will be at both the forum and the awards ceremony and will be glad to translate for those needing it.  I hope to see you there.

Further details are available at <http://www.fundaciondonsergio.org/esp/inicio/inicio.html>.  Round trip transportation from Cuernavaca is available through the Don Sergio Foundation. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Does Mexico City exist?

Does Mexico City exist?  When I drive north from Cuernavaca, signs welcome me to Mexico City. Yet as far as I can tell it does not exist as a legal entity. 

King Charles I of Spain approved a coat of arms for Mexico City on July 4, 1523 -- less than two years after Hernán Cortés took Emperor Cuauhtemoc prisoner.  Today however, with the electoral process underway, no one is running for mayor of Mexico City or positions in its city council. 

Political parties have chosen their candidates for Chief of Government of the Federal District (D.F.).   There are also candidates vying to be delegados to head the D.F.'s sixteen delegaciones. Others are competing to be members of the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District. 

Two years ago I wrote to well-versed Enrique Galvan Ochoa asking him "does Mexico City exist?"  My letter was published in his syndicated column Dinero and he brought it up with Carmen Aristegui on her radio program.  I seem to have stumped them both.  Galvan Ochoa replied: "I'll answer your question with another to help us resolve this matter. What does the Constitution call the seat of the federal powers?"

I looked it up and Article 44 of the Constitution (reformed in 1993) reads: "Mexico City is the Federal District, seat of the powers of the union and capital of the United Mexican States.  It will be made up of the territory that it presently holds and in case the federal powers move to another location it will become the state of the Valley of Mexico with the territorial limits assigned to it by the General Congress."

Galvan Ochoa's answer in the form of a question in turn stumped me.  Has Mexico City's name been changed to become the Federal District?  Or is the federal district, in lower case letters, Mexico City? 

Strange as it may seem, 58% of the Federal District is classified as rural, agricultural, or forested land.  Is that part of the city?  Or is Mexico City the urban part of the D.F?

For fiscal reasons Chief of Government Marcelo Ebrad fights on behalf of considering the Federal District equivalent to a state.  Logical since it has as many senators as each of the states.  Yet in the international sphere he had no qualms accepting the 2010 World Mayor Prize "for outstanding contributions to his...community and [having] developed a vision for urban living and working...relevant to...cities across the world."

Complicating matters is the fact that only one of Mexico's thirty-one states (the state of Mexico) has a population larger than that of the Federal District.  One out of every ten Mexicans lives in the capital.  Hence Mexico refers to itself as divided into thirty-two federative entities -- thirty-one states plus the Federal District.

Each of the thirty-one states is divided into municipalities, Mexico's smallest unit of government.  No cities there either -- hence no mayors.  In the states there are only three levels of government:  federal, state, and municipal. The chief executive of a municipality is a municipal president which is sometimes called alcalde (mayor) though that is not the person's official title. 

Some municipalities have ciudad in their name such as Ciudad Hidalgo on the border with Guatemala. However that happens to be the name of the whole municipality and does not refer only to a city. 

The states of Baja California and Baja California Sur each have five municipalities.  The state of Oaxaca has more than one hundred times that number!  Five hundred seventy municipalities make up ethnically diverse Oaxaca. 

Population figures of Mexican urban areas in almanacs always seem much larger than one would expect, especially when comparing them to urban areas in other countries where cities and municipalities, or their equivalent, exist side-by-side. 

Mexico's large cities, especially the state capitals, each have a distinct character resulting from regional or ethnic diversity.  Of course the grandest of all is the city whose existence I question but which I always refer to as Mexico City.  In addition to being the country's political center, it is Mexico's economic, educational, and cultural center.  It’s a city with progressive legislation, vibrant literary and cultural activity, marvelous museums, unparalleled architectural diversity, innovative means of transportation, and that closely guarded secret--it’s the world's third most important theater center after London and New York.

Legal entity or not, it is a fascinating city which we are privileged to be able to enjoy and experience.     

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The need for a calendar

April and May are the hottest months of the year in central Mexico. On its apparent trip north to the Tropic of Cancer, the sun is climbing higher and higher in the sky. On May 16th it will be directly over Teotihuacan, in the very center of the dome of the sky, and it will set exactly in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. It will continue traveling north until reaching the Tropic of Cancer on June 20th – longest day in the northern hemisphere – when it will turn around, start its trip south, and be directly over Teotihuacan on July 28 when the weather, during the rainy season, will be delightful.

That transition in weather from almost unbearably hot and dry to the wonderful rainy season may be the origin of Mesoamerica’s need for a calendar.

There are two principal schools of thought in Mesoamerican anthropology – the diffusionists, and that of the advocates of the autochthonous development of Mesoamerican cultures.

Diffusionists maintain that unlike in ancient Egypt there was no need for a precise and accurate calendar in ancient Mesoamerica. Egyptians living in the Sahara needed to know when the Nile was going to flood. If they didn’t have their seeds in the ground just before the flooding they wouldn’t have a harvest to get them through the next year. The calendar they developed spread across Mesopotamia, India, Southeast Asia and somehow jumped across the Pacific to be adapted by the Mesoamericans.

Strangely the most noted diffusionist was the same person who coined the word Mesoamerica and listed its cultural characteristics--German anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff.

Kirchhoff pointed out that Mesoamerica has a dependable rainy season beginning in late May or early June, lasting until corn’s harvest in September. No need for a calendar. Farmers could see and feel the change in weather and have their seeds in the ground in time for the first rains.

Mexican archeologist Alberto Ruz became a spokesperson for the defense of the autochthonous development of Mesoamerican cultural characteristics. Ruz pointed out that the combination of poor soil in the rain forest, slash and burn agriculture, and a short rainy season made it essential for Mesoamerican farmers – especially Maya farmers in the lowlands – to know exactly when the rains were going to begin.

Corn, the staple of the Mesoamerican diet, takes about 120 days to grow from planting until harvesting. With a four month rainy season there is no leeway – the seeds must be in the ground before the rains begin. Yet, if in the ground too early they will rot.

On first glance the rainforest seems amazingly lush and fertile. However the buttress-type roots on the large trees give away the fact that the soil’s nutrients are concentrated at the surface. Roots spread horizontally from the base of trees in search of nutrients. Dense foliage keeps most of the sunlight from ever reaching the ground and drying out the soil. Rain forests cycle their nutrients as if in a greenhouse. When the cycle is broken by farmers clearing fields, land in the Mayan central lowlands (northern Guatemala and on south into Honduras) can only be used efficiently for two years before being left fallow for seven to ten years.

The Yucatan Peninsula’s soil is even poorer. After using it for two years traditional farmers leave it fallow for fifteen to twenty years.

Every two years Maya slash-and-burn farmers cleared a new field. They would do so in October. The longer the cuttings were allowed to dry before being set on fire, the more land there would be on which to plant. However waiting until the rains began meant the fire would not burn well, leaving nowhere to plant.

Ruz suggests early Mayas watched the sun. When it was directly overhead at noon, it was time to burn the fields and plant the seeds. They went on from there to perfect their calendar, reaching the astonishing precision of it being one ten-thousandth of a day more exact than the Gregorian calendar we use – only two ten-thousandths of a day from modern astronomers’ calculation of the true length of a year.

Central Mexico lies at the same latitude as the great deserts of the world. If it were not such a narrow country it would also be a great desert. Its rainy season is the hurricane season. Mexico benefits from the Caribbean and Pacific summer storms. Although we read about the tremendous devastation hurricanes leave in their path as they enter Mexico, if it weren’t for those storms Mexico’s natural aquifers would not be replenished. The storms allow for central Mexico’s wonderful summer weather of clear mornings, cloudy afternoons, and a tropical downpour lasting forty-five minutes to an hour in the late afternoon.

I’ve often thought what a break-through it would be if the Tourism Secretariat would let it be known to our northern neighbors that summers are cool and delightful in central and southern Mexico.

On another matter, Taxco’s Holy Thursday procession is a marvelous example of well-rehearsed theater. It was the topic of last year’s Charlie’s Digs an April 19th and is just as timely this year. I hope to see you there.