Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Maze of Stores and Stories

Like other large cities, Mexico City has streets which are known for a particular type of store.  Customers know they will be able to compare prices, brands, and designs in numerous stores all selling similar items. They can easily go back to purchase at the store where they found the product they liked the best.  However I doubt other cities have a street as interesting as the one along the west side of Mexico City's Zócalo.  

The street’s name changes every couple blocks. For the first block from the Zócalo it is called Plaza de la Constitución.  As it continues north and passes the national pawn shop it takes its name and becomes Calle Nacional Monte de Piedad. A block further along it becomes Calle República de Brasil.  The types of stores change block to block but they all have one thing in common--preparations for a wedding could be made without straying from this street.

After purchasing an engagement ring in one of the jewelry stores facing the Zocalo, a soon to be married couple can buy a wedding dress for the bride, a tuxedo for the groom, order wedding invitations, arrange for the wedding to be celebrated in the Templo de Santo Domingo, and a few blocks farther along even buy furniture for their new apartment.  

First the jewelry stores. Myriad aisles lined with jewelry stores wind their way into the buildings facing the Zocalo.  Continue north, past the multistoried pawnshop, and you will see stores and stores of beautiful wedding dresses.  Then men's suits and tuxedos take over on both sides of the street. 

Continue to the block-long Santo Domingo Plaza. There you will find an arched walkway running the length of the west side of the plaza. Inside each portal are print shops with hand-set printing presses. Each print shop is a 3-meter high, 2 meter by 2 meter wooden structure housing a manually-powered, movable-type printing press.  In these shops they not only print fancy wedding invitations but also letterhead paper and business cards.  Rumor has it that you can get any type of document you want at Plaza Santo Domingo, much like MacArthur Park in Los Angeles.  

Opposite the printing presses, under the arched walkway, sit the Evangelistas.  They aren't pushing a religion. They are evangelists in the true sense of the word -- the ones who write good news.  Each sits with his back against the wall behind a desk facing the plaza. On each desk is a manual typewriter.  They operate Escritorios Publicos, public desks.  For a fee the Evangelistas will fill out forms that need to be typed. They'll also type whatever the customer wants.  Frequently what they type are letters for illiterate people.  The customer dictates and the Evangelist puts it down on paper.  

Seeing the Evangelistas always brings to my mind the principal character in Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Times of Cholera.  Florentino Ariza's services at his public desk were the most solicited in town because of his fame for writing love letters.   He'd always known he was good, but he had no doubt he was really good when he'd gone full circle.  That’s when people started bringing him letters they had received -- which he recognized as letters he had written -- asking him to write the reply. 

You’ll want to notice the east side of the Plaza Santo Domingo, but not for its stores.

Here in the Customs House Dominican priests serving the Inquisition reviewed every book imported to New Spain to make sure it was not listed in the Index of Prohibited Books.  Next door the headquarters of New Spain's Inquisition occupied the real estate that became the School of Medicine. It now houses a medical museum and a macabre museum of the Inquisition.  If you don't visit the museums, at least step in to see the beautiful and unusual 18th century courtyard architecture.   An arched walkway surrounds the courtyard.  Each arch rests on a capital supported by a column that it shares with the adjacent arch -- except at the four corners.  There, where two perpendicular arches meet on a capital, there is no column beneath the capital.  Quite stunning.

Continue north on Calle República de Brasíl, beyond the Santo Domingo church, which faces onto the Plaza.  Here furniture stores line both sides of the street. 

Retracing your steps back to the Zócalo, finish your walk by rewarding yourself with coffee and pastries under the spectacular stained glass ceiling in the lobby of the Gran Hotel at the southwestern corner of the Zócalo.  You may remember the lobby from the movie “Frida” starring Salma Hayek. Although filmed in Mexico City, in the movie it is in Paris that Josephine Baker and Frida Kahlo ride the elegant 19th-century caged elevator together. (You may find it easier to get into the lobby if you enter from the garage on Calle 16 de Septiembre as the staff is not always friendly to non hotel guests.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Mexico's Main Square

Mexico City's main plaza is center stage for today’s commemoration of the start of the Mexican Revolution.  Although last year on this date there was a military parade, traditionally the 20th of November's event is a parade with an athletic focus.  Many events crucial to Mexico’s history and character have happened in the plaza, known as the zócalo. 

In other Spanish-speaking countries zócalo is an architectural term referring to the base of a monument or column. The most frequently heard explanation for calling Mexico City’s central plaza the zócalo is that a pedestal was built there for a statue of the king of Spain. The statue took so long to arrive that people started referring to the pedestal itself as a meeting point or landmark, as in "I'll meet you at the pedestal," or "my house is three blocks north of the pedestal."  The name zócalo caught on and spread to every Mexican town and village square. 

Mexico's famous novelist Carlos Fuentes came up with another explanation for the name. He calculated that 25% of our modern Spanish vocabulary is of Arabic origin.  He theorized that the root of the word zócalo is zuc, the Arabic word for market.  Mexico City's market was in the southwest corner of the city square.  Fuentes pointed out that in New Spain there was even a title of nobility for the Señor del Zuc, the Lord of the Market.

To get to the heart of the matter I spoke to Mexico’s zocólogo, Obed Arango Hisijara. He got that moniker as a student at the National School of Anthropology where he extensively studied the zócalo. Obed says that the zócalo is the place that gives significance to the nation's historical events.  He says “there is no other plaza in the world that has such strength of significance in which the important and historical events of a country need to take place.  Red Square in Moscow and Revolution Plaza in Havana may be thought of has having similar importance but they lack the zócalo's ancient history.  The zócalo goes back to Aztec times.  For Grand Tenochtitlan it was the center of the universe."  

However he added that it could hardly have been in a worse location, located in the middle of a lake on a swampy island. But the regime named it the center of its world.  Sometimes the significance of social spaces is based on the importance we give them, in spite of their geographic location. 

Obed speaks about a many-faceted zócalo -- as the symbol that gives structure and strength to ritual. It can be the stage for governmental and non-governmental events of all kinds.  During Christmas and New Years' holidays it hosts an ice-skating rink.  Last Friday it hosted a fashion show complete with a runway.  It literally hosts stages for concerts. It is the parade ground for the annual military parade and sports parade.  Photographer Spencer Tunick even used it for his most massive photo shoot of 20,000 carefully arranged nude people. 

The zócalo is the setting that does, and must, witness all the relevant and important events of the nation.  Obed asks "If Villa and Zapata hadn't taken the zócalo and entered the palace would the Revolution have triumphed?  Of course not.  If Iturbide hadn't been crowned emperor in front of the Altar of the Kings in the Cathedral, would it have been an official event?  If Benito Juarez had not entered the zócalo he wouldn't have defeated the Imperial forces.  If Victoriano Huerta hadn't taken the zócalo during the 'ten tragic days' he wouldn't have been able to overthrow Madero and Pino Suarez.  If every first of May the president hadn't greeted the workers under the PRI administrations they would have been weak regimes.  If the Zapatistas (from Chiapas) hadn't entered the zócalo on their march to Mexico City, they wouldn’t have concluded their march. Even though congress has moved to other locations, and the president prefers his office in Los Pinos, where else can the military parade be held?  Or the sports parade?" 

The various powers are all represented on the zócalo.  The federal government is on the east, the city government on the south, the church on the north side, and although the main market is no longer there, the arched portals on the west side represent the commercial force. 

Author and social critic Carlos Mosivais said the zócalo has been the center of power generation after generation.  But not only that, it fills with the people who live on the fringes of power. It is a place of daily protests -- some small, some fill it up completely.  Some protestors come in for the day, some camp out and stay for weeks. However it is no longer a place where they are listened to.  Perhaps it would behoove the government to dialog with the protesters since without this release they take their protest elsewhere to places that are more disruptive to city life.

Regardless of today's events:  military parade, sports parade, or something low key, Obed Arango, Mexico's zocólogo, invites us to think of the zócalo as a museum of living and vibrant Mexico.  The museum's rooms are the buildings surrounding it, each with their own fascinating displays.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Second Vatican Council

The most visited spot in the state of Morelos is the simple and austere Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Cuernavaca. Built as a church in the early 1500’s, Franciscan friars served as its amateur architects and its indigenous laborers had never built a Roman arch or a vaulted ceiling. Look carefully and you will see Roman arches lacking keystones and other glaring architectural mistakes. But these don’t take away from its beauty. Wonderful modern stained glass set in 16th century windows. A single nave with glimpses of rescued murals. Monastic construction combined with mid 20th century modern church interior design.

It wasn’t always this way.  It used to be ornately decorated with side altars and images of saints. In 1957 Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo closed the sanctuary and completely remodeled it.  In his words, "we removed all the deformations that had been added over time.  It was an exemplary historical reconstruction, in which I put in place my ideas as a doctor of church history.  In the resulting interior space we placed modern furnishings that go along with the liturgical renovations that have been adopted by the Church. " The result?  "It shook up public opinion."  

It shook up public opinion so much that Bishop Mendez Arceo had to write a pastoral letter explaining the changes.  Not only had he renovated the building, but he had also removed all images of saints, leaving only Jesus on the cross and Mary looking up at Him.  In his newly remodeled cathedral Don Sergio started celebrating Mass in Spanish instead of Latin and he replaced German organ music with Mariachi musicians playing church music composed in Latin America.  Referred to as the Mariachi Mass, its proper name is the Panamerican Mass.  It continues to be celebrated Sundays at 10:30 a.m. and 8:00 p.m.     

Bishop Mendez Arceo was ahead of his time. While he was renovating his church in Cuernavaca, the newly elected Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council, to begin in October 1962. Ultimately this council would encourage changes to the liturgy similar to the ones Mendez Arceo had already made.

As part of this year's 50th anniversary celebration of the Second Vatican Council, the Don Sergio Mendez Arceo Foundation will publish Don Sergio's thirty-five letters home from the Council on the anniversary of each letter.  Not only will we be treated to an insider's view of the proceedings, but church historian Father Angel Sánchez will preface each letter with historical context of the events the Bishop describes.

According to Fr. Angel, Cuernavaca's bishop was one of the most active participants in the Council, attending all four sessions spanning four years.  Bishop Mendez Arceo was one of only two Latin American bishops who wrote home to their dioceses about the goings-on at the Council.  He sent his letters to the editor of a statewide newspaper, Correo del Sur, not to the diocese.   In doing so he was addressing all the people in the diocese, not only Catholics. 

Pope John XXIII set out to improve dialogue and relations with non-Catholic Christians with the Second Vatican Council.  Six hundred Protestant and Orthodox church leaders participated in the inaugural ceremony on October 11, 1962 in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.   

I felt the effects of this ecumenical resurgence while growing up in Colombia.  My father, a Presbyterian missionary, studied the persecution of Protestants by Catholics throughout Colombia in the late 1940s and 1950s.  He documented hundreds of burnings and bombings along with the closing of Protestant churches, schools, clinics, and orphanages.  It was a dark chapter of Colombian history. All that abruptly came to an end with a photo published on the front page of Colombia’s newspapers. The photo showed Pope John XXIII with his arm around the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

This ecumenical embrace, and the outcome of the Second Vatican Council, not only brought the persecution of Protestants to an end but started a new era of cooperation. My parents, James and Margaret Goff, later found it easier to work with progressive Catholics than with Protestants. They were invited by the Maryknoll Order to run their press service in Lima, Peru. Later they worked in Nicaragua with the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center, headed by a Dominican priest.

Bishop Mendez Arceo submitted his resignation to Pope John Paul II at the age of 75. He reminded his congregation that he had been a delegate at the Synod of Bishops in Rome where he voted in favor of Paul VI's proposal that bishops retire at age 75.  He also told them he had made a proposal that wasn't approved by his brother bishops -- that popes also resign at age 75. 

On another matter, next Tuesday is celebrated as the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, although it will be observed on Monday.  There are three Charlie's Digs -- posted in November 2010 -- on the topic of the Revolution posted at <charliesdigs.blogspot.com>.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Making a Better Mexico

Mal de Pinto is a disease that leaves white splotches on dark skin.  It used to be endemic in the Mixe region of Oaxaca.  In the late 1950s the Mixes brought it under control to the point that a bounty was offered to anyone detecting a new case in the region.  The heroine behind that story is Lini de Vries, who came to make Mexico her home.

Lini was born in 1905 in New Jersey to Dutch immigrant parents. In 1935 Lini joined the Communist Party and in 1937 she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  After World War II wound down she was trailed and hounded by the FBI.  Fearing a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee, she packed her duffle bags and with $100 in her pocket, her 4-year-old daughter Toby holding her hand, she boarded the midnight flight from Tijuana to Mexico City in the early hours of December 12, 1947, day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  

She was offered a place to live in Cuernavaca by Constancia de la Mora, daughter of a prime minister to the former King of Spain. Lini covered her expenses by teaching English.  Her passion was nursing and public health.  She taught English for five pesos an hour and taught nursing for free.  

She moved to Oaxaca in 1952, taught English and nursing and soon was working for the Papaloapan River Commission, a federal government development program patterned on the Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S. The plan was to build roads, bridges, schools, clinics, powerplants and flood-control dams. 

Three diseases threatened to bring the project to a standstill.  Malaria was prevalent in the lower regions, Mal de Pinto in the area around the largest dam, and onchoserciasis caused by the bite of a black fly in the mountains. Engineers and even public health workers were leery of entering the region for fear of contracting river blindness or the disfiguring blotches on their skin.

It was Lini's idea to train the rural school teachers -- federal employees with a good rapport with the communities -- to provide the necessary treatment for each one of the diseases.  Mal de Pinto required three vaccinations.  After the first, the symptoms disappeared and the patient felt cured.  However the disease progressed without the other two follow-up vaccinations. Teachers kept track of the dates for the second and third vaccinations and went out in search of the patients if they didn't come in for them.  

As the Papaloapan project reached completion, Lini accepted a position at the University of Veracruz in Jalapa where she taught anthropology and public health and set up a program for foreign students.  

It was in Jalapa that the FBI caught up with Lini.  Her friends and colleagues knew her fear and soon President Adolfo López Mateos learned of it too.  He reportedly told his Secretary of Foreign Relations that he would deal with the extradition request himself. As I recall the story, the president drew two parallel lines diagonally across the request and wrote between them "Lini de Vries is a Mexican citizen and cannot be extradited for political reasons."  On May 10, 1962, Lini received a telegram from the president requesting she report to his office to receive her citizenship papers from him personally.  Lini's autobiography ends with "all fears of the FBI seemed to lift off my shoulders.  Suddenly I felt free.  I was home."

I met Lini seven years after that.  Her Cuernavaca home was a bed and breakfast. She sold Oaxacan arts and crafts in a shop in her garden.  She hosted events in her living room.

Lini told of hiring a man to paint her living room walls.   She returned from shopping that morning to find a red splotch on her wall.  Raising her voice she said "I wanted it white, not red!"  "Don't worry Señora, it is just the rear end of a horse.”  Lini had the whole wall scraped revealing a mural underneath. Turns out that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in that house at the corner of Motolinia and Humbolt streets while Rivera painted the mural in the Cortez Palace. Lini suspected that her mural was an experiment with technique by Rivera and a Russian friend.

It was around the dining room table in Lini's home that my Spanish language school, the Cemanahuac Educational Community, was planned and took shape.  Lini insisted "You can't teach the language in a cultural vacuum.  You must also teach about the people who speak the language."  She helped us do that. As dean of students Lini contributed with her intelligence and wit and taught classes in public health and anthropology.  

The Days of the Dead make me think of Lini and the book frequently called the Book of the Dead -- the phone book.  Lini worked her way through nursing school as a telephone operator and had a keen ability to remember phone numbers.  When I couldn't find a number I knew I could call Lini and she would know it by heart.