Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Learning for Learning's Sake

Ancient Roman patricians were proud of being able to enjoy "ocio", similar to leisure in English. It set them apart from plebeians engaged in "negocio", the negation of ocio – now the Spanish word for business.  Interestingly “ocio”, in a round-about way, is the root of “school” in English, as the place where lectures are given.  One aspect of ocio can be learning for the sake of learning.

I had the good fortune to experience three days of ocio last week at the Ivan Illich conference in Cuernavaca. Held on the 10th anniversary of his death, the conference covered the wide range of topics that this keen thinker and writer explored in his lifetime. 
Illich is mainly remembered for his writings on education, transportation, and medicine, but he also wrote about how modern society faces the challenges of growing population, limited resources, increasing concentration of wealth, governments' ever expanding control over our lives, gender issues, and the rights of indigenous peoples.  In each case Illich's point of view was very different from the mainstream.  

Illich identified the same topics of study in four important time periods in western culture. The first was ancient Greece and Rome. The second was Europe in the thirteenth century, a period which was important in shaping the Catholic Church and which saw the rise of institutions such as universities and religious orders. Then he focused on the industrial revolution and the modern times of the latter twentieth century. 

He criticized modern marketing institutions which “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”  He noted that an automobile owner in the U.S. in the 1970’s spent 1600 hours per year in the car or working to pay for the car and its upkeep. When dividing that cost by the miles driven, he found that cars were no more efficient than a peasant walking. He asked why we didn’t ride bicycles instead.

The conference organizers treated us to some of the more obscure topics Illich studied too, such as water, the acts of reading, and gazing.  

According to Illich, the ancient Greek concept of water was as an abundant crystalline purifier.  Today it has been reduced to H2O and sold as merchandise and is frequently a conveyer of waste. 

Before the advent of the printing press reading was usually done out loud in a gathering.  Words flowed together melodiously along with a good dosage of hand gestures and body language on the part of the reader.  Today we usually read alone, the words are independent of each other on the page, and body language has disappeared.  

An even more surprising topic was Illich's discourse on gazing or seeing.  Today we think of the eye as passive and receptive -- like a video camera receiving light.  The ancient Greeks maintained that when we look at someone our gaze goes out like an organ -- Illich actually used the phrase 'erectile organ' -- and touches what we look at.  In a sense making gazing a sensual event. When we close our eyes after staring at something bright we can see an after-image. This supports the idea of our eyes absorbing light. But if gaze isn't an organ going out and touching what we are seeing, how do we explain that feeling that someone behind us is staring at us?

For me the "Illich's Radical Humanism" conference was three days of ocio in its truest sense -- leisure and learning for nothing more than the sake and enjoyment of learning and questioning what we engage in during our daily lives.   However participants in their 20s remarked that they had not gotten anything they could use in their workplace or with which to further their studies.  I interpreted that as evidence that education itself has become expensive merchandise, even here in Mexico.   That was not a concern as recently as five years ago at the first of Cuernavaca's homages to Ivan Illich.  The nature of this conference was more along the lines Illich described when he referred to his study center in Cuernavaca, "free and powerless thinkery which can be squashed by its rising influence." 

I enjoyed a privileged seat in all the sessions as translator/interpreter from Spanish to English.  The translating equipment was rudimentary. Those requiring translation sat as close as possible around me on folding chairs.  My listeners had no headsets. I had no microphone. We quickly became an accepted group within the auditorium and head turnings and nasty stares by people in the audience ceased after the first session.  After particularly complicated presentations I found myself asking my little group if the translation had made any sense.  We had the good fortune of having Dougald Hine sitting with us. Five years ago he was working with the School of Everything in London. His extensive knowledge of Illich's work allowed him to give us a synopsis of each talk.

Many of Ivan Illich's essays and books are available free online.  His Wikipedia article lists his titles.  I encourage you to download some of them and enjoy some well-deserved ocio yourself. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Lupe Reyes

Have you met Lupe Reyes? No, not the person. Lupe Reyes is what Mexicans call the time period from December 12th through January 6th. Lupe refers to the Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12, and Reyes refers to Epiphany, the celebration of Los Reyes Magos, Three Kings' Day on January 6th. In addition to the anchor dates at each end, Lupe Reyes includes celebrations of the "posadas", Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, the Day of the Holy Innocents, and the Feast of the Name of Jesus on New Year's Day.

Lupe Reyes pulls together a marvelous amalgamation of events rooted in different cultures all in less than a month.

Guadalupe is a name of Arabic origin. Words with "guada" in them refer to the sound of running water. In other contexts we've heard or seen that word as "wadi" for dry riverbeds in the desert. The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Spanish manifestation of the Virgin Mary, and the Arabic origin of the name is a remnant of the Moors long domination there. She first appeared in Spain as a wooden image attributed to Luke the Evangelist. Spanish conquerors and colonists entrusted themselves to her at her shrine before setting off across the ocean. Likewise they thanked her for their safe journey upon arrival in this hemisphere. She appeared in Mexico as a life-sized, beautiful woman whose feet did not touch the ground to Juan Diego, an indigenous merchant. This happened on the 9th, 10th, and 12th of December in 1531 on the same hilltop where the Aztecs had worshiped Tonantzin, the goddess of fertility.

The posadas take place from December 16 to 24 and re-enact Mary and Joseph's attempt to find room at an inn. They lead up to Christmas on the 25th. Next comes the Day of the Holy Innocents on December 28, doubling as Mexico’s equivalent of April Fools’ day. All are Christian celebrations dealing with the birth of Jesus.

January 1st is The Feast of the Name of Jesus. This celebrates Jesus’ circumcision ceremony in which he became a member of the covenant established between Abraham and God following the instructions given in the Book of Genesis (chapter 17, verse 12). In other words, Jesus didn't become “Jesus” until eight days after he was born. Though there is much debate about the actual date of Jesus’ birth, I have no doubt that it is because of this Jewish ceremony that we start the Christian calendar on January 1st, not on Christmas Day.

Epiphany, or Three Kings Day, is January 6th. That’s when Mexican children expect gifts just as the baby Jesus received gifts from the Wise Men. All ages participate in cutting the "rosca", a special Three Kings' Day bread. The Three Kings or Three Wise Men are frequently used to symbolize the cultural and ethnic diversity of Christianity.

This year, in addition to Moorish, Spanish, Aztec, Christian, and Jewish influences, Lupe Reyes includes a significant Mayan religious event.

The ancient Maya deified time in addition to worshiping gods of the natural forces. They kept count and celebrated “bactuns”, a time period of 144,000 days.  In their world-view the humanity that we are a part of will be completing our thirteenth bactun on December 21. The count began in August of 3113 B.C.

The completion of bactun 13 and the beginning of bactun 14 is a moment when some gods will drop out of the procession of time and others will take their place. Because of that turnover the new bactun will have a distinct personality, different from the previous.

Though an important milestone, the Mayans don’t believe that December 21 will be the end of time. Not to put a damper on the "end of the world" parties planned for that night.

The day will be celebrated throughout the Maya world by those who honor Maya religion and its calendar. However, according to the Associated Press, Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology (INAH) is not allowing indigenous ceremonies at Maya archeological sites “for visitor safety and preservation of the sites." Indigenous shamans and religious and community leaders will have to find other places to honor the gods passing the staff in the relay march of time. INAH spokesman Francisco de Anda, went on to say, "many of the groups that want to hold ceremonies bring braziers and want to burn incense, and that simply isn't allowed."  Horrors!

In Guatemala indigenous ceremonies will be carried out at important Maya temples in present-day archeological sites. Guatemala's peace accords brokered by the United Nations and signed in 1996 guarantee the right of indigenous people to free access to their ancient temples as well as the right to carry out ceremonies in archeological sites. The treaty even required that contemporary archeologists construct appropriate altars for offerings, many of which involve fire and incense at the base of ancient temples.

Lupe Reyes is a fascinating time to be in Mexico. Charlie's Digs' of late November and early December 2010 and 2011 cover other aspects of these year-end holidays.  Columns dated August 2 and 9, 2011 deal with the Maya calendar and the completion of backtun 13. All are posted at charliesdigs.blogspot.com.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Mexico's Symbolic Colors

In Mexico City drivers are aware of the color of the sticker on their car’s rear window. It’s the color assigned to the last digit on their license plates, one of five colors identifying which weekday their car is not to be driven in the city. Morning newscasters make mention of it much like the weather is reported in northern countries. This is just one of many ways, some subtle and some bold, that colors take on significance in Mexico.

The color of the trim in a metro (subway) station is understood by all passengers.  Each metro line has a designated color as well as a number.  Each station has a logo that alludes to the name of the station.  With twelve lines crisscrossing the city, color changes can get pretty subtle.  There is green, olive green, and chartreuse.  There is yellow and there is gold.  Nevertheless, using colors makes it easy for illiterate people to ride the metro -- they follow a color and watch for the picture that identifies their stop.  A station with two colors in its emblem identifies it as a transfer station.  There are some stations where three lines converge, with three colors in their emblems.

Intrestingly neither black nor white are used to identify metro lines.  Perhaps because black is identified with death and white is hard to keep clean.

The most frequently seen colors in workers' or union marches are red and black -- the colors of the working class.  A red and black flag draped across the entrance to a workplace indicates that its workers are on strike.  When Mexicans see television coverage of striking workers in the U.S., walking endlessly to nowhere on a picket line, they wonder why their northern counterparts don't just put up a red and black flag and take a well deserved vacation. 

In the United States, both major parties freely use the colors of the flag for political purposes. We see red, white and blue donkeys as well as elephants. Since the 2000 elections, states and counties voting Republican have been shown as red with Democratic places shown in blue. This seems strange to me since red is the only color that has had a longstanding political connotation in the U.S, with "Reds" meaning Communists.

In Mexico no party is allowed to use the colors of the flag in its emblem.  Each has its own distinctive colors. Frequently the parties are referred to by their colors rather than their name.  The PAN party, closely identified with the Catholic Church, uses the colors of the Virgin Mary's white dress and blue cape. It is referred to as the "albiazul" (blue dawn) party.  At first glance the PRI might seem to be using the colors of the flag. Close inspection of its emblem will show that it is red and green with no color in the center.  Nevertheless it is frequently refered to as the tri-color party.  The PRD's emblem is a yellow square with a black design similar to an asterisk in the center, leading it to be called the party of the Aztec sun.  That association with an Indigenous nation leads to the different factions within the party being referred to as "tribus" or tribes.  The only party with a color in its name is the PVEM, Mexican Green Ecological Party, the “partido verde”. Not surprisingly it's color is green.

Red and yellow belong to the Partido del Trabajo (the Worker Party or Labor Party). Orange belongs to the Movimiento Ciudadano (Citizens' Movement). Partido Nueva Alianza's (New Alliance Party) emblem is a white swirl in a chartreuse square. 

With that mind, you can quickly determine which party holds the municipal presidency or governorship when you enter a Mexican municipality or state. Look at the railings on bridges, the overpasses, or really any public works. The color they are painted will tell you the answer.

The hundreds of men attending last Saturday's presidential inauguration in the Chamber of Deputies and the National Palace appeared to be in identical dark suits. A few women in bright colored dresses were interspersed. A closer look, however, revealed each man with a colored tie and each woman with a colored shawl or scarf. You guessed it—the color symbolized their party affiliation. The PRI wore red, the PAN wore blue, the PRD yellow, PVEM green, PT red and yellow, Movimiento Ciudadano orange, and Nueva Alianza chartreuse.  Enrique Peña Nieto, who assumed the presidency that day, wore an elegant grey tie. He is the president of all Mexicans.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Felipe, Prince of Asturias sat next to each other at the National Palace, obviously enjoying each other's company. Prince Felipe wore the color blue of the flag of Asturias.  Did Joe Biden decide to follow along and use the color -- blue -- that US television has assigned to his party?