Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Zabludovsky and his legacy

Jacobo Zabludovsky and I left television at about the same time – he as a broadcaster and I as a viewer.  It was 1999, and after facing the barrage of reviews of the year, decade, century, and millennium all compounded by the hysteria around Y2K, I decided I’d had enough. I turned off the tv and haven’t turned it back on, a decision with which I’m still delighted.

In 2000 Zabludovsky left the television network he’d worked with since the 1950’s. For 27 of those years he was the host of “24 Horas”, the most-viewed television news program in Mexico. In the early years Zabludovsky broadcast the news seated at a desk cluttered with telephones and a nameplate with the program’s logo prominently displayed, wearing huge earphones.  Thankfully in time he gave up the earphones and the array of telephones. He still wears his recognizable large lensed glasses.

Don Jacobo is a Mexican icon, recognized by people in all walks of life and levels of society.  Most any Mexican of that era with access to a tv remembers Zabludovsky.

Once, while waiting at a stoplight, Zabludovsky was approached by a woman selling lottery tickets.  “Are you Licenciado Zabludovsky?”  she asked. He replied affirmatively, to which she answered, “No wonder you look so much like him.”

One of Don Jacobo’s trademarks is to field calls from listeners and on occasion initiate calls on-the-air.   I was at the wake of artist Jesus Guerrero Galvan in 1973 when Zabludovsky called and broadcast it live on “24 Horas”.  Year’s later, when Guerrero Galvan’s daughter Flora led a demonstration in front of the National Palace defending a Cuernavaca urban forest, I called Zabludovsky suggesting it would be a good event to cover.  Flora’s cellphone battery was down so I gave him the phone number of a newsstand she had just called me from.  He called, interviewed Flora on the air, and then asked her to pass the phone to the newsstand vendor, who he then interviewed.

Last Wednesday Jacobo Zabludovsky was feted on the occasion of his 70th anniversary as a journalist in print, radio, and television.  In the courtyard of his elementary school, in front of uniformed primary students and flanked by the President of the Republic and Mexico City’s head of government, he spoke in short, concise sentences about his childhood and the public school education he had received.
Zabludovsky recalled that Abelardo Rodriguez was president in 1934 when five-year-old Jacobo entered Escuela Peru on San Jeronimo Street.

“As a student I experienced government officials dedicated to education and the formation of new citizens.  They took on education as a mission when we were still caught up in the mystical transformational revolution summed up in the Constitution of 1917.

“Lazaro Cardenas took office in December 1934 and amended the Constitution to say education will be socialist and will give a scientific view of the universe.  Perhaps that’s why in addition to learning the National Anthem we learned The Internationale in Spanish and The Marseillaise, in French!“

Don Jacobo said that his six years of grade school “were years that marked the world and Mexico.”  In 1934 Adolf Hitler started ruling Germany. In 1935 Mussolini invaded Abyssinia. “In 1936 a group of military officers rose up against the legally established government in Spain in a war that lasted three years and put Francisco Franco in power.  In 1938 we fifth graders were filled with emotion when President Cardenas called for our support when he expropriated the oil companies.  In 1939 World War II broke out.”

Addressing the children, he said “It was here where we learned to add, subtract, multiply, and divide but more importantly we learned the value of camaraderie and compañerismo regardless of our origin.  Our teachers were our pride.  They left an imprint on generations of Mexicans.  I remember each of my teachers with the greatest of affection.  Here, in January 1934 my first grade teacher Josefina Huitrón taught me my first life-lesson.  She taught me to hold a pencil and in doing so she marked my life.”

At age 85 Don Jacobo is still going strong. He has a two hour daily radio program called “De Una a Tres”, which as you can guess is on from 1 to 3 pm, Monday through Friday. Don’t worry if you miss it because it’s repeated every two hours on into the night.

In those two hours Zabludovsky takes his listeners though breaking news of the day, cultural events, and reports from correspondents throughout the country, the US, and Spain.  He keeps listeners posted on background information about the players in the news.  He’s very careful with syntax -- frequently including commentary on the Spanish language itself.  Jacobo is generous with his knowledge of Mexico City -- especially the Historical Center of the city where he grew up -- its streets, landmarks, and restaurants.

I highly recommend the program to people fluent in Spanish.  Don Jacobo brings 70 years of experience and historical context to each topic.  I always take away much more than the news.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

JFK’s killer tied with Mexico

Last week, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, I had the unusual opportunity to meet and spend a good part of the day with Jeremy Gunn, Executive Director of the 1994-98 Assassination Reference Review Board.

If you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK”, you may remember that in the very last scene it refers to tens of thousands of government records that are in the U.S. National Archives and in government agencies that have not been released to the public. U.S. Congressman from Ohio Louis Stokes watched the movie with his daughter.  After the film his daughter asked, “Daddy, why don’t you do something about that?”

Stokes acted on his daughter’s challenge. He was pivotal in enacting the law that established the Assassination Reference Review Board in 1992, a few months after the film’s release in December 1991.  The Board was tasked with tracking down every government agency document referring to the Kennedy assassination and making it available to the public – including documents held by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and the National Security Agency (NSA). The Review Board had considerable powers to declassify documents.
Documents that remained classified will be available to the public in 2017.  

By coincidence Dr. Gunn and I were both presenting talks at the University of New England in Portland Maine organized by Dr. Anouar Majid, UNE’s Vice President for Global Affairs and Director of the Center for Global Humanities.  My lunch-time talk was titled “Who was Quetzalcoatl?”  I got to speak of Mesoamerican mythology and the intrigue in the council of gods as they determined how to create the fifth sun and its accompanying fifth humanity of which we are part. I also spoke about Toltec Emperor Ce-Acatl Topilzin Quetzalcoatl who departed from Tula in 999 A.D. – promising to return someday -- a beloved leader who exited at the age of 52, not much older than Kennedy.

In his evening talk, Dr. Gunn walked us through how the Assassination Reference Review Board had done its work. He talked about the numerous witnesses they deposed, some for the first time, and the reams of documents they scoured. Many of their findings contradicted the Warren Report, the report generated by The President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy set up by President Johnson just days after the assassination.

Dr. Gunn told us the Warren Commission report “did a disservice to the American people.” He compared the report to a “prosecutor’s brief against Lee Harvey Oswald.” He said that based on the Warren Report, Oswald could not have been found guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Dr. Gunn added that through its gaps and contradictions, the Warren Report “gave life to conspiracy theories” -- of which he named several.  I found it interesting that prominent among them were the ones set in Mexico City during the period of Cold War intrigue in the early 1960s.

According to Dr. Gunn, at that time Mexico City was the “spy capital of the world. Americans, Europeans, Soviet, Chinese, Czechs were all spying on each other.” 

He said the CIA had the Soviet and Cuban embassies under intense surveillance, recording the calls on most of the phone lines going into both embassies and photographing every person entering and leaving those embassy buildings. In theory at least, every person entering the Soviet or Cuban embassy was photographed from the back upon entering and in front view upon exiting.  

That’s why Dr. Gunn considered it strange that there were no photos of Lee Harvey Oswald at those embassies. Eight weeks before the Kennedy assassination Oswald had traveled to Mexico City.  Oswald entered the Cuban and Soviet embassies here seven times.  In theory the CIA should have 14 photos of Oswald. However the CIA produced no photos of him to show to the Assassination Reference Review Board.  The photo surveillance system seems to not have been operational at either embassy while Oswald was in Mexico City.  

Yet it is known that Oswald met with Valery Kostiakov in the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City seven weeks before the assassination of President Kennedy. Kostiakov was attached to infamous Department 13 of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, specializing in sabotage and assassination.

During that trip Oswald was photographed at a party in Mexico City with Cuban diplomats. Cuban diplomats had close relationships with members of Mexico’s Communist Party, some of whom also attended the same party. They were later horrified to discover they had been at a party with Kennedy’s accused assassin.

At my talk on Quetzalcoatl I was asked if there was any more to the story of the historic character Ce-Acatl Topilzin Quetzalcoatl. One story has it that he set off from Veracruz on a raft in 999 A.D. sailing east – becoming the planet Venus when he touched the horizon.  When Hernan Cortez landed on the same shores in 1519 many thought that Ce-Acatl had returned. Using that to his advantage, along with alliances made with the Aztecs’ enemies, Cortez must have generated spying and intrigue that was not equaled until the 1960s, in what is now Mexico City.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Alma Reed: Beloved ‘Peregrina’

Forty-seven years ago today Alma Reed (1889-Nov. 20, 1966) wrote and delivered her last column for “The News.” In celebration of the Revolution, it was to be published the following day, November 20. Alma wrote of revolutionary ideals, it’s martyrs and heroes. She’d known many of these; one in particular traveled in her heart. Felipe Carrillo Puerto’s (1872-1924) photo was, as always, beside her typewriter as she wrote. Their story is one of the great love stories of Mexico — immortalized in the popular ballad “Peregrina.”

A native Californian journalist, Alma Reed, wrote a popular column in the “San Francisco Call.” Unabashedly progressive, Alma used that forum to fight against poverty, injustice and the death penalty. After her successful campaign in 1921 to save a 17-year-old Mexican national from death row, President Álvaro Obregón gratefully invited her to be Mexico’s honored guest. Though Alma spoke little Spanish she recognized her name and was thrilled in Aguascalientes when mariachi sang “Alma de mi Alma” outside her railcar, assuming it was for her they sang. When her Spanish improved she self-deprecatingly told the humiliating story to the delight of many new admirers. It’s part of La Peregrina’s legend.

Alma returned to the U.S. with one goal — an assignment in Mexico. In 1923, as a passionate amateur archeologist, she was offered a position with “The New York Times Sunday Supplement.” Felipe Carrillo Puerto, the new governor of Yucatán had opened a road to Chichén Itzá and the Carnegie Institute was sending an exploratory survey team. The assignment surpassed her wildest dreams.

As a colonel in Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary army, Carrillo Puerto started his work on behalf of peasants and working poor in the central Mexican state of Morelos. Now, elected governor of Yucatán, he had power to implement the ideals of the Revolution, including an obligation to uplift indigenous people. It was his hope to restore Maya pride by opening magnificent Maya ruins to tourism, supplementing the hemp-dependent Yucatecan economy. Alma’s initial interview with Governor Felipe Carrillo was love at first sight. “We were non-dogmatic humanistic socialists with shared passion for the underdog, reform, justice, the Maya.” Despite the Governor’s married state they were also rapidly inseparable.

Famed, eccentric archeologist Edward Thompson had begun excavations in Yucatán in 1885. He owned a dilapidated hacienda used to house the survey team. Thompson liked young Alma and promised to provide her with a real “scoop” before she left. In fact it was a confession. For years Thompson had been “removing” immense treasure from Chichen Itza’s Sacred Cenote and sending it to his benefactors at the Peabody Museum in Boston. He put his “confession” in writing and the greatest story of Alma’s professional life was headlines.

Despite a near constant proximity, Alma tried to maintain distance from her soul-mate, the charismatic, handsome governor. She left Mexico knowing she loved and was loved but vowing never to return. Her triumphant return to New York with the Peabody story only increased her popularity in Mexico.

The New York Times sent her back. Newly divorced Felipe appeared and proposed. Alma joyously accepted agreeing to meet him in Mérida.

Aboard ship a storm arose; despite violent winds, at midnight she heard a lovely melody, opened her cabin-door and found a trio strapped to the railings as they inaugurated “Peregrina.” Yucatecans — esteemed poet Luis Rosado Vega and famed composer Ricardo Palmerín — had written the song at Felipe’s request. It achieved overnight popularity.

Wanderer of clear and divine eyes
and cheeks aflame like clouds at sunrise,
little woman of the red lips,
and hair radiant as the sun.
Traveler who left your own scenes,
the fir trees and the virginal snow,
and came to find refuge in the palm groves
under the sky of my land, my tropical land.
The singing birds of my fields,
offer their voices when they see you,
and the flowers with perfumed nectar
caress and kiss you on lips and temples.
When you leave my palm groves and my land,
traveler of enchanting looks,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my land,
don’t forget — don’t forget — my love.

Alma and Felipe enjoyed two months together before Alma’s October return to San Francisco to plan for their Jan. 14 wedding. They wrote every day until Alma received word of serious political problems in Mexico; all communication with Yucatán was abruptly severed. Felipe, three of his brothers and other comrades faced a firing squad Jan. 3, 1924. His last act was to give the soldier charged with killing him the wedding ring he held for his beloved Alma with instructions to be sure it was received.

Alma always loved Mexico and returned in the 50s to live and work here until her 1966 death — receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 1961. She heard “Peregrina” thousands of times throughout her long life. There are stories of musicians interrupting whatever they were playing to launch into “Peregrina” whenever Alma entered a room.

Felipe is buried in Mérida at the Socialist Rotunda. Alma is buried across the path.“Peregrina” lives on. No matter where you are in Mexico, tomorrow is a grand day to request it.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Chopra, Dawkins discuss religion

Charles Darwin published “The Origins of the Species” in 1859. Sixty-six years later John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution in a state-funded school in Tennessee. I was reminded just how powerful evolution and other ideas can be when I attended the International Festival of the World’s Brilliant Minds in Puebla this past weekend.

Held in the crisp, modern Complejo Cultural Universitario in the southwest of Puebla, 3500 people gathered for the three-day City of Ideas event. This year’s theme was “Dangerous Ideas.” Seventy-seven speakers presented — most of them in English — on a wide diversity of topics.

Evolution was the topic of a debate between author Deepak Chopra and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. They wrangled with the questions of whether life has a purpose, is religion good or bad for humanity, and what is the relationship between science and spirituality.

I was pleased that one of my heroes, Dr. Alfredo Quiñones, was on the program. At age 15 Quiñones crossed into the United States from Mexicali sans documents to pick vegetables on California’s farms. Now he is the world renowned “Dr. Q,” chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins University. As part of his presentation he projected a video of a brain pulsating to the rhythm of the patient’s heart. “It’s a dance in which I, and my surgical team, must stay in close step with that beating heart.”

Dr. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy told us about Barefoot College he founded. Dr. Roy travels to the least-developed countries and selects grandmothers who will study in India for six months and return to their communities as solar electricity engineers. To be considered for enrollment the grandmothers must be illiterate and from remote communities that do not have electricity. They are taught by illiterate instructors and return home transformed into “tigers,” able to electrify their whole village with solar panels. “They know how to fabricate, install, repair, and maintain community solar electrical systems.”

Dr. Roy explained the philosophy behind the Barefoot College. “If you want to change the quality of life of very poor people anywhere in the world, it is important that you take the communities into confidence. Never underestimate the power of poor people who don’t know how to read and write — they are capable of miracles.”

A number of young people also presented their ideas. Sixteen-year-old Jack Andraka described his paper-based sensor that detects pancreatic, ovarian, and lung cancer in five minutes at a cost of three cents. Eighteen-year-old Puebla resident Alberto Brian Fernández presented his invention based on bats’ echo location ability: a glove that makes it possible for a blind person to detect objects or walk through a crowd without anyone realizing she or he is blind.

Argentine David Konsevik described his Revolution of Expectations theory. He told us that with successes come new expectations. An example he offered was Brazil’s success pulling millions out of poverty under recent President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Instead of being complacently appreciative of their new financial success, the former poor have created a political crisis for President Dilma Rousseff by demanding a cleanup of corruption and better quality social services.

Except when set up as a boxing ring for a debate, the stage was devoid of podiums or props of any kind. It was a rare presenter who used notes — though I did see a teleprompter at floor level. Speakers moved from off-stage to center stage by standing still on what seemed to me to be a magic carpet.

A portion of the program titled “Mex-I-can” celebrated Mexican successes on the world scene in science and arts. Molecular geneticist Elena Álvarez-Buylla spoke on the evolution of plants and the importance of protecting corn’s gene pool. Ballerina Elisa Carrillo danced, accompanied by an off-stage piano. When the ballet presentation was over, the piano moved to center stage on the magic carpet. That’s when we saw that the pianist was Abdiel Vázquez, who continued playing for 21 minutes — the time allotted to each presenter.

The tireless master of ceremonies was Andrés Roemer, founder and curator of the Brilliant Minds — City of Ideas Festival. He introduced the presenters during the three-day events, taking a break only during the “under-eighteen” section of the program. His son, also Andrés, introduced those speakers.

Heart-rending accounts were told. Simon Aban Deng told of being enslaved as a child in Sudan. Joseph Kim, orphaned by famine in North Korea, told of his escape to China. Manal Al-Sharif told us she receives frequent death threats for challenging Saudi Arabia’s ban of women drivers.
On the lighter side the Brilliant Minds conference included a magician, a pick-pocket and an art forger, each demonstrating his ability.

It was a wonderfully refreshing weekend of learning for the sake of learning. I’m told that in a few months all the presentations will be shown in movie theaters. After that they will be available online. Keep next year’s festival in mind as a unique, world-class event in English. You can get on their email list at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Pixie: A versatile star

Madonna. Sting. Bono. We know them by one name only. They’re the superstars who’ve achieved such recognition they no longer need more of an introduction. For 50 years Mexico has had “Pixie,” the famously talented fashion-setting singer, actress, and clothing designer.

Pixie was born in Singapore while her father served in the British Colonial Medical Service. Named Angela Jean Hopkin she was called Pixie from birth. The first 12 years of her life she lived in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Ireland. After World War II and her father’s release from a Japanese Changi war prison in Singapore, the family returned to England.

Pixie finished school and studied theater in London’s Central School of Art. After working in repertory theater for a few years, Pixie was chosen to go to Dallas to participate in the opening of the only theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. There she met a captivating Mexican phenomena, and her legendary life in Mexico began.

Pixie arrived in Mexico in 1963 on the arm of her Mexican fiancée, soon to be husband, film and theater director Juan José Gurrola (1935-2007). Coincidentally Gurrola too was known by only one name.

Pixie co-starred in the award-winning film Tajimara (1965). Written by Juan García Ponce and directed by Gurrola, Tajimara has a vignette scene featuring many Mexican actors, writers and artists appearing as themselves. Talking about the movie Pixie laughed and said, “every time one of these artists die the movie reappears on TV.”

Though Gurrola was a major part of Pixie’s early Mexico years, she also starred in both Mexican and U.S. movies under other directors — Mariana (1967), Candy Man (1968), and a singing role in Patsy Mi Amor (1969). At the time Pixie also sang professionally. She was the first to sing Beatles songs in Mexico and was the star of the show called “2+8 en Pop.”

Pixie fondly recalls the 1960s as the “Gurrola years,” a great period for Mexico’s creative arts and intellectualism. “Everyone knew everyone else. We worked together, played together, and had a wonderful time. It was pre-Tlalteloco and Mexico seemed the best place in the world to be.”

By 1969 Pixie had divorced Gurrola and was partnered with theater entrepreneur Alfredo Elías Calles, grandson of Plutarco Elías Calles. Alfredo cast Pixie in the avant-garde Mexican production of “Hair,” a tribal love-rock musical. Because of nudity and its satirical references to religion and morality, “Hair” was closed by the government the day after it opened. Most of the performers were arrested. “Through notoriety we became an instant family and have remained so,” Pixie said.

In a not-so-successful attempt to become low-profile, Alfredo and Pixie started a wig and eyelash company in the 1970’s called “Pixie.” It was an immediate success with 50 stores opened throughout Mexico. Pixie was invited to be on the TV program Siempre en Domingo and for four years shared time with Raul Velasco. New wigs and lashes were introduced every Sunday in lavish, campy, often comic musical numbers featuring Pixie. She was a sensation and by the end of those years recognized throughout Mexico as simply “Pixie.”

Pixie also designed clothes for these shows. “People started calling to ask where they could buy them. Thus ‘Pixie Fashion,’ a line of hip fashion clothes, was born,” she says. “Soon I had a number of stores in Mexico City. The Polanco mother-store, designed by British architect of BIBA fame Whitmore Thomas, was especially forward — a fashion destination.” The Pixie line was sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, and Nordstroms as well as various British stores.

Pixie began working with the upscale Mexican department store chain Palacio de Hierro in 2002 and is currently a sub-director. “I love my work. I work with young, talented and excited artists. I remain passionate about fashion and hope to instill that spirit in them.”

Palacio de Hierro has turned its downtown Mexico City store into a museum of its own history celebrating of its 125th anniversary. One of the windows honors the “Pixie Years.” I toured the whole exhibition last Thursday with Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins. It is a fascinating review of Mexico over the last 125 years as lived by the “rich and famous” — only interrupted in 1914 when a fire conveniently closed the store for the remainder of the revolutionary decade.

Pixie’s 50th year in Mexico is being celebrated far and wide. In October she was featured in the fashion magazine Elle, popular  Quien, Women’s Wear Daily and enjoyed appearances in various other media.

“Mexico has been very good to me. It’s given me an amazing life, my beautiful daughter Gabriela Gurrola, and work I continue to love. I wake up each day excited about what new fashion trend I may discover,” she says. Despite all the years in Mexico, her heart is still Irish and she returns each vacation to her family home in Kinsale.

Women’s Wear Daily’s article about Pixie was titled “Pixie Dust.” May Pixie continue to spread that magic Pixie dust on Mexico.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A life with the Trique

Many parts of Mexico are wonderfully accessible — the archeological sites, Mexico City’s fabulous museums, colonial towns steeped in history. In a couple of days you can take in a lot. Other parts of Mexico take years to know. My brother-in-law Francisco “Paco” Guerrero Garro started learning about the Trique in Oaxaca almost 50 years ago. You may have heard about the Trique recently when a Trique boys basketball team won an international basketball competition in Argentina. Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies saluted them with a one-minute standing ovation.

In 1966 Paco was invited to work with an international team from the United Nations comprised of geologists, agronomists, economists, geographers, archeologists, and botanists to do an economic study of the state of Oaxaca. Paco was in charge of doing a census of the arts and crafts and the craftspeople across the whole state. For 2 1/2 years he traveled with his team throughout the state of Oaxaca documenting how many artisans there were, what they produced, how they produced it, where they sold and how much they sold it for.

One place he visited was San Andrés Chicahuaxtla. Then it was a 12-hour drive on a dirt road from Tlaxiaco, only 40 kilometers away. Today that same trip takes 45 minutes.

As was his custom, he first met with the leader of the community. Not coincidentally, that person, Don Marcos Sandoval, was the only person in the pueblo who spoke Spanish. The first night Paco was invited to stay with him; there was no electricity, no running water. At night they lit ‘ocotes,’ strips of wood from the highly resined ocote tree. Ocotes function as candles.

This was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship. The study ended in 1968 but Paco continued to visit San Andrés Chicahuaxtla and the Sandoval family. Thoughout the 1970’s Paco took many groups of students to Chicahuaxtla. I accompanied him on some of those trips.

Paco and my sister Harriet are making that trip again, now accompanying the professor of linguistics Ray Elliott of the University of Texas, Arlington.

In 2008 Professor Elliott saw the documentary “The Linguists.” The film follows two young scientists in their race to the most remote corners of the world recording languages on the verge of extinction. Dr. Elliott was particularly struck by a line in the film — “every two weeks a language dies.”

“Fifteen years into my academic life I decided to find and study an endangered language in Mexico,” Dr. Elliott said. “When a language dies you lose a history of interaction with the environment that may cover thousands of years, knowledge of medicinal herbs, even unknown cures. When the last language speaker dies you lose an entire culture. Language and thought are so inextricably intertwined that when you lose a language; you lose part of the collective humanity.”

Through a friend, Dr. Elliot established contact with my brother-in-law, and soon found himself in the pueblo of San Andrés Chicahuaxtla. This town had 6,000 inhabitants in the 1983 census. In 2009, when Dr. Elliott began his research, the demographic had changed dramatically — the population of San Andrés was approximately 2,000. This year it is 950. Men and whole families have moved to Mexico City and parts of the U.S. where they will most certainly lose their language within a generation. Documenting the language became increasingly critical.

The Chicahuaxtla Trique indigenous peoples refer to themselves as Gui a’mi Nánj nï’ïn or “The people who speak the Complete Language.” There are three “dialects” of Trique spoken in only three pueblos within the municipality of Copala, Oaxaca. Dr. Elliott uses the word “dialect” advisedly because comprehension of the “dialects” between villages is less than that between Portuguese and Spanish and “no one would ever consider calling either Spanish or Portuguese a dialect.”

Since 2009 Professor Elliott has spent all of his research time in the pueblo. “The first year I always had a ‘minder’ and was never invited beyond the concrete front porches of the homes. Each year those boundaries have extended. Now I’m welcome everywhere. A month ago I was even invited to be the padrino of the graduating primary class.”

He explained that “Trique is a complex tonal language difficult for westerners to master. In the easiest of the “dialects,” Copala, there are 8 tones. In Chicahuaxtla Trique there are at least 10 tones, maybe 16. The words can look and sound the same to an untrained ear.” For me that was certainly true. The words “more” and “less” look the same and sound the same. It took multiple repetitions by Dr. Elliott before I could detect the difference.

I never would have imagined basketball as a way to reinforce native languages. But the team of youngsters who traveled to Argentina and won the basketball competition is part of a program the Oaxaca state government provides for poor children. To be in the basketball program, coach Ernesto Merino said, “The children must have good grades, speak their native tongue and help with home chores.” I bet there was a celebration on their win in Arlington, Texas too.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A taste of Paris in Mexico

A new metro station opened in Mexico City last Saturday. It will be a station that even those leery of riding the subway will want to visit. It’s this year’s Days of the Dead altar at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in southern Mexico City, presented hand-in-hand with masterpieces of art on loan from the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.

This exhibit came about because relations between France and Mexico have been mended by the current administrations in both countries. In exchange for lending Mexico the paintings from France’s national collection, 75 paintings and drawings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are on exhibit in the Musée de l’Orangerie.

This convergence will be capped by French President Hollande’s visit in early 2014 — the 50th anniversary of the visit by General Charles de Gaulle.

“Masterpieces of the Musée de l’Orangerie” is made up of 30 paintings by 11 impressionist and modernist painters. They will be on exhibit until Jan. 19, 2014. The exhibit features paintings by Paul Cézanne, André Derain, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Chaim Soutine, and Maurice Utrillo.

In recent years Days of the Dead altars at the Olmedo Museum have been dedicated to the art and crafts of different states in Mexico. This year’s extravaganza goes a step further. As a visitor you’ll enter the altar through Paris’ Montmartre metro station. After a few twists and turns you’ll emerge into Paris of the early 20th century, populated by life-sized skeletons going about their daily activities.

Pay close attention to the scenery. You’ll see it again in the paintings in the exhibit or you’ll recognize it as taken from paintings by the French masters. Maurice Utrillo, in skeleton form, is painting “Notre Dame.” The finished painting is the last one in the exhibit. You’ll also see the paintings he would sell to fruit and vegetable vendors along the Seine. Look for Chaim Soutine painting in the butcher shop — one of his favorite topics. One such painting is in the exhibit.

Don’t miss La Calaca Catrina — an elegantly dressed female skeleton. It is an emblematic figure in Mexico’s Days of the Dead made popular by Mexican cartoonist and satirist José Guadalupe Posada. Diego Rivera came to know her by purchasing copies of Posada’s broadsheets on his way to class at the San Carlos Academy in Mexico City. Later Rivera incorporated her into in his mural “Dream of Sunday afternoon in Alameda Park.” In it, Rivera as a boy holds her hand while Posada stands the other side of her. In the Parisian scene you’ll see La Calaca Catrina on a street corner accompanied by Posada, now also a skeleton.

Exiting from the “metro station” you’ll be in the Olmedo Museum’s extensive gardens. You’ll see peacocks on each side of the path and dogs of metallic color, the descendants of xolitzcuintle dogs, that stand so still it is hard to distinguish them from the sculptural portrayals of dogs in their pen.

“Masterpieces of the Musée de l’Orangerie” is in the museum’s main building. It begins with Claude Monet’s “Argenteuil” and ends with Maurice Utrillo’s “Notre Dame.” The five galleries between those two are filled with paintings on loan. Museum director Carlos Phillips said “there hasn’t been a foreign art exhibit in Mexico with as many paintings of this quality in the last 50 years.”

Stepping through the doorway beyond the last painting will put you in a 1900s Parisian café. Choose a table and sit down. One of the servers will bring you a menu. But instead of food on the menu there are names of artists and art supplies to choose from. The museum invites you to create whimsical scenes based on the work of the artists you’ll have just seen — and save them in photos. Hats of the time period are available on a hat rack.

Niches in the wall are large enough for two or three people to stand in and are framed as if they are paintings hung on the wall. In them you’ll find masks, dresses, and tuxedos.

The entire experience is a delight. Where else could you enjoy the whimsy of creating your own art a few steps from a staid art gallery, combined with Mexicans’ ability to laugh at death, all set amid lovely gardens?

The only thing that brought a bigger smile to my face during my visit to the museum last Thursday was hearing Marie-Paule Vial, director of the Musée de l’Orangerie, talk about the Mexican collection on display in her museum.

She said: “All over Paris people are talking about Diego, talking about Frida. The surprise for the French public isn’t in discovering Frida. She’s already well known through film and exhibits in Europe. But through the exhibit at Musée de l’Orangerie we’ve been able to show Diego’s work on canvas.”

Hard for many in Mexico to accept. For years I’ve been hearing that “Frida is known because of her husband.” Fitting of the French though — didn’t they refer to JFK as “Jackie’s husband?”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Aronson showcases Tibetan exiles

I was transported last Thursday into the lives of Tibetan exiles living in Dharamsala India. I met award-winning journalist and photographer Peter Aronson near UNAM at Plaza Loreto. This former paper factory is now an upscale shopping mall and home to the Soumaya Museum’s still functioning original location. Peter led me through his exhibit — Dharamsala: Three Generations of Tibetan Exiles, on display through Oct. 20.

The exhibit holds 30 large photos, Peter’s culled choices from five years of living in Dharamsala, India, home to the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama and his followers. There’s also a 12-foot panoramic collage of 93 photos taken walking down a main street one day in Dharmasala.

Looking at the collage I felt like I was walking the street myself. I peered into each shop door and even saw a man with a ten-foot-long snake draped over his shoulders and holding it by its neck — that is if a snake has a neck. In other photographs Peter took me into people’s living rooms, shops, political demonstrations, into a kindergarten, even to a wedding.

Peter’s photographs are of such clarity that I could read the titles of the books on the shelves and tell the brand of monks’ footwear — they tend to favor Nike and Tevas.

Peter shared anecdotes about the people in his photos and explained their body language. The friendly face of a monk who’d spent 20 years in a Chinese prison before Indian exile was Peter’s philosophy teacher. Upon arrival in Dharamsala the Dalai Lama asked this monk if he was ever afraid while imprisoned. “I was often afraid,” he replied. “I was afraid I’d lose compassion for my tormenters.”

In a photo of a stern faced former Tibetan soldier and his wife I spotted seven silver bowls on a shelf next to a small light — “they are the traditional gifts you give to a visitor: water to drink, water to wash their feet, flowers, incense, perfume, food, music and illumination.”

Moving through the exhibit we saw younger Tibetans born in India. Peter said: “They struggle with an identity crisis. Who am I? Am I Tibetan, Indian, Asian, Western? Many reject the style of older Tibetans. The young want to move on to something else but there is no consensus about what that will be.”

A photograph of a young travel agent talking on a cellphone seemed the perfect embodiment of this new idea. “Look at his belt buckle. It’s a spinning dollar sign.” The caption beside the photo reads “The Dalai Lama jokes that the mantra of compassion made up of syllables in Sanskrit is changing from the traditional ‘Om mani peme hum’ to its English version ‘Om money money.’”

Peter said that “a lot of photographers go to Dharamsala and take pictures of Tibetans. They’re usually looking for the exotic, dressed in traditional clothing spinning a prayer wheel. Few show the Tibetans the way I see them — how they are becoming Westernized, or Indianized, how their culture is changing. Outsiders may be surprised to see that Tibetans are not all saintly. They’re not all like the Dalai Lama. I’m not trying to fit them into any particular box of expectations. I’m just saying ‘this is what I see.”

Outsiders are in for lots of surprises. In his Sunday talk in Mexico City, I was surprised by the Dalai Lama himself. The importance he gives to education and modern science was refreshing to hear from the leader of a worldwide religion. His recognition that global warming is occurring and measures need to be taken to counteract it puts him on the cutting edge of human survival, in my view.

Imagine my trepidation showing up at a photography exhibit with my camera hanging over my shoulder and tripod in hand, but I wanted to get a photo of Peter surrounded by his exhibit. As we came to the end of the exhibit I asked Peter if anyone objected to him taking his or her photograph. “People in India love to have their photo taken.” Peter seemed to like having his picture taken too — in his style. “You didn’t ask me for any photo tips but my first photo tip is always get closer.” Pointing to a close-up photo, “With this guy I was like this;” he walked up to one of his portraits, imaginary camera in hand, stopping only a foot from the person’s face. “This guy,” referring to the travel agent, “I was in his face too. I get close to people. I think it’s important if you’re going to capture something of the person to engage with them. I don’t walk by, sneak by, grab a photo. I say ‘Hey! How’ve you been? I talk with them and soon have the camera right in their face.”

It worked for me; I felt fully engaged in the lives of the photo subjects.

Dharamsala: Three Generations of Tibetan Exiles will be open tomorrow through Sunday (closed on Tuesday) in the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Loreto. It’s an easy walk from Dr. Gálvez metrobús station. There’s plenty of parking if you’re driving.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Placido Domingo at Arena Teques

Last Saturday one of the world’s greatest singers performed to a rapt audience just 80 miles from where his career started as a teenager in Mexico City’s National Opera. Placido Domingo sang at the Arena Teques overlooking Lake Tequesquitengo in the state of Morelos. His performance to an audience of 6,000, along with sopranos Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste and the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra, inaugurated this wonderful new outdoor concert venue.

The driving force for the event was Elena Cepeda, wife of Morelos’ new governor Graco Ramírez.  Cepeda had been the Secretary of Culture for the Federal District for six years.  I first had contact with her when she accepted my idea of hosting an homage in Mexico City’s Teatro de la Ciudad for John Ross, the dean of the foreign correspondents in Mexico. 

As first lady of Morelos, Cepeda now has responsibilities imposed on her by Mexican law and custom that would seem to move her away from sponsoring high profile cultural events. The wife of the chief executive at the municipal, state, or federal level always becomes the president of the D.I.F. (National System for Integral Family Development) for that area.  If the chief executive is female, the responsibility can become that of a close female relative – sister, daughter, aunt – but never that of her husband.

Cepeda has made one of her principal projects, as president of D.I.F. for the state of Morelos, the construction of the Morelos Center for Rehabilitation and Special Education.  The Placido Domingo concert was a major fundraiser towards an end she hopes will benefit 100,000 Morelos children with special needs -- a fascinating way to blend the contacts Cepeda made in Mexico City with the world’s leading artists and her commitment to meeting the educational needs of children who have traditionally been hidden away.

From the moment he appeared on stage, Placido gave his all, as did the Acapulco Philharmonic Orchestra.  Headquartered in the tropical and coastal Pacific port, the orchestra members conformed to standard protocol by wearing black.  But in this case they wore a Mexican contribution to fashion:  black, short-sleeved guayabera shirts.  I was amazed to hear that the orchestra had rehearsed with Placido for only a couple of hours that afternoon. The secret to success was conductor Eugene Kohn who collaborates with Placido Domingo in concerts and recordings and is closely in tune with Placido’s needs. 

When the concert ended it was immediately obvious the crowd wanted more.  Much more.  Placido obliged.  His first encore was “Besame Mucho”.  The audience went wild.  After many more encores he obliged the calls for “Granada”.  It seemed that would be the end but he’d saved the best for last.  Mariachis came on stage and sang a few familiar favorites.  Then, joined by Placido in full mariachi attire, the stage was transformed into a Saturday night in any pueblo in Mexico with mariachis accompanied by the best tenor soloist in the world.  

Since he seemed so genuinely comfortable and pleased to be singing with mariachis I asked him later in the evening if what I had once heard was correct, “Did you start your singing career with mariachis?” 

I was hoping his answer would be yes, but he told me “Not true.”

At the press conference Placido expressed his support for the Morelos government’s plan to create municipal and regional youth orchestras.  The plan is modeled on Venezuela’s highly successful National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras created by José Antonio Abreu.  Placido endorsed Abreu’s idea that intensive musical training instills discipline and self-esteem and acts as an antidote to the ills of poverty.

Placido took pride in describing the two sopranos who performed with him, Angel Blue and Micaëla Oeste, as former students in opera training schools he founded in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. 

It was obvious on Saturday that Placido inspires young opera singers in Mexico too. At the dinner at the Morelos World Trade Center following the concert I met opera students and siblings Sinuhé and Grecia Alvarado. Too young to drive, their father had brought them from Mexico City. Their faces radiated the joy the event was giving them.

After midnight the father of our young tablemates came to claim his children.  All of us were effusive in our praise of his progeny. Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins said, “I wish I could hear Sinuhé sing.”  The father quickly replied, “Oh I’m sure he’d be happy to do so.”  With little encouragement, undeterred by all the noise around, the young man stood and sang a beautiful aria.  The tables around us watched enviously. 

At the very next table, 14 year-old opera student Paola Pelcastregui stood and offered to sing for us too.  Appropriately she sang “Time to Say Goodbye” in Spanish. These three open-hearted young people with their enthusiasm and joyous gift of music sent me home whistling.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Rivera at the Cortés Palace

Eighty-four years ago today artist Diego Rivera was polishing both a speech and a pistol.  He was making sure everything was ready for the Communist party meeting two days later where he would expel a prominent party member.  It was all part of the theatrics that Rivera loved.

Writer Hayden Herrera describes the events at that Thursday, October 3rd meeting -- yes, 1929’s calendar was the same as this year’s.  “Diego arrived, sat down, and took out a large pistol, and put it on the table.  He then put a handkerchief over the pistol and said: ‘I Diego Rivera, secretary general of the Mexican Communist party, accuse the painter Diego Rivera of collaborating with the petit-bourgeois government of Mexico and of having accepted a commission to paint the stairway of the National Palace of Mexico.  This contradicts the politics of the Comintern and therefore the painter Diego Rivera should be expelled from the Communist party by the secretary general of the Communist party, Diego Rivera.’”  Having proclaimed himself expelled he stood up, removed the handkerchief, picked up the pistol and . . . smashed it!  It was made of clay.

Recalcitrant Diego Rivera went even further.  In December of that same year he accepted the commission to paint the walls of the Cortez Palace terrace with the history of Cuernavaca from the conquest to the Revolution of 1910.  It was a gift of Dwight Morrow and his wife Elizabeth to the city they enjoyed so much while he was U.S. ambassador to Mexico.   Planning to be away for most of the following year the Morrows even lent the Riveras their weekend home in Cuernavaca.

In the National Palace in Mexico City Rivera painted the leaders of the Mexican Independence movement in a crowd. But the Cortez Palace in Cuernavaca was the headquarters of all three branches of the government of the state of Morelos. There was no way around it--he had to paint a prominent portrait of independence fighter José María Morelos.

There are statues of José María Morelos all over Mexico.  He is easy to identify, Morelos always wore a bandana tied over his head.  He had bandanas for every occasion – silk bandanas, embroidered bandanas, simple cloth bandanas.  Like ten percent of the population at the time, Morelos was Afro-Mexican.  It seems he wore the bandana to cover his Afro-textured hair.

Most artists are reluctant to depict Morelos accurately. We come across his portrait every day on the fifty-peso bill, but we’d be hard-pressed to think the person portrayed on that bill had any African ancestry.

When it came to painting Morelos into his mural, Rivera resorted to more theatrics.  Before applying color to the portrait of Morelos he invited the governor, his cabinet, and the press to view the mural and listen to the artist himself describe the scenes.

On the scheduled day Diego described the portion of the mural he had painted so far and what the rest, which was only outlined, would contain.  Then, pointing to a pillar in the center of the long wall, he said, “I’ve reserved this important spot for a portrait of José María Morelos, a man of universal stature!”  Rivera’s well-rehearsed friends started to applaud. The governor joined in.  Before the applause died down Rivera bellowed “His face could be anyone’s!”  His friends cheered and stood up.  The governor did too.  Rivera wrapped up his talk and sent his audience home.  He had gotten what he wanted from them.  If Morelos’ face could be anyone’s, why not have it be that of the artist himself?  And if a self-portrait of the artist, then it should be the artist’s skin color.  It was only Morelos’s hands that were accurately painted.

The rest of the year-long project transpired smoothly until close to the end.  While Diego painted his wife Frida Kahlo was a daily visitor.  She was always generous with praise of content and historical accuracy.  That was except in the very last scene he painted.  In it Emiliano Zapata dressed in white peasant’s clothing holds his white horse by the bridle.  Frida reportedly shrieked when she saw it.  “Diego, what are you doing?  Zapata had a black horse.  His horse was legendary.  There are songs and poems about Zapata and his black horse.” 

Rivera replied: “I like white better than black and, besides, a white horse will go better with his white pants and white shirt.” 

It became a heated argument that also involved the horse’s heavy legs. Diego came down from the scaffolding, tossed his palette down the hallway, and as he kicked over the scaffolding shouted, “Frida, you paint the horse!  But it must be white.”

The horse remained white, but Frida drew the horse’s legs the way she thought they should be.  Diego would later tell his friends, “I had to correct that white horse of Zapata’s according to Frida’s wishes.’”  Good that he did because it has become the best-known scene in the Cortez Palace series of murals. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Ducks are back in Borda Gardens

The weather we’ve been having is fit for ducks. And I’m glad to be able to tell you that the ducks are back and thriving in the rowing lake in Cuernavaca’s Borda Gardens. Six years ago they were banished by the director of Morelos’ Culture Institute because she said “the ducks and the fish get things dirty.” The current administration has welcomed them back. Private citizens are supplying the ducks.

This is wonderful news because it just wasn’t the same without the ducks. The Borda Gardens is one of Cuernavaca’s hidden gems — it’s right across the street from the Cathedral. I consider it a sanctuary in the center of busy downtown. No one pesters you inside the gardens. A small admission fee keeps the vendors out. You can sit on the grass, a bench, or at a garden table and read a book. You can even have a picnic on a boat in the rowing lake.

It’s the ongoing legacy of an immigrant to Mexico, José de la Borda (1699-1778) and his son Manuel. José was born in France to a Spanish mother and French father and was baptized as Joseph de La Borde. When he was 16 his mother did to him what many Spanish mothers still do to their teenage boys — she sent him to America “to become a man.” At that time Spanish mothers purchased passage for their sons on a ship from Cádiz to Veracruz. Today they buy their sons a one-way ticket on a flight from Madrid to Mexico City. They arrive on this side of the ocean with a little bit of money and a long list of relatives who have already made the trip. Many of them have done very well. Borda was one of them.

Upon arrival in this Spanish viceroyalty Joseph hispanicized his name and signed in at Veracruz as José de la Borda. From there he went directly to Taxco where he caught up with his brother Francisco. Both brothers had a knack for finding silver. They did so well that they married two daughters of the mayor of Taxco. The Verdugo sisters became Mrs. Borda and Mrs. Borda.

It was after Francisco’s death that José discovered Taxco’s richest vein of silver. He had mule trains carry the silver from Taxco to the mint in Mexico City. Cuernavaca was a good resting point. The cargo would be unloaded at Borda’s Cuernavaca estate to give the overseers, guards, muleteers, and the mules themselves a couple of days rest before continuing to Mexico City.

In appreciation for the tremendous wealth the silver bestowed on him, José de la Borda built the Santa Prisca church facing Taxco’s zocalo. It’s the only church of its size built in the 18th century Mexico for which there was enough money to finish when construction began.

It was José’s son Manuel who transformed the mule train depot in Cuernavaca into a botanical garden. He had a landscape architect lay it out with a French design of crisscrossing walkways with fountains where they intersected. He extended Cuernavaca’s aqueduct to end in the rowing lake which doubled as a water tank at the highest part of the property. Water flowed by force of gravity through the planter beds. I imagine the lake was filled with ducks then too.

In the 1860s the Borda family felt it appropriate, perhaps taking into account their French ancestry, to make the property available to French-imposed Emperor Maximilian and Empress Carlotta. Maximilian made plans to use the Borda home and gardens as his summer palace but his empire didn’t last long enough to do that more than once.

In the 1970s, while restoration work to the Borda Gardens was underway, I read a newspaper article about an Austrian woman who traveled to Mexico on a diplomatic passport.

When she returned to Austria a short while later she was decorated by the Austrian government for returning a collection of Emperor Maximilian’s jewelry and medals. If the story is true, the Austrian government had known the location of the stash for more than a hundred years but had not had access to the gardens without risk of being caught.

Last weekend as I thought of those ducks in the rowing lake as the only ones enjoying the endless rain I decided to see if I could confirm my recollection of that story. I went to see long-time Borda Garden employee Heberto González who has authored a book about the gardens. I remembered him and he remembered me as a frequent visitor with students in tow and always with food for the ducks.

You see the ducks learned to recognize me and would gather around whenever I stood on the edge of the rowing lake. He’d heard the story about the Austrian woman too but couldn’t confirm its accuracy.

That’s okay. The story adds to the charm of this wonderful spot in the heart of Cuernavaca. And I’m happy because the ducks are back.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

California State University and Mexico cooperate

Negative perceptions of what it is like in Mexico over the last couple of years have led to a huge drop off of people from the U.S. visiting Mexico. The tourism industry has felt it. The educational study abroad sector, which I am part of, has felt it. And I’m sure that U.S. companies investing in Mexico have had harder conversations with their executives sent to work here. Yet those of us who live here have difficulty matching those perceptions that others hold with the reality we see and feel while going about our daily lives. Last month I got some more insight not only into how those perceptions are formed, but how they can be changed.

I was at a meeting held at Casa California, an estate in the San Angel district of Mexico City owned by the University of California. The U.S. State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council was hosting the College and University Health, Safety, and Security Seminar. Attending were Mexican and U.S. academics. I predict this meeting will mark a positive turning point in U.S.-Mexico study abroad programs. 

First some background. In the fall of 2011 the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system cancelled all of CSU’s study programs in Mexico. Keep in mind that with 23 campuses and a little shy of a half a million students, CSU is the largest university system in the United States.

It turns out that CSU had a blanket policy that if the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning, programs in the target country had to be cancelled. This didn’t sit well with faculty, students, nor their parents. The California state legislature didn’t like it either and demanded further analysis of the situation.

California State University's Director of International Programs Leo Van Cleve was on hand to tell us what he did next. He told us about the "need to analyze the real situation," and carry out additional information gathering. 

A key source was the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute's analysis of Mexican crime-related statistics, "a pretty substantial document."  Dr. Van Cleve also mentioned the importance of taking other countries' travel advisories into account.  "There are lots of different angles.  No piece of information is going to give you an entire picture.  But by putting it all together you can come up with a more complete or a more nuanced view." 

He described working with academic partners in the foreign country, in this case Mexico, recognizing that they play an important role in "gathering insights about what's going on at the university where our students will be studying."  

Contracting an outside analysis of the situation in Mexico proved useful and persuasive to CSU. The result was that in March of this year it reversed its decision and reinstated its study abroad programs in Mexico.

Dr. Van Cleve said their new strategy regarding Mexico will serve as a model for the way CSU monitors its study abroad programs in other countries and in all health and safety situations.  I watched the two consular officials who earlier in the day had defended the U.S. State Department's dire and dour Mexico travel advisories.  They sat stone-faced as Dr. Van Cleve described the embarrassing situation CSU had gotten into by relying exclusively on U.S. State Department information.    

Dr. Van Cleve closed his talk by saying "We want to see more connections between California and Mexico and between the U.S. and Mexico.  We really want to take this on and I think we in California will continue to see what we can do to encourage more activity and more connections.  Not only student mobility -- it strikes me that there are a lot of other ways that we can cooperate and collaborate."

The following day the Oversees Security Advisory Council sponsored a business-oriented meeting at the Bankers Association headquarters in Mexico City's Historic District.  There, the State Department's ten regional security officers presented a positive and encouraging view of U.S. companies doing business in Mexico.  While at the academic meeting the day before OSAC analyst Eric Sheely had refused to make comparisons between Mexico and other countries, at the business-oriented meeting regional security officer Paul Isaac presented a chart comparing Mexican crime statistics with those of other countries.  Mexico's figures were more favorable than The Bahamas or Brazil's.  Isaac recognized that this is not the impression one would get from reading or listening to mainstream media.

I am heartened that in May of this year, at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, President Obama introduced the 100,000 Strong Initiative.  He envisions 100,000 Latin American students studying in the United States and an equal number of U.S. students in Latin America.  To honor President Obama's commitment will require that the State Department implement a new and welcoming visa application process for Latin American students as well as encouragement for U.S. students to venture abroad.   President Obama said "when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together."

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Muralist’s family opens exhibition

Mexico is a fascinating place because so many influences come together and blend here. The Spanish culture blended with the Indigenous cultures. Politics influences art and art spurs politics. Religion and the Mexican landscape are ever-present forces. You can see all these influences at work in the art of one family now on exhibit in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Cuernavaca.

The artists whose work is on display are three (of seven) children of artist and muralist Jesús Guerrero Galván. Guerrero Galván was born right along with the Mexican Revolution (1910-1973). Though much younger than the big-name muralists of the 20th century, he was very much a part of Mexico's post-revolutionary art movement. 

Guerrero Galvan was not a prolific artist -- his pace was an oil painting per month.  At the end of a day spent on his feet painting he would sit in a chair of William Spratling's design and relax by drawing.  For the most part his paintings and drawings made their way to private collections.  Earlier this year I was pleased to discover a small painting of his I hadn't seen before in the exhibit "Impulsos Modernos, Pintura en Mexico 1840-1950" (Modern Impulses, Painting in Mexico 1840-1950) at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

At the inauguration of that exhibit curator Miguel Cervantes Díaz Lombardo said,  “The Revolution brought Mexico a new identity charged with nationalism -- a new conception of what Mexico had been, and was. Jose Vasconcelos [1920s Secretary of Public Education] was extraordinarily important in developing Mexico's renowned post-revolutionary mural art movement dominated by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Less appreciated, a modernist easel art movement paralleled the mural art movement."  Guerrero Galván participated in both movements.

In his twenties Guerrero Galvan assisted prominent and older muralists on murals for the Secretariat of Public Education.  In his thirties when he was an artist-in-residence at the University of New Mexico he painted "Americas Joined in Freedom" outside the president's office in Scholes Hall. In the 1950s Guerrero Galván was commissioned to paint a mural in the lobby of the Federal Electrical Commission's headquarters. In it he even made high-tension power lines beautiful.

Guerrero Galvan was very much involved in the politics of his day. He was a member of the Syndicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution, which supported the idea that to be truly revolutionary, art must include a social statement. Easel art had less obvious social statements than murals, so Guerrero Galván would often paint in a subtle red star representing the Communist party.

In the St. Michael's Church exhibit Guerrero Galvan's oldest son Francisco "Paco" Guerrero Garro displays drawings and paintings with a definite influence of prehispanic pictographic calligraphy -- shamans, "nahuales" (animals born at the same time a child is born that become the person's alter-ego) along with other aspects of Mesoamerican Indigenous culture.  In his twenties Paco worked in the United Nations' Plan Oaxaca and he still maintains contact and friendship with people who with time have become Indigenous leaders in Oaxaca.

Middle son Miguel Angel's paintings are landscapes, forests, and rainforests portrayed in oil on canvas.  Angel recognizes his love of art and music came from his father of Purepecha ancestry, while from his Spanish mother, Deva Garro, came his appreciation of writing and architecture.  Indeed the Guerrero Garros are first generation mestizos with strong roots in and appreciation of both their Indigenous and Spanish backgrounds.

Flora, the youngest of the siblings, paints in a magical realist style frequently combining gold leaf with oils on her canvases.  On exhibit is one of her incursions into religious art--"Virgin Mother Earth" holding flowers instead of a child standing barefoot on the planet.  Not on display in the exhibit, but easy to visit in Cuernavaca's Church of the Holy Spirit, is Flora's "Baptism of Jesus."  It's not unusual to see people on their knees in prayer in front of that painting.  Her art reflects her role as one of the state of Morelos' prominent environmentalists. In full disclosure, Flora is also my wife of 35 years.

These three artists continue the social activism inspired by their parents. Miguel Angel and Flora were among the 33 activists arrested for defending Cuernavaca's Casino de la Selva in 2002.  Paco, founder, and then director of the state of Morelos' widest circulating daily, covered the movement from its inception and was the trusted voice for those following the events.

The fascinating exhibit at St. Michaels is not about Jesús Guerrero Galván, but he is the link between the three artists.  To fill that gap I will exhibit two Guerrero Galván drawings concurrently with St. Michael's exhibit at the Cemanahuac Educational Community in southern Cuernavaca.  Email me for a map to both locations. 

The exhibit will be open through Wednesday of next week during church library hours:  Monday-Friday10 am-12:30, Saturday 10:30-1 pm, Sunday 11:45 am-12:30,  Calle Minerva #1, Colonia Delicias, Cuernavaca. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The best of Tlaltenango

The Tlaltenango fair, which runs through next Monday, has been an annual event for 293 years in what is now northern Cuernavaca. I have long thought of it as a nuisance that closed Cuernavaca’s main north-south boulevard, causing traffic congestion and detours for ten days. But thanks to political science professor Adriana Hernandez I now recognize what a wonderful blend of religion, politics, tradition, and commerce it is.

The draw at the Tlaltenango fair is the Virgin of the Nativity. People more commonly refer to her as the Virgin of Tlaltenango or the Virgin of the Miracles. "Let me tell you two of her most famous miracles," Adriana said enthusiastically.

"A hundred years ago there were open fields between Cuernavaca and Tlaltenango.  Emiliano Zapata was being chased from Cuernavaca by the federal army.  The federales were gaining on him but he could see Tlaltenango’s church.  Zapata prayed to the Virgin for her assistance.  She raised such a dust storm that the federales lost sight of Zapata and he was able to find refuge and protection in the church.  In appreciation he gave the Virgin of Tlaltenango a scepter and a crown which she still wears."

Another miracle has caused the far off community of Iztapalapa, now part of the Federal District, to play an ongoing roll in the annual fair. According to Adriana, "some say Iztapalapa was suffering a drought, others say there was an epidemic.  But whatever it was, the townspeople gathered to plead with the Virgin of Tlaltenango to save them and she did.  In appreciation they promised to visit her every year on the Feast of the Birth of Mary (September 8) and offer her a floral arch over the entrance to her church.  Iztapalapa has been fulfilling that "manda" (promise) for close to 200 years.”

Now this is no small gesture. Sixty or more people travel from Iztapalapa to assemble the floral arch. Tradition maintains that during the time they work on it there shall be a band playing continuously and fireworks shot off. They also need someplace to stay overnight. Here’s where things have recently gotten sticky.

For many years the Iztapalapans stayed in a lot that had bathrooms, showers, and a shed under which they slept. But last year that lot was lost due to a lawsuit. The ayudante municipal (a liaison between a community and the municipal government) and the local priest lacked the foresight to prepare other lodging for the pilgrims. The Iztapalapans were understandably offended and said they would not return this year.

Tlatelolco's current ayudante municipal, elected on an independent ticket, is Adriana’s son Daniel Vazquez. It fell on his shoulders to repair the damage. With an offering in hand and accompanied only by a coach in traditional Indigenous protocol, Daniel set off to Iztapalapa. He was granted an audience with Iztapalapa's elders and seven mayordomos.

It amazes me that even though now part of Mexico City, Iztapalapa has active cofradías headed by mayordomos.  During the colonial period Spanish authorities restricted communication between Indigenous groups as a control mechanism.  However, they were allowed to establish “cofradías” (brotherhoods) headed by “mayordomos” for the purpose of taking care of the image of saints.  Religious festivals were one of the few places people from different ethnic groups were allowed to interact.

Tlaltenango, on the other hand, has lost its cofradías and hence its mayordomos.  As ayudante municipal twenty-seven year old Daniel represented the community.  At the meeting his coach stood on the other side of the room and indicated through hand signals when Daniel should enter, sit, and stand. The coach signaled him to wait until he was given the right to speak and pointed out to him who was the proper person to address.  The audience was such a success that Daniel was addressed as the Señor de Tlaltenango (Lord of Tlatenango)!  Adriana reports that there were tequila toasts (no drunkenness), tears, and embraces.  This year the Iztapalapans will be hosted in local peoples' homes when they visit Tlaltenango.

The Iztapalapans are not the only ones who return to the Tlaltenango fair every year. Merchants arrive bearing receipts from previous years and expect to get the same spot back in which to set up their stall. Some report that their families have been participating in the fair for generations.  Many speak Indigenous languages with Spanish as their second language.  Adriana finds they already know their neighboring stall-keepers.  She refers to them as "ferieros" (merchants at fairs).  "They go from festival to festival throughout the country as part of a steady occupational group.  In the case of this fair, a thousand vendors and their dependents speaks of about 5,000 people whose income is directly linked to traditional religious fairs."    

A new feature at this year’s fair is talks by noted residents of Cuernavaca.  The topics include history, human rights, gender, anthropology, and economics. They are scheduled at 5:00 p.m. in Tlaltenango park every day through Monday, September 9.  Send me an email for the schedule.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Celebrating St. Augustine

Tomorrow, August 28, is the feast of St. Augustine. I have long been aware of the Order of St. Augustine in the Roman Catholic church, but vague on Augustine himself. I rectified this in July by inviting Lutheran theologian and scholar Mark Allen Powell to go with me to Chalma on the other side of the ridge from Cuernavaca. Chalma is Mexico’s most visited Augustinian site.

Mark deciphered the large oil paintings documenting the life of Augustine of Hippo (354-430) that decorate the courtyard of the cloister of Chalma's sanctuary. I was fascinated to hear about Augustine's influence on contemporary western thought. Mark told us that "today you study Plato in university but for considerably more than a thousand years you never would have studied Plato in a western university because Plato was a pagan.  But you would have studied Augustine.   The reason that Plato has so much effect on the western world is because of Augustine. The filter was Plato to Ambrose (bishop of Milan attributed with Augustine's conversion to Christianity) to Augustine to the western world where Platonic philosophy has been hugely influential in how people think.  Augustine has given us a Christianized version of Plato rather than the pagan version of Plato.”

Plato believed in the immortal soul that continues to live forever even after our body dies. Our soul existed even before we had a body according to Plato. There are only so many souls in the universe and they have always existed and always will exist because souls are immortal. Mark said: "This is a little hard for Christians to grasp, but before Augustine, if you asked a Christian, 'What happens to people when they die?' the answer would have been what Paul says in the Bible:  when a person dies the body, soul, and mind are all dead. When Jesus returns he will raise the dead on Judgement Day."  Augustine said that when a person died, that person's soul goes to heaven.  "Actually it was Plato that said that. Yet almost all Christians believe it--Augustine's writings about the immortality of the soul come from Plato."

Here in Mexico Augustine is not just an historical figure. He is a saint who is celebrated all year, but especially on his saint’s day, August 28th. A particularly wonderful celebration takes place each year in a private home in Vallodolid, Yucatan. Readers of Charlie’s Digs will remember artist Wilberth Azcorra who spends most of each year in Xochitepec, Morelos where he is known for his paintings of watermelons. I described his house and studio as the Watermelon House, a combination of Macondo, Wonderland, and Oz.  As to be expected the colors in the house are red, white, and green.

Wilberth spends August and September in the historic center of Valladolid, Yucatan where he constructed a house in Yucatan's Spanish style. The colors of that house are black and white -- colors of the Augustinian Order. The house is designed to carry out the nine-day celebration for St. Augustine every August, as his family has done uninterrupted for 98 years. Wilberth houses the 16th century wooden image from Guatemala of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family.

Wilberth told me that as the youngest of nine siblings, he was put in charge of the first of the nine evenings. As siblings moved away or died Wilbert 'climbed' to higher novenas until attaining the last one. "I inherited it from my mother and have been responsible for the novenas for 17 years." 

On the last day, August 28th, the saint is taken in procession to the church for a 7 a.m. Mass followed by breakfast, and a Balche (fermented drink of prehispanic origin) ceremony in the Maya style, then dinner for over a hundred guests. "The menu is the same as the one my parents prepared.  We can't change it.  It's the dinner for the Saint -- relleno negro (a Yucatecan specialty). Everyone that arrives is welcome."

To my "is there room for that many people?" Wilberth replied, "I designed the house for this event as if it is a chapel.  The ground floor opens up completely onto a terrace and patio.  When the novena is over we move my mother's furniture back and it becomes a home again.  The saint has a room upstairs where it spends the rest of the year."

Wiberth has graciously invited readers of Charlie’s Digs who are in Yucatan to attend.
The relleno negro is going into a pit this evening in Wilberth's backyard to be cooked underground as best of Yucatecan cuisine dictates.  It will be dug up tomorrow at 11:00.  You're invited to celebrate St. Augustine at Calle 39 #196 in Valladolid.  If you go, please give Wilberth a copy of this issue of The News as you tell him "Charlie told me I'd be welcome."

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

An arch of seeds

Late in the afternoon on September 7, the Virgin Mary will leave her niche in the altar of the Nativity of Jesus church in Tepoztlan, Morelos and go out into the market to buy flowers.  When she returns to the church she’ll encounter the gift the market’s shopkeepers have been working on for her since July.

Tepoztlan’s market vendors will be offering the Virgin Mary their twentieth mosaic triumphal arch.  It, like its predecessors, will be left on display for 10 months. Then it will be removed and destroyed or cut into sections.

Triumphal arches are a tradition introduced to Mexico by Spaniards in the 16th century.  Rather than comemorate a triumph in battle, they are used to honor or welcome a distingushed civil, military, or religious authority.

In the late 17th century Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz designed what may be the most reknowned of such arches in Mexico.  She was commissioned to design an arch for the western entrance to Mexico City’s cathedral to welcome Viceroy Marquis de la Laguna and the vicereine.  This was not an arch meant to be walked through hurriedly. It was meant to be admired, studied, and understood. A pamphlet accompanied it. The viceroy and vicereine saw lagoons and nautical content which they understood as alluding to them. They were so impressed they asked to meet the artist who had designed their arch and were  surprised to learn she was a cloistered nun who could not even be present for the occasion.  Sor Juana later became a close friend of the vicereine.

More recently when Raul Vera made his entry into San Cristobal de las Casas in 1995 as bishop he rode and walked under floral arches offered to him by each of the parishes in the diocese. 

In the Mexican tradition, the arches are temporary and removed shortly after the occasion for which they were designed. 

What sets Tepotzlan’s arch apart is how it is constructed. It is an intricate mosaic though not made of traditional tile. Rather it is decorated with close to a hundred varieties of seeds, grains, and beans glued to a particle-board backing. The whole thing is attached to a metal frame the shape of the arched entrance to the courtyard of the church.

Each year the design and story on the arch is different.  Tepoztlan artist and architect Arturo de Meza presents his project to the mayordomos of Tepoztlan for their approval.  They sometimes have had him make changes in the content but for the most part it is approved as he presents it.

The mosaic is assembled by volunteers, assigned to various tasks according to their abilities. Supervisor Rafael Carrillo didn't show me the full sketch, but he led me to think that this year’s arch will be of the traditional legend of the Tepozteco. In previous years the arch has shown parallel stories with prehispanic scenes on one side and Christian scenes on the other -- much like Italian Rennaisance parallels between Old and New Testament stories on opposite sides of a church sanctuary walls.

Last week I watched volunteers of all ages working on different parts of the arch glueing on the seeds and beans and grain. Others were extracting seeds from pods. Some were slicing individual beans to go where they were designated. Mr Carrillo says the quality improves every year as the volunteers aquire expertise in the technique. 

I also got to see the 16th century arch that is covered for most of the year by the Portal de Semillas (Seed Gate). It has on it a symbol-- a 30 centimeter (12 inch) circle portraying a Christian cross on top of a human skull.  It is a symbol frequently found in Mexican 16th century church architecture.  When I’m asked about it while visiting other churches I have three possible answers.  Is it Jesus’ cross on the hill called Golgotha, which means skull?  Or a portrayal of the victory of life over death? Or is it the graphic portrayal of Jesus’ blood dripping from the cross through a crack in the ground and landing on Adam’s skull as I read about in the Church of the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem?

This symbol will be covered back up on September 7th. That day, around 5:00 p.m., the Virgin Mary will leave Tepoztlan’s churchyard and go into the market.  She’ll go to buy flowers, which of course no vendor will sell her. They will always give them to her. When she returns the 450 year old cross and skull will be covered with a beautiful, brightly colored mosaic carefully and lovingly made by people of Tepotzlan from their harvest of seeds and beans.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wwoofing for a summer job

Many high school and college students from the U.S. come through my language school in Cuernavaca. They talk about many things, but one thing I realize they don’t talk about much is having a summer job. Back when I was in college in California we all had summer jobs. Not so these days. What’s changed?

Migration from third world countries to first world countries is part of the answer.  Many jobs that used to be filled seasonally by high school and college students are now filled year round by immigrants. Often these immigrants have professional skills acquired in their home countries that they can’t put to use in their new country. In effect, employers have overqualified people working at a bargain price.

I think another part of the answer is that these young adults know what admission officers in college are looking for. How many times have high school students been told by their elders that they should do something because “it will look good on your college application”?  This is reinforced by service-learning classes in high schools and universities. So the question becomes how to fill your summer vacation time doing something interesting and meaningful without going into debt?

I found out about a clever opportunity here in Mexico and around the world when I met Jeremy Bollin. Digs Collaborator Carol Hopkins had met Jeremy while walking Spain’s Camino a Santiago de Compostela.  Jeremy expressed his frustration at not knowing Spanish and Carol offered him the opportunity to live in her Cuernavaca B&B while studying Spanish at the Cemanahuac Educational Community.  In exchange for his tuition he worked with me several hours a day on projects within the school.

You see Jeremy is a “Wwoofer”. He’s a member of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which according to its mission statement is “a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange,  thereby helping to building a sustainable global community.”

WWOOF is found in 99 countries including Mexico and provides an opportunity to live in local environments usually without cost other than transportation to get there.  In exchange for an average of 5 hours a day of work, 5-6 days a week, the host provides room and board. Before coming to Mexico Jeremy Wwoofed in California. After leaving Cuernavaca he Wwoofed in Quintana Roo and Jalisco.  He looks forward to Wwoofing soon in Australia.

WWOOF was founded in Great Britain as an opportunity for urban folk to get into the countryside and to help popularize organic food.  WWOOF originally stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms.  The organization evolved into the international Willing Workers on Organic Farms.  In some countries this caused problems with local laborers fearing volunteers were thinly disguised migrant workers threatening their jobs. While the acronym remained the same, the name evolved again.

Each nation has it’s own separate WWOOF affiliation.  Participants in Mexico’s WWOOF pay $20 for a year’s membership.  Currently there are 4000 members in Mexico and 50 hosts or farms. In the U.S. there are currently 1685 farms.

Wwoofers in Mexico may do anything from planting corn to teaching surfing.  At Jeremy’s Jalisco WWOOF farm he built and slept in “igloos” constructed from sustainable materials:  mud, sticks, sand bags, and donkey dung. Photos of these “igloos” strongly resemble a Mesoamerican temascal.  He also helped build and demonstrate dry toilets.

I found out that there are multiple “farms” near me in the Mexico City, Cuernavaca, and Tepoztlan area. Within 50 kilometers of the D.F. there is opportunity to learn permaculture, organic farming, use of medicinal herbs, and dry toilet construction. The only thing these “farms” seem to have in common is environmental sustainability and a philosophy of care for the earth.  One Tepoztlan farm is part of an orphanage and raises the food for the children. Viewing the Mexico WWOOF website with Jeremy was an adventure in itself.

Some WWOOF locations provide relatively luxurious accommodations.  Jeremy served at a hotel facility on the Island of Holbox, Quintana Roo where he was housed in a room with an ocean view and took his meals in the hotel restaurant!  Most farms suggest bringing a sleeping bag.  Some even require a tent.

Jeremy told me that upon finishing junior college in Washington he decided to work and travel before taking on debt to obtain a degree when he wasn’t sure yet “what I want to do when I grow up.”  After the experiences he’s had this year -- from the Camino a Santiago to Cemanahuac to wwoofing-- he’s accumulated lots of experience, skills, and information to help him make that decision but, understandably, he’s still not in any hurry.  It seems like a wonderful alternative life path. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lakes gone, causeways remain

I marvel at the ways the ancient lakes of the Valley of Mexico play a role in contemporary life in Mexico City. 

At first glance at a map of the Valley of Mexico as it was in 1519, the year the Spanish conquerors arrived, reveals only one large, irregularly-shaped lake. But look closer and you’ll see six parts to it, each with its own name. That’s why it is proper to refer to them in plural, as the lakes of the Valley of Mexico.

Politically the most important of the six lakes was the Lake of Mexico. In the center of that lake lay the island of Tenochtitlan -- presently Mexico City's Historical Center.  It was there that Aztec priests saw an eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent. They had been on the lookout for that sign, which their gods said would indicate where they should settle, since leaving their homeland in Aztlan in the thirteenth century. That sign is now on the shield of Mexico.

The Aztecs saw that sign in June of 1325 after fleeing from the area known as Culhuacan, near where the Taxqueña metro station is today. At that time Tenochtitlan was a swampy, snake-infested and difficult to access island. The Aztecs had little choice of where to settle and fewer friends. By 1325 no chieftain in the Valley of Mexico wanted to have anything to do with the Aztecs.  They were known as a powerful fighting force that won just about every battle they participated in. But they turned sides quickly. It all depended on who paid them the most.

With time and ingenuity the Aztecs solved the swampiness problem on Tenochtitlan by adding soil from the shore. They solved the snake infestation problem by acquiring a taste for them. This was so successful that they had to start importing them. They made the island more accessible by building earthen levy-type causeways to connect the island to the shore. Aztecs built dikes both for flood control and to regulate the salinity of the lakes to make them good for agriculture.  The lakes with the freshest water were used for "chinampa" farming. Instead of taking water to the fields as in contemporary irrigation, they took the fields to the water and built islands in the shallow lakes. 

Lake Texcoco, the largest of the six lakes, occupied the lowest elevation in the valley and hence was the saltiest.  Its salinity made it ideal for the production of spirulina, the topic of last week’s Charlie's Digs.  

Though all six lakes have mostly disappeared, Lake Texcoco still maintains a significant presence.  During take-off from the Benito Juarez airport look at the green and marshy area to the east and you’ll see the remnants of Lake Texcoco. Thankfully urban sprawl can't encroach on it because buildings would quickly sink into its very soft soil.

The lakes still determine how we travel through the Valley of Mexico.  Highways circle Lake Texcoco, and a toll road shoots right across Lake Texcoco from the aiport to the city of Texcoco.  My favorite way to return from Teotihuacan to Mexico City is on the toll road inaugurated within the last six years that skirts right along the northwestern shore of Lake Texcoco. You’ll see the wetlands of Lake Texcoco on the east side of the highway. An evening drive allows a view of the dark ancient lake and the city of Texcoco 15 kilometers away on the other side. 

Several of Mexico City's present-day thoroughfares follow the causeways the Aztecs built connecting the island of Tenochtitlan to the shores of the Lake of Mexico.  Of these, Viaducto Tlalpan is the most heavily traveled.  Though much wider now, it is the route Hernan Cortez chose when he entered Tenochtitlan for the first time in 1519. Two more Aztec causeways are under Avenida Hidalgo going west from the island of Tenochtitlan and under Calzada de los Misterios connecting Tlatelolco and the Basilica of Guadalupe. They all share the characteristic of being almost perfectly straight.  Understandable since they were originally built as earthen causeways crossing lakes. They were probably not even as wide as a lane of traffic today.

The ancient lakes also determine the route of Mexico City's grandest exspressway -- the Periferico.  It skirts along the southern and western shores of several of the lakes.  Last month I experienced driving on the Periferico's upper level for the first time.  Being an urban toll road it is touted as being lightly traveled; I now drive it every chance I get for its spectacular views of the innate beauty of this marvelous city.  Colonial church domes seem within arm's reach.  Long horizontal views of treetops are punctuated by Mexico's stunning high-rise architecture. Very different from aerial views in which we are looking down.  I like the views the best on the northbound drive.  That would have been the lake view when the lakes were visible -- surreal, tranquil views of this bustling crowded city.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Spirulina: The Aztec food supplement

Legend has it Moctezuma, the last emperor of the Aztecs, had an unquenchable appetite for fresh fish.  Runners relayed a daily supply of fish from the coast, as well as ice from Iztaccihuatl, to the ninth Aztec emperor.  Hernan Cortez, very impressed with the endurance of these runners, asked one of his soldiers to find out what they ate.  The soldier followed the runners to the shores of Lake Texcoco, reporting back,  “They’re barbarians; they eat green mud.”  Little did he know that in the 20th century that “green mud,” the Aztecs called tecuitlatl, now known as spirulina, would be designated the nearly perfect food of the future.

Spirulina, a blue-green algae, contains more protein per ounce than any other food.  It also contains all essential amino acids, is rich in many other nutrients, and is a natural antioxidant.   Last month I interviewed octogenarian jazz musician Larry Russell (see June 25 Charlie's Digs).  I was impressed by his prodigious memory as well as his very active life -- even still performing late night jazz.  Larry attributed both to regular spirulina consumption over the past forty years. With its origins in the Valley of Mexico spirulina seemed an excellent topic to research and share.

Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun, from 1545 until his death in 1590, documented everything he could about the vanishing Mesoamerican culture in his "General History of the Things of New Spain", now known as the Florentine codex. The codex contains drawings of harvesting tecuitlatl from Lake Texcoco, making it into cakes eaten by Aztec warriors and runners.  In 1524 Friar Toribio de Bonavente described the Aztecs using fine mesh nets to harvest the algae from the lake, drying it in large shallow pits.  Bernal Diaz de Castillo, traveling with Cortez in 1519 described the marketplaces of the Aztecs and mentioned the highly valued tecuitlatl, “traded in small cakes in the same way Europeans traded cheeses.”  

Though there were a number of lakes in the Valley of Mexico, only Lake Texcoco was a soda lake (highly alkaline salt water lake).  The Aztecs built dams to separate the less saline lakes of Mexico from spilling into Texcoco during flood periods.  The monumental Albarradon de Nezahualcoyotl dike, was built in the 15th century and was 16 kilometers (10 miles) long, 20 meters (60 feet) wide.  Through advanced hydraulic engineering Aztecs protected their capital on the island of Tenochtitlan from flooding, maintained fresh water lakes for crop irrigation, and Lake Texcoco as a source of prized tecuitlatl.  During the conquest the Spaniards destroyed the dikes; Mexico City has been dealing with the consequences ever since.  In addition, with the disruption of Mesoamerican life and culture, spirulina disappeared from the Mexican diet. 

Africa’s Lake Chad has a similar alkalinity to Lake Texcoco.  In approximately 900 A.D., the Kanembu discovered the nutritional value of spirulina which they called dihe.  In 1940, French explorer and botanist Pierre Dangeard enthused about its possibilities but was ignored.  In 1964, Belgian botanist Jean Leonard interested French industrialists in its potential just as French scientists were re-discovering spirulina in Lake Texcoco.

The large earthen spiral settling tank (referred to in Spanish as a "caracol") one sees from the air above Mexico City was originally created by the Mexican company, Sosa Texcoco,  for the production of sodium carbonate. Texcoco’s high concentration of salts are processed by solar evaporation.  In 1969, using the caracol, Sosa Texcoco set up production of spirulina.  At the height of production, the United States reported spirulina contamination and production was shut down.

In the 1970’s spirulina became a popular food supplement, spiking in value in 1981.  By 1976 Japanese had opened spirulina production using man-made ponds.  The largest Japanese-owned spirulina production ponds are now in California. Today, most spirulina for human consumption is laboratory controlled.  Lake-harvested spirulina can be contaminated with microcystins or absorb heavy metals.

University of Maryland Medical Center test tube and animal research results indicate spirulina boosts the immune system and protects against allergic reaction.  They indicate spirulina may also have antiviral, anticancer properties.  To date human testing of these properties has not been completed. There is only anecdotal evidence gleaned from those, like Larry Russell, who believe it a miracle food.  Among other benefits, literature on spirulina touts its effect on weight control.

Malnutrition is found throughout Central Africa.  In Chad, where dihe is part of the diet, malnutrition is negligible.  In 2010 the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations began administration of a 1.4 million dollar grant by the European Union to help impoverished women in Chad by increasing production of spirulina while improving control standards.  It is hoped this blue-green algae could help solve malnutrition issues throughout Africa!

I’m a convert.  I won’t be running to Veracruz in search of fish any time soon but I’m taking my tecuitlatl and hope to see a difference.  I’ll let you know.