Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Reading history

The act that you are doing now, turning a page of paper and interpreting what is written about time, place and power, has been going on in Mexico for more than 20 centuries. The tradition continued, in Mesoamerican style, into the late 16th century. To see what I mean, go to the exhibit “Codices de México: Memorias y Saberes” (Mexican Codices: Memory and Knowledge) on display at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

There you’ll see 44 previously unavailable codices. Some are the size of a book. The largest, almost-square Coixtlahuaca measures 12 square meters (130 square feet) and was meant to be extended on the floor while priests interpreted its content to those standing around. Even experts with access to the museum’s vault have not seen the codex fully extended until the exhibit opened in September.

The last time the long and narrow Pilgrimage Strip was fully extended for public display was in 1824 in London. Using pictographs, it documents the places the Aztecs lived while migrating from mythical Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico.

Typically folded accordion-style, codices were unfolded one page at a time. Their intricate drawings kept records of oral history and knowledge. They were written by scribes, called “tlahuicos” in Nahuatl, on deerskin, cotton or maguey fabric, and amate-bark paper. A few are written on European paper. Once tlahuicos learned the Spanish alphabet they wrote in their own languages using Spanish letters phonetically. In some cases they combined Spanish text with pictographs – or hieroglyphic text, in the case of Maya scribes.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, codices dedicated to astronomy, rituals, mythology, theology, societal structure and history were found throughout Mesoamerica. Early Christian evangelists considered Mesoamerican religion a cult to the devil and whole libraries of codices were burned in “acts of faith.”

Roughly 500 codices survive and are known to exist in the world today – 16 of them pre-Hispanic. Mexico has possession of close to 200 of them. By hook or crook, others are slowly returning. The Chimalpahin Codex was welcomed home on Sept. 17.

The three-volume Chimalpahin Codex is probably the oldest existing description of indigenous daily life in central Mexico. Poet and philosopher Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora had it in the late 17th century. A confidant of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, it’s fun to imagine him sharing this treasure with her in the San Jerónimo convent.

After Sigüenza’s death in 1700, the codex was acquired by José María Luís Mora Lamadrid. One of Father Mora’s favorite causes was national literacy and he traded it with the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS) for a shipment of Protestant Bibles.

For 200 years, the Chimalpahin Codex lay forgotten in the archives of the BFBS in England. When Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered it was to be auctioned by Christie’s it made private arrangements with the BFBS and now it again belongs to the nation.

Another codex on display has a cloak-and-dagger story. The divination calendar Tonalámatl de Aubin was part of the Lorenzo Boturini collection, sold to Count Jean Frederick Waldeck, who in turn sold it to Joseph Marius Alexis Aubin who took it to France in 1840.

Facing financial ruin as a result of his investment in the Panama Canal, Aubin sold his entire collection to Eugene Goupil, a Mexican antiquarian, who willed the collection to the National Library of Paris.

In 1898, French President Félix Faure decreed this collection could never be sold or gifted. In June 1982, Mexican lawyer and journalist José Luis Castañeda gained access to study the Tonalámatl in the library research vaults. He stuffed newspaper in its place and returned with the codex to Mexico. When discovered, the removal caused an international scandal. Castañeda was arrested but released two days later and treated as a hero by the Mexican press for returning illegally obtained patrimony. Over the protests of the French government, the Aubin Tonalámatl was deposited in Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology Library.

INAH Director Gastón García Cantú recounted that in October 1982 he took the Aubin Tonalámatl to France in his briefcase as part of a face-saving gentlemen’s agreement. Mexico would return the Tonalámatl and France, in a goodwill gesture, would give it to Mexico. It all came to naught in the French minister of culture’s office when France’s national library director produced President Faure’s decree that nothing from Goupil’s collection could be gifted. García Cantú kept his briefcase closed and the codex slipped out of France for a second time.

France severed cultural relations with Mexico until 1991 when Mexico and France negotiated an agreement allowing Mexico to keep the codex on a three-year renewable loan. In 2009, France and Mexico reached a permanent agreement that Mexico is the rightful owner.

The exhibit runs through January 11, 9 a.m.-7 p.m., Closed Mondays. All of the codices exhibited can be downloaded and viewed at www.inah.gob.mx/codices. However, it is difficult to conceptualize the size, color, texture and beauty of the codices without actually going to the exhibit.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Madero's writings

It’s hard to say when the Mexican Revolution began or ended, but last month we commemorated the Anniversary of the Revolution of 1910 on the day Francisco I. Madero called on the Mexican people to rise up against Porfirio Diaz’s administration. This was after the fraud-ridden election in which Diaz claimed to have won his seventh presidential term.

Porfirio Diaz had said he would welcome an opposition party candidate to run against him. Francisco Madero published “The Presidential Succession of 1910,” his campaign platform, and ran. On election day, Diaz claimed a landslide victory and had Madero arrested.

Madero escaped to San Antonio and there wrote a nine-page document published in San Luis Potosí on October 5, 1910. In it he set the date and time for the uprising against Diaz: 6:00 p.m., Sunday Nov. 20. Despite his precision, fighting began a few days before.

The San Luis Potosí Plan was successful in leading to Porfirio Diaz’s exile and Madero’s election as president in 1911, but turmoil continued for close to a decade. Madero did not live to see a post-Revolutionary Mexico. He was assassinated along with his vice-president in February 1913.

As learned this at a talk about Madero by C. M. Mayo last Tuesday in Mexico City, it turns out that Francisco Madero didn’t just write about politics and revolution.

Originally scheduled in the National Palace, the venue shifted across the street to the Archbishopric Palace. The topic of the talk was so much on my mind that as I entered the building I asked the uniformed doorman, “Is this Madero 4?” He corrected me, “Moneda 4.”

Indeed the street is named “coin” or “currency” because the first mint in the western hemisphere was down the block. If one wondered about the Colonial power’s priority, the treasury was located in that spot even before the Cathedral was built!

C.M. Mayo, the author of “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” about Agustin de Iturbide, is Catherine Mansell’s penname. Born in Texas, raised in northern California, she received her M.A. in economics in 1985 from the University of Chicago. In 1986 she married a young Mexican economist and moved to Mexico City. I have no doubt that in the United States, where it’s common for married women to take their husband’s surname, she’s received many invitations addressed to Dr. and Ms. Carstens.

She told us about visiting the archive of Madero at the Treasury Secretariat shortly after having published “The Last Prince.” “The curator had arranged a selection of the collection’s most outstanding items on a table that nearly spanned the width of the room: Madero’s masonic regalia, photographs, documents. We walked the length the table as she explained the importance of each piece. Not halfway through the presentation my gaze fell on a little book “Manual Spiritista” (Spiritist Manual) by ‘Bhíma.’

“Who was Bhíma?”

“Madero himself,” the curator answered.

Mayo told us, “Once I’d confirmed the work had never translated from Madero’s original Spanish, I knew I had to translate this book.”

And she did. However, it wasn’t the weekend project she had expected. Scarcely three pages in, she said, “I was dumbfounded. I had no context for such ideas. Frankly, it gave me the creeps. So instead of translating I started reading – four years worth of reading.”

That reading led to Mayo’s book – published this year – “Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book.” The book includes the full translation of Madero’s “Spiritist Manual.”

Spiritism is the belief that humans are immortal spirits that attain moral and intellectual improvement through reincarnation. According to “The Spirit’s Book” published in 1857 by Allan Kardec, “Spirits exert an incessant action upon the moral world, and even upon the physical world … Spirits are incessantly in relation with men. The good spirits try to lead us into the right road, sustain us under the trials of life, and aid us to bear them with courage and resignation; the bad ones tempt us to evil: it is a pleasure for them to see us fail, and to make us like them.”

Mayo told us “Almost unknown and curious as it may sound, a vital taproot of the Mexican Revolution lies in the Burned-Over District of New York state,” an area between Albany and Buffalo known for the fiery passion of 19th century revival movements. In her book Mayo describes the North American Spiritist movement spreading to Europe. “Scottish-born American D.D. Home’s séances, like his audiences, attained a new level of glamour…Attended by royalty, including Emperor Louis Napoleon and his Empress Eugénie and high society of all stripes.”

It was from France that Madero’s father acquired Allan Kardec’s books. Madero wrote: “I did not read Kardec’s books; I devoured them. For their doctrines were so rational, so beautiful, so new, they seduced me and ever since I consider myself a Spiritist.”

Nevertheless, Madero kept his Spiritism very private. Not even sharing it with members of his cabinet. Did it affect Mexico? In the very least it must have given Madero the strength to take on the daunting task of confronting the entrenched Diaz administration.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Finding Bermeja

Take a cruise around the western Caribbean and chances are you will stop at the port in Progreso, just north of Mérida in the Yucatan. Getting off a cruise ship can take a while, but getting off the Progreso pier can take even longer. It’s a 6.5 kilometer (four mile) trip to shore.

Progreso’s pier was a mile long when it was inaugurated in 1942, and then extended to be the world’s longest pier in the 1980s. Now it can accommodate container ships and cruise ships.

Why so long? Or, better question, why is the water so shallow? The Yucatan Peninsula is the above-water part of a large limestone shelf that extends out into the Gulf of Mexico. It extends more than 100 miles undersea, mainly to the north and west.

At the very edge of that shelf sits the tiny Bermeja Island.

Over the years I’ve followed the island’s rise and fall. Bermeja appears from time to time in Mexican newspapers and has been discussed numerous times on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies, but the island has gone missing and no one seems to know where it is or if it was ever there.

Bermeja Island made its literary appearance in 1539 with the publication of “The Yucatan and Nearby Islands,” written by Spain’s Alonso de Santa Cruz. A year later, Alonzo de Chaves described the island as “reddish-gold” and placed it at approximately 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude – pretty much straight east of Tampico and north of the Laguna de Terminos. The island is shown on ancient maps as Bermeja or Vermejo, both derived from the Spanish for “having a reddish appearance.”

Over the next centuries most maps of the Gulf of Mexico show Bermeja. No one had reason to doubt its existence. On the other hand, no one went looking for it.

Now with billions of dollars of oil money at stake, the search is on.

The Gulf of Mexico has enormous unexplored oil fields. In the United States, oil rigs are ubiquitous in the waters off of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. While more than 38 percent of the gulf is shallow intertidal water where drilling is relatively easy, much of the Gulf is part of a deep canyon that reaches a maximum depth of 2.6 miles (4.4 kilometers). Until the technology of deep sea drilling advanced the potential to drill for oil in very deep water, the area outside intertidal boundaries was of little more than theoretical interest.

For many years, the United States, Mexico and Cuba all claimed portions of those reserves that fell outside the customary territorial waters – considered to be approximately 12 miles offshore.
In 1970, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea formally awarded each country “the right to natural resources within a 200-mile (322 km) Exclusive Economic Zone.” That means that each country controls a 200-mile band surrounding its territory.

Where claims overlap, the Law of the Sea requires competing countries to negotiate separate bilateral or multilateral agreements.

The 1970 ruling left two areas in the Gulf of Mexico disputed. They became known as the Eastern and Western Hoyos de Dona, better known as “the donut holes.” The Western donut hole is 6,744 square miles (17,467 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico and the United States. The Eastern donut hole is 7,720 square miles (20,000 square kilometers) and disputed by Mexico, the United States and Cuba.

Bermeja Island is in the international waters of the Western donut hole. If Bermeja Island could be located, it would significantly extend Mexico’s portion of the donut hole and its bargaining power with the United States.

As all the debate, exploration, and gnashing of teeth continued, geopolitics changed. Cuba and China entered into an agreement allowing China to begin exploration in Cuba’s area of interest in its territorial waters and the Eastern donut. Meanwhile, the United States began drilling deeper and deeper in the Gulf of Mexico, pushing the limits. The ecological disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred at the deepest deep-water well.

Mexico frantically searched for the missing island but could find nothing. In 2009, the Chamber of Deputies ordered three investigations. Though the most advanced technology available was used, there were no results. Not only did investigators not find the island, they were unable to find evidence of an island ever having existed at, or near, the location specified on early maps.

Did the ocean rise? Did the island sink? Did a tectonic shift destroy Bermeja? Conspiracy theorists suggest the United States blew up the island to improve their economic interests, but early satellite photos – even from the 1960s – provide no evidence of Bermeja’s existence.

Could it be time to consider the possibility that Bermeja never existed? Could it have been invented by early mapmakers to mislead their rivals?

Regardless, 22.3 degrees north latitude and 91.22 degrees west longitude is located close to the northwestern tip of the limestone shelf that holds up the Yucatan Peninsula – where the gulf is still shallow and a small, perhaps unstable, island could perch.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Uniting for change

Last Thursday, I spoke at the University of Alabama at the School of Social Work. As I gave my noontime talk, Mexico City’s Zócalo was being prepared for the convergence of three huge marches in support of the 43 missing students from the Rural Teachers’ School in Ayotzinapa. I made ‘understanding’ the topic of my talk.

I explained to the students that Mexicans have the right to demonstrate peacefully in public places without the need for any type of permit. This is a coveted and frequently exercised right that springs from the 1917 Constitution. In sharp contrast, U.S. law requires permits for any large gathering.

I told the students that what was unusual about the recent demonstrations is that many sectors of society are coming together in solidarity with the plight of the 43 students from Ayotzinapa. Much of the organizing is happening at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). This is where many middle class students study. Students from wealthy families who attend private universities are also joining the fray.

And they are protesting in support of poor, rural students. Rural teachers schools such as Ayotzinapa are where students from poor families can receive an education sufficient to obtain a teaching position.

Neither UNAM nor the college in Ayotzinapa charge tuition. But you don’t see a lot of students from poor families at UNAM because only people with sufficient family support can pay the other expenses tied into a college education – textbooks, food, lodging and transportation. In Ayotzinapa, students from poor families figure out how to make do with what they have.

Last week the University of Alabama’s stunningly beautiful campus of elegant colonial architecture modeled on Jeffersonian design was being readied for its homecoming game. A tower of lumber was in place in the center of the quad for a bonfire. Tradition dictates it be lit after the Friday night pep rally.

After the talk I walked around the corner from Little Hall with Ellen Csikai, PhD, the host of my visit. We stepped into Malone-Hood Plaza in front of Foster Auditorium and gazed at the Autherine Lucy Clock Tower.

This is the site where actions by college students had a profound impact on society during the Civil Rights movement. Autherine Lucy was the first African-American to attend the University of Alabama. She enrolled in 1956 and was suspended three days later because of campus unrest.
Vivian Malone and James Hood were on their way into Foster Auditorium in 1963 to register for classes when Governor George Wallace blocked the doorway. To get them through, President Kennedy “federalized” the Alabama National Guard, who persuaded Governor Wallace to get out of the way.

Bronze plaques commemorating the first three African-American students flank the new clock tower. The open doors in the tower are in invitation to all who seek to enter – a fitting tribute to a tense but peaceful step on the path towards justice.

The 1960s U.S. Civil Rights movement has much in common with happenings in Mexico today. To be successful, the movement required the participation of not just the oppressed but those of goodwill with commitment to social justice.

Beginning in 1961, Freedom Riders, young white men and women from all over the United States, courageously traveled to the segregated south to work with African American men and women. They helped register voters and integrate transportation, public restrooms and eating establishments.

Too young to join the Freedom Riders, I used a shortwave radio to follow their progress as best I could from my home. Last Thursday I, and much of the world, followed Mexico’s demonstrations by smartphone.

Technologically, much has changed in the intervening years and so has the University of Alabama – now 12 percent black. Together blacks, whites, Asian, Native American and Hispanic students celebrated homecoming (they won!); and hopefully my talk added to their understanding of their Southern neighbor.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The art and history of the gourd

When I leave my house, the last thing I tuck into my backpack is my water bottle. It is blue and shiny and accompanies me everywhere. Mine is double-walled and keeps cold beverages cold and hot drinks hot for hours on end. I think it is a marvel. But really it is just the latest in a long line of portable drinking vessels that stretch back to the humble gourd.

We take containers for granted. The plastic throwaway water bottles that you see everywhere are proof. But without a way to carry water, we’d be tied to our water source and unable to move around freely.

Humanity’s earliest containers were not man-made. They were provided by nature. They grew on trees as gourds or on vines as bottle-gourds. The bottle-gourd as a container became an essential piece of “luggage” on early migrations. With them hunters and gatherers could extend how far they traveled in search of food.

Jared Diamond, in the epic Guns, Germs and Steel, tells us bottle-gourds were one of the “earliest cultivated plants and grown primarily for their value as containers.”  Their hour-glass shape makes it easy to tie a strap around them and a small aperture at the top can be sealed with a corn cob or cork, providing for hands-free carrying.  Not only is a gourd reusable but it keeps water fresh and cool far better than a plastic bottle.

Hollow gourds that grow on vines are native to Asia and Africa and have been used on five of the continents as water bottles for millennia.  Only aboriginal Australians didn’t have gourds.

The oldest carbon-dated water bottle was found in Peru and is over 13,000 years old. Scientists and anthropologists have long debated how gourds found their way to this hemisphere.  Since gourds float and seeds sealed inside can survive for 200 days, it was long suspected that they floated across oceans. After years of science and DNA testing we now know that the first gourds of the Americas were carried here from Asia by the first undocumented immigrants.

Genetic research on archeological samples, published in 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences, suggests the bottle gourd may have been domesticated earlier than food crops and livestock and, like dogs, brought into the Americas at the end of the ice age.

As hunter-gatherers evolved into farmers, gourd containers were used for storage of grains and gathered food, as well as dishes. They were even used as pots and pans. 

And they make great art. Go to a folk art museum and you’ll see that some of Mexico’s most beautiful artisan work is created on gourds.

I watch for an unusual looking tree, the Crescentia Alata, on my drives to Taxco, Guerrero. It’s known in Mexico as a “jicaro” tree and in English as the gourd tree. It’s easy to spot the jicaro tree because it has disproportionately tiny leaves growing directly along the entire length of its many branches. Only the female trees bear fruit and without a nearby male tree they cannot produce.
Though the cannonball-shaped fruit is too bitter for human consumption, its outer shell makes an excellent container.  When cut in half the jicaro fruit becomes two bowls.

So how do you cook in a thin gourd without catching it on fire?  Recently I ate at an elegant Mexico City restaurant where we were served pre-Hispanic dishes.  My curiosity piqued, I ordered “stone soup.”  A gourd bowl filled with a number of raw ingredients was placed before me, broth was added and then two fire-hot smooth river-stones were added to the mix.  Within seconds the soup was boiling and remained boiling for minutes.  When the boiling stopped the stones were removed and I was treated to a unique, delicious, and memorable dish.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A billionaire’s view on inequality

It’s not often that you hear a billionaire join a conversation about income inequality. But that’s what happened last Saturday in Puebla at the City of Ideas festival. While liberal economist Robert Reich debated with conservative Stephen Moore about how much wealth was enough, Ricardo Salinas Pliego stood up from the audience to speak. “I’m a billionaire.  I’m qualified to answer,” he said.

At the beginning of the presentation Reich had told us that the assets held by the 400 wealthiest people in the United States equals that of the poorest 150 million.  Or more dramatically, the world’s 85 wealthiest people own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion!

Reich went on, “How much do people at the top need as incentive?  Forty years ago U.S. Fortune 500 corporation CEOs earned 20 times the salary of their average worker.  Today they earn 290 times the earnings of their average worker!  How much is enough?”

Stephen Moore maintained, “It’s a decision to be made by shareholders not the government.”
That’s when Salinas stepped into the foray. He is the chairman of Grupo Salinas and Grupo Elektra and listed by Forbes as the 126th wealthiest person in the world, worth $9.9 billion. “How much is enough to create a new company, to create new jobs, to make new investments, to take on new risks?”

“People should have an incentive to do things.  Now, people who criticize extremely rich people like me probably don’t have the experience. You cannot eat more--bad for your belly.  You can’t drink more--bad for your mind.  There are lots of things that are limited.”

He continued, “This wealth isn’t like you have it in your checkbook and you pull it out.  It’s in the form of assets.  To sell the assets you’d first have to find someone interested in buying them.  Then you’d have to pay lots of taxes.  And then what would you do with it?  You loan it to the government.  These days that’s what you do – at a ridiculously low rate.  So the whole concept of wealth is something most people don’t understand because they don’t have these amounts.”

“I can sincerely tell you, it is all about investments.  I just sold a company yesterday for $2.5 billion. Now, if we get a tax hit and I end up with $500 million I’m still going to invest it.  But the other money is going to go into government coffers to no effect.”

Reich replied: “Where do we get the resources to provide good education and good health care for everyone? We are in a system where the wealth is going to the top. So that’s where you get the resources to finance the education at the bottom.  It’s just logic.”

Reich continued “unless you have a growing middle class you don’t have the purchasing power to keep the economy growing.  In the United States we have so much money going to the top that the middle and lower classes no longer have the purchasing power to basically get the economy out of first gear.”

Salinas challenged the two U.S. citizens. “You gentlemen mentioned some very good policies but you didn’t touch on a key point of which I need to remind you.  You Americans have this misnomer called the Defense Department.  It’s not the Defense Department-- it’s the War Department waging war all over the damn world and spending trillions of dollars, money we can’t even contemplate, on bombing people somewhere else.  Why don’t you cut the war spending?”

Robert Reich looked at Ricardo Salinas and said “I’m nominating you for Secretary of the Defense Department.”

Salinas answered, “War Department.  If you change the name I’ll take it.”

Reich replied: “If you can get defense spending down, and you can transfer it to education and healthcare in the U.S., that would be great.”

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A city of ideas

An extraordinary learning festival will be held November 6-8 at the Cultural Center of Puebla’s Benemérita Autonomous University.  3500 people will gather for a fast-paced exchange of ideas. Selected from all over the world, 70 speakers will each have 14 minutes to present on diverse topics from the fields of medicine, science, law, education, the arts, economics, gender issues, and politics.        

This event, the Seventh City of Ideas Conference, is titled “Change the World.”  In their invitation to participate, conference director Andres Roemer and co-creator Ricardo Salinas Pliego of TV Azteca, suggest each individual can effect change.  “Don’t underestimate the power of the beating of the monarch butterflies wings in Michoacan to generate a tsunami in Tokyo.”

I was fortunate to attend last year when the topic was “Dangerous Ideas.” I witnessed a spirited debate on the existence of God between Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins.  I was moved by Sanjit “Bunker” Roy talking about his Barefoot College – an educational concept that has successfully trained illiterate grandmothers to become solar electricity engineers, able to electrify their poor and remote villages with solar panels they have learned to both manufacture and maintain. 

I was thrilled to hear a world-wide choir of 7,000 people all singing the same song as the camera moved from nation to nation.

This year’s presenters include economist, author and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and Canadian Nicole Ticea, the creator of a new HIV testing process.

Tickets for the City of Ideas Conference are being sold on a waiting-list basis. However you can register and watch online in real time at www.ciudaddelasideas.com.

Videos of last year’s talks are posted on the same site.  Most are in English with Spanish subtitles.
Dr. Roemer conceived of the City of Ideas as a “Renaissance event, where people come together to discuss ideas and to network on how one can effect change in the world.”

Leonardo Da Vinci was the ultimate Renaissance man.  During the Renaissance it was possible for one person to possess wide-ranging knowledge. Now the world is complex and areas of knowledge highly specialized.

The City of Ideas wants to create a new population of Renaissance people. People whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas are known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve problems.  In a world where there is increased specialization of knowledge these people are vanishing breed, yet necessary to confront and solve the challenges facing today’s world.

Conference director Andres Roemer lives in San Francisco, where he is Mexico’s Consul-General. Perched on the Pacific Rim, with the converging influences of distant Asia and close-by Silicon Valley, he says “I’m here in the U.S. in an area where there are some unique business people.  Their ideas are what’s moving the world.”

Roemer looks to the conference sponsors not just for resources, but also for ideas. The conference was co-founded by Mexican entrepreneur Ricardo Salinas Pliego, who he called a “curator” of ideas. They look to participants from both the private sector and government for ideas.

Roemer added, “This is a festival of science where more importantly than what is said you learn how to think.  The purpose is to become questioners.  How do we empower social as well as individual prosperity?”

I asked Dr. Roemer why, since Mexico revolves around its capital, Mexico City, Puebla was chosen as the site for the City of Ideas.  “For that very reason.  It is important to get away to a retreat-like atmosphere where participants will not only attend but bond and network with one another during breaks, share their own ideas.  Puebla is a World Heritage Site, has one of the best Conference Centers in Mexico and the necessary infrastructure to support the City of Ideas.”
Indeed I was thoroughly impressed last year with the first-rate installation operated by the University of Puebla.

Change the World’s mission makes me think of the phrase attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Is it a bit too much to bring him into a meeting sponsored by wealthy business people?  Maybe it’s exactly what needs to be done.  Sanjit “Bunker” Roy certainly got a thundering applause at last year’s meeting when he described illiterate grandmothers becoming solar power engineers.  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Easily missed sanctuaries hold a vast and important history

When exploring any of Mexico’s 16th century cathedrals, make sure to visit the side chapels. Arrayed the length of both sides of the sanctuary, frequently side chapels are dedicated to a person or object of local veneration. These can be quirky figures who are not embraced by the Catholic Church in general yet were sanctioned by the bishop of the local diocese.

My favorite is the chapel of the Cross of Huatulco in Oaxaca’s cathedral. That little chapel houses a most unusual story. It pulls together Quetzalcoatl, Apostle Saint Thomas, English pirates on round-the-world voyages, and two beatified Indigenous Mexicans, all in a space of no more than thirty square meters.

There was a marvelous text describing the Cross of Huatulco but it was removed in the early 2000s when the chapel was re-dedicated to honor Juan Bautista and Jacinto de los Ángeles. They were Indigenous leaders martyred in Oaxaca in 1700 and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002. There is now a life sized painting of them standing side by side looking like a Grant Wood “American Gothic” portrait with Andy Warhol colors.

The now-missing text described an event occurring long before the arrival of the Spaniards with their Christian religion. “Since time immemorial the Indigenous people of Huatulco knew of a cross on the beach which they venerated because it could heal them of their afflictions. It had been carried there by an elderly man arriving from the direction of Peru. He spoke kindly to the local people in their own language – Mixtec.”

The text went on to say, “The Cross, according to tradition, was brought by the Apostle Saint Thomas, called Quetzalcoatl.” My! That in a Catholic cathedral!

Don’t think I’m making this up. Back before digital cameras I asked a member of one of my study groups to take a photo of the chapel as well as text. Not an easy feat in the dimly-lit sanctuary while respecting the no-flash rule.

Think of Quetzalcoatl as a changing god of Mesoamerican mythology, a god that is always on our side. He gave the sun a gift of his own blood so as to keep it moving and creating day and night. From the bones of his mother and father sprinkled with his own blood Quetzalcoatl created our humanity. People didn’t fear Quetzalcoatl as they did so many of their other gods.

Quetzalcoatl’s name is a play on words. It means “precious twin” or, more properly, “precious duality” because quetzal feathers were highly valued and coatl is the Nahuatl word for twin as well as serpent. Thomas, the name of the Apostle “known as Quetzalcoatl”, also means twin.

There is a real-life character known as Quetzalcoatl who may have been the one bearing the cross. Ce-Acatl was a preist to the god Quetzalcoatl who became the Emperor of the Toltecs. In 999 the 52-year old emperor, the link between people and their most beloved god and thought of by many as a god-person, departed Tula in self-imposed exile.

The chapel in Oaxaca shows that the archbishop of Oaxaca endorsed the idea of St. Thomas/Quetzalcoatl bearing the cross. Higher-ups did too. Pope John Paul II said at the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City in 1999, “A thousand years ago today, Quetzalcoatl was a precursor of evangelization in these realms. As he neared death, he clutched in his hands a cross.”

So how do Sir Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish fit into the picture? Both were privateers who put down anchor in Huatulco, an area of nine bays on Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.

Francis Drake stopped at Huatulco in 1579. Thomas Cavendish stopped there in 1587. Both ransacked the port and made off with cattle and other supplies.

Cavendish went further than Drake. He went after the cross of Huatulco planted in the sand. Cavendish ordered his men to cut down the cross with saws and axes. They couldn’t. He then ordered one end of a rope be tied around the cross and the other around a mast of his ship Desire. They tried under full sail to yank it out of the beach. They couldn’t. The ship came to a standstill when the rope went taut. Finally he tried to burn the cross. It wouldn’t burn. Giving up, Cavendish set off on more profitable pursuits.

People marveled at the resiliency of the cross, and took slivers as relics. The bishop of Oaxaca at the time feared the cross would be whittled down to nothing and ordered it brought to the city of Oaxaca. For him it came out of the sand with little effort.

He made smaller crosses from the original. One was sent to Pope Paul V. Another was sent to the Santo Domingo Church in Puebla. A third is in the Merced Monastery in Mexico City.

A fourth is still proudly displayed in the side chapel in Oaxaca above the heads of the martyrs Juan and Jacinto. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Mexico’s multifaceted independence

Festooned in green, white and red, Mexico is well into the “mes de la patria” — the month of the nation. It takes a short history lesson to understand what all the shouting (“gritos”) is about. Mexico’s independence from Spain, its border conflicts with the U.S., and its own constitution play a role in the commemorations. The Irish even get in on the act.

The month began on the first with the national report delivered to congress followed by the president’s State of the Nation address on the second. This address is mandated in the constitution and used to be a holiday on which the president delivered a multi-hour speech to both houses of congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of guests. This year the secretary of the interior turned over the president’s written report to congressional representatives in hardcopy and on a computer hard drive. It was a twenty-minute ceremony.

President Peña Nieto did give a speech that day. But he presented it in the National Palace, the headquarters of the executive branch of government, rather than in the Legislative Palace.
Two events this week will commemorate what the U.S. calls the Mexican-American War and what Mexico calls the Unjust North American Invasion. They probably should be observed on the same day, but then one would overshadow the other.

On Saturday, September 13th, Mexico celebrates the Niños Héroes de Chapultepec (heroic children of Chapultepec). President Peña Nieto will lay wreaths at the base of Chapultepec Hill in Chapultepec Park honoring six cadets who defended Mexico’s military academy in 1847 during the U.S. invasion.
When they learned that their academy was going to be attacked, six cadets ranging in age from 15 to 21 made a solemn promise to die fighting in defense of their institution. After 5 had been killed in battle, the sixth, Juan Escutia, lowered the Mexican flag, wrapped himself in it, and jumped off the cliff.

The six are honored at the Monumento a la Patria (Monument to the Nation) at the base of Chapultepec Hill – each one represented by a soaring marble column topped with an eagle with outstretched wings.
On September 13, 1847, as the U.S. flag was being raised over the Chapultepec Castle, thirty members of the Saint Patrick’s Battalion were executed at the base of Chapultepec Hill under orders of General Winfield Scott.

The Saint Patrick’s Battalion had entered Mexico as part of the U.S. Army. Upon crossing the border from Texas, the mostly Irish troops came face-to-face with the enemy — Catholics like themselves. Some Mexican forces carried the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle along with a flag that was similar to the Irish flag. Pondering what they were fighting for, Captain John O’Reilly and his men soon came to the conclusion that they were on the wrong side. They switched and fought heroically on behalf of Mexico — infuriating General Winfield Scott.

On Friday, September 12, the Federal District’s Delegación (borough) Alvaro Obregón will sponsor a wreath-laying ceremony at the monument honoring St. Patrick’s Battalion in San Jacinto Park in San Ángel. Readers with Irish ancestry will be particularly welcome.

Next Monday, September 15, Mexico will celebrate its independence from Spain. Two places in Mexico City are particularly iconic for this event: the Monument to Independence on Paseo de la Reforma and the Zocalo.

Somehow the Monument to Independence continues standing straight even as the city sinks and tilts around it. Patterned after a similar column in Berlin, the monument is crowned with a golden winged Victory. I keep telling myself that next time I visit that monument I’ll take a Greek mythology book with me to understand all the mythological characters portrayed in relief and sculpture on and around the magnificent monument.

On Monday night at 10:30 President Peña Nieto will reenact the Shout of Independence from the central balcony of the National Palace overlooking the Zocalo. The original “grito” happened on September 16, 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed independence from Spain in front of his church in Dolores, Guanajuato. At the end of the “grito” the president will ring the same bell that Father Hidalgo rang and then the fireworks show will begin. You can be in the crowd or watch from one of the three hotels facing the National Palace — they all have rooftop restaurants.

The two weeks of nationalistic fervor will be brought to a close next Tuesday with a grand military parade that passes in front of the National Palace. They’ll close the Mexico City airport so that air force jets can fly over. The parade doesn’t change much from year to year. What changes is the spin given to it by the army’s commentator. In the previous administration’s parades we learned the armed forces were here to fight the enemy. This administration’s commentator tells us they are here to help the citizenry. Subtle but important change in style.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Agave by any other name

Mexico’s biggest claim to fame in the botanical world is the development of corn over the millennia from tiny teosintle seeds to plump ears suitable for sustaining large populations. But its most iconic plant is probably the agave.

Agaves are native to Mexico, Central America, and the southwestern desert of the United States. In English it is known as the century plant and in Spanish as maguey. However in both English and Spanish you can refer to it as agave – its genus name.

The most portrayed agave is the Blue Agave, appearing on most Tequila brand-labels sold around the world. The largest agave plants I’ve seen are on the grounds of southern Mexico City’s Dolores Olmedo Museum – just past the gift shop. The most extensive plantations I have seen are in the Yucatan Peninsula’s henequen fields. The fastest growing agave I’ve seen is in Big Bend National Park along the Texas border with Chihuahua and Coahuila – a species of agave whose flower stalk grows at the rate of a foot a day!

Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who arrived in New Spain in 1529, described agaves as looking like a giant artichoke and pointed out how rows of agave were used to anchor terraced farming fields. As with all the plants Sahagún wrote about he was especially interested in agaves’ medicinal properties. In the case of agave he also took special note of its use in rituals.

U.S. historian William H. Prescott published “The History of the Conquest of Mexico” in 1843. He too referred to the agave with admiration, writing “the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the tableland. Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage, pulque; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing and writing materials. Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!”

Twentieth-century Mexican historian Fernando Benítez described the maguey as a plant adapted to the Mexican desert: “Like a horse of the plant-world, it is capable of retaining a great quantity of water and making it through the worst of droughts. So as to not let go of a single drop it armors itself like medieval warriors with an impermeable shield and numerous thorns to keep its enemies at bay.”

Calling the agave a century plant is a bit of an exaggeration. The life span ranges from 5 to 70 years. A trait that is common to all the 200 species is that each plant only flowers once. Then the mother plant dies, leaving “children” to grow from its roots and seeds in the flower. The flowers are spectacular atop the stalk, which on the largest plants may be 8 to 10 meters (24 to 30 feet) high.

Today’s best-known agave products are tequila, made in Jalisco, and mezcal mainly produced in Oaxaca. Both of them are produced with a European distillation process. Before the conquest, Mesoamericans fermented the sap of the agave to produce pulque, a liquor with an alcoholic content similar to beer. It’s a tradition still maintained today. The fermentation never stops so you can’t bottle pulque. You need to buy it from a pulquería where the fermentation is monitored.

As farming in the U.S. mid-west boomed in the late 19th century, the meter-long (3 feet) fibers from a type of agave known as henequen was used to make twine to bale hay. The fiber was known in the United States as sisal – called that because it was shipped out of the Yucatecan port of Sisal.

Henequen haciendas in the Yucatan were a tremendous source of wealth. At the turn of the twentieth century the city of Merida had the distinction of having the world’s highest per-capita number of millionaires. Their palatial mansions still line Paseo de Montejo.

In the 1970’s the Echeverría administration set up Cordemex, a government-owned company as a guaranteed purchaser of henequen leaves from small farmers at defibering plants in Campeche and Yucatan. Successive governments did not follow suit and today only 15 of the defibering plants survive. A couple of them are on the road from Merida to Chichen Itza. They welcome visitors but their workday starts at 4 a.m. and is over at 11 a.m., so you need to get there early.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

August is watermelon season

The large, juicy fruit is celebrated all over Mexico and the United States. Zacatecas and Coahuila in northern Mexico have watermelon festivals that attract thousands of people. Russellville in northwestern Alabama recently hosted 30,000 people at its watermelon festival. I wonder what’s happened to seed spitting contests now that seedless watermelon are all the rage?

Watermelons make me think of two Mexican artists – Rufino Tamayo and Wilberth Azcorra. Many Mexican artists have an affinity for painting watermelon because the slices contain the color of the Mexican flag. Arranging watermelon slices into a red star is a subtle way to give their art a social message. Many 20th Century artists joined the Union of Artists and Engravers, an association formed during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, which held that to be truly revolutionary, art should contain a social message in addition to being something of beauty.

Although he was a member of the Union of Artists and Engravers, Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) didn’t go for that. When he painted watermelon slices they were usually portrayed standing vertically on a tabletop. Tamayo maintained that art only needs to be something of beauty. And, boy, did he have fun with watermelon.

I found this out through Yucatecan artist Wilberth Azcorra. Azcorra has made watermelons his leitmotif. In whatever medium he works in, Wilberth’s topic is watermelons.

It turns out that Azcorra and Tamayo had a friend in common: Lauro López (1930-1996). Lauro was also an artist – known for his still-life set in viceroyalty-period kitchens. He really liked painting two shelves in a cupboard.

In the early 1970s, Wilberth frequently stayed at Lauro’s home in Temixco, just south of Cuernavaca, while teaching a high school literature class in rural Morelos. The class was on Friday nights. He would stay over and drive back to Mexico City in daylight on Saturday.

Every other Saturday Rufino Tamayo and his wife Olga would go to Lauro’s house for lunch and then stay to play canasta. Lauro put Wilberth in charge of setting the stage for those events.

On a long table set in the garden, covered with a white tablecloth, Wilberth would make an artistic arrangement of four, five or six watermelons. He had previously rubbed them with olive oil to make them shiny. Lauro himself would decorate a 40-centimeter-long knife (16 inches) with a red ribbon and place it on the table.

Wilberth told me, “When the Tamayos arrived, Rufino knew that the knife was for him to use and with it carve, cut, and arrange the watermelons however he pleased. It was wonderful. He would go crazy. It was like a children’s game but he was the only one who played.

“To me it was an ephemeral work of art because after sketches had been made the watermelons became juice served at lunch.”

I asked, “Would Tamayo do this on a plate or on a tray?” “No. Right on the tablecloth. Everything got stained with watermelon juice. It was marvelous. He knew that it was all set up for him to transform into an homage to watermelon. It was beautiful. And very magical. “No two cuts were ever the same. Once the initial cut was made he would cut it into other shapes. Pyramids, cubes, cones, squares, slices, triangles.”

In our conversation Wilbert referred to the pieces as fractals – a way to cut a solid object in to many shapes. Be they straight or curved, each one represents the original object but seen in a different way. No two pieces of Tamayo’s watermelons were the same. Some pieces were red, others green, yet it was obvious that they were all watermelon.

I like the image of fractals to describe Wilberth too. He is an artist to some, a poet to others, a teacher to many and a philosopher to boot. He is also a wonderful host. In August of each year he sponsors a festival to Saint Augustine, in his hometown of Valladolid, Yucatan, as his family has done uninterruptedly for 99 years. I encourage readers in the Yucatan peninsula to attend one or both of the remaining evening rosaries leading up to the feast day of St. Augustine.

On Thursday morning Wilberth will lead the procession with the 16th century wooden image of St. Augustine of Hippo that has been passed through generations of his family. A 7 a.m. Mass in a nearby church will be 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.”

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Economics of street vendors

While stuck in traffic, I watch the “vendedores ambulantes” weave their way through the cars and trucks. My mind frequently flashes back to my college accounting professor. He taught me terms like FIFO, LIFO, overhead costs, and value added. At the time I had decided to file all that information in my brain’s category of “when is this going to be of any use to me?” Yet right in front of me I see those economic terms played out in real life.

“Vendedores ambulantes” are vendors who set up a stall at the beginning of every workday and take it down at night. They pack up all the merchandise and store it for the night in some other location, frequently in a nearby parking lot. Some vendedores ambulantes staff a stall while others look like walking display counters.

They exemplify low overhead. They don’t pay for a building and all the intendant costs in order to make profit even if they sell a meager amount.

My favorite low-overhead sellers are the silver jewelry vendors at Xochimilco. They work their way up and down the canals through the “floating gardens”, but not by paddling their own boats. They skillfully step from boat to boat, timing their movements to show their wares to the boat’s passengers and then make a graceful exit onto another passing boat. Essentially they are walking on water.

Most vendors buy their inventory wholesale and then simply sell them at higher retail prices. But some have figured out how to add value to what they sell. A good example are the Castro brothers at Teotihuacan who sell postcards.

Postcards? You might have thought they went the way of travelers’ checks and public telephones, but the Castros do a brisk business selling postcards of the pyramids – 10 cards to a packet. Their father, the late Paciano Castro, came up with one of the most marvelous marketing schemes I’ve ever seen. Buying postcards from him became a history lesson.

During the viceroyalty period cochineal dye was the second (after silver) most important source of wealth for Spain from Mexico. Paciano Castro would demonstrate where the dye came from by smashing cochineal insect eggs infesting a flat leaf cactus paddle. He then would rub the bright red die on an envelope containing 10 postcards. Then he would take sap from the cactus and use that to seal the dye on the paper.

Visitors wanting a souvenir of cochineal buy a packet of postcards from one of the Castro brothers. The Castro sons have ratcheted up the value added by selling the envelope inside a bag made from century plant fiber.

Managing the amount of inventory is key for vendors. I remember learning about two strategies for moving inventory in that same college class—LIFO (Last in First Out) and FIFO (First in First Out). Those are helpful concepts when waiting in line too. While waiting in line in a bank or government office you definitely want to be FIFO. In these queues I move quickly to get to the head of the line.

However there are some queues that are best to think of as LIFO – such as when boarding the shuttle bus from the airport terminal to the car rental depot. It’s best to be the last one to board those shuttles to be first on line at the car rental counter.

Sometimes businesses want to hold no inventory. Just-in-time production is the catch-phrase. The parts arrive at the assembly plant just as they are needed. It takes skillful coordination or an assembly line can come to a halt for lack of a part. Today’s package express companies with guaranteed delivery times are an essential part of this manufacturing concept.

But you don’t need a big assembly plant to take advantage of just-in-time inventory. I found it on the beach at Chachalacas, Veracruz.

Far from town, close to the hill-sized sand dunes, with a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico, was a six-table restaurant with an extensive menu. The structure over the tables and the adjacent kitchen were all made with palm fronds—low overhead.

I figured out the inventory system when a member of my party asked for an uncommon soft drink. The grandmother first said it wasn’t available and then corrected herself. Out of the corner of my eye I’d seen a young man who I thought was a customer nod affirmatively. When our orders for fish and soft drinks had been placed the “customer” got up, walked around behind the kitchen and departed on a motorcycle. From the kitchen came chips and salsa, and before they were finished I heard the motorcycle returning. Immediately after its arrival, the soft drinks came from the kitchen. Soon I could hear fish sizzling on the grill.No inventory. No waste. Everything just in time.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tiffany glass adorns Mexico

Seeing marvelous works of art is one of the delights of traveling. I’m one of those people who reads billboards to find must-see museum exhibits in the city. So imagine my delight when after missing a flight at the San Francisco Airport (SFO) I stumbled upon “A Radiant Light, The Artistry of Louis C. Tiffany” in the International Departures terminal.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), founder of Tiffany Studios was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the renowned jewelry store Tiffany & Co. Louis Tiffany is probably best known for Tiffany lamps — stained glass lamps and shades with floral and organic designs in richly hued colors. At the exhibit in SFO you can also see blown glass vases, ceramics, window panels, desk sets, and oil paintings, his original métier. But you don’t need to travel far to see his work—an enormous work some consider to be his masterpiece is right here in Mexico City.

In 1892 Louis Tiffany filed a request for a patent for his breakthrough in the art world — a new method for stained glass. Rather than painting colors onto glass as had been done since medieval times, his glass was internally colored with many-hued opalescent colors. He trademarked his product Favrile, derived from the old English word “fabrile”, meaning handcrafted. He changed the b to a v because “it sounded better.” His work in Favrile glass went on to win the 1900 Paris Exposition grand prize.

In the United States, following the Civil War, economic prosperity led to the construction of thousands of churches. Tiffany set up an entire division of Tiffany Studios to create “all forms of decorations and instrumental ecclesiastics.” Tiffany’s brochures offered leaded-glass windows, mosaics, frescoes, altars, and an array of sacred vessels and portable objects with biblical themes which wealthy parishioners could donate to their churches as a way of memorializing their loved ones.

At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair the Tiffany Studio exhibit included an award-winning chapel interior which attracted over 900,000 visitors and resulted in so many commissions that supplying stained glass windows for churches supported the rest of Tiffany’s various artistic pursuits.

Favrile glass could hardly have come at a better time as it coincided with the spreading use of electricity. Tiffany lamps became an artistic way to soften the harshness of the bare light bulb, while electrically backlighted stained glass windows took on new luster.

So how can you see a Tiffany masterpiece? Arrive on time for a performance in the theater of Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts. The largest mural in the Palace of Fine Arts is the Tiffany Glass Curtain in the building’s main theater.

It is only visible during the short time between when doors open for seating and show time. After the third call the lights dim and the curtain’s glass landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes is taken through a light show from dawn to dusk before the curtain rises and disappears into the ceiling.

Construction of the Palace of Fine Arts started in 1904 during the Porfirio Díaz administration of 1884-1911. Italian architect Adamo Boari commissioned Tiffany Studios to apply techniques developed for decorating churches to Mexico’s secular theater. Boari wanted to use Favrile glass to disguise his new development in theater design — a fire-proof curtain to separate the stage and backstage from the seating area.

To protect the audience from the frequent threat of fires starting backstage, Boari designed a double walled steel firewall 14 meters (42 feet) wide, 12.5 meters (38 feet) high and 32 centimeters (a foot) thick — weighing about 27 tons!

The fireproof curtain and mechanism to raise and lower it were constructed in Germany and shipped to New York. In the meantime stage designer Harry Stoner was sent to Mexico City to paint a landscape of snowcapped Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes as seen from an office in the National Palace.
Once the firewall and painting converged in New York, Tiffany’s artisans started a two-year project of copying the painting onto 206 panels which were attached to the firewall. In doing so they used close to a million pieces of Favrile glass.

Before being shipped to Mexico City in 1911, the finished curtain/firewall was displayed in New York.
Architect Boari never saw the Tiffany curtain installed. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 put a stop to the theater construction work. Boari waited for the Revolution to settle down, but gave up in 1916 and left Mexico for good. Finally in 1930 work resumed on the Palace of Fine Arts under Mexican architect Federico Mariscal. The art nouveau building with an art deco interior was inaugurated in 1934.

I suggest that the next time you attend an event in the Palace of Fine Arts’ main theater you take your binoculars with you in order to get a close up view of Tiffany’s marvel.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Glorieta de la Palma 200 years old and still going strong

A Mexico City journey I enjoy is to walk, drive or bicycle along tree-lined Paseo de la Reforma. Though now a long easterly-westerly avenue, it was originally designed in the 1860s to link Chapultepec Castle — then Emperor Maximilian’s palace — with the city center.

Austrian military engineer Ferdinand von Rosenzweig patterned it on the grand European boulevards, especially Paris’ Champs-Élysées and Vienna’s Ringstrasse. Maximilian christened it Paseo de la Emperatríz, the Empress’ Promenade, referring to Empress Carlotta.

Along Reforma you will see some of Mexico City’s best-known and certainly most viewed pieces of public art. They are in the traffic circles as well as along the sides of the avenue. They have a permanence that is reassuring as you make your way by them or use them to give directions – as in, “The U.S. Embassy is a block east of the Angel of Independence.”

But look at old photographs of the city and you will see that the position of statues is anything but permanent.

The statue of Cuauhtemoc, the last Aztec Emperor at what may be Mexico City’s busiest intersection – Reforma and Insurgentes Avenue – was moved a few meters out of the intersection during López Obrador’s 2000-2006 administration in order to improve traffic flow.

The Angel of Independence at the intersection with Florencia Street – now an emblem of Mexico City much like the Statue of Liberty is for New York – tumbled off the top of the column in the 1957 earthquake.

President Lopez Portillo (1976-82) moved the statue of Diana the Huntress at Reforma’s intersection with Sevilla Street out of the traffic circle to a park so that people walking by could see it better. President Carlos Salinas (1988-94) moved her back into the traffic circle.

I always look forward to seeing the monument at the intersection of Niza Street and Paseo de la Reforma. This monument is living, and growing. A 75-foot high (25 meters) palm tree soars in the middle of the traffic circle. That traffic circle is commonly referred to as the Glorieta de la Palma.

I call it the traffic circle of the heroic palm. That tree is quite the survivor. The oldest published photograph of that palm tree is dated 1920. Not only is it still thriving in the middle of one of the city’s busiest intersections, it has stood its ground for a little over a hundred years despite several attempts to remove it.

The most recent attempt was eighteen years ago, in 1996. Those wanting to get rid of it argued that it would die within eight years anyway.

At that time the palm tree was to be replaced with a monument to 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Sor Juana. But I joined the 25,000 other people who within days of the announcement signed a petition to save the palm tree. There were already other monuments to Sor Juana and another was not necessary at the expense of this wonderful palm tree.

Tree specialists say that the Canary Island Date Palm – the kind in the Glorieta de la Palma — can live to be 200 years old. It’s the same species of palm you see growing all around Los Angeles where it was introduced about a hundred years ago — right about the time the heroic tree in the glorieta was planted.

Dealing with adversity is not unusual for palm trees. While frequently thought of as trees of beaches or deserts, palm trees are also the tallest trees of the rain forest. There, however, they are at a distinct disadvantage as far as trees go. Palms only grow upwards. They cannot send branches out in search of direct sunlight. Their leg up is that many palms can grow faster than other trees. If fortunate to grow where there is a gap in the rain forest they shoot up as fast as they can before other trees move in and block the sunlight — frequently becoming the highest trees in the forest.

I have seen the exception to the rule, palm trees with branches, in Costa Rica’s coastal rainforests. These trees usually have no more than two branches. But branches they are.

That’s also where I’ve seen the “walking palm”. With the base of its trunk raised up a foot or so off the ground, on roots that look like a many-legged tripod, it can actually move to position its leaves in the sunlight. It sends new roots out toward the sunlight and lets-go of the roots holding it back in the shade.

The heroic palm tree on Reforma is going strong despite dire predictions about its fate. It is fortunate that it doesn’t have to fight for sunlight. It can focus on being resilient in the niche it has found — the hallmark of life in a big city.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Eco-friendly bus rides for Mexico

We’ve all ridden traditional city busses at one time or another. Passengers board them from the sidewalk. One-by-one passengers climb three or four steps to get on board, and then remember “Oh yes, I have to pay for this ride” and search for the proper change. Upon alighting they get off equally slow, one-by-one.

All that time the expensive piece of transportation equipment — the bus — is standing still at a bus stop creating traffic congestion.

The Brazilian city of Curitiba, famous for its environmental innovations, came up with a better – and counter-intuitive — idea. Why have buses travel in the curbside lane when with equal ease the left-hand lane of boulevards could be the designated bus lane?

Furthermore, why not have passengers board from platforms the same height of the floor of the bus so they can just step on board? Since access to the platform can be controlled, collect the passengers’ bus fare on the ramp leading to the platform before the bus even arrives. Since the driver does not need to see if people pay, the whole side of the bus can open up as on a subway car.

Mexico City is one of the cities that copied Curidiba’s innovation, naming the transportation system with fire-engine-red busses the Metrobus. Now entering its tenth year of operation, the first Metrobus line was built during the Lopez Obrador administration (2000-2006) to run the length of Insurgentes Avenue.

In Mexico, buses and taxis give the impression of being owned by a company since they are identically painted. In reality they are usually independently owned, though often affiliated to “routes”. It was a major breakthrough by López Obrador’s administration to remove and scrap hundreds of privately owned buses running on Insurgentes Avenue and replace them with the new environmentally-friendly buses owned by a government controlled company.

To do so without conflict, the city carried out a census of those whose economic livelihood was dependent on bus transportation on Insurgentes Avenue.

Drivers were offered retraining and mechanics were offered technical school studies to learn how to repair the brand new diesel engines. With the city holding 51% of the shares, owners of buses that had plied Insurgentes were offered the opportunity to purchase the 49% of shares that would remain private – paying for some of the value of the shares with the proceeds from bonuses for their scrapped buses.

The Insurgentes Avenue line reduces carbon monoxide emissions along that corridor by 60,000 to 80,000 tons a year. This is from replacing older, more polluting busses, reducing traffic congestions, and encouraging city residents to leave their cars at home and ride a clean, efficient, and dependable bus system.

With four additional lines added under Marcelo Ebrard’s administration (2006-2012), the Metrobus now reduces carbon emissions by 110,000 tons per year.

Under the Kyoto Protocol rules, countries that measurably reduce pollution that benefit all of humanity are due some compensation and can sell carbon reduction credits on international markets. Mexico receives financial compensation for reducing pollution with the Metrobús.

The Curidiba-type bus lines — now classified world-wide as BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) systems — are much more appropriate for developing economies than underground subway systems. Not only can they be built for a fraction of the cost of subways, their planning-to-completion times is less than five years compared to ten to fifteen for a subway. Even U.S. cities like Cleveland, Ohio are implementing BRT lines.

Metrobúses travel in a designated lane. Don’t get caught driving in it—you’ll pay a hefty fine and lose your car overnight.

By pacing the buses four to five minutes apart there is no reason for buses to pull out into other lanes to overtake a slow bus ahead. To double passenger capacity each bus tows a second car. To increase capacity even more they experimented with each bus pulling two trailers but instead settled on having two busses, each with a trailer, occupying a time slot.

Metrobús’ fare of 6 pesos per ride is paid with a card the size of a credit card — purchased from a vending machine.

With card in hand passengers may add as many fares as they wish to their card. By holding the card up to an electronic-reader they gain access to the boarding platform.

The card’s memory allows for free transfers to other lines within two hours of initiating a ride.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Going to the airport? Enjoy your time there and stay a while

I enjoy driving to the airport. More precisely, I enjoy driving people to the airport. And talking to them en route. Either they are about to go off on a journey they are excited about or they are finishing a trip in Mexico and processing what they’ve seen and done. I learn quite a bit about them and the lives they lead. And I get to spend time in the Mexico City airport, one of my favorite places.

Airports in Latin American seem to be a special breed. They’re usually found right on the main highways, not isolated and off by themselves. Unlike U.S. airports where shops ands restaurants are usually on the other side of “security,” in Latin American airports many of the shops and services are available to the non-traveling public as well as airline passengers. On road trips they are marvelous places to stop for clean restrooms, restaurants, and getting cash from an ATM.

The Benito Juaréz International airport in Mexico City, or MEX as I fondly think of it, is one of the grandest of all. In addition to the to-be-expected money exchange booths, newsstands, restaurants, souvenir shops and taxi stands, the Mexico City airport has an array of other services.

Copy shops, pharmacies, cell-phone company customer service offices, and bookstores are all in the public area of Terminal 1’s ground floor and mezzanine. There’s even that increasingly hard-to-find rarity, a post office. You can mail the post cards you needed to send with a Mexican stamp just before boarding your plane. If you’re a resident of Mexico and have utility bills to pay, you can do so in convenience stores between check-in and boarding time.

Massage spas, barber-shops and beauty salons are scattered through the terminals. Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins always allows an extra hour before flights for what she describes as “one of the best foot massages anywhere in the world.”

Not only do banks have ATMs throughout the terminal they also have full service branch offices in which you can cash checks and make deposits. With Mexico’s banks all being nationwide, you can take care of banking business in the airport terminal as if you were at your very own branch office.

For a very small fee the Metrobus – with racks on board for suitcase stowage – connects both terminals to downtown Mexico City. Terminal 1 is accessible to downtown by subway but only allows minimal luggage.

Long distance busses run the routes from MEX to Cuernavaca, Toluca, Queretaro, Tlaxcala, Puebla, Pachuca and Cordoba — all from a much less harried setting than any of Mexico City’s bus stations.

Last week after driving a student to the airport I strolled over to the inauguration of a fabulous crafts exhibit near Gate C in Terminal 1. The governor of Guerrero Angel Aguirre Rivero and First Lady Laura del Rocío Herrera cut the ribbon of the exhibit titled “Guerrero Flor y Color” (Guerrero Flower and Color).

Though everything in the exhibit is worthy of museum display, these works are for sale. You’ll not only be able to buy a wide variety of crafts directly from the craftspeople, you might even be able to watch your item being made. You’ll certainly have a grand time learning about the crafts of this southern state and watching the craftspeople. Perhaps you’ll even get a head start on your Christmas shopping.

Back-strap weavers are there working in the traditional Mesoamerican style with one end of their loom strapped around their waist and the other tied around a pole. Other craft makers are fabricating and selling hand woven hats, ceramic art, children’s necklaces, bracelets, and toys. There’s fine sterling silver jewelry from Taxco. Paintings on amate bark-paper and decorated gourds and flutes represent the Rio Balsas area. You’ll see Guerrero’s amazing carved wooden masks which are not that different from the masks of pre-colonial Mesoamerica. The famous lacquered wooden boxes and trays from Olinalá emit their fabulous cedar aroma. With the exception of the displayed furniture most everything is easily packable in carry-on luggage.

Guerrero Flor y Color is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. through August 15, near Gate C of Terminal 1 at MEX. The Guerrero crafts exhibit is only MEX’s most recent offering. The airport has been host to similar craft shows from other states as well as a number of exceptional exhibits of fine art. Throughout the airport one can also find the fantasy masked man-bird sculptures by Mexico’s preeminent sculptor, Jorge Marín.

I find airports to be wonderful places. Who was it that put the idea in our minds that we should rush through them? Probably those same people who pride themselves on traveling light and not checking luggage. I’m not one of them!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Mexico begins Cup

Soccer-mania will reach a crescendo this week. Mexico’s team isn’t in the running for the World Cup any longer, but Mexico’s ancient cultures can take considerable credit for originating the game.

Before the conquest of Mexico, western Europe didn’t know team sports. They had one-on-one sports, such as jousting matches. And games where one person wins and everyone else loses, as in traditional Olympic events. And games where a person competed against an animal, such as bull fighting. But no team sports. The concept of a group of people competing against an equally sized opponent team is a Mesoamerican idea introduced to Europe in the early 16th century.

In the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, two teams competed on an I-shaped court, using their bodies to move a ball and scoring points along the way. Several Mesoamerican ball teams were taken to Spain shortly after the conquest. There they played exhibition matches for the king’s court thereby introducing the concept of teamwork to European sports.

Ancient cities all over Mexico, and indeed throughout Mesoamerica, have ball courts. Many even have multiple courts. Strangely Teotihuacan – the largest city of all – has none.

The most unusual ball court I’ve visited is in El Tajin in northern Veracruz. Seventeen ball courts have been discovered there so far and more will undoubtedly be found as archeologists continue to clear vegetation from the ruins.

The most famous of its ball courts has a pictorial description carved in stone of scenes of a game leading up to the sacrifice of one of the players. The scenes do not follow a progression of left to right or top to bottom. Instead they follow the path of the ball on the court as if being hit from one end of the court to the other. Viewing the vignettes in their proper order requires walking back and forth from one end to the other and from side to side of the court in an X-type pattern.

Not all ball games ended with the sacrifice of one of the players, but the fact that some did is evidence of the religious nature of the game. Spanish authorities considered anything associated with Mesoamerican religion to be cult of the devil and prohibited Mesoamerican ball games from being held. A few “descendent” games are played in northwestern Mexico and in Oaxaca but they don’t make use of the pre-Hispanic capital-I-shaped playing field.

While the rules of the ancient game have been lost, its effect on the world has not. World Cup soccer is proof.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Follow the sun

Last Saturday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere – always an interesting day to watch shadows. If you missed it, step outside and look at your shadow today – it’s only been three days since the solstice and the effect is very much the same. Early and late in the day your shadow will be long and cast towards the south. At “noon” itself (about 1:40 p.m) there’s not much of a shadow to be seen but it is cast directly south.

Having the sun north of us is an event that never happens in Canada or Europe. In the United States it only occurs in Hawaii – the only U.S. state that lies in the tropics. On the summer solstice the sphere of the earth, spinning on its axis and taking a year to circle the sun, has seemingly traveled as far north as it will go. It has reached the Tropic of Cancer, an imaginary line running parallel to the equator that cuts across northern Mexico, and has started back south to the Tropic of Capricorn.

But looked at another way, those who have made the effort to climb the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán, where I was on Saturday, have seen for themselves that the earth is flat. What is spherical is the dome of the sky overhead. And if there is a domed sky overhead there is certainly an equally sized and inverted dome underneath our flat earth. It is the shadow of those domes you see on the moon during a lunar eclipse.

Ancient Mesoamericans also believed that every morning the sun, starting on the eastern horizon, climbs seven enormous steps to get to the center of the sky by noon. Then it goes down six steps to the western horizon. Hence, 13 hours in ancient Mesoamerica’s days.

In order to get back to the east by sunrise the sun goes down five enormous steps to the lowest level of the dome of the underworld – the realm of the dead – and then climbs four enormous steps back up to the eastern horizon ready to illuminate the realm of the living during the day.

Teotihuacán’s Pyramid of the Sun seems to be a model of the sky overhead. It too has 13 levels. If you count ground level as level one there are six enormous stepped landings up to the top. The seventh level is missing – it was the roof of the temple at the top – and there are six steps back down to the ground.

Standing atop the Pyramid of the Sun, where the ancient Mesoamericans believed the sun was born, is marvelous any day. Especially so on the summer solstice.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The power of the Cup

I find the World Cup fascinating. Is there is any other event that can bring together different ages, cultures, ethnic groups,and religions from around the world? It’s an achievement writers and film producers strive for — producing a work that can interest both children and adults while riveting their attention. Fair-weather fans like me join hard-core sports fans in cheering on the teams.

At 2 o’clock Tuesday Mexico will face soccer powerhouse Brazil. It will be hard to find a place in urban Mexico where you are out of earshot of shouts and shrieks when a goal is scored—or missed. Short of being in the stadium in Fortaleza, Brazil, the grandest locations will be watching the game on a big screen in the Zócalo of most any Mexican city.

If a politician were in the crowd the Mexican press would say that he or she were getting a “baño de pueblo” – a peoples’ bath. That’s what it feels like. You’ll be saturated with people and their enthusiasm for the game and their country’s team. All ages and all social classes will be there.

We’ll watch interviews with Brazilian players by Mexican television reporters that go untranslated, leaving us to figure out what was said in Portuguese. We’ll see some advertising surrounding the playing field that is familiar but also advertising for brands that aren’t sold here and some in script that is unintelligible to the western eye.

For those of us perceived as foreigners in Mexico, watching the World Cup is a rare opportunity. We’ll be welcomed in, cheering for Mexico’s team, celebrating its victory or sharing the “we’re still in the running – it’s all based on points” consolation if it goes the other way.

With a few exceptions, World Cup soccer players represent the countries of their birth. Just watching a World Cup game involves an appreciation of history and geography. European colonial powers — and their former western hemisphere colonies — can easily be distinguished by the racial mix of their teams. Non-colonial countries stand out because of their homogeneity.

If Karl Marx were writing today, I think he’d say watching professional sports is the opiate of the masses. But the World Cup is different. In fact, in developing countries, hosting the World Cup awakens peoples’ demands of their government.

Every four years this spectacle is taken in by the pueblo, expanding its world-view while witnessing other peoples around the world sharing the same planet and enthusiasm for the same game.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The other Hallelujahs

“Hallelujah” will be presented in Cuernavaca on Friday. When I saw the poster for this concert I mistakenly thought they would be singing Handel’s famed Hallelujah Chorus. In fact they are singing two very different versions.

The singers are the Agrupación Coral Deo Gracias, a Cuernavaca-based multilingual chorus representing many nations. It’s an interesting group of people who are joined together by their love of music.

There’s Olga Ruiz, a retired obstetrician-gynocologist and grandmother in her 80s who will sing one of the solos. Her granddaughter Natalia Reveles, a student at the Tec de Monterrey in Cuernavaca, joins her in the choir.
Bass soloist Tony Trejo has also involved his family; he now has two teenage daughters in the chorus.

Susan Kirago is from Kenya and like the rest of the choir sings in five languages. They haven’t yet sung something in her native language.

Many of the singers, like my friend Ellen Macdonald-Almazán, are cancer survivors.

And they are all serious about their music. In addition to rehearsing for concerts like this one, they study music theory and vocalization each week with the chorus director Andrea Carr and her assistant Moisés Hernández.

Andrea Carr has been leading the group since retiring as head of the music department at La Salle University in Cuernavaca. Born in Montreal and raised in Mexico, she was a child prodigy on the piano and performed from the age of 10 in major recitals and concerts.  She traveled to England for high school and spent her college years in Canada, studying under piano greats Luba Zuk and Charles Reiner at McGill University.

While always pursuing her love of piano, Andrea took voice lessons and sang in choirs wherever she lived. At the age of 19 she began to accompany those choirs and eventually led them.

Chorus assistant Moisés Hernández is a La Salle music school graduate and was a student of Professor Andrea. As a result of a 2008 accident he’s bound to a wheelchair and no longer able to pursue a career as a drummer. He and Andrea split the 38-member choir so they can teach both beginning and advanced music theory.

In this, their sixth concert, the Agrupación Coral Deo Gracias is singing an ambitious program ranging from the baroque to the secular, from the 16th century to the 21st.

“We’ll sing all six movements of Mozart’s Missa Brevis in D Major in Latin,” Ellen Macdonald-Almazan told me. “When the music was presented to us by Andrea we thought it was impossibly ambitious. Our first performance was enthusiastically received — far surpassing our expectations.”

Friday’s concert will feature a medley of songs from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and “Sin Ti,” a Mexican favorite written by Guadalajaran Pepe Guizar (1912-1980). Guizar is the composer of the mariachi favorite “Guadalajara.” They’ll also sing Hal Hopson’s arrangement of “The Gift of Love,” a beautiful hymn-like piece perfect for this season of Pentacost.

The program will begin and end with “Hallelujah.” I remember as a boy in Colombia everyone getting to their feet whenever the Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s “Messiah” began. I was told, and believed, it was because at the “Messiah”’s original London performance King George II was so moved he spontaneously stood; when the King was standing everyone else was expected to stand as well.

Though a nice story, it’s apparently untrue. The “Messiah” did not even debut in England but in Ireland and there is no record of George II ever attending the “Messiah.” Nonetheless, myths are difficult to destroy and this one has such a nice ring of authenticity.

The program begins with a contemporary arrangement of “Hallelujah” by Philip Hayes. It closes with the singing of Canadian legend Leonard Cohen’s probably equally beloved “Hallelujah,” as arranged by Roger Emerson.  Unlike Handel’s sacred music, Cohen’s version is a secular anthem, though it will be the second time I’ve heard it sung in a church.

Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins is a huge Leonard Cohen fan and has attended a number of his concerts. “I don’t know whether it is related to standing during Handel’s “Hallelujah” or not but concert audiences always stand for Cohen’s performances of his ‘Hallelujah.’ I prefer to think it is because it is the aching anthem of a generation that’s suffered the destruction of so many illusions.”

With the two “Hallelujah”s bracketing the Cuernavaca concert, goers will have the opportunity to decide whether to stand or sit at both ends of an eclectic musical evening. Either way I say, hallelujah for this continued gift of music in the community.

“Hallelujah” will be presented Friday June 13, at 8 p.m. at Parroquia María Madre de la Misericordia, Calle Río Tamazula #25, Colonia Vista Hermosa, Cuernavaca. Doors open at 7 p.m. $100 pesos, 50% discount for students with ID and INAPAM cardholders.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Nopal: Past, present and future

Native to Mexico but now found ‘round the world, flat-leafed nopal (opuntia) cactus was central to pre-Hispanic culture. Tenochtitlán, the Aztec city built in what is now Mexico City’s Historical Center, means “place of the cactus.” In addition to consuming nopal as food, Mesoamericans found varied ways to use this versatile plant: to treat wounds, to purify water, to fence farming fields. Mixed with quicklime it strengthened mortar and waterproofed whitewash paint. Today it is also used as food for livestock.

We see portrayals of nopal cactus so often in Mexico it is easy to overlook its significance. We see it on the flag as part of the national shield; it is portrayed on every Mexican coin in our pockets.

In high elevations of northeastern Morelos, mile after mile of gorgeous young bright-green nopal plants grow in straight unirrigated rows in the municipality of Tlayacapan. Neighboring Milpa Alta, the most rural of the Federal District’s 16 delegations (boroughs) will be hosting its Nopal Fair next month. In August, central Mexico will celebrate the fruit of the flat leafed cactus — the prickly pear – known in Spanish as “tuna” (not to be confused with tuna-fish, which in Spanish is “atún”). Ferias de la Tuna will be held in the states of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Morelos – all major centers of nopal production.

Nick Watson, long-time resident of Cuernavaca and a major exporter of nopal, says, “Nopal is a miracle food on the brink of worldwide discovery, already widely consumed. Known in much of the world as prickly pear cactus, nopal was proliferated shortly after the conquest by Spanish ship captains who valued the plant for its ability to stave off scurvy. Able to grow in desert conditions, Spaniards found it could be planted most anywhere their ships landed, providing a dependable source of vitamin C.”

“The most interesting part of this world-wide planting” said Watson, “is highly adaptable nopal morphed everywhere it was planted. In some places it’s almost unrecognizable only 500 years later. Some adaptations have long spines and some are smooth-leaved, some nopal grow very tall, others close to the ground. In Galapagos, where the nopal co-exists with the giant tortoise, nopal are tree-sized.”

We in the west are accustomed to describe food as sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Japan has another word to add to that list, umami. Umami – translated into English as “deliciousness” — corresponds to the taste glutamates leave in your mouth, coating your tongue. The first food we experience with umami is breast milk. Japanese describe nopal’s consistency as umami. Understandably, nopal is a popular Japanese food.

As if it’s nutritional and medicinal values were not sufficient, the nopal cactus is also home to the cochineal insect, one of Europe’s most valuable 16th- and 17th-century commodities. A quarter of the dried insects weight is carmine or a scarlet red dye. In the Middle Ages, Polish and North African cochineal was used in illustrating religious manuscripts but was rare, difficult to harvest and did not retain its color nearly as well as Mexican cochineal. Until artificial dyes were made in the 19th century, Mexican cochineal was traded on the London commodity exchange at roughly the same value per ounce as gold.

But today in central Mexican fields there is little evidence of cochineal. Harvested healthy paddles — nopal leaves — are clean, tender. “Their small spines are sufficient to hold evening dew and fields need no irrigation,” says Watson. “We use ancient methods of growing and fertilizing, obtaining the highest possible organic certification. When we started working with Morelos nopal farmers they were pleasantly surprised we wanted to learn from them about the way their ancestors farmed. We now use only sterile fertilizer, composted from cow and chicken manure. Old, tough paddles are chopped up, tilled back into the soil; we have no need for pesticides. We are now planting in previously unusable land.

“We’ve formed a co-op of Mexican farmers willing to use organic methods for growing and are thrilled with the results. Our company is also committed to exploring the medical value of nopal. In pre-Hispanic times this area of the world advanced the use of herbs and various barks and foods for their medicinal properties.

Nopal was used early on for the treatment of diabetes as well as many other diseases. Watson: “With the prevalence of diabetes in today’s world we worked with the University of New Mexico on a 2008 study that showed significant value of nopal for treating Type II diabetes and, by the way, for the relief of hangovers. There is also strong evidence for its anti-inflamatory properties.”

The NM study showed daily intake of grilled nopal significantly decreased the amount of insulin needed by patients with Type II diabetes.

Watson: “The demand for organic nopal now exceeds our ability to produce. We have large containers of nopal paddles shipping daily to ports in Los Angeles and New Jersey, destined for markets throughout the United States. But our long-term goal is to educate the public to see nopal as a daily ingredient. Nopal tortillas, nopal chips, nopal flour are already on your grocery shelves.”

Is nopal the miracle food of this century? Perhaps!