Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The best coffee in Veracruz

There are plenty of things to see and do in Veracruz, but a trip to the port of Veracruz isn’t complete without having coffee at La Parroquia.

Visitors of all nationalities, presidents and heads of state make sure that La Parroquia is on their itinerary. Even in his haste to leave Mexico to go into exile in 1911, deposed-President Porfirio Díaz had time for coffee at La Parroquia before boarding his ship to France.

The original La Parroquia was located in one of the portales (porticoes) facing the small city plaza.
The café opened in 1808, taking its name from the building across the street — the parish church. As protection against pirates, Veracruz was a walled city and space was at a premium. The church with its bell tower and the government building with a lookout tower took up two sides of the plaza. Shops and businesses occupied the other two.

The café and its offspring have been owned and operated by a succession of Spanish immigrants for whom Veracruz was their port of entry to Mexico. One who made a lasting stamp on it is Fernando Fernández. On Jan. 12, 1936, as a 14-year-old boy, he disembarked from a steamship at the Veracruz pier. It had been a three-week trip from Santander with a stopover in Havana.

An itinerant photographer took Fernando’s picture wearing his Sunday best as he walked down the gangplank.

Fernando worked his way up in his uncle’s business and eventually bought it. But it turns out that he purchased the business but not the real estate. The day Fernando Fernández lost a lawsuit with his cousins over the real estate his waiters carried the two large, shiny Italian coffeemakers to the new location on the Malecón (sea wall) four blocks away and rechristened it the Gran Café de la Parroquia. The tables, chairs, waiters’ uniforms, even the tiles on the floor are the same as at the original location.

As it has been since the nineteenth century, the favorite type of coffee served is café lechero. The waiter delivers the patron a tall glass on a saucer accompanied with a spoon. The glass is only quarter-filled with thick black coffee.

Protocol calls for the patron to clank on the glass with the spoon to alert the lechero (milkman) to come and fill the glass with steaming-hot milk.

The lechero arrives with both hands occupied — one with a kettle of coffee and the other with a kettle of hot milk. He first asks the patron if the amount of coffee is to her or his satisfaction. If it is, he puts the spout of the milk kettle to the edge of the glass and starts pouring as he lifts the kettle high up above the patron’s head. Just as the frothy milk swells over the top of the glass, he brings the stream of milk back down. It is all done with such skill the dome of milk foam stays put and does not flow down the side of the glass.

At the Gran Café de la Parroquia on the Malecón the two tall espresso coffee makers from Turin, Italy, are where everyone poses to have their picture taken. Last week Fernando’s son Felipe told me “They still have 80 percent of the original parts. They were designed to use alcohol as fuel, we’ve converted them to electricity.”

I asked Felipe about the peculiar payment process that I had noticed on one of my first visits. He told me that was also his father’s innovation. “He streamlined the bottleneck high volume restaurants all share — the payment process. While in Belgium he saw this process and he put it into effect here.”
The way it works is upon leaving the kitchen each waiter puts his tray on a counter in front of the cashier. She totals the sale price of all the dishes and the waiter pays for it, on-the-spot, in cash. After that it is the waiters’ responsibility to collect from their customers. The waiters total up the bill right at the patron’s table and make change from their pocket. There is no waiting for the bill or for one’s change. Quite marvelous.

Felipe Fernández told me that at the beginning of their shift each waiter is given a 1,000-peso fund with which to work. They return it at the end of their workday. I always like streamlining financial transactions and enjoy watching the efficiency with which this one works.

When in Veracruz, make sure to have a frothy café lechero at one of La Parroquias — the Gran Café de la Parroquia on the Malecón, at La Parroquia de Veracruz next door, or at the Gran Café del Portal in the original location. All are run by the extended Fernández family. You’ll see why Porfirio Díaz made it his last stop before departing Mexico.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Admiring the monarch butterfly

I have a reader of The News to thank for my wonderful trip to visit overwintering monarch butterflies near Valle de Bravo last week. Millions of butterflies fly from the U.S. and Canada to Central Mexico every November, and fly back north in March. Modern scientists have known for less than 40 years where they stay in Mexico.
Canadian zoologist Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah searched for decades before announcing the discovery in the August 1976 issue of National Geographic. In 1952 the Urquharts had developed a tag light enough to allow monarchs to fly unencumbered. Within 20 years they had recruited 600 volunteer taggers in the U.S. and Canada. The tags pointed to a Mexican overwintering spot, but where?

A breakthrough came when the Urquharts asked readers of Mexican newspapers to help them. One reader of The News, Kenneth Brugger, set out in his camper to find the Monarchs with his wife Cathy, sending back regular reports to the Urquharts.

In January 1975 Brugger made the call the Urquharts had been waiting for. Brugger had found millions of monarchs clinging to evergreens beside a mountain clearing.

Dr. Urquhart describes his first visit to the overwintering grounds in his National Geographic article. “Then we saw them. Masses of butterflies — everywhere! In the quietness of semi-dormancy, they festooned the tree branches, they enveloped the oyamel trunks, they carpeted the ground in their tremulous legions. Other multitudes — those that now on the verge of spring had begun to feel the immemorial urge to fly north — filled the air with their sun-shot wings, shimmering against the blue mountain sky and drifting across our vision in blizzard flakes of orange and black.”

Urquhart’s article intentionally didn’t disclose the location of the butterflies but gave enough clues that the next spring I went out in search for them. At the very first place I chose, Angangueo, Michoacán, I found people who led me to the butterfly sanctuary — now the best known of them all. 

On that first visit I was free to walk between the trees where clumps of butterflies were so heavy branches drooped with their weight. The sound of thousands of butterflies beating their wings is ethereal. I’ve tried several times since then to record it; it’s never the same.

Since then a number of monarch wintering sites have been discovered in Michoacán and more recently in the state of Mexico. What the sites have in common are three things: oyamel fir trees the butterflies cling to, milkweed the caterpillars eat, and an elevation close to 9,000 feet where winter temperatures hover from just below freezing to just above. Inactivated by the chill, the monarchs burn up almost none of the reserve fat they’ll need on their northward flight.

To celebrate her birthday this month, Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins invited her brothers and sister to come to Mexico to see the butterflies. Within two hours of departing Mexico City our group was starting up the trail to the preserve near San Francisco Oxtotilco. An hour and a half later — far from the closest parking lot or food vendor — we entered a wondrous bit of forest with the tall, gray-green oyamel trees with branches drooping with the weight of butterflies.

Our delightful guide, 23 year-old Ignacio Velázquez Vera, has led groups since he was 10 and loves the monarchs. He enthusiastically taught us how to tell the difference between male and female. He gently extended the long probiscus of a butterfly to demonstrate how it allows the monarch to reach deep to drink nectar or water. Sadly, he told us that there were only half as many oyamel trees covered with butterflies this year.

This may be a topic when President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Harper meet with President Peña Nieto tomorrow in Toluca.

Environmentalists have identified the problem as a combination of genetically modified crops in the U.S. and Canada which are displacing milkweed and illegal logging in Mexico.

A key to preserving the world’s natural treasures is making their preservation a reliable source of income for local people. The monarch butterfly reserve near Valle de Bravo is doing just that. We paid Ignacio, his mother and his sister for horse rental and guidance to the preserve.  Another family member watched our van. We paid an admission fee to the ejido on whose land the monarchs winter.

The Velázquez Vera family and the ejidatarios receive a higher income from the butterfly reserve than they would from cutting the forest and selling the lumber. Ignacio works the rest of the year in Valle de Bravo hotels but says his heart is always in the mountains.

Thanks to the new Supervia Poniente expressway, all of this is possible in a two-hour drive from southern Mexico City. The butterflies usually leave in early March so you still have time. Send me an email for detailed instructions on how to get there.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Highlights of an Acapulco road trip

Road trips to Acapulco have long been a part of life for residents of Mexico City. In viceroyalty times it could take a week along the royal highway. In the 40s one might overnight in Taxco. In the 80s it was a whole day affair.

Since the 1994 inauguration of the modern autopista, the trip has been streamlined and now a door-to-door trip can be as fast by car as by plane. Nevertheless, most people still make the drive an event in itself. They look forward to their favorite landmark stopping places along the way — perhaps breakfast in Tres Marías and cecina for lunch at Cuatro Caminos? I used to look forward to hamburgers and ice cream cones at the dairy shop in Iguala before Iguala was bypassed by the new highway.

In addition to its many culinary attractions there are other worthy destinations along the Acapulco route. Cuernavaca, Xochicalco, Taxco, and the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa are some of the more notable. Now there’s a new place to add to the list — the Cuernavaca campus of the Tec de Monterrey (Monterrey Institute of Technology).

Though stunning from either direction, the Tec’s signature structure is most spectacular when approached from the south. Upon entering the Valley of Cuernavaca the campus rises on a rocky promontory encircled by a native deciduous forest and overlooking fields of rice, roses, and sugarcane. Its majestic, four-sided, four-story, green-glass building is framed and capped by sharp-edged concrete with an open courtyard the size of a city block at its center.

Inside the courtyard there is more of the native forest — irrigated throughout the year. It provides an interesting contrast to the same non-irrigated trees immediately outside.

The campus was inaugurated in January 2008. Soon after, it won a prestigious international award as the “Best University/Higher Education Facility” for its “spectacular scale, innovative use of technology and for its design taking into account the location and natural flora of the region.” I’m impressed by it’s proximity and similarity in scale to some of the ruins at the archeological site of Xochicalco. Just as ancient Mesoamericans used limestone in innovative ways, the Tec de Monterrey Cuernavaca campus takes concrete to a new level of scale and creativity.

The campus was primarily designed by architect Juan Carlos Pérez. Pérez is a graduate of the Tec and it is the intent of the campus design to reflect the cutting edge technology being taught to its students. The campus is an environmental model for water use and treatment and electrical conservation.
A new student-union building houses a wonderful, glass-enclosed, new art gallery. The inaugural exhibition opened last Friday and is titled “A Family of Artists.” The artists are all Cuernavaca based and all from one nuclear family!

Paintings, drawings, and sculptures, all in the magical realist style, are executed by parents Adriano Silva Castañeda and Yolanda Quijano and their two sons Alejandro Quijano and Adriano Silva Pantoja. Magical realism, where the supernatural blends with the natural, is a term frequently associated with a genre of Latin American contemporary literature and is increasingly being applied to art — especially Latin American art.

The artists are not only members of the same family they are also all members of the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana (Hall of Mexican Fine Art), established in 1949. Membership in the Salón is by invitation of their peers.

Its purpose is to expand the Mexican art market through exhibitions of fine art in two prestigious galleries in Mexico City. One of the founding ideas of the Salón was that it would be an art forum able to circumvent the large commissions charged by art gallery owners.

There are about 400 members of the Salón counting those no longer living. Membership, like the members’ art, is for life and beyond. If that figure is correct, the Silva-Quijanos represent 1 percent of the membership. I wonder is there is any other family so well represented?

Based on the prices I saw posted (everything is for sale), it seems that the Tec’s gallery, like the Salón, is not charging a commission on the pieces displayed in “A Family of Artists.” If so, it is commendable.

In these gorgeous days you might contemplate a road trip where you can combine food, marvelous sites, and fine art. Though there is a food court as well as a restaurant at the Tec de Monterrey, the courtyard of the Tec has tables just begging for a picnic basket.

“A family of Artists” will be open through March 15, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Sundays. Free admission. Located at the Tec de Monterrey adjacent to the Mexico City-Acapulco Autopista del Sol at kilometer 104.

The campus gatekeeper will point you to the art gallery. Some highway signs refer to the campus as ITESM (Instituto Tecnólogico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey). Easy off-and-on the toll road.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gelman and the politics in poetry

Argentine poet Juan Gelman (1930-2014) died last month. President Cristina Fernández proclaimed three day’s of national mourning. Argentina’s flags flew at half-mast. Yet there was no state funeral for Gelman. Instead his ashes were spread in Mexico on the slopes of Popocatépetl.

Such was Gelman’s admiration for writer/poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648-95) that he had asked that his ashes be spread near her childhood home in Nepantla. His widow and friends fulfilled Gelman’s request by tossing his ashes from a railroad bridge into a fast running stream.

Gelman had been living in exile in France when his daughter, son and pregnant daughter-in-law were seized by a repressive Argentina government in 1976. His son and daughter-in-law were killed; their infant child disappeared. Gelman spent 20 years in an ultimately successful search for the child. Throughout his life, he used his poetic voice to bring attention to injustice. Gelman relocated to Mexico and for many years wrote from here for Argentina’s “Página 12.”

Each time I visit the Sor Juana Museum I take a detour to that bridge. On the way is an abandoned steam locomotive. It may be the same locomotive that broke down around the turn of the 20th century leaving Mexican poet Amado Nervo (1870-1919) and other passengers stranded in Nepantla for three star-lit hours. Nervo wrote about his delight having time to walk the same streets Sor Juana had walked as a child all the while wondering which had been her house.

Amado Nervo became the Mexican ambassador to Argentina and Uruguay. When he died in Montevideo the Uruguayan president dispatched the cruiser “Uruguay” to repatriate his remains.
I asked Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins “what is it about poets — especially Latin American poets — that earns them such acclaim?” She answered by quoting other poets.

“A good poem speaks volumes in mere words,” Indian poet Meena Alexander has said. “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. In time of violence, their task is, in some way, to reconcile us to our world and to allow us a measure of tenderness and grace with which to exist.”

A British anthology of poetry published last October, “In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights,” contains poems about slavery, indigenous human rights, massacres, genocide — even the current war in Syria. The book’s editor, Helle Abelivik-Lawson, says: “Reading and writing poetry is a therapeutic way to process some of the darker aspects of humanity. That said, it’s not all doom and gloom — there are some very empowering, fun and funny poems in this book.” 

Many of Carol’s favorite poets are singer-songwriters. Harry Chapin (1942-81) often gave three concerts a day, donating 50 percent of all proceeds to world hunger programs. When asked about his commitment on a radio program, Harry answered, “Pete Seeger was asked the same question. Pete said: ‘I don’t know whether anything I’ve done has made a difference in the world.’ This said by a man who stood up for every progressive cause of the 20th century. ‘What I do know is that my commitment to those causes has allowed me to be with the people with the live eyes, live hearts, live heads and that has been its own reward.’”

Two weeks after Juan Gelman’s death, Pete Seeger (1919-2014) died. Though they used different mediums, both spent their lives in the ether of poetry, struggling for justice while enduring heroic clashes with governments that tried to silence and imprison them. Both were fortunate to live long enough to die lionized — Gelman acclaimed throughout the Spanish-speaking world; Pete Seeger invited to sing at President Obama’s inauguration — and at Occupy Wall Street.

Last Sunday, in a long ranging conversation, I asked Minneapolis-based writer/poet Alison Morse for her view on why Latin American poets gain such acclaim. She told me: “There is a tradition in Latin American poetry of having the responsibility to be the bearer of news in poetry. It’s about giving voice to things that can’t be given voice to. There is a different view of language in Latin America — it involves turning language into art. Reading poetry in the United States isn’t as important as it is here.”

Referring to Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who ends every speech and article with a signature paragraph that begins with “Además opino …” (“Furthermore, I am of the opinion that …) followed by a listing of the political demands of the social groups he supports, Alison said, “That’s poetry!” Adding, “If he did that in the United States he’d be a Saturday Night Live skit. On the other hand people would probably love him. Maybe poets in the United States just aren’t as brave. However, there are some U.S. poets that are really proud they’ve been banned from school libraries in Arizona. Banned because they’re too political or because they have other languages in their poems, besides English.”

Perhaps it all boils down to what Max said to Liesel in the wonderful new movie The Book Thief. “Words are life.”