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.