Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Cross Border Xpress

Tijuana’s airport is unique.  Located only feet from the U.S. border, its runway parallels the border itself. At one time there was hope of creating a bi-national international airport complex on this ideal site.  That dream died in the early 1990’s. 

For decades Carlos Laviada, a prominent Mexican businessman, made frequent trips to California.  One day in 2005 he looked out of the Tijuana airport control tower and noticed the land on the U.S. side of the border was still undeveloped.  With long-term vision and lots of optimism he bought 55 acres, formed an investment consortium, and began to plan for a direct border-crossing from Tijuana’s airport to the United States.

This year Christmas came early for Charlie’s Digs’ collaborator Carol Hopkins and her dog Amigo.  Last Wednesday they were among the first southbound beneficiaries of Laviada’s vision.

Carol regularly commutes from San Diego to Cuernavaca.  She almost always uses the Tijuana airport.  “Fares are more competitive and make the difficulties of crossing the world’s busiest border worth the effort.

“It was particularly easy when there were flights from Tijuana directly to Cuernavaca.  Aeromexico had that route for several years.  I could leave my home in San Diego, cross the border, catch a plane and be in Cuernavaca in less than six hours.  I don’t know why there is no longer a domestic carrier at Cuernavaca’s airport.  Flights were always full and the terminal itself was recently remodeled.”

Some years ago Carol heard rumors there would be a new bridge from the San Diego side of the border directly into Tijuana’s terminal.  Rumors became stronger; three years ago she was delighted to see the beginnings of construction. 

“I guess I really didn’t believe it would actually happen.  Whatever I thought, I still wasn’t prepared for the reality of Cross Border Express (CBX) -- the grand new airport facility that opened December 9.”

The 390’ (120 meters) bridge crosses the border and six-lane Via de la Juventud Highway in Tijuana. The skybridge was pre-fabricated in six 75-ton sections which were crane-lifted into place.  Once the last section was lowered into position workers on both sides of the border opened the door and were able to greet and congratulate one another.

Talking about an airport so close to an international border, Architect of Record Stanis Smith said, “It’s an amazing accident of geography.  It could never happen again.”

CBX is an architectural masterpiece and the last design of award-winning Mexican architect Ricardo Legoretta (1931-2011).  Although Legoretta didn’t live to see the finished project, his stamp on the design and lighting and his use of color -- particularly purple -- is a feast for the eyes.

With Legoretta’s plans in hand, Carlos Laviada, against odds, succeeded in getting all the necessary permits and made this masterpiece a reality.

On December 7, Carol enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility escorted by Stephanie Sathoff, spokesperson for CBX as well as Jacqueline Wasiluk, and Angelica De Cima from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We’re as excited about this as you are,” emoted the two security officials.  “Don’t think we enjoy keeping people waiting for hours at the border.  We believe this crossing will alleviate some of the pressure on us and be good for business on both sides of the border while maintaining security.”

“Although elements of CBX are present in some other airports, we believe this international bridge crossing terminal is unique in the entire world,” said Sathoff.

Elizabeth Brown, CBX’s Chief Commercial Officer, told Carol, “The U.S. is the destination for approximately 2.6 million passengers flying into Tijuana each year.  We can facilitate their travel.  Tijuana’s airport has direct flights to 34 Mexican destinations, a thrice weekly direct flight to Shanghai and the capacity for many more international routes.”

Passengers using CBX’s bridge undergo exactly the same security screening as they would at any U.S./Mexico border crossing.  To use the bridge one must have a confirmed, ticketed flight.

There must have been many compromises along the way.  CBX will affect Tijuana cabdrivers and could encourage travelers to choose Tijuana’s airport instead of San Diego’s over-crowded Lindbergh Field.

Traveling southbound, you can use the CBX 24 hours before flight time.  This allows passengers to cross the bridge and spend the night at a hotel or just go to one of Tijuana’s many new exciting restaurants before catching a flight.  Northbound the bridge is only open to you for 2 hours after landing.

In time CBX plans to open its own hotel on the U.S. side of the border.  The hotel, parking, and yet to be opened duty free shops and car rentals will provide CBX’s profit.  Bridge crossing fees, US$18 with a 20% discount for seniors, will pay the salaries of U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration Officers working in partnership with CBX.

Cross Border Xpress is a contribution to the cultural and business life of both San Diego and Tijuana and a tribute to the ability of people of good will to cut through red tape and make things work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Lupe Reyes

I like the way the Christmas season in Mexico lasts from mid-December until early January — some might say even until Feb. 2. Almost every day there is some form of celebration and foreigners are almost always welcome to participate.

This festive season was key for early Christian missionaries in their evangelizing efforts. After all, who doesn’t like a fiesta? From the beginning, the Franciscans in particular invited indigenous people to take part in ever-expanding festivities.

It may have been a way of getting people into the churches, but I’m not sure it worked out quite the way the padres intended. Many of these festivities have been enriched by the syncretism with pre-Hispanic indigenous festivals.

Today, the events surrounding this season are so much a part of Mexico’s cultural life that many Mexicans, Catholic or not, would have difficulty explaining their religious significance.

When the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego as a bronze-skinned, pregnant, beautiful woman, it was easy for her to meld into the beloved Tonantzin, the Aztec goddess of fertility, in indigenous peoples’ minds. Millions accepted conversion.

Mexicans commonly refer to the period between Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Day (Lupe) on Dec. 12, and Epiphany, Three Kings Day (Reyes), on Jan. 6, as Lupe Reyes, as if it is a person’s name.
Bracketed by these two major dates are Posadas, Pastorelas, piñatas, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Day of the Holy Innocents, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The Christmas season culminates with Candlemass Day, Feb. 2. Each of these has its own rituals and associated foods. Mexico doesn’t skimp on fiestas.

Roses have already doubled in price as we prepare for the Virgin of Guadalupe’s Day. No other flower will do for the family shrine dedicated to her. Throughout Mexico children dress as indigenous young Juan Diegos and Marias. Rockets (cohetes) may already be going off in your neighborhood. On the night of Dec. 11, neither dogs nor humans will be able to sleep through the night. In the early dawn, the faithful will sing Las Mañanitas to the Virgin and attend Mass before sharing pozole and tamales.

If there is one ubiquitous food throughout this season, it is the lowly tamale. For these six weeks it is in its glory. If you don’t make tamales in your own home, you’ll want to order early from your favorite tamale vendor.

Posadas begin Dec. 16 and continue until Dec. 24. No self-respecting pueblo in Mexico is without a community posada. At dusk,
children and families assemble and walk through the neighborhood seeking shelter (a posada or inn) for Mary and Joseph — usually represented by carved or plaster representations. At various homes the community sings asking for room in the inn
They’re refused until they reach the designated home for the night. Usually there will be liberally filled piñatas for the children and atole, ponche, and pan dulce for all.

The piñata is also part of Christmas in Mexico. Magnificent piñatas are everywhere and you may have already made your pick. Acolman, near Teotihuacan, claims to be where the piñata originated. Legend has it the seven-pointed piñata represents the seven cardinal sins; participants beat the piñata thus defeating evil.

The Pastorela is perhaps the most complicated Mexican Christmas tradition. There is debate as to whether these plays began with the Franciscans in Acolman or in Cuernavaca. Either way Pastorelas are ubiquitous. They can be highly complex or very simple plays designed to tell the story of the Nativity, though they often stray far from the simple facts.

Regardless of how they are written, and whatever their style of costume, the lesson will inevitably be that good always wins. The most elaborate Pastorela I know of is presented for nine nights each year at Tepotzotlan, State of Mexico. Tickets, which include a sit-down dinner in the elegant museum restaurant, always sell out but are still available through Ticketmaster.

Some of the traditional Christmas dishes of Mexico are pavo (turkey), bacalao (cod), and Chiles en Nogada. Poinsettias, which by the way are native to Mexico, have been hybridized and are available in a rainbow of colors.

Roscas are making an early appearance. This special ring of sweet bread is traditionally served on Jan. 6, and you’ll find the baby Jesus or, if you’re lucky, perhaps even the whole Nativity cast hidden within it.

To open the season Cuernavaca has an additional event this year. Maestra Andrea Carr will lead her wonderful Deo Gracias Chorus in “Despertad, la Voz Nos Llama” (“Awaken, the Voice Calls Us”). The concert featuring fine soloists will be offered Friday, Dec. 11, at 7 p.m. at Museo de la Ciudad and Saturday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m., at Parroquia Maria Madre de la Misericordia Church. More information can be found at www.facebook.com/deograciascuernavaca.

Holiday travelers take note. The long-awaited, innovative new border-crossing pedestrian bridge at Tijuana’s airport opens tomorrow, Dec. 9. Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins will be among the first travelers across and will share her experience next week. For those of you seeking low-cost, time- saving, travel to the United States this is certain to become a preferred gateway.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Symbols of the Presidency

Three years ago today Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as president of Mexico. In photos of that event, many of which will be re-printed today, he’ll be shown with the presidential sash (banda presidencial) worn over his suit coat.

Law dictates that the sash is green, white and red and has the national seal embroidered on it. It also defines how the president wears the sash — over his right shoulder, with the red on top.

It is to be worn under his suit coat unless it’s his first or last day in office — on those days he shares it with his predecessor or successor. Transfer of power is symbolically represented by the outgoing president handing the sash to his successor.

Though Mexico’s president may wear the sash at his discretion, there are days on which law specifies he must wear it. He wears it when giving the president’s annual report to Congress, he wears it on the night of the 15th of September when presiding over the commemoration of the Grito de Dolores (the Shout of Independence), and he must wear it when he receives letters of credence from foreign ambassadors.

The sash is one of two political emblems in Mexico that are synonymous to the presidency. The other is a chair.

The President’s high backed armchair is probably the grandest chair in Mexico. Referred to as La Silla Presidencial (The Presidential Chair), it has the eagle from the shield of Mexico at the top of its arched backrest.

The official photograph of President Peña Nieto that hangs in all federal government offices shows him sitting in the Presidential Chair wearing the sash.

The most famous photograph of the chair is probably one taken when it was occupied during the Revolution, fleetingly, by one who was never president — Pancho Villa. Emiliano Zapata sits beside him in a much simpler chair.

Photography historian John Mraz refers to this photograph as one of three iconic photos of the Mexican Revolution. Another is the full-figure portrait of Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Liberating Army of the South, wearing what appears to be a presidential sash – but isn’t.

The third iconic photo of the Revolution has neither a sash nor a chair. It’s an unposed and stunning photo of a woman leaning out of a train car with a rifle over her shoulder.

In 1914, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata converged on Mexico City with their respective armies. They occupied the National Palace and posed for a photo with their officers. There was only one Presidential Chair but two leaders of two armies — Villa’s División del Norte and Zapata’s, Ejercito Libertador del Sur.

The oft-repeated story is that Villa offered Zapata the Presidential Chair. Zapata refused saying he didn’t want to sit in the chair so recently vacated by Porfirio Diaz. “It’s too tainted by corruption.”
Not only did Zapata refuse to sit in the Presidential Chair but he is reputed to have said he did not aspire to the presidency. Yet, his bestknown photographic portrait — a black and white photograph taken in 1911 — shows a dapper Zapata dressed as a charro, wearing a five-striped sash draped over his left shoulder. Diego Rivera copied from that photo when he portrayed Zapata in his murals in Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace.

However, Rivera added color. He gave the photographed five-striped sash the presidential colors. He painted Zapata’s sash with red stripes at the top and bottom, a green stripe in the middle and white stripes between. The presidential sash has only three stripes.

From John Mraz, I learned Zapata was actually wearing a state of Morelos sash. By wearing it, Zapata was indicating he was the authority in the state with the right to appoint government officials.
The sash is no longer used in Morelos and I haven’t been able to determine what colors were on it, but even if they were the same as the national green, white, and red, when Zapata wore them they were state colors — hence it was not a presidential sash.

According to Mraz, the sash is the one worn by Revolutionary General Manuel D. Asúnsulo when he, with Emiliano Zapata at his side, peacefully entered and occupied Cuernavaca in 1911. After General Asunsolo’s death Zapata assumed the sash.

Though General Asúnsulo was photographed with the sash over his right shoulder, Zapata wears it over his left shoulder in his famous portrait.

Did Zapata not think that was a matter of importance? Or did he put on the sash while looking at himself in a mirror thinking he was wearing it just as General Asúnsulo had? Or is the photograph reversed left to right?

I like tradition. Today would be a good day for President Peña Nieto to wear the sash – on the third anniversary of his inauguration. Under his suit coat, of course.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Zapata Was Here

Zapata Was Here (Aqui Estuvo Zapata) is the name of a new cultural venue in downtown Cuernavaca, located in the former Moctezuma Hotel, the building stands out among its neighbors. It’s constructed entirely of un-plastered brick. Between 1911 and 1916 it was Emiliano Zapata’s headquarters, that is, whenever he was in control of Cuernavaca.

A photograph of Zapata taken in its courtyard in front of a brick wall at the base of a stairway holds the distinction of being the most frequently viewed photo of a Mexican.

Last Friday, on the anniversary of the Revolution, I climbed the stairway where Zapata posed. I was on my way to a talk by Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna. His exhibit “Lux in Arcana: Ferdinando Scianna’s Baroque” opened this month (Nov. 14 to March 20) in Mexico City’s San Carlos National Museum.

The famous photo of Zapata was printed on the outside of my invitation but it seems to have been there to accompany the name of the hosting institution, not the topic of the lecture. Though generous in crediting other photographers’ work, Scianna made no reference to the portrait of Zapata.

I asked Scianna to elaborate on the difference between a painter’s portrait and a photographer’s portrait. Without mentioning Zapata’s portrait, I learned more about it than if he had projected it on the screen for analysis.

“Not many photographs of people are portraits. A portrait implies that the person being photographed is conscious of the photograph, knows about it, dialogs with the photographer and willingly poses. When people interact in this way they have an effect on one another.

“Let’s use Rembrandt as our example of a painter. Probably the most important portrait painter of all time, he also painted many self-portraits. When we see his portraits, even if we don’t know the subjects, we recognize them as his. Through his art Rembrandt gives us the presence of a person in his painting. He may have painted the portrait in the span of a month or a year — going back to the same image many times to end up with the final result — he brings that image out from within himself and offers it to us.

“A photographer, on the other hand, may spend a day, even a month, preparing a portrait of a person — telling him or her ‘angle your body this way or that’ or ‘turn your head a bit more.’ All this done before the moment the shutter is released. Regardless of the time invested preparing the photo it is still the product of an instant. In that moment the feeling — entelechy — has to be deposited in the image of that person.

“When photography works it is the miracle of an encounter which can be published and which a third-party can recognize when lining up the eye, mind, and heart. That’s complicated. Not all photographers are good portrait photographers. Nor are great photographers necessarily good portrait-takers. A good portrait photographer has to have passion for people — empathy. That could seem to say that one can only make good portraits of people one likes. However, making portraits of people the photographer detests also requires empathy. Some portraits can be manifestations of hate, others of love. Good photographic portraits tell us much about the person portrayed — just as they tell us about the photographer.”

The photograph of Zapata meets Scianna’s criteria of a great portrait. No wonder photography historian John Mraz says this photo has become a revolutionary icon. Mraz adds, “The image is of intriguing complexity and represents a startlingly graphic depiction of triumph. Zapata is dressed with the sash and sword that General Manuel Asúnsulo wore as a symbol of his status as the authority in Cuernavaca.” Asúnsulo headed the 1911 revolutionary assault on Cuernavaca but was killed shortly afterwards.

By wearing Asúnsulo’s sash and sword, Mraz explained, “Zapata was demonstrating the prerogative he’d acquired to determine who would govern the city and the state of Morelos. Wearing these emblems could also represent an attempt on Zapata’s part to legitimize his movement. He and his campesinos had been portrayed in the Mexico City press as cruel and ferocious savages. Zapata may have been attempting to counteract that mindset, presenting himself as a professional soldier, with the rank of general, and thus deserving of political recognition.

Seventeen years later, Diego Rivera would use this photo to paint Zapata in Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace. The photo is in black and white but we assume the colors of the sash were the state colors of Morelos. Rivera uses the tri-color, thus promoting Zapata as the leader of the nation.

The portrait is attributed variously to the German Hugo Brehme or to U.S. photographer F. Wray. It is interesting that Zapata posed for a foreign photographer, perhaps because of his aversion to Mexico City’s press.

Zapata certainly made his statement in the portrait, but what was the photographer’s message with campesinos hunkered in the stairwell?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The anniversary

Mexico observed the Anniversary of the Revolution of 1910 on Monday, Nov. 16. It, like many national holidays, is now celebrated on a Monday rather than on its real date.

You can thank the Chamber of Deputies for the long weekend. Charlie’s Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins and I were present the day Article 74 of Mexico’s Labor Law was amended to change several holidays guaranteed by law from specific dates to the Monday closest to the date.

Until 2005, the Anniversary of the Revolution was celebrated on Nov. 20. I’ve no doubt that on Friday there will be an official commemoration. After all, I doubt there has been any other revolution with as precise a starting date and time.

On election day in 1910, then President Porfirio Díaz claimed a landslide victory and ordered his opponent, Francisco I. Madero, arrested. Madero escaped from prison to San Antonio, Texas. From Texas he wrote a nine-page document published in San Luis Potosí setting the date and time for the uprising against President Díaz: 6 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20.

Madero’s call-to-arms was first answered on the West Texas border by the relatively unknown Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Orozco began to smuggle arms from the United States into Mexico. On Oct. 31, Madero placed him in command of revolutionary forces in his municipality.

Orozco led his troops to a series of guerrilla victories against Díaz loyalists. At the close of 1910, most of the state of Chihuahua was in the control of revolutionaries and Orozco was a hero.

Orozco was promoted to colonel and in early 1911 promoted again to brigadier general. In May of that year, Orozco was the architect of the important Battle of Ciudad Juárez.

Madero had been negotiating with Díaz for a cabinet position and greater power in the Díaz government. General Orozco and Colonel Pancho Villa feared the Revolution would be sidetracked before it got up to full steam. They engineered a confrontation before this could happen and the Battle of Ciudad Juárez resulted.

Victory in Juárez, combined with Emiliano Zapata’s victory in Cuautla, Morelos, led directly to the resignation and departure of Díaz and to the presidency of Madero.

Like Emiliano Zapata, Orozco was soon disillusioned when Madero’s presidency did not result in the promised labor and land reform. Furthermore, he was not offered a coveted cabinet position as secretary of war, which he felt was his due.

This anger and disillusionment led to Orozco’s defection from Madero, turning his support to Victoriano Huerta, whose counter-revolutionary views were diametrically opposed to those espoused by Orozco.

In 1915, a despondent Orozco skirted through Texas on his way to meet up with his army. There — in the High Lonesome Mountains south of Van Horn — he was killed, along with four of his companions, by Sheriff John A. Morine, a former Texas ranger.

Sheriff Morine circulated the story that the five men had raided a local ranch. His posse went after them and in the shootout all five were killed. Until now, this ignominious death was the more or less official story of the end of Orozco.

Last week I received a heads-up from Mexico City-based C.M. Mayo about a recently released book with a startling new history of General Pascual Orozco.

Author Raymond Caballero’s “Lynching Pascual Orozco: Mexican Revolutionary Hero and Paradox” is a veritable detective story.

Mayo, herself writing a book about far West Texas, told me, “You can’t write about West Texas or Chihuahua and not write about the Mexican Revolution. They are deeply intertwined.”

Orozco’s anger and disillusionment with Madero led to what Caballero characterizes as the “paradox.” In an interview with C.M. Mayo, Caballero compared Orozco’s defection from Madero over to Victoriano Huerta, to Bernie Sanders suddenly aligning himself with the Koch Brothers.
Raymond Caballero is a lawyer and former mayor of El Paso, Texas. He researched the death of Orozco in old Texas courtroom files.

Caballero explained, “Sheriff John Morine thought he and his boys had ‘just killed themselves some Mexicans.’ When it was known he’d killed General Orozco, one of the greatest military heroes of the early years of the Mexican Revolution, questions began.

There was pressure for an inquest and a Grand Jury inquiry in El Paso where Orozco had many relatives.

“Sheriff Morine did an end run on his home turf. He went to the Culberson County Grand Jury and asked that he and all the members of his posse be indicted for the murder of Orozco and his companions. The trial was held in three days with no investigation. Not surprisingly, all were found not guilty.”

Caballero continued, “As I read the files and the court case I realized what a brilliant cover-up Morine had concocted. They had clothed themselves with the immunity of the double jeopardy clause of the U.S. Constitution. They would never be held accountable for the murder of Orozco.”

One hundred years since Orozco’s death, who would have thought new facts could emerge. It’s as though Orozco himself returned from the dead to straighten out the history books. Caballero’s book promises to be a fascinating read.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Moving forward on the drug debate

This was an exciting week for me. In anticipation of the City of Ideas Festival (La Ciudad de Ideas) in Puebla I spoke with Andrés Roemer, the festival’s co-curator. I was particularly interested in a scheduled debate titled, “What’s the Point of Prohibition?” — referring to the legalization of currently illegal drugs.

I asked, “What are we going to do if the Supreme Court gets ahead of us?”

Andrés replied, “This debate is about much more than marijuana.”

Was Roemer talking about the spectrum of drugs that was possibly to be legalized or was he talking about how, as a society, we reach consensus about social policy? I looked forward to finding out.

Within two hours a New York Times headline popped up on my screen saying Mexico’s Supreme Court had struck down laws limiting a particular group’s right to grow and use marijuana recreationally. An interesting thing about this decision is it is limited to the four people who brought the suit.

As Roemer predicted, Saturday’s debate proved especially timely, touching on both harmful legal drugs like alcohol and tobacco and illegal drugs. He moderated a two-hour formal debate with four proponents on each side of the issue.

Three former heads of state argued for the legalization of drugs. They were Ruth Dreifuss of Switzerland, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Mexico’s own Vicente Fox. Ricardo Salinas Pliego, a Mexican entrepreneur and co-curator of the festival, joined them.

Colombia and Mexico both have been seriously impacted for decades by the War on Drugs initiated by the Unites States. Both countries have suffered an increase in violence and drug cartel activity and an increasing lack of respect by the citizenry for their government’s anti-drug policy.

Two of the defenders of prohibition of illegal drugs were from the United States: Kevin Sabet a founder of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana) and Mark Kleiman, CEO of Back of the Envelope Calculations Analysis Corporation. They were joined by Mexican Viridiana Rios, a fellow at the Wilson Center for International Scholars, and by Antonio Mazzitelli, an Italian who is the liaison with Mexico from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Before the debate, Roemer asked the 5,000 people in the audience to raise their hand if they defended prohibition. A good number raised their hand. He then asked for a show of hands of those opposed to prohibition. They were both numerous and boisterous. By my calculation the mostly, Mexican audience was 2:1 in favor of doing away with prohibition.

During the debate the only reference to the recent Supreme Court decision came from ex-President Fox who said that with five more similar court decisions, legalization of marijuana will become law. The Senate and Chamber of Deputies need to work quickly to write law. “I hope they are up to the challenge,” he added.

Using Fox’s introductory comments, Roemer asked the ex-president how he could compare the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden to the forbidden drugs and allow their use while regulating them.

Fox pointed to the role of parents. “Through example and information. Parents must be careful o give their children information necessary for their health. Forbidden fruit was attractive to Adam and Eve but it could have been described as infested with worms, bad for their stomachs. When things are explained and reasons are offered we all understand. This is particularly effective if the parents themselves are not examples of using.”

To Ricardo Salinas Pliego (TV Azteca’s CEO), Roemer relayed a question from the audience. “TV Azteca’s often repeated slogan is ‘Say no to drugs.’ Isn’t that in conflict with your suggestion that addicts be provided with free drugs?”

“Much like we give out free medicine to sick people” was Salinas’ reply.

Roemer’s sharpest question — and the one which drew the most cheers from the audience — was addressed to ex-President of Colombia Gaviria. “No one is more vehement in defending that which you defend. Why didn’t you do it when you were President?”

“I had no option. Drug cartels were so strong they threatened the state itself.”

Addressing Mark Kleiman, who was Roemer’s professor in the University of California’s School of Public Policy, Roemer said, “Everything, including drugs, has a market. Why not bring in transparent competition. Currently the drug market is a monopoly. In a free market there’s competition; profits are reduced. Black markets currently damage the health, life, and dignity of huge sectors of Latin America and the world.”

“I think you need to take my class again,” said professor Kleiman.

“But you gave me an A.”

“Some vices in society are so harmful that government must regulate them; gambling, alcohol, illegal drugs,” said Kleiman.

It was an intense, thought-provoking discussion on the liberalization/prohibition of drugs in society. After the debate concluded, Roemer asked for a show of hands. “How many people changed their minds from where they had been at the beginning?”

Despite all the discussion, very few hands went up. Nevertheless it was an achievement to be speaking openly and civilly about the elephant in the room.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Ideas set to stream from Puebla

Fast on the heels of Day of the Dead, it’s again time for Mexico’s other annual November luminous experience, the City of Ideas.  Founded in 2008, this is my third City of Ideas.  I look forward to it as a stimulating mental retreat.

It will be held from November 5 to 7 in Puebla’s 5,000 seat, recently-remodeled, Auditorio Siglo XXI.   Though the event sold out within days of its tickets’ release the entire three days is live-streamed on the Internet -- you needn’t miss a moment.  Most everything is in English -- even the theme of the conference:  “What’s the Point?”

The conference is the brainchild of Mexico’s San Francisco Consul Andres Roemer, who co-curates with Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Chairman of Grupo Salinas and Grupo Elektra.   Romer said of Salinas “He’s a visionary -- breaking the typical prototype of the business entrepreneur.  I met Ricardo through books.  After reading two of my books he wanted to meet me. An avid reader, he has read many of the books written by the presenters at City of Ideas.”
TED Talks have become popular world-wide; the City of Ideas may be of equal importance.  The slogan of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks is, “Ideas Worth Sharing.”  Growing out of a one-time conference, TED Talks, are curated by Chris Anderson. Anderson, born in Pakistan to Medical Missionaries, went on to an Oxford education in so many disciplines that he, himself, could be considered a Renaissance Man.

Fascinated by the emerging computer world, Anderson began to publish magazines dedicated to various facets of the computer revolution. He used his newly-created wealth to fund the Sapling Foundation and acquired TED. The rest is history.

City of Ideas has a format similar to TED; each speaker is allowed only 14 minutes.   On a single stage only minutes separate the speakers.  All attendees have the opportunity to see all speakers.  From experience, I can attest this is a physically challenging three days.  Yet you hardly want to take a break for lunch.  When the right brain approaches absolute overload, there will be a left-brain interlude of phenomenal music, dance, even magic.

This year’s theme is “What’s the Point?”  If past is prologue, all of the speakers/presenters will, in some way, answer that question.

World leaders and politicians will be heard including former heads of state of Colombia, Switzerland, Mexico and Spain. 

Patrick Magee, a long-imprisoned member of the IRA, will share the stage with the daughter of a British General killed by the IRA.

The US drug war will be one of the topics of “What’s the Point?”  There will be speakers from all sides of the issue, including some major players who have dramatically changed their minds about the impact of this “war.”

Who says one person can’t change the world?  These have.

Canadian Ryan Hreljac was only six years old when he learned about the difficulties Ugandans faced obtaining clean water.  He immediately started doing chores to earn money to give to an African charity that builds wells.  Others began to match his donations and the story went global.  Ryan’s Well is now an international Foundation.  Though now only 23 he has helped build hundreds of wells in Africa and has traveled the world raising money for clean water.

Another exciting and world-changing voice is Sugata Mitra’s.  Professor Mitra is an educational scientist working to solve the global problem of a lack of teachers and schools.  In impoverished areas of India, South Africa, and Italy, he “implanted” web-connected computers in walls located in public places.  He left no instructions with the computers but returned periodically finding them surrounded by children learning complex mathematics and other subjects.  The kids were teaching themselves!

Can the blind learn sonar and navigate the world without vision?  Daniel Kish has been blind since 13-months but has learned to “see” through sonar.  He now teaches his skill to others.

Jason Padgett was savagely attacked in 2002, left with a severe concussion and post-traumatic stress disorder. “Livescience” staff writer Tanya Lewis says, “The incident turned Padgett into a mathematical genius who sees the world through the lens of geometry.  Padgett, a furniture salesman from Tacoma, Washington, had little to no interest in academics.  He now has the ability to visualize complex mathematical objects and physics concepts intuitively. The injury, while devastating, seems to have unlocked part of his brain that makes everything in his world appear to have a mathematical structure.”

Simon Pierro is a German digital magician.  You’re sure to wish your iPad was as talented as his!  His presentation is certain to be enhanced by neurologists Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen Macknik, experts in the neuroscience of illusion. 

Like City of Ideas curator, Andres Roemer, Simon Pierro and his many fellow presenters will bring magic to Puebla and into our lives.  By this time next week I’ll hope to have an insight into how it all fits together, perhaps even know “what’s the point.”  For now I leave it in Andres’ capable hands and await the magic of the City of Ideas.

Don’t forget.  You can watch it live-streamed at ciudaddelasideas.com.  I suggest you go on early to register.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Bringing together the dead

The Days of the Dead are quickly approaching. Marigolds have already been planted in the flowerbeds lining Paseo de la Reforma. Truckloads of the bright yellow flowers are making their way from farmers’ fields to towns and cities all over Mexico They will be used to decorate tombs as well as home altars.

This year there is a new destination for these fragrant flowers, the Cinerario Comunitario (Community Cinerarium) in Cuernavaca.

The Cinerario Comunitario was inaugurated just last month. It is located inside the chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows in Cuernavaca’s Catholic Cathedral compound. It is the first in Mexico.

Unlike a columbarium, where cremated remains are each in a separate niche or urn, in the community cinerarium ashes are poured into a huge vault where they mix with the ashes of others. There is no charge for depositing ashes and the cinerarium is open to people of all faiths.

Cuernavaca’s cinerarium is the brainchild of Catholic lay missionary Raymond Plankey, a native of Massachusetts and a longtime resident of Cuernavaca. It required the backing and approval of the municipal and state authorities as well as the clergy.

In a generous exhibit of ecumenism, the cinerarium was inaugurated by two bishops, Roman Catholic Ramón Castro y Castro and Protestant Anglican Enrique Treviño.

Father Ángel Sánchez said at the inauguration, “It may seem strange to mix the ashes of the dead but there have been many cases of this documented in Church history.” He told us how English Cardinal John Henry Newman (1801-90) was buried with his good friend Father Ambrose St. John.

The cinerarium has benefits at many levels. It takes pressure off overcrowded cemeteries. For the poor, it represents a tremendous financial savings. And, from a theological point of view, as Father José Luis Calvillo said, “It is rich in symbolism about the communion of the church in showing that what little is left of the human being on earth can join with remains of other brothers and sisters, beyond religious beliefs and social positions in a respectful and dignified setting.”

Inside an austere 16th century marble- floored chapel devoid of pews, or chairs, Cuernavaca’s cinerarium is a marble vault 2 meters high, 2 meters wide and 5 meters long. Three small steps allow access to a 15 centimeter-diameter aperture where ashes are poured. Plankey calculates the cinerarium is large enough to hold ashes of 50,000 bodies.

Although Plankey came upon this idea on his own and has mulled over it for three decades, he readily admits googling to find out if community cinerariums exist anywhere else. He found that former Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Bergoglio built several in his archdiocese where cinerariums are an economical option for poor families to bury their dead and still have a place to return to honor their loved ones.

With company like that I doubt there will be any criticism of the mixing of the ashes. But, if there is, I’d refer those critics to ancient Mesoamerican lore, which maintains that our humanity owes its existence to the commingling of bones of the deceased.

Ancient Mesoamericans knew that the gods are dependent on people for their sustenance. When the fourth sun refused to return, the fourth humanity died off and the gods’ existence was in jeopardy.
Once the gods had created a fifth sun, Quetzalcoatl — the feathered serpent — traveled to the realm of the dead at the lowest level of the underworld to find the bones of his father and mother and from them create a new humanity.

The god of death did not willingly give up his acquisitions and was prepared to catch Quetzalcoatl on a technicality. “You are authorized to take the bones, but you were never authorized to touch the bones. If you can take them without touching them you’re welcome to them.”

Quetzalcoatl decided the ends justify the means and stole the bones. His dog identified the two sets of bones he needed and Quetzalcoatl carefully picked them up. The god of death chased him; Quetzalcoatl ran. In darkness he tripped on a rock in the path. Mother’s bones got mixed with father’s bones and some shattered. Hastily Quetzalcoatl gathered them into a bag hanging over his shoulder, making it out to this level of flat earth we live on, just in the nick of time.

Quetzalcoatl sprinkled some of his own blood on the bones bringing them to life and creating the humanity of which we are a part. But because the bones got mixed up a mother never knows if her baby will be a boy or a girl. Because some broke some people are shorter in stature and some are taller.

Nevertheless, rich or poor we can go to the graves of our loved ones, cover them with flowers and for a moment bring them back to memory and to life.

Each year during Days of the Dead I honor John Spencer an English ex-pat, artist, poet, who is buried in Cuernavaca. Decorating his tomb is a festive occasion to which all are invited. If you’re interested in participating please email me.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Foster environment prize

It started with car parts, blossomed into geraniums, and now brings together an unlikely combination of environmentalists, politicians, members of the military, academics, and artists. Such has been the career of Hans Peter Doster.

Hans Doster was born in 1930 in Stuttgart, Germany to a farming family.  His father also owned and drove a truck for hire.  I did the math and realized Doster was young enough to not have been conscripted into the army but old enough to have experienced and to remember the ravages of war.  Indeed his accounts of post-war Germany were harrowing, 

In 1953 he received a scholarship to study economics in the United States.  After four years there he drove from California to Mexico City to enroll in UNAM’s summer program for foreign students. He stayed on and worked as a parts and service manager for Mercedes Benz.  Two years into his life in Mexico Doster met María de Lourdes Gómez Montero, a law student from Morelia, Michoacan; they married within months.  

In 1959 Doster left his secure position at Mercedes, and with two friends founded an electro-mechanical parts factory. They took advantage of Mexico’s import substitution program which gave preference to Mexican-made parts.  “We manufactured keyboards for IBM typewriters, channel selectors for television sets,” Hans told me.

As the import substitution program was phased out, the Dosters became Mexico representatives for European automobile parts manufacturers.  They spent their weekends in rural Morelos where they purchased land and built a vacation home.

In 1972 Hans was offered the directorship of Hella Group’s floundering Mexico branch. He replied, “I’ll have to check with my wife because we work together.”  Lourdes agreed and Hans became Hella Mexico’s General Manager, she became a working shareholder.  Retiring 20 years later the Dosters turned over a Hella branch with 2,500 employees. 

In 1986 Hans received a call from the German embassy requesting assistance in finding land – and partners -- for a German company wanting to set up a geranium nursery.  Unable to find either – and tired of loafing around on weekends -- the Dosters set up the nursery themselves.  Presently a highly successful business, Floraplant employs a thousand workers and exports cuttings of 650 different species of ornamental plants. 

Their involvement with the land led to the Dosters' deep concern for the environment. They wanted to protect the rivers, ravines, forests, and climate of Morelos.  

They set up the Doster Foundation whose objectives include working with other like-minded organizations to lobby in favor of state and local legislation to protect the biodiversity, environment, and natural resources of Morelos and Mexico.  

Morelos is the second smallest state in Mexico yet it is one of the most biologically diverse.  With seven of the nine great ecosystems of Mexico it only lacks mangroves and seashores. Sadly, Morelos is in second place (after Tabasco) in the percentage of its territory suffering the transformation of its original ecosystem.  

Last weekend I attended the Doster Foundation’s annual awards ceremony at a 55-hectare (135 acres) nursery in rural Tetecalita, Morelos.  

This year’s recipient of the Doster Foundation Prize for Outstanding Work in Favor of the Environment is Fernando Jaramillo Monroy. 

Fernando is the director of the Biosphere of the Anahuac Foundation.  With doctoral studies at the Pablo de Olavide of Seville he has specialized in setting up and managing protected natural reserves.  He has been key in the creation of 12 Natural Protected Areas (NPA), including the country’s largest, the Vizcaino Biosphere NPA in Baja California.

Upon receiving the award Jaramillo didn’t just speak to environmentalists.  His audience included Governor Graco Ramirez and state legislators who have successfully worked on environmental legislation.   

The member of the audience I found most unexpected was General Fausto Bautista Ramos, commander of the Army’s 24th Military Zone (Morelos).  In retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Getting an RSVP from the General and his wife is an example of the respect the Dosters have achieved from all participants in the protection of the environment.  Indeed the army carries out extensive reforestation programs and maintains a nursery of saplings of the state’s native forests’ trees.

The non-governmental portion of the audience included strong-willed environmental activists, some of whom have even been arrested and imprisoned over environmental issues by previous administrations.      

Addressing the governor, Fernando recognized he has fulfilled most of his campaign promises on the environment.  Some actions were politically risky, such as evicting squatters from environmentally protected reserves.  Others were politically ambitious such as getting the governors of the states surrounding the Valley of Mexico as well as the chief of government of the Federal District to recognize that protecting the Forest of Water is a matter of national security.  He stood with the defenders of the last of Cuernavaca’s forests by cancelling the planned Northwest Bypass Highway.  

Nevertheless, Fernando pointed out that the successes carried out by one administration are at risk of being done away with by the stroke of a pen by the next governor.  “An important next step is an autonomous state government commission -- with enforcement powers -- charged with setting environmentally sustainable policy.”  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bees in a box uncover a rich history

Last week, at a package express office a woman caught my eye, first because she asked for her place to be held in line even though no one was behind her. Secondly, because she was preparing to send an intriguing box.

It was a wooden box, about 2.5 cm (an inch), and the width and length of a letter-sized piece of paper. It contained live queen bees.

When she rejoined the queue I told her I wanted to learn more about the strange package. She suggested I speak with her husband Enrique Estrada de la Mora, the president of the National Apiculture Association.

Enrique Estrada gave me a grand education about bees when we met for coffee. His career in apiculture began right about the time the Africanized bees arrived in Mexico in the mid 1980s.

I learned that Mexico is the world’s seventh largest producer of honey, and third largest exporter — 164 million dollars-a-year worth, mainly produced by peasant farmers.
Beehives are a common sight while driving through Mexico. They are the brightly painted wooden boxes on the sides of the roads.

Mexico’s Maya region is the most propitious for honey production, perhaps because it is the least urbanized and has a profusion of species of plants and trees in its tropical forests.
Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated bees for honey long before the Europeans arrived. The bees they kept were stingless.

European bees were introduced by the Spanish. This type of bee produces more honey than the native Mesoamerican Melipona bee and soon took over.

The next big change in Mexico’s beekeeping industry occurred in 1986 with the arrival of Africanized bees — descendants of 26 African queen bees that escaped from quarantine at an agricultural research station in Brazil in 1957.

Estrada told me, “When I started beekeeping I read a lot about the Africanized bee which had ravaged South America. It had reached Central America. I decided I wanted to specialize in the breeding of queen bees because I thought and still do think that is a very good way of controlling the defensibility of the hives.”

My layman’s view was that the Africanized bee is much more aggressive than the European bee. In fact, I’d heard of farm animals and people being killed by them.

Estrada corrected me. “Bees aren’t aggressive, they’re defensive. They attack in defense. Africanized bees are more defensive than European bees.”

When they are more defensive more bees respond to the attack. That’s what causes the fatalities — dozens or hundreds of bee stings almost simultaneously.

Estrada breeds two types of bees and sells them to beekeepers all over Mexico, Central, and South America. He’s one of 40 to 50 queen bee breeders in Mexico who produce for sale. There are also 200 to 300 who produce for their own use. In the 1990s Estrada produced 20,000 queen bees per year. Now, he breeds about 6,000 per year. While his income is down, so is his stress level.

The high-ticket queen bees Estrada breeds are instrumentally inseminated with European semen.

He also sells the next generation of queen bees, those inseminated naturally in flight by drones in their surroundings. In a couple of days they mate with multiple drones and store up enough semen for the rest of their two- to seven-year life. Their offspring may alternate between European and Africanized bees. Estrada emphasized, “We now have bees that practically don’t sting. Those inseminated instrumentally are very docile. However, those inseminated freely sometimes mate with Africanized drones leading to colonies that sting but not in a big way, just as it had been before the arrival of the Africanized bees.”

Estrada told me bees act as an environmental gauge. “When we see bees dying we know something serious is happening in the environment.”

He’s particularly concerned about recently developed herbicide that is sprayed on thousands of hectares of crops. It is designed to kill everything except the cash crop.

“Only one type of pollen combined with the insecticide used on that crop leads to what is called the honeybee colony collapse disorder. The disappearance of millions of hives in the world.”

“How can humans make that decision of killing everything? Humans many times think that we can attack life and come out ahead. That will never happen.”

Estrada told me that almond producers in the United States need 1.5 million hives each year for two or three weeks while the trees are flowering. Beekeepers are paid well to transport their hives to the almond groves. When the three weeks are over there may be 400,000 dead hives.

“The beekeeper can replace the hives because a profit is being made and losses are covered. However, we shouldn’t be killing animals to replace them later.”

Before leaving I related to Estrada the way his wife had saved a space in line that didn’t exist. “She foresees the future,” was his comment.

I thought, “It seems to be a family trait.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Saints help sow seeds

Two saints are particularly important to traditional farmers in Central Mexico. St. Isidore Labrador is a farmer himself; his feast day is May 15 and marks the date farmers should have their seeds in the ground as the rainy season starts.

Then St. Michael the Archangel takes over. He protects the growing crops and fights off the devil on behalf of the farmers. His feast day is today, marking the end of the growing season and the beginning of the harvest.

You’ll catch glimpses of observances for St. Michael in Central Mexico, if you know what to look for. St. Michael’s crosses made from the tiny, bright yellow pericón flower made their appearance this morning over doorways of homes, stores, and workshops. They are also on the front grills of cars, buses and trucks. You’ll see them all over Morelos, and in neighboring parts of the Mexico City, Guerrero, Puebla, and the State of Mexico.

In the countryside, farmers have tied pericón crosses to a tree or corn stalk at each corner of a their fields.

Rarely are they larger than 25 x 25 centimeters (10 x 10 inches).

It’s all part of the marvelous syncretism of a Christian holiday finding a place in ancient Mesoamerican traditions.

Look closely at the crosses and you’ll see that for the most part they are not Latin crosses. All four arms are equal in length. Anthropologists think that’s been their design since before the conquest and that they represent the four cardinal points.

A few days ago I was alerted to the approach of St. Michael’s Day not by the news but by a boy sitting at an intersection with yellow flowers on his lap. He was waiting for the light to change before walking from car to car selling the crosses he had made.

Last night, families took down last year’s cross — looking like brittle straw — and put up a new one with green stalks and bright yellow flowers. Last year’s cross was buried or burned according to each family’s custom.

St. Michael goes on his rounds blessing the places where there are crosses. Sometimes he comes across the devil, so he’ll use one of his crosses like a sword to fight him off.

One of the more unusual St. Michael’s Day observances is that of the Cofradía (brotherhood) of ‘weathermen’ in Xalatlaco in the State of Mexico. Today they go to Chalma, one of Mexico’s principal pilgrimage destinations, to return St. Michael’s weapon. They’ll leave the weapon in the care of the Lord of Chalma until next year’s rains begin.

Ramiro Gómez Arzapalo describes their pilgrimage in his book, “The Divine Among Humans.” On St. Michael’s Day “Xalatlaco’s meteorological specialists go to Chalma to ‘turn in the weapon’ with which they have worked and fought during the rainy season. They refer to it variously as if it is a mauser, a shotgun, or a whip with which to herd sheep.”

Gómez Arzapalo quotes the ‘weathermen,’ “We turn in the weapon and give thanks that we came out of this well. None of us were left without strength, or struck by lightning. The clouds obeyed us. Hail did not mistreat us, or our crops. The last of the needed rains have arrived … we have a good crop.”

It’s understandable that Xalatlaco has a special relationship with St. Michael. Its elevation ranges between 2,800 and 3,300 meters above sea level — that averages about 9,000 feet. 

Not only is it high, the municipality of Xalatlaco straddles the continental divide and borders on both the Federal District and Morelos. Weather is harsh where the Pacific air meets the central highlands.

There are years in which Xalatlaco’s weathermen don’t have a good report to give to the Lord of Chalma. However, they probably wouldn’t let on to us if that were the case. The town would make it through. The people of Xalatlaco have developed a backup plan to farming.

Before dawn every morning a couple of hundred residents carrying large baskets — the size and shape of a baby’s bath — board buses for the trip to Mexico City. Xalatlacans are among the most famous producers and sellers of tacos de canasta (basket tacos).

Look for them outside Metro stations, bus terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings. Also known as tacos sudados (sweaty tacos) they are made of the agricultural products of the top of the mountain — corn, beans, potatoes, pork, lamb, eggs. Rice from the valley of Morelos is also an ingredient.

Tightly packed into the cloth-lined basket, they keep each other warm and sweaty — but tasty. The vendors know which corner of the basket contains each of the different combinations of taco they have for sale.

Keep these tacos in mind for a party or reception. You can order a whole basket — with price set per hundred tacos — and have it delivered. The salesperson will come back for the empty basket another day.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Crafted by hand

Orizaba, the city at the base of Mexico’s highest mountain, the Peak of Orizaba, had a count during the Viceroyalty years. When the count died, his oldest son would become the new Count of Orizaba.

One such eldest son was known as a good-for- nothing. His father did not relish leaving his affairs to him. “He’ll never even be able to make a house of tiles when he grows up,” he reportedly said.

The boy never forgot this insult. When he became the Count of Orizaba he covered the whole outside of the family’s Mexico City palace with tiles — Puebla’s famous Talavera tiles.
Talavera is a form of majolica — painted pottery using a white tin-glaze decorative technique. The process was originally developed by Islamic potters during the Middle Ages, though it was likely inspired by Chinese porcelain. It was the dominant form of tile in Europe until the mid-18th century. It spread to Spain where it is known as Hispano- Moresque ware.

Soon after the conquest of Mexico, examples of fine majolica pottery were brought over from Spain. With them came the know-how. Skilled indigenous potters were soon trained to make it themselves. They imitated Spanish, Italian and Chinese designs and called it Talavera pottery after the Spanish city of Talavera de la Reina, which was already famous for its pottery.

The city of Puebla became the epicenter for Talavera pottery. Potters found fine white clay nearby in the valleys around Mexico’s second highest peak, Popocateptl.

One of the oldest and finest producers of Talavera is the factory, founded in 1824. They still make it the same way it was made in the 16th century, except they use a modern gas-fired kiln.

I like to take visitors to this amazing factory where we can watch the production of tiles, fine pots, dishes and works of art. Each piece is tapped after the first firing and must ring with the required “Uriarte sound.” The finest pieces are unique and signed; many others are designs copied through generations.

During the workweek Uriarte is generous in allowing visitors to tour and watch the process. On request they will open their second floor museum exhibiting the whole array of their production.

Its function is two-fold. It is of interest to those admiring Talavera ware and, perhaps more importantly, a place for Uriarte’s artisans to visit in order to maintain the style and quality of pottery for which the company is famous.

Over the centuries, ceramic artists have refined their work all the while passing down the designs of master artisans.

If you are looking for a set of dishes where plates, bowls and cups are uniform, Talavera is not for you. Each piece is unique and should be hand-signed.

Originally Talavera was just blue and white — traditional Chinese porcelain colors. The Mexican color palette follows the examples of Italy and Spain where other natural pigmented colors were used. Running your fingers over a tile or dish, you’ll feel the raised color.

Not every potter can claim to make Talavera. In present-day Mexico, the use of the word “Talavera” is subject to Mexico’s Denominación de Origen Law which requires it be made in Puebla using 16th-century techniques. A government agency certifies and periodically inspects shops authorized to use “Talavera” to describe their production.

If Puebla is not on your itinerary, an exceptional collection of Talavera ware is on display in Mexico City’s Franz Meyer Museum. That’s just a four- block walk from where the good-for-nothing covered the family’s mansion with tiles.

Today the Count of Orizaba’s Palace is designated a historical monument. It is also open to the public as Sanborn’s flagship restaurant. You’ll find it two blocks east of the Palace of Fine Arts at the corner of Avenida Cinco de Mayo and Condesa street.

Known as the House of Tiles, it is one of Mexico’s premier destinations and has featured in countless novels, movies and political intrigue.

Perhaps the most recognized photo taken there was snapped in 1914. In the heat of the Revolution General Emiliano Zapata’s army and Pancho Villa’s División del Norte converged in Mexico City. A photographer caught some Zapatistas taking a coffee break. Space was tight. They had to artfully wrap up the wide brims of their tall hats in order to squeeze in at the counter.

A modern group of Zapatistas arrived in Mexico City in 1999. Eight members of the caravan accompanied by members of the city’s legislative assembly went to have coffee at the same counter. They were also photographed.

This time they had to sip their coffee through straws. It’s difficult to drink from a coffee cup while wearing a ski mask. Another difference is that they paid for the coffee. The Zapatistas of 101 years ago left without paying.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Immigration Tradition

Two weeks ago at the Hispanic Choice Awards in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Obed Arango received an award for the Education Champion of the Year.

Before stepping up to the podium to receive the award statuette, the audience was shown a short video.

In it, Obed recalled immigrating to the United States 17 years ago with his wife — a U.S. citizen — and their two daughters, both born in Mexico.

“One of the big questions I had was what am I going to do with my life in a new country? In Mexico I was a journalist and a tenured professor at the National University. But here — in the United States — I was nobody.”

I asked him how he transitioned from being “nobody” to being the recipient of the Education Champion award.

“I saw new immigrants struggling with their kids’ education;the parents themselves struggling with their development as new immigrants – just as I was. I had the idea of setting up a place where members of the immigrant community could develop their talents — a cultural center where we as immigrants could discover who we are in a new country.”

Obed is a founding member and executive director of Norristown, Pennsylvania’s Center for Culture, Art, Training and Education (CCATE), where over 100 families participate in classes offered seven days a week. As the program moves from afternoons into evenings, the student body changes from children to their migrant parents.

Obed refers to the immigrant community, wherever it is, as La Villa Inmigrante, a virtual village, where children can remain bilingual and bicultural and the parents can maintain contact with their country of origin even as they learn to be part of an adopted country to which they contribute their talents and skills.

In a much different framework, I’ve watched a governmental process spanning borders and facilitating bilingual bicultural life in this hemisphere. One-by-one, and mainly in the 1990s, Latin American countries have revised their laws to allow for dual nationality. Panama, Cuba, and Haiti are the exceptions.

I was pleased to hear that law students at Villanova University provide legal assistance for those members of CCATE wishing to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Upon becoming a citizen of the United States, an immigrant immediately acquires the right to vote. This leads to a new respect from candidates running for office — as well as elected officials — toward the immigrants personally and their countries of origin.

From a practical point of view, Latin American governments enjoy having the backing of a block of sympathetic U.S. voters.

However, from the perspective of sovereignty and national pride, it’s a difficult topic to discuss in legislatures.Lawmakers don’t want to appear encouraging of their citizens to take on another country’s citizenship — as if pushing them out the door. Dual nationality issomething you also won’t heardiscussed in the U.S. Congress.

In Mexico, during the Zedillo administration (1994-2000),the constitution was amended to allow citizens to maintain their Mexican citizenship after becoming citizens of another country.

President Zedillo received an unexpected boost in this campaign when Mexican-born Mario J. Molina shared the Nobel Chemistry Prize in 1995.

Years earlier, Dr. Molina had given up his Mexican citizenship and taken U.S. citizenship. He explained he had reached a point in chemistry research where he needed security clearances only available to U.S. citizens in order to work in federally funded laboratories in the United States. At the time, Mexican law prohibited dual nationality.

President Zedillo stepped in and said he would do something to rectify this for this distinguished Mexican. The executive and legislative branches of Mexico’s government had already begun sotto voce discussions with the intent of modifying the prohibition of dual nationality for Mexican citizens.Reinstating Dr. Molina’s Mexican citizenship was the catalyst needed to push it through.Dr. Molina currently serves on Presidential Commissions in both Mexico and the United States.

After the 1997 change in Mexican law, many expected a surge in Mexicans requesting dual U.S. citizenship. It hasn’t happened.

The Pew Research Center has found that “nearly two thirds of the 5.4 million legal immigrants from Mexico who are eligible to become citizens of the United States have not yet taken that step. Their rate of naturalization — 36 percent — is only half that of legal immigrants naturalizing from all other countries combined.”

Asked why they hadn’t naturalized, Pew found that a quarter of Mexican immigrants said there were personal barriers such as a lack of English proficiency. Only 30 percent of Hispanic legal permanent residents said they speak English “very well” or “pretty well”. 

Others cited the cost of applying as the barrier. The United States doesn’t recognize the brain-drain of the Molinas, Obeds and other immigrant professionals — choosing to focus on poorer undocumented workers. A recent excess of anti-Mexican rhetoric by some U.S. presidential candidates has been met with considerable anger by Mexicans both in the United States and in Mexico. This rhetoric may be the catalyst for recognition of La Villa Inmigrante and the importance of spreading programs like CCATE’s throughout the United states with a side benefit of teaching the importance dual-citizenship.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

El Zócalo: The Public’s Plaza?

Devoid of trees, sculptures, walkways, or even park benches, Mexico City’s Zócalo is adorned only with an enormous flagpole. The space itself is referred to as “la plancha del Zócalo” (the slab of the Zocalo) — as in a slab of stone, but in this case concrete designed to look like square-meter tiles.

However, it is not a bleak and empty space. The Zócalo keeps a very busy schedule. Literally and figuratively, it is Mexico City’s center stage. Throughout the year, erector set-type structures are put up and taken down with surprising speed for concerts, exhibits, book fairs, museums and even for an ice-skating rink. Depending on the event, the audience sits in chairs and bleachers or stands and walks.

Four “powers” surround Mexico City’s Zócalo, each represented by buildings. The National Palace is on the east and is the seat of the executive branch of the federal government. The Cathedral is on the north and is the seat of the archdiocese of México Tenochtitlan. This is the only place the Aztec capital’s name survives in an official way. Federal District buildings line the south side of the plaza. Commerce anchors the west side.

Though it appears to be totally open, the space is jealously guarded by these various powers. The “plancha” of the Zócalo is under the jurisdiction of the city government. The federal government’s jurisdiction is limited to the sidewalk in front of the National Palace. A few years ago the city discussed remodeling the Zócalo and removing the fence in front of the Cathedral. The archdiocese’s spokesman reminded the city that the atrium — though outdoors — is an integral part of the Cathedral.

But all that was ignored last Saturday. The Army took over all those spaces as it does every year in preparation for the grandest of Mexico’s civic events.

Independence Day is tomorrow, with the celebration beginning tonight. It’s a particularly Mexican event held in a place with a Mexican name.

Only Mexico calls its plazas zócalos. Only Mexico’s president leads a celebration that mixes military pomp and formality inside the National Palace that morphs into a rowdy and celebratory event when the President steps onto the Palace’s central balcony and delivers the Grito (Shout).

He’s emulating Father Miguel Hidalgo’s ‘Shout of Independence’. He even rings the same bell Father Hidalgo rang on the 16th of September in 1810. That act, with different players, is reenacted in zócalos all over the nation and in Mexican diplomatic posts throughout the world.

Tomorrow the Palace balconies become viewing stands for one of the world’s grand military parades. It is well rehearsed with few changes from one year to the next. A recent change was the inclusion of foreign armed forces in the parade.
The most surprising is that of the United States, a country whose soldiers invaded Mexico in 1846 and raised their own flag over the National Palace.

Another change is that previous administrations’ military commentators emphasized Mexico’s military preparedness. This administration’s commentators stress military assistance to the citizenry.

A commemorative mass honoring Father Miguel Hidalgo is traditionally celebrated at the Cathedral on Independence Day. This also may be unique in the world. The highest clergy honors a priest the church had excommunicated. Hidalgo even had his hands scraped to be sure there were no holy oils on them before his execution by firing squad.

This dark side of Mexican church history was talked about sotto voce until 2010 when the Luz del Mundo (Light of the Word) Church, a Mexican Pentecostal church, brought it to the forefront in paid insertions in newspapers. Catholic hierarchy replied that Father Hidalgo indeed had been excommunicated but was readmitted to communion before his execution. The Luz del Mundo Church published copies of Catholic documents certifying the contrary.

The Zócalo is also a favorite place for political demonstrations and is frequently the destination for protest marches. This a right protected in the Constitution.

Most demonstrations are of short duration. A plantón is a demonstration of longer duration. Plantón demonstrators “plant themselves” on the “plancha” of the Zocalo, promising to stay — in tents — until their demands are met.

A plantón starting in late August will quickly draw attention from authorities; they need a clear Zócalo for the Grito on the 15th and the parade on the 16th of September.

In 2006, a massive plantón covered the whole plaza. At a press conference, Federal District Chief of Government Alejandro Encinas said both the Grito and the parade would be held. A reporter’s rejoinder was, “The law of physics maintains only one body can occupy a space at any given time.”

Encinas replied, “There’s a law of physics, and there’s a law of politics. I can have the Zócalo ready six hours after the plantón is dismantled.” Indeed, Encinas turned it over to the Army, swept, clean, and empty of all but its flagpole in time for the 2006 Grito. Just another Mexican Miracle.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Preserving Pulque

Francesco Taboada Tabone makes movies to preserve oral memory long after those who lived it have
died. With his recent film, “Maguey,” he goes a step further, breathing new life into ancient practices.

Taboada’s (b 1973) award-winning first film, “The Last Zapatistas: Forgotten Heroes,” told the powerful story of the Mexican Revolution through the eyes of 10 centenarian survivors of the Southern Front. One survivor actually died on camera while being interviewed.

Taboada followed this 1998 film with another about survivors of Pancho Villa’s División del Norte, as well as short videos on various important social issues. In 2008 his feature film, “13 Villages in Defense of Water, Air and Earth” about a Morelos peasant environmental movement, received numerous prizes.

His most recent film, “Maguey: A Documentary,” is about the century plant, whose sap is harvested as “agua miel” (honey water) and fermented to become pulque, an alcoholic beverage of pre-Hispanic origin.

In a recent interview I asked Francesco why he’d chosen this topic, seemingly so different from his previous films. Francesco saw no break.

“Images are a tool to transmit communication in the way it was done by the great majority of ancient Mesoamericans. They preserved knowledge in an oral way. I preserve it in film. Maguey and pulque are also part of ancient Mexico, Mexico Profundo (Profound Mexico), it’s very roots.”

Before the conquest of Mexico pulque was consumed for rituals, by the nobility, warriors, the elderly, and pregnant women. Codices depict the importance of both the plant and the drink. After the conquest, pulque became a cheap source of alcohol for all classes.

It also became a major source of tax revenue. Then in the early 20th century European beer companies began to denigrate pulque in favor of beer. By implication pulque was relegated to the lower rural class. By the 1990s, for the most part, even they switched to beer.

Francesco described it as “The War Against Pulque,” with the government taking part by shutting down pulquerías (pulque bars). “Pulque was attacked after the Revolution because it was associated with México Profundo, Indigenous Mexico, the Mexico linked to ancestral traditions.

“The Revolutionary ideal was the creation of a single ethnicity — a mestizo state. Using education as an example, Francesco continued, “Mexico’s educational system attempted to blend the many Indigenous groups into one nation. In the process, Indigenous languages and customs were often sacrificed. Only recently have we, as a nation, started speaking about cultural diversity.”

To better understand that process, Francesco started learning Nahuatl in 2000. He is now conversant — “if the conversation isn’t too complicated.” I asked about his most recent conversation in Náhuatl.

“Moments ago, outside this coffee shop, I was asked ‘What’s going on there with all those dancers – where did they come from?’ Indigenous people see me and speak to me in Nahuatl. They know I’ll answer them.”

Three years ago Francesco was entrusted with a Morelos state government project to recuperate the Náhuatl language. “People told me ‘you’re not going to be successful. There’s no reason to do that.’ There are now 1,600 people studying Náhuatl.

“In Hueyapan, Morelos, Náhuatl was spoken but young people were ashamed of it. The shame barrier is broken; they’ve started speaking it openly. The townspeople set up a Náhuatl Academy and in less than three years the language has been mostly recovered.”

When asked which languages he speaks, Francesco lists Náhuatl first. “Not because I speak it the best, but because it is the one I’m proudest of speaking.” Spanish, French, Italian, English, and Portuguese are the others. Francesco finds only English has similarity with Náhuatl. And that’s only in its succinctness. Romance languages say ‘yo estoy caminando’ verse English’s ‘I’m walking.’ In Náhuatl it’s ‘mecnemi’ — ‘walking.’

After completion of “Maguey: A Documentary,” Francesco and seven friends opened a pulquería a block from Cuernavaca’s Cathedral. La Guayaba serves pulque and accompanying indigenous foods. This interesting new restaurant hosts art exhibits as well as Thursday evening lectures at 7 p.m. on the history of pulque, the maguey plant, and other related subjects.

When asked why he’s undertaken such an unusual project, Francesco replied, “México Profundo has a link with maguey, an endangered plant and pulque production is equally threatened. In the early 20th century, Hidalgo was the principal producer of maguey. Today its second most important crop — after corn — is barley.”

La Guayaba’s clientele spans social classes. Indigenous vendors who ply their crafts in Cuernavaca’s Zócalo stop in. Elders who grew up during The War Against Pulque are regulars. A lot of college students make it a meeting place in downtown Cuernavaca.

As far as I can tell, La Guayaba is the only pulquería in Cuernavaca. Stop in for a glimpse into México Profundo. If you — like me — don’t care for alcoholic beverages, you’ll be welcome ordering agua miel. La Guayaba, at Ruíz de Alarcón #4, is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. – closed Mondays.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

All wrapped up

Unwrapped gifts don’t seem like gifts do they? For me it’s the wrapping paper that adds surprise and even a touch of elegance to a gift.

When my older siblings came home to Colombia for Christmas vacation from Massachusetts high schools, they came bearing wrapping paper and small dispensers of scotch tape with Christmas designs.

That thick, richly decorated paper was a luxury and hard to find in Latin America. When this source dried up I found it made more sense to take gifts to stationery stores or “wrapping shops” set up during the holiday season in Bogota. With great skill the gift was wrapped with minimal use of paper, and I was charged only for the materials used.

Later in Mexico, I resorted to using bright-colored tissue paper available at a fraction of a peso per sheet. There’s a danger in that though; ― the least bit of moisture causes the tissue paper to stain whatever it touches.

A few years ago I had a seamstress make a safe, reusable, and quick wrapping solution a set of different sized cloth bags with drawstrings. I give the gift but get the bag back for future use.

I learned to open gifts with great care. First, I slit the scotch tape with a knife and then I spread the wrapping paper out flat for future re-use. Friends laugh at the way I open gifts using the knife from a Swiss Army card I always carry in my pocket.

It’s a good idea to take care of gift-wrapping paper.I’ve heard of cases in which the wrapping paper may be worth more than the gift. The U.S. Treasury sells full sheets of 32 uncut dollar or 2-dollar bills sometimes used as wrapping paper.
But the most valuable of wrapping paper is found in the least likely places.

In 1992, the University of Milan purchased a roll of papyrus that had been used to wrap a mummy in Fayum, Egypt in about 180 BC. On the scroll were 112 brief poems in ancient Greek text. They are attributed to Macedonian epigrammatist Posidippus of Pella (c.310-.c.240 BC). In 2001, the publication of “Milan Papyrus” caused a literary sensation.

To put Posidippus in chronological context, he lived in Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy I Soter, founder of the Library of Alexandria. Sixty years after Posidippus’ death the scroll was being used to wrap a mummy. It’s possible Posidippus’ own handwriting is on the scroll.

But don’t think re-used and valuable wrapping paper is only something of centuries long past.

In 1990, as executor of Dorothy Cordry’s estate, I was invited to UCLA’s Fowler Museum in preparation for the delivery of her Mexican folk art donation. The procedure is long and involves close scrutiny of donated items. The Fowler is a highly desired destination for private collections. It promises donors that once accepted, donations will be kept and never sold or traded. They don’t make these decisions lightly.

The museum treated me to a behind-the-scenes visit of their archives. Spread on tables was a wide array of Iranian antiquities metal and ceramic vases, plates, bowls. The museum’s most recent acquisition had just arrived from the U.S. State Department.

I wondered aloud, “Why did the State Department give this away?”

“All they wanted was the wrapping paper.” As tension between the United States and Iran increased in 1979, there was a need to surreptitiously remove important documents from the Embassy in Tehran and get them back to Washington. Wadded-up documents were used as stuffing and padding for fragile items of folk art and antiquities they shipped out. It appeared innocuous and was successful. Diplomats used Iranian art, portrayed as souvenirs, to smuggle sensitive documents.

The award-winning movie Argo shows scenes of Embassy staff members hastily shredding remaining documents just before the assault of the Embassy building by Iranian hostage-takers. Press coverage during the hostage crisis documented hostage-takers reassembling the shredded paper.

After seeing the array of Iranian art at The Fowler, I also pictured State Department personnel in Washington ironing and collating wrapping paper that had arrived from the other side of the world. They were probably not nearly as experienced in this art as I am.

I haven’t been back to see the State Department’s donation on display in The Fowler, or if or how it is attributed as the donor. But last week my appetite for Islamic art was whetted by the magnificent exhibit on display in Mexico City’s former San Ildefonso School two blocks north of the National Palace.

The exhibit, “Earthly and Divine: Islamic Arts of the 7th–19th Centuries” on loan from Los Angeles County’s Museum of Art is on display through Oct. 4th.It includes 192 exquisite pieces from as far west as Spain and as far east as Indonesia, with Iran well represented. I could have been back in The Fowler’s archives.

“Earthly and Divine” at the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, Justo Sierra #16, is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. closed on Mondays through to October 4.