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.