Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Patamban: Fiesta de Cristo Rey

A glimpse of the Fiesta de Cristo Rey
It was a stunning, flower-filled trip in all ways. Wild flowers were everywhere and we could have added days to our trip if we had stopped at every field of vibrant color. However, we were on a mission to get to Patamban for the Fiesta de Cristo Rey, the day when Christ was embraced as the son of God.
Patamban Fiesta
Patamban Circle

We were lucky enough to have Xill Fessenden as our leader. Xill has lived in Mexico for 33 years and started the Purépecha festival that is held in Ajijic. (The next one will be in 2019.) She seems to know everyone and everything about this part of the world. On the way back, she wanted to show us the church with painted ceilings in Nurio but it was closed.

Some of the indigenous towns have loud speakers that function somewhat like the internet or Facebook. Not long after we arrived, we heard words booming across the village. The language was Purépecha so we didn't understand anything except ... words, words, Julia, words, words, words, Julia. Repeated several times. Turns out that Xill goes by Julia in the villages and they were announcing her arrival and telling everyone that she wanted someone to open the church. Soon, someone arrived and did just that. Everywhere she went, doors opened and we experienced things that we wouldn't have been able to without her. Thanks, Xill! (She is a Wonder Woman and you can read more about her here.)

Our plan was to have lunch at Lake Camécuaro and then go on to Patamban for the fiesta. I could have stayed forever at that incredibly beautiful, spring-fed lake surrounded by an ancient ahuehuetl (cypress) grove. There will be a separate post about this place, but here's a peek.
Lunch at Lake Camécuaro
Next stop: Patamban for a the regional festival that attracts thousands of people from Zamora, Guadalajara and other surrounding towns. Very few gringos. In an article by Allan Cogan (referenced below), he states,
"... although Patamban's parade and all of its preparations have religious connotations it should be explained that there is no historical significance to the event. If anything, the reason for the Fiesta is economic. Rather than originating 500 years ago, it is just over 50 years old and is done to attract people and money to the town. In that regard, I would say it was an outstanding successful." (Written in 2001)
We knew it would be crowded so we weren't surprised when traffic began to creep past hundreds of tiendas that formed the mercado on both sides of the road. We had to park a couple of kilometers from our base destination ... a family Xill is friends with and who were preparing dinner for us and providing a place to rest in between outings.

Beautiful country seen from our hosts' roof
 Soon we began to see the carpets of flowers and the families still working on them. The carpets begin with a strip of sawdust about 30 inches wide. Some people use stencils to create the patterns and some seem to do the designs free-hand using flowers, petals, acorns, leaves, seeds, moss, and any other plant with interesting colors and designs. Only pictures can convey the beauty, creativity, and color of this event. If you think I'm over sharing, you should see the 174 photos I didn't share.

One of the things that intrigued me was the many alternatives to papel picado they created.

However, as always, the most fun part of these events was the people. I found a quote this morning from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel about how we're losing the power of celebration and expecting to be entertained. For many of us attending this fiesta, it was about entertainment. However, as we watched the families with their buckets of gathered flowers, pine cones, and seeds, carefully creating beautiful symbols in the streets, beauty that would be destroyed only a few minutes later, it was clear that they were celebrating life, family, faith and abundance.

Here are some of the people we met on the trip.
Cooking blue corn quesadillas for us

Our hostess

When traveling companion Maureen Clark asked this woman if she could take her picture, the woman suggested a trade ... a picture for a soda. We couldn't get to a store but she accepted a few pesos. With that smile, I'm sure she would have let us take the picture anyway.

Such amazing handwork
Bottling golden honey

These bikers wanted their photos taken and the one in the green vest spent a lot of time trying to help me to pronounce Lake Camécuaro properly. Young Mexican men are always very sweet to little old ladies.
And, of course, the children

A tienda in the street. This is a one day festival so all this merchandise has to be set up in the morning and then taken down at night. A long day for these people.

A sense of how crowded it was
 And, of course, how would any of this happen without power?

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state--it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions."
― Abraham Joshua Heschel

More information:

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Day of the Dead #12: Beauty, grace, and an unexpected hollowness

This post was written in 2017. I've made a few additions as I continue to learn from this amazing country and its peoples.

"If nothing saves us from death, at least love saves us from life."
I am beginning to think I might possibly know why I’m here in Mexico. 

Looking through U.S. eyes, there are many things that fall short here. It is not a place designed by a rational person, perhaps not even a place that cottons to the term design but rather more nearly resembles evolution with it’s relentless drive toward diversity.

Street altar in Ajijic
Trying to find a metaphor, I waffled between rabbit warren and ant colony, but finally settled on the mound-building termites which build complex structures several times taller than an adult human and are now being studied for their ability to maintain a constant temperature in the mound in spite of the harsh African conditions. (If you have never read about these mounds, this article will bend your thinking.)

While the mounds lack blueprints and building codes, the individual termites follow their own paths and, somehow, build a complex, effective and, in its own way, beautiful structure that supports the colony and plays an important role in the surrounding habitat.

Another Ajijic version of an altar
This is somewhat how Mexico appears to me. People each doing their own things, living their own lives, raising their families, painting their houses whatever color strikes their fancies or budgets, and, in the process, creating a village, a town, a culture, a country.

Here in Mexico, fireworks are illegal, yet they are also deeply ingrained in the culture. Yes, some people get hurt, some are even killed, but each person makes his or her own choice and everyone else makes space for those choices. Which means we put up with a lot of rockets, barking dogs, middle-of-the-night crowing roosters, and lots of music ... loud, throbbing music. Apparently, this is the price of freedom: tolerance of individual differences and eccentricities.

Here in the lakeside villages, cars seldom honk at each other. So what if you’re driving the wrong way down a one-way street or stopping to talk to a friend or unload a pickup truck full of stuff? And, only the gringos seem to carp about the piles of trash that come and go on a schedule none of us comprehend. Priorities are different here. Talking to a friend is more important than arriving at a destination a few minutes late.

Here in Ajijic, we live in a boundary land: three cultures swirling together like a river running into the ocean. US and Canadian expats accustomed to rules and regulations, law and order, as well as smooth sidewalks, yearn for peaceful perfection while the locals grab onto the gritty imperfections of life, revere Church and family, help stranded strangers, and mock death with endless color, noise and skeletal costumes. In the best of worlds, we learn from each other and don't lose the beauties of each culture.

Mexico is a feeling place. With a long history of death, destruction, and devastation, it trusts only family and has few expectations of government. It would rather dance and sing and make each moment of life as colorful as possible than worry about potholes, killer speed bumps or keeping up with the neighbors. Mexico is rapidly developing ... may she keep her color, beauty, and enormous generosity.

Having lived a thinking life, striving for perfection, expecting the world to be a rational place, and willingly ceding personal freedom to the lure of safety and predictability, I am now looking through completely different eyes and what I see baffles, charms, startles and delights me. Living in this feeling world is changing me.

Halloween morning was announced with endless rockets and church bells. By evening the plaza was full of families, excited children running high on sugar and adrenalin. A parade of devotional neighborhood floats, musicians and Aztec dancers proceeded The Virgen as she was carried through the streets to an open mass and back to the old church, followed by music (loud, of course) and then the lighting of the giant castillo (castle of fireworks).
A quiet morning in Ajijic
November 2nd dawned quiet and peaceful. It’s a day for altars, reflection and honoring of the lost loved ones. Later today tour groups will pass through the cemetery, but I wanted to see it before it was crowded with visitors having no connection to the people buried there. I went early thinking it would be empty, but it was already bustling with families adding decorations to the graves, arranging additional flowers, visiting quietly with each other. 
Early morning at the Ajijic cemetery
Walking through the narrow paths between the graves, my heart felt the sorrow, but also yearned for the sense of family and connection that pulsed through the bright flowers, decorated crosses, and murmured prayers. I was clearly an outsider, accepted but not part of the family. Beyond the wonder and grace of the beauty, there was a hollow feeling of having missed something somewhere along the way. 
One of the grave decorations.
All of this made me wonder: who would I be if I had been raised in this very different culture?

Caveat: As someone who has been here a mere six months, I do not expect these musings to represent the truth of an entire country or culture. This is only my current take on what I’m experiencing. I’ll try to do another post this time next year and see how much my understanding has changed.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Day of the Dead #11: Creating an Altar - do it your way

My in progress altar.
Día de los Muertos is an ancient ceremony for honoring the dead. Over the centuries and the dispersal across villages, states and countries, it has been shaped by local customs. What I have found in my short time here in Mexico is incredible diversity around this holiday, from a stunningly beautiful but quietly reverent atmosphere to a noisy, carnival-like approach. 
Now that this celebration is creeping into western culture, enriching the candy and trick-or-treat holiday with a deeper meaning, perhaps we should give more thought to how we want to participate in the ritual.

As people are attracted to the Mexican celebration of the ancestors, one of the first things they think about is creating an altar. So far, so good. There are hundreds of articles about how to create a traditional, Mexican altar and some of my favorites will be listed below. I started to synthesize some of these into a step-by-step guide and then decided that wasn’t the right approach. Following a connect-the-dots guide might create a beautiful altar, but it could also be empty and meaningless.

If you are reading this, you’re probably feeling a tug toward recognizing your lost loved ones. You want to honor them in some way and creating an altar seems like one way to do it. And, that’s true. However, there are others. One friend on Facebook lost a son four years ago in October. She has been posting a fall picture every day and inviting friends to add their own colorful images to the collection. She has been open about her grief and her attempt to honor her son. Another friend created a Facebook tribute to the important people in her life, enumerating the gifts each of them gave her.
Whatever you decide to do, do it your way. Honor the gifts, but also honor the grief their passing has left with you. Typically, altars include pictures, flowers, candles, incense, food and drink for the ancestors. There are layers and layers of meanings that have been added over the years. What’s important is what these things mean to you and to the loved ones you are honoring.
Church in San Cristóbal de las Casas with papel picado

Perhaps, starting with a few questions might help:

  • What gifts did you receive from the person you are honoring?
  • How is your life different because you knew and loved, and were loved by, this person?
  • What did your ancestor love to do, to eat, or to drink?
  • What would show that person that you loved her or him?
  • What shared memory would make that person smile?
  • What story captures the essence of your loved one?

Regardless of your belief about death and life after death, honoring the people you’ve loved and whom have loved you, is a way of honoring yourself, a way of remembering that you were and are worthy of their love. In many ways, this celebration is not only about honoring your ancestors, it's about loving yourself and accepting the realities of life and death. Here in Mexico, the delicately cut paper decorations called papel picado are used to represent the fragile boundary between life and death.

One of the beliefs about Día de los Muertos is that the dead are allowed to return to Earth once a year. The altars and all the other preparations are to make sure the living are ready to receive them. Thus, the emphasis on food and drink that was preferred by the ancestor as well as candles, incense and aromatic flowers to guide the spirits back to their families.

According to Nicolás Medina Mora. "The altar serves as a kind of beacon to guide the souls of the dead to your house. The powerful scent of flowers and incense, the glow of the candles, and the brightly colored papel picado all act as a giant cross-dimensional welcome sign to ensure that your grandmother makes it safe to your living room." 
Enjoy this time to contemplate life and honor death.

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar:
  1. A step-by-step, humorous and hip approach:
  2. A complete overview with meanings for many of the items:
  3. More about the art and beauty of altars:

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Day of the Dead #10: Choosing the ancestors for your altar

Ancestors 2017
The first question, of course, "Which ancestors?"
Not long ago, on a shamanic retreat, I asked about the definition of “ancestors." While the common answer runs along the line of those from whom we are genetically descended, the shaman’s answer offered a more complicated path.
Loosely, the term could refer to all the beings who have lived on Earth before us, but, we tend to honor the people who have gifted us with love or wisdom or courage. Often those are close family members, but sometimes our deepest connections are to people we meet along the journey of life, people who change us, polish us, bring us gifts never imagined. 
A friend of mine who is highly into genealogy, reminds me that I should honor all my DNA ancestors also because they were survivors and gave me a chance to live this life. So, I am still contemplating the question.
Last year I chose six people and two dogs to honor, each of them unrelated to me biologically but each of whom gifted me in ways that led me to this moment in time. 
Richard Wycoff, the man who became my second husband, gifted me with unconditional love and support, laughter and adventure, as well as the opportunity to be a mother, even if only part-time, and a grandmother. For twenty-six years, he was my home base. 
       Rumple was Richard’s idea but he brought both of us joy and laughter for 14 years. 
Lerrea Mohney, theoretically my step-aunt, in reality, my second mother, was my champion and best friend. We had a fifty-year running conversation about life and love and all the mysteries involved with both. She thought I could do anything and made me think I could, too. 
      Missy … some might have called her a dog, but she knew better. She was a gift I didn’t know I wanted, however, for ten years, she was my constant companion and the delight of my days.
Maggi Butterfield-Brown was a magnetic energy field of love that pulled everyone into her center. She was color, dance, and laughter, as bright as poppies on a spring day. She gave me the gift of acceptance and seeing a life lived as abundance, love and generosity.  More about Maggi here.
Jerry McNellis was god smiling on my life. He brought me confidence, laughter, more ideas than either of us could shake a stick at, and showed me the courage and grace that life could be. More about Jerry here.
Annie Robinson tossed me a tidbit that changed my life and then proceeded to nurture that new sprig. Still teaching creativity at age 90, she sprinkled fairy dust and love on hundreds of us. 
Polly Hubbard gave me the gift of art. She was one of my other mothers and you can read more about her here. 
Thinking about these ancestors makes me feel inordinately lucky to have had them in my life. As Dr. Seuss said:

Friday, October 26, 2018

Day of the Dead #9: Food for living and dead

Romerillo, 2014
Like most holidays, Day of the Dead is food-oriented. It actually has two purposes though: 1) traditional foods and favorites for the living; 2) favorites of the ancestors. One of my first experiences of seeing people cater to the dead was at the Romerillo Cemetery, just outside San Cristóbal de las Casas for the Day of the Dead ceremony in 2014.

Families served Coca-Cola, water, Pox (the local liquor), and beer to the spirits while cleaning the graves and communing with them and others. We’ll talk more about Romerillo in an upcoming post. 

 Coca-Cola … Coke is big in Mexico … Mexican Coke. I’ve been told that Mexican Coke is made from the original recipe that contained cocaine. Nothing seems to  confirm that theory, but there is a difference and Mexican Coca-Cola has a loyal following both in the United States and across Europe. When New York Magazine did a taste test between the standard American Coca Cola and it's popular Mexican cousin, it's trained taste testers said Mexican Coke has "a more complex flavor with an ineffable spicy and herbal note", and that it contained something "that darkly hinted at root beer or old-fashioned sarsaparilla candies".

One source says the difference "comes down to the different ways in which Coca Cola is sweetened. The sweetness in modern day soft drinks comes from a very common ingredient called high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is made by breaking down the carbohydrates in corn maize and adding special enzymes to encourage the starch to turn into sugars. Then after some purification and filtering you are left with the thick and sweet syrup known as high fructose corn syrup.

Mexican Coke is the only Coca Cola in the world that uses natural cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup! Unfortunately, it is becoming so popular in Mexico that obesity is on the rise. 
Hacienda Blancaflor in Campeche
One of the women I talked to about this post was Chef Linda Harley, affectionately known to most of us as AbueLinda who is passionate about sharing the diversity of Mexico through its unique culinary culture. I wanted to hear about something beyond mole so she told me about her time refurbishing Hacienda Blancaflor and a dish she calls Pibi Pollo which is a Mayan dish of chicken, beef and pork baked in a masa crust underground. 
The dish traditionally represents the entire cycle of life and death and is described as:  salty and acidic flavor, its texture is crunchy on the outside but very soft on the inside, the sensations it causes are part of a homemade meal. You can accompany it with a garnish of green salad, which part of balancing your food, will bring color to your plate. Recipe here (in Spanish).

Mole ... I had mole in the US once ... yuck!! Never again I said to myself ... until chef AbueLinda pointed out what she said were the best carnitas tacos in the area. Since they were right there at the Wednesday mercado where I go every week, I decided it was time. Mole was one of the sauces available so I decided to try it. OMG! I don't even know how to say how good it is.
The legend of mole
The origin of mole symbolizes Mexico’s blend of European and indigenous Aztecan culture after the Spanish conquest. Legend has it that mole began 300 years ago in Puebla, Mexico in the poor convent of Santa Rosa. The nuns were scrambling to prepare a special dinner for the visit of the archbishop. They killed an old turkey and threw together scraps of chili peppers, spices, stale bread, nuts, and chocolate to season the meat. (In some versions, the chocolate or spices were accidentally knocked into the dish, but the nuns had no time to fix it.)  
Delighted and curious after the meal, the archbishop asked for the name of the dish. The nun said, “I made a mole,” – a Spanish pronunciation of the Aztecan word molli or mulli, meaning sauce/mix – the first international dish created in the Americas.
Mole is a complex dish that requires many ingredients which are toasted and ground together. It is traditionally reserved for special occasions, because of the labor and time-intensive preparation (although you can purchase prepared pastes that simplify the process a great deal). Read more about Oaxacan mole and mole poblano

Who eats the altar food?  
Mole and many of the other traditional dishes are complex and made in big batches. Food to honor the ancestors is often made in a small container and left on the altar on November 2nd. Who eats the food is a common question. And, one answer is that after the ancestors have sucked the essence from the food, the rest is tasteless and can be discarded.

Sugar skull cookies
Sugar Skulls … Skulls were a frequently-used design element in ancient Mesoamerica. The human skull was a symbol of life and death, and skulls were sometimes displayed on racks, or walls called tzompantli. The significance of these skull racks is not completely known; it's been postulated that they may have been altars and venues for ritual, or used to demonstrate military prowess. Sugar was introduced to the Americas in the 17th Century. In ancient times it's possible that skulls were shaped out of amaranth. You may come across amaranth skulls and chocolate skulls nowadays, as well as other figures associated with Day of the Dead, including coffins, skeletons and crosses. Sugar skulls are not usually eaten, but placed on the altar. (Sugar Skull cookies:

Pan de muerto
Pan de muerto … bread that is designated pan de muerto varies regionally, most commonly it is a round, sweet bread with shapes on top which are suggestive of bones, often either sprinkled with sugar or sesame seeds. Wheat was introduced by the Europeans, it was not present in ancient Mesoamerica. The significance of bread in the Catholic religion as symbolizing the body of Christ may be a factor in the importance of bread for this holiday. The bread is said to represent the deceased.

Candied Pumpkin cooked over open fire
Calabaza en Dulce - Candied Pumpkin Although the Halloween jack-o-lantern is  becoming more pervasive, it's not the usual presentation for squash during Day of the Dead. A pale orange-yellow squash with a hard shell called calabaza de castilla is much more common than the dark orange pumpkin, and it is usually cooked until it's soft with brown sugar and cinnamon, rather than cut into a jack-o-lantern or used in pies.

Hot Chocolate - Chocolate is native to Mesoamerica. The beans were ground and consumed in prehispanic times as a hot drink, but unlike today the ancients drank their chocolate spicy, not sweet. In the past the cacao was ground on a metate (grinding stone), but nowadays it's usually ground in a special mill. The Day of the Dead season is when the weather starts to get colder, and hot drinks are favored at this time of year. Besides hot chocolate, atole and champurrado are also popular Day of the Dead drinks.

Fruit - There are a few different types of fruit that are associated with Day of the Dead. Nisperos (or loquats) are a fruit that originated in Asia but have become popular in Mexico and are in season right around Day of the Dead. They are enjoyed at this time of year and are frequently used to ornament Day of the Dead altars. Some other fruits that are often present on Day of the Dead altars include oranges, bananas and tejocotes (hawthorn). 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Day of the Dead #8: Ajijic Wall of the Dead for the Living

Muro de Los Muertos by Efren Gonzalez (detail)
In Ajijic, on the wall of a school that faces the San Andres church, there is a giant mural of skulls, what my friend and fellow blogger, Susa Silvermarie calls "a wall of the dead for the living." (Click here to read her post about the wall and the poem she wrote about it.)

Popular, local artist Efren Gonzalez created Muro de Los Muertos as a way to honor ordinary folks. Each skull on the bas-relief plaques are inscribed with the name of the real person to whom it is dedicated. And, during Day of the Dead people gather to light candles on the wall.

This mural is one of the many signs that reflect a different cultural view of death than the one I am used to. Death is a highly visible part of life here, perhaps a constant reminder to live, and that everyone and everything will die. While death is taken seriously here, there also seems to be a thread of humor that runs through the relationship of life and death.

Accompanying the long wall of skulls is a poem written by the author in two pieces. Susa, being bi-lingual, translated the poem to the approval of the artist and is sharing it with us here.

Here's the translation in two pieces along with an image of the original:


All that lives will die.
All the good, the bad, will be finished.
All that is strong and all that is weak will have an end.
Everything that breathes in, has to breathe out, to expire.
Everyone who is famous will be forgotten.
Everyone who believes himself indispensable, will perish.
Every creator, the ones who sing, the ones who dance—
those that admire, those that underestimate and criticize—
will stop existing.
And if someone is lucky, they will put his name on the wall 
and thus he will be remembered a little longer.
And they will be sung and danced, or underestimated and criticized, and then,
finally, along with the wall,
they will cease to exist.

Eat, child. Sing, Dance, Love. 
You won’t live forever.
Make art for which you will be remembered.
Do it now, you don’t have much time.
Say what you have to say, even if
you have to shout to be heard.
Fight to defend yourself!
Ask forgiveness, or forgive,
whatever you need to do
to keep going forward
Live.     Live! 
-- Efren Gonzalez