Sunday, July 15, 2018

Wonder Woman: Marianne Carlson, founder of Feria Maestros del Arte

Bujo Speaks ... inspired by an alebrije
Not long after I moved to Ajijic, someone told me about a folk art fair here. Sounded like fun, so I went online to fill in the volunteer application.

Little did I know how those few minutes of filling in some blanks would change my life.

Some time later, Marianne Carlson called and wanted to talk about the Feria Maestros del Arte. Turns out, after 16 years of shepherding this event into its position as the premier folk art festival in Mexico, she was ready to delegate some of the tasks she was still doing … like the newsletter and publicity. I was definitely interested but I had never been to the Feria and I didn’t know Marianne well enough to know if we were in sync. So, she invited me to wander the Feria, take pictures, talk to people and think about it.

Several hundred pictures later, I was in love and my wallet had a definite dent in it. It’s one thing to see beautiful folk art in Tlaquepaque or Tonalá and something entirely different to meet the artists in person, see a huge selection of their art, and learn more about how they make it. My first purchase was an alebrije made by Zeny Fuentes Mendez which inspired the image above and sits on my mantel offering me wisdom when I'm wise enough to listen.
Prison Doll

One of the surprises at the Feria (and, apparently, there are always surprises) was a booth of dolls made by women in prison. They were so charming that two of them went home with me and are now living with my granddaughters. This one actually inspired another piece of art as I began thinking of her as an embodiment of the lady of the lake.

Lady of the Lake
Budget expanding huipil
One of the booths I wandered through more than once was a group of textile makers from Oaxaca, called Mexican Dreamweavers. I was enchanted with their huipiles but they were out of my budget range. They were doing a lecture so I went and saw a video of how they actually “milk” the ink they use for dyeing from a purpura snail. It’s a dangerous job only done by a few men, called tintoreros, willing to brave the wild, rocky shores to find and gently coax the snail into sharing its ink which, in sunlight and on cotton yarn, transforms into an amazingly rich color. After the video and actually holding the shell of one of the snails in my hand, my budget suddenly expanded enough to include a Dreamweavers rebozo. (Read more about this experience here.) (And, don’t miss this video where you will see what it takes to gather this precious dye … it’s not easy!)

These were just a few of the amazing experiences I had during the three days of the Feria, the event launched when Marianne decided that it would be a good idea to bring folk art artisans and potential customers together. Since then, I’ve grown to greatly respect Marianne, her creativity, organization, determination, and generosity. The Feria could have been a commercial venture supplementing her income. However, she chose to make it a non-profit venture supporting artisans from all over Mexico, as part of a growing movement to save the future of Mexican folk art. 

The Feria “business" model:
  • Every peso the artisans earn goes home with them.
  • There are no fees or commissions charged the artisans.
  • The Feria pays all transportation costs for artisans (including renting buses from Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán)
  • The Feria pays ALL expenses related to the event. Period. (artists are hosted by local families - (more info here)
  • The Feria cooperates with other local nonprofits to benefit the community (Such as Operation Feed and the LCS Children’s Art Program)
The brilliance and generosity of this event enchanted me so much that I said yes to everything Marianne wanted and shortly thereafter found myself on the Board of Directors … which is a wonderfully loose, amiable, committed, diverse and also generous group of Mexicans and immigrants. It has always been Marianne’s vision that the Feria will be a community event for Mexicans, run by Mexicans.

Marianne's gourd art prior to Feria
Marianne traveled the world before she settled down in Ajijic and then Chapala. With a diverse background from running an Arabian horse farm to working at a nuclear power plant on the central coast of California, she brought a lot of skills with her, however, mainly she brought a creative spirit and a huge heart. She has changed lives for artisans all over Mexico and created a powerful force for saving Mexican indigenous art which is still threatened by modern, mass-produced processes and synthetic, plastic materials.

However, today, in some areas, children are staying in their villages, learning the old ways of making beautiful, quality products with local materials. The Feria offers them a way to get those products out into the world. And, the money they earn has built homes, educated children, and provided a way to keep families together. (Read more about Marianne Carlson and the early days of the Feria here.)

Miniature kitchen in a gourd
Here in the lakeside area, hundreds of volunteers and host families are connecting with people and places in Mexico they might never ever have met otherwise. The Feria is a meeting place for art and commerce, old and new, beauty and function, ancient traditions and modern processes. Marianne is quick to talk about all the people who have made the Feria a reality, but it is always her spirit that guides this amazing event. She is truly a Wonder Woman. 
And, as for me, my life now has a layer called Mexican folk art. It goes with me everywhere and changes what I look at and for, and how I look at it. A recent long conversation I had was about sand ... not a subject I've ever thought much about, but it is amazingly important to artisans working with clay. More about this later.

All of this reminds me of how the smallest actions often open up doors to new experiences. If I had not entered information into that online volunteer recruitment form, an incredible world might never have opened to me. My life is so much richer for it.

More Information:


Saturday, June 30, 2018

The most dangerous thing you can do in Mexico

Little girl in Ajijic 
Other than buying drugs from a cartel, of course, the most dangerous thing you can do in Mexico is drive a car. Not because of the roads, the other drivers, or the possibility of getting involved with an incomprehensible (for immigrants) legal system. Simply because driving a car means you aren’t walking. 

Our bodies are made for walking, not riding around in cars. Walking pumps blood and lymph fluids through our systems, strengthens our bones and muscles, and lifts our mood. Our western world has done it’s best to make our legs redundant … cars, trains, buses, airplanes, motorcycles, scooters, golf carts, electric bicycles, Segways, escalators and people movers. When did our legs stop being our people movers?
Bringing a car to Mexico ... or not 

Many people, when they move to Mexico, opt to leave their cars behind them and become walkers, others bring their mobility devices (cars) with them. It’s a decision that dramatically affects their choices about where to live and shop. One of the reasons I chose Ajijic was because I wanted a walking lifestyle and this compact village and my apartment near the plaza was perfect for that.

Of course, here where cobblestone streets are the norm, there are walking hazards. I have fallen two or three times, fortunately with nothing worse than skinned hands and knees, and embarrassment as people pull me upright, faces filled with worry about the broken bones of a senior gringa. And, many of my friends have fallen, some with more serious injuries. In San Miguel de Allende, one of the prevailing jokes is about the “fallen women of San Miguel.”

Boys in Oaxaca
Two theories about walking

Jokes aside, I have two theories about walking and walkers … neither based on science. First, I believe that walking on cobblestones and the continually changing sidewalk elevations strengthens the micro muscles in our feet and legs and gradually improves balance. It also sharpens our awareness of our bodies and the conditions of the sidewalks and streets. (Avoiding dog feces is a secondary benefit.) 
Second, people who walk more than ride, build their strength and balance, and, eventually, fall less.

Also not inconsequential is the report of several of my women friends here on the changes in the appearance of their legs … less cellulite and more defined muscles. They’ve also reported that they feel stronger and have more stamina … even at our mile-high elevation. One of my friends regularly logs 12,000 steps per day … not as exercise but as her regular exploration of the ever-changing sites and events offered in our small village, and the daily errands and visits with friends that make up her routine here. 

Morning in Ajijic
A challenging decision

At the end of last year, I bought myself a Fitbit and find that I regularly walk about 60,000 steps per week. A challenge came when a friend who moved back to the US offered to sell me her golf cart. I was tempted; I had moved to a new place a bit farther from the central plaza. It would be handy for shopping and it had been fun running around in her cart, plus I now had a parking spot available. Finally, I came to grips with reality: if I bought the cart, I would use it … and walk less. 

Finally, I opted for the benefits of walking. 
Walking is more than a physical activity, it engages my mind and spirit as I continuously see parades that I didn’t know about, friends out and about, sunlight playing across puddles in the street, and dogs sleeping in doorways. In our almost-perfect weather here, the air is almost always, as they say in Spanish “rico” … fresh, rich and invigorating. Walking takes me away from my beloved computer and into the tangible world of sights and sounds, smells and sensations that make me glad to be alive.

You probably know I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on television, but I do know that most people understand that walking is a healthy activity. However, I’m not sure that everyone knows how unhealthy NOT walking can be … not only here in Mexico, but everywhere.

In case you want the science:

Mayo Clinic: Walking: Trim your waistline, improve your health

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Prevent or manage various conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes
  • Strengthen your bones and muscles
  • Improve your mood
  • Improve your balance and coordination

    1. It counteracts the effects of weight-promoting genes.
    2. It helps tame a sweet tooth.
    3. It reduces the risk of developing breast cancer.
    4. It eases joint pain
    5. It boosts immune function.

What Happens to Your Body When You Sit All Day?

  • According to biological anthropologists, the fossil record suggests that when early man traded their nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles for a more settled one, it resulted in a less dense bone structure
  • Prolonged sitting promotes dozens of chronic diseases, including overweight and type 2 diabetes, even if you’re very fit
  • At bare minimum, avoid sitting for more than 50 minutes out of every hour. Ideally, limit sitting as much as possible, and incorporate weight-bearing, gravity-driven exercises into your fitness routine

Sunday, June 10, 2018

GreenGo Farms and the tiny moments that add up to a new life

What makes a mechanical engineer with a career in the solar industry and no experience as a farmer, or even a gardener, become a hydroponic farmer of microgreens? 

Greg Ochs, founder of GreenGo Farms in Ajijic, Mexico, says it was a series of synchronicities.

Greg Ochs with customers at Tuesday Market
In the year that I’ve been living in the Lake Chapala area, I’ve been fascinated by the stories I’ve heard about all the things supposedly retired people do when they come to Mexico. Synchronicities always seem to play a part in their stories … they happened to meet someone, or, just by chance they heard a story, learned a new bit of information, or saw something that touched them. Tiny moments that somehow added up to a turning point.

On a warm Friday morning, I met Greg at his farm for what I thought would be a conversation about “sprouts,” but turned into a discussion about life, passion, philosophy and dealing with disasters. When I first met Greg, he was at the Tuesday Market standing by two long tables filled with boxes of a huge variety of sprouts. Buyers swarmed around him, tossing dozens of questions his way as he patiently answered each question while also making change, bagging product, and blessing each person with his charming smile. I took my sprouts and my blessing and went on my way.
Cabbage microgreens ... note the colors!

A few months later, I went back to find more sprouts and almost missed him. He was at one small table with just a few green boxes, still with the same smile though. I assumed the snowbirds had gone home and he didn’t need as much inventory. When I tossed off a casual comment, a story came forth. He’d had a quality problem and had destroyed 90% of his product. Suddenly, I was hooked, more questions tumbled out … what was the problem? Was it water contamination? How did he get into sprout farming? Each of his comments made me want to know more, so I asked for an interview and he agreed to meet.

The first part of our conversation was about the many setbacks he’s faced in the eight years he has been working on this project … including windstorms that destroyed his green house, squirrels that devastated a crop, a hailstorm that blocked the drainage pipes and caused another green house to collapse, a misaligned partnership that resulted in having to start all over again, vendor fraud that drained his cash resources, and excess heat that gave rise to the problem that prompted him to destroy much of his already packaged product rather than sell something he himself would not want to eat. Greg refers to this project as a roller coaster and to himself as "ridiculously tenacious." 

GreenGo rainbow carrots
“This isn’t a hobby,” he states, “It’s my livelihood … or it’s supposed to be. Plus it’s the livelihood of the four families of the people who work for me. And, it’s feeding people, feeding them healthy food, living, beautiful food … and actually fun food. We have 22 flavors of microgreens … wasabi and radish and other flavors with a zing.” He pauses and sighs, “Plus, the colors of the lettuces we grow … you can't buy this stuff in the stores.”

Greg’s life philosophy became apparent as he discusses the disasters he’s faced. “I don’t believe in crying over spilt milk … for more than a moment or two. Plus, it seems like every time there’s a disaster, it’s followed by something positive. Just yesterday, I had a vendor in Guadalajara ask me if I could produce beets and radishes. Of course, I can"

"Stuff happens. Why dwell on it? 

I’ve always liked the thought 

that we define our lives, 

not by what happens to us, 

but by how we handle it.” 

Greg is an engineer and, apparently, each setback triggers a “how do we solve this problem and make it better” reaction. He has invented endless improvements to his greenhouses and processes, including a way to grow sprouts in a material that keeps them living for up to two weeks. As we walked through the carrot greenhouse, he pulled a baby carrot out of it’s tiny, individual growing box. It was so beautifully orange and innocent, I wanted to pet it. Nothing like the carved mini-carrots in the grocery stores. 
A previous GreenGo Farms greenhouse
I kept wondering how he got into this business, and that question prompted a long story of synchronicities, starting with a vanity plate outside the Lake Chapala Society … SOLRNRG. Greg recognized the idea of “solar energy” since his own vanity plate in the US had been SOLAR E. He continued to the Open Circle presentation by Don Aitken and at the end of the lengthy Q&A session, Greg got to ask the last question of the day about whether or not there was a local group that got together to talk about energy, the environment, sustainability and such. There wasn’t, but Aitken invited Greg to start one.

Living  microgreens
For the next few years, Greg managed the Lake Chapala Green Group and somewhere along the line, as they talked about sustainability and food, an idea about raising vegetables hydroponically was born. It seemed like a fit since it involved technology, chemistry, engineering and a problem to be solved. The interest in microgreens came about when he discovered how much nutritional density they delivered. (Here is a great overview article on microgreens, which I will no longer call “sprouts.”)

When I asked Greg if his microgreens were organic, I was given a small lesson in the background of the organic movement. Apparently, one of first motivations of the founders of the movement was to refresh the earth and put back what thousands of years of agriculture had leached from the soils. Therefore, some people believe that hydroponics can’t be “organic,” considering it an unnatural way of growing plants. This article debunks that thinking, using examples such as water hyacinth and watercress. Greg clarified what he claims for his products by stating that his growing process is local, pesticide-free, uses non-GMO seeds, and no harmful chemicals.

Greg is currently talking with grocery store chains and restaurants and we may see far more GreenGo Farms products in the future. I just hope he continues to show up at the Tuesday market … especially now that I know that I’m supposed to cut the sprouts instead of trying to pull them out of their grow pad! 

PS ... Synchronicity in action …

If I hadn’t decided to walk 2.5 miles to the Tuesday Market …
If I hadn’t looked for the “sprout guy” and noticed his diminished inventory …
If I hadn’t made a comment …
If I hadn’t asked for an interview …

But I did.
And, the gift was hearing an inspiring story about passion and determination.

What struck me after thinking about all of this is that it’s always the next step that keeps a project alive. Greg could have dropped this project dozens of times along the way, but he always took the next step, driven by the passion to deliver a healthy, living product and solve all the problems that come his way.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

It takes a village: the difficult journey of learning a new language

Phil Rylett arresting hardened criminal
 On a quiet Saturday morning in the small Mexican village of Ajijic (ah hee heek), Mexico, a young woman was arrested for wearing orange shoes, another for her inappropriate earrings. Justice was swift, they were led off to a lawyer who advised them of their rights before they had to appear before a judge to be fined.

Criminal justice system 
gone awry? 
No. Actually a 
graduation exercise 
for students learning English.

Phil Rylett was the policeman arresting those young women and also the organizer of “The Difficult Journey” exercise which gave the graduating students an opportunity to explore, in English only, please, the many aspects of traveling. 
Going to Court
Their destination was New York City and involved talking to a travel agent, rounding up their passports, making their way through customs, ordering food in a restaurant, going to a bank for money … and paying some of that money to the judge if they got caught on the wrong side of the law. Those orange shoes again. 

Phil's and all the other roles required in the exercise, were played by volunteers who coached the students on their activities and their English. (For another look at the Difficult Journey, see Carol Kaufman's article in The Guadalajara Reporter.)

Talking to the Bankers
 The Wilkes Education Center, the scene of "The Difficult Journey,” is also where, each August, over 300 students (adults and anyone 15 and up) register for places in 31 free English classes, all taught by native-English-speaking volunteers. 

During an interview with Inez Dayer and Maria Huerta, the long-term leadership team for Wilkes, they talked about how the program has impacted the lives of so many people in the community. It is widely recognized that being able to speak English opens doors to better jobs. Inez tells the story of one former English student who was a maid at a local hotel. After completing the program, she was promoted to taking phone reservations. Inez laughs and says, “By now I am sure she is managing the enterprise. There are so many of those stories. This is just part of our commitment to serving the local community.”
Graduation Ceremony for English students and proud families
Flowers for the teachers; Joy for the students

The Spirt of Lakeside

Inez Dayer, Director of ESL program
The Wilkes Education Center is just one example of the spirit that hovers along the shore of Lake Chapala, Mexico, emanating from the small village of Ajijic (ah hee heek) and touching all the villages and pueblos around the lake. Some call it the spirit of Neill James, a travel writer from Mississippi who came to Ajijic in the mid 1940s to recover from an accident while climbing the volcano Popocateptl.

During her recuperation time, a love affair was born that changed Neill, the residents of the lakeside area, and everyone who comes here even today. Tracing Neill’s actions is like trying to capture a whirlwind. She was into everything: art, business, music, libraries, horticulture, and uncounted acts of philanthropy. Upon her death in 1994, she donated her house and gardens to the Lake Chapala Society (LCS), with the dual intention of serving the growing international community and providing educational opportunities to the Mexican locals.

The local combination of culture, beauty and an almost perfect climate creates an appealing environment for retirees (known as jubilados here in Mexico) ready for a change of pace, with time to spend in new ways, and in a stage of life that often prompts a yearning to give back to others some of what was given to them. It’s at this point they hear the whispering spirit of Neill James and begin to create amazing things.

One person who was touched by this spirit of generosity was Ed Wilkes, retired from the U.S. Navy and committed to education, who donated his house to the Lake Chapala Society. After the death of his wife, he had spent much of his time cataloging books in the LCS library so it was decided to turn his central Ajijic home into an educational center focused around a Spanish library for the local community.

Neill James touched Ed Wilkes, whose center touched Inez Dare, volunteer director of the Wilkes Center for the past ten years, who touched hundreds of volunteer teachers, who touched thousands of students of English, including the son of Maria Huerta who recently received his doctorate in psychology. 

And, who knows how many people all those students have touched? 

As they say: you can count all the apples on a tree ... but you can never count all the trees in an apple.

And, who knows how many ideas there are in a cup of coffee? Sign compliments of LA133 restaurant in San Antonio Tlayacapan.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wonder Women: Don't mess with the old women of Cherán, Mexico

Photo from Los Angeles Times article

The Wonder Women series was born out of my awe at what immigrant women are doing around Lake Chapala. I kept asking why so many amazing projects had been started by women coming from other lands. Many answers surfaced, largely boiling down to … because they want to and they can. 
My first interview with Xill Fessenden confirmed that idea, but also opened up a whole new world of Wonder Women … indigenous women defending their homes and families when pushed too far by cartels and corrupt politicians.

Cherán is an amazing story born in the fierce history of the Purépecha, once the second largest empire in what is now Mexico and the only group of indigenous peoples never conquered by the Aztecs. They are still determinedly independent and committed to retaining their way of life. These are forest people living in the mountains of Michoacán, harvesting pine resin and converting it in their communal factory into an industrial product used in everything from chewing gum to prescription drugs, as well as paint varnish and cosmetics. 

The resin can be harvested without cutting down the pine trees, thus creating a sacred environment and sustainable income for the Cherán community. At least it did until 2008, when the cartels moved in and began clear cutting the forest. Bandits with machine guns patrolled the forest while loggers drove huge trucks through the town and the local police and government officials would do nothing. If the villagers tried to stop the loggers, they faced threats, beatings and even death.

The village was dealing with one of the most violent drug cartels, La Familia Michoacana, which claimed a divine right to murder its enemies and once tossed five severed heads onto a dance floor to prove its point. The villagers could do nothing against the cartel as they watched their ancestral forests being destroyed and the men of the town leaving for work in the United States.

Until one April day in 2011, that is, when five elderly Purépecha women, said, “Enough!” Their families, villages, sacred forest, and now their water supply were all being destroyed. It was time to act.

In a documentary titled “Cherán: tierra para soñar” (Land of our dreams), one of the women who took part describes the events of that fateful day:

“When we set out it was dawn and still dark, around 6:30 in the morning. The church bells were ringing calling people to mass […] I never really thought this would go far […] We were just five women from here, from this neighbourhood, a bunch of older women, there were no men, maybe a few men but mostly women […] We chased after the cars throwing stones, one woman even got hit and scraped all the skin off her knee when a car backed into her…”

An article in the Los Angeles Times reports, "Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks. Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls.”

That day led the village of about 18,000 people to revolt and invoke a Mexican law giving indigenous people the right to self-government.They threw out the political parties, the police and all the politicians and set up their own self-governing processes, including armed guards at all the access points to the village and the forest. 

When the cartel came after them, the villagers blocked all the entry points, building bonfires as they stood guard and fought back for almost a year. The cartel tried to wait them out but the village was determined, and, in the end, they won. In 2014, the law of self-governance was upheld by the Mexican Supreme Court.

For the past seven years, they have had literally no violent crime and have peacefully governed themselves. Today they have a massive pine forest nursery of over a million seedlings and are working to reforest their mountains and build up their pine resin factory.

Update: January, 2018

Cherán activist Guadalupe Campanur, 32, was found strangled on the side of a highway. The Attorney General of the State of Michoacán has announced that a investigation is in process in coordination with the Federal Mechanism for the Protection of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders through the Secretariat of State Government.

More Information:

Wonder Woman: Xill Fessenden, Photographer, Artist, Activist

Alcatraz by Xill Fessenden
I expected little from the art auction in the plaza, perhaps a piece by a local artist for my new apartment. I definitely didn’t expect to see a large, luminous image of an alcatraz (cala lilly) that left me breathless. Who was this artist? …  a digital artist here in this small village in Mexico? Could I possibly afford this incredible piece?

I did manage to bring that piece home and the more I looked at it, the more I wanted to meet Xill (Jill) Fessenden and know about her work and her story. Finally, we connected in her studio/home and I discovered far more than an amazing photographer and artist. I found someone who set the standards for a Wonder Woman.

The Mexico part of Xill's story began after a serious accident when she decided to reinvent her life. She knew it meant a move but she wasn’t sure where to go. Deciding to sleep on it and wait for an omen, she slipped notes with the names Santa Fe, Los Angeles, and Mexico under her pillow. And omens did appear … one sublime and one ridiculous. 

The first omen came during a visit to the high desert, spring poppy fields in California. In the distance, hovering over the poppies, she saw a dark smudge. As she approached, she saw that it was a flock of birds with a bigger bird in the center. And when she got closer, she recognized the bigger bird as a golden eagle. And, in it’s beak was a snake … the national symbol of Mexico. The second omen, the seemingly ridiculous one, appeared when she spilled chili on her shirt and recognized the shape of Mexico. 

Mixed media piece by Xill Fessenden
It was enough to point her toward Mexico and by June of 1985 she was living on the shores of Lake Chapala, the largest lake in Mexico, intending to devote herself to photography. Her intentions expanded when she began to explore the villages of Mexico and experienced the generous nature of the people and their culture. 

A November, 2017, interview with El Ojo del Lago, (page 32) reported, "... the most important things she learned while traveling to indigenous villages was how a community functions as a whole: where the land, the community, the family and the individual have the same identity, and they all work together as a unit. They build each others’ houses, share the harvest, and help each others’ children—the way it should be. It moved her, and formed a desire for her to help preserve that culture."

Book featuring Xill Fessenden's work
Recognized as a serious and successful photographer and digital artist, Xill told writer Rob Mohr, My works are not manipulation of a photo, rather an intervention creating a statement of feeling. I don’t feel like I take a picture, but am given a picture.
Xill is also widely recognized as an activist who makes things happen. She opened the Centro Ajijic de Bellas Artes (CABA) art center with sculptor Estela Hidalgo to help teach art to local children. In 1998, she started the local Purépecha Festival to honor the food, culture and art of what was once the second largest empire in Mexico. She wants her photography to engage people outside the world of art galleries, and created Galeria al Aire Libre Axixic (GALA) so everyone could enjoy open air exhibits focused on local families, animals, children’s art and, currently, on the history of Ajijic.

Peregrinos Wixárikas from Banamex book
In 2000, she prompted a
Hands Across the Lake event to hug the lake and increase awareness of the importance of protecting it. This photo taken by John Frost shows how low the water level was at that point when you could actually walk to Scorpion Island (Isla Alacranes), so named because of its shape not its inhabitants. 
Poster outside Xill's door
Today, in addition to making art, working with the Purépecha people to bring their culture to Ajijic, and her other environmental interests, now as a Mexican citizen, she is turning her attention to the political situation in Mexico, especially with the indigenous movements such as the example in Cherán in Michoacán, which the Los Angeles Times calls, "a bastion of tranquillity within one of Mexico’s most violent regions."
In an area where illegal timber trucks belonging to criminal syndicates raided the community's communal forests, the authorities refused to help.  The community revolted.
On April 15, 2011, before dawn, the people of Cheran sounded the bells at the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Calvary and set off homemade fireworks to summon help. Few had firearms, so they brought picks, shovels and rocks.
Then they struck, seizing the first timber truck of the day, dragging its two crew members from the cab and taking them hostage. Lacking rope, they tied up their prisoners with rebozos, or shawls. -- Los Angeles Times
The community went on to throw out all the political parties, all the police, the entire system. The Times article reports, "In 2014 Cheran’s provisional system of self-government was declared legal. The town remains part of Mexico but runs its own show."

Historically, artists have always been involved in political movements. Xill Fessenden follows in that long tradition and continues to earn her designation as a Wonder Woman.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Wonder Women of Mexico

Goddess of the Lake
Ajijic startled me. 

Rather, the goddess who walks through the small villages on the shores of the largest lake in Mexico, the stunningly beautiful one with almost perfect weather, surprised and shocked me. I can hear you groan, but the longer I’m here, the more I’m convinced that something amazing happens here (and, admittedly, in other places in Mexico).

Families and horses
I’ve never seen the goddess, nor do I know her name, although the goddess-fish princess of Pre-Columbian Mexico is named Teomichicihualli. For obvious reasons, we will simply refer to her as the goddess and ponder her touch which transforms ordinary folks from foreign lands into Wonder Women, brimming with compassion, creativity, confidence, and a contributing spirit. I’ve met some of the Wonder Women here, glowing with the touch of the goddess and spreading hope and new possibilities like floating milkweed seeds across the land.

Meeting them has made me wonder what happens here that frees their spirits and gives them the golden touch of compassionate creativity. In a short conversation with Judith Faith Stanley, who has created an art center here, I mentioned this curiosity about what people do when they come to Mexico and she said, “Whatever they want to do.”

Shore dogs reveling in freedom
Simple, but brilliant. This lakeside village, and many other places in Mexico, are perfect convergences of needs, wants and talents, known and unknown. Wherever a Wonder Women looks, there are opportunities: art to be made from the vibrant colors and culture, street dogs that need care, music to be sung to shut-ins and people making their final transitions, children who need homes, health care, and education; indigenous artisans whose traditional arts needs to be shared and supported; villages that need clean water; lakes and mountains to be protected; injured birds and animals to be rescued.

Iglesia de San Antonia de Padua
In Canada and the US, people who have sufficient means tend to choose neighborhoods that are pretty: tree-lined streets, flowered yards, easy access to supermarkets offering a endless choice of everything. We carefully choose an environment of prosperity, security and well-being.

When we move to Mexico, we are often living in the midst of the nitty-gritty for the first time. Even if we choose to live in a gated community, our lives inevitably wind through the plazas and tiendas of real life. Suddenly, we see tiny children selling green beans, mothers carrying small mountains of embroidered purses and painted bookmarks through coffee shops and plazas in an unending effort to feed their children, skinny street dogs scouting for food, cars held together with spit and ingenuity, and families of four on a motorcycle.

Young girl in parade
Life in Mexico is close to the bone and what happens next
can be surprising, sometimes even shocking. Living in the midst of visible needs changes the way we see the world … with the help of the goddess, of course. And, while everyone responds to their changed conditions in their own ways, some find themselves drawn into new challenges, responding to the needs closest to their hearts with creativity and ingenuity. Under the touch of the goddess, they grow and become Wonder Women (and Wonder Men).

Dancer at Water Ceremony
The first several months of living in Mexico is often a sensory feast, gorging on the sunshine and color, the friendliness and slower pace, the kaleidoscope of culture, the freedom from former expectations and responsibilities. However, at some point, there is a turning, a realization that we’re here, actually living in a new world, a world with incredible beauty and heartbreaking needs. Everywhere we look, laced through the color and charm, there are problems … big ones we’ll never be able to fix, and small ones that perhaps we could do something about. So, we begin and the stories unfold.

Friends here were having work done on their house. One of the workers started telling them about his family and his son who attended a nearby school. The goddess winked as the conversation unfolded, and my friends heard about a school with problems: not enough supplies, a lack of books, broken toilets. Since coming to Mexico, they have rescued three health-challenged dogs. Now, they have adopted a school.

Crested caracara
At a fund raiser for the Tepehua Community Center in Chapala, I met a couple who rescue animals which, because of injuries or other reasons, will never be able to be released back into the wild. They introduced me to a crested caracara, a raptor sacred to the Aztecs.

Looking into the eyes of that incredible bird, I saw a fierceness of spirit which made me think that's part of the goddess's touch, a fierce determination to make a difference and generously give back to this country that touches us every day with it's open friendliness and beauty.

This blog is dedicated to sharing some of the Mexico stories I find as I explore the country, including the stories of fierce compassion of Wonder Women and their contributions.