It’s That Time Again … (Es eso tiempo otra vez … )

We all have our habits and rhythms. As much a part of us as the color of our eyes and the timbre of our voices. It’s January and time to pack for Mexico. It’s part of my annual rhythm. Friends and acquaintances are asking, ‘When are you leaving?’ I say, ‘Friday.’

Todos nosotros tenemos nuestros hábitos y ritmos anuales. Tanta una parte de nosotros mismos como el color de nuestros ojos y el timbre de nuestras voces. Es enero y para mí, es tiempo para empacar para México. Lo es una parte de mi ritmo anual. Amigos y conocidos me piden ‘¿Cuándo te vas?’ Digo, ‘viernes.’

Some parts of Mexico are as familiar as my North Woods cabin, Minneapolis and the farm where I grew up. I return to certain places annually, like a monarch butterfly or migratory warbler. Each year, I’m met with something new—a place, a friend an experience. Why return there if they’re familiar? Why not strike out in new directions?

All paths lead to adventures. Todos caminos guiarte a una aventura.

Hay algunas partes de México que están tan conocido a mí como mi cabaña de bosque, Minneapolis y la finca donde crecí. Vuelvo a ciertos lugares de México anualmente como una mariposa monarca o un pájaro migratorio. Cada año, me encuentro con algo nuevo—un sitio, un amigo, una experiencia. ¿Por qué regreso a estos lugares cuando están tan conocidos? ¿Por qué no lanzo yo mismo hacía unos nuevos rumbos?

It’s a good question and I’ve considered it many times but I return because I haven’t yet experienced everything possible in those places. They are like good friends, there is always a new revelation, an aspect that expands my sense of them and my sense of self.

Es una buena pregunta y muchas veces en la he pensado. Regreso porque no he visto ni experimentado aún todo lo que es posible en estos lugares. Ellos son como amigos buenos, hay siempre una nueva revelación, un aspecto de les que expanda mi sentido de ellos y de yo mismo.

I am most satisfied going deep.
Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

With limited time, my choices are to spread myself thin across the country or dive deep in a few places. Both are legitimate ways to travel. A deep dive limits some options but expands others. As in most things, I’m most satisfied going deep.

Con tiempo limitado, mis opciones son entre extiende yo mismo delgado de través el país o buceo profundamente en pocos lugares. Los dos son legítimas maneras de viajar. Ir profundo me limite en ciertas maneras, pero la profundidad me expandirá en otras maneras. Estoy el más contento cuando buceando profundamente.

Present in the Moment: Priceless

Mexicans have a phrase: Dónde hay vida hay lucha y dónde hay lucha hay vida (Where there is life there is struggle; where there is struggle there is life.) For many, begging is a part of life and a part of its struggle. In Mexico, beggars are a part of every city’s social fabric and live in a world alien to the one I inhabit.

Even children beg.

Beggars come in many guises and, after living in Oaxaca for several winters, I recognize the small family that claims a spot along a shady wall near Santo Domingo. The man plays the accordion (poorly) and his wife or a child hold up a bowl for coins. Among the open-air café tables, the same woman cruises about seeking hand-outs from tourists year after year. Are their lives so difficult and opportunities so few they must beg? Or do they choose to depend on the kindness of strangers? How should I regard them—if at all?

My Yankee rearing stressed a personal responsibility to support myself and not burden others. It’s a good precept and I try to avoid judging beggars. But the act of begging makes me squeamish because I feel like an unwilling participant in an act of public humiliation. In the moment, my heart and mind pull in contrary directions. I clench up inside when I see listless, old woman, her skin like corn-husks, slumped on the steps of a church. At my approach, she looks down and lifts a cupped hand in silent supplication. This isn’t right, conscience compels me to do something but it seems futile. What good are a few pesos today? What about tomorrow?

I’ve seen affluent tourists and Mexicans walk past the beggars as if they didn’t exist, I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid them or hastily drop a peso in their hand as impersonally as plugging a parking meter. I’ve done those things too but never felt good afterward. Why do I dislike begging? It isn’t the money. Giving money is easy if I think it will do some good. Nothing I do or can ever do will materially change a beggar’s life beyond an hour’s time or the meal 10 or 20 pesos will buy. So why do anything?

Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Maybe I see it with the American expectation of a visible return on investment, expecting a beggar to lift herself by the bootstraps as a validation of charity. Why should I do anything if there’s no visible return? It’s not my place to reform a beggar’s life or be his savior. How can I change the equation? The answer came one weekend when I went to the mountain town of Huajuapan: I could be fully present to the beggar as one human to another. Well, that looked simple—except it wasn’t.

In Huajuapan, went to the weekly tianguis or regional market for common household goods and groceries. I arrived early, the sun had barely cleared the ridges and the air was still cool. While the vendors erected their stalls and laid out their wares, I ate breakfast at a comedor or informal diner in the company of a couple working men. We chatted over our orders of chicken with mole coloradito, tortillas and café de olla or boiled coffee. Few Americans visit Huajuapan and the men asked why I had come. To see the nearby Zapotec ruins of Cerro de Minas.

I had nearly finished eating when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a tiny woman approaching. The frail anciana shuffled toward me with slow, crab-like steps. Deep furrows seamed her parchment face and her white hair was knotted behind her head. She inched with her cane along the other side of the table. A few steps more and I knew she would slide a hand from beneath the robe and make a begging gesture. Already, I felt my stomach clench at the thought. I didn’t want her to do that. What will happen if I’m truly present to her?

“¿Quiere usted algo de comer?” Do you want something to eat? I asked before she could beg.

She stopped, surprised by my question. Then she blinked and nodded.

Joven!” I called to the waiter. “Darle lo que ella quiere. Voy a pagar.” Give her whatever she wants, I’ll pay for it,” I said.

The man who owned the comedor stared at me and then smiled as did the waiter. The woman sat sideways on a chair across the table but didn’t look at me so I saw only the side of her face. In a barely audible voice, she ordered a single tamale with chicken and then lapsed into silence while she waited. I sensed she wanted privacy, especially with a foreigner. The tamale arrived and she ate ravenously and wiped the plate with the last morsel. Setting the plate aside, she buried her face in the robe, sniffled and wiped her eyes. Then she whispered “gracias” and shuffled away.

What had I done? I thought a long time about what had happened. Handing her some pesos was the easiest course—a transaction without an interaction. But I invited her to join me, instead. When she accepted it, it was as if we reached across an invisible social barrier. I saw her as a person, not as a beggar. Though I saw tears and heard a sniffle, I don’t know how she felt or what she thought. However, I know it changed how I see and respond to the poor. God knows the woman needed money but I believe she also needed the affirmation of her humanity as much as she needed a meal. Sometimes the smallest things are the most valuable. And being present in the moment is something money can’t buy. It’s priceless.

 

Ruminate–chewing the cud of history

via Daily Prompt: Ruminate

Ruminating. Growing up on a Minnesota farm, I spent boyhood hours tending to our herd of dairy and beef cattle. They were a peaceful lot for the most part and, on hot afternoons, they lay in the shade and chewed their cuds as casually as kids chewed bubble gum. Cattle and other animals are ruminants, they chew their cuds of partially digested forage. Ruminating, chewing a cud, is what all thoughtful people need to do at this moment in time. In the U.S., we value swift decisions more than taking the time to ruminate or think about the consequences of our actions. Living in Mexico, with access to Mexican and U.S. newspapers, I have an opportunity to ruminate, to think about the current course of U.S. events.

Freize 2017 015Taking the long view—four millennia in the Museo Amparo. An afternoon in Puebla’s anthropological museum is a good place to thing amid its outstanding artifacts from Mesoamerican civilizations. I go often, and my four hours there (this time) passed through 4,000 years of human experience. The objects showed me other ways to view the cosmos, human fertility, divinities, writing, art, household utensils and political organizations. The variety of objects reflected amazing styles, some formal and realistic, others loose and abstract, still others as fresh as contemporary forms. Without writing, they used clay funereal figures with symbolic heads, noses, mouths and tongues to symbolize the virtues and accomplishments of the deceased—an obituary in ceramics. A video gallery of contemporary oral histories recounts cultural ideas and beliefs in Náhuatl, Mixe, Mixteca, Zapoteca, Chichimeca, and Maya—ancient languages still alive and necessary to meet human needs now as in the past.

Amparo 2017 020From museum galleries to artisans’ stalls in the mercado, you can see how creative energy flows from culture to culture, century to millennium. Sometimes the expression takes a new direction, at other times it doubles back on itself. Artifacts and products still throb with the human energy that pulses in our own veins and minds. You need only spend a day at the Amparo to see that primitive and advanced are meaningless ideas about cultures. Their abstract fallacy is the illusion there exists an objective standard by which to measure cultures. Human imagination seems always capable of rising to meet the needs and resources of a time and place. Comparing the artifacts and ruins of the past with the present doesn’t tell us we are more advanced as human beings. ‘Progress’ is a seductive but conceited notion; a false assumption that cultures rise upward through time toward some imaginary finish line. The ruins tell us another story.

The past is never the past in Mexico. The past isn’t behind me but all around me; time is a thin, fluid membrane lacking the harder, linear qualities I know as ‘time’ in Minnesota. The phrase ‘up to the minute’ feels meaningless here. What minute are we talking about? The moment we’re in now, or some other moment that just passed, or the one about to intrude? Today is perhaps yesterday or a century ago in another guise. Time changes its nature just as the mythic creatures of indigenous stories transform humans into jaguars or coyotes into humans. What we think of as the ‘past’ is always visible in a sidelong glance at margin of our peripheral vision. If I turn my head to look …!

I always come away from Amparo humbled about my place in a vaster cosmos. The universe is less complete without me but, at the cosmic level, I am but one speck of creative energy among multitudes that contributes to the flow of something greater than myself and whose significance I may never fathom in my lifetime. And yet, I suspect that grasping the essence of the past is no more difficult than lifting a cup of Mexican coffee to my lips.

Living here and now—noticing the other. I notice that Mexicans acknowledge strangers and each other in the stores and on the street with a nod or an unforced buenas tardes or buen día. The recognition may be small, even subtle, but it’s part of the social ‘grease’ and grace that underlies communal life. It is to say: ‘I don’t know you but I see you, I acknowledge your presence.’ It is a small but essential thing and, because my presence is repeatedly affirmed by others, I never feel alone or isolated in Mexico.

IMG_5428It makes me wonder if, in the rush of modern, urban life in the U.S., we take too little or no time to acknowledge the presence of those we don’t know. We all hunger for connection, for the affirmation of our being, but I fear we may have wrung it out of our culture with our utilitarian focus on work, and our isolation within the bubbles of shared opinions, social class, and race. Still, I believe there is a simple, human path out of our present divisions—to simply and sincerely acknowledge the presence of the ‘other,’ the person you don’t know, the person who thinks differently, or the foreigner you may otherwise fear. A simple acknowledgment of our shared existence as humans makes other connections possible and narrows the distances between us. It isn’t difficult.

 

Reading our way to freedom—literature as a subversive act. Latin American poets and novelists loom larger in the politics and history of their countries than they do in the U.S.—at least until now. Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz and many others were potent political figures in their time. People of all classes and opinions read them, and their works threatened the powerful. Why? Because words matter. Why? Because literature engages a person’s soul in a way that forms convictions.

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Writers and readers are more willing to put themselves on the line for these convictions than those who don’t read. Political novels, like It Can’t Happen Here, 1984, Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451 are suddenly popular in the U.S. Why? Literature is known to cultivate empathy, buck up courage, and guide public thinking and actions during dark times. Reading literature is subversive. That’s why book banning and burning is no accident. A well-read person knows that ‘alternate facts’ aren’t facts; they are lies. We all have a responsibility to call a lie, a lie. If we fall silent in the face of falsehood, we sanction the lie and make it our own. Reading thoughtful literature is one of the most subversive and revolutionary acts possible. Hence, our Constitution has its First Amendment. Today, it’s just possible that thoughtful reading and rumination may save us from the liars among us.

The rise and fall of civilizations—among the ruins of Yohualichan. I spent Inauguration Day 2017 at the ruins of Yohualichan in the rugged Sierra Norte of Puebla, Mexico. In this forested region of isolated indigenous towns, Spanish is the second language of many. Yohualichan is an aldea or hamlet of perhaps 500 Náhuatl-speaking residents, descendants of those who succeeded the Totonaco people and outlived the Spanish. Here, ancient traditions are passed on informally at home and through the schools. I visited these ruins just as the 45th President of the United States took his oath of office with his promise to ‘make America great again.’ (Not that the United States isn’t great already.)

Cuetzalan 2017 041

The ruins were built more than 1,000 years ago by a once great people who were conquered by the Aztecs in the 1200s, and were in turn defeated by the Spanish in the 1500s.

Wandering among the remains of stone temples and plazas, I ruminated on the elements of a great civilization, a great nation. Do civilizations and nations pass through life cycles of ascent, dominance, and decline? History is filled with empires that rose, dominated, and then fell. Sometimes, there were leaders—usually authoritarians—who attempted to resurrect former greatness by sheer force of will. Resurrection never seemed to be in the cards for the Greeks and Romans. Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao briefly imposed their visions of greatness on their citizens but their empires fell because of internal contradictions.

I spent a morning wandering among stone temples, ball courts, and plazas erected without machines or draft animals. Their walls are plumb and the corners are square and the stones whispered a secret. Greatness doesn’t depend on priests, politicians or authoritarian leaders. These great structures with stepped temples were erected by a people imbued with a common spirit that bound them together in pursuit of a shared vision—even a vision of heaven on earth. The spirit that led the people to momentary greatness lasted only as long as they held a sense of common purpose. Their civilization flickered and died from internal divisions, political factions, and military conquests.

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Much still isn’t known about the culture of Yohualichan and its larger center at El Tajín in Papantla, Veracruz. The people of El Tajín recorded their history and culture on scrolls called codices. Spanish conquistedores destroyed most of the indigenous records and the accumulated information. That’s what invaders do. They try to destroy the soul of the culture, erase its history, and impose their language as a means of controlling those they defeated or conquered. In the quest to restore American ‘greatness,’ a new presidency seems bent on upending and obliterating the work of previous administrations. Its words and early actions are those of an invader and not of a successor. Like the Spaniards that toppled indigenous temples, the new regime seems set to demolish the social structures it inherited from 240 years of American experience. Already, the national endowments of the arts and humanities are slated for elimination—a de facto destruction of American codices. What else the administration may destroy is yet to be seen.

A slice of hope. Not all is necessarily lost. There are grounds for hope. After a day in the ruins, a friend took me to look at one of a dozen cisterns constructed and maintained by Cuetzalan 2017 067communal effort. Sunset was nearly on us when we slipped through the cattle gate and hiked up the mountainside through the grass. The large tank sat on a concrete pad fed by tubes from springs tapped farther up the slope. A tube at the bottom of the cistern channeled water to a dozen smaller tubes that ran downhill to the houses in the hamlet below. Water is scarce in parts of Mexico, and even scarcer in the midst of a drought. The construction, operation, and maintenance of the simple cistern is a communal project, a shared vision. This small project, multiplied by millions of people, is what makes a great civilization. This is greatness working in an indigenous municipality. We can all learn from the past, if we will.

Staying Connected

Staying Connected

On Saturday I attended the wedding of very good friends—well, family—who came from Mexico 25 years ago. Although married in a civil ceremony, they waited a quarter century until their parents obtained resident visas to have a religious service. Then, with their daughters, parents, extended family and close friends around them, they held the nuptial mass at their cabin in western Wisconsin.

They did it the Mexican way, reciting their vows with the traditional lazo or cord around their necks. Afterward, the bride’s father, a retired mariachi in full costume, sang romantic songs. During the feast, over plates of mole rojo con pollo, rice and enchiladas, we visited in Spanish and English. Being connected to this family and a larger Hispanic community is how I keep my Spanish in ‘shape.’ I exercise it in the same way I work my muscles.

Stay Connected—We visit another country, we learn its language, and maybe we make friends there. But, after we return home to the U.S., we face the challenge of staying sufficiently connected to keep up the Spanish we have worked so hard to learn through immersion, classes or travel. Being connected or in contact with other Spanish speakers is the key. The question is, how to do it.

How I ended up at the wedding is part of a longer story. Suffice it to say, I was at the wedding because I looked for ways to connect and use my Spanish (see below). I met my friends at church and, because they lacked immigration documents, I used my social contacts to help a daughter enter college and the husband avoid deportation. For me, it was a matter of using my professional contacts and applying my professional skills to aid them. To them, I was a life-saver. After my friend no longer faced deportation, he said, “You’re now a member of the family. A ‘primo’ (cousin). Since then, they have include in family events. I’m connected.

Finding your particular connections takes experimentation. This can be as extensive as you want and it can lead in unexpected directions and relationships, as it did in my case.

Conversation Groups—I attended several types of conversation groups in Minnesota between my short and intermittent immersion courses in Mexico. Language groups are easy to find over the internet. Simply enter ‘Meet-ups’ in your web browser and then indicate the kind of ‘meet up’ you want in the search box. During the early years of Spanish lessons, I attended groups that met at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, a library, a coffee shop and a bar.

Each group had its own personality, depending on the language skills of the leaders and the participants. As I discovered, most groups didn’t involve native speakers as regular members as they had other opportunities to keep their language alive. The groups I attended included lots of eager beginner and intermediate speakers whose ability ranged from elementary level to bi-lingual fluency. Some knew no Spanish but came with the hope of learning it by ‘osmosis.’ This rarely happened.

You may have to try several groups before finding your ‘groove.’ Some may be too elementary and participants will look to you for leadership. Or they may be too large for establishing any personal relationships in which to have on-going conversations. Or they may be too advanced for you to feel comfortable. Keep looking. The groups exist and you will find one to fit you.

Cultural Centers—Many if not most larger cities have Hispanic cultural centers that offer classes in Spanish and the cultures of Mexico and other countries of Latin America. Minneapolis has one where I completed my beginning level classes with native speaker instructors before taking immersion in Mexico. Later, after I became fluent, I took two 10-week literature classes for the pleasure of reading Latin American writers and discussing the works with others.

If your city doesn’t have a cultural center, look for a community education program, or perhaps audit a class at a local college. One of my friends whose spoken Spanish isn’t as fluent as she wants it to be, audited a college course in Latin American literature. And if your city doesn’t have a college, then read aloud.

Volunteer—If your city or community has a Hispanic population, chances are good there are non-profit social and educational programs that serve them. Most organizations depend on volunteers to interact with clients and do much of the work. Volunteering may be a double opportunity for you. You will have the opportunity to use your language, meeting others, and serve them by helping them with your useful ‘connections’ to corporate hiring managers, college admissions staff, government officials and the like.

Most of us who are U.S. citizens know how the ‘system’ works and we usually know someone (or someone who knows someone) who can help a Latin American immigrant navigate to the services or officials they need. Aiding an immigrant to a job, an official, a service—even if your Spanish is still elementary—is a ‘big deal’ for them. It is through gestures like this that good friendships form. I’m still amazed at the difference I’ve made in some lives with a few phone calls, a few letters of recommendation, character references, visits to an official’s office, or accompanying an immigrant to court. As a citizen, these look like small favors; for my friends they are life-changing.

Churches—The church and its ceremonies play large roles in the lives of many immigrants. Not all are Roman Catholics, but also Episcopalian, Lutheran, Baptist and other denominations. Regardless of denomination, the church is still the community nexus where many Latin American immigrants come together to find community. I belong to a largely Mexican congregation in Minnesota where the liturgies and sermon are in Spanish, as are the after-church conversations over coffee and tamales. For six years, I served on the parish council and as its co-chair because I was also the bridge or connection to the majority culture.

These are some of the ways you can connect with fellow Spanish speakers. And, if you are so fortunate as to find a congregation, a nonprofit or a cultural organization that fits your abilities and meets your needs, you most certainly will make friends. Who knows, you may one day find yourself at a wedding as one of the family or at least in the smaller circle of close and trusted friends who will nurture your Spanish and deepen your sense of the culture.

 

Zapatos rojos—Red shoes and the pain of knowing

Speaking and reading another language opened doors into the lives of other people. Spanish helped me make friends I wouldn’t have otherwise. And, through friendships, I gained greater cultural awareness of Mexico. Greater awareness usually brings clarity but clarity reveals things sometimes touch my conscience in unexpected and uncomfortable ways. With awareness I also  feel some pain.

This happened gain last Saturday in Oaxaca, Mexico. This sunny, colonial city depends on tourists whose commerce with indigenous artisans and traditions accounts for nearly a third of the local economy. As la Semana Santa (Holy Week) approaches, more tourists arrive from Mexico, the United States, and Europe seeking a festive vacation.

IMG_5802Walking along the Alcala, Oaxaca’s street of high-end shops and tony restaurants, I’m surprised to see dozens of shoes, each the color of blood, set out in pairs on the gray cobbles. What is this, I wondered as I joined the cluster of Mexicans around the informational banner.

Zapatos Rojos (Red Shoes) is public art dedicated to women who have suffered violence. It began in 2009 as a symbolic march seeking justice for 33 women who were killed or ‘disappeared’ in Ciudad de Juárez. Now it is a traveling presentation, a call to conscience in solidarity with all women who risk violence at the hands of men who are protected by custom and official indifference.

IMG_5799Tourists passed the exhibition, most of them glanced at the crimson shoes, but few stopped to read the banner before they entered the shops and restaurants. Nevertheless, the silent, empty red shoes screamed to those of us who read the banner.

The price for learning another language, another culture, includes knowledge of good and evil. Like it or not, reading about the horrific murders of women is now an integral part of my Mexican  reality. I can no longer say: ‘I didn’t know.’ Now I know, and now my conscience isn’t as clear as it was before I saw the shoes. How bad is violence against women in Mexico, I wondered?

Minutes later, I had an answer to my question when I came upon a group of women speaking in the shade of Oaxaca’s cathedral. Behind them, large banners bore the photos and stories of their daughters—promising young women— who disappeared or were killed. The speakers were part of 300 Madres A.C. Unión de mujeres victimas de la violencia en Oaxaca. Our small crowd of listeners included young Mexican couples with babies, middle-aged women, youths, two policemen, and me—the only non-Mexican.

The women tell forceful stories. The women’s emotions drove their stories of pain and loss. Now and then, each paused to wipe her eyes or regain her voice. Their words flashed like sharp knives, paring away the hypocrisy of police and public officials who told them not to worry, their daughters were probably off with their boyfriends. Or worse, officials told them the girl was probably a prostitute or drug addict—as if that justified their deaths. One by one, the mothers demanded an end to ‘la cultura machista’ that protects the men—including police—who treat women as less than human.

How bad is it, I wondered?  It’s bad—it’s staggering. In the State of Oaxaca (population 3.5 million), 559 women were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Another 25 were murdered in January-February 2016. According to the Mexican Institute for Women (2009), 67 percent of Mexican women over the age of 15 years experienced some type of violence. In 40 percent of the cases, the violence occurred in the woman’s home, and usually involved a current partner or ex-partner.

What accounts for these horrors? Beneath the colorful cultural images projected by Mexican tourist bureaus lies a dark, authoritarian legacy of traditionally narrow gender roles, an acceptance of violence, and an absence of political will or resources to investigate and bring assailants to justice. These women, like many others, can’t rely on the government to protect them so they are organizing in their communities to stop gender-based violence.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative and Just Associates (JASS) documented (2012) that government officials and security forces frequently used sexualized violence to intimidate and subdue women. In 2006, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was Governor of the State of Mexico, he sent security forces to crush a protest against a new airport. Two protesters died and 26 women were sexually assaulted by the security forces. To date, no police officer has been  found guilty of the assaults. Peña Nieto later justified the violence as necessary to restore public order.

IMG_5880Nor can women rely on the authorities to protect them from drug cartels that coerce women into transporting drugs and filling logistical roles. According to a former director of the National Women’s Institute (Mexico City), cartels force women into prostitution because the sex trade is the third most profitable market after drugs and small arms.

Can this be true? Sadly, it is. It is a dark aspect of the Mexico I love.

These questions led me to look for comparable incidents in the U.S. and Minnesota. Femicide or feminicide has its evil counterpart in the U.S. One U.S. woman is assaulted every nine seconds; at least three U.S. women are murdered daily by their husbands or boyfriends. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. Ten million children witness domestic violence annually. Nearly one in five teenage girls said a boyfriend threatened her if they broke up. Women between the ages of 18-24 are most commonly abused by an intimate partner and this accounts for 15 percent of violent crimes. Nearly three-fourths of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner and 94 percent of the victims are female (data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

In Minnesota (population 5.2 million), at least 115 women were killed in domestic violence between 2010 and 2015—34 of them in 2015. In the majority of cases, the women were murdered when they tried to leave an abusive relationship (data from Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women). This is significant.

Within my adult memory, there was a time when the police rarely intervened in ‘domestic violence’ except when the neighbors complained of the noise. Police seldom arrested anyone—particularly men. Women feared retribution and were afraid to press charges. Twenty years ago, the public regarded domestic fights as private affairs. When women did complain of abuse, the courts, the police, and even the clergy were quick to ask the woman what she had done to provoke the attack! They even advised her to be more understanding and work it out with her spouse. I’m struck by the similarities in the cultural mentalities of Mexico and the U.S.

I stood in the cathedral’s shade for nearly and hour and listened to the women tell their stories. As a husband and father of two daughters, I felt compelled to stay because, if I walked away and ignored the evil, I would thereby condone it and participate in it. As a foreigner, the only help I can give these women is to be present in the moment, listen to their stories, and let the stories touch my conscience. Listening is a form of participation, listening seems so insignificant, but in fact it’s an act of political and moral solidarity.

I returned to the shoes on the cobbles after the women finished speaking. The woman curating the Zapatos Rojos exhibit approached me with a slip of paper and a pen.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” Do I want to write a message?” she asked.

Yes. Until now, la cultura machista and its violence seemed like abstract information unconnected to my reality. I hadn’t encountered anyone who had suffered violence. Now that I’m a seasonal resident in Oaxaca, I know the violence is part of the society I meet in the streets, it’s a reality for the women who sell me tomatoes in the Mercado Merced, it’s an integral but evil part of the Mexico I love. The dozens of empty shoes eloquently call me to think of the dead or ‘disappeared’ women who live only in the hearts of their mourners.

Then I thought of my friend Rosario in Puebla. A year ago she posted information on Facebook about Guadalupe, her friend who vanished after work one afternoon. Guadalupe or her remains haven’t been found. Nothing more is known—only silence.

Quiere escribir un mensaje?” the curator asked again.

.”

I took the paper and pen she offered, certain Rosario would leave a note were she here. But she isn’t and I will do it for her. No one can bring Lupe back from the dead but I could take Rosario’s place and stand with the brave women of Mexico who confront violence and official indifference. I wrote a note—a kind of prayer—to Guadalupe and stuck it in a shoe.

Empty red shoes cry out from the pavement. It is often said that travel and a second language broaden one’s perspective. And this is true. Once we gain another language, and our cultural horizons widen, we are vulnerable to the moral questions once invisible to us. The violence against women, like the sexual abuse of children, becomes culturally pervasive when society turns a blind eye and says it’s a private matter. I can no longer say I didn’t know, and silence in the face of evil isn’t a moral option.

Violence against women isn’t news to Mexicans; the news is that women will take physical risks to end la cultura machista. Zapatos Rojos is a fight for human rights, social equality, individual dignity and civic justice. The empty red shoes on the cobbled street remind me that moral obligations transcend national and cultural boundaries.

We are what we celebrate

What celebration expresses your identity, your being as a person? Is it Passover, Easter or Ramadan? Is it Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July? We all have them. For millions of Mexicans, it is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Classic Guadalupe image

Classic Guadalupe image

Tonight Mexicans inside and outside Mexico celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is the one figure that transcends Mexican ethnicities, social classes and politics. As the writer Carlos Fuentes remarked: “You cannot truly be considered a Mexican unless you believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe.” But who is she? And what does it mean to believe in her?

Indisputable information about Guadalupe is hard to come by and subject to interpretations and disputes. As the story goes, Mary the Mother of God (Jesus) appeared to an indigenous peasant convert named Juan Diego in 1531 on the hilltop of Tepeyac, a place where the Aztecs  worshipped Tonantzint, the mother of their gods. The brown-faced Virgin spoke to Juan Diego in Náhuatl, his native idiom, and asked that a shrine be built there. The story of the apparition spread, and millions of Aztecs converted to Catholicism. In time, the Church built a church on the site, now the most visited shrine in Mexico with December 12 is her feast day.

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe on a wall in Oaxaca

Guadalupe is everywhere in Mexico. Her image graces homes, shops, restaurants, walls,  T-shirts and posters. Men and women wear her medallion. Pedestrians pray at sidewalk shrines on their way to work. This protective mother silently watches over her ‘children’ in Mexico.

What do I make of this story of an apparition with miracles. My education steeped in scientific method and analysis, I look for verifiable facts as the basis for truth. Where’s the evidence that an apparition happed? Believers point to her image on a cloak whose origins remain obscure. It is easy to dismiss this as a folk-tale for the pious, or an intense psychological experience? Still, I’m not ready to dismiss all of it. We still don’t know enough about the nature of thoughts and emotions to pooh-pooh what we can measure by current methods.

Guadalupe at our church.

Guadalupe at Santo Nino Jesus.

Whether or not Mary’s apparition as Guadalupe happened isn’t as important as her impact on Mexico and Mexicans. Guadalupe is a profound force in the life of Mexico that can’t be ignored. Millions ask her to pray with and for them; they seek her protection, and guidance. In gratitude for prayers answered (I know some prayers are answered), or after receiving a milagro or miracle, many do works of mercy, compassion, and charity in her name. This is her power. Active devotion gives Guadalupe a corporal presence even as her spiritual existence remains  mysterious.

In my faith community, people will arrive at 10 p.m. and continue arriving after the celebration begins. The lights will be low and a large image of Guadalupe will stand in front of the pulpit surrounded by roses and lit by the flicker of devotional candles. Children dressed as peasants will sing to the Virgin. Then the procession to the altar will begin with a popular folk hymn to the Virgin with incense, acolytes, our priest and our bishop.

After the Eucharist and communion, a troupe of Aztec dancers in feathered headdresses, with shells on their ankles, will sway and dip before the statue, their bare feet flashing in time to the hypnotic drumming. Then, just before midnight, the band of mariachis will appear wearing short jackets bedecked with silver conchas, and serenade the Virgin with the melodious ‘Las mañanitas’, recounting her story and extolling her virtues. Afterward, we stay and eat tamales, pan dulce, and drink atole and chocolate. Tonight, if at no other time of the year, everyone knows who he is – Mexicanos.

Guadalupe at my home

Guadalupe at my home

As an American, I’m accustomed to national identity as loyalty to the Stars and Stripes, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These are the secular foundations of national unity. Thanksgiving Day and its association with the Pilgrims, is as close as we come to a national spiritual holiday. But Mexico evolved by other means and its cultural is more spiritual than political, one comprised of vibrant indigenous tradition

We are what we celebrate.

 

 

Two tongues, Two Minds – Writing Bilingually

Have you ever tried writing from scratch in your second language? A letter, a post-card, an essay? What was your result? Too hard to think of the words? Frustration with the grammar? You wrote it in English and then tried to translate it to Spanish? Writing in a second language is challenging but so rewarding if you want to learn.

I treat all writing – in English or Spanish – as thinking on paper. It’s thought in a visual form. When I lay down the words where I can see them, it’s easier to watch what they do in the company with other words. Writing in Spanish, however imperfectly, also sharpens me for writing in English.

Good writers are also good readers and reading is a good place to start. Try reading a familiar English passage in another language. Chances are it will illuminate something you didn’t notice in English. For example, St. John’s Gospel starts with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …” I always took this as a poetic but abstract statement about the Divinity. I understood the passage differently when I heard it in Spanish. “En el principio existía el Verbo y el Verbo estaba con Dios y el Verbo era Dios…” Verbo means verb, it denotes a word to express action. The English ‘word’ denotes a part of speech and can be a noun, adjective, preposition as well as a verb. In other words, ‘Word’ is rather generic, even passive.  God as verbo is a different image than God as ‘word; a God of actions rather than categories.

Try this:

Read in Spanish (or your second language) a book you already know well in English. Preferably, choose one with familiar passages as in the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, Goodnight Moon, or others. As you read, look for shades of meaning in Spanish language you missed in English. What new insights or meanings do you take from this?

I began writing in Spanish during immersion. The teacher asked only for random sentences to practice verb tenses, prepositional phrases, etc. As an inveterate writer, however, I turned the requisite sentences into a short, coherent story I might tell socially. I was tempted to write it in English and then translate it but I’m glad I didn’t. The point of immersion is learning to think the language. Writing Spanish from scratch wasn’t easy at first, but became easier with each essay and oh so satisfying!

Writing forced me to think the language, and my tutor identified the habitual mistakes. That became an agenda for practice and improvement. In short, writing Spanish showed me where to focus my efforts. Writing helped me acquire the rhythm of Spanish. I wrote about things that interested me, thereby building a useable, personal vocabulary connected to my life and interests. Ultimately, I developed a writing and speaking style natural to me.

I habitually wrote English in an emotionally restrained style sometimes bordered on terseness. When I wrote in Spanish, however, I was surprised to discover my natural style was more emotional and affective than in English. Part of this I ascribe to the transforming effects of languages and cultures. Second languages and cultures tend to draw on aspects of personality that may be subordinate or invisible in your native culture.

When I started writing Spanish, I focused on words and phrases I wanted to learn to use well. I began by writing them across the top of a page. Then I studied them for their possibilities until I had a story line. It was a process like arranging and rearranging the magnetic words and phrases on the refrigerator door until a sentence or paragraph emerged. In time, reading and writing moved me closer to thinking and speaking with the economy of a native speaker. You will find, as I did,  writing can embed in your memory useful words and phrases that will easily roll off your tongue when you need them.

After the immersions, I continued to write short stories for my own amusement and to practice Spanish. I created stories with dialogues between the characters because this is a good way (in my opinion) to learn the kinds of phrases most likely to come up in conversation. It is especially useful in learning the slang or modismos.

In the fragment below, I created an author with a case of writer’s block the night before a crucial deadline. He hears a voice in his garret and is confronted by a tiny man standing on his typewriter. It is the writer’s inner voice but he doesn’t yet recognize it as his own:

“¿Quién? ¿Quién eres,” le pregunté, frotando los ojos con mis puños con incredulidad.

“¿Tú no sabes?”

No. No idea. No conozco a cualquier hombrecitos. ¿Eres tú una invención? ¿Alguien que me imaginaba?“

Sabes ya mi nombre. Es el mismo de tuyo.”

“¡Ay-yi-yi! ¿De dónde vienes?”

“Aquí. Siempre aquí. Vivo dentro de ti.”

¡Aquí! ¡Siempre! ¡Dentro de yo mismo! Me sentí más y más confundido. Cuando traté poner un dedo en el hombrecito, mi dedo pasó por su cuerpo como sí él estaba el aire. ¡Carrumba! ¿Por qué estoy platicar con un hombrecito imaginario? Él es una alucinación. ¡Ay, estoy fatigado!

Now try writing a story on your own. Keep it simple, on the level of a story you would tell a child. Keep it short and manageable. Play with it. If you write on your computer with Microsoft Word, you can go to the “Review” tab on the menu bar and set the proofing language. When you right click on a word, there is a link to synonyms. It’s a great way to sharpen your writing and expand your vocabulary.

Try this:

Choose a dozen words – verbs, prepositions, phrases – and write them across the top of your page. Next, look at the words and phrases and note the words, thoughts, actions, or events they suggest. Use them as the basis for a story. Use them naturally, in your particular way of speaking. Watch what happens.

Try this:

Create several characters and put them into a conversation in your second language. Try to inhabit each character, and give each one a distinct way of speaking. You may find yourself writing short, punchy phrases – the kind we say all the time. The dialogue will suggest the vocabulary.

If you have a native-speaker friend, or one who is highly fluent in your second language, engage them as a critical reader to give you constructive criticism. Two things will happen: 1) Your use of the language will improve, and 2) you may detect a subtle but distinct aspect of your mind you hadn’t noticed before.

Buena suerte!

 

 

La tortilla – in praise of the humble

OAXACA, México

‘Don Rodrigo, es tiempo, el desayuno,’ Doña Estela sings out, calling me to breakfast. I begin the day with huevos revueltos (scrambled eggs), frijoles negros (black beans), hot chocolate, and tortillas wrapped in a cloth to keep them soft and warm. After several weeks in Oaxaca, it’s a reflex to load a tortilla with eggs and beans, fold it, and eat it with my fingers. On other days, I breakfast on chilaquiles, quartered tortillas lightly fried, simmered until soft in red or green salsa, and topped with onions or an egg. This breakfast will last me until mid-afternoon.

Nothing is as versatile as corn tortillas. They’re so ubiquitous I used to take them for granted; worse yet, I hardly noticed them in my rush to savor the moles, salsas, and various fillings and toppings. Yet, corn and tortillas long precede moles and salsas. They are the foundation of Mexican meals if not its culture.

Maíz or corn originated in Central America and nourished the indigenous people just as the bison nourished the tribes on the North American plains. Everything about the forty varieties of red, black, yellow, and white maíz is used. Stalks are fed to cattle, the totomoxtle (husk) becomes a wrapper for tamales, elote (‘sweet corn’) is eaten fresh or cooked, and the huitlacoche (a black fungus) is a delicacy eaten fresh or added to soups and sauces. As a Minnesota farm boy, I knew corn largely as the food for cattle and hogs.

The versatile tortillas are believed to have originated with the Mayans some 10,000 years ago. Whether true or not, tortillas predate the Spanish conquest by centuries if not millennia. Until relatively modern times, most individuals – except the elite – ate their food from a large leaf, half a dried gourd, or from a tortilla. Not only did the tortilla provide nourishment, it evolved into various forms to serve as edible plates and bowls. The humble tortilla is so important that Doña Estela doesn’t consider her table fully set until it has a basket or two of warm tortillas. They are as necessary as napkins – if not more important.

At the Saturday tianguis (market) in Tlaxiaco, I come upon two Mixteca women breaking chunks of white stone with hammers and putting the small pieces into quart-sized plastic bags.

‘Why are you smashing the rock?’ I ask.

‘This is cal,’ one of them says. ‘It’s a special stone we need for making tortillas. We can’t make tortillas without it,’ she adds, filling the bag and setting it atop the others for sale. Seeing my perplexity at her answer, she tells me how the cal is part of making tortilla flour.

Cal is slaked lime and when crushed, she mixes it with dried corn and water, boils it for twenty minutes in a clay pot and sets it aside to cool overnight. In the morning, when the kernels are soft, she drains the water and removes the shells from the kernels. After draining and rinsing the corn several times more, she grinds the kernels. After moistening the meal, she kneads it to make the masa or dough. Making tortillas is a lot of hard work. Like most urban Mexicans, Doña Estela buys tortillas at a shop or occasionally makes them from ready-made masa. But Tlaxiaco is a town in the mountains of northwestern Oaxaca, a place where the people still speak Mixteco, adhere to Mixtec culture, and make their own tortillas.

Hungry at mid-afternoon, I stop at a puesto (food stand) and ask the woman for a tlayuda. This is a particularly Oaxacan dish and one of the many forms that tortillas take. Taking a fresh one as large as a pizza, she bakes it for a moment on a comal, the large, stone pan atop a charcoal brazier. Then she turns it over and spreads the tlayuda with some fat and bean paste before adding shredded cabbage, pulled chicken, avocado slices, queso fresco (Oaxacan cheese), and salsa. Folding the tlayuda over the filling, she seals the edges, and cooks both sides before sliding it onto a plate for me. It’s hot, savory, and enough food for the day!

When I eat dinner on the street or in a café, I order chalupas, a crispy boat layered with white beans, cheese and tomatoes. One day I met my friend Rosario for antiojos (snacks) and ordered sopes, a small, thick tortilla, deep-fried and topped with refried black beans, lettuce, cheese, vegetables, meat and salsa. It’s a finger food, like a tostada, and ideal for snacking at an outdoor café.

On the days when I teach English in Tlacochahuaya, I eat lunch at the Instituto Cultural de Oaxaca and order a quesadilla, a folded tortilla filled with Oaxacan cheese, sliced tomatoes, and squash flowers. It’s a light meal but hearty enough to carry me through the afternoon class until I return home for la cena, or the late evening snack.

In Oaxaca, we normally eat the plato fuerte, (main meal) at mid-afternoon. Doña Estela keeps many recipes in her head but she rarely repeats a menu. Our platos fuertes include grilled fish, chicken, and pork but always with tortillas. One day we eat memelas, tortillas with fluted edges smeared with bean paste and garnished with cheese, salsa, and onions. The lighter evening meals include sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup) made of chicken broth, shredded carrots, or onion, and served with tortillas.

Tortillas have many permutations depending on what part of Mexico we’re in. When I was a consultant in Guadalajara, I often ate supper on the street at a puesto selling taquitos, small, tortillas. My favorites were called the gringa and consisted of two small tortillas cooked with shredded cheese between them that I rolled up and filled with my choice of meat, salsa, guacamole, and onion.

Tortillas are essential to enchiladas, the less common efrijolada, a soft tortilla dipped in black bean sauce and topped with cheese, onion, and parsley, or the entomatada, a folded tortilla dipped in tomato sauce, garnished with queso fresco, white onions, and parsley. As a snack, I often eat a flauta, a deep-fried, rolled tortilla that looks like an egg-roll filled with cheese or chicken, and topped with cream or guacamole.

And for postre (at the end, or dessert), a favorite is the empanada, a turnover filled with sweet or savory stuffing of sweet potato, yam, or squash flowers, and then baked and topped with a sweet syrup.

Consumption of tortillas in the United States exceeds that of bagels or croissants. Although we expect to see tortillas, along with chips and salsa, as part of the meal in a Mexican restaurant, the tortilla’s significance remains largely unnoticed and unknown among non-Mexicans.

But the tortilla still shines like the sun in Mexico. It plays the leading role at the center of everyday dining. The tlayudas, memelas, chilaquiles, and other forms of the tortilla vary widely from region to region, cultural group to cultural group, and family to family. All are genuine, and variation is part of the tortilla’s virtue. No matter how a corn tortilla is dressed and served, it is still the foundation of a proud culinary heritage. And those who know its history and secrets, are connected – however invisibly – to a past far deeper and richer than any they’ve known before.

 

 

What is time? And what time is it?

New Year’s 2015

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard Americans say things like: ‘You can’t depend on Mexicans, they’re always late.’ Or: ‘Why can’t they show up when they’re supposed to?’  Or: ‘Well, you know, they’re on Mexican time.’

The phrase ‘Mexican time’ is sometimes a sympathetic phrase and at other times it’s an epithet.  It depends on who says it, to whom it’s said, and why.  Why are American travelers so annoyed when services or appointments don’t happen promptly on their timetable?  It’s culture.

When my friends Juan and María invite me to a family dinner in Minnesota, they say: ‘Come any time after 4:00.’  Just to be sure, I ask if they mean 4:00 as in ‘Mexican time’ or in American or ‘gringo time’.  We laugh at this because we both understand the cultural differences in ideas about time in Mexico and the United States.

I tell them I’ll arrive at 4:00 p.m. ‘Mexican time’ because I’ve learned an early arrival isn’t a virtue.  I don’t want to be the first one at the party.  Besides, I know the party really starts much later.  Nonetheless, my grasp of ‘Mexican time’ is still faulty, and when I arrive at 5:00 or 5:30, I’m still among the first to show up.  If I show up that late for an American invitation, the host will be upset; 4:00 means 4:00.

Time, as an idea and as a reality, differs across American and Mexican cultures.  What is ‘time’?  Astrophysicists are still debating whether time really exists.  Without going into the theories of time, it is enough to say the operational ideas of time in Mexico and the United States reflect their respective histories, cultural origins, and daily realities. The idea of time influences social conventions, expectations, and customs.  American cultural ideas about time are embedded in everyday speech.  The phrase: ‘Time is money’ epitomizes the Yankee notion of time.

A clock had little relevance to daily life when I was growing up on our farm.  Time played out as a sequence of chores and tasks without a definite beginning or end.  Each day, we milked cows at daybreak, raked hay after the dew dried, ate dinner at midday (somewhere between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.), and then built fences, harvested corn, or plowed the stubble until sunset.  That was about as definite as our time could be (except for church at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning).  We lived on ‘rural time’ until the mid-1960s, as did all but the most urbanized Americans.

‘Mexican time’ and ‘rural time’ share a lot in common because Mexico was a very rural nation until very recently.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ move according to interlocking cycles: The daily one of milking and tending animals; the annual one of planting, cultivating, and harvesting.  Rural people don’t ‘punch the clock’.  Hours matter less than the completion of one task before starting another.  And if a task takes too long, it often bumps a chore of lesser importance.  ‘Mexican time’ and American ‘rural time’ contain an inherent latitude or courtesy, understood by all, to accommodate the unforeseen events that otherwise cause someone to arrive ‘late.’

But there are some exceptions.  In Puebla, when my friend Maribel invited me to the surprise party for her eighteen year-old niece, she sent me the address with explicit instructions to arrive at 2:30 – ‘al punto’.   ‘Al punto’ means ‘on the dot’ (punto) at 2:30 p.m. sharp so everyone would be ready to surprise the neice when she arrived.

When someone agrees to meet you ‘al punto’, treat it as a gift because it is.  It means your friend will put the promise to meet you ahead of anything else that might intrude.  ‘Al punto’ means giving control of your time to someone else.  I’ve had very few social meetings ‘al punto’ in Mexico.  Ordinarily, we meet at an approximate time; neither of us feels abashed to be fifteen minutes ‘late’ nor do we feel a need to arrive on the dot.  Apologies aren’t necessary or expected.

American rural (and Mexican) time is as idiosyncratic and as regular as my pulse.  ‘Mexican time’ is more subjective and fluid than ‘American time’.  My Mexican friends regard their time as an integral part of themselves, it’s a form of personal property.  I have time, it is mine, and it goes with me everywhere.  You have time, too; it’s your personal possession to use as you see fit.  In Mexico, the clock is more of a guide for the round of daily chores.  In the U.S., we’ve given the clock authority to govern our way of life, telling us what we will do, and when we will do it.  We’ve elevated punctuality to a virtue and relegated tardiness to a vice.  Only celebrities can get away with being ‘fashionably late.’

Why do Americans and Mexicans experience time differently?  Take a glance at our respective national and social histories to see the difference.  For centuries, each American city and town set its clocks by the sun.  Time was local, relative, and met the community’s need.  ‘Rural time’ was the only ‘time’ in the U.S. until the economy and society were transformed by the construction of transcontinental railroads, growing urbanization, and industrial mass production.

Railroad companies created ‘standard time’ in the 1880s so trains could keep schedules (a point of pride) and avoid collisions (a necessity).  Industrial mass production created assembly lines of highly integrated processes requiring intricately timed actions.  Factory workers had to show up ‘on time’ so the production lines functioned.  Nothing could be permitted to slow or stop production.  Laborers worked ‘by the clock,’ productivity was measured in ‘man-hours’.  Time-and-motion studies determined how to make each worker more productive by accelerating each production step.  Punctuality as an industrial necessity was elevated to an American virtue.  Along the way, the American idea of time ceased to be a subjective, personal property and became an objective, factor beyond individual control.  Time is money.  Workers sold their ‘time’ in exchange for wages.  Institutions control people by controlling their time.

Meanwhile, Mexico developed by a different course of events and influences.  Railroads arrived late in Mexico, industrial mass production didn’t develop deep roots, and urbanization began very recently.  Until the 1950s, most Mexicans lived in impoverished rural communities and the sense of ‘rural time’ is deeply embedded in the culture.  Modern ‘Mexican time’ retains much of its traditional rural fluidity.  Sitting in meetings, I’ve seen the late arrivals quietly greet each person in the room before taking their seats.  Time is personal and social courtesy trumps the clock and the agenda.

By now you may see the cultural divergence in the approach to time.

But there is a further element to the cultural idea of time that leads us toward cultural metaphysics.  For many of the indigenous people of Mexico, time was and remains, circular.  The Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mayans developed sophisticated systems of astronomy and mathematics.  From these they produced elaborate calendars of predictive cycles within cycles; lunar calendars based on an idea of time that circles back on itself.  Western culture takes a different approach, seeing time as possessing linear properties in which events don’t repeat themselves exactly.  The idea of time, like the language, is an inherent part of the culture we are in.  So, if you’re an American in Mexico, and feel frustrated because things don’t move as fast or as punctually as you wish,

Try this:

Step back, take a deep breath, and relax.  Accept the reality of being in a place where time has a different dimension; where the rules of time are as different as the language.

Treat the ‘delay’ as an integral part of your experience.  Take the opportunity to slow down, to enjoy the moment; look closely at what is around you. You will be enriched.

And although airlines and offices – institutions all – stick to schedules (more or less), most Mexicans move to their own rhythm.  You are in Mexico, so find your natural rhythm and move with it, too.

Las Posadas, rábanoes, y la nochebuena – it’s Christmas in Oaxaca

MINNESOTA September, 1995.

“Do you have a passport?” my wife asks me one evening.

“Yeah, but I think it has expired.  Why?

“Because Mom is taking all of us to Oaxaca for Christmas!”

Four months later, nine of us: my mother-in-law, sister-in-law and her family, my wife, our two grade school daughters, and I settle into our rooms at the Posada de Chencho.  Ollas, ceramics, and masks made by local artisans decorate the halls.  We lived within a long, narrow courtyard among poinsettia, bougainvillea, hibiscus, and bird of paradise plants.  This is the first of six Christmases we spend in Oaxaca, and they forever change our idea of this day.

‘Chencho,’ the posada’s Zapotec owner, a friend of my mother-in-law, knows everything about Oaxaca’s museums, shops, and festivals.  After a day in the city, we are overwhelmed by the its colonial center, the Zocalo, its vibrant colors, and rich scents.

It is December 21st but we feel a difference immediately.  Gone is the urgency over buying and baking for ‘The Day.’  The shops and markets are free of saccharine carols about tiny drums and partridges in pear trees.  It isn’t that Oaxacans don’t celebrate Christmas, it’s that they haven’t lost sight of its religious meaning.  The season begins December 16th with las posadas and lasts through January 6th, with gift-giving following the tradition of the Three Kings who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.

La Posada en Teotitlan

Freed from the ‘commercial’ burden of Christmas, we are at liberty to explore other options.  Chencho tells us there will be a posada that evening in the nearby Zapotec town of Teotitlan.  We go.

La posadas are an ancient Spanish tradition brought to Mexico.  Neighbors take the part of pilgrims – the Holy Family – and process through the streets to a particular house. They chant songs back and forth with the householder who acts as the innkeeper. Eventually the peregrinos are admitted and there is a party with food and drink.  Like Day of the Dead, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, the missionaries used las posadas to supplant an indigenous celebration of the winter solstice and (possibly) the birth of Huitzilopochitli, the Aztec god of war.

The posada in Teotitlan is already underway when we join it, moving slowly along the dark streets, led by children with candles.  Teotitlan is built on a hillside, its cobbled streets wind and dip, so we walk carefully to avoid loose stones and potholes.  The brass band ahead of us plays marching songs, and two men carry a platform with statues of Mary and Joseph in 16th century Spanish garb.  Bottle rockets flare upward and explode overhead with a flash.  Boys on bicycles pause for the procession, make signs of the cross and pedal away.  Somewhere ahead, but out of sight, the children with candles seek the house where la posada will end.

We leave before they reach the house but I’m aware of another part of the Christmas story: the poverty of Mary and Joseph, their perilous search for shelter, rejection by the comfortable, giving birth in a barn instead of an inn.  Its a mixture of wonder and misery could be a Mexican story.

La Noche de los Rábanoes

“Tonight we will see la noche de los rábanoes,” my mother-in-law tells us.  The Zocalo is set aside each December 23rd for the ‘La noche de los rábanoes’, a tradition since 1897, a huge cultural event.

With some skepticism, I wonder what is special about radishes; they’re small and I rarely eat them.  On this night there is a competitive display of figures and scenes carved from huge, specially-grown radishes.  That morning in the Zocalo, I watch men, women, and children carving and assembling the figures in their scenes.  Their paring knives flick and slice.  Pieces of radish become arms and legs, heads and torsos.  The red skin is scored and cut to create mouths, eyes, or designs on clothing.  Later that day, we’re among the thousands that patiently wait our turn to see the tableaux of the birth of Jesus, Santiago defeating the Moors, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Battle of Cinco de Mayo, and the Death of Zapata among others.  The winner is announced, but the prizes aren’t as great as the skill and dedication.

La nochebuena or Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve day is a Sunday, and we spend at the weekly tianguis in Tlacolula, one of the oldest continuous markets in Mesoamerica.  Here rural Mexicans in traditional dress buy and sell vegetables, kitchenware, jeans, shoes, tools, and necessities.  There are few tiendas or stalls selling items for tourists, and nothing indicates it is Christmas.  No special prices, no sales, no promotions, no pressure. (Heaven on earth!)

In Minnesota, we usually celebrate this evening (and my wife’s Norwegian heritage) with a meal of remembrance: meatballs in cream gravy, mashed potatoes, green peas, lefsa with butter and sugar, cranberries, and rice pudding.  Then we open gifts and go to church.  But tonight we eat a simple supper, or cena; Oaxacans have a civilization of three thousand years and a meal of remembrance isn’t needed.

We return to the Zocalo after dark.  Zapotec women in huipiles (indigenous dresses) offer to sell woven cloth and rebozos.  We buy some sparklers from a street vendor and join the throng of waiting spectators, but uncertain what we’re waiting for.  There is a murmur of expectant voices punctuated by the bottle rockets exploding overhead.

While we wait, we buy buñuelos at a stand.  They’re a flat, deep-fried pastry drenched in syrup and served in a simple clay bowl; a sweet, sticky Christmas tradition in Mexico.  Afterward, we join others in throwing the bowls over our shoulders – for luck.  It’s a tradition!

And then we hear a brass band playing off-key, and watch a long procession march toward the Zocalo.  Two women with a church banner, flanked by candle bearers, lead the way, followed by the band and marchers.  Behind them is a flat-bed truck with a girl dressed as Mary kneeling over a manger, and a boy as Joseph standing behind her.  More bands, processions, and floats approach from every corner of the city.  A man wears a bamboo frame with a wheel atop his head.  He lights the fireworks attached to the wheel, they set the wheel spinning as he runs around the square.

La nochebuena in Oaxaca is everything Christmas Eve is not in Minnesota: It’s a public celebration, a Mardi Gras, a college homecoming, and the July 4th all rolled into one, exuberant expression of joy.

“I like this better than a ‘Silent Night’ at home,” my wife says, thereby saying all that needs to be said.  How can one truly celebrate anything as great as the Messiah’s birth with only a pious hush?

Meanwhile, our eleven year-old daughter is talking to a Mexican girl in grade-school Spanish.  I can’t hear what they say, or understand it if I could.  They talk, putting their heads close together, and with shy smiles, exchange pieces of candy.  It’s Christmas.

La Navidad

Chencho throws a Christmas party for his guests but we are out-numbered by the members of his extended family.  First we have a cocktail party in the courtyard.  I ask for mescal, the fiery, local hooch made from maguey.  He serves it and points to a plate of salt containing the powdered remains of the maguey worm.  It’s an invitation and a dare.  I try it; the salty taste complements the liquor.

After cocktails, the children whack away at the piñata while blindfolded.  As the kids begin swinging, everyone yells directions and encouragement.  One by one, the clay piñatas are broken, candy spills onto the plaza, and squealing children scramble to get some.

After dinner, the courtyard falls quiet for naps and conversations about what we’ve seen and experienced.  Given the costs and hassles of holiday travel, we didn’t buy and bring Christmas gifts.  Traveling together is a gift in itself.  Since then, Christmases in Minnesota have never been the same.  We broke the habit of gift buying.  There’s no more suffering through frantic Black Fridays in search of ‘bargains.’  The day has largely reverted to a religious holiday of family and friends; a day of remembering Oaxaca.

Christmas is a theological idea expressed culturally.   Mexico, with its indigenous and Catholic traditions, keeps Christmas principally as a religious celebration.  But in the culturally diverse United States, the day is secularized into a common denominator.  It’s a pastiche of images from the Bible and folk tales, Mary and Joseph with Santa Claus and his elves; Dickens’ ‘Christmas Carol’ with the Gospel of Luke.  Christmas is wrapped in a peculiarly American sentimentality that overlooks the tribulations of Mary and Joseph; tribulations not dissimilar to the daily experience of many Mexicans.

Up next: Living on Mexican time.