All Soul’s Day and the Big Bang

Life is a mystery. It’s an intangible spark science can’t quite pin down. The life-force lies behind the neurons and electrical pulses and move our bodies. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? And where does it go when our bodies give out? Does it go anywhere? Humans have asked these questions for millennia. They are questions for All Souls’ Day or Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

The life we see in our world today began eons ago with the “Big Bang” that released all matter into the universe. Is the life-force within each of us a spark from  that immense explosion billions of years ago? Is it the same  spark that has passed from species to species and generation to generation through transmission, evolution, regression, mutation and adaptation, through creatures large and small, enduring and ephemeral? The fossil record reveals how the life force resurrects after large extinctions and finds new guises better suited to changed circumstances.

An alley wall on Day of the Dead

And what is death? What happens to the spark, the invisible, intangible part of us—the soul—that defines who we are more completely than our physical appearance? Where does it go? We know nothing for certain. Our opinions are matters of faith.

Today is All Souls’ Day, an occasion to recall or pray for those who have died that they might be at peace or stand in light perpetual. The theology varies from one denomination to the next but the current of belief flows in the same direction.

In Mexico, All Souls’ Day fused with an indigenous celebration of the deceased and became día de los Muertos, Day of the Dead. Most of us are familiar with its outward manifestations as skeletons, crania and the ofrendas or offerings of articles the deceased liked in life. Like Americans at Thanksgiving, distant members of Mexican families return home to tend family graves, share meals and, perhaps, commune with the spirits of the deceased.

A family ofrenda in Oaxaca.

I have celebrated Día de los Muertos  with Mexican friends in Puebla and Oaxaca  where I lived. Each family celebrated in its own way. For some, it was a cultural event like Christmas without religion. For others, a day of spiritual solemnity when the past and present (and perhaps the future) were united. Death isn’t seen as the end but part of a transcendent shift in form and substance. It is true we carry our ancestor’s DNA. Is it possible we bear something of their spirits as well. We may be individuals but we aren’t sui generis.

A century ago, people often observed a year of outward mourning for a spouse or family member. Grieving seems largely privatized these days and many talk of wanting a “closure” to their grief so they can “move on” with their lives and, perhaps, forget. But can we forget and move on without the memories? I don’t think so.

My parents are dead but they visit at odd moments in something deeper than a conscious memory. There’s a sense of their presence just beyond eye-sight, an inaudible voice at my inner ear. Are these visitations? I don’t know but I’m grateful for them. In death, each parent seems more clearly an individual than in the fusion of “MomandDad.” While the pain of loss has ceased, I don’t want “closure” or forgetfulness because I would lose something of myself.

A remembrance of my parents.

On All Souls’ Day I put up a photo of my parents with a candle as an ofrenda, a focal point for prayer. This year, I added a photo of Lupita, a landlady and loving friend with whom I lived as a student in Mexico. The spark of life burned brightly in her and warmed those around her. Lupita’s sudden death last year at 85 was a shock. There is comfort in pausing to give thanks for those who kindled the spark of life in me. And it is  well  to remember that I, too, am but dust and to dust I will return someday when my spark moves on.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Recognition and a Sense of Place

The Virgin appeared at an Aztec sacred site.

There is no landscape like Mexico

I have been in Mexico for two weeks, and once more feel a deep sense of place; of fitting in, of belonging to a locale. How can I feel this way when I’m in another country, culture, and language? It comes from traveling IN a country rather than traveling THROUGH a country. What do I mean?

When I travel THROUGH a country, I cover many miles, shoot hundreds of photos, check items on the bucket-list yet these places make no lasting impact on me. These are external experiences where I’m a bird of passage, a spectator, a tourist, standing aside and watching others live their lives. I know about the place, but don’t feel I’m a part of it.

When I travel IN a country, I take time, travel fewer miles, take fewer photos, and live without a check-list ‘must do’ items. Traveling IN a country is an inner journey wherein I participate in the community life around me, engaged in the lives of others. It is the shared experience that gives me a sense of the place as my own.

Humility is the avenue to self acceptance.

Rosita’s house, six doors down.

On Sunday, I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico, as a volunteer English teacher and the sense of place returned immediately. It began with Rosita, whose home laundry is six doors down the cobbled street. Spotting me through her wrought iron gate, I saw the light of recognition bloom in her eyes. “Ah, ¡buenos días!” she said, her voice rising. And, before we did business, we exchanged snippets of our personal news that passed during the last nine months.

With our relationship reset, I walked to El Mercado Merced, one of the small local grocery markets. The tortilla vendor on her stool glanced up at my approach, and I saw that she recognized me. Although I bought her tortillas many times last year, we never introduced ourselves. After I bought memelas, we talked for a few minutes—everyone here has time for a few words. She speaks Spanish and Zapotea, the local language. She knew all about Teotitlán, where I teach, and told me the town’s name in Zapotea, a tongue-twister for me. We will talk again when I buy tortillas next week. From vendor to vendor, I was heartened by seeing the expression that says, ‘he looks familiar.’

Years of friendship.

Years of friendship.

A sense of places goes with a sense of belonging. I’m also completely at home in Puebla where I learned Spanish have a circle of friends. Without friends, as in Guadalajara, I feel no sense of connection. It’s simply a large city. I return to Puebla annually, but not for it’s marvelous colonial buildings, historic and anthropological sites. My love of the city is woven into the love of friends who live there, with whom we share a personal history. The sense of belonging, the ‘hometown feeling,’ arises from knowing I occupy a place (however small) in the lives of friends; that my life matters to them as theirs does to me. My sense of place grows out of loving and being loved by the people who live there.

Why slow down and invest in distant friendships? For the past 10 years I have returned to Puebla at least annually, and the circle of friendships has widened each time. Friends introduce me to friends and families. I go to dinners, birthdays, Sunday excursions, and parties. My circle has great grandparents, adults, youths, and infants. Last week, nine of us ate dinner, talked about our children, grandchildren, health, work, and the state of politics in Mexico and the United States. Jokes went around, a bottle of tequila died in the cause, and we exchanged many expressions of love and cariño. Despite miles and months apart, we picked up where we left off as if we met yesterday. What is the value of this? It widens my sense of myself as a human. It is a way of expanding the possibilities of the brief life we’ve been given.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

Friends expand the circle with their friends.

I am fortunate to have spent enough time in several places to put down emotional roots. My friend Lorena moved from Puebla to Cuetzalán, an indigenous Nahua town in Puebla’s Sierra Norte. She was my Spanish coach in 2009, and is now an intercultural teacher. Our friendship began in a museum, looking at artifacts of pre-hispanic cultures and grew through the interplay of personalities. A form of miracle. Eager to share the indigenous culture with me, she introduced me to her friend, a poet who writes in Totonaco. He and I now communicate. The circle of connections ripples outward, adding another cultural thread, another occupation, another perspective on the country.

As you can see, a sense of place comes when I let daily life take me where it will. Here, in Mexico, people I don’t know acknowledge everyone with a nod, a ‘buenos días,’ a way of saying ‘I see you, I affirm or accept your presence as a fellow being.’ Their simple human courtesy acknowledges their humanity in me and vice versa. Recognition by others gets to the root of a sense of place. Remembrance, however shaky, confirms my place at the table, however distant from its head. When I occupy at least a small part in someone’s life, I know I also exist in that place even when I’m not physically present. My life expands exponentially by any small recognitions .

In the end, a sense of place is also a sense of oneself. This is, perhaps, the greatest benefit of learning another language and culture. Our formal or factual knowledge of a place is less important than our emotional knowledge of who we are within that place. Sometimes, it may be best to forget what the guidebook says about a place and rely on what your heart tells you.

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.

Saving the mother tongue

Have you ever thought of what your life would be life if you were the last person in the world who speaks English? How would you feel without anyone with whom to share the particular words, phrases and memories of your family and life? That’s a question millions of Mexicans face daily. Many are among the last speakers of their mother tongue. Here is an answer to their plight.

In word and costume a distinct people

In word and costume a distinct people

Hundreds of people gather in the Zocalo of Oaxaca, Mexico, to observe the International Day of Maternal Language. The wide-spread limbs of an immense laurel tree casts a pool of shade over the participants seated and standing around the low stage. Television cameras aim at the stage and a camera drone buzzes overhead. I stand with a man from Ixtlán de Juárez, a mountain town of Zapotec speakers. He also speaks Spanish.

Most in the crowd wear modern clothes but the presenters wear traditional costumes. A women robed in a long, embroidered dress and walks to the on-stage microphone. She smiles; her teeth gleam against her brown face; the red and gold embroidery on her black dress glows where sunlight hits it. She seems to be aflame. Speaking in Zapotec and then in Spanish, she announces the poets and declamadores who will speak.

The poets step to the microphone, each one dressed in the traditional clothing of their pueblo. One by one,  the poets pour out the soul of their people. In Mixe and Zapotec, Maya and Mixteco, Zoche and Chinanteco, their voices rise and fall, taut with urgency and passion. They gesture to the heavens, to the crowd and to themselves. Hands move to accent words I don’t understand. Each poem describes a particular Mexico; poets the heart of their people who speak their tongue, who were—and still are—formed by those languages. In words, gestures and tone of voice, they reach out to us, their listeners, imploring us to enter their world, their language, their culture, their people, their heart.

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

The young must carry Mixteco into the future.

This isn’t Sunday entertainment for tourists. Theirs is a mission to advance recognition and use of their languages as integral parts of the 21st century Mexico. Today’s program involves only six of the 68 languages officially recognized by Mexico’s government. Recognition alone doesn’t guarantee linguistic survival. Indigenous language speakers still face discrimination from non-indigenous speakers. For this reason, many ambitious youths avoid their ancestral idiom to get ahead. Some languages will die with the elderly who still speak them and this will be a loss for all of humanity.

In Oaxaca alone, one resident in three speaks an indigenous tongue. Spanish, the language of the conquista, is common in business, government and education but it is secondary for millions of Mexicans. Why do they or we care about these tongues? Aren’t they relics of the past—not part of the modern world? After all, a modern society needs a common language—Spanish.

No, they aren’t relics. They are living languages of vital cultures. Yes, indigenous people can and do use Spanish but a second language isn’t a mother tongue and doesn’t touch the roots of our identity—individually and culturally. I’m a native English speaker and bi-lingual in Spanish. Although I speak, read and write Spanish at a high level, Spanish is not and never will be the language emanating from deep in my soul because I wasn’t formed by it. I can’t express my deepest emotions in Spanish. My Mexican friends experience the same thing with English. Who we are spiritually, emotionally, authentically is tied to our mother tongue.

Again, how would you feel if you were the world’s last English speaker? It may feel like the isolation of traveling in an alien country, cut off from English and the emotional nurture it provides. It is one of  the greatest of lonelinesses. Losing the language, culture and fellow speakers  is like that—magnified a hundred-fold. We take our mother tongue for granted at our peril.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”—so opens the Gospel of John. The opening phrase of ‘the Word’ contains a profound truth. Things don’t have a specific reality to us unless they have a name, a word, to distinguish one thing from another. And words, taken together, are a language. And language is a map for navigating a particular cultural universe, a cosmos of concepts, precepts, and beliefs.

Language—the Word—is humanity’s great creative force. It extends far beyond transacting business and exchanging information. Each tongue has an attendant culture, the structure of the language and vocabulary uniquely expresses wisdom, a distinct worldview of a people distilled from millennia of experiences. Each language and its attendant culture is like a seed containing infinite human possibilities.

This afternoon, in the shade of the laurel, the poets scatter their seeds, seeking good soil where the the indigenous languages with their wealth of ancestral wisdom, values, and precepts will find support, take root, and thrive into the 21st century.

 

 

The art of packing—What to leave behind?

One suitcase of possibilities.

One suitcase of possibilities.

It’s deep January. Minnesota is locked in the coldest weather of the winter with the mercury at -21°F with a wind chill nearing -40°F. Snow squeals in protest under foot; darkness still falls too early and sleeps in too late. Upstairs in my study, a reddish suitcase lies open on the floor, half-packed. A  hopeful sign.

Packing  for travel is an art. What I take is less important than what I leave behind.

I’ll be in México for 10 weeks and I want to take only one suitcase, as small as possible. This one weighs only 33 pounds when packed and I’ll take only the things I’m certain to wear or use or use up. Everything must be versatile to meet changing weathers and social circumstances. I start in Puebla at 7,500 feet near the foot of El Popo where it’s cool, then to tropical Cuetzalán and Huehuetla near the Gulf Coast, and then to hotter, semi-arid mountain valleys of Oaxaca State. My packing list is shorter, now; past trips have showed me what I don’t need. No more packing this or that, “just in case.”

My packing list comes from the experience of previous trips—what I wore and didn’t wear, what conformed to the clothing Mexican men wear every day. My wardrobe is simple and chosen so I blend in as much as possible and avoid attracting attention.

Everything is rolled tightly, and packed in plastic bags squeezed empty of air. I start with three chino slacks, four short-sleeved shirts, two long-sleeved shirts, six briefs, four tee-shirts, PJ’s, a sweater, a windbreaker, sandals, walking shoes, two pairs of socks, a pleated guayabera for formal occasions, a bandana, a battered Panama hat, Tylenol, eye drops, six energy bars, a sunblock, shaving kit, deodorant, a washcloth (never saw one in México). My camera, laptop, notebooks, pens, watercolors and Kindle go in my daypack.

I’m leaving behind things that mark me as an obvious foreigner: white athletic shoes, tee-shirts with company logos, charitable causes, favorite sport teams or U.S. national parks; no baggy shorts with cargo pockets or polyester hats with mesh ventilation and floppy brims. How I appear to Mexicans will affect how they interact with me. I want as few barriers or presumptions as possible.

The contents of my suitcase reflect my aspirations. Does yours?

What I take reflects what I want to do, and my ideas of the social reality I expect to encounter. I will visit my Mexican friends but spend most of my days teaching English in a small, indigenous town near Oaxaca. I don’t expect to have the same level of material comfort I enjoy at home and I won’t bring things to compensate for that. My measure of comfort is Mexican , not Minnesotan.  

As I fold and pack my clothes, I am also packing my mind and heart. What aspirations and hopes will I take with me? And what expectations will I leave behind? I want to be emotionally and spiritually present every moment I’m in México, otherwise, why travel? Preparing my heart and mind is even more important than the clothing I choose.

My journeys are as much interior as they are geographical and, in the end I discover myself anew. Being present in the moment is the key.To stay present in the moment, I’m leaving behind my anxieties about two manuscripts awaiting the acceptance or rejection of an agent and an editor. These things are important to me but I can’t control the decisions and judgments of others. As Mexican friends tell me, these are in God’s hands and the results will be as they are meant to be. There is no value fretting about them in México and miss the moment.

Next to my worry and preoccupations, I leave behind the credentials of my public identity in Minnesota: Positions once held, academic degrees earned, publications written, and awards received. They are irrelevant in México. No one cares about them. It’s liberating to leave my credentials behind, it’s like shucking off a shell and finding some new part of me hidden underneath. 

Travel without personal credentials. See if it’s liberating.

For identity (besides a passport), I’ll take photos of my daughters, wife, granddaughter and the extended family. In my heart and soul, I’ll take with curiosity, humor, openness, compassion and, if possible, humility. That will be enough for any encounter.

After a decade of annual trips to México, I’ve learned the art of packing isn’t about what I put into the suitcase; the art comes from knowing what to leave out.

What’s in your suitcase? What are you leaving behind?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Las Posadas – Seeking shelter with María y José

What are your rituals leading up to Christmas? Shop till you drop? Getting ready for family visits? Ringing bells at the Red Kettle? Taking food to shut-ins? Caroling in the neighborhood?

Most of us have sacred or social rituals for the season. We decorate trees, put up manger scenes, and attend services of Lessons and Carols. In the Mexican congregation where I worship, we celebrate the las posadas.

Posada is the Spanish word for inn. During the nine nights leading up to Christmas Eve (la Noche Buena), las posadas in Mexican congregations reenact the journey of María and José to Bethlehem with carols and prayers.

Years ago, in Teotitlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, our family joined the town’s residents in a community posada that began at the church and processed along dark, cobbled streets, singing carols by candle and star light. Figures of María and José rode on a platform carried by four men. A brass band played as we walked. Here and there, the procession paused at a house, asking for shelter only to be refused. Then, when the procession reached the last house, the host admitted the people entered for a celebration with food.

Tonight’s posada in Minnesota won’t have an outside procession. Instead, we will meet in a chapel and the host family will process figures of María and José to the large nacimiento or manger scene before the altar. Then we will sing carols, read the Christmas gospel, and recite the rosary. After that, we will eat.

The posadas speak to hope in a world of hostility – then and now. María and José were strangers in Bethlehem, immigrants if you will. They knew no one, they needed help, and had to rely on the kindness of strangers for shelter. In this season, when we proclaim love and good will to all persons, let’s make our proclamations real by giving comfort to immigrants from all nations, and sheltering them from the flames of bigotry and hate stoked by ambitious public figures seeking their own ends.

The xenophobia of our time is identical to that of King Herod in the days of María and José. The fearful king asked the Magi where Jesus was born, not because he wanted to pay homage but to kill him. Herod slaughtered Hebrew boys in his attempt, and churches observe December 28 as Holy Innocents Day. More innocents will die in our time if we let fearful demagogues exclude refugees who face certain death from many causes. The story of María and José seeking shelter sheds light on what is best and worst in us. Strangers will knock on our doors. Do we have the will to open the door and admit them?

 

 

Day of the Dead – A day out of time

November 1, the cusp of winter, marks a season of longer, darker nights in Minnesota. This is a chilly season of damp, gray clouds. Against the gloom of a twilight sky pierced by the black limbs of bare trees, it is easy to think of death.

November begins with All Saints Day, a celebration of the martyrs, apostles, and other exemplars of the Christian faith whose souls have ascended to heaven. All Souls’ Day follows it with remembrance of faithful, ordinary people who have died. In Mexico, and among Mexican communities in the United States – including mine – November 2 is el Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, a day I try to observe with reverence.

Why do I, a well-educated Anglo, celebrate a day that is a fusion of Christian All Souls’ Day and an ancient indigenous Mexican celebration of ancestors. Do the spirits of the dead really return?

A decorated tomb.

A decorated tomb.

Yes, I think the spirits return if we want them to. For me, el Día de los Muertos is a time in which I break out of the linerarity of modern chronological time and return to something older and deeper – the cyclicality of life where the past, present, and future exist simultaneously (as it also does in quantum physics).

Viewed from fleeting acquaintance with Mexican culture, Day of the Dead conjures up images of skeletons, crania or skulls, and people dressed for a party. It is that but it’s much more than that. The ubiquitous tableaux of skeletal figures eating, drinking, walking skeleton dogs, and copulating convey the idea that, whatever your status, death isn’t final but makes all equal. The day takes death seriously without becoming macabre, yet it is celebratory without being trivial.

Decorated family graves.

Decorated family graves.

I celebrated this day in Oaxaca with the family where I was living. They cleaned and decorated the family grave on November 1. Most families leave flowers and candles but they didn’t. The extended family’s ofrenda or altar in the home stood bedecked with flor de muerto, a tall, pungent marigold in vases next to a photo of the deceased family patriarch. Around the photo were things the man loved in life: bowls of beans and chocolate, a bottle of mescal and a pack of cigarettes, candles and loaves of pan de muerto (bread). The family put out these symbolic offerings to invite his spirit to visit them again.

The family ofrenda.

The family ofrenda.

We spent the day together – much like American families do at Thanksgiving – sharing memories and telling stories, drinking mescal and agua de jamaica (hibiscus flavored water), and feasting on mole con pollo, chicken in mole that Estela, my host, prepared in a ceramic pot over a charcoal brazier in the courtyard.

El Día de los Muertos exhibits both the carnal and spiritual aspects of human life and death because we are both. This day would be meaningless – at least to me – if it were so spiritual as to be devoid of any material or visual expression. As Thomas Merton wrote, “The spiritual life is first of all a life … to be lived… If we are to become spiritual, we must remain men [mortals].” [i] In short, the spiritual and mortal part integral parts of each other and not opposites.

Estela cooks the mole.

Estela cooks the mole.

I’m a historian by training and avocation. Nature and education imbued me with a sense of the past, the multiple intricacies of cause and effect, the importance of facts and documentation, the dynamic of analysis and synthesis. At first glance, my professional attributes would not seem to lead toward accepting an idea that the spirits of the dead return. How do I hold these seemingly conflicting ideas at the same time?

It’s not as difficult as it looks. By a return of the spirits, I mean I a fleeting sense of their distinct personality that endures in memories infused with emotions tied to particular times, places, and people.

Those I’ve known and loved, and who have died – like my parents – return to me from time to time in particular moments. No, I don’t see them as visual phantoms or hear their voices, nor do I try to communicate with the dead. It’s more subtle than that. I listen. There is so much we don’t heard because we aren’t listening.

An ofrenda to my parents.

An ofrenda to my parents.

As our family’s historian, I’ve read reams of letters written by my parents, aunts, grandparents, and ancestors dating back to the 1840s. I’ve come to know each correspondent by their distinct “voice”, or style of expression. Through their words, I’m acquainted with them, and know their personalities, their souls. They are present to me through their writings, putting what is in their hearts on the pages. Isn’t that a kind of visitation by the dead? And don’t they still live as long as their words endure?

This brings me back to el Día de los Muertos. Some Mexican families hold vigils before the ofrendas in their homes, praying for their difuntos and awaiting the return of their spirits. For years, I spent evenings spent pouring over 170 years’ worth of old letters, teasing out the details of our family’s story. At the time, I had thought of it as historical research, Then, in Mexico, it occurred to me these hours were also a kind of vigil with the dead. And doesn’t telling their stories bring them if not their spirits into momentary being? I think so.

My parents have died, physically. I don’t know if they now “live”, as I understand conscious living, in some other dimension presently inaccessible to me. It’s an open question science can’t answer. Some fundamental questions – like those of faith and meaning – lie beyond the bounds of scientific inquiry because the spiritual doesn’t conform to physical laws. I think of my parents as living in what orthodox Christian creeds affirm as a “communion of saints”, a unity of the living and the dead in a relationship with God as they know God.

A wall in the alley.

A wall in the alley.

When I lived with a family in Puebla several years ago, my host asked for my impression of Día de los Muertos. Our conversation unfolded as I explained some of the differences between American and Mexican concepts of death. Then I described how my mother had died several years before, at home, in her house, as she had wished. As I described her, I drew on memories of her face, her voice, and her mannerisms. The description of my mother’s character and virtues, like the flowers, pan de muerto, cigarettes, and bowls of chocolate, created a verbal ofrenda every bit as real as any physical items. In speaking of her aloud, I invited and then felt something of her presence in the moment.

These are subjective and personal experiences but I believe they are accessible to anyone who pays attention. My understanding and observance of this day is a fusion of my rationalist training and religious formation. For a day, I can pass beyond the limits of linear time and spend a moment in the eternal.

I published this post a year ago, but repost it for you because it aptly sums up my experience and understanding of life, death and what comes after.

[i] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, (Shambhala, 1993), p. 10.

Tlacochahuaya – a volunteer citizen says ‘adios’

It’s not enough to become bilingual. As I achieved fluency, I looked for ways to keep my Spanish in use. Eventually left a suburban congregation to join a Hispanic one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Through my professional contacts I made a bridge to the majority culture. I made friends, and I advocated for them on immigration issues.

Ten weeks of immersion stoked a desire to return to Mexico, not as a gringo tourist but as a contributing member of a community. I volunteered a couple times but the assignments didn’t involve close, personal relationships. I wanted to be involved with people and engaged in their community. Then I volunteered with Fundación en Vía as an English teacher in Oaxaca. The English classes complement the micro-credit and business training the Fundación gives indigenous women. I already knew effective teaching required rapport if not intimacy.

Oaxaca is a small, vibrant city in southern Mexico that retains its indigenous roots and cultures. I elect to live with an ordinary family near the Fundación and teach in the outlying Zapotec town of San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya (thirty minutes by bus from the center of Oaxaca). The three other teachers – Nora, Nicola, and Augie are just out of college or grad school – are also volunteers. They teach the children.

It’s midafternoon when the four of us get off the local bus at the município or city hall and set up our ‘classrooms’ beneath the open air arcade or portales fronting the city hall. Each ‘classroom’ consists of a table, a white board with a few markers, and some folding chairs. We write the day’s lesson plan on the white board along with key words or lessons for the evening. Then we bask in the warmth of late afternoon sunlight while we wait for our students to arrive – three classes for children, one for adults.

Tlacochahuaya (Tcla-co-cha-why-a) is an agricultural community nestled in a broad valley bounded by dark, volcanic ridges rising high above fields of maíz, frijol, calabasas (corn, beans, squash), and maguey, an agave that is se source of mescal, the local liquor. This município sits high on a slope facing the fawn-colored parroquia or church across the square or zocalo. From the portales we look across the valley to the dark mountains beyond.

The Fundación’s curriculum is well-designed for children but I don’t think it will work for adults. As an adult language-learner, I know adult students can learn faster and deeper than children, but I also know they have an adult inhibitions and self-censorship that rarely bothers children. With this in mind, I alter the curriculum activities. As a recent adult language student, I know how they feel; at times I still feel inhibited. As their teacher, I’m also something of a student in Spanish. Our immediate goal isn’t the precise mastery of grammar rules but becoming confident in communication.

My small class consists of Manuel, Elizabet, her daughter Monica. Elizabet is in her late forties and I don’t know if she has a job. Monica is a nurse and new mother in her twenties. And Manuel says he’s forty-five and had English classes many years before. He is entering at mid-term and already more advanced. My predecessor taught his last class the week before I arrived and I have no idea how much or how well he taught them. Our first class is something of a blind date.

What a surprise and pleasure to discover they already know more English than the curriculum provides for and eager to push on. Clearly, they aren’t ‘blank slates’ on whom I will lay the curriculum. They are insipient English speakers and I must begin where they are and go forward from there.

Class preparation hinges on several questions: What do adults find hardest to learn at first? What were my barriers to learning?   How did teachers help me overcome them? What spurred me to learn? I spend more prep time working on the answers to these questions than on grammar. Our classers quickly become interactive – like‘improv’ theater – in which we react to and incorporate what we bring to class in the way of questions and observations.

Their questions of ‘how do you say …?’ or ‘what’s the Spanish equivalent of …?’ are as integral to learning as a lesson about placing adjectives BEFORE the nouns they modify. English goes bottom up, empirically compiling details (modifiers) with the noun as a kind of summary of all: ‘The tall, green fir TREE.’ Spanish is more top-down, categorically starting with the noun and then adding details (modifiers) as subordinate aspects: ‘El ÁRBOL, alto y verde’ (The tree, tall and green). Is there any inherent logic about where the adjective is placed? Their simple, direct questions cause me to think about English in a way I haven’t thought of it before.

Making out vocabulary cards, I choose words relevant to their lives and contain letter combinations and sounds largely unknown in Spanish: ‘th’, ‘ee’, ‘oo’, ‘lk’,’rn’ and many others. Not only must they recognize the sound when they read them silently, but it is important to train their tongues to make the sounds. Elizabet, Monica, and Manuel practice training their tongues on words like ‘with’, ‘tooth’, ‘geese’, ‘born’, walk, and many others.

I know this is harder than it seems. Even if the brain recognizes the word, the tongue either fails to make the sound in speech or rebels against making it. At one time, I had to learn new letters and sounds, such as trilling the double ‘r’ as in perro (dog) or making a ‘yj’ sound for the double ‘ll’ in llamar (to call). Now they see me struggling to pronounce Tlacochahuaya.

My Spanish is very good they tell me and try, gently, to correct my rendition of the town’s name. The ‘tl’ combination is a common sound in indigenous place names: Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula, Tlaxcala, and Tlatelolco. Mexicans say them easily but most Anglos don’t. ‘Tl’ isn’t a consonant combination we recognize in English – we’re familiar with ‘lt’. The ‘tl’ sound starts with the tongue near the back of the pallet and then rolls forward. I practice Tlacochahuaya almost daily for weeks until, at last, I get reasonably close – close enough that no one misunderstands me but still short of a native’s rendition.

Besides the uncommon sounds of English, we work on the structure of sentences, the syntax, the inherent ‘logic’ of putting together nouns and verbs and modifiers in a way that makes sense, in a way that completes a comprehensible picture of an object, a person, or an action. The more I work on this, the more I understand how the relationships among the parts of speech differ from language to language.

The verb ‘to do’ in English is simpler than hacer, its Spanish counterpart. ‘Do’ is an all-purpose verb covering a variety of actions (doing). Hacer not only means ‘to do’ in a general sense, but also means ‘to make’ as in constructing or creating something. For my students, writing and understanding sentences with the verb ‘to do’ is like working with only half of a verb. They need to learn ‘make’ for the other half. Teaching the verb ‘to be’ is much easier because English has only one form while Spanish has two. Prepositions are also trickier because those similar to English aren’t exact. The preposition en means ‘in’ but also ‘at’ or ‘on’ depending on the context. The preposition ‘por’ means ‘for’ in the English sense but may also mean ‘through’, ‘by’, ‘by means of’, or ‘cause of’. Teaching and learning these is a strugge.

Monica, Elizabet, and Manuel are eager learners, and return each time filled with questions about a phrase, or how to say a Spanish phrase in English. As homework, I ask each to take from their library a child’s book in English and read it aloud to themselves. Reading aloud makes an eye-ear-tongue connection. In one act, they recognize the letters, hear them pronounced as a word, and train their tongue to make the sound. For my last class, I want them to read aloud a passage from their book and explain what it means (in English, of course). Their explanations will tell me how well they understand what they read. Manuel brings a child’s story, Elizabet and Monica share a children’s book about Mexico. The reading goes smoothly, I know they can now read, understand, and explain in English.

As the last hour winds down, I tell them this is my last class, and introduce them to their new teacher, a new volunteer with several years’ experience as a teacher. Although they have had short-term, volunteer teachers before, and although I told them I would be with them for five weeks, they seem shocked.

‘When are you coming back?’ Elizabet asks plaintively.

Si Dios quiere, un año’ (God willing, in a year). In my mind, I want to do this again.

And so class ends with the ‘abrazos y besos’ or hugs and kisses that are the customary Mexican gestures of friendship. It’s evening and we wait in the cobbled street to catch the collectivo to Oaxaca.

I loved spending the afternoons with people as beautiful as their valley. Standing beneath the squash-colored portales of the município, I often gazed across the shady park of fig and cedar trees to the dark, hazy mountains beyond the valley. I will miss looking through the small gap where the solitary, palm tree stands shaggy-headed. But I will take away memories of the broad valley lying green-gold in the enchanting amber light that comes just before the puesta del sol. I will miss Tlacochahuaya, whose name defies my attempts to pronounce it correctly. I will continue to practice it until I return to teach again. Adios Tlacochahuaya.

My work in Tlacochahuaya is done and I’m sad to see it end because it is going so well. For a few weeks, we struggled together to produce learning, and in the process, we opened ourselves to each other. That’s the satisfaction of volunteering, it is inherently real work. And work, whether volunteer or paid, is an honorable and integral part of the larger social fabric. As a volunteer, I contribute toward the fabric of Oaxacan society and feel I am something of an oaxaqueño. Volunteering isn’t simply an activity, with a true heart, it may be a form of citizenship.

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.