Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fireworks in Mexico. It's magical. It's historical. It's religious. It's deadly.

Cohetes (rockets)
This morning the cohetes (rockets) started about 5. Not unusual, but they went on far longer than I’ve heard before … probably at least 50 rockets (loud) in the volley. 
We gringos down here talk about this a lot and usually just wind up dismissing it with … it’s Mexico. This morning, however, I decided to see if I could find out why Mexico celebrates its saints and its dead with exploding devices and loud noises.

I discovered more than I expected … or wanted.

Bias alert: I love beautiful fireworks 
carefully controlled
but am less charmed by things that throw 
fire around indiscriminately
and hurt people.
I am also an observer not a judge.

Rather than try to write rationally about this conflicted custom, I decided to present a series of videos. Photos are screenshots from the various videos.

First, a background from Wikipedia: Although the main ingredient for fireworks, gunpowder, was brought by the conquistadors in the 16th century, fireworks became popular in Mexico in the 19th century, celebrating independence from Spain. Today, Mexico is Latin America’s second largest producer, almost entirely for domestic use, with products ranging from small firecrackers to large shells and frames for pyrotechnics called “castillos” (castles) and “toritos” (little bulls). The industry is artisanal, with production concentrated in family-owned workshops and small factories with a number operating illegally. 
In several videos, I heard people talk about "burning Judas" because he betrayed Jesus. The danger seems to be clear but fireworks touch a nerve that is, apparently, deeper than fear.

CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO: Fireworks Movie The National Pyrotechnic Festival in Tultepec, Mexico. Fireworks are part of the fierce beauty of Mexico. Es mágico. Es histérico.  Es religioso. Es mortal.
Ardent watcher of the pyrotechnics
CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO: Toritos (little bulls) — from Wikipedia: The National Pyrotechnic Festival, is an annual event to promote the country's tradition of production and use of fireworks. It began as celebration in honor of John of God, the patron saint of fireworks makers, in the municipality of Tultepec, State of Mexico. The main event, a parade of "toritos" or bull-shaped frames with fireworks on them, began in the mid 19th century. The modern national festival began in 1989 and includes various events including fireworks competitions, but the main event remains that of the toritos, with about 250 "running" along the streets of Tultepec. 

One of the bulls from the parade.
CLICK HERE FOR VIDEO: Castillos (castles) — huge fireworks structures done in the midst of a lot of people. From San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, where the custom emerged with “el grito” (the scream) declaring independence. 
The fascination of fireworks.
Fireworks Castillo (castle)
CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO: Fireworks is an industry. 80% of fireworks are made in Tultepec. An estimated 30,000 people in Tultepec work full time in the fireworks trade, and local residents say they’re undeterred by the explosions in the local pyrotechnics market. 

At the Tultepec Fireworks Market
CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO: Fireworks are deadly. Just days before Christmas of 2016 in Mexico City, a 12-minute chain reaction of rockets destroyed a Tultepec fireworks market and killed at least 32 people. Three months later a saint’s day was celebrated with fireworks. An 18-year-old fireworks worker was quoted on a news report as saying, “It’s worth the risk of dying for the beauty of the craft."

At the Tulepec Fireworks Market
While the Catholic Church has tried to dampen the enthusiasm for fireworks because of the danger and the expense, it seems to be deeply engrained into the culture and there’s a belief for some that prayers are “amplified” by exploding pyrotechnics.

CLICK HERE FOR THE VIDEO: The hammer. This one proves that stupidity is not a factor of geography, but does tend to have a gender bias. 
Conclusion: Fire and fireworks have fascinated humans for thousands of years. Call it celebrating freedom, independence, saints or the burning of Judas, it's primal and the danger and adrenalin rush is part of the fascination. It's Mexico ... it's all of us. In the US we've made inroads against the hazard and noise. Here in Mexico, not so much. Maybe that's another reason we love it.

Conclusion #2: I just put the National Pyrotechnic Festival on my calendar for 2018. Wanna go?

What I didn’t know this time last year

"Change Begins" Joyce Wycoff
Today doesn’t seem that different from yesterday and I don’t remember last week being all that different either. 
It makes me wonder how change squeezes it’s way through the door. Today is the last day of October, which, duh, makes tomorrow the first day of November. That’s significant because last year I did NaNoWriMo … the National Novel Writing Month. Remembering that made think about what’s different about now that I never would have guessed on this day last year. 

So here’s a partial list of things I didn’t know at this time last year:

- I didn’t know that I would finish NaNoWriMo with a 55,000-word rough draft of a novel and then do nothing with it.
- I would have sworn the election would have turned out differently.
- I definitely didn’t know I was moving to Mexico and that I would choose Ajijic as my home.
- I didn’t know my creative path would turn away from novel writing and back to digital art.
- I’m glad I didn’t know that I would lose Missy, my charming companion of ten years.
- I didn’t know that so many new friends would come my way in this small Mexican village.
- I didn’t know I would get a chance to volunteer with the premier Mexican Folk Art fair which happens in 2 weeks.

Obviously, change happens in drips as well as floods and it makes me wonder what I'll look back on this time next year and think, "Wow! I didn't expect that!"

What’s present in your life today that a year ago you had no idea would be here?

Monday, October 30, 2017

Character: why don’t we talk about it more?

What now?
This morning a Quora comment about John McCain’s service and time as a POW impressed me. (posted below). For five and a half years, under the most horrendous circumstances, Senator McCain clearly demonstrated his character. He deserves honor and respect from all US citizens, regardless of political party.

Thinking about him, makes me contemplate my own character. Every week for almost seven years my friend Pat and I have shared our lives and thoughts by Skype for an hour. This morning, talking about John McCain turned our thoughts to our personal decisions and actions, although minuscule and mundane in comparison.

One piece of the conversation was about how infrequently character is a subject of conversation and reminded me of a conversation I once had with a man from South Africa. I asked him how Nelson Mandela could have been in prison for twenty-seven years and wind up as the country’s first black president within a few years of his release. The man's answer: “We knew his character. Character doesn’t change."

It makes me wonder how Senator McCain and all the other brave veterans who endured the physical and mental torture of being a prisoner of war were able to cope with something I have no reason to believe I could endure. The only thing I’ve come up with is that their military training drilled into them a code and expectation of character.

When John McCain was offered an early release from prison camp because of his PR value, he refused. The code was that the first prisoners in would be the first out and he refused to break that code. I’m sure he suffered for that decision for the remainder of his time in prison.

The military teaches and expects character. They define, and test, a code of conduct to be followed under normal and extreme circumstances. The rest of us mostly make do with guidelines that are often vague and conflicting. All the religions I know of advise us not to steal, yet fudging on our taxes or bootlegging music or movies are common sport. Even our golden rule of treating each other as we would want to be treated is frayed around the edges as the powerful take advantage of those with less power and we see the person in the most powerful office in our country openly talk about taking advantage of women.

As my conversation with Pat continued, we explored our commitments in the context of character. Like almost everyone, we have negative habits we’d like to break and positive habits we’d like to strengthen. One of my examples is doing yoga every morning. Not the killer, hot, power yoga approach, but a gentle, stretching, meditative session of about 15 minutes that leaves me feeling renewed and flexible. I love the after-yoga feeling and notice the difference when I don’t do it … something that probably happens 3-4 times a week. So, my question is “why?"

Human behaviorists have been studying that question forever. Why don’t we do what we know is good for us? It’s the foundation of time management, self-discipline, habit formation and goal attainment. For myself, I believe there are three things I would like to strengthen, each related to character. It may be rather late in the game to be articulating my code, but here’s a start:
  1. I will keep my promises, both to myself and others. Which may mean that I need to be careful about what I promise.
  2. I will value the long-term over the short-term. While 15-minutes of Facebook would be fun and entertaining, 15-minutes of yoga will keep me flexible and strong. I need to know and stay true to my long-term values.
  3. I will speak my truth, regardless. I will also remember that "my truth" may not be same as "the truth."
So, here’s a question: How and when do you talk about character?


Here’s the Quora response that started this train of thought:

Joe Fillmore, Served in USMC : Viet Nam and Justin Elias, I have spent 15 years in the Marine Corps as an Infantryman.
Most civilians don’t “GET” what the deal is about John McCain and Vietnam. Yes, he was a POW and should be honored b/c he went through this horrific experience. But there is something John McCain did that sets him aside, that military people get and that most civilians are clueless about.
McCain was badly injured when he ejected. He wasn’t just tortured for over a year, but the NVA would rebreak his shoulder (which is why he was not able to raise his arm above his head when he returned). I’ll spare you the variety of techniques used on McCain when he was in captivity.
But when the NVA discovered that he was the son of a famous admiral, they decided he would be the next released POW (for PR purposes). McCain refused to accept release. The POWs being held had an internal policy—you would be released in the order you were captured (so you wouldn’t have an individual who would be punished by being held extra lengthy times while others got to go home). So when the NVA told McCain that he was going home and would be leaving the torture, the isolation, the punishment and the deprivation….he refused to go and remained loyal to the release protocol.

I’ve often disagreed with John McCain on a range of policies. You can say what you will about his personality or preferences on a range of subjects. But to make light or disparage him as a POW is repulsive. I’ve never heard any active duty or retired US military personnel discuss this issue at length—b/c it’s not necessary for them to do so. To a warrior, they respect John McCain for being a POW and they respect him for refusing an early repatriation and they find any claims to the contrary to be contemptible.

Friday, October 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

Perhaps, starting with a few questions might help:

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

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

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

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

How to Make a Day of the Dead Altar:
  1. A step-by-step, humorous and hip approach:https://www.buzzfeed.com/nicolasmedinamora/this-is-how-you-make-a-dia-de-los-muertos-altar?utm_term=.qh2Rvjp32#.umV08eRko
  2. A complete overview with meanings for many of the items: https://www.tripsavvy.com/make-day-of-dead-altar-1588750
  3. More about the art and beauty of altars: https://www.inside-mexico.com/the-day-of-the-dead-ofrenda-2/ 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Turnings: Life's dizzying array of choices

Sometimes I make myself dizzy, spinning this way and that.

The two years I spent in Grass Valley were dedicated to my life as a novelist. I studied, wrote and lived the life of my characters, loving every minute of it. As I approached my move to Mexico, I had one novel in the final revision stage, a follow-on, well-begun novel that was going to be set in San Miguel de Allende, and a 55,000 word novel that I had drafted during NaNoWriMo. (There's still time to sign up ... go for it if it interests you at all.)

I wrote every day, forked out a bunch of money for a brilliant, hands-on coaching course, went to writing conferences, forced myself to meet agents, and, in general, was living the life of a budding novelist. Life in Mexico and a long fiction series about the adventures of an older woman were completely mapped out. I was ready to move on, settle down, and get cracking.

What do they say about the best laid plans? 

She is definitely laughing.

Even the walls talk to me here.
When I arrived in Mexico, however, the only thing I wanted to do was take pictures. “That’s normal,” I thought. “I’m in a new place filled with color, culture and curious new sights.” I thought I’d get back to work soon.

Didn’t happen. My camera was filling me with joy. When  an online photo artistry course came along, I started making digital art again … something that I had not done for the two years I was in Grass Valley while focusing on fiction.

Love bloomed. I was making art from photos, joining the local art society, exhibiting in a show, going deeper and deeper into art and photography. I even sold a couple of pieces. I didn’t want to write … well, blogs maybe, but not the marathon of a novel. I was done with being a writer; I was now an artist.

Of course, there is a however. I started hanging out with a poet/writer, reading our writings to each other. Soon, we invited another writer to join us and called ourselves a salon. I was forced to dig up writings from my past in order to have something to read. Reading them was like having tea with old friends. Plus, part of our process was to do a 5-minute free write to get us warmed up. Strange stuff started showing up, tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “Are you sure you’re done with writing?"

“Yes, I am done. I want to make art, make images, delve into new worlds through those images. Writing a novel is too much work, too black and white. I want color."


“Okay? That’s it? Just okay?"

          Your circus; your monkey. Do what you want.

“Okay. I will."

You would think by now that I wouldn’t be surprised by turns in the road. But, unfortunately, they still catch me off guard. I’m cruising along. The road is going straight. I’m lined up with the road. I can sit back and coast for awhile. You know what’s coming, don’t you?

"New World"
Shortly after arriving in Mexico as I was deep into the wonder of capturing images of all the new things I was seeing, an ad for an online photo artistry course appeared in my inbox. I signed up immediately and started making art every day.
I was in a new world and it was heaven, so when a bigger, better course was offered, I signed up for that, too. Suddenly, I was part of a community of photo artists. I had found my tribe. I was on the right path. The road was straight and I didn’t have to worry about curves.


Without warning, the road forked. I could continue on, or I could take the road less travelled. Damn Frost, anyway!

I thought I’d just peek to see where the fork was headed. Within a few minutes, I saw the signs, spread out over the hills and valleys like the old Burma Shave messages:

Like stories?

Put your images

together with your words.

Tell your story

your way.

Quill and



Quill and Camera is the site and new offering of Sebastian Michaels, known as the father of digital art and the developer of Awake, the photo artistry program I’m so delighted with. Now he is creating a new course for artists who want to write (or vice versa) and is offering it to all of us in his Awake students for free.

I couldn’t open the first lesson fast enough. So, here I am spinning again. This time, though, the colors are lovely and I don’t feel dizzy. I feel like I’ve been handed an E-ticket. (For those of you not old enough to know about things like E-tickets, they were the golden passes to the best rides at Disneyland.)
 Interesting ... one of the first pieces of digital art I made after joining the Awake program was called, "Coming Together." It now seems like a foreshadowing.

Bring it on, World … let’s play!
Coming Together

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

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

Ancestors 2017
Today I created the centerpiece for my altar for the Day of the Dead celebration … an image of the ancestors to be honored. 

The first question, of course, 

is “which ancestors?” 

Not long ago, on a shamanic retreat, I asked about the definition of “ancestors." While the common answer runs along the line of those from whom we are genetically descended, the shaman’s answer offered a more complicated path.

Loosely, the term could refer to all the beings who have lived on Earth before us, but, we tend to honor the people who have gifted us with love or wisdom or courage. Often those are close family members, but sometimes our deepest connections are to people we meet along the journey of life, people who change us, polish us, bring us gifts never imagined.

I have chosen six people and two dogs to honor this year, each of them unrelated to me biologically but each of whom gifted me in ways that led me to this moment in time.

Richard Wycoff, the man who became my second husband, gifted me with unconditional love and support, laughter and adventure, as well as the opportunity to be a mother, even if only part-time, and a grandmother. For twenty-six years, he was my home base.

     Rumple was Richard’s idea but he brought both of us joy and laughter for 14 years. 

Lerrea Mohney, theoretically my step-aunt, in reality, my second mother, was my champion and best friend. We had a fifty-year running conversation about life and love and all the mysteries involved with both. She thought I could do anything and made me think I could, too.

     Missy … some might call her a dog, but she knew better. She was a gift I didn’t know I wanted, however, for ten years, she was my constant companion and the delight of my days.

Maggi Butterfield-Brown was a magnetic energy field of love that pulled everyone into her center. She was color, dance, and laughter, as bright as poppies on a spring day. She gave me the gift of acceptance and seeing a life lived as abundance, love and generosity. 

Jerry McNellis was god smiling on my life. He brought me confidence, laughter, more ideas than either of us could shake a stick at and showed me the courage and grace that life could be.

Annie Robinson tossed me a tidbit that changed my life and then proceeded to nurture that new sprig. Still teaching creativity at age 90, she sprinkled fairy dust and love on hundreds of us.

Polly Hubbard gave me the gift of art. She was one of my other mothers and you can read more about her here.
Thinking about these ancestors makes me feel inordinately lucky to have had them in my life. As Dr. Seuss said:


Monday, October 23, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mole ... I had mole in the US once ... yuck!! Never again I said to myself ... until chef AbueLinda pointed out what she said were the best carnitas tacos in the area. Since they were right there at the Wednesday mercado where I go every week, I decided it was time. Mole was one of the sauces available so I decided to try it. OMG! I don't even know how to say how good it is.
The legend of mole
The origin of mole symbolizes Mexico’s blend of European and indigenous Aztecan culture after the Spanish conquest. Legend has it that mole began 300 years ago in Puebla, Mexico in the poor convent of Santa Rosa. The nuns were scrambling to prepare a special dinner for the visit of the archbishop. They killed an old turkey and threw together scraps of chili peppers, spices, stale bread, nuts, and chocolate to season the meat. (In some versions, the chocolate or spices were accidentally knocked into the dish, but the nuns had no time to fix it.) 

Delighted and curious after the meal, the archbishop asked for the name of the dish. The nun said, “I made a mole,” – a Spanish pronunciation of the Aztecan word molli or mulli, meaning sauce/mix – the first international dish created in the Americas.
Mole is a complex dish that requires many ingredients which are toasted and ground together. It is traditionally reserved for special occasions, because of the labor and time-intensive preparation (although you can purchase prepared pastes that simplify the process a great deal). Read more about Oaxacan mole and mole poblano

Who eats the altar food? 

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

Sugar skull cookies

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Saturday, October 21, 2017

Day of the Dead #7: A death experience in Guanajuato

"Guanajuato Afternoon: by Joyce Wycoff
Three years ago almost to the day, I took an excursion to Guanajuato from San Miguel de Allende. It was a lovely day of touring a city so close in geography, yet so different from San Miguel in energy and culture. It wasn’t Day of the Dead, but I had a close encounter with death … fortunately, not my own.

Guanajuato (GTO) is a college town and feels young and vibrant. Which is good since it’s also a step-filled town built on hills with delightful, challenging alleys snaking ever upward. Guanajuato was where I realized that Mexico’s relationship with death went far beyond the holidays in November. It was there I visited my first panteón as well as  the “mummy museum." 
The colorful panteón we visited was crowded with graves and walls of burial nooks. It made me realize I was missing the nuances of burial terminology. Here’s an attempt to sort them out (corrections appreciated):

Columbarium at Guadalajara Panteón Municipal
Cemetery … where people are buried (presumably after they died.)

Grave … below ground burial.
     Casket … the structure that holds the remains of the deceased.
     Vault … sealed outer container that protects the casket.

Tomb … above ground burial.
     Mausoleum ... independent above ground structure built to hold the remains of a person or persons.
     Tomb … the structure holding the remains is also called a tomb.
     Cremation niche … where ashes are stored, usually in an urn.
     Columbarium ... a place for the respectful and usually public storage of cinerary urns
     Crypt … burial spot, built to hold a casket in a concrete or stone chamber.

So, the wall of niches in the Guanajuato panteon is called a columbarium. Here’s a description from the blogger at Nomad Women, Because Experienced Women Travel, talking about the columbarium in San Miguel de Allende:
"I like Mexican cemeteries. To me, they seem very real and very human. They are not sterile, tidy places. They are not manicured. They are certainly not uniform. They are a reflection of the life that came before them, the untidy lives lived by the people that now inhabit—and perhaps haunt—them.
"The Mexican graveyards I know and love are much like life in this rich and colorful country—varied and many, often untidy, frequently haphazard, exuberant and overdone."  

You can feel it when you enter a cemetery in Mexico. The ones I’ve been in are not quiet, serene, deserted places. Even when empty, they pulse with a kind of energy that sometimes makes me feel like an intruder.

Onto the Mummies

Sign for Mummy Museum. Click for more info.

Mexico experienced a cholera pandemic in the 1830s - 1840s. Hundreds of thousands of people died and some of those people who were buried in Guanajuato became “mummies” because of the dry climate. Over the years many of them were discovered and had to be reburied. 
However, there was a tax to be permanently buried so many of the bodies were just stored until the Museo de la Momias de Guanajuato was opened. It’s a weird experience seeing the shells of former lives in such non-living detail: shoes, clothing, facial expressions on adults, children, infants. 
Street in Guanajuato
 Beyond cemeteries and mummies, Guanajuato is a wonderful walking town with vendors dotting the streets and surprises around every corner.
Diego himself!
The Diego Rivera museum is housed in a home he had lived in early in his life. The exhibit was a fascinating review of Rivera's art and made me appreciate the artist beyond the muralist.

Frida and Diego together again
While Diego was being honored, there was only a glancing mention of Frida. Down the street, however, I found a cafe that had not forgotten her.
of course,
There were lots of little surprises found in GTO, but one that amused me a lot was a wall stencil of Elvis. 
Just seeing his face on a wall overlooking the city was a shock but I was even more amused when I translated the words: I was not always this person. I have thought a lot about what the artist meant with this photo and portrait. I think it reveals a sense of humor and and awareness of the dance of life and death. It will always be one of the many reasons I love Guanajuato.

For what it’s worth: