Thursday, January 8, 2009

March 2005: ¡Vive-México!

I spent the first two weeks of March in Mexico. It seemed only natural to write about one of my favorite countries. Last March I wrote about being in Argentina. So, it seems the March issue of this letter may become the annual travel issue.

Eduardo Dager, a Colombian friend and colleague of mine, has lived in México for the past three years. He is about to move to New York. Over dinner, he reflected on his time in México. He noted that, in his opinion, México had the most unique and special culture in all of Latin America. Furthermore, the Mexicans were the proudest and most patriotic of all the people in Latin America. I never thought about it in that way but in hearing Eduardo’s theory I immediately agreed. The culture of México is definitely unique and the people, at least those I know, are fiercely proud of it.

In many other Latin American countries, the Spanish culture became immediately dominate. Local cultures were overwhelmed and destroyed in the conquistadors plundering pursuit of riches. It was different in México from the beginning. Hernan Cortes did not have a large conquering army. They had an alliance with the Totonacs and the Tlaxcalans along with a secret weapon, small pox (more on this later), to defeat the Aztecs. Cortes and his interpreter/concubine, Prncess Malintzin or Doña Marina as she became known in Spanish, had a son, Martin. Martin was the first Mestizo, a mixed Indian and Spaniard. The Mestizo’s came to define México and the Mexican culture. It was the Mestizo’s that revolted against the Spanish, creating a republic with a culture rooted in the Spanish along with the Aztec and Mayan heritages of the people. In most other Latin American countries, the indigenous culture was either wiped out or relegated to most second class, rural, status. The ruling class in these countries is more Spanish with a much smaller or less powerful Mestizo class than México.

Today the population of México is 60% Mestizo, 30% Indians, and Caucasians and others making up the remaining 10%. Many of the towns and places retain their Indian names. Consider the cities of Tuxpan, Oaxaca, Culiacan, Tepoztlan and Coastzacoalcos, all with Indian names. Even Cuernavaca is a Spanish version of the Indian name for the region. In México City, areas or neighborhoods retain their Aztec names: Tultitlan and Caultitlan. The tallest mountains guarding over Mexico City are Popocatepetl and Ixtaccihautl.

The Mayan and Aztec civilizations are centuries old and conquered by the Spanish, yet people still speak the Mayan and Nahuatl dialects in parts of the country. Indian words pepper the Mexican Spanish. The one that comes to mind is the word used for Red Snapper in México, gauchinango, is very different than the word, pargo, used in the rest of the Spanish speaking world.

These cultural differences extend to the music and cuisine of México. The use of chilis and corn in the hot and spicy, picante, food of México is unique in the Americas. The music of the Mariachis is also special to México. The national liquors, Tequila and Mezcal (the one with the worm), are produced no place else in the world.

Cradles of Civilization: In our Judeo-Christian centric culture and education system, we are familiar with the notion that the Cradle of Civilization is in the Middle East, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in current day Iraq. We know about Babylon, Nineveh, cuneiform, and the Code of Hammurabi. We also learn about Egypt and the pharaohs, the importance of the Nile, papyrus, and the pyramids. We know about the rise of Persia and the Greek City States. In classes called Western Civilization, we focus on the Greeks and Roman Empire as the basis for Western Culture, Politics and Thought. Our education brings us through the Dark Ages where we learn about Charlemagne, Gutenberg, Copernicus, Gallileo, and, eventually get to the Renaissance.

Just before the Renaissance, we learn about Chritopher Columbus born Cristoforo Colombo in Genoa, Italy. He was known as Cristobal Colon in Spain where he talked the King and Queen into funding a three ship expedition to chart a west bound route to India. We know about his theory that the earth is round and not flat. We also learned that Columbus “discovered” the New World, the West Indies, or the Americas.

Of course, all the indigenous peoples living in the New World at the time were quite sure they existed and, in retrospect, would have probably preferred not to have been “discovered” by the Europeans. First, the Europeans brought small pox and other European diseases to the New World. The diseases spread rapidly, ahead of the conquerors and settlers. Estimates range that 50 to 90% of the indigenous populations were wiped out by disease before they ever saw a Caucasian. Then the Europeans began to civilize the Indians. This meant stealing their gold, making them work on sugar plantations, or wiping them out if they were too ornery, too ill, or did not make good slaves only to import African slaves to work the lands.

We have heard of pre-Columbian art: sculptures, pottery and even gold jewelry that were not melted down. Yet, we never learn about the pre-Colombian cultures or civilizations. Yes, civilizations. Too often, we think of the Amerinds as savages, nomads, hunter-gatherers, and people running around in loin clothes living in huts or tepees. This image may be partially true, but there is another side. There were great cities in what is present day Peru, Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

In Mexico, the Olmec civilization dates back more than 3,000 years. They were centered around present day Veracruz, a city founded by Cortes on Good Friday 1519, on the Gulf Coast. The Olmecs created a city by moving tons of earth to make a plateau, or acropolis if you will. Many scholars believe they were the first civilization in the Americas. They were accomplished mathematicians and astronomers for their day and had the first system of writing in the Americas. They are most known today for their massive sculptures and pottery.

The Olmecs were followed by the Mayans (100 BC – 1400 AD), the Toltecs (800 – 1200 AD) and finally the Aztecs (1300 – 1500 AD). Each of these cultures built extravagant cities, with stone structures and pyramids. They were artistic and were well versed in astronomy. The Mayans were in the Yucatan peninsula in present day México, Guatemala and Honduras. The great Mayan cities of Chichén Itza in México, Tikal in Guatemala, and Copan in Honduras are most impressive. They pale compared to the Middle Eastern “Cradle of Civilization” simply because they have only been excavated and studied in the past 100 years.

Teotihuacan, the Aztec name for México City, was a most impressive place. The city was an island in the middle of a shallow lake. The buildings were very impressive and destroyed by Cortes in his conquest. Bernal Diaz, in Cortes’s army wrote:

When we all saw those cities and villages built in the water, and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight level causeway leading to México, we were astounded. These great towns and temples and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision from the tale of Amadis. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.
Tepoztlan - March 5, 2005: Being in Mexico over a weekend, allowed a bit of tourism. Raul Alejandre, who reports to me, offered to take Fernando Bahamon, Colombia, and me to the quaint Colonial town of Tepoztlan about an hour south of México City. Hearing we were going to Tepoztlan, Angel de la Puente invited us to have lunch at his little get away house in Cuernevaca which was like 10-15 minutes from Teopoztlan.

I really enjoyed visiting Tepoztlan. It is a city of 13,000 with nary a chain store or restaurant. In the tourist book in my hotel room, I read that Tepoztlan made the news a few years ago by voting out their local government including the mayor. There was a proposal, endorsed by the town officials, to build a country club. The town folk were completely against any commercialization of their quaint colonial town.

The streets are hilly, cobbled and narrow. The buildings and houses are constructed from volcanic stone. While there was graffiti on the walls, that seemed to be the extent of delinquency or crime. Everyone told me that the town was quite safe. As we were there on a Saturday, we got to enjoy the crafts market featuring, surprisingly, many unique local items. I bought a lovely large carved wooden mask as a house gift for Angel. It only cost $25 and was very impressive.
The ice cream of Tepoztlan, called nieves, is quite famous throughout México. The flavors are exotic, varied, and quite tasty e.g. chocolate, coffee and white wine. Most of the flavors are a mix of various chunks of fruit. The ice cream had the texture and malleability of Italian gelato. Amazingly, the locals would spice up the confection with either chili powder or a most sour sauce.
Tepoztlan is also known for clothing made from a locally produced cotton fabric called manta. Manta is the perfect fabric for the hot weather in Cuernavaca and Tepoztlan.

The main church in Tepoztlan is 400 years old and is the photo at the top of the page. It is a large roomy sanctuary. It is not overly ornate with paintings only on the main and side altars. There is a convent and rooms for the monks attached to adjacent to the church. The hallways and rooms were large with high ceilings. I read that the monks slept on straw mats on the floors. The sisters rooms were smaller though all rooms had windows with views of the local mountains. The floors were either dyed or painted red and the only décor were some simple border patterns painted the length of the hallways. They had turned the larger rooms in this ex-conventa, as the locals called it, into both an art museum and a local historical museum. The local history museum documented the legacy of Tepoztlan with clothing, artifacts, tools, old machinery of various kinds including a printing press from the town paper, and countless photos of festivals, school gatherings, and municipal officials that provided a wonderful window to the past.

The craft market spread out from the food market. As has been the case for many years, this market is town grocery store. You can buy fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, and grains. You can buy your food for one meal, one day or several days. You can buy food to prepare yourself or there are plenty of vendors that sell already prepared savory regional dishes. There are not very much packaged goods in the market. You even have to bring your pots and pans to take home the prepared foods.

We bought roasted pumpkin seeds in the market. They were really tasty but made us thirsty. We stopped by a table where two younger ladies were selling fresh squeezed orange or tangerine juice. The tangerines were the size of small grapefruits and simply by the deep color of the pulp you could tell how delicious and sweet the juice would be. We were not disappointed. One lady cut the fruit in half , took the money and poured the juice. The second lady operated the manual lever action juicer. They were non-stop busy.

Later, walking around the town, I saw an older fellow carrying a violin and bow. He was dressed in a white Manda suit with a white hat and freshly polished white boots. Being a musician, I am always motivated to support street musicians. I could not pass up this dapper fellow without donating to his cause and hearing what he was about. When we talked to him, he indicated that he was quite hard of hearing. Speaking loudly we asked if he would play for us. He responded, “of course, it is my profession!” He asked what we wanted to hear and rattled off his repertoire. Fernando heard a song that he liked and told the fiddler to play it. The man ceremoniously put the violin to his chin, and plucked the strings to check that his instrument was in tune. It was not even close. I raised my eyebrow as he raised his bow and proceeded to torture both the violin and our ears. It was totally hilarious. “Of course, it is my profession!” After, what I suppose you would have to call the refrain; our new friend tucked his violin under his arm and proceeded to sing the first verse. He finished the verse and went back to sawing and torturing the violin. He sang like six verses. We were definitely having a good time, amazed, laughing and quietly muttering “of course, it is my profession” to each other. We paid him like 30-40 pesos. He wanted to play a few more tunes for us but we thanked him and told we had to go to our friend’s home who was expecting us shortly for lunch. I really wanted to give the man a twenty and take him to Angel’s house where he could regale us all afternoon.

I could have written so much more on México. It is a wonderful and diverse country. I have some great friends there and have gained a true affinity for the culture. No doubt, it will be a topic of future letters.

Post-script: What is it with old guy street musicians? I had a similar experience in Armenia. Many Armenian songs refer to the saz, a long neck lute like precursor to the bouzouki. Yet, you never ever see any Armenians playing the saz. Finally, in a visit to Lake Sevan, sitting next to the steps leading to the two historic churches, was an old man with a saz. I asked the gentlemen if he could play. Like his Mexican cousin, he confidently stated, “of course, it is what I do.” I said go ahead. He proceeded to strum badly on his grossly out of tune saz. I laughed, “of course, it is what I do.” He began to sing in a key and rhythm different to what he was playing. I smiled and gave him a few dollars.

Want to learn more about México?

1. Mexico: Biography of Power, Enrique Krauze, Harper-Collins, 1997, General History
2. The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson, Penguin Books, 1992, General History
3. Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel, Doubleday, 1992, a fantasy novel providing insight into rural Mexican Culture & Cuisine, also a film
4. Three Recent Films either in English or with sub-titles:
Amores Perros: showing the tough underbelly of life in México City (strong language, violence)
Y Tu Mamá También: a tortured coming of age film (strong language, sexual situations)
Frida, a biographical film on the famous Frida Kahlo starring Selma Hayak

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