Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Seven

Today was our much-needed day off. So I went to Palenque. Palenque: Just saying the word makes me feel like Indiana Jones…

Ever since one of our program directors, Randy, spoke in awestruck tones about Chiapas’ most famous ancient Mayan ruins, I knew I had to find them. I doubted our Chiapas immersion trip would have time for an extracurricular, but then our Sunday plans fell through and suddenly we had 24 hours of free time. Nobody else seemed particularly excited about a 10-hour round trip excursion crammed into one day, so I shrugged and bought a solo ticket for a one-day trip to Palenque and back.

There wasn’t enough in my budget for one of the high-end tours advertised everywhere in San Cristobal, so, with some help from Kim, I found a cheap basic tour at a backpackers’ hostel a few blocks away from our hotel. Reserving my ticket was kind of a mess because the clerk spoke Spanish way too fast for me, but I finally figured out that I was supposed to be at the hostel front door at 6am Sunday morning. I had no paper ticket, no proof that I had just shelled out a bunch of money, just instructions about a place and a time.

I showed up in the chilly early-morning hours bundled up in my scarf and hat. About 6:30 someone yelled from across the plaza: “Mateo?” I turned around – sure enough, there was a van with a dude standing outside of it holding a clipboard. “Si,” I called back, and ran after him.

The little van ascended up into the mountains. The hour was earlier than either of my other excursions from San Cristobal, and the morning clouds had not yet lifted. The mountain forests were unbelievably misty (good prep for an Indiana Jones day, I think), and sometimes the clouds were actually below the mountain road, as if we were in a low-flying airplane. Even in the van, the temperature was cold.

After about two hours we stopped for breakfast. I didn’t really want breakfast, I just wanted to get to Palenque, the earlier the better, but the van was stopped, like it or not, so I piled off with the rest of the passengers. Then I spotted coffee. Ok, I guess I’ll have breakfast. Afterwards I discovered the breakfast cost 70 pesos ($7). So much for saving time and money on the cheap tour…

About an hour after breakfast we stopped at a waterfall. I didn’t really care about the waterfall, either – I just wanted to get to Palenque! – but it ended up being pretty sweet anyway. I stepped off the bus, and immediately realized we weren’t in the highlands anymore. I peeled off my scarf, hat, jacket, fleece…we had gone from about 30 degrees that morning to about 80 degrees by lunchtime. This was going to be a good day.

I climbed up to the lookout point, took some pictures of the waterfall, wandered through the jungle a bit, crossed some rickety wooden bridges, waded out toward the waterfall and stumbled around on some rather dangerous-looking wet rocks…we only had about 30 minutes, but I had been on a bus all morning and the tropical temperature was waking me up…

We piled back into the van, but before leaving the driver made a little speech in which I think he was asking us whether we wanted to visit another waterfall or not. Some kind of complication was involved. Finally he handed out a sheet of paper that we were all supposed to sign. The sheet of paper basically said (in both English and Spanish, helpfully) that there were social and political problems in the area, and due to these problems we would not be visiting some other waterfall we would normally visit. Ok, whatever – I just want to get to Palenque, remember? I signed it and passed the sheet on. Twenty minutes later we visited the waterfall anyway.

Finally, after breakfast, two waterfalls, and five hours in a van, we finally made it to Palenque.

And it was so worth it.

I looked at my watch – only an hour and a half until closing! I listened impatiently to the complimentary tour guide, then ditched him as soon as he turned his back (my Lonely Planet had a built-in Palenque guide anyway – Lonely Planet, what aren’t you good for?), running off to climb the nearest pyramid, which turned out to be a giant ancient palace with a courtyard and crumbling ancient hallways! I had a request a few weeks back (thanks, Hannah) for more photos with people in them, so I set up my camera on self-timer, carefully positioning on some rocks here, there – everywhere! – and then running in front of it before it click! took the picture. It was a crazy amount of fun. Ruins, I think, are like playgrounds for adults. Or, at least, playgrounds for adults like me who like to pretend they are Indiana Jones…

You can see for yourself (photo gallery above) how cool Palenque was. Like Chichen Itza, Palenque is buried deep in the jungle; like Xochicalco, Palenque lies on higher ground, offering gorgeous views of the surrounding valley. (Palenque actually lies on the edge of the Chiapas mountain range, and from its highest pyramid you can look out over the flat plains that begin the landscape of the Gulf Coast – incredible!) But in addition to combining the best of other sites, Palenque also has fascinating architectural innovations, like roof combs and lookout towers. Indy would love it...

I ran around Palenque for an hour and a half – the Indiana Jones theme song playing in my head the entire time – then stepped through the exit at precisely 4:30, closing time. I bought a Coke for the ride home, then stepped into the van and collapsed into my seat. I wouldn’t get back to San Cristobal until 10pm, 15 ½ hours after I left that morning.

As the van pulled away from Palenque, I cracked open my Lonely Planet guide to make sure I had seen everything I was supposed to. Satisfied, I turned the page – and found some more ruins to visit! Apparently there are these ruins at Yaxchilan, near Guatemala, that you can only get to by taking a boat down a river... (Cue theme music and end credits…now.)

Chiapas Journal: Day Six

Today we went to Acteal, site of a 1997 massacre of forty-five mostly women and children who had met for prayer one night in the mountains of Chiapas. The survivors still await justice, resolution, closure. On the 22nd of every month, the people of Acteal hold a mass to commemorate the deaths of their loved ones. Today we would join them.

The taxi ride out into the mountains was like the winding trip to Oventic, but longer. This time I thought ahead: I brought my headphones and closed my eyes, and that seemed to work pretty well for the carsickness. Every once in a while my eyes fluttered open to reveal the green forest surrounding us, the valleys opening up far beneath us, the chilly sky whose clouds didn’t seem so far above us anymore. Once my sleepy eyes opened just in time to glimpse another autonomous Zapatista community, recognizable from its ESTA ES NUESTRA (THIS IS OURS) thumbprint sign (see the Oventic photo gallery for an example) and the two ski-masked guards leaning over a chain link fence at the entrance. It wasn’t five minutes down the road from there that I saw barbed wire and barracks: a military base, no photography allowed.

We found the village of Acteal about ten minutes later. The village actually lies down the slope, but above it, only a few feet from the road is a tall black sculpture called the “Pillar of Shame.” According to the plaque on the sculpture, one Pillar of Shame is placed each year in a particular spot in the world where a crime against humanity has taken place. The Pillar at Acteal is one of only five in the world.

We made our way down the cement staircase leading to the center of the community. The ceremony wouldn’t begin for another twenty minutes, but there were a few people milling about. Some wore what I can only assume was traditional dress: for men, short white tunics with black wool ponchos, for women, colorfully embroidered blouses and shawls. When we arrived, we were the only white people there, and we stood around awkwardly, not entirely sure what to do.

Soon it began: A group of maybe twenty men in slightly more elaborate traditional dress lined up in front of the church, accompanied by a priest and a deacon, both of whom also appeared to be of indigenous descent but who wore white albs and other familiarly catholic liturgical dress. They filed into a tiny church. No one else followed, so we didn’t either. Soon the group of leaders re-emerged carrying crosses in the blue Chiapas style and large banners of Guadalupe and San Pedro Martir. As the group passed us, the priest paused, turned to us and explained that they were going up the hill for part of the ceremony. Then he said these words: Les gustaría acompañarnos?

Would you like to accompany us? The words were spoken as if they had only their present meaning; he was inviting us to accompany the community on their walk up the hill. But a depth opened up under his words, and the sound echoed through the last three months. Since the beginning of this Mexico Semester Program we have been talking about accompaniment in ministry, accompaniment with humanity, accompaniment with those who suffer, accompaniment with the poor. Now here was a community of the poor, whose wives, daughters, sons had been killed on this very land, pausing to turn to us and ask: Would you like to accompany us?

Shaken and filled with a wrenching feeling I barely understood, I joined the line of people heading up the hill. I wanted to cry, but didn’t: this moment did not belong to me. But the emotion, within and without, was overwhelming. It is difficult to write about, even now.

At the top of the hill we reached the Pillar of Shame, and then the padre explained the next part of the ceremony, in which we would walk around the Pillar three times, like a caracol (seashell), in a manner consistent with Mayan spirituality. The first time around the Pillar, he told us, we were to meet the world. The second time we would meet ourselves. And the third time we would meet God.

I don’t know how it happened, but it happened. The first time around I saw the people walking in front of me, beside me, behind me. I saw the sculptured faces in the Pillar of Shame and felt with a physical ache an overwhelming sorrow over what had happened here. How could there be any hope?

The second time around I was going to think about myself, like we were supposed to, but all I could think about was how awkward I felt, being there, my white skin making me feel conspicuous, a visitor unsure how to act. And then I realized that that experience of awkwardness, of oddness, of discomfort, was exactly what it meant to meet myself, truly, in that moment.

Then the third and last time around the Pillar I noticed for the first time a cross, about the size of a person, planted roughly in the dirt a few feet away, the valley opening up behind it. I thought of the military base not far from here and I thought of the paramilitaries who inflicted such awful violence here and I thought of the powers of the world, large and small, fighting each other over land, or over something that comes from land (for what, ultimately, does not come from the land?) And then I remembered that tomorrow is Christ the King Sunday. And then something clicked, and words flew through my head, barely achieving coherence…


With a cross planted in the dirt God stakes her claim: ESTA ES NUESTRA. That claim resounds through the universe, piercing it like a sword in a sacred heart, tearing open a space of faith, hope, and love that no army can close up – though they continue to try, flailing away, trying to reassert their power over land, over us, trying to claim what they still think is theirs, not realizing that the war is over. The Zapatistas say another world is possible. But this cross planted in the dirt says even more. It says, it announces, that another world has already begun. Viva Cristo Rey…


We made our way back down the hill to a little amphitheatre seemingly constructed for this purpose. Behind the amphitheatre the valley lies open like a gaping wound, but it is green, so green…creation is all around us.

As the service begins, the presider asks visitors to introduce themselves. Kim, our program director, introduces us. Upon learning that we are seminarians, the presider asks if there are any pastors among us, and invites them to say a few words, and to help lead the service. Kim makes a little nod of his head, as if to gather strength, thoughts, faith? I don’t know. But as he strode to the front to take his place as a fellow presider, I saw in Kim what I saw earlier this year in Dave and Steve, what I saw in years past in David, in Lyle, in countless others at different times in my life: a pastor, a glimpse of what I might be in years to come. Mentoring can take place in months or even in just one moment…

The presider says a few more words. He speaks in Spanish, and I’m not really understanding what he’s saying now. But Quinn, one of my classmates, suddenly cracks a forced smile. Through her teeth, she whispers: They want us to sing a song.

We have not prepared anything, and we have no hymnbooks. None of us are trained singers, by any means. But of course, we cannot say no. After rapid-fire discussion we decide to sing the first verse of Amazing Grace, which, it seems, is the only thing all of us can sing off the top of our heads. Back in my seat, I resolve to learn more songs by heart.

The mass proceeds. It is spoken in both English and an indigenous language – Tzotzil, I think. There is music made with guitars and violins, the instruments clearly made by hand out of wood and completely unvarnished. Their stringed sound reminds me of rough, unpolished Appalachian music, the kind you can hear in old recordings that haven’t been cleaned up too much.

After the sacrament of holy communion, in which we visitors are invited to participate, everyone is invited forward to pick up a few flowers. We take them down a set of cement stairs that descend around and below the stage of the amphiteatre. We enter a large, dark room, with a cement floor. On the walls there is a picture of each person who was killed. On the floor there are names. The dead are buried here.

We hold our flowers and gather together. The priest calls out names of people, of groups of people – martyrs, innocents, surviving citizens, even us visitors – and after each we all yell “VIVA!” We lay our flowers at the foot of a cross around which are photos of those killed.

We walk quietly back upstairs, each at our own pace. When we are gathered again, the priest announces that the close of the service is a traditional Mayan dance. You don’t need to know all the steps to join in, you just dance.

And so we danced.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Five

Es la Fiesta de la Virgen de Caridad! Fireworks have been going off since 6am this morning...

It seems like there´s always something going on here - there are always fireworks, much like in Tepoztlan (another Pueblo Magico) - but today the fireworks started early to announce the the first mass of the feast day. As I sit writing this near 1am the next morning, I can still hear the live music playing outside the church not far from here...


Ok, I´m going to do what I hate: I´m going to generalize. But bear with me for a minute.

There is a certain vibrancy to life here. It courses underneath sometimes, but surfaces ebulliently, incredibly. You can see it on Catholic feast days (of which there is no shortage) when flowers cover the doors of churches in elaborate decoration, in spite of the bitter cold of this mountain city. You can see it in the ofrendas of the Day of the Dead, despite the sadness of remembering family members no longer here in the flesh. You can see it in the million flags on Independence Day, in spite of the widespread cynicism toward the current government. For all the Good Friday suffering in Chiapas, that vibrant joy is present here, too.

The French call this vibrancy in everyday life "joie de vivre," and maybe I´m thinking of the French tonight because today we met with Padre Miguel Chanteau, a priest originally from France (and who still maintains a thick French accent through his Spanish) who worked in the nearby community of Chenalho for some 33 years. Today Padre Miguel met with us to talk about Acteal, the community in which there was a horrific massacre eleven years ago. (We plan to visit Acteal tomorrow.) Padre Miguel told us again the story of Acteal, but in greater and much more personal detail than we had heard before. (You can read the story of Acteal for yourself here.) At the time of the massacre, Acteal fell within the jurisdiction of his parish.

After the 1997 massacre, Padre Miguel spoke out. He told it like he saw it. He placed blame. He refused to attribute the murder of his people to some unforeseeable freak incident. And he was promptly deported back to France. After a change in government in 2000, he was allowed to return, but only to San Cristobal - never again to the people he served faithfully for three decades. He passed around some photos, and a cross the people of his former parish had given to him. It clearly meant a lot.

Yet here was the odd thing: For all of the suffering and death Padre Miguel had seen, for all of the trouble his prophetic stance had caused him, Padre Miguel possessed a sharp and wily sense of humor. How can I repeat all of his sly jibes and clerical one-liners? I cannot. They escape me now, leaving only my memory of a room full of laughter, laughter provoked by a little old man whose fierce faith was shot through with a hearty sense of humor.

At some point a Jehovah´s Witness showed up at the door, which only added to the glorious absurdity of the morning. Then Padre Miguel refused to let us leave without sharing a shot of tequila with him - an "ecumenical communion," he called it. But Padre Miguel, it´s only 11 o´clock in the morning... "Hey," he said. "To keep the faith strong, you need to drink a little." So we did. And then he told more jokes.

A Frenchman adopted by the people of Mexico. A joie de vivre, even in this world. A shot of tequila, to keep the faith strong. Gracias a Dios.

Chiapas Journal: Day Four

Es 20 de Noviembre, la dia de la Revolucion! So, naturally, we ended the day in the Bar Revolucion, appropriately situated on Calle 20 de Noviembre. To celebrate the 1910 tierra y libertad (land and liberty) uprising of Pancho Villa in the North and Emiliano Zapata in the South (Dad, please note: both Villa and Zapata had moustaches, not beards), we toasted Micheladas and listened to loud indie rock. Sounds fun, no? It was. And we - well, I, at least - needed it, because the rest of the day cut a little to close to the bone.


We spent all day at INESIN, an ecumenically-oriented theological dialogue center that specializes in bringing indigenous Mayan spirituality into dialogue with other religious traditions, like, say, Lutheran Christianity. Yes, they have crazy-awesome stuff like this in Chiapas.

My only complaint was that "indigenous spirituality" tends to become overly generalized and oversimplified in lets-educate-foreigners contexts like this. For example: indigenous spirituality=peaceful resolution. Ok...maybe. But aren´t there, like 64 different languages, implying 64 different cultures, implying at least 64 variances in peoples' spirituality? I know, I know, they just want us to appreciate the positives, but I want to deepen my understanding, to profundizar...

One example that kept me thinking for awhile: The story we were told today about the Eagle and the Chicken. Long story short: Man raises a baby eagle to be a chicken. But the eagle still has eagleness in his heart, blood, and wings. So one day another man comes along and, after much cajoling and encouragement, finally gets the eagle to recover his inner eagle-ness and soar off into the sunset. Great story. Who doesn´t want to recover their inner eagle-ness?

But life, I think, is more complicated. In life we have to ask: What constitutes eagle-ness and what constitutes chicken-ness? Are some destined to be eagles and others chickens? Can eagles learn and adopt practices from chickens and vice-versa? Ok, enough. I love parables and myths, but we are all messy humans here, Mayan and norteamericano alike, and we are not animals in a neat story with loose ends tied up. For us life is...complex.

Regardless of my million questions, I understood the point, or at least part of it: Native spirituality is important, first for the indigenous, the native Americans, and then for us non-indigenous, we immigrants and descendants of immigrants, for this is the spirituality of the place, of the American continent, we now call home. Being Christian doesn´t negate that; even as conservative a place as the Vatican recognizes that the seeds of faith are present in non-European cultures. And it may be especially important for us Europeans and European-Americans, we who have dominated Christianity with our culture for so long, to recognize that.

So, as part of our effort to understand the spirituality of the American continents, we participated in a native ritual. Beacuse there was no translation for this session, I didn´t follow it all that well - my Spanish is still far from where I´d like it to be. (Afterwards I learned from my colleagues about what I was supposed to be doing during the exercise. Apparently there was a dog-like spirit-guide involved, which of course (Adam, listen up) made me think of El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer, an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer inadvertently goes on a spiritual journey with a Johnny Cash-voiced coyote as his spirit-guide. Yes, I admit: thinking of the Simpsons helped me understand better...)

Anyway, the basics of the ritual are actually not all that different from (thanks to David Miller for this part) Ignatian contemplation, a Jesuit practice in which you carefully sift through your life - or just your day - and you have a little chit-chat with God, a conversation slow enough that you actually pause to listen to what God might be saying back to you. It´s like looking into the mirror with God at your side.

Somehow in the fog of my English-Espanol language struggle and my limited understanding of the exercise I saw the reflection of my life. And it scared me. Afterwards I climbed up to the rooftop terrace of our hotel and sat quietly for awhile. Then I put my headphones on and listened to four songs, all on a whim but each of which, oddly and inadvertently, corresponded to a different period of my adult life. The last song was Maná`s "Arde el Cielo," in which first the sky, then the speaker´s heart, his spirit, burns.

Earlier in the day our instructor asked us to draw a picture in response to a common Mexican/indigenous question: Como esta tu corazon? (How is your heart?) I drew one of the muy catolico sacred hearts that I`ve seen everywhere in Mexico. (It was barely more than a year ago that I saw a sacred heart, like a premonition, on the inside cover artwork of a Bruce Springsteen album.) The sacred heart is nearly always pierced with a sword, wrapped in thorns, bleeding, and a fiery flame burns above it...or from it? Either way, it burns.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Three

Today we visited the Zapatistas.

At 9 in the morning we stuffed ourselves into taxis (4 people per sardine-sized vehicle) and headed north into the mountains. After about an hour of stomach-churning hairpin turns at ascending altitudes our driver pulled over to the side of the road.


He asked for our passports - we were entering new territory, after all (an adventure across a different border, if you will) - and disappeared inside a wooden building, passports in hand. A few more ski-masked faces peered out and looked at us, then disappeared into the building again. After a few minutes the men returned and opened the gate for us. We were ushered into a little room where four men in black Zapatista ski masks sat behind a wooden table, looking at our passports. They asked us to sit down - we did, and even the most talkative of us were quiet for awhile - then asked us our names, our professions, and our reason for being there.

It was both more and less intimidating than you´d think. I mean, they were wearing black ski masks, and definitely looked the part of rebel forces. On the other hand, below their masks they wore clothes just like the rest of us: sweatshirts, jackets, a pair of jeans. None of them carried guns (though no doubt they could acquire some quickly if need be - why else would there be such a guarded gate?). Various posters hung everywhere, some from other organizations, all calling for democracia (democracy), justicia (justice), libertad (liberty), and paz (peace) in different forms and in different catchy slogans. This may have been rebel territory, complete with deeply unsettling ski masks and hidden ammunition, but in the presence of these Zapatistas it was clear that we and they shared, first, a common humanity, and then - if the posters were any indication - common dreams.

Our identification seemed to check out, so we left the little room and entered another little room in another building. Here there were more benches to sit on - clearly they were used to receiving delegations like ours. Again, four people - two women and two men, pointedly (women´s rights being a primary Zapatista demand) - sat behind a desk wearing black ski masks. Again we introduced ourselves, and again the information of each person was written down. These Zapatistas keep meticulous records!

Introductions completed, they begain telling us their story. We had heard much of it before - we´ve been studying the Zapatistas intensively for over a week - but now we were hearing it through the black cotton of pasamontanas (espanol for ski masks). For a moment I retreated into memory, then returned to reality in wonderment: Two years ago I learned about the Zapatistas on a Mexico immersion class, but I never could have imagined then that I would someday meet these mysterious ski-masked rebels in person.

In the midst of more peace and justice posters two flags hung behind the speakers: the EZLN flag, black with a red star in the middle, and the Mexican national flag, red, white, and green with the snake-eating eagle in the middle. I wanted to ask why there were both flags, what each flag meant to them, but I waited too long and the moment was gone.

After our talk we walked around the village, or caracol (espanol for snail shell), as the autonomous communities call themselves. Nearly every building was painted in bright murals with Zapatista men, women, and children on them. Some even featured Zapatista animals as small as mariposas (butterflies) with Zapatista masks on their heads. I took lots of pictures of these buildings. We were strictly forbidden from taking pictures of any people, whether they wore masks or not.

There was a school - surprisingly large given the small size of the community (clearly education was a priority here) - and a health clinic, and a church, all clustered in this little Zapatista community tucked away in the pine-green mountains. We listened to another talk in the health clinic, then found our way into some artisan cooperatives where women sold handmade crafts and wove blankets and clothes right before our eyes. In one artist cooperative, I found (and bought) some poster prints of beautiful Chiapas-depicting artwork and some handmade Zapatista dolls for a self-arranged Zapatista nativity scene(photo to come in Advent! :)).

I was, I admit, surprised to find tourist-oriented stores in an autonomous community, but it was hard to be opposed to the vibrant art and clothing beind sold and, frankly, disseminated here. The clothing cooperatives were set up so that the women would get a fair price for their goods and would be cooperating, not competing, for sales. (What a concept!) As for the poster propaganda, well, whether you agree with the goals of the movement or not, you´ve got to hand it to the Zapatistas for their brilliant mastery of popular culture.

As we headed back toward the entrance to the community, I noticed one of the Zapatistas who had originally interviewed us sitting outside a building...without a mask. We made eye contact, but he made no move to put on his mask. Either the initial mask-wearing was part of an act, the playing of a part in an elaborate political drama, or he didn´t fear our recognizing his identity (identity protection - for both the individual Zapatista and his or her family - is, we´ve been told, a primary reason for the masks). Probably it was a bit of both.

Our time in Zapatista territory at an end, we found transportation - half of us in a taxi, half in the back of a pickup truck - and headed back to San Cristobal.


I have to admit, when I first heard about the Chiapas part of this semester program, I was skeptical. I mean, I was excited, too - the romance of visiting a new place! But I was a little afraid the program would get wrapped up in the romance of rebellion when I knew from even my own limited knowledge of history that rebellion rarely ended romantically. And, in part, I was right - there was little romantic about Oventic: people lived and worked, children learned, teachers taught, doctors treated patients, storekeepers sold their wares.

And yet the continued existence of that life, illuminated everywhere by brightly colored murals that told of the spirit of a people - their dreams, their values, their history, their heroes - all this spoke to us of the fiercely strong commmunity living in this place, a community where bonds were as tightly knit as any of the hand-woven clothes they made to keep visitors warm. I am no Zapatista. But I do want to be a part of a community as strong as the one we visited today.

Is that even worth hoping for, worth working for? I think Oventic gives us a glimpse of proof, pointing us toward the truth I saw in a Zapatista slogan today: Otro mundo es possible / Another world is possible...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Chiapas Journal: Day Two

San Juan, the Guarantor, he who was there when the worlds first appeared, who spoke the yes that started the century on its way and is one of the pillars that keep stable what is stable, stooped down one day to contemplate the land of men. His eyes traveled from the sea where the fish glides to the mountaintop where the snow sleeps. They passed over the flatlands where the fluttering wind scuffles, over the beaches’ buzzing sands, over the forests, refuge of wary animals. Over the valleys. The gaze of San Juan Guarantor paused at the valley called Chamula.

-opening lines from The Book of Lamentations, by Rosario Castellanos


I woke up early this morning and went looking for our posada’s rooftop terrace. It took some poking around, but I found the way up and I was not disappointed: Just a big ol’ slab of concrete with a metal bench and a few decorative pots on it. I breathed in the cool, damp morning mountain air and took a few pictures of the mist still obscuring the highest pine trees on the craggy hills, then sat down and read some Graham Greene.

In the 1930s Greene visited Mexico with the intent of reporting on the recent enforcement of anti-Catholic laws in Mexico’s southern states. Priests were being rounded up and shot, churches shuttered and locked or burned entirely. As a result of his reporting on this violently anti-clerical period in Mexican history Greene wrote two books: a novel, The Power and the Glory, which is a powerful meditation on the sacraments in the form of a white-knuckle thriller about a priest on the run (seriously, I tear through this book every time); and a nonfiction travelogue, The Lawless Roads, which documents in minute detail the depths to which Greene hated Mexico. (Sample line from TLR: It seemed to me that this wasn’t a country to live in at all with the heat and the desolation; it was a country to die in and leave only ruins behind.) I am reading the latter. Despite Greene’s grouchy temperament, though, his descriptions are vivid and his prose wonderfully British, which is why I wanted to crack it open early in the morning in the same town Greene traveled through nearly eighty years earlier.

Graham Greene wasn’t the only one writing about 1930s Chiapas. In 1962, Rosario Castellanos, a native of Chiapas, took an 1869 Mayan rebellion and set it in the 1930s in the area around San Cristobal (then called Ciudad Real – the temporary name change part of the religious purge. The result was The Book of Lamentations, excerpted above. Much of the novel takes place in San Cristobal and a neighboring village, San Juan Chamula.

Naturally, having read all about a bunch of fictional characters in San Juan Chamula I just had to lead an expedition out to the village, about 20 minutes away by collectivo (essentially public transport in a shared (i.e. collective) minivan). Using my Lonely Planet as a guide, I led three classmates down a few side streets until we found the collectivo station, crammed into a minivan, and made the trip to Chamula. Chamula turned out to be just another gorgeous mountain village except for two things: the town church and the town cemetery.

The cemetery was on the outskirts. An old, crumbling stone church sat abandoned but surrounded by a good-sized field of coffin-sized mounds with crosses of varying size and color at their heads. Dried orange marigolds, left over from the Day of the Dead, still adorned many of the mounds.

The church of San Juan was another thing entirely. It was white (just like the novel said!) but outlined in a bright teal that gave it a colorful brightness I hadn’t expected.

I will now try to explain the inside, but I confess right now that I will not do it justice. (Photography was strictly forbidden.)

There were no pews. Instead arm-length pine needles covered the floor, cleared away only in spaces where individuals or whole families of indigenous Chamulans kneeled on the ground, chanting in the indigenous Tzotzil language in front of rows of candles, the wax of their stems softened so they could stand upright, stuck right onto the tile floor in ordered rows. At least thirty different saints – all of them doll-like mannequins with real hair – lined the walls, and in front of each of these saints rows of candles sat burning, different numbers of candles depending on the popularity and healing specialties of each particular saint. San Juan (the Baptist) stood at the front of the church, gazing down at more candles than any of his holy peers. To see this room, lit entirely by candles, the floor covered in pine needles, the only sounds rhythmic chanting broken only by the uncomprehending murmurs of tourists like us, was an experience I hope never to forget.

A guide (a twelve-year-old who charged us one peso) explained that the candles were lit for a person who was sick. The more serious the illness, the more candles burned, the more chants were sung – To San Juan? To Jesus? To a Tzotzil god? To some only-in-Chamula combination of all of these? Who among the living can say for sure? Whatever kind of piety this was – and it would take a better expert than I to explain it – it was, to say the least, viscerally powerful and the most shockingly unique realities I have ever seen inside of a Christian church.


We returned to San Cristobal for lunch, then walked to the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center. Bartolome de las Casas, from whom San Cristobal gets part of its name, was a 16th-century priest who attempted to defend, physically, legally, and theologically, his indigenous parishioners to such a degree that he is still remembered today as one of the few bright spots in an otherwise deathly conquest of the American continents.

The “Frayba” Human Rights Center takes up the old bishop’s cause by running popular education workshops throughout the region and documenting the human rights abuses that take place, abuses which have skyrocketed since the Zapatista uprising and the military/paramilitary response.

As the center’s director spoke to us about his organization’s work, I was struck by something that hadn’t really crystallized for me before. All semester we’ve been talking about how global trade agreements have often come with terrible costs, usually because they have been imposed on the poor of the respective countries without the consent of the poorest and without labor protections or food sovereignty clauses. But here the director was explaining how his organization was using international agreements around human rights, which Mexico has signed, and the power of the international press, to protect the rights of people in a forgotten part of the world. Here, instead of the economic equivalent of global strip-mining, was global solidarity and global accountability, examples of what a better global community might look like.

And as we sat there, six Americans, two Mexicans, and one Salvadoran, in a little room in the city of Bartolome de las Casas, a funny thing happened: That “better global community” began to seem just a little bit closer. Poco a poco, paso a paso

Feliz Dia de Gracias!

We celebrated Thanksgiving today with our community. Each person made at least one dish of their own (though Chris made about 8 million baked goods), and we invited our Lutheran Center cocinera (cook) to come join us - this time we would cook for her. More people kept walking by, so we invited them in, Mexican seminarians, professors, etc, etc. We even had fun with a piñata for a Mexican twist on our fiesta!

At the end of the evening, Chris and Gloria (our cocinera/cook) exchanged goodbyes. On Sunday we move Chris to Guadalajara, so our Thanksgiving feast was also a final fiesta with Chris as a part of our community. Bittersweet, just like the chocolate chips in Chris's chocolate pecan pie... But a fun time was had by all, and Gloria now wants the recipes to all of our dishes, so she can surprise her family with a muy norteamericana Christmas dinner! What a cultural exchange... Feliz Dia de Gracias Para Todos!

Chiapas Journal: Day One

Editor's note: I'll paste these as time allows, one day in Chiapas at a time.

I woke up this morning with - oddly - the theme song from The Great Escape in my head. Strangely fitting, though, since we´ve been wanting to escape the walls of the Lutheran Center compound for awhile now...

And get out we did. First we flew from D.F. to Tuxtla Gutierrez, then we took a taxi from the airport to San Cristobal de las Casas. As our taxi pulled away from the TG airport, our driver pointed up at the misty mountains: "That´s where we´re going." He wasn´t lying: we drove "up," the valley dropping quickly below us, until our view of even the cars in front of us was obscured by a spooky grey fog, before beginning our descent down into city of San Cristobal. After several hard looks at my Lonely Planet guidebook our driver was able to find our posada (a bed & breakfasty kind of Mexican hotel), and we were shown to our rooms. We had made it.

We ate a late lunch - tamales chiapanecos - and then split up to wander around San Cristobal for the evening. At that point we learned a very important lesson about San Cristobal: it's cold here. While the sun is out, it's just kind of chilly - a sweater and knit hat will probably do. But at night it's teeth-chatteringly cold. Making my way through the market after dark, I bought, almost involuntarily, a 50 peso (less than $5) sweatshirt and a knit cap with a Pumas logo on it. There was plenty to choose from; the streets are lined with sweater shops and the markets are full of all manner of winter clothes. I'm thinking the Chiapanecos know what tourists to Mexico are most likely to forget.

Which is not to say the frigid weather makes San Cristobal de las Casas any less charming. Like all the guidebooks say, this place has a flavor all its own, strikingly distinct from any of the other places I've visited in Mexico. It's quaintly cobblestoned like Taxco and indigenous-influenced like Oaxaca City, but San Cristobal takes aspects of those two pueblos magicos and puts them into a blender, adding, for good measure, an extra dose of color (see: the bright yellow-and-red-accented cathedral) and and a kind of rebellious tension (see: Zapatista graffiti everywhere), placing it all in a kind of mountainous mist that descends on the city in the early morning and barely leaves. As for all the people bundled up? In San Cristobal, it just adds to the mystique.

The market we wandered through was wonderful. Besides my sweatshirt, there were woolen stuffed animals clearly hand-stitched, of all shapes and sizes, Mayan masks and jaguar carvings, traditional clothing in a billion colors, and best of all: little stuffed Zapatista dolls, some sitting on stuffed burros, others holding a baby in hand and a wooden rifle in the other.

After exploring for awhile we made our way to the Bar Revolucion, a wicked cool place with photos of Zapata, Che, and Marcos on the walls, two different live bands every night, and drinks with names like "Sacrificio Maya" on the menu. Steve McQueen would be proud.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Getting Ready for Thanksgiving

Editor's note: The following is a "guest post" (as she calls it) from Chris. Enjoy!

Matt has just returned from his adventures in Chiapas with lots of stories to share. It might take him awhile to get them typed up and posted though, so he asked me to post on the blog in his absence.

I’ve been busy here in Mexico City, fully occupied without having many adventures of my own. My two tasks for the week: finishing up work in the libraries and archives of Mexico City before I move to Guadalajara this weekend, and baking for the Thanksgiving feast we’re planning to cook with our roommates on Thursday. These two tasks have kept me busy from morning to night every day, and my mind has been engaged with the deliciously addictive Twilight series on audio.

The truth is that this hasn’t been a very Mexican week for me. I’ve stayed at home, trying to replicate recipes for favorite dishes from the U.S., listening to an audiobook in English that has sold among American teens. I’ve gone to work on public transportation with native Chilangos (Mexico City-ans) and took notes from Spanish-language magazines in the Hemeroteca Nacional (National Periodicals Library), but I’ve thought in English, planned in English, and strategized about how to replicate an American holiday and an American sense of home in this Mexican context.

So I think that is what I’m going to share with you – my efforts to recreate my own little slice of Americana in the midst of Mexico City…

We divvied up the cooking responsibilities before Matt and the other roommates left for Chiapas. I chose to make the desserts, which has been my job for every holiday as long as I can remember. Even when I was little, my mom and sister and I would make the pies to take to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving. I made my list and headed out to the store.

Step 1: The Neighborhood Grocery Store.

I had made my first apple pie here when I first started to miss fall in the Midwest, and feel nostalgic about our trip to apple orchards last September. So I knew I could find all the ingredients I needed for that. Pumpkin pie was an impossibility – no canned pumpkin in the baking section or the vegetable section. Whole pumpkins at Día de los Muertos, but not anymore. I decided on a plantain pie for a substitute. The recipe said that the texture was the same. That needed ground cloves… not carried at the grocery store. Okay. The “nuez” carried at the store looked like pecans, even though someone had translated it as walnuts for me before. Maybe I could make pecan pie. And for the cookies: no brown sugar, no baking soda. I’d need to do some research on substitutes. And maybe try some other places.

Step 2: La Merced Market.

Matt and I had planned to go check out Mexico City’s biggest market, La Merced, before we left town, so the weekend before he left for Chiapas, we headed over there. I was determined to find some ground cloves, and maybe some of the other things on my list. La Merced may be the biggest market in the Americas. It is enormous. Stalls sell products in mayoreo or menudeo, in bulk or individually. Its mayoreo business stocks all the smaller markets in Mexico City and maybe some of the grocery stores. And like most Mexican markets, it has everything. When we came up from the subway station, right in the middle of the market, we picked a direction and started walking. We walked past candy booths with an assortment of traditional sweets, Christmas decorations with strings of lights that not only blinked but sang, women selling traditional handicrafts, and stocks of winter hats and scarves. We found our way out to the street and navigated the edges. I considered buying some cookie sheets at booths that also stocked industrial size sinks and deep fat fryers. Matt got distracted by a section stocked by soccer jerseys and went to check the quality and price. We wandered back in to the middle of the market, and found an entire building full of flowers, mostly silk, giant arrangements and single stalks and Christmas garlands made with fake Poinsettias, or Nochebuenas as they are called here. After wandering for an hour or so, we stumbled onto the food section, where you could buy 25-pound bags of limes for $3, select from dozens of flavors of jello mix by the kilo by scooping it from giant buckets, and find any kind of bean imaginable. They also stocked cones of piloncillo, a raw sugar product that I hoped to substitute for brown sugar in my Thanksgiving recipes. I bought a ½ kilo and then set out to look for ground cloves. When I found a booth carrying them (after passing booths selling giant sides of dried and salted fish and several with whole spices), the man quoted me a price for the kilo. When I said I only needed a little bit, he gave me more than would fit in a McCormick spice jar at home for 5 pesos, less than fifty cents. We snaked our way through more vegetable booths, with piles of tomatoes lit by hanging lightbulbs with red paper around them to make them look riper. My objectives accomplished, we set out to look for pirated music for Matt. We never found any, but stumbled upon some rolling pins that would make my pie-baking easier. When we headed for home, I was in proud possession of my baking supplies.

Step 3: Wal-Mart

Of course, I realized once I was halfway through making the apple pie that I didn’t have any pie pans, a problem since I was planning to bake three pies. I folded the crust into a deep dish round pan – it would have to do – and started making a list for Wal-Mart, about a mile down the road from our house. Wal-Mart Mexico is pretty nuts, if only because it is almost exactly like Wal-Mart USA. The aisles don’t feel quite so closely clustered together, and the grocery section is organized like Mexican grocery stores (with flour labeled on the overhead sign as “pancake flour”, with fish laid out on ice rather than behind glass counters, with leaf lettuce almost impossible to find), but the aisle with pots and pans was familiar, and the clothes were “George” brand, and the aisles of shampoos held the variety and brands I am used to from home. Another big difference: a makeup display advertising a sale was monitored by an armed guard. I wove my way through the aisles, picked out a 3-pack of disposable pie tins, hit the baking aisle in search of unexpected treasures and found baking soda – a real prize! – and walked home laden with more than I had expected to buy.

After all these shopping trips, I was ready to bake. The final tally: one apple pie, two chocolate pecan pies, snickerdoodles, peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, chocolate chocolate chip cookies, and banana bread. Still to make: one plantain pie, best eaten the day it is baked.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! We miss you!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Extra! Extra!

Read all about it! The New York Times has a special travel section on Chiapas right now! There are lots of fantastic pictures and a funny little video, if you click around. Clearly the reporter's priorities are a little different from ours, but it's still cool. Check it out here.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Getting Ready for Chiapas

In the 1930s, in Mexico´s southernmost state of Chiapas, a little girl travelled to her family´s ranch for the holidays. She made the journey as generations of the state´s white landowners had done, and as at least one generation to come would still do, sitting on a chair strapped to the back of an Indian. Her mother travelled on the back of another man, her little brother on the back of a third, perched for days on their mounts, up rainforest-covered elevations and down steep ravines, in the suffocating heat of the dry season or through drenching rains. In Chiapas, long after the Mexican Revolution had brought the idea of equality, at least, to the rest of the country`s citizens, the owners of the state´s most productive land continued to use the destitute indigenous majority as beasts of burden, and considered this the rightful order of things. In the particular case of this little girl, however, several exceptional things occurred: as she grew up she came to understand the twisted nature of the relationship between her family and the people who served them; she remembered what she had seen; and she became a writer. In due course she wrote the novel we now have before us in a fluid and powerful translation whose English title is stunningly apt: The Book of Lamentations.

-from Alma Guillermoprieto`s introduction to Rosario Catellanos´1962 novel The Book of Lamentations, which I have been reading these last few days.


On Monday morning the Mexico Semester Program leaves for Chiapas for a mini-course within the program called "The Prophetic Role of the Church." Now, I think sometimes in the larger church we overuse the word "prophetic" without really understanding what it means. But it`s hard to speak of Chiapas without feeling like a cry for justice is desperately needed. I have already included a few Chiapas links in an earlier post, but the Wikipedia entry here is especially helpful.

I´ve been spending much of the last week reading up on the recent history of the Chiapanecos, mostly in a book called The People`s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas and Why He Matters by Gary MacEoin. As the title indicates, MacEoin goes into detail about Bishop Ruiz and his ministry of accompaniment and empowerment among the indigenous peoples surrounding San Cristobal de las Casas.

But MacEoin also goes into detail to show that the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 was no aberration, was no bizarre blip, was in fact more than just a part of some raucous Rage Against the Machine video. The living indigenous of Mexico have always been treated as a second class, even as their history and handcrafts are lifted up as part of the Mexico`s glorious national story. Many indigenous do not speak Spanish but indigenous languages - languages spoken before the European conquerors arrived - like Nahuatl or Tzotzil or any other of the 62 indigenous languges spoken in Mexico.

This is always a stunning thought experiment for me: People are always saying immigrants to the United States should learn English. For pragmatic reasons this probably makes sense. But imagine that you are not an immigrant, imagine that this is the land of your ancient ancestors who have lived here for thousands of years and who have spoken the language that you now speak. But now that language no longer counts. Now that language isolates you, marginalizes you, makes it impossible for you to participate fully in the life of your country. You have to learn a foreign language to live in your homeland.

But the language problem is small compared to another problem: an insidious racism that says native Americans are not as perfect, not as human as those with European blood. As recently as the 20th century elaborate (and insane) hierarchies developed in which Spanish (or, more often in Chiapas, German!) landowners were at the top of society; those of mixed descent, of Spanish and indigenous parents, known usually as mestizos (or in Chiapas as Ladinos) who now make up most of Mexican society, were somewhere in between; and the "purely" indigenous were at the very bottom. While awful traces of this continue to exist throughout Mexico, Chiapas remains even today one of the worst places for it, in part because of the state`s mountainous isolation.

But even these atrocities might be overcome were it not for brutal economic oppression. In the 1930s President Lazaro Cardenas travelled through Mexico, enforcing land reform rules that returned ejido land (click on that link! it´s very important to understanding this!) to its original owners and made Mexican society just a little fairer. He was Mexico`s FDR (same time period, too, which I don´t think is a coincidence). But Cardenas´reforms didn`t reach Chiapas. It was too isolated, too far south, too far into the mountains, its wealthy landowners too entrenched and too unwilling to give up their brutal power.

Still, for decades poor Chiapanecos hoped that one day the equalizing laws would be enforced. Then, in 1991, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari changed the law, effectively ending the ejido system. It was necessary, he said, for Mexico to be accepted into NAFTA. At that point, the Chiapan indigenous realized their fate. Signs sprang up all throughout Chiapas that said it roughly painted black letters: "NAFTA=a death sentence for the indigenous of Mexico." Of course, nobody in the national government much cared what they thought. And so some Chiapanecos saw two options: Die, or fight. On January 1, 1994, armed masked rebel fighters took over San Cristobal de las Casas and five other municipalities within Chiapas.

Was it too extreme a response? I don´t know. We´ve seen what extremely "free" trade has done in the US: It has funneled wealth from the bottom to the top. The rich have become richer, raisin the GDP, but the poor have only become poorer. Wages, adjusted for inflation, have not risen - they have dropped. Lots of people are opposed to this neoliberal economic model, but they hardly ever get to have a say, because others see it as a pre-ordained system, totally beyond debate or even explanation. It`s eerily similar to the way some folks talk about their religion.

Well. Enough of that, but it`s important to recognize that perspective to understand why the Zapatistas felt they had no other option. Their "rebellion" wasn`t even so much a violent uprising so much as a publicity stunt to gain attention. I suppose that I continue to think their cry for justice on January 1, 1994, was a positive event, a necessary act to achieve publicity to get the powers to pay attention because they sure as heck weren`t paying attention to these people before.

But is harder. Recently during the 2006 Mexican presidential election the Zapatistas ran "The Other Campaign" which presented itself as an alternative to the other candidates running for office, candidates roughly analagous to a Democrat and a Republican in the U.S. The Other Campaign presented no candidate, but instead Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the Zapatistas, traveled around the country listening to individuals and organizations speak out about their experiences, their hopes, their dreams. But he refused to run for office or to endorse either candidate.

To me this is like Nader in 2000 but worse. Democracy matters! Elections have consequences! And now in late November 2008 I ponder these things with the words of President-Elect Barack Obama ringing in my ears:

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

Mexico has - or at least says it has - a democracy, too. Better experts than I can judge whether Mexico`s democracy is better or worse than ours. But I don´t understand why Subcomandante Marcos doesn´t just run for office. Last night former Kevin Johnson, former Phoenix Suns point guard and now mayor of Sacramento, was on the Colbert Report. He said he decided to run for mayor because, well, there were a lot of problems in Sacramento and he believed he could do a better job than the current mayor. So he ran. And he won. He makes it sound so simple! But of course, in real life it´s not so simple. And yet...and yet, it is, isn´t it? Obama built an organization, and through a lot of hard work by a lot of people he won election to the highest office in our land. Now he has a chance to make some real changes. Not the chance to fix everything, but certainly the chance to make some real changes. Why not do the same, Marcos?

I continue to wrestle with this problem. But I know it´s not so simple, too. I know context matters. I know the situation in Chiapas is not the same as that of Chicago. People struggle for change in both places, but they face different opposition. Context matters.

In December 1997, nearly four years after the Zapatista uprising, there was a massacre in the village of Acteal in Chiapas. The community had a reputation for being sympathetic to the Zapatistas. In retribution for this sympathetic attitude, paramilitary groups - whom the government knew existed and still refuses to prosecute - attacked Acteal, killing not just men and women but young children and pregnant women. Click on this link and look just at the ages of the people killed. What army could do something like this? Is it any wonder that when thins like this happen people hate their government and sympathize with Zapatistas? In the face of horrors like this, what else can we do but sit in stunned silence, full of grief, anger, and, worst of all, helplessness?

Next week we go to Chiapas. We will visit Acteal. We will hear the stories of the people. And we hope, we pray, we fervently hope and pray that we might begin to discern the role of the people of God in a world like this.

We ask your prayers, too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Photo Gallery: Monte Alban and Zaachila

More photos from our week in Oaxaca...including a few with us in them. :) These are from our excursions outside Oaxaca City, into the little town of Zaachila and the mountaintop ruins of Monte Alban.

Oaxaca: Monte Alban and Zaachila

Monday, November 10, 2008

Photo Gallery: Oaxaca City

Here are some photos from our visit to Oaxaca City last week. Enjoy! (And check back tomorrow for photos from Monte Alban and Zaachila!)

Oaxaca City

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Back in D.F.

We're back "home," after taking the red-eye bus back to Mexico City and stumbling into bed bleary-eyed around 7am this morning. We had a great week in Oaxaca, and I hope to post some pictures and stories soon.

The stories may be way later, though, because this will be a busy week. Next Monday, November 17, the Mexico Semester Program moves to Chiapas for about ten days. (Chris will be staying in D.F., continuing her research and preparing for our move to Guadalajara in December.) There's a lot of work to do before I leave. Blog work may be spotty for a couple of weeks here, but I'm excited about the prospect of visiting San Cristobal de las Casas and hanging out with Zapatistas.

Thanks for continuing to check up on us! Stay tuned...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night Aftermath

The TV in the pizza place just switched over to TV Azteca, which is reporting in Spanish (obviously) on the election.  TV Azteca has several people reporting live from Chicago, where we're seeing the same sweeping vistas of that beautiful skyline the rest of you all are.

Things we are feeling at the moment:

1. Elation that it looks like Barack Obama has actually won the presidency of the United States!  (Imagine that exclamation point multiplied by a gzillion)

2.  Hope against hope that he might actually win Indiana.  Chris is especially excited about this one.  (Explanation: We used to live in Indiana, and we're shocked that this is even a possibility.) 

3.  Bittersweetness that we're not in Chicago right now.  We're looking at the photos of thousands of people in Grant Park on TV...that's our home!  So there's a little homesickness too.

4.  But mostly elation.  :-) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ok odd interruption - trucks of heavily armed military officers in camo just stopped outside the pizza place.  Are they worried that the expats are going to riot in the streets of Oaxaca?  Or are they just stopping for a churro at the stand across the's not clear.  (Well, nobody else seems worried, so I guess we won't be either.  (Ok, they are definitely eating snacks now.  Rifle in one hand, bag of pork rind in the other.  Nice.)

(Btw, you guys are following this blog in real time, right?  It's,, and us, right?)


Yes we did.

Oaxacan Travelers for Obama!

We are in Oaxaca in a pizza place - El Sagrario, right behind the main cathedral - watching election returns on CNN International.  Right now CNN reporter John King is interviewing rapper Will.I.Am via hologram.  Surreal!  

By the way, American travelers and expats have packed this place - they've probably all seen through the restaurant window that CNN is on.  From what we can hear, there is unanimous support for Obama - including from our waiter.

Still waiting on an official call about the election, but according to, it sounds like Grant Park back home in Chicago is nuts right now....

Sunday, November 2, 2008


Phew! That's a lot of Day of the Dead posts lately. And it's been a lot of classes these last few months, too. So, Chris and I are going on vacation. Woo-hoo! :)

I have the next week off of classes, so we're going to take advantage of the time and head to Oaxaca, about a 6-hour bus ride southeast of Mexico City. During the week I may post and I may not, we'll see what the Wi-Fi situation is like, as always.

Btw, that last post - "Convention of Catrinas" - also marked the 100th blog post on Adventures Across the Border! (Cue balloon drop and Just a quick big THANK-YOU to everyone reading and especially those of you posting comments. This is fun. :)

Convention of Catrinas

La Calavera de la Catrina is a famous skeletal drawing (ok, technically zinc etching) by late 19th century/early 20th century Mexican political cartoonist Jose Guadalupe Posada. You can read about la Catrina, and Posada, here. Since Posada first drew her she's become a kind of icon, instantly recognizable, the queen of the million other calaveras (skeletons) dancing around Mexico every Dia de los Muertos. Posada's etchings were highly political (and hugely influential): In the years just before, during, and after Mexico's revolution, Posada drew politicians of the day as skeletons, as if to say, underneath all the trappings of power, they face the same fate you and I do. Fitting for these last few days before a presidential election...

Anyway, last weekend the Jardin Borda (literally "Borda Garden" - it's kind of a botanical park) in Cuernavaca held a contest to see who could make the best life-size Catrina. You can see pictures of the Catrinas below.

Cuernavaca Catrina Contest

Photo Gallery: Vivos y Muertos en Ocotepec

Photos from la Noche de los Muertos. The story of the evening follows in the post just below. Btw, you may want to go directly to the Picasa photo gallery for this one (by clicking on the image underneath the slideshow) - some of these pictures are worth seeing close up.

Vivos y Muertos en Ocotepec

The Living and the Dead

…And on the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.


It was November 1st, el Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Chris met me in Cuernavaca, where the Lutheran Center was putting us up for the night in a tranquil Catholic retreat center. When we arrived in the evening the workers in the retreat center – the cooks, gardeners, gringa volunteers, and one Dominican sister – had lit the candles for their ofrenda.

The ofrenda, the traditional way to welcome the coming dead, looked like this: Two tables of different heights, like a little staircase, stood at one wall, covered with white tablecloth and colorful papel picado and laden with bright orange marigolds (here called cempasúchitl or simply flores del muerto – flowers of the dead), sugar skulls, sugar crosses, bread (pan de muerto), fruit, peanuts, and even a bowl of molé. At the back of the ofrenda table, leaned against the wall, was a frame with seven or eight photos in it. In the photos were loved ones who had died – a grandmother, a husband, a co-worker, even a family pet.

It was only a little larger than the one I had seen earlier in the home of my host family. When I arrived on Friday evening, there it was, next to the kitchen table, white tablecloth, papel picado, two big pots of marigolds, some bread and fruit, a dish with rice and a chicken leg covered in mole, and a shot of tequila. It was for a grandpa, an aunt, and an uncle; a photo of each of them lay propped up on the ofrenda. A candle was lit, too, and stayed burning all night long.

It is a privilege, a blessing to be witness to something so intimate. Yet every year the people of Ocotepec, a little village just outside of Cuernavaca, invite the world to be a part of their Dia de los Muertos. The Dominican sister gave us a brief explanation of how it would go down. Thousands of people walk the streets, lining up outside the homes of those who had died in the last year, waiting to be invited in, to see the ofrenda and pay their respects and maybe hear a story about the person who had died, to offer a candle to the family, to drink a little ponche and eat some tamale, and then: on to the next house.

We began at Ocotepec’s church, the Iglesia del Divino Salvador. In the daylight it might have looked like any other gorgeous hundreds-of-years-old church – they are in every village in Mexico, a holy wonder of the world spread out over an entire country. But as we walked under the arched entrance we could see that the place had been transformed for this night. A path of shredded orange marigolds, lit by candles in paper bags, lined the path to the church. Off to the left, in the courtyard, a ring of candles market the spot where indigenous dances were being carried out, a blur of masks and feathers and drumbeats. We walked on into the church, where a massive ofrenda lay between the pews and the altar. Had a priest died in the last year? No: This ofrenda, complete with a photo of the deceased, was for the parish sacristan, who had died only months ago after serving as sacristan for fifty-five years.

We left the church and walked to the first house, stopping to buy some candles along the way. An archway of orange marigolds marked the entrance, and a sign over the door read Bienvenido Papa: Esta es tu casa – Welcome Dad: This is your house. On the Dia de los Muertos, the dead are said to make an annual return to visit their homes, so this homemade sign welcomed back a father who had died within the last twelve months. But the words “this is your house” also welcomed the long line of people filing in underneath the flowery archway in the darkness.

Again the path to the ofrenda was lined with shredded orange marigolds and lit by candles in brown paper bags. Inside the ofrenda looked like this: A bed, with clothes of the deceased, including shoes, laid out on the bed to look as if the person was lying in it. Where the head would be there was a life-size sugar skull, complete with decorative eyes and teeth. Candles surrounded the bed. At the foot of the bed was food, and lots of it. A whole chicken in a pot of mole, bowls and baskets overflowing with fruits and vegetables, side dishes galore, a case of Victoria (a dark beer made in Mexico), a case of Coca-Cola, and a whole bottle of tequila. It was as if the dead man were not just returning alone but bringing all of his friends from Mictlan, the land of the dead, for a party, the living and the dead together for one night a year. We accepted our own party favors – a cup of ponche (a punch usually made of pear, apple, guayaba, and sometimes spiked with liquor) and a hot chicken tamale and sat down with other visitors in white plastic chairs.

Over several hours we made our way through seven or eight homes, standing in long lines at each one. One man’s sugar skull wore a gray White Sox hat; another man’s photo featured him with a guitar he must have loved in life – and then there was the guitar itself, set out next to the bed, as if the dead man, upon returning, might pick it up and begin to play for all of his guests. Favorite clothes, favorite musical instruments, favorite foods – all were laid out with care, ready for the homecoming.

Despite the colorful fiesta atmosphere, a few nearly choked us up. At one there was an archway made entirely of flowers that spelled out “Bienvenida Mama! – Welcome Mom!” On the way in there were draped purple-and-white decorations lovingly made entirely by hand out of straws and construction paper. The mother’s clothes, laid out on her bed in a lifelike pose with a giant sugar skull at the head, included a traditional-looking apron, with little white shoes at her feet. Chris said it was like you could almost see a person’s life, right there in their clothes: This woman spent her life in the kitchen – or maybe on the street, where we have seen so many women in these indigenous-style aprons, selling little candies and knick-knacks. She was the kind of woman you normally wouldn’t notice, unless you were waving off her attempts to sell you a necklace or a pack of Chiclets. But here she lay, beloved, surrounded by colorful flowers and bright candles, with food at her feet, a thousand strange people walking by the ofrenda her family had created to welcome her home.

And the smells, the smells were overwhelming. There were the flowers, fresh flowers everywhere, always brightly colored, usually orange. And the food, some of it still cooking. We imagined these families, gathering together in the days leading up to this weekend, working together to make hundreds of tamales by hand, for visitors they didn’t even know, including some like us, from other countries, who must have looked like garish tourists.

But on this night, here in little Ocotepec and all over Mexico, we all were welcomed warmly, offered a hot drink and a little something to eat. No distinction was made between the friend and the foreigner, the rich and the poor, the spirit and the flesh, the living and the dead. Gracias a Dios.