Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Back Across the Border

We are at last, home. Home!!! Will write more later. :)

Monday, July 13, 2009

¡En el camino!

Bags packed and ready to go... Tapping into some wireless internet at the airport Starbucks, gotta love it... flight leaves in 3 hours... we're on the way!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Estamos en México...

...but only for a few more hours. Our time here has come to an end.

Tomorrow, at 9:54 AM, we'll leave Mexican soil and arrive in (appropriately enough) Washington, D.C. some four-and-a-half hours later. Barring any flight delays, we'll be in Chicago by 6:30 PM, home again with family (with more family to come soon!) at last.

We awoke this morning in the light of the Mexican sun, looked outside and saw the green trees and red-and-purple flowers, heard the birds chirping and - yes - the cars speeding by on the busy street. Still lying in bed, I stared out into that Mexican sunlight for a long while. It will be strange to wake up on Tuesday in another land, another place, another patch of creation on God's great earth.

Thanks again, a hundred times over, for all of your well-wishes, blog comments, emails, thoughts, prayers and everything else you've sent our way this year. It's helped to sustain us, more than we can say. ¡Muchas gracias a todos - y hasta pronto!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Photo Gallery: Mexico City's Southside

In which: Matt & Chris visit peacocks at the Dolores Olmedo Museum of Diego & Frida stuff, Estadio Azteca, and the Tres Coyotes taco stand. Awesome day. Only 3 days to go!

Pavos Reales, Estadio Real, Tacos Reales

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Photo Gallery: Museo Nacional de la Antropologia

More fun in Mexico City! Another short photo gallery, fully captioned.

Museo Nacional de la Antropologia

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

New Blog

Hey all... It's that time of year. Time to start a new blog and shamelessly self-promote it on the old blog! Be the first on your block to bookmark this brand new, just-created website:

As with the current blog, the new blog will no doubt evolve and change over the first few weeks and months. There probably won't be much on it for a month or so until after we get back to the States (think mid-August). And, ultimately, as you might imagine, I won't be writing nearly as much as I did this year, since I'll be immersed in internship instead of swimming in free time.

But I do hope to post a story or a photo album when I can. I'm also thinking that next year my writing will be less travelogue (though there will be some of that, as I've never lived in the Pacific Northwest!) but more introspective and "extrospective" (?) thinking about vocation - a different focus for a different kind of year. No matter what sort of epistle eventually finds its way online - whether from me or, I hope, Chris! - you'll be able to find them by pointing Firefox to the address above.

PS - The new blog title comes from a U2 song (and of course references the Puget Sound). Ten points to whoever can identify the song (I'm looking at you, From Michigan With Love - you're the only reader who I know who owns this album)...

Photo Gallery: Day in D.F.

This week I'm exploring the city while Chris does a few final days of research in Mexico City's various archives. On Tuesday I went to check out a fantastic exhibit of colonial missionary art, climbed the bell tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral, and stumbled upon another exhibit of super-modern art with spiritual themes. It was pretty great.

Since I want to go right out exploring again today, I figured I'd just post a short photo album with captions instead of regaling my readers with tales of the day. Enjoy!

Day in D.F.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Monday, July 6, 2009

Photo Gallery: Back to Coyoacan

Photos from our weekend back in Mexico City, fully captioned.

Back to Coyoacan

Transition Journal: Back to the City

Is this place for real? We lived here for nearly five months last fall; I thought I’d remember how it is. But I was wrong.

We left Lagos before dawn and almost immediately fell asleep on the bus. When we awoke, it was light out, but the greater change was in the landscape. No longer were we surrounded by the dry brown land dotted with arid spindly trees and cactus-like maguey plants. Instead we looked out the window and saw one color: Green. We were definitely heading south.

Soon we approached the city. Smaller homes and businesses began appearing outside the window, the poorest areas of the city ringing the wealthy interior. The buildings grew in number, and grew, and grew. The city went on and on and on, and still we were not at the bus station. We had forgotten just how big the city is, a population center of 25 million people that makes the population of 100,000 in Lagos de Moreno seem even smaller than it really is. (This, I realize, is why I always thought of Lagos as “a small town.”)

We drag our luggage out of the bus to a taxi and take off. The first thing we notice are the billboards, billboards that tower over you advertising all manner of movie, cell phone, and political candidate – and the political advertisements in the city, we notice, are very different, with very different emphases, from the political ads in rural Los Altos. And, now that we are back in the city, we spend an unfortunate chunk of our taxi ride haggling with the taxi driver over the price of the ride and the admittedly heavy weight of our stuff. He expects a big tip, and we give it to him. Welcome to the city.

The whole place feels like another planet. People have asked me about culture shock going back and forth between the US and Mexico twice this year. But the real culture shock is not crossing some arbitrary border; the real culture shock is going between the monster of Mexico City to the sunny SoCal feel of Guadalajara to the dry rural ranchlands of Los Altos and then coming full circle by returning to the Mexico City monster that eats you alive as you enter it. That, my friends, is culture shock.

But for all the culture shock of our taxi ride, arriving at the Lutheran Center feels, oddly, like coming home, or at least coming to a kind of home. We’ve been here before. We’ve lived here before. The maintenance man on duty opens the door for us; he’s a familiar face, and we greet him by name. They’ve repainted the buildings in the Lutheran center to a bright yellow; that’s a change, but a good one – it looks great. We drag our stuff up the stairs into what will be our room for the next week, our final home in Mexico, and then we head out to find some food.

On Sunday we sleep in – we were exhausted – and then have breakfast at our favorite restaurant in San Angel; the food is cheap and good and plentiful. We walk to Coyoacan, our favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. The leafy streets that lead to it are even leafier than we remember; the sun dapples down through the trees throughout our walk on this beautiful Sunday afternoon.

When we visited Coyoacan in the fall its main plaza was torn up and fenced off; the neighborhood was still cool but a giant chain-link fence blocking your way at every other turn brings the prettiness level down significantly. But now we find – wonder of wonders! – that the fences are gone, people fill the plaza, and at the plaza’s center a fountain shoots water over a sculpture of two bronze coyotes at play. Did we mention this is our favorite neighborhood?

And to walk through Coyoacan’s market stands… San Juan de Los Lagos is full of merchants selling their wares, too, but San Juan’s wares are principally religious or bedding-related; lots of shiny rosaries and Chivas blankets abound. But there is not a rosary to be seen in Coyoacan. No, this market is more affected by the massive university of the UNAM a few blocks from here than by any Catholic basilica; its wares are made by who Luis would call los jipis (Spanish for hippies) and political activists and indigenous artisans selling all manner of colorful arts and crafts. Chris finds a scarf – so popular at the UNAM – and I find a magazine full of guitar chords for Café Tacuba songs. Then we stop at an unpretentious taco place on the main square to watch Mexico take on Nicaragua in the Gold Cup soccer tournament.

Ah, Mexico City. For all your craziness, we’d forgotten how much we liked you.

Photo Gallery: Los Altos de Jalisco, Ultimos Días

Photos from our last days in the Highlands of Jalisco, with captions and everything.

Los Altos de Jalisco, Ultimos Días

Transition Journal: Adios a Los Altos

Editor's note: I cannot possibly describe the fullness of our experience of last few days. But this is my attempt to try.

San Juan

I will never forget my first trip to San Juan de Los Lagos – mainly because of how we arrived. We walked for four hours to get there, following pilgrims along the side of the highway under a hot afternoon sun in the semi-desert of West-Central Mexico. Pilgrims on the road: this is how I was introduced to Our Lady of the Migrants, “Chris’s girl,” La Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos.

I accompanied Chris to San Juan twice in our last week in Los Altos. The first time, on Tuesday, I mainly went for the tamales and ended up being swept up in a whirlwind adventure with one of San Juan’s most colorful characters. (Later I discovered our tour guide depicted in a painted mural in the municipal building. That’s right. He’s so famous in San Juan that he’s in the mural. Seriously.) And then the second time, on Thursday, I was privileged to accompany Chris as she said her last goodbyes to la Virgencita.

I was supposed to be a research assistant during this leg of the trip, a role I haven’t exactly filled all that well. Appropriately enough, then, Chris decided to put me to work on her last day. We went into the archives of the parish church (a smaller church for locals, distinct from the virgen’s Basilica). Entry into these nationally-certified archives involves a very simple procedure: Chris smiles hello to the church secretary, who waves her on distractedly. Chris briefly explains who I am, but nobody cares. This is, Chris tells me, a very different procedure from the bureaucratic monster of the National Archives in Mexico City, where gloves, a face mask, and most of all certified credentials and identification are a must.

Our goal for the day, Chris told me, was to count all of the marriage records between 1957 and 1972. She had already taken oodles of data from these records, but did not yet have an accurate count of exactly how many there were. Given the organization of these records, this task involved counting our way through 80 heavily hardbound books. Chris figured we could do this in about 2 hours. An incredulous look washed over my face, but I quickly rubbed it away: Today, as they say in Mexico markets, I am a sus ordenes – at your service.

We flipped through page after yellowing page, sometimes moving quickly, sometimes very slowly, depending on the quality of organization for each set of records. As lunchtime neared, we realized we weren’t going to finish on time. The parish closes for lunch at 2pm, and besides, Chris had an appointment for lunch, a goodbye meal with one of her local contacts. We would have to return later in the afternoon, after the parish re-opened two-and-a-half hours later.

(That’s right: Two-and-a-half hours for lunch. Now, it’s the main meal of the day and you probably won’t eat go home from work for the evening meal until 8 or 9 pm, so it all makes sense, but still: Subway used to give me fifteen minutes for a lunch break. Fifteen minutes versus two-and-a-half hours. I like Mexico better.)

While Chris dined with her compañera for the last time, I grabbed some food at a grocery store and wandered around San Juan’s markets. It’s funny: Every previous time I’ve visited these markets I’ve barely given them a second look. It always seemed like there would be another time, yet now… now I have no time. I avoided the rosaries and virgencita dolls, which we already have enough of, but was drawn in by the soccer jerseys, which we… ok, which we also have enough of. But now I discovered that amid the cheap knock-offs were some really high quality jerseys. I admired them longingly. (My future internship supervisor asked me how Mexico had changed me. Does “I became a die-hard soccer fan” count?)

After the long lunch break I waited for Chris at the archives, and then we went back in for a second round. I told Chris about the soccer jerseys. She promised to buy me one for my birthday when we were done in the archives. Suddenly I moved twice as fast as I had in the morning… We finished our counting, said goodbye to the parish secretary for the last time, and went out into the streets of San Juan.

I told Chris I still hadn’t seen the murals in the municipal building up-close, so we stopped to see them before we left. They were, I was surprised to find, amazing, one of the best murals in the country right here in a public building that I’d walked by dozens of times without even thinking about it. In the mural, the Virgen of San Juan was front and center, of course, but the artist presented her in a way I’d never thought about her – or rather, in a way I’d forgotten to think about her in the midst of all my theological wrestling.

There she was, held up by two local people, depicted in a golden dress filled with the outlines of dozens of human faces. Behind her was the map-like shape of the country of Mexico, full of people coming from every direction to San Juan de Los Lagos, where a mother and daughter were planting a tree in the center of town, in the shade of the basilica. Here in this place, the mural seemed to say, people are brought together. They bring their sick, their weak, their little ones, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, here, in this place, where they are all gathering together, the ones they love will be healed, the ones they love will be made whole.

Before we went to the bus station, we stopped in the basilica to say goodbye to the virgen. We stood for a few moments in silence as the priest spoke the words of the afternoon mass, and then Chris turned to me. “Ok,” she whispered. “I’m ready.” And then we left.

Lagos de Moreno

I woke up on Friday, our last day in Lagos, feeling great. It was the end of a strange spring, a time in my life that was likely never to be repeated or even imitated, and the goodbye was certain to be bittersweet. But at first I only felt sweetness, a gratitude for this time, a happiness at having been alive in this place for these four months.

I went out for my last run in the park, and pounded the dirt with my tennis shoes for nearly an hour. I ate breakfast, and went to pick up the laundry. We packed our things, and our suitcases slowly filled up. Luis, our landlord, stopped by to show the apartment to some prospective tenants. He promised to pick us up the next morning – at an absurdly early hour – to take us and our things to the bus station. And then we packed some more.

We went to lunch at our favorite torta place, and ordered our usuals, our two delicious meals combined costing us less than a lone Big Mac would back home. We took a long walk, looping around our favorite old haunts – the Templo de Merced, the Rinconada de Capuchinas, the central plaza. We walked up Calvario hill and gazed out at the landscape for an hour or more, remembering the times we’ve had here.

They haven’t been easy times, not by a long shot. I’ve struggled to figure out what to do with infinite free time that sometimes seemed to stretch out endlessly before me. Chris left the library behind and struggled to do her work by a method, oral history, that she’d never tried before, a method that called for skills she was honing for the first time in her life. Both of us struggled to figure out how to live in a context different from any we’d experienced before. This place, Los Altos de Jalisco, was as different from Guadalajara and Mexico City as Mexico is from the United States. We had essentially started our journey all over again when we moved here in March. We had to figure everything out again from scratch; we had to start again.

And yet, and yet. This was the place where it happened, all the good and all the bad. This was the place where we struggled, where we learned, where we grew. We had good days and bad days, days that felt wasted and days so filled with good things we could hardly believe they all really happened. All of it here, in this place. We are ready to move on, ready for the future. But this place, after all that has happened here, will always be a part of who we are.

We went back home to finish up our packing and then went out into a Lagos evening for the last time. Before I joined Chris at the coffee shop, however, I wanted to stop at my barbershop one more time. I did need my hair cut, but, truth be told, I also wanted to say goodbye to my barber, who had always been friendly to me.

I walked in, feeling awkward as ever about my Spanish; somehow all my language learning seems to evaporate the moment I walk through the doorway of that place. But my barber was happy to see me anyway. I told him we were leaving in the morning. “Oh,” he said, “that’s too bad.” The radio was playing music broadcast from the local cultural center, Casa Serrano. The barber pointed this out, and then was shocked to discover that I had never visited it. He starts quizzing me about Lagos culture. “Do you know the writers from Lagos?” I name Mariano Azuela, author of Los de Abajo, the most famous novel of the Mexican Revolution. “Si, y que mas? – Yes, and who else?” Um…I name Juan Rulfo, another famous author from Jalisco, but of course this is the wrong answer because Juan Rulfo is not from Lagos. I am in for a lesson, I can see that already…

My barber names four other authors, and gives me the titles of their books. Then he moves on the visual arts, and shows me a magazine with the work of a Lagos artist inside. “This artist lives just down the street,” he tells me. Then he goes in a new direction: “Did you know that I am also an artist? I meet regularly with other artists in town, we have a little artist’s collective.” I look around at the paintings on the wall – which are, quite frankly, really good. “Are these yours?” Si, he says, of course! He finishes cutting my hair and asks if I’d like to see more of his work. Sure, I say. He takes me upstairs, behind the barbershop, to his tiny workshop.

There must be a hundred paintings in here, some huge and covering the entire wall, some small and finely detailed. They are done in a variety of styles and with a variety of materials. Many of them are of local places and people, Lagos landmarks and Lagos characters. All of them are excellently rendered, professional, clearly the work of someone who knows what he is doing.

“I am in a group with other Lagos artists,” he tells me again. “Some of them paint, others sculpt, some are musicians and some are writers.” I nod, but he isn’t satisfied that I understand. “We have so much culture here in Lagos! There are many artists here, and lots of culture.” And then I get it. Here in the upstairs artist studio of a local barber I realize – no, I am told flat-out – that after four long months I still haven’t seen the half of this place. There is so much I still don’t know about these people.

I leave feeling amazed. Who goes to get their hair cut and ends up seeing the barber’s personal art studio? I find Chris at the coffee shop. We think about saying a long goodbye to the baristas, but they’re busy with the Friday night rush, so we suffice with an “hasta luego – see you later” – they respond with the familiar “¡que te vaya muy bien! – may you travel well!” – and we walk out of there for the last time.

On the way home, I insist that we stop into the Super Fruteria produce store to say goodbye to its manager, who has always been so incredibly friendly to us. Luckily, it is still open, and he is there. He gives us a big smile, as always, and greets us by name: “¡Hola Cristina! Hola Mateo!” We tell him we are leaving, and his smile disappears. “Ay no, already?” We chat for a few moments about Chicago, where, we discover for the first time, he has family. The things we don’t know about the people here…

Then he asks us the question everyone seems to be asking us when we say goodbye: “When will you be back to visit?” Someday, we say, but not for a few years. “But don’t you have any friends here to visit?” he asks. We look at each other and smile sheepishly. We’ve met lots of friendly people here, to be sure, many of whom know our faces and some of whom even know us by name. But friends? Not really, we think, and shake our heads no. “Well,” he says, “I hope you come back soon. Tiene un amigo aqui. You have a friend here.” He smiles a great big smile, shakes both our hands, and tells us to travel well.

As we go to bed in our mattress on the floor for the last time, I find myself unable to sleep, overwhelmed by these last few hours in Lagos. Chris and I have moved so many times in the last few years, from one state to another, from one country to another, from town to city to city to town. But, with the exception of saying goodbye to our friends at seminary, this is the first time that we have had to say goodbye to so many people, people we will probably never see again. It is a realization that says something about our time here, something I have only realized now, at the end of things.

In the morning, while it is still dark, I take one last look at the view from our rooftop. I say a prayer of thanksgiving, and then it is time to go. Luis picks us up in his truck and drives us to the bus station. We shake his hand and thank him for everything, and then we are off and on our way, our time in Jalisco finally come to an end.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Coyoacan = Awesome.

We had forgotten!

Had a great day in our favorite Mexico City neighborhood. Tomorrow Chris heads to the Archivo General de la Nación (the National Archives), while I hope to find a place to do some writing on Monday, the day when all of the city's museums are closed. Until then...

p.s. - this is our 300th post! (drop balloons...now)

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July from Mexico City!

We made it! Safely checked in here at the Lutheran Center in our old San Angel neighborhood in Mexico City. It actually kinda feels like home, or "a" home, which I suppose makes sense because we lived here for five months last fall. Still, it's kinda of a weird feeling, all this familiarity combined with the RADICAL culture shock of going from little Lagos to massive Mexico City. It's hard to overstate how crazy this experience is. Mexico City makes Chicago seem rural...

I hope to do some writing later this weekend to collect a some of my thoughts about the last couple of transitional - and, truth be told, emotional - days. The internet connection is not that reliable, though, so I can't predict when I'll post again - I hope soon. Thanks for continuing to keep up with us, as always.

Oh right - and Happy 4th of July!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Moving Day... Otra Otra Otra Otra Vez

(Above: In our beloved coffee shop for the last time.)

Well, friends, we're on the move again.

We've spent the last few days saying a lot of goodbyes to people and places. We thought we'd be used to this by now, and besides, we're excited to be heading home to waiting family and friends... and yet somehow it's still hard. Amidst the bittersweet feelings, though, we're also feeling really grateful - grateful to have had this time together in this place, grateful for the visits of friends and family who came here to visit us in Jalisco, grateful for all the thoughts and prayers that have helped sustain us, grateful for everything.

Tomorrow, before dawn, we leave for Mexico City, taking a six-hour bus ride to el D.F., where we'll check in at the Lutheran Center once again and begin the final week of our year in Mexico.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


So here's something fun I just discovered. Check out the "Adventures Across the Border" photo album.

Adventures Across the Border

Yep - it's our whole year in 476 pictures, all there on one page. I'm kind of bowled over by it.

An Unexpected Adventure to Kick Off July, My Favorite Month of the Year

(How's that for a Sufjan Stevens title?)

Yesterday Chris and I had an unexpected adventure. Well, for Chris it wasn’t so unexpected – she’s been doing stuff like this for months now. But for me it was definitely out of the ordinary.

I had gone to San Juan with Chris in the morning in the hopes of getting tamales for breakfast. We aren't eating at home much this week, ever since our gas tank ran empty. We didn't figure it was worth paying the forty dollars for another one for only one week, so we're living our last week in Lagos with cold showers and cold food. Yes, it's true - my adventures in the Mexican kitchen have come to an end.

By the time we arrived in Lagos it was pouring rain, but we found our tamales and champurrada and took shelter on some steps inside of one of San Juan’s many markets. After breakfast Chris had an appointment, but we agreed to meet in the afternoon to go visit a lesser-known church in San Juan, the Templo de Santo Niño de Mezquitic. For reasons I’ll explain later, I’d wanted to visit this church before we left Los Altos. (You might also notice that I didn't provide my usual Wikipedia link with this one - that's because Wikipedia has no entry for it. Nope, not even a short one. You know you're into deeply local territory when Wikipedia runs dry.)

While I waited for Chris, I went to mass at the Basilica, then re-read one of my Mexico anthologies in a coffee shop for a few hours. Finally it’s time, and Chris comes through the door to find me – only she has unexpected news. She had been interviewing one of San Juan’s elder statesmen at his home. “He says he’ll take us to Mezquitic in his car, and that we should eat lunch with he and his wife beforehand.” She shrugs apologetically at this change of plans, but there’s nothing for it; we have been invited and we must accept. She takes me to his house.

He and his wife are very welcoming and, truth be told, very funny. They tease each other throughout the meal, and I laugh whenever I understand the Spanish well enough. This is the first time I have shared a meal in a Mexican home since December; I realize how much I have missed it.

Then it is time to go, and we pile in his rusty red sedan and rumble our way down the street. Our plan was to go straight to Mezquitic, but when he finds out that we haven’t yet seen the panoramic view of San Juan from a nearby hill, he insists that we drive up there first.

This detour proves to be well worth it. I think I have seen this view of San Juan in postcards; from here you can see the river that runs along one side of the city – a river that has already begun its yearly refill now that the rainy season has begun – and all of the many churches and hotels that fill San Juan’s central district. As we climb through some barbed wire to get a better look at the panorama, I realize how much of San Juan, this city Chris has worked in for four long months, that I have never seen.

We pile back in the car and head around the edge of town to neighboring Mezquitic. The surrounding landscape is beautiful, much more beautiful than the landscape we’ve seen on bus rides back and forth from San Juan to Lagos to León. The land is green, much greener than it has been at any other time since we have lived here. No wonder the rainy season is so welcome…

Along the way we pass lots of massive posters and painted billboards for various political candidates, all of whom our driver seems to know personally. “¡Hola, Chacho!” he says as he passes one of these signs, which inevitably feature a giant photo of the candidate's face next to his nickname. Have I mentioned that our tour guide for the day has been speaking nonstop, with barely a moment’s pause? He’s a hoot, and regales us with stories of San Juan’s past and present, often breaking out into spontaneous song as we roll along the city’s streets and surrounding highways.

We also pass a treasured nineteen-year-old landmark in San Juan: The outdoor “stage” where Pope John Paul II gave mass during his papal visit here in May 1990. It’s a fascinating structure that looks as if someone placed part of a steepled church on top of an Aztec pyramid. But it’s fallen into disrepair, and the paint is peeling. Apparently it now sits unused, its precious green space empty, a permanently fenced-off reminder of a proud moment in San Juan’s history.

Finally we arrive in Mezquitic. Here in this outlying neighborhood of San Juan is a church like the Basilica of the Virgen, but smaller. It, too, is dedicated to a holy statue, but, well… smaller.

The Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos is a little shorter than my arm. The Santo Niño de Mezquitic is a statue of Jesus that is a little smaller than my thumb. He is so small, in fact, that very few people actually call him by his official and church-sanctioned name of Santo Niño de Mezquitic. Instead, he is known as… well, this is how the Los Altos tourist guide puts it in its helpfully-included English translation:

“Located at Mezquitic de la Magdalena, in San Juan de los Lagos, 4 kilometers away from the city, you can worship the image of a miraculous baby Jesus whose size is no bigger than a peanut. This is the reason why it is known as “El Niño del Cacahuate,” the Peanut Baby.”

Actually, I have more often heard this Santo Niño referred to as “El Niño del Cacahuatito,” which adds the diminutive “ito” to “cacahuate” and makes it the “Baby of the Little Peanut,” as if just plain “peanut” didn’t convey the smallness well enough.

In any case, the tourist guide is right: the Santo Niño de Mezquitic is small – really, really small. It could probably fit inside of a peanut. Like the Virgen de San Juan, el Santo Niño is also covered up to its head in an elaborately decorated triangle dress and placed on top of a stand behind a glass case.

Appropriately, its temple is also small – perhaps the smallest chapel we have seen in Mexico. As you enter it, though, its connection with the Basilica in nearby San Juan is proclaimed clearly: There is a poster with a photo of the Virgen de San Juan and underneath the words: “Encontraron al Niño con Maria, su Madre” – “You will find the Child with Mary, his Mother.”

Like the Basilica, the Templo del Santo Niño also features a room of retablos, prayers for miracles to come and thank-yous for miracles received. Unlike the Virgen de San Juan, however, el Santo Niño is a specialist: This room is almost exclusively full of baby clothes and little toys, usually with papers clipped to them on which are written prayers to the Santo Niño for protection of a baby or a small child.

On our way out of the temple, we stop to buy some peanuts (yes, they sell peanuts, cheekily, outside of the temple gates) and listen to a peanut-seller try to convince us that the Santo Niño de Mezquitic is older and more indigenous than the Virgen de San Juan. Our tour guide is not convinced, and tells them so, and then he continues on with our tour, which we had thought was at an end.

First we stop at the house of one of his friends to chat for a bit, then we drive on to the San Juan branch of the Cruz Roja Mexicana – the Mexican Red Cross. The Red Cross is very important to our tour guide; he drove ambulances as a Red Cross volunteer in San Juan for fifty years (his fifty-year celebration photos are on the wall here next to a parked ambulance). He gives us a tour of the center and shows us the two newest ambulances in the fleet. I have flashbacks of being in Nebraska, where we were also shown ambulances and hospitals as part of our area tour.

We look at the time – nearly seven o’clock, eight hours after Chris first began her appointment this morning. We need to catch a bus, and before that Chris has some books to return to another gentleman, so she tells our tour guide that, sadly, we need to go. Rather than bid us goodbye, however, he drives us to where Chris needs to drop off her books – a good distance up and down a hill – and then, seeing that we are about to miss our bus, races us to the bus station. The ticket agent at the counter tells us the bus has just left; he points at the bus as it turns the corner. Maybe we can catch it, he says. We say a quick goodbye to our tour guide and race down the street, running as fast as we can, until the bus finally notices us and opens its door to let us on.

We collapse on the bus and catch our breath, winded by our backpack-laden run but mostly exhausted from a very long day. It has been one of our last days in Los Altos; Chris has only two days left in San Juan de Los Lagos. Some of our best days, it seems, have been saved for last…

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Doña Maria's Gorditas

Editor's note: The following is a post from Chris - yes, Chris! Enjoy. :)

Put them in the column of things I will miss about Mexico, along with balloon sellers in public squares and sprawling tianguis selling everything from herbs and fish to Hollister tees and American Eagle polo shirts. Doña María and three of her daughters and daughters-in-law (cuñadas in Spanish, for once shorter than the English expression) sell gorditas outside her house five days a week. Gorditas are kin to tacos, thick baked corn patties sliced open and filled with stewed guisados of beans, potatoes, pork rind, or sliced chiles or nopales (cactus) prepared ahead of time and scooped into the steaming hot corn pocket. Doña María’s gorditas are extra special because she places her griddle, or comal, over a wood fire, and after the gorditas are cooked on the griddle, they get a few seconds rest in the coals and pick up a smoky flavor. Generally consumed with a cold bottle of coke purchased from the neighbor next door, these are a heavenly meal and make up what Mexicans call almuerzo, a late breakfast, sometimes a second breakfast, eaten around 11 or 12 to stave off hunger until it’s time for the main meal of the day at 3 pm.

I met Doña María one of the first days I was in San Juan. The priest who agreed to show me around town and introduce me to people had thought of her as someone who would have memories of religious practices in the 1940s. She looks like the stereotype of a Mexican grandmother while she works, an ironed checked apron over an equally spotless flowered dress, and a black rebozo, or shawl, over her hair. I went today to say goodbye to her, an awkward proposition because we don’t have much to chat about. Our lives are so completely different that neither of us quite knows what to ask the other, and she is not an overly talkative woman. But when I saw her, she jumped out of her seat and offered me something to eat. I protested, but took her chair upon her insistence. We exchanged pleasantries and then she bustled away.

With no one else to talk to, I eavesdropped on the conversation of the people sitting next to me. Doña María’s gordita establishment consists of a table with the guisados, the wood-fired comal, and ten or so plastic chairs standing against the wall of her house. The little patio is roofed with corrugated metal and shaded with an additional yard of brown cloth stretched out toward the street. The chairs are always full with people from the neighborhood, sitting and chatting while they eat. This means that even a stranger can get in on the conversation, and often the cooks join in as well – no one has their back turned to the other. So I timidly listened in as one lady described to another how she hasn’t been to visit her son in college yet in the next town over because she’s not exactly sure where it is and she doesn’t drive. And by the end of the half hour, I was laughing out loud to her story about her daughter’s response to the swine flu: “I told her don’t be kissing your boyfriend right now you don’t want to be catching anything.” “And she said, ‘I’m gonna kiss him anyway, and if one of us dies then we both will.’” When they took off, they bid me adios along with saying their farewells to their friends and neighbors. And I found that without really asking Doña María any questions beyond “how have you been” I had learned about old pets that she had had as a child that she had to leave when the moved to San Juan, about her husband’s love for birds, and how happy she was in the neighborhood – “such a friendly street, people sit outside to pass the time” as she joined in the conversation with her more talkative neighbors.

This was only the second time I had gone to eat gorditas at Doña María’s. I had been trying so hard to take advantage of my time in San Juan that I spent the time when I didn’t have scheduled appointments in the archives. Probably that’s the way it should be. I am here to work, after all. But I’m glad that I had a couple opportunities to sit and chat, eavesdrop on the neighbors and taste her delicious delicious handiwork. And it’s one more thing I’ll remember fondly from home about the time I’ve spent here in Mexico.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Last Days

I woke up late this morning, gulped down a glass of water, and went out for my morning run. The everyday sights and sounds of a Lagos morning surrounded me, but now that we're down to our last days here my senses were heightened; I noticed everything more.

Traffic cops directed cars and people, keeping everyone in line with their presence if nothing else. As cars stopped at their direction, young window-washers, most of them rail thin, rushed up with their detergent-filled Gatorade bottles and orange squeegees, aggressively offering their windshield-cleaning services; most of them were turned away. The clothing resale shops were opening up, merchants hanging their hangers in the window and chatting up the window-washers who were taking up their corner posts again. As the shiny SUV's prepared to cross their intersections, small beat-up motorbikes sped by them loudly, carrying one two, even a family of four people on a two-wheel bike.

Later I walked up Calvario hill to sit and write for awhile. A group of kids is playing soccer in front of the church steps; their voices fill the air. They've made goal markers with piles of rocks that don't stop their rubber ball from rolling into the street again and again. A car drives past carrying three teenage girls in dark sunglasses, laughing as they turn up their bass-heavy music. As they pass the church, they suddenly notice where they are and solemnly cross themselves.

The sky grows dark; the wind picks up. It begins to rain. I move for cover and the rain stops just as quickly as it began. I look out over the landscape, the vastness of it visible from here. Through the shrubs and palm trees, over the brick rooftops, along the flat plain to the mountains beyond - I can see all of it from right here. Again it begins to rain, but the distant mountains stay bathed in sunlight.

I think I'm going to miss this place after all.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, 1958-2009

The collective mourning of a great American pop star - and one of my personal faves, as any observer of my DVD collection knows. (Seriously, do you know anyone else who owns all the music videos from 1991's Dangerous?)

Though I wish I could share this moment at home, it is something to experience it from abroad. I passed a newsstand and the local paper - local Lagos paper, mind you - filled its entire front page with a photo of Michael Jackson and the headline "El Rey Ha Muerto" - "The King is Dead." Later Luis dropped by and I told him I was reading the news, and the first thing he says to me, before anything else, is "Si, la muerta de Michael Jackson, El Rey del Pop..." as if it were the biggest news of the day throughout the world.

Which, of course, it is.

Dolores de Hidalgo

The region just east of us, from the city of Guanajuato all the way down to Queretaro, is known in Mexico as the Cuna de la Independencia, or the Cradle of Independence. It was here, amid the mountains of the Sierra Madre and the plains of the bajio, where Mexican nationalists declared their independence from Spain in a rebellion that began in 1810 and ended some ten bloody years later. This area, in other words, is the Mexican equivalent of New England.

And if this is Mexico’s New England, then the small town of Dolores Hidalgo is its Lexington (the two towns are actually Sister Cities). Here in little Dolores, Miguel Hidalgo launched the rebellion by calling his parishioners to independence in a fiery speech in the early morning hours of September 16, 1810. (Longtime readers will recall that we witnessed the annual reenacted grito in Mexico City last September – you can read about that adventure here). But I’m getting ahead of myself – Hidalgo’s rebel yell is much more interesting with his backstory included.

The Life of Miguel Hidalgo (you can skip this part, but I don’t think you should!)

Miguel Hidalgo was born in 1753, in Guanajuato, to a criollo family. In the absurdly complicated hierarchy of race and class in the Spanish colonies, criollos were those of European descent but who were born in the New World. Due to the location of their birth (some things haven’t changed), criollos faced a legally institutionalized glass ceiling above which they could not rise.

Still, criollos were the equivalent of the upper middle class, and as such young Miguel was provided with an advanced education; eventually, he entered seminary and was ordained a priest when he was in his early twenties. From there he went on to teach at a prestigious school in Morelia, and before long became known as a hotshot young scholar, surely destined for great things.

During the decade he taught as a professor, however, he gained a reputation of one who was, to use the dreaded term, “unorthodox,” in his teaching as well as in his lifestyle. He earned the nickname el zorro, the fox (not to be confused with the masked “Zorro” of Mexican California). Father Hidalgo, in other words, attracted attention to himself, and in these days of the Inquisition, drawing attention to yourself could get you in trouble in short order. In 1804 he was transferred from his prestigious seminary post to a remote rural parish, presumably banished there as if it were Siberia, never, the powers that be hoped, to be heard from again. “But this reassignment,” as one of the museums I visited dryly put it, “proved to be fateful.”

In his new rural parish in Dolores, Father Hidalgo’s life took a dramatic turn. Rather than treating his assignment as a punishment, he threw himself into the collective life of his parishioners, organizing a pottery cooperative, cultivating silk and planting vineyards. He learned several indigenous languages and reached out to the lowest social castes. In other words, the Mexico Semester Program might say, Father Hidalgo became a practicing liberation theologian more than a century before the term would be invented. (He also, it should be noted, faced the pitfalls of liberation theology, coming under criticism from contemporaries for neglecting his parishioners’ spiritual lives, as well as for his general “restlessness.”)

Within a few years of arriving in Dolores, Father Hidalgo met Ignacio Allende, a fellow criollo discontent (nearby San Miguel de Allende would be named for him). In 1808, when Napoleon destabilized the Spanish monarchy, Hidalgo, Allende, and several fellow conspirators began plotting their next move. A plan was formed to declare independence – and with it armed rebellion against Spanish rule – in the city of Queretaro in November 1810. In September, however, Hidalgo received word that the plot had been uncovered by the authorities, who were on their way to arrest the rebels. The conspirators fled to Dolores, where they hurriedly met in Hidalgo’s house to discuss their options. There was little time and few alternatives. By the early morning hours, a decision had been made.

At 5:30 in the morning on September 16, long before sunrise and the normal time for church, Hidalgo rang the bells of the parish, the Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de Dolores, or the Parish of Our Lady of Sorrows, named for an image of Mary (the patron saint of Mississippi, who knew?) in which the mother of Jesus suffers at the sight of her son being crucified. Hidalgo’s cry for independence (read his supposed exact words here) would become known as the Grito de Dolores, named for the town and its parish church but which, thanks to this coincidental background, literally translates as “the cry of sorrows," or "the cry of pain.” From this parish named for the Virgin Mary, Hidalgo and his ragtag army went forth carrying a flag with, as a symbol of their American identity, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on it. With a history like this, is it any wonder that I think of Mexico as the land of Maria?

My Historical Adventure

Well. So much for backstory. Dolores Hidalgo is located in Guanajuato state about halfway between the city of Guanajuato and the city of San Miguel de Allende. But with our time running short, I knew Chris and I wouldn’t have time for another weekend Mexican road trip together. If I wanted to visit the birthplace of Mexican independence – and, amateur history buff that I am, I definitely did – I’d have to go myself. So, before dawn on Thursday morning I boarded a bus heading east, ready for adventure.

The first bus took me from Lagos to León (this ride before dawn), and from León I boarded a bus to the city of Guanajuato, where the Lonely Planet mentioned regular bus service to Dolores. This final leg of the trip, from Guanajuato to Dolores, was the prettiest. The bus snakes it way up into higher altitude, first offering passengers gorgeous views of the colorful city of Guanajuato (nice to see you again!) before heading even further up onto a winding highway that hugs the cliffs of the tree-covered mountainsides. I haven’t felt this much of a thrill on a bus ride since that early morning journey through the mountain jungles of Chiapas on my way to Palenque.

Five hours after leaving Lagos de Moreno my bus finally rolls in to the tiny but bustling town of Dolores Hidalgo. Upon leaving the bus I immediately see a very large shrine to the Virgin of San Juan de Los Lagos in the bus station, the only such religious shrine there. ¡San Juanita! I make a mental note to tell Chris about it when I get home.

I pull out my Lonely Planet guidebook and study its street map of Dolores. The central plaza is only a few blocks north of the bus station, so I start walking in what I hope is the right direction and I reach the plaza within a few minutes.

And then there it is: The place where it happened. Somehow this feels more like a holy place than most of the churches we’ve visited this year. It is a place where something monumental happened, right here, in this place, some two hundred years ago, an event far enough away to be legendary but close enough that its effects are still felt, like aftershocks of an earthquake. I find myself struck by this place as a link between Mexico and the United States – and so many other countries of the American continents, for that matter. Independence, I realize, is part of the common story of the Americas; it is something that binds us together as brothers.

I head to the church first, and walk inside. It’s surprisingly beautiful, though poorly maintained. There is a Taxco-like churrigueresque façade and churrigueresque side altars, all impossibly detailed sculptures of stone, metal, and wood. I sit for a moment in the pews, then walk outside, pausing at the door to look out on the plaza, as I imagine Hidalgo did on that fateful morning. Next to the church entrance is an 8-foot-tall pillar with an electronic counter on it counting down the days to Mexico’s 2010 bicentennial. 447 days, 11 hours, 39 minutes, and 7 seconds… 6 seconds… 5 seconds…

From the parish church the rebels went to the town jail and freed all the prisoners, and so I, walking their path, walked the few short blocks to the prison, which is now the Museum of National Independence. It proved to be a surprisingly excellent museum, one of the best I’ve been to in Mexico, with English translations next to all of its explanations. The independence museum mostly told the story of Miguel Hidalgo, who I had previously only known as the rebel leader who, especially in Guadalajara, is depicted principally as crazy-looking. Who knew Hidalgo was a hundred times more interesting than that?

Hidalgo, the museum tells me, was eventually captured and executed less than six months after crying the grito from the doors of his parish church. After being shot by a firing squad, his head was cut off and placed in a birdcage so that it could be hung in a prominent place in the city of Guanajuato as a symbol to would-be rebels. Hidalgo’s decomposing head hung there for ten long years while the war dragged on, but after the war was eventually sent to Mexico City where it was buried under the Monument to Independence. Is this monument the famous Angel of Independence? I’m not sure. I make a note to find Hidalgo’s head when we’re in Mexico City next week.

From the prison I walk to Hidalgo’s house, where the rebels met in secret on the morning of September 16. It is also now a museum. I was going to skip this one, until I noticed that it was run by INAH, the National Institute of History and Anthropology. INAH museums are, as a rule, really well done, so I figured I had to check this one out. I shouldn’t have. It was lame, full of replicas of various “important” documents, and all of its explanations were in Spanish. Tip: If you ever go to Dolores Hidalgo – and you should, since I’ve already told you to go to San Miguel and Guanajuato – definitely go the Museum of National Independence, but don’t bother with the house of Miguel Hidalgo. You can see it fine from the outside.

That was about all I needed to do in Dolores – and I needed to be getting home besides, what with my five-hour bus ride ahead of me – so I snapped a few more photos of the plaza and the church, grabbed a torta to go at a popular-looking restaurant, and bought a ticket for the first leg of my several-stage journey home.

Reflection (also skippable, if you like)

This has, I have to say, been a very thought-provoking week for me. I took two adventures on my own, which was an experience in its own right. Still, I thought the two adventures had nothing to do with one another, but in Dolores I realized that they perhaps had more in common than I had supposed.

My visits to Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo were actually both visits to places dedicated to priests, ordained ministers, each of whom had served his parishioners in a very particular way. Each found himself opposed to powerful forces, and each, in the service of his parishioners, led their parishioners in resistance to those forces, specifically those forces that they believed threatened their parishioners’ ability to live as God intended them to live. Am I oversimplifying? Of course – but bear with me for a moment.

Toribio Romo refused armed rebellion, but he did choose a path of resistance when he continued to administer the holy sacraments to his people in full violation of the law, an act of liturgy-as-resistance that brings to mind William Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist. Miguel Hidalgo, on the other hand, rejected the brutal hierarchies of his day by forging cross-cultural, cross-class relationships and building up the community of his parish through cooperative economic life. And then, unlike Toribio, he chose the path of taking up arms, uttered the Cry of Pains, and unleashed a bloody war that quickly spiraled out of his control. That last part is easy to glorify as history but hard to justify as principle; if I were writing the story as an ideal I’d prefer a peaceful resistance akin to MLK or Ghandi’s spiritually-sourced people’s movements.

Still, I’m holding Toribio Romo and Miguel Hidalgo in my head and in my heart this week, two examples of priestly vocation lived out in the Americas in the last two centuries. They are worth remembering, I think, as I continue to ponder the vocation of ordained ministry in the Americas in the twenty-first century, and as I prepare to take these many adventures back across the border.

And of course, here's my inevitable Dolores Hidalgo photo gallery:

Dolores Hidalgo

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Visit with Santo Toribio

Yesterday I went to see Santo Toribio Romo.

Santo Toribio Romo, for those who haven’t been to the interior of Mexico recently, is quite possibly the most popular saint in the country. To be fair, he does face stiff competition from San Judas Tadeo (St. Jude), whose image is everywhere in Mexico City, as well as one image that looks like St. George but with a person at the end of the spear instead of a dragon (if anyone knows which saint this is, please tell me!) that is especially popular among bus drivers and taxistas. But the omnipresence of Toribio Romo’s black-and-white mug is powerful, and growing.

There are at least two obvious reasons for this popularity. One is that Santo Toribio Romo is becoming the unofficial patron saint of immigrants to the United States – especially those who cross the border on foot, without papers, under the natural threat of a deadly waterless desert and the man-made dangers of the Border Patrol, the Minutemen, and immense risk involved in choosing a responsible coyote. Is it any wonder that the God-fearing faithful, who have always cried out for divine intervention in their most dire moments, would find help from a spiritual source? For these vulnerable travelers, Santo Toribio often shows up as a guardian angel, helping the migrant through a tough spot before mysteriously disappearing into the darkness. We rationalists may scoff, but the stories – and the faith of the people – are growing.

The other reason for Santo Toribio Romo’s popularity, however, is that unlike San Judas Tadeo or the Psedo-Saint-George, Santo Toribio is certifiably Mexican. He was born on April 16, 1900, right here in the highlands of Jalisco, dirt poor. He grew up under the shadow of the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos, and entered the seminary in San Juan when he was only 12 years old, to be ordained as a priest by the time he was 22. But of course, by now, thanks to my endless ramblings about it, you know that the 1920s were a dangerous time to be a priest in Mexico. As the government cracked down on religious practice, Toribio Romo rebelled – not with guns and knives, but instead by continuing to administer the sacraments to his people. On February 25, 1928, government troops finally caught up with him in the town of Tequila. He was shot to death in his bedroom.

Pope John Paul II canonized Toribio Romo as a saint of the church in 2000. Twenty-four other martyrs of the Cristero Rebellion were also canonized, but none of them have yet reached Santo Toribio’s popularity. Aiding his belovedness, Chris and I have surmised, is the arresting photograph of Santo Toribio that serves as his image (see the photo at the top of this post). His eyes are almost sad, but fixed and firm, as if they are seeing his future and he is deciding in that moment that though it is not pleasant it is the path God has called him to, and he will not waver from it. Is it any wonder the saints are stand-ins for Jesus, stepping-stones to Christ?

Well. Enough background. On Tuesday I decided to visit this Mexican miracle-worker, to see Santo Toribio for myself. Chris had already made her visit with a priest in San Juan who helpfully drove her there in his car and introduced her to the priests in charge; she came home with a Santo Toribio keychain and prayer book, gifts from the administrators of the church. I, on the other hand, would be going by myself, by a series of public buses – yet another practical test of all those Spanish classes.

Santo Toribio’s shrine is in Santa Ana de Guadalupe, a tiny, tiny, tiny village outside of Jalostotitlan, a small town about two hours from Lagos by bus. Traveling through the other towns in this region helps me realize just how relatively big Lagos de Moreno really is. It is no teeming metropolis like León or Guadalajara, to be sure, and yet compared to Jalos (the popular abbreviation for Jalostotitlan) it is full of urban comforts. When my regional bus arrived in Jalos, it dropped me off at a street corner office that served as the Jalos bus station. And I thought the bus station in Lagos was small…

I walked over to the office and asked the man in an official-looking uniform how to get to Santa Ana de Guadalupe. He stared at me blankly and pointed at the corner where I had just gotten off the bus. Apparently this was the bus stop. As I was turning to go, another group of people who had been on the same bus – an friendly older gentleman and two women who seemed to be about the same age – came up and asked the official-looking person about Santo Toribio. I decided to follow these people.

We waited for about twenty minutes, and I passed the time by reading my copy of The Brothers Karamazov and trying not to look too out of place. I love traveling, but this stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb-gringo feeling is not my favorite. In a cosmopolitan city like Guadalajara, where airplanes arrive daily from foreign lands, I hardly ever feel it, but here in a rural town you really feel like a stranger in a strange land. Of course it’s a thrill, but it can be a bit terrifying all the same.

When the little bus arrived, I and my (unsuspecting) traveling companions got on board and we all rattled our way out of town. As we made our way out into the countryside, the smells became more and more pronounced. You know what I mean. Farm smells. Cow smells. Nebraska smells. Iowa smells. This was a long way from Mexico City.

We turn down a dirt road and pass under a stone arch that announces the place of Toribio Romo. There is nothing but dry grass and desert trees around this shrine; nothing is visible from here. I wonder if this is what the arches in Guadalajara were like before they were swallowed up by the growing city. I wonder what this place will look like in 10, 20, 50 years. Will it be like San Juan de Los Lagos, pumped up to a sprawling size by the development steroids of cash brought by faithful pilgrims from across North America? People in San Juan call their town’s economic health the “true miracle” of the Virgen; will Santo Toribio deliver the same economic miracle to his hometown?

If it will happen, it hasn’t happened yet. The bus driver – who is extremely friendly – drops us off at a street corner, but I don’t see anything resembling a church. This is nothing like San Juan de Los Lagos, a mad market of religious souvenirs leading to a towering basilica that is visible for miles around. Not wanting to seem uncertain, I spot a weathered tourist sign and walk firmly toward it. It’s the right move – when I reach the sign, I immediately see the stone church around the corner.

It’s almost shockingly small. Later I discover that Padre Toribio built this church himself, organizing the people and resources to get a church built in his hometown. This explains the church’s size, but still: This is the land of massive parish churches and towering basilicas stuck in the middle of small rural cities, yet the shrine for one of Mexico’s most popular saints is a tiny stone sanctuary far outside of town.

As I walk through the church doors, a woman next to me drops to her knees, and then begins shuffling up to the altar. What is it with this shuffling up to the altar on your knees thing? People do it in San Juan, too, and I’m always bewildered by it. On the one hand, it’s beautiful piety, a powerful expression of devotion that even a Protestant can’t help but respect. On the other hand, what kind of God – or Virgin or saint – wants you to shuffle up to their throne on your knees? I understand it rationally – puny human before powerful deity – but this physical submissiveness doesn’t exactly make me feel full of love for the Lord.

On the other other hand, I continue to be amazed by the Mexican faithful’s use of physical acts in their religious practice. From the Christmastime posada parades to the outdoor theater of Good Friday, Mexican Catholicism gives you something to do and not just something to think. I’ve come all the way out to see Santo Toribio – now what? I can pray silently in my head, and I do, but as I watch the woman shuffle up to the altar I find myself wishing I had something physical and physically demanding I could do during my pilgrimage, to cap it off. I make a note to file this away for further reflection later.

Outside, in the “backyard” of the little church, I find a long walkway leading to another little church. This is the Calzada de los Martires, or Walkway of the Martyrs. All along the little stone path there are cement busts and inscribed plaques to the other Cristero martyrs. Most of them are from Jalisco, but there are a few from Zacatecas, too, and at least one each in the northern border states of Durango and Chihuahua, and one, I am surprised to find, from the southern state of Guerrero. (Question: Why is Santo Toribio the patron saint of migrants, and not one of the martyr saints from a border state?)

In the middle of this walkway, there is a monument to Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a visible rendering of the Cristero martyrs’ final cry: ¡Viva Cristo Rey y la Virgen de Guadalupe! Long live Christ the King and the Virgin of Guadalupe! The monument itself is a curious one. There is a black cross. On one side of the cross is Jesus, his arms up in the air and wearing the cloth of resurrection – this is “viva Christo Rey.” On the other side of the cross is the Virgin of Guadalupe, life size. They are positioned like two sides of the same coin – or two sides of the same cross. I have no idea what this means theologically, but it’s got to be worth a paper or two in a systematic theology class.

At the end of the walkway is another stone church, about the same size as the first one. Later Chris tells me this other church was built by Santo Toribio’s family after his death. Next to the church is a replica of Toribio Romo’s childhood home. It’s like one of those 18th or 19th century homes you can visit in certain national parks (there’s one in my grandparents’ town in Iowa), complete with furnishings from the era. This one is about the size of the living room in our apartment in Lagos. Later Chris tells me that Toribio Romo’s parents raised five kids in this one-room log cabin. The point, she tells me, is that they were dirt poor. I try to take a photo of the house, but it’s difficult to capture without the fancy restaurant built just behind it.

On my visit I miss the retablo room, where visitors put thank-you notes, thank-you paintings, and random thank-you items like soccer jerseys on the walls as an offering of gratitude to Santo Toribio. Chris tells me that on her visit one retablo struck her especially: A family gave thanks to Santo Toribio Romo for helping them to finally find the body of their daughter who had died in her attempt to cross the border. For these parents, the miracle was that their daughter did not disappear in the desert like so many other sons and daughters who perish in the wilderness; against all odds, they found her body, they could bury her, they could have closure.

As I leave the place of Santo Toribio, I notice his photo over a doorframe on a nearby house. The Christian faith represented by this devotion is so different from the Christian faith that I grew up with. Yet it is faith all the same, a powerful, fierce faith, strong as any I have encountered elsewhere. What does God see when he looks at this faith? What do you see, O Lord?

I have spent so much of my time parsing the differences between my faith and the faith of the people all around me; throughout my time here I have struggled to make sense of it all. But there are moments - moments, I think, when the truth beyond my brain breaks in - when my heart is pierced by what I can barely understand. And it's times like this when, well... when it brings me to my knees.

I sat on the side of the road for an hour and a half waiting for the little bus to come back and take me home. When it finally did, it was in the middle of the loop to a nearby town, so I rode the bus from Santo Toribio's rural church to San Miguel el Alto and then back to Santo Toribio and then finally on to Jalosototilan, where I caught another bus to San Juan de Los Lagos and finally back to Lagos de Moreno, another long day come to an end.

Santo Toribio

Monday, June 22, 2009

¡Segunda Cumpleaños en Guanajuato!

Editor's note: Just captioned the photo album in the middle of this post. Check it out.

Chris wanted only one thing for her birthday: To go home. Sadly, our flight is still three weeks away, so she had to opt for her second choice: A weekend visit to the colorful mountain city of Guanajuato.

Our globetrotting scholar spent a birthday in Guanajuato three years ago, in the summer of 2006 when she spent 6 weeks traveling around West-Central Mexico doing pre-dissertation prep work, scouting the research landscape for this year. (In case there’s any confusion: Even though I’m writing this blog about adventures, my wife is the real adventurer, having gone on one study abroad program and three solo trips to Latin America over the last decade, nearly every other year when you add it up, and now she’s leading this trip. And all this before her 28th birthday!)

On that last Mexican birthday, she was alone, and not having the best day: For breakfast, she ordered a fresh-squeezed orange juice, one of her favorite things ever – and it promptly made her sick to her stomach… again. But when I called her that evening, using a phone card and standing in the parking lot of College Mall in Bloomington, Indiana, she was feeling better: The owner of the hostel she was staying in, learning it was her birthday, had bought her flowers. She nearly cried at the sight of them, an out-of-nowhere gesture of kindness to a stranger in a strange land.

Needless to say, Chris left Guanajauto with happy memories and looked forward to another visit. This time, though, things were quite different. Rather than figuring things out anew at every turn, Chris knows the landscape here like the back of her hand. She’s mastered the bus system, traveled most of the route more than once (Guanajuato is about twice as far as León on the same highway), has been speaking her Spanish for the last 11 months rather than the last 11 days, and, when we arrived in Guanajuato, knew the route from the bus station to the well-hidden hotel without even having to consult so much as a map. Who even needs the Lonely Planet anymore?

As for me, well, this was my first visit to Guanajuato, and from the first wide-angle view from atop our hotel terrace (see the photo album below) I knew this was going to be one of the highlights of our time puebleando (a slang word meaning, awesomely, to visit little towns on a road trip) in Mexico.

Guanajuato, to put it briefly, is like Taxco but bigger and more diversified in its attractions. Both are former mining towns, born in the silver rush of the 16th century. Today, however, rather than trafficking in silver like its southern cousin, Guanajuato specializes in a Cervantes festival every October that leaves its streets and museums peppered with artistic Don Quixote tributes. Like San Miguel de Allende, the streets are full of four-hundred-year-old Franciscan and Jesuit temples surrounded by very-brightly-colored two story (but rarely more) adobe buildings. Unlike San Miguel, however, Guanajuato is anchored by a major regional university to keep itself lively – and resoundingly Mexican – all year long.

Actually, the first thing I thought of when we arrived in Guanajuato is that the place seemed like West Virginia – specifically, Morgantown, West Virginia, which is literally built in the mountains and is also a college town, home to West Virginia University. Turns out (thanks Wikipedia!) that Morgantown is actually an official Sister City of Guanajuato! Who knew?!

¡Cumpleaños en Guanajuato!

Guanajuato’s downtown is so pretty-at-every-turn jaw-dropping that it’s been named a certified UNESCO World Heritage Site. At this point I must beg your patience for a short digression. I was beginning to think, given how many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we’ve visited this year, that the United Nations is just giving out World Heritage status to pretty much everywhere. I mean, honestly – everything from the UNAM university campus in Mexico City to the ancient ruins of Xochicalco is a World Heritage Site! Turns out, though, that Mexico simply has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than anywhere else in the Americas, with 29 sites. Italy, the country with the most, has 43 sites; Mexico, a country that is probably only a short flight from where you are, is hot on its heels. Do I need to give you any more reasons to visit this country? (Also, I will refrain from asking whether being a Catholic country makes you more likely to have World Heritage sites.)

Back to our trip. We checked into the Casa Bertha, where Chris stayed three years ago; the proprietor was just as friendly and welcoming as he was then. Chris showed me the rooftop terrace where she spent many an evening sipping tea and reading while watching the sun paint the town in different colors as it descended behind the mountains. I remember her talking about this terrace during that summer, about all the time she spent there, and it was sort of surreal to actually see it in person. Hungry, we went straight for a nearby restaurant, and stuffed ourselves on a cheap but delicious set lunch (other benefit of GTO over San Migel – way cheaper!). We spent most of Saturday afternoon pleasantly wandering the streets.

In fact, we walked around town for hours and hours and hours over the course of the weekend, and yet: I still think I’d get lost if you dropped me in Guanajuato by myself. The place is like a labyrinth, a crazy labyrinth of colorful buildings and cobblestone streets that alternately narrow and widen, that curve around at sharp angles suddenly, and are almost never horizontal but usually going either steeply uphill or steeply downhill. But this labyrinth is a dream to get lost in: Nearly every path leads to a yet another leafy little plaza with benches and a fountain in the middle. It is an absurdly pretty place to spend a weekend.

No wonder Chris wanted to come here for her birthday. We awoke early on Sunday morning, thanks to a bunch of nearby roosters who decided to wish Chris a happy birthday, and began their birthday song at 4 AM. We finally wandered outside after dawn, energized ourselves with breakfast, and set off in search of the path up the hill to Pípila.

Pípila is Guanajuato’s resident independence hero, who, a mere two weeks after Miguel Hidalgo’s first rebel yell in the nearby town of Dolores, torched GTO’s granary to give the rebel troops their first victory in Mexico’s War of Independence. One hundred years later, the city of Guanajuato built a massive statue of Pípila atop one of the surrounding hills, visible from nearly everywhere in town. You can take an inclined railway to the top of the hill to see the statue, or you can just walk up the hill along the winding cobblestone paths. Chris, knowing my love for climbing all manner of monuments in Mexico – ruins are like a playgrounds for adults! – led the way on the long walk up the very, very steep hill. And, just like in the climb to Tepozteco outside of Tepoztlan nearly one year ago (whoa), this one paid off with one of those spectacular wide-angle views – impossible to capture in a photograph, though you can see me try in the photo album above.

After that we went to find Chris’s #1 must-see in Guanajuato: The house where Diego Rivera was born, where there is now a Diego Rivera museum featuring works from his childhood to his final years. When we were in Mexico City we became serious Diego-philes, visiting every massive mural we could find. But here, in Diego’s birthplace, the collection is of smaller pieces that reveal much more of Mexico’s most famous painter. Chris loves how you can see his development over the years: First the preternatural technical skill, then several years in France, where he copied and mastered all manner of European styles popular at the time, then an increasing interest in peasant life, poverty, and the problems of industrialism, then an immersion in the ancient codices of pre-Hispanic Mexican art, and then, finally, the beginning sketches for his national-pride murals. You walk away with a new appreciation for Diego Rivera, his wide-ranging skill as an artist and the way in which he came to find his ultimate vocation as the painter of his people.

(Plus, I was able to make use of the bathroom in Diego Rivera’s house, which gives me an idea for the title of my book that Chris finds highly inappropriate. Sigh.)

From the Diego Rivera museum we went to the Cervantino museum in this Cervantes-obsessed town, an art museum that turned out to be three floors of surprisingly striking and diverse art depicting Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Chris decided that Miguel Cervantes must be to Spanish-speaking countries what William Shakespeare is to English-speaking ones. Neither one of us has ever been able to finish Don Quixote, despite having tried more than once, but Guanajuato makes me want to try again…

We spent our final hours of the day eating and drinking our way through Guanajuato’s many outdoor cafes, stuffing ourselves on crepes, chocolate chip cookies, guacamole, quiche, cheesecake, frappuchinos, red wine, sangria, and black coffee, not surprisingly making our tummies hurt yet not regretting a single bite, or a single step in this beautiful town on a beautiful weekend for a beautiful girl who has now completed 28 years of adventurous life. ¡Feliz cumpleaños, mi amor! Hasta el proxima aventura…

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ojalá Que Llueva Café... Tacvba!

(Yes, the subject line is a joke that no one reading this will get. But I'm sticking with it anyway! )

Last night we went to our first concert of 2009. Concerts are a big deal for us; they've been the source of so many great Matt-and-Chris experiences... from Run DMC (yes, Run DMC) in Valpo all the way to U2 in New York City, from multiple Midwestern doses of Bruce Springsteen all the way to KT Tunstall in a tiny North Side theatre, we've been "spending our hard-earned on a rock show," as Bono puts it, since our first days together. I'd wanted to make it to a concert in Mexico at some point during our year, but with our time drawing to a close I figured it probably wouldn't happen.

But then I saw online that Mexico City chilangos Café Tacvba would be playing in the nearby metropolis of León as part of their 20 Years 20 Cities celebration tour. ¡¡Café Tacvba!! If you're interested in world music you can click here to learn more about Café Tacvba, but suffice to say that they are one of the most Mexican of Mexican bands in the 90s generation of Latin American rocanrol... and we had a chance to see them in Mexico! Naturally, we - ok, I - couldn't pass this up.


When we arrived in León the line of people waiting to enter the arena was already winding around the block. The effect of this sight - a critical part of the concert experience - is hard to overstate. Up until that point you might be feeling ambivalent about your evening - so many things to do, why did I buy these tickets in the first place, the transportation is so much work - but when you see those fans lined up, a whole bunch of people excited about the same thing, well... the excitement is contagious. Your heart beats just a bit faster...

You also learn the first thing about what the concert experience will be like. Having attended the concerts of mostly, shall we say, "experienced" artists we are used to a more, er, "experienced" crowd. Most people at a Springsteen show are twice our age. Since tonight's band was celebrating its 20th anniversary, Chris expected the crowd to again be a good deal older than us. But we were wrong. The vast majority of those lined up ahead of and now behind us were in their late twenties, maybe early thirties at the oldest. In other words, our age. (Hey, this is a new thing for us!)

As we made our way closer to the arena's entrance, we checked out the tour merchandise out for sale. Choosing a concert t-shirt is one of the most difficult yet potentially rewarding aspects of the concert experience. (Yes, I wrote that with a straight face. I think there should be an Uniwatch blog for concert t-shirts. Somebody do this.) It's especially rewarding with a band that takes its visual design almost as seriously as its musical composition, which Café Tacvba certainly is. Even so, I couldn't make the call before the concert. This being Mexico, there were already stands set up outside selling cheap($10 or less) versions of the "official" concert merch, and it looked likely, given the presence of newly-arrived vendors only beginning to unpack their stuff, that there would be more after the show. Deep breath. Ok, I'll wait until after the show. Chris puts her arm around me. "It'll be ok," she says, "you'll find one you like later." My wife knows me.

Finally we walk through the turnstiles.... only to run the gauntlet of security guards waiting for us. We each get pulled aside by a different security guard to be patted down. I get approved, then turn to look for Chris again but I'm suddenly pulled aside by another security guard. He pats me down, then asks me something that I don't understand. I show him my ticket. "No no," he says, then asks me again. For all my Spanish training, I still don't understand what he's saying. Crap. I hate feeling like a foreigner. (We are definitely the only gringos here.) The security guard finally gives up, looks at my ticket, and points me in the right direction. Chris is already waiting in that hallway, her belt in her hand. "The first guard told me I had to check my belt," she tells me, "but then another guard told me I didn't have to." Crowd confusion - you gotta love it. She shrugs her shoulders, puts her belt back on, and we make our way up the stairs to the cheap seats.

The lights go down, and the show begins. The crowd goes wild. How to describe the experience? Maybe a video would help.

(This one is worth watching all the way through - at about the halfway point, the 3 minute mark, a dude comes out with a fiddle, the lead singer starts yodeling, and the song turns on a dime, Outkast-style, to become a very Mexican hoedown. Check it out!)

There's a guy next to us who is clearly a superfan. He dances like crazy throughout the show, singing all the words at the top of his voice and thrashing his arms about - a bit like the lead singer, actually, who is a crazy ball of dance-y energy. (Think: a 5-year-old on a sugar rush. A 5-year-old on a sugar rush for 3 hours. Yep.) Although our friend next to us is one of the most dedicated fans, we're amazed at how the entire crowd goes wild for so many of the songs. From the mosh pit of people at floor level pushing up against the stage to the standing-room-only up in our balcony, the crowd sings along with jubilant energy for song after song after song, their faces lit up by the extravagant light show of spotlights coming from the stage. The mass singalong: It is, hands down, my favorite thing about concerts. It's like church - but with better music. ;-)

Unlike our U2 and Bruce shows, however, we know almost none of the words to any of these songs. Oh, we've tried, of course - we've been listening to the Café Tacvba catalog on our respective iPods for the last month - but the different language makes the lyric learning curve a bit slower, even for Chris. We know lots of the tunes and a few of the first lines of several choruses, so we en up doing a lot of "La la la la bum bum bum whooooo!!!!" And with the energy of the crowd all around us, that seems to be enough. We bop our heads with joy through the wide range of Mexican-pop-folk-rock-punk that flows from band to fans and back again, and enjoy ourselves immensely.

After the show we take some time to wade through the now-two-dozen-at-least independent merchandise stands. Our favorite innovation: The concert soccer jersey. Before and during the concert, we'd noticed people in England national team jerseys with "Radiohead" on the back and an LA Galaxy MLS jersey with "Metallica" on the back, and now we find a Mexican national team jersey with "Café Tacvba on the back. Too cool - but not quite what we're looking for. Finally we settle on the fantastic cool-kid playeras you see us wearing in the photo above. Mission accomplished.

I look at my watch. 12:41 PM. The last bus left for Lagos de Moreno at 11:00. We walk to the bus station anyway, thinking it'll be the best place to find a safe taxi to take us home. It is, thank goodness, and before long we're heading out of town, watching the sea of León's city lights fading behind us, giving way to the nighttime darkness of the countryside. In twenty minutes the lights of Lagos de Moreno rise up before us. Just before 2am we finally fall into bed, exhausted, the end of another adventure across the border, this time one we'll remember with songs. Gracias, gracias por la musica...