Thursday, April 30, 2009

Influenza Porcina, Día 6

Just a brief update.

Mexico's president Felipe Calderon has declared what is basically a forced vacation for everyone in the country. From tomorrow through Tuesday May 5th, pretty much everything will be closed. For more on this and other developments from a perspective within Mexico, I strongly urge you to click on the Mexico Today blog on the left side of this page.

What this means for us is that our Internet supply is likely to be cut off completely, since we don't have access to it in our home and rely on cafés and cultural centers for our connection with the outside the world. We'll do the best we can to seek out a connection to stay in touch, but basically this is going to be a weekend of hibernation. (What will we do with no TV and no Internet? Good question. Probably a lot of books will be read... Thank goodness I still haven't started my new 500-page copy of Moby Dick yet.)

Other than that, though, there is still no need for panic where we are. People are still wearing surgical masks, and there were fewer people out on the running trail this morning. Restaurants and cafés are closed, which is a real bummer. Most of all we're just checking the news every day, hoping fervently that there won't be a border closing. We're scheduled to have visitors next week, and we've been looking forward to it for months now. (That's right, President Obama, there is no need to close the border because the virus has already spread. Listen to the experts! They're smart people!)

But it's weird - when I stand on our rooftop and look out over Lagos, as I do every morning, life seems, well, pretty much the same. The mountains are still there in the distance, the trees are still green, the birds still chirp, the giant wasp still buzzes past my head annoyingly... We're still here. And we're not going anywhere.


El Sabor de Chiapas

Time for a break from swine flu news. I decided to spend the afternoon listening to podcasts on my iPod (U2 Special Edition iPod, that is - thanks EJ!) and doing my primary activity of spring 2009: cooking. Today’s menu: Oaxacan Black Bean Soup.

The recipe comes from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen, a cookbook Chris bought me for my birthday last summer, just before we crossed the border. Rick Bayless owns our absolute favorite Chicago restaurant, Frontera Grill (if you’re in the Chicago area, you should go there!), and he’s been our constant companion as we’ve explored Mexican cuisine this year.

Rick calls today’s recipe “Oaxacan” in part because he is in love with Oaxaca and in part because black beans are particular to southern Mexico. Up here in Mexico’s central and northern regions, white beans are more popular – and are best when they’re cooked up with jalepeños and bacon to make frijoles charros, which I did last week with incredible results. But normally we like black beans better, so I’d been wanting to make this soup for a while.

I began with a bag of dried black beans (frijoles negros). I dumped 2 cups of these into a pot, then threw in some diced white onion (cebolla) and about 4 chopped up canned chipotles for good measure. I then covered the whole thing with water and let it simmer.

It’s been simmering for about two hours now, all during the time I listened to the World Soccer Daily podcast talk about today’s match between Chelsea and Barcelona and all during the time I listened to Ross Reynolds on Seattle’s KUOW talk about cuts in public health funding in the state of Washington (yep, Seattle NPR – the Seattle prep has begun!). Before I moved on to my baseball podcast to see if my Cubbies won, I checked the simmering pot.


Forget Oaxaca. The whiff I got when I removed the lid of the simmering pot of black beans was all Chiapas, Mexico’s other southernmost state. You know that climatic scene in Ratatouille when the critic tastes Remy’s food for the first time and is suddenly transported back time-machine-style to a memory from his childhood? It was like that, except that I was WHOOSH transported back to a little courtyard restaurant in the misty mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas. Funny thing is, I don’t even think I had black bean soup there… but I’ll take a Chiapas memory any way I can get it, thank you very much.

Finishing the recipe, it looks like, will just require pureeing everything in batches in a blender, and then serving it with some fried-up tortilla strips.

Now if only Subcomandante Marcos was here to enjoy it with us…

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mas Noticias

More local responses to the influenza porcina, courtesy of the morning paper in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco, Mexico...

"Eliminan Besos En Telenovelas" - Yep, they're getting rid of kisses in the daily telenovelas, or prime time TV soap operas, in order to encourage people not to engage in physical contact of any kind. Now if only they would also get rid of the hideously bad stories...

"Se Suspenderán Las Siguientes Actividades" - The municipal government in Lagos is eliminating all sporting events, all cultural events including the Clown Festival, the Miss Tourism 2009 competition (I think they should do this anyway, but with surgical masks), visits to the municipal jail (?), and, perhaps worst of all, the Festival Día del Niño, or the celebration of "Children's Day" on April 30. In Mexico, there is Mother's Day, for which you actually get a day off of work (i.e. three day weekend), and there is Children's Day, for which there are all kinds of celebrations and special deals in toy stores. Oh yes, and Father's Day. No day off work for that one, though.

"Como Leprosos" - The Chivas of Guadalajara traveled to Chile this week to play Everton in the town of Viña del Mar (Hannah, do you know where this is?). Apparently (if my Spanish translation of the news article is right) the players went to a mall and were ostracized. People were overheard to say "Ahí vienen los mexicanos, nos van a infectar" - "Here come the Mexicans, they are going to infect us!" This made them feel "como leprosos" - like lepers. But hey, Chivas, at least you're going to have fans at your Chilean match, right? Because that will not be happening in Guadalajara this weekend...again.

"Evitan Robo en Farmacia" - Apparently four people tried to rob a pharmacy in downtown Lagos. Their nefarious plot was foiled, and, as is custom, their mug shots were placed in the local paper.

And those are just the headlines. The worst flu-induced shutdown? Our local coffee shop! Well, it wasn't exactly closed down, but they removed all the chairs to discourage people from sitting a spell and, presumably, sharing germs in the process. This is no fun at all. Especially because there still no confirmed cases in Jalisco. None. So at this point, we are in a safer place than New York, Texas, California, South Carolina, Connecticut, and Ohio. Just for the record.

Yet because of the all the shutdowns of public places, there are still lots of people out in the parks and plazas, most of them looking for something to do. And if they finally close this Casa de la Cultura and cut off my Internet supply, I'm going to join them...

Editor's note: One of the best places to get updates on the flu from a Mexico City perspective is at the English-language Mexico Today blog, accessible in my blog list on the left hand side of this page. Check it out.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cruces, Clowns, y Cubrebocas

Poor Mexico City. Today's Reforma newspaper declares "The Only Thing We Were Missing: An Earthquake." Apparently there was a 5.7 grade earthquake in D.F. yesterday - because, really, a war on drugs and a swine flu epidemic just aren't enough for one city.

So how does Mexico respond to their all-at-once apocalypse? Let's see...

Exhibit A

On Sunday the Cathedral in Mexico City brought out a special life-size crucifix called El Señor de la Salud (Lord of Health) and processed around the cathedral holding it high. According to the national news daily La Reforma, the last time this particular crucifix was brought out of the cathedral was in 1691, in order to combat la viruela negra - the black plague.

Now, this is no black plague - for one thing, the influenza porcina is quite treatable by a far superior health infrastructure than we had in 1691 - but what strikes me about this procession of the health-specializing crucifix is that I cannot imagine us doing this in the United States. Or, if this or that church did it, it would not be the front-page image in the New York Times on Monday morning. As much as some people repeatedly declare the U.S. "a Christian nation," it's clear that whatever Christian culture we have really is radically different.

Still, I find the procession of the el Señor de la Salud a powerful liturgical act, even if I'm somewhat wary of it as a sufficient response to a health crisis. Any ideas, theologically-inclined readers?

Exhibit B

In Guadalajara and the rest of Jalisco there are still no confirmed cases of swine flu, none, cero, nada. But the governor is taking precautions. Movie theaters have been closed (did no one tell him that Wolverine comes out this weekend?!). Public libraries have been closed (ok, so no movies and no books - what exactly are we supposed to do with ourselves?). Schools have been closed, but only until May 6 (only because it's a national directive).

But do you know what hasn't been cancelled? The Clown Fest. The Clown Fest must have friends in high places. (Or maybe there are just clowns in high places. Oooh, cheap shot! :))

Exhibit C

Finally, there is the little matter of the cubrebocas (mouth covers). I've noticed that foreign newspapers love to show these, and they usually call them surgical masks because in the States pretty much only surgeons wear them. But here in Mexico cubrebocas were much more common even before the flu hit. I think they must be a relatively cheap way - cheaper than the pharmacy drugs we revert to - to protect yourself, whether it's against the annual cold season or the year-round smogged-up air in D.F..

So the spike in people wearing them is more of a spike than a sudden appearance. But yes, it is a spike, so much so that local pharmacies are running out of them. Fortunately, Chris had her own special stash that she had to buy for use in her archival work, so she gave me one and we wore them out last night when we went to the market for food. In the market (the market we go to is just like Hyde Park Produce back home) maybe a handful of shoppers wore them, but all of the cashiers and food handlers wore them, probably by order of their bosses. The cashier Chris always chats with was not wearing one, however - he said he was wearing it earlier, but it got annoying so he took it off.

And they do get annoying, let me tell you. You're breathing your hot breath right into that little space, so within a few minutes the whole space of air that you're breathing is hot and wet. How can this possibly be healthy? (And how in the world do surgeons do it? Eddie, you got any insight on this?) Anyway, after we left the store we pulled ours down, too, so that they hung around our necks. There are at least as many people walking around here with mouth covers around their necks as on there are people wearing them on their faces.

On the way home, though, a guy leaned out of a truck, beeped his horn, and yelled "¡Hey, gueros!" (gueros = white people). When we looked over at him, he put his hand up over his mouth as if to say, "Put on your cubrebocas!" Ok, ok.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Quote from a conversation with my dad this morning:

"Matt, it was a good weekend in Chicago: The Bulls won, the Cubs won, the Hawks won, and the Sox lost! Hahahahahaha!"

(My apologies to all you White Sox fans out there. I know you outnumber me.)

Planes Desviados Por Los Puercos

On Friday morning we had a plan for the weekend. And it was a good plan, or so we thought. Chris would work on Saturday (she’s working overtime now as we near the end of her research time) and then on Saturday afternoon we’d hop a bus to Zacatecas, about four hours north of here, where we’d spend Saturday night and all of Sunday (we’re traveling overtime now, too, as we near the end of our Mexican adventure time).

Then the influenza news hit. At first we figured we were far enough away from it – Mexico City is 8 hours from here – but by the time the Saturday morning paper hit newsstands they had found cases of la gripa porcina (Chris translates this as “porky flu”) in San Luis Potosi – 2 hours northwest of here – and were testing others in the neighboring state of Aguascalientes and right here in Jalisco. We still felt personally safe here in sleepy little Lagos, but then we started thinking about our weekend trip. We’d need to get on a second-class bus – usually packed and not the most well-ventilated vehicles – and stop for a brief layover in Aguascalientes, a city hosting their annual Feria de San Marcos (Festival of St. Mark, one of the biggest yearly festivals in the country). In other words: crowded bus to crowded possibly-infected city. Probably not the best move right now.

So we stayed in Lagos all weekend, bummed at the collapse of our best-laid plans. After work on Saturday, Chris and I went out for lunch, and then spent a few hours at our favorite coffee shop. One of the baristas we always chat with commented on what a slow day it was, especially for a Saturday. We looked out at the plaza: Where were all the people? On the weekends the outdoors are usually filled with families walking around, enjoying the warm weather. “Everyone must be freaked out about the flu,” our barista guessed.

They must have stayed freaked out on Sunday, when we went to La Cura, our local Chivas bar, to watch our beloved Pumas of UNAM take on El Rebaño (the Chivas’ nickname, which I thought meant “stripes” but which Chris, from conversations in San Juan, now thinks means “flock,” giving a whole new meaning to “El Rebaño Sagrado”…). Last week La Cura was packed with fans who’d come to watch the Superclasico. This week there were moments during the game when were the only people in the entire establishment. Pumas-Chivas is no Superclasico, but still: They’re two of the four most popular teams in the country and they’re both in a furious end-of-the-season playoff hunt. It was eerie. Though I can imagine that University Olympic Stadium, only blocks from the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, was even eerier. The game was played “a puerta cerrada,” with closed doors, in an empty stadium, by order of a Mexican government trying to prevent large gatherings of people.

But while people stayed largely in their homes all weekend from Mexico City to Jalisco, the Lagos Municipal Government must have missed the memo, for it held not one but two ferias (festivals) this weekend.

Friday night was the first-ever Feria de Rock (yep, Rock Music Festival), with four very young local bands taking the stage in front of the former Capuchin convent. The best band had a born lead-singer who kept trying to get the dwindling crowd to “make a desmadre” (basically, to go crazy; the etymology of “desmadre” would take more than one blog post to explain) and, during one of the band’s original songs, led the crowd in a call-and-response. The call-and-response song was called “Pastel de Amor” (Cake of Love); whenever the singer came to the line “But I lack the…” we were to respond with “¡HUEVOS!” (EGGS!) and then the singer would complete the verse with “to make a cake of love…” It’s a hilarious little baking metaphor, made all the funnier if you know some, er, other uses of the Spanish word huevos.

Then, Saturday kicked off the first-ever International Clown Festival, held right here in Lagos. The actual event is both less ambitious than the title suggests but more ambitious than we’d expect from little old Lagos. Payasos (clowns) are arriving from as far away as Brazil and Mexico’s own Yucatan Peninsula, the Secretary of Culture for Jalisco is coming to discuss his new book about mimes, and there are even some experimental theater performances (though it seems those will take place in Guadalajara). Still seems a bit random, but hey, who doesn’t love a good excuse to festejar?

So now, our weekend of swine flu, youth rock festival, and clown convention come to a close, we begin Monday a little differently than usual. When I went for my run this morning, about half of those exercising in the little park were wearing tapabocas (plastic mouth coverings). After hearing on the radio that schools are closed due to flu fears, Chris decided to stay close to home today, spending her day in the Lagos archives rather than walking around the crowded streets of San Juan.

Midmorning I went out to the café and picked up a newspaper. Bad news: Two people died, victims of the flu, in Aguascalientes, and the Feria de San Marcos was canceled "por la primera vez in 181 años" (for the first time in 181 years). On the brighter side, the governor of Jalisco declared that there are no cases in the entire state, and he's angry the University of Guadalajara closed without consulting the state government.

I also spoke over email with Luke at the Lutheran Center in Mexico City, and they don't seem too worried. They're still receiving delegations, and they're frankly more concered right now about those who might not have access to health care. So, taking a cue from them, we, too, are praying for the millions in Mexico City who lack access to health resources, even in a country with (supposedly) free health care for its citizens.

And finally, the most bewildering thing of all: Today the streets and plazas of Lagos are absolutely flooded with people. Schools are closed, to of course the kids need a place to go, and many of them are walking around with their moms and dads. Some people are wearing tapabocas (the blue mouth coverings), but the thing about tapabocas is that they're not all that unusual here in Mexico. We used to see people wear them all the time in Mexico City. It's probably the equivalent of popping a few Airborne, taking a few extra vitamins, in the United States. Looks scary on TV, and probably is in Mexico City, but here it's just cause for some extra precaution while the powers that be sort things out.

And this, my friends, is Mexico: The kids are going to chase each other around the plaza, screaming and laughing, as they're doing right now, tapaboca or no tapaboca, flu or no flu...

Friday, April 24, 2009

Real quick -

There's international breaking news right now about a deadly flu epidemic in Mexico. It really is deadly - it's reported to have killed 61 people so far. Very frightening stuff. We're grateful to be far from Mexico City right now (where the outbreak is currently located) but we're praying for all those affected.



Los Musicos

Ever since Johnny Cougar Mellencamp made me feel better about moving to Indiana, I’ve tried to soak up the music of whatever place I happen to be in. In Chicago, I listened not only to the neo-soul rap of native southsider Common (and his more famous colleague Kanye West) but also the decades-old city blues of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, blues that grew out of the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. Later, my time at the Old Town School of Folk Music led me to discover another side of Chicago’s musical heritage, from the late singer-songwriter Steve Goodman to the Chicago-based folk-rockers Wilco. As much as good regional literature, good regional music can help deepen your sense of place, in whatever location on God’s green earth you happen to be.

In Mexico, though, this has been a lot harder. For one thing, I hardly knew where to begin. I started with the big names in rock en español, artists I’d already heard of: Maná, Café Tacuba, Julieta Venegas. Then, last fall MTV released a collection of songs culled from their Unplugged series, which is apparently still going strong in Latin America. The nice thing about Lo Mejor de MTV Unplugged is that its 19 songs are like a who’s who of the last two decades of Latin rock. At least a third of them are Mexican artists: Not only the few I already knew but also artists I hadn’t heard yet, like Soda Stereo, Caifanes, and El Tri. It’s a quality disc, and a good introduction to the recent landscape of rock en español.

The thing about rock en español, though, is that much of it just sounds like rock in English but with Spanish lyrics. It’s true, sometimes these lyrics are super-Mexican, even if the music is not. When I started reading Chris the letras (lyrics) to some of the songs from Guadalajaran rockers Maná, she started laughing and pointed me to an essay by Alma Guillermoprieto in which the journalist describes a typical Mexican party that ends with grown men with their arms around each other, wailing tequila-induced songs of lost love. Nearly every Maná song seems to be about this topic, none more so than "Clavado En Un Bar" (Nailed in a Bar - and yes, it's as pathetic as you'd imagine). When you listen to their live discs you can picture the stadiums full of fans waving their lighters back and forth. Like their northern counterparts Bon Jovi and Journey, Maná can be an irresistible guilty pleasure when you’re in the right mood. The song below is my personal favorite, a song about a (what else?) lost love, in which the abandoned lover waits for eternity "on the pier of San Blas, alone with her spirit, alone with her love, alone with the sea..." Click here for the lyrics in Spanish AND English.

Café Tacuba, on the other hand, brims with indie street cred despite their status as one of the most popular bands in Mexico. Their music grows out of the arty student scene in Mexico City, and their music incorporates everything from traditional Mexican folk sounds (see 1996’s “Las Flores” – The Flowers) to lilting lullabies strewn over Eno-style electronic soundscapes (see 2003’s “Eres” – You Are). While the bleeps and bloops that pepper their most recent album may not seem Mexican on the surface, Café Tacuba definitely captures the one-foot-in-an-ancient-past-one-foot-in-a-chaotic-postmodern-future Mexico City. I consider them the Mexican R.E.M., and they continue to bring back memories of walking through the sprawling UNAM university campus (home of the Pumas!) in Mexico City.

But both of these male rockers take a backseat to Tijuana-born Julieta Venegas. Last year, Chris bought her song “Eres Para Mi (live)” on iTunes. A year later it’s the second-most played song of the past year in our iTunes Library (the only song ahead of it is, inevitably, U2’s “Get On Your Boots”). When we arrived in Mexico last year I immediately went looking for the full disc – again, an MTV Unplugged live album. We’ve listened to this album a lot since then, mainly because it’s sort of, well, awesome. The first song begins like something from Feist, but with lyrics about “Limon y Sal” (click for the music video) that only really make sense from a Mexican perspective in which the combination of Lime and Salt has an essential everyday meaning. From there the songs take the form of little pop gems, but pop gems created with everything from a mariachi-style accordion, which Julieta plays (“Me Voy” (I Am Going) is a good example) to the hip-hop beats and straight-up rap of “Eres Para Mi” (You Are For Me). Julieta’s MTV Unplugged has filled our various apartments time and time again during our year in Mexico.

Whew! All that and we’re only through rock en español. Stay tuned (though not necessarily tomorrow) for parts II (ranchera, inexplicably still popular) and III (the future of Mexican music?) of Los Musicos...

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Instituto Mexicano del Sonido

More tomorrow...
And what can I say about this article? It's just too cool. My man Bono writing about carnavale, Lent, and the resurrection, with a conclusion about knowing - and showing - who you are. Thanks to Laura and Adam and Andy for tipping me off about this one - apparently some people think I like U2 or something...
Opened up the digital NY Times this morning to find this horrifying immigration story. Check it out.

Tiempo Tranquilo

The Eric Clapton song “Layla” (for which my friend Eddie named his cat) begins with the rush of a blazing guitar riff and blistering blues vocal. For three minutes the song is a fast-driving 45, one of the classics of classic rock. But what many radio listeners forget is that the song is actually like 7 minutes long. After the punch of the first half, the song’s second half slows to a gentle crawl, as if the raging rapids had spit it out onto a lazy river.

And it’s that second half of the song that I seem to be living right now. There’s nothing like the rush of that first arrival in Mexico City, and then I kind of got used to el D.F. but there’s still Cuernavaca, Taxco, Puebla and then the legendary Oaxaca and then just when you think it’s over there’s an unforgettable trip to the misty mountains of Chiapas. Then it’s off to a nice relaxing week with the fam in Puerta Vallarta and then back to P.V. with dear friends and then after this winter break it’s on to a nice workmanlike routine of Spanish classes which are ended suddenly by yet another move to a brand new place.

But now we’ve settled into this place that was once so new. It’s very peaceful here. Almost too peaceful, sometimes, but all things considered it’s a nearly perfect place to live: warm weather, friendly people, and fresh yet shockingly inexpensive food to keep us nourished. ¿Todo bien? Luis asks us every time we run into him. Si, todo bien, I say. It’s all good.

And yet… and yet my all-too-human soul still feels restless. Maybe I should be doing something really productive with this time, I thought. Maybe I need to. Maybe I’ll never have this kind of free time ever again! So I tried filling up my time with all sorts of disciplines – exercising, reading the Bible, practicing my guitar, cooking incredibly complex gourmet meals, cleaning the apartment from top to bottom daily, and so on and so on and so on.

But after a few days of this I was falling behind and feeling more and more guilty. So I screeched everything to a halt. One thing I probably should not do with this time is to create new sources of guilt. So I trimmed the routine down to the basics: a half hour of running, a half hour of prayer, figure out the food situation. Whatever else happens with the day is up to the whim of the Fates…

Unfortunately, the Fates seem to be kicking back, too – I wander around town keeping my eyes peeled for something interesting, but no pasa nada. So the days just seem to fall through my fingers like sand. I spent an hour or two on the roof yesterday morning, just watching the sunset over the town, the plains, and the mountains, and letting my mind wander. It was nice enough, and probably good for me. But another 3 months of this? I don’t know. I just don’t know. Any ideas, loyal readers?

I should close with two very important points.

First, this is very different from Chris’s experience right now. She works from dawn to dusk in San Juan de Los Lagos interviewing people, collecting data in archives, and just generally trying to get done as much as she can in these, her final Fulbright-funded months. At this point my supportive role takes the form of cooking the most delicious meals I can (thank you, Rick Bayless) and doing some data entry for her. She is having FANTASTIC experiences, but, owing to her crazy-busyness, has absolutely no time to write about them for the blog. You’ll just have to hear her stories when we get back to the States…

Second, we are blessed with some of the greatest friends in the known world. Since beginning this latest chapter of our adventure in Lagos, we enjoyed a weeklong pachanga with Adam and Laura only a month ago, we’re looking forward to the arrival of Zach and Hannah in less than two weeks (!), and then recently received word that Elisabeth is planning to come for a four-day jaunt in June. Words cannot describe how awesome this is. It’s sort of like most of our adventuring fun now is compressed into those weeks, with stretches of work (Chris) and nothingness (me) punctuated with tiempo muy divertido. The lucha libre mask hanging on our wall is proof enough of that.

Well. There’s a brief update for you, hopefully not too confessional but definitely the most descriptive update I can give right now. There may be some music and food postings soon, but those adventures take place mainly in this apartment… which is beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic. Time for another walk. Hasta pronto...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Alacránes y Búfalos // Scorpions and Buffalos

The above image is from the greatest Mexican juego de mesa (table game) of all: lotería. It's basically Bingo, but with words and pictures instead of numbers, which for my money makes the whole thing way more fun. It's also a great way to learn vocabulary. When I visited Mexico on the 2007 J-Term Mexico City Immersion Course, we stayed overnight with a Mexican family for one night, but we, the students, were all pretty nervous about it, since our Spanish wasn't great. But when the family brought out lotería, the laughs, the conversation, the - dare I say it? - fellowship began.

Lotería is especially fun because, in the classic version, the pictures include such classics as "El Borracho" (the Drunk), "El Valiente" (the Brave Man? the image is of a guy who looks like he just left a barfight, I don't know...), "La Muerte" (Death, looking like the grim reaper), and, of course, El Alacrán - the Scorpion.

I post a photo of El Alacrán today because, how do I put this, some of his little scorpion friends have invaded our apartment. On Friday we returned from a movie (Monsters vs. Aliens, appropriately enough) to find a little scorpion scurrying out from under a chair. Chris quickly crushed it, then spent the rest of the night worrying about whether it stung her through her new Chuck Taylors. (It didn't.) Then, this morning, Chris went to wash some breakfast dishes to find - no! not again! - a scorpion in the sink. Both were only very small scorpions - alacranitos? - but hey, a scorpion is a scorpion. Click on that link and tell me the photos don't creep you out.

We're not quite sure how to handle this latest problem. We took care of the mosquitoes with some locally-recommended plug-into-the-wall repellent. Roaches - Chris prefers to call them beetles - only seem to come into the apartment to die, and we've only seen a handful in six weeks. From reading James and the Giant Peach recently, we learned that Miss Spider in our bathroom is actually quite helpful for taking care of our mosquito problem. But scorpions?

Look, people, we're from the Middle West. We have, like, ants at picnics and flies in the summertime and every 17 years or so a cicada invasion, and that's about it. Maybe you Texans are all over this problem - and if so, we welcome your advice! All we're doing at this point is wearing shoes in the house all the time and taking care to, as Chris put it in her note describing the scorpion discovery this morning, "Be careful of dark places!"

But alacranes aren't the only wildlife in beautiful Lagos de Moreno. Recently the local paper has been documenting the saga of a herd of buffalo that were abandonado - abandoned - in the local fairgrounds. By "documenting," I mean the paper has featured these búfalo in a giant color photo and big bold headline on the front page for four days in a row. (Did I not just call this the Mexican Kansas?)

On the first day, the story was just about the discovery of the herd. On the second day, the newspaper reported that "a representative of the owner" - the owner apparently being too embarrassed to make contact himself - had called the city to claim the buffalo. The "representative" explained that their buffalo transport equipment had broken down, but because it was Semana Santa, there was no one available to repair it. They tried to call the municipal government to get permission to leave the buffaloes were they were, but, again, because of Semana Santa, all offices were closed. So they just left them. This didn't quite explain why the buffaloes were still there without explanation at the end of the week after Semana Santa, but, come on, I think we've all been there. I mean, who among us hasn't had to leave their buffalo herd in the local fairgrounds for an extra week or two?

The next two days of front-page búfalo coverage will have to remain a mystery, however, because we failed to buy the paper over the weekend. Today, though, the poor beasts were knocked off their press perch by - what else? - fútbol. The Chivas of Guadalajara defeated Club América 1-0 in the spring Superclasico match, a repeat of their victory in the fall.

We watched the Clásico de Clásicos at La Cura, a local bar and seafood place that is known for being popular among Chivas fans. A few yellow-and-blue Águila (Eagle) fans (referred to loudly as Americanistas or simply chilangos, residents of Mexico City) were in attendance, but the red-and-white striped Chivas (Goats) of Jalisco soundly drowned them out. And the winning goal? It was a cabezazo (pronounced ca-bay-SA-so, and, incidentally, was also the word Mexican commentators used to describe the end of the 2006 World Cup), or header, and it was awesome. Went right past the diving body of pretty boy (we kid because we love) Guillermo Ochoa, goalie for the Águilas of Club América and backup goalie for the Mexican national team.

So: Scorpions, buffaloes, eagles, and goats. Adventures across the border, indeed...

Friday, April 17, 2009

San Miguel de Allende

Last week, while most everything was closed in Lagos and San Juan, Chris and I decided to take a quick road trip to San Miguel de Allende, about a four hour trip west of here.

Ever since David Alfaro Siqueiros started offering art classes there in the 1940s, San Miguel has been famous for being a colony of English-speaking Americans. But there's a flip side to its artiness: Today the Lonely Planet calls San Miguel “a Mexican Disneyland for American retirees.” Ouch.

Well, the trusty LP is at least partly right: Immediately upon arriving we heard a lot more English being spoken. We sat down at the first restaurant we found, hungry after our long bus ride, and were surprised to find that not only did our waiter speak to us in English but we could – no way! – eavesdrop on neighboring tables with ease. We quickly found the inevitable English-language bookstore. Of course, we didn’t really need any books, but just wanted to spend some quality time running our fingers along paperback spines, pulling out anything that looked interesting and reading the first few pages… yeah, we miss our bookstores.

After awhile, though, the English-everywhere thing grew a little disconcerting. We’ve lived in Mexico for nine months and know much of the country's geography and history, and for the last month and a half, we’ve been the only gringos in a town few foreign tourists ever visit, the equivalent of, say, Mexican Kansas.

Yet the moment we set foot in San Miguel, everything changed. In San Miguel, we weren’t residents of Mexico, but rather tourists fresh off the boat who should be spoken to only in English, even when we respond in Spanish. We’d stop to look at trinkets at a streetside stand only to find they cost two to four times as much as similar items cost even in Guadalajara. We’d walk down the street, admiring the picture-perfect postcard scenes of cobblestone streets and super-brightly painted buildings, only to realize that they were perhaps a little too perfect: No buildings we have seen anywhere else in Mexico are so brightly painted as those in San Miguel.

Finally we opened the newspaper, trying to get a bit deeper into the world of San Miguel. But we couldn’t escape the full-page real estate ads that confronted us at every turn. All were in English. The worst offered the opportunity to “Live in the Heart of the City You Love…With All the Luxury You Can’t Live Without.” Sigh.

So you might think that, after all that, we’d probably recommend against a visit to San Miguel. Well… Not quite. Once you get past the fact that it is definitely an "upscale" version of the rest of the country (exhibit A: its town square has a Starbucks on the corner), you can actually find much to enjoy in San Miguel.

  • There are several excellent restaurants, including one of the best Mexican restaurants we’ve eaten in all year. (It was upscale, of course – but we decided to treat ourselves in honor of the 9th anniversary of our first date. Is this a legitimate anniversary? Yes. Especially when it's an excuse to eat really good food.)
  • San Miguel is located in the mountains, and so offers beautiful views of the town and surrounding landscape from nearly everywhere. (If you haven't noticed by now, I love mountains, love them, love them, love them, and cannot wait to move to the West Coast.)
  • And there are lots of cultural events – not necessarily Mexican cultural events, but, still, cultural events, like those you might find in a quirky American college town or an arty neighborhood in the city. (The local paper advertised a weeklong workshop on Byzantine Christian icons, to be held in a local monastery later this month. Nothing about this is Mexican… but I was still sorely tempted to sign up.)
In short, my travelers’ review is: San Miguel de Allende is a perfect place to visit if you want to get away from Mexico’s beaches to see some of its inland charm (something any visitor should definitely do at some point), but you don’t speak much Spanish and you're worried about it. If this is you, San Miguel is your gateway to the rest of Mexico!

But if you are us, San Miguel is more like the opposite: It's kind of like a gateway back home, an inland Puerto Vallarta with American ships and airships arriving and departing daily... and we’re not quite ready for that just yet. We will be ready very soon – Chris just booked the return flight for July 13! – but not today, not just yet.

Anyway, here are some photos from San Miguel. Like I said it’s a very scenic, very colorful place, seemingly tailor-made for snapshots, which makes for a fun photo album. Enjoy!

San Miguel de Allende

Thursday, April 16, 2009

¡Bienvenidos Presidente Obama!

Barack Obama is in Mexico City today, and the NY Times is reporting that it's the first time in 12 years that an American president has visited el DF.

Seriously, W? Led the country for 8 years and you couldn't even visit the neighbors? Actually, according to the Times article, other presidents have visited Mexico. They're just choosy about where they go. From the article:

That Mr. Obama is visiting the capital is particularly significant, said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a policy organization in Washington. Other leaders have visited Mexican resort communities, but Mr. Selee said Mr. Obama “really wanted to be seen going to the heart of the country, where the people are.”

Anyway, because of this much-anticipated event, both the American and Mexican press are publishing lots of stuff about each other. One of our favorite online magazines, Slate, just put out a collection of pieces about Mexico that are all worth reading. Check out the collection here. The best article, called "Distant Neighbors" is about the misunderstandings and mistaken perceptions that each country holds about the other. We highly recommend it. (For those that have already visited us - and for those that are coming soon! - there's a reference to the infamous randomizing "button" you have to push to enter the country. "Green, you're good to go; red, open your bags...")

The Mexican press is excited, too. TV news is providing extensive coverage of the massive security detail accompanying the President through Mexico City, and the print newspaper Reforma features the headline "Todos Quieren Ser... Obama" ("Everyone Wants to Be... Obama") with a large color photo of a dude making latex Obama masks. Way to bring the hard news, Reforma, way to bring the hard news.

In fairness, below the attention-grabbing photo, Reforma features an article about marijuana legalization, an issue many Latin American leaders are talking about with some seriousness these days. It's a gutsy topic - or at least it would be in the States - and its one the NY Times didn't touch in its coverage.

And that concludes our news roundup for the day. Hasta mañana...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

My brother Greg turns 25 today. Normally we'd go to Wrigley to celebrate...

...but this year it'll have to wait another 3 months. Oh well - I'm wearing my Cubbie blue today anyway, just for you. Happy Birthday!!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Vigilia Pascual

I’ve been in awe of the Easter Vigil service ever since I first attended one four years ago in Bloomington, Indiana.

On the night of Holy Saturday the congregation gathers around an outdoor firepit and watches as the Christ Candle is relit. From that relit candle all of our little candles are lit, and then we process inside to hear the story of salvation, from Genesis to the Gospels, in the candlelit darkness. At midnight (ideally) the bells ring out, resurrection hymns are sung, alleluias are said once again. Then there is a rite of renewal of baptism, and the sprinkling of baptismal waters, and we all, finally, gather around the table for Holy Communion.

I love this service so much that last year, when my Ministry-in-Context parish didn’t offer one, Chris and I took the Red Line all the way to the other side of the city to attend an Easter Vigil at another Lutheran church. It was hard to justify on rational grounds, as it added yet another worship service to an already full weekend and subtracted several precious hours of sleep before Sunday’s early-and-often Easter services. But it was worth it.

This year, as we gathered at dusk around a charcoal firepit in the courtyard of a little Catholic church in central Mexico, I reveled in the elemental nature of the flickering flames. They reminded me of an old Aztec tradition I learned about earlier this year.

When we lived in Mexico City we lived very near the University Olympic Stadium, and we would often walk by the mosaic mural that adorns one side of it. It was designed by Diego Rivera for the 1968 Olympics to depict the “New Fire” ceremony of the Aztecs, in which a sacred fire is lit once every full cycle of the Aztec caelndar in order to, as Wikipedia describes it, "stave off the end of the world."

As a rule I don’t approve of oversimplifying cultural traditions to make them all neatly blend together, but as we stood around that firepit I couldn’t help thinking of the New Fire and the ancients who gathered, again and again, from generation to generation, to see it relit.

A high-school age youth group from another Mercedario church in Toluca (near Mexico City) has been helping lead Semana Santa services all weekend, and as we waited for the rite to begin the youth tended the flames. Some of the jovenes from the group used giant wooden boards to make very loud clacking sounds. These clackings served as the call to worship, for the bells of the church could not be rung during this time between Good Friday and Easter. We bought our candles for the service, little replica candles of the Christ Candle, with the Alpha and Omega symbols painted on, and we took our place around the circle.

Finally the priest came out, dressed in white with fantastic red images sewn into his vestments. He welcomes us, calmly explains where we can still get our candles for the service, and then he begins.

Oremos. Let us pray.

“Dios nuestro, que por medio de tu Hijo nos has comunicado el fuego de tu vida divina, bendice este fuego nuevo y haz que estas fiestas pascuales encienden en nosotros el deseo del cielo, para que podamos llegar con un espíritu renovado a la fiesta gloriosa de tu Reino. Por Jesucristo, nuestro Señor. Amén.

Our God, who
through the means of your Son has communicated to us the fire of your divine life, bless this new fire and make it so that these Easter festivals (or parties) spark in us the desire of heaven, so that we can arrive with a renewed spirit to the glorious festival (or party!) of your Reign. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

The priest lights the Christ Candle from the new fire of the firepit, and then he begins to trace his fingers through the symbols carved into it.

“Cristo ayer y hoy,
Principio y fin, Alfa y Omega.

Suyo es el tiempo y la eternidad.
A él la gloria y el poder,

Por los siglos de los siglos. Amén.

Por sus santas llagas gloriosas,

Nos proteja y nos guarde

Jesucristo, nuestro Señor.

Que la luz de Cristo, resucitado y glorioso,
Disipe las tinieblas de nuestro corazón

Y de nuestro espíritu.

Christ yesterday and today,

Beginning and ending, Alpha
and Omega,
His is time and eternity,

To him is the glory and the power,

century to century (or through the centuries). Amen.

Through his holy glorious wounds,

He protects us and keeps us

Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

That the light of Christ, resurrected and glorious,
Dissipates the darkness from our heart

And from our spirit.”

Now the great Christ Candle is lifted up high. The priest carries it into the church as we follow after him and crowd into the building, which was already full of people. The priest sings in a chant “Cristo, luz del mundo – Christ, light of the world” and the congregation responds “Demos gracias a Dios – Thanks be to God.”

At first the entire church is dark except for one flame in the center, the flame of the Christ Candle. Cristo, luz del mundo.

Then another candle is lit from this flame. Demos gracias a Dios.

Another candle is lit from that one – Cristo, luz del mundo – then another, and another – Demos gracias a Dios.

The church is so dark that the only thing we can see are the little dancing flames that are quickly multiplying in every direction.

Before long they have illuminated the entire church, the light flickering off the pillars and archways. We lift our candles high, and the priest chants a final time: Cristo, luz del mundo, and the entire congregation responds: Demos gracias a Dios.

Then all of the candles except for the Christ Candle are extinguished, and we settle in for the Old Testament readings. The sound system in the church is loud and clear, and I can make out most of the stories being read in Spanish. We are standing in the back with a crowd of people; all the pews are full. We listen to the readings in the darkness for what seems like hours.

Suddenly and much earlier than we anticipated the priest announces that it is time: The bells begin to ring, alleluias begin to be sung, the lights are turned on and up, and then - an unexpected addition - a giant purple curtain in the front of the church splits and is pulled open to reveal a gigantic painted image of the resurrected Jesus, dressed in white and surrounded by golden rays of light, with his arms open to receive us.

The curtain-opening-to-reveal-stageprop-style-cardboard-cutout-Jesus thing is a pretty corny, especially after all the elemental power of the symbolic flames, but it does bring a goofy grin to my face, and maybe that’s a good enough thing in itself. The priest reads the New Testament readings, and we sing some more alleluias. Everyone lifts up their right hand to renew baptismal vows, and then, instead of a sprinkling of baptismal water, a handful of people hurry forward to have their plastic bottles of holy water blessed by the priest. I don’t quite understand the bottles of holy water, but they do seem to be everywhere this weekend, and they are certainly always in full supply in San Juan de Los Lagos. It is another Catholic tradition I’ll have to learn more about, I guess.

We stay to watch the rite of communion, and then, sent off by the priest, we leave with everyone else and head down to the town square. For the rest of the night and on into the next morning Chris and I talk about our week. Chris says our experiences here have brought home to her the “otherness” of Easter and the strangeness of our faith, which sometimes becomes so familiar in familiar settings, so tame that we forget how wild it really is.

For me, though, tonight was a time when I felt connected not only to the Laguenses but to their church, a Roman church I have so often struggled with and against in my time here. Tonight it seemed less like a different denomination and more like just one more congregation, part of the great small “c” catholic church of our faith, one more community lighting the Christ Candle and ringing the bells, as so many other communities of Christians would do in their own way and in their own time over these next twenty-four hours.

As we walked into the town square that night, we found it full of life. The ice cream stands and coffee shops are open and full of people; balloon and toy vendors are selling their wares on the corners. Teenagers drive by with music playing loud, then drive by again, and again…they are cruising the tiny town square of Lagos de Moreno. It was a Saturday night like any other Saturday night.

Except – there go the bells in the towering central parish church. We look up and see a silhouetted figure in one of the bell towers flailing away at a massive bell that is much larger than he is. For the rest of the night and on into the next morning, bells will suddenly ring out from the various churches in Lagos. Even though the ringing of church bells is a common sound here, on this day, somehow, the sound seems the most joyful noise in all the world: A bell ringing out, year after year, from Indiana to Chicago to Mexico – and beyond.

¡El es resucitado! El es resucitado, de veras. ¡Aleluya!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Photo Gallery: Viernes Santo (Good Friday)

Here are 30 of the best photos from Good Friday. There are no captions (I'm exhausted from writing) so it's best to view these after reading the preceding post, "Viernes Santo."

And thanks for keeping up with our stories and pictures. We miss you all...

Viernes Santo

Viernes Santo

Last year we tried to attend a Via Crucis – a Good Friday passion play of Jesus’ final hours acted out in the streets – in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. But we arrived too late. After wandering the streets of Pilsen for an hour or so on a freezing spring morning, we finally found a street vendor and asked her what was up. “Oh,” she explained to Chris in Spanish, “It was too cold, so they moved it inside. But it’s over now.” Sigh. Our failed trip over, we bought some champurrado (chocolate-flavored atole) from her to warm up and then we went home.

This year we were determined not to miss the Via Crucis. There were plenty of options: Posters were hung around town advertising not less than three different churches each carrying out their own Via Crucis in their own neighborhood. We opted for the one taking place at the Templo Calvario – Calvary Temple – because of its perfectly appropriate name and position on the top of the highest hill in Lagos. And of course, not wanting to arrive too late, we left our apartment really, really early.

While nearly every restaurant, store, and office building was closed for the religious holiday, street vendors were out in force. Along the road up to Calvario, the most common item being sold was seafood. Long lines snaked around the block, full of people hoping to buy “fresh” fish for the last meatless Friday. Clusters of pilgrims making their way to the Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos (they’re everywhere this week) crowded around taco stands, ready for a breakfast of fried shrimp and fresh salsa in warm tortillas. It was a chilly desert morning, and we looked everywhere for tamales and atole, but found neither. Who knew it would be easier to get tamales and atole in Chicago than in Mexico?

We arrived at the top of Calvario hill twenty minutes before the scheduled start time: no way would we miss it this time! But ten o’clock came and went, and still no Via Crucis. It finally began about an hour after we arrived. No matter: There was plenty to see while we waited. Food vendors lined the adjoining streets, selling everything from ice pops (known generically as bolis or by their brand name, Bon-Ice – at any large gathering of people in Mexico you will inevitably hear someone walking around with a little cart and a bell yelling bonICE! bonICE! and then loudly rattling off the flavors) to the most popular snack of the day: a full head of green leaf lettuce with lime and chili powder poured over it. You eat it out of the bag, pulling little pieces of lettuce off as if it were cotton candy. Chris thinks it’s genius. I think it’s too weird. You decide.

While we waited for things to begin, child actors prepared for the day by getting into character. Four-year-olds dressed from helmeted head to sandaled toe in bright red-and-blue Roman centurion costumes lifted plastic swords and challenged their ten-year-old brothers to epic duels.

Before either solider could claim victory, however, a line of thirty or more adult actors – all in Biblical costume – marched out of a nearby school building and up the steps into Calvario chapel. We guessed that they entered the church to pray before their performance. Ten minutes later they came back outside and then began taking their places around the large plaza in front of the church. It was time.

It was hard to tell what was going on at first. There was no introductory announcement or anything – just all of a sudden things started happening. Different scenes of action seemed to be taking place in different spots on the plaza. Loudspeakers on the edges of the plaza blared static, then barely understandable words from the performance, then clearly understandable words about kids getting down from off the railings (¡Bajense! ¡Bajense, por favor!), then more static again. Not knowing what to watch, we hurried over to the largest crowd and tried to see over peoples’ heads.

The first scenes were of John the Baptist. This would not, we soon found out, be simply a passion play of the stations of the cross; it would be a play of the entire gospel narrative. John was dressed in animal skin and had long hair that hung over his face. He yelled various things that we couldn’t quite make out. Suddenly Jesus arrived on the scene, and we could see him being baptized, then leaving, presumably driven by the spirit out into the desert. Even without great sound, most of the action was easily recognizable. Most of it.

All of a sudden Roman soldiers arrived on the scene. They yelled at John, then laughed, then John yelled back, and then one of the soldiers ran forward and pushed John down, hard. My heart jumped: A sudden moment of unexpected violence, real violence, not just happening on TV but right there in front of you, only a few feet away. Forget the cheesy costumes: That guy in rags just got slammed down on the hot cement, hard, and the armed men that ganged up on him are staying in character, laughing hard laughs and flashing angry looks. They dragged John away, and with the rest of the crowd, we followed.

Suddenly we were standing in front of a royal throne, watching Herod and his wife welcome us to a party. A harem of scantily dressed women draped themselves around the royal couple. John was dragged out, then violently pushed and shoved down the aisle to the throne; everyone laughed, and he was taken away again. Pulsing Indian music began playing over the loudspeaker, and the women began their dance. One woman in striking black rags – Salome, presumably – gave Herod nothing short of a lap dance. Herod offered her the kingdom, but after a brief consultation with Herod’s wife, she asked for the head of Juan Bautista on a platter. The king was horrified. A few seconds later, two soldiers walked down the aisle toward the throne, making loud jokes and laughing while they carried the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

The crowd grew. More and more families, young couples, and even gangs of what we call “street toughs” made their way up the hill to Calvario to watch the unfolding events. A hooded figure dressed in black led Jesus up the steps of the temple to the highest point on Calvario hill and pointed out over the city below and plains of Jalisco beyond. “All of this, all of this can be yours,” he said. Jesus responded with a few words we couldn’t make out, and then the sinister-looking figure left angrily, and angels led Jesus back down the steps.

Then Jesus walked around the plaza, making his way through the growing throngs to heal different costumed people. He put his hands over one little boy’s eyes, and then suddenly the boy shouted in surprise. “I can see! ¡Milagro! Milagro!” After a time Jesus stopped and began preaching, and then, noticing something was wrong, gave his disciples instructions and within minutes costumed disciples were making their way through the crowd, handing out pieces of bread.

As the action scenes grew more elaborate, young people took each others’ hands to form a human chain link fence to hold back the crowds from the action taking place. The fence seemed to grow and grow as more and more people wanted to be a part of it.

Palm branches were lifted up, and it was Holy Week, Semana Santa. Now more scenes seemed to take place at the same time. While Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples at a long table on the steps of Calvario – a living sculpture of the Renaissance painting – in another part of the plaza Judas tried to negotiate with a hostile Roman army. They laughed and pushed him around, but finally gave him a bag of money and sent him away. Then we were in Gethsemane and – this was hard to see, because we had moved to a tiny garden on the side of the church – Judas was kissing Jesus, a skirmish broke out, Jesus scolded Peter, and then was arrested and led away.

We could see now that people had begun lining the street leading from Calvario down to the center of town. Roman soldiers had tied ropes around Jesus’ hands, and now began leading him down the street, pushing and prodding and making jokes and laughing loudly as they went. His mother followed behind, looking distraught, but she was kept from getting too close by the spears of the soldiers. Young girls in similar costumes walked behind her carrying slices of oranges, and one of the disciples took her side and offered her his arm.

The streets were packed, and we soon fell behind. Chris bought a sombrilla – an umbrella meant to keep out the sun – to protect us from the now-scorching heat. (The next day's paper would carry the headline: "Reviven la Pasión entre intenso calor - The Passion is relived amid intense heat") When we reached the center of town, we found even more people than had been at the top of the hill; many of these people, we guessed, had waited down here for the action they knew was coming. On the steps of the bandstand in the town square Jesus was condemned to death, and on the steps of the main parish church two other condemned criminals joined him. He was stripped of his clothes and dressed in white, and a crown of thorns was placed on his head. Then a giant wooden cross was placed on his back, and he began the long, slow march back up the steep hill to Calvario.

All along the sides of the street people crammed in to watch what was happening and to follow Jesus along the road, but the human chain link fence kept them back. We fell behind again, but soon found we had a perfect view of one of the other criminals. He wore only a white sheet tied around his waist, and the rest of his body was dirt-caked and bloodied. The Roman soldiers shoved him back and forth and yelled - "¡VAMOS! ¡VAMOS¡ ¡HAHAHAHAHA¡" - as he staggered up the hill, barefoot on the blazing hot asphalt road. Every few blocks he – or another of the condemned – would fall down on top of his cross, and then the procession would stop as the Roman soldiers glared down at him and around at the crowd – but while they glared, they shaded their fellow actor with their capes and quietly him some water.

When we finally reached the top of the hill we found the largest crowd of the day gathered to see the crosses raised. This took some time, so as the soldiers made loud hammer sounds, “nailing” their prisoners onto their crosses, we found our way up the steps to get a better view. And was it ever a better view. We watched as the crosses were raised up and the dying prisoners looked out over the valley beyond.

The Roman soldiers laughed and offered Jesus a sponge on a stick, and then the prisoner on his left turned his head to the center cross and yelled angrily between spells of heavy, labored breathing. He might have been the best actor of the day, he was so believable. But the prisoner on the far right shut him up, and Jesus said something we couldn’t make out, and then finally the central prisoner breathed his last. The crosses stood up there in the air for awhile, as the crowd watched. Then the prisoners were taken down and their bodies were carried away.

The entire performance took about four hours, and it concluded during the hottest part of the day with the sun blazing down. You would think, with the cheesy costumes and the amateur actors, that a Via Crucis like this might not really be that cool – but you would be wrong. It wasn’t exactly solemn: The vendors kept selling food and teenagers kept flirting with each other and neighbors kept talking to each other distractedly and kids kept playing and heck even Chris and I had to get a drink and an umbrella at one point but all of us, all of us were present, part of the crowd of people watching and wondering what to make of all of the staggering violence, imagining what it must have been like to be a part of the crowd those two thousand years ago.

When it was over, everyone dispersed, and we went home, too – hungry, tired, and filled with the knowledge that we had just seen something we would never forget.

+ + +

Later in the evening we walked downtown. I wanted to post a blog piece about Thursday, and then we were going to make our way to church for the Friday evening services. When we left the café, though, we found people gathered on the steps of the church and along the street leading around the central square. What was happening? We decided to wait and find out.

“I think it’s a funeral,” Chris said as she peeked over the crowd to catch a glimpse of the coming procession – and she was half right. First came a relic of the cross, carried as through it were a coffin by a group of four pallbearers and accompanied by the parish priest. Then came the cross itself, draped in a white cloth. Then came a mannequin-like image of Mary carried aloft by another group of men and followed by a long, long line of women dressed in black and carrying candles. As she passed, a haunting voice began to sing through a speaker on the church steps. The effect was chilling.

Jesus came next, in the form of a mannequin-like image dressed in purple and carrying a cross and held aloft by another group of men dressed in black. Then came Jesus lying in a clear closed coffin, wrapped in white cloth, carried again by a group of four pallbearers in black and surrounded by men holding candles. Now another image of Mary, herself dressed in black, following behind, held aloft by women pallbearers and followed, again, by women carrying white candles.

We followed the images until they stopped in the Plaza Capuchinas, site of a former convent of Capuchin nuns. The different groups with their different holy images met in this plaza and took their places around a central space where the priest stood under a cross. As the night faded to black and the plaza was lit only by the electric torches of the former convent and the candles held by the gathered crowd, the priest led us all in prayer. Chris translated some of it for me. It is hard to well describe the feeling of standing outside at dusk in the middle of Mexico, standing and watching with a crowd of candlelit people holding holy images, praying in another language on the night of Good Friday.

What is this event that took place so long ago? How is it still remembered in such arresting ways by human beings, rich and poor, young and old, two thousand years later and halfway around the world from where it took place? How is this possible?

Words fail. And so stories are acted out. Processions are made through the streets. Candles are lit in the night. Prayers are said in the darkness. The people watch and wait, each people in their own way, but all gathered together by the same event.

Into your hands, Father, into your hands.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Jueves Santo

Sometimes traditions are nearly the same (see Domingo de Ramos, for example). Others are so different and so unexpected that the contrast leaves you marveling at the wide, wide world.

Back home, Jueves Santo (Holy Thursday) is known as Maundy Thursday. “Maundy,” as every seminarian knows, comes from the Latin word for commandment, a reference to Jesus’ new commandment to “Love one another as I have loved you.” As an illustration of this love, Jesus then washes his disciples’ feet. Back home, in most of the Lutheran churches I’ve attended over the last few years, we do the same. The congregation gathers, lining up to have their feet washed – and maybe to wash a few feet themselves. Everyone who wants to participate, does. After Holy Communion – which carries special meaning on this night when we remember its institution – the altar is stripped bare, and all paraments and vestments are folded up and taken out of the church, usually while a plaintive Psalm is sung by a soloist. The congregation departs in silence.

It’s important that I write that little inadequate description, even though I know some of you are more than familiar with it, because the above scene is what was going through my head like a movie as we walked to church Thursday evening - and it was nearly the opposite of what we were about to experience.

On Thursday evening we found a seat in the back of the parroquia and did our best to follow along with the service. Chris always does a better job with this than I do; frustrated with language issues and the lack of a helpful order of service, I usually give up trying to follow what’s going on and end up just watching.

As Mass began, twelve costumed men stood in the back of the church, preparing to process forward. By costumed, I mean they wore brightly colored satin robes with sashes, the traditional way you see Jesus and his disciples presented in paintings. From her friends in San Juan Chris had learned that these men were chosen from among the congregation to represent the disciples during the footwashing ceremony. Indeed they did: When the time came, the priest – representing Jesus, as the priest always does – knelt down to wash the feet of the people representing the disciples, a living symbol that the hundreds of people in the cavernous cathedral watched.

Well, some of the people, anyway. We were sitting near the back and couldn’t really see anything. Here we were in one of the most intimate services of the church year, and we were in the least intimate church in town. It looked as though weren’t going to have our feet washed or do any foot washing ourselves, and we faithful Protestants definitely weren’t going to be invited to Holy Communion on this of all nights. During the sermon the priest tried valiantly to counteract some of the priest-as-Jesus symbolism, urging each of us to love our neighbor as Jesus commanded us, but I was already distracted. I felt awfully homesick. I missed participating in the service, singing songs, taking communion, even the indescribable awkwardness of footwashing. I missed everything.

About halfway through the service I noticed that large groups of people – families and extended families, it looked like – kept entering the church, standing by the door for five minutes, and then leaving. After awhile I started to get annoyed, and I whispered to Chris: What is the deal? These people just stop in, breathe a bit of the incensed air, and then leave? She shrugged: Maybe they’re starting their visitas already.

Our landlord, Luis, told Chris a few days ago about the visitas, one of the traditional Semana Santa practices, known usually by its full name: Las Visitas a Las Siete Casas, or the Visits to the Seven Houses. The houses are represented, Luis said, by the templos, or church buildings, in Lagos. But this was all we knew; we had never heard of the Visits to the Seven Houses before, and wondered what it would look like.

When it was time for communion we left – I never see the point of staying to watch – and walked down to another church a few blocks away. Mass was over at this church, but a long line of people was streaming into door of the church and streaming out of another. Not sure what else to do, we did what we normally do in these situations: We joined them.

On our way out of the church, we stopped by a table where a woman was selling bread, candles, and little brochures. She was very friendly, and explained everything to us as though we were the foreigners we so clearly are. “This is schedule for the weekend,” she said, pointing to one brochure. “And this paper has the Seven Prayers for the Seven Houses.” For fifty cents we bought a copy of the prayers, then sat down on a bench to try and figure out what they were.

The Visits to the Seven Houses, it turns out, is an ancient Christian tradition (click the link to learn only slightly more). As in the Posadas, people walk from place to place acting out Biblical events. Each visited “house” – or in this case, each church – represents one of Jesus’ stops on the night before he was killed – Caiphas’ house, Pilate’s house, Herod’s house, and so on. At each house, you say a prayer, contemplate the events that took place there, and then move on.

Not wanting to miss out on something that was completely new for us, we followed some people to the next church. As we walked, we noticed that the crowds wandering the streets were getting bigger – much bigger. By the time we arrived at the church it was much too crowded for us to get inside, so we merely read the assigned prayer and kept going.

The next church was surrounded by a huge cement patio. A very long line snaked into the building, but all around it people filled the public space, some sitting on steps and benches and the edges of fountains, some buying fresh potato chips or ice cream cones from the many mobile vendors, some just standing around in half-circles chatting with their friends. “What is this?” I asked aloud, more out of dumbfounded wonder than anything else. “It’s a party,” said my esposa, matter-of-factly. She had bought a bag of fresh potato chips with lime and salt on them, and happily offered me one.

By now all of the downtown streets were filled with people. They talked and laughed and ate and kids chased each other as they made their way from one church to the next. Inside the churches there was something like silence, to be sure. At one parish a youth group acted out the events of the Last Supper, complete with costume and a fake wig of flowing locks for Jesus.

At another there was a mannequin-like statue of Jesus, and people gathered around, reaching up to touch the hem of his garment before moving on. But everything else was indeed like any other Mexican street party. It was the third time, actually, that we had experienced this sort of thing, after the everyone-outside-going-house-to-house events of the Day of the Dead and the Posadas, all three stupefying hybrids of public spirituality and food-filled fiestas.

I kept thinking about how at home Maundy Thursday ends with solemnity and silence, while here Jueves Santo ends with a roving street party. What does this mean? Is one more reverent than another? If you have an answer, I’d love to hear it, but I can barely begin to put my systematic brain to work: The contrast is almost too much for me.

And what would Jesus think?

Of course, I cannot speak for the Lord. But I have a hunch that somewhere, Jesus is laughing. I can almost hear it: A great long laugh of approval.

If you’re going to have a Last Meal
, I hear him say, It might as well be a party.