Mexico’s Day of the Dead: nine of the best places to visit

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Oct 162018
 

Celebrations for Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) or, more correctly Night of the Dead (Noche de Muertos), date back to pre-Hispanic times. Indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children (angelitos) are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On both days, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

In many locations, festivities (processions, altars, concerts, meals, dancing, etc) now last several days, often beginning several days before the main days of November 1st and 2nd.

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

Day of the Dead: Top Nine Locations

The Day of the Dead was designated an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2008. The official UNESCO description of Mexico’s “Indigenous Festivity dedicated to the Dead” summarizes its significance:

“As practised by the indigenous communities of Mexico, el Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) commemorates the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones. The festivities take place each year at the end of October to the beginning of November. This period also marks the completion of the annual cycle of cultivation of maize, the country’s predominant food crop.”

“Families facilitate the return of the souls to Earth by laying flower petals, candles and offerings along the path leading from the cemetery to their homes. The deceased’s favorite dishes are prepared and placed around the home shrine and the tomb alongside flowers and typical handicrafts, such as paper cut-outs. Great care is taken with all aspects of the preparations, for it is believed that the dead are capable of bringing prosperity (e.g. an abundant maize harvest) or misfortune (e.g. illness, accidents, financial difficulties) upon their families depending on how satisfactorily the rituals are executed. The dead are divided into several categories according to cause of death, age, sex and, in some cases, profession. A specific day of worship, determined by these categories, is designated for each deceased person. This encounter between the living and the dead affirms the role of the individual within society and contributes to reinforcing the political and social status of Mexico’s indigenous communities.”

The Day of the Dead celebration holds great significance in the life of Mexico’s indigenous communities. The fusion of pre-Hispanic religious rites and Catholic feasts brings together two universes, one marked by indigenous belief systems, the other by worldviews introduced by the Europeans in the sixteenth century.”

Here, in no particular order, are 9 of the best places to visit for Mexico’s Day of the Dead:

1. Michoacán

The single best-known location for Day of the Dead in the entire country is the Island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. This is one of Mexico’s most famous major annual spectacles. Thousands of visitors from all over the world watch as the indigenous Purepecha people perform elaborate rituals in the local cemetery late into the night. Yes, it has become commercialized, but it remains a memorable experience, and also offers the opportunity to sample the local cuisine, which itself was declared an “intangible world heritage” by UNESCO in 2010!

Janitzio cemetery

Janitzio cemetery

Several other locations in the Lake Pátzcuaro area, including Ihuatzio, Tzintzuntzan, Arocutín and Jarácuaro, offer their own equally memorable (but less visited) festivities and rituals. Interesting observances of Day of the Dead also occur in many other places in Michoacán, including Angahuan (near Paricutin Volcano) and Cuanajo.

2. Mexico City

Two locations in the southern part of the city are well worth visiting for Day of the Dead.

In San Andrés Mixquic, which has strong indigenous roots, graves are decorated with Mexican marigolds in a cemetery lit by hundreds and hundreds of candles. Street stalls, household altars and processions attract thousands of capitalinos each year.

In Xochimilco, the canals and chinampas are the background for special night-time Day of the Dead excursions by boat (trajinera).

3. Morelos

Ocotepec, on the outskirts of Cuernavaca, is another excellent place to visit for Day of the Dead activities.

4. Veracruz

Xico, one of Mexico’s Magic Towns, has colorful Day of the Dead celebrations, including a flower petal carpet along the road to the graveyard. Don’t miss sampling the numerous kinds of tamales that are a mainstay of the local cuisine.

5. San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo

In the indigenous Huastec settlements of the mountainous area shared by the states of San Luis Potosí and Hidalgo, the celebrations for Day of the Dead are known as Xantolo. Multi-tiered altars are elaborately decorated as part of the festivities.

6. Chiapas

Several indigenous communities in Chiapas celebrate the Day of the Dead in style. For example, in San Juan Chamula, the festival is known as Kin Anima, and is based on the indigenous tzotzil tradition.

San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

7. Yucatán and Quintana Roo

In the Maya region, Day of the Dead celebrations are known as Hanal Pixan, “feast for the souls.” Families prepare elaborate food for the annual return of their dearly departed. The cemeteries in the Yucatán capital Mérida are well worth seeing, as are the graveyards in many smaller communities. See, for example, this account of the festivities in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo: Hanal Pixan, Maya Day of the Dead in Pac Chen, Quintana Roo

Tourist locations offer their own versions of Day of the Dead celebrations. For example, Xcaret theme park, in the Riviera Maya, is the scene of the Festival of Life and Death (Festival de la Vida y la Muerte) featuring parades, rituals, concerts, theater performances and dancing.

8. Oaxaca

There are rich and varied observances of Day of the Dead in the state of Oaxaca. Visitors to Oaxaca City can witness vigils in several of the city’s cemeteries and night-time processions called comparsas. The celebrations are very different on the Oaxacan coast, as evidenced by this account of Day of the Dead in Santiago Pinotepa Nacional.

9. Guanajuato
The city of San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato holds an annual four-day festival known as “La Calaca” with artistic and cultural events that are “integrated into the vibrant celebration of life and death known as Dia de Muertos”.

In Mexico, the age-old cultural traditions of Day of the Dead are still very much alive!

Note for armchair travelers

Besides the usual travel accounts describing Day of the Dead, there are numerous children’s and adult novels including vivid accounts of typical Day of the Dead activities. There are also various novels entitled Day of the Dead, though not all of them are focused on the Mexican tradition. One of the earliest of the novels entitled Day of the Dead is Bart Spicer’s 1955 spy novel, Day of the Dead, which has several scenes in Chapala, Guadalajara and Mexico City.

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Mexico celebrates 208 years of independence

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Sep 142018
 

Happy birthday, Mexico! On 16 September 2018, Mexico celebrates the 208th anniversary of its independence from Spain.

Mexican flag

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When was Mexico’s War of Independence?

The long struggle for independence began on 16 September 1810; independence was finally “granted” by Spain in 1821.

Want some map-related geographic trivia associated with the War of Independence?

Events in the War of Independence called for an accurate map of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake. The cartographer for this map was José María Narváez, whose major contributions to Mexican cartography in succeeding decades have largely been forgotten.

The first truly national map, compiled in 1857-1858 from a meticulous reconciling of the work of numerous local cartographers, was drawn by Antonio García Cubas. García Cubas did not graduate from university until a few years after completing this map!

Nationalism and the start of Mexico-USA migration, but not in the direction you might think…

Following independence, the rush was on to draw an accurate map of all of Mexico’s territory. Mexico’s boundaries following independence were very different to today. Flows of migrants linking the USA to Mexico at that time were from the USA to Mexico, the reverse of the direction of more recent flows, which have seen millions of Mexicans migrate north looking for work:

Some national symbols are not quite what you might think, either!

The story of the national emblem (used on coins, documents and the flag) of an eagle devouring a serpent, while perched on a prickly-pear cactus, is well known. Or is it?

Why is “El Grito” held on the night of 15 September each year?

In 1910, then president Porfirio Díaz decided that the centenary of Mexican independence should be celebrated in style. One of the reasons why the “traditional” Grito (“shout”) is made on 15 September each year, rather than on the morning of 16 September (when Father Miguel Hidalgo apparently gathered his parishioners in revolt) is because 15 September 1910 happened to be Díaz’s 80th birthday. Why not have one big bash and celebrate both president and country at the same time? Even though the Mexican Revolution broke out later that year (and Díaz was later exiled to Paris), Mexico continues to start its annual independence-day celebrations on the evening of 15 September.

Not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo (5 May)

Many people incorrectly assume that Cinco de Mayo (5 May) is Mexico’s independence day. The Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Independence, but everything to do with a famous victory over the French. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle marks Mexico’s only major military success since independence:

Independent country, independent book:

Mexico has come a long way in 200 years, but amazingly, to the best of our knowledge, Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, is the first-ever book in English focused exclusively on the nation’s varied and fascinating geography.

¡Viva Mexico!

Mexican flag

Geo-Mexico wishes you a Happy Cinco de Mayo (5 May)!

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May 032018
 

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo (5 May) commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle (against the French) marks Mexico’s only major military success since its independence from Spain in 1821. Today, in a curious example of cultural adaptation, the resulting holiday is actually celebrated more widely in the USA than in Mexico!

Cinco de Mayo: Google image search results

Cinco de Mayo: Google image search results

For an account of the history behind the Cinco de Mayo, and for an explanation of why the holiday is now celebrated more in the USA than in Mexico:

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated with a parade in the City of Puebla each year, but, in another strange twist of geography,  the longest-running annual re-enactment takes place in Mexico City:

Want to read more?

MexConnect has several informative articles relating to Cinco de Mayo, including:

Dec 242017
 

Some parts of Mexico have been working on Christmas for most of the year… For example, the manufacturing of beautiful handmade Christmas tree decorations is the main industry today in the former gold and silver mining town of Tlalpujahua in the state of Michoacán. The production of Christmas ornaments in Tlapujahua has a great series of photos by Arturo Toraya of Notimex, showing some of the steps involved.

ornaments-2

As the accompanying text explains, “Making baubles for Christmas trees is the main source of jobs in the town, which is now one of the top five producers in the world. Due to their quality, 90 percent of the total production is exported to the U.S. and Canada. There are 200 family workshops in the town with seven-hour shifts, and each worker can make up to 550 baubles per day. Each workshop decorates about 500 per day. Red, blue, green and yellow are the top selling colors in Mexico, while black, brown and grey are more popular in the U.S.”

The village of Tzintzuntzan, on the shores of Lake Pátzcuaro, also in Michoacán, is another settlement where Christmas seems to be a year-round source of inspiration. The village handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts.

Happy Christmas from Geo-Mexico! – ¡Feliz Navidad!

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

Craft market in Tzintzuntzan, Michoacan

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Easter celebrations in Mexico

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Apr 102017
 

Mexicans celebrate Easter in considerable style with processions and re-enactments of religious events. The MexConnect Easter Index page has a varied collection of articles and photo galleries relating to the Easter period in Mexico.

Easter procession in San Miguel de Allende. Photo: Don Fyfe-Wilson. All rights reserved.

Easter celebrations have been held for centuries in many of Mexico’s towns and cities, though the details may have changed over the years. This MexConnect article, for example, features photos from a Good Friday procession held in San Miguel de Allende in the mid 1960s.

The festivities in dozens of villages and towns throughout the country, including Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán and San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, have a very long history.

In other villages, the present-day, large-scale Easter celebrations are not genuinely “traditional” but are a relatively new introduction to the local culture. This is true, for instance, in the case of the Easter activities in Ajijic, on the northern shore of Lake Chapala, where, “The local townspeople take honor in portraying the cast mentioned in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are there, along with wonderfully costumed early Christians and complacent Roman townspeople and authority figures.”

Perhaps the single most famous location in Mexico for witnessing Easter events is Iztapalapa near Mexico City. See here for photos of the 2013 Celebration of Easter Week in Iztapalapa.

Note: This post was originally published in April 2010, updated in April 2014 and republished in 2017.

The geography of Mexico’s religions is analyzed in chapter 11 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico; many other aspects of Mexico’s culture are discussed in chapter 13.

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Mexico and Ireland: a lasting relationship forged by potatoes. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

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Mar 152017
 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, we offer this short list of references highlighting some of the more significant connections between Ireland and Mexico.

Séamus Ó Fógartaigh in his “Ireland and Mexico“, published in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America by the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (based, curiously, in Switzerland) looks at the early links between Ireland and Mexico, including suggestions that the travels of St. Brendan the Navigator may have inspired Christopher Columbus and that the famous “Plumed Serpent” of Mexican mythology may have originated from the deification of an Irish monk.

Much better known are the later links. During colonial times, several of the Spanish administrators sent to New Spain (now Mexico) were direct descents of Irish exiles to Spain. They include the 63rd and last Spanish Viceroy of New Spain Juan O’Donojú (formerly O’Donoghue) who arrived in the New World shortly before Mexico became Independent in 1821.

A generation later, Irish soldiers who chose to leave (deserted) the US army formed the backbone of Mexico’s St. Patrick’s Battalion (Batallón San Patricio) which fought the invading Americans in 1846-48. They are especially remembered for their bravery in the Battle of Churubusco (in Mexico City) in 1847. Their story is well remembered by Mexicans today, their exploits commemorated every year at a ceremony in Mexico City, and the basis of several books and the movie One Man’s Hero. The single, best account is that by Michael Hogan in The Irish Soldiers of Mexico. For a summary account, try “The St. Patricio Battalion, The Irish Soldiers of Mexico” by Jaime Fogarty, published in UNAM’s Voices of Mexico magazine, April-June, 2000.

San Patricio Melaque (Google Earth)

San Patricio Melaque (Google Earth)

On the Jalisco coast, the small town of San Patricio Melaque (around the bay from Barra de Navidad and the Isla de Navidad tourist development) holds an annual fiesta that celebrates both the town’s patron saint and the achievements of the Irish soldiers. Nine days of activity (church services, fireworks, parades, bullfights, fairground games) come to a climax on 17 March. (It is sometimes claimed that San Patricio Melaque is the only settlement named San Patricio in Mexico, but that is not quite true, since there are at least three others: two tiny hamlets called San Patricio, relatively close to Cd. Victoria in Tamaulipas, and one named San Patricio de la Mesa in the mountains east of Hermosillo in Sonora.)

In the twentieth century, Álvaro Obregón (family name O’Brien) was President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924. (We will take a critical look at his relationship with the indigenous Yaqui Indians of Sonora in a later post). The city of Ciudad Obregón in Sonora is named in his honor. Artists of Irish descent also impacted Mexico’s national life. They included architect, painter and muralist Juan O’Gorman (1905-1982), responsible for the monumental mosaic that adorns the walls of the National University (UNAM) Library in Mexico City, and a striking, colorful mural in Pátzcuaro that depicts an erupting volcano; this mural was completed just one year before the unexpected eruption nearby of Paricutín Volcano.

Today, according to Wikipedia, there are between 300,000 and 600,000 people of Irish descent living in Mexico, mostly in either northern Mexico or Mexico City.

Dr. Michael Hogan has done far more than most to publicize the links between Ireland and Mexico. In this 8 minute Youtube video clip, he talks to an Irish radio show host about the San Patricios, Irish and Mexican history, music and tequila.

Most of the links we’ve described might never have happened if Mexico had not sent an unwanted export to Ireland in the middle of the nineteenth century. The census of 1841 in Ireland recorded a population of about 8 million. The staple Irish food at that time was the humble potato and Ireland’s rapid population growth during the early part of the nineteenth century was based on the so-called “potato economy”.  Ireland was bursting at the seams in 1841, but just a decade later, after the potato famine, the population had fallen to 6.5 million. The cause of the Irish potato famine was a water mold (Phytophthora infestans) that originated in Mexico and crossed the Atlantic in the 1840s, reaching Europe in 1845 before rapidly spreading across the continent to reach Ireland.

If a Mexican water mold had not provoked the Irish potato famine, maybe there would have been no settlements named San Patricio in Mexico today, and no cause to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Mexico! Wherever you may be, have a very Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Related links:

Is Jalisco the most “Mexican” state?

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Jan 092017
 

Tapatíos (residents of Guadalajara) and Jaliscienses (residents of Jalisco) often brag that they live in the most “Mexican” area of the country. Are these boasts truthful? This is not an easy question to answer. It involves looking at a broad range of evidence.

Jalisco’s climate and natural ecosystems are very diverse like the country as a whole. It is the only state with all of the country’s five principal natural ecosystems (tropical evergreen forest, tropical deciduous and thorn forest, temperate forest, grassland and mesquite-grassland, and arid and semi-arid scrubland) [Geo-Mexico, page 31]. Furthermore, Jalisco has Lake Chapala, the country’s largest natural lake as well as the Colima Volcano, one of the most active in the country. Certainly from a physical geography perspective Jalisco appears the most representative of Mexico as a whole. (For other natural wonders of Jalisco see John Pint’s website: http://ranchopint.com).

Map of Jalisco state

Map of Jalisco. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Jalisco’s socio-economic characteristics are also representative of Mexico. Its population has an average growth rate and is distributed among a very large city, secondary and smaller cities, extensive farming communities and isolated indigenous areas. While its adjusted per person income is just below the national average, its human development index (composed of infant mortality rate, adult literacy, school enrollment ratio, and adjusted average personal income) is slightly above. Jalisco is similar to Mexico regarding the main economic sectors of agriculture, industry and services, including tourism.

From a tourism perspective, Jalisco includes everything Mexico has to offer: fantastic beach resorts, urban cultural and artistic attractions, natural wonders, significant indigenous areas and impressive archeological sites. On the other hand, Jalisco is not representative in that it is the leading agricultural state (first in production of corn, beef, pork, poultry, milk and eggs). It is also more predominantly Catholic and politically more conservative than Mexico as a whole. Aside from these two exceptions, Jalisco is quite representative from a socio-economic perspective.

Perhaps cultural aspects are the most important in determining the most “Mexican” of the 32 states. Here Jalisco really stands out. It is the birthplace of such stereotypical Mexican cultural characteristics as charrería (Mexican horsemanship), jarabe tapatío (Mexican hat dance), mariachi music, and tequila, the national drink.

In conclusion, the available evidence appears to support the boasts of some Tapatíos and Jaliscienses that they live in the “most Mexican” area of the country.

Many aspects of Mexico’s culture feature in Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to someone you know.

Changing customs in Mexico: children forgo Three Kings Day in favor of Christmas Day

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Jan 022017
 

Unlike in the USA and Canada, where gifts are exchanged on Christmas Day (25 December), the original tradition in Mexico over the Christmas season was to exchange presents on Three Kings Day (Día de los Reyes, 6 January). In the Christian calendar, 6 January marks the Feast of the Epiphany, the day when the magi arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. In homage to this occasion, Mexican children would dutifully stuff the largest shoes (or box) they could find with straw, and leave them outside their bedroom door on the night of January 5, in anticipation of finding new toys the following morning.

In the 20th century the Three Kings Day tradition in some regions of Mexico broke down in the face of the enormous consumer-oriented publicity from north of the border, which stressed Christmas (rather than Epiphany) gifts. Naturally, however, some greedy Mexican middle- and upper-class children expect to receive gifts on both days, claiming that parents and grandparents should not only preserve the old customs but also embrace the new version! Equally, children with parents who are separated or divorced also often receive gifts on both 25 December and 6 January, with each parent taking responsibility for one of the two festive days.

Rosca de Reyes

A typical family-sized Rosca de Reyes

Even where it is no longer a day to exchange gifts, 6 January is still very much a family day throughout Mexico. In the late afternoon or early evening, it is traditional for the whole family to share a rosca. Roscas are ring-shaped loaves of sweet bread, sold to be eaten on special occasions. The roscas for Three Kings Day each contain a small plastic (formerly ceramic) muñeco (doll). These muñecos were originally ceramic, but are now more usually plastic. The recipient of the piece of rosca containing the muñeco has to throw a party on 2 February (Candlemas day, Día de la Candelaria) for all those present at the sharing of the rosca. It is customary to provide tamales to feed everyone gathering on Candlemas day. In some parts of southern Mexico,  guests expect to be served home-made mole, a sauce which contains dozens of ingredients including nuts, chocolate and numerous spices, and which requires many hours of arduous preparation.

In 2011, Mexico City residents were treated to an early Three Kings Day present. On Sunday 2 January, the main central square in Mexico City filled with people pushing through the crowds to receive their free portion of the world’s largest ever rosca – a staggering 720 meters long, 90 cm wide and weighing 9,375 kilograms. More than 300,000 people eventually collected a piece to take home for their families to enjoy sometime on Three Kings’ Day.

And if you think making mole is arduous, then just imagine how much work was required to make this enormous rosca! The finished bread was made from 6,000 kg of flour, 3,000 kg of butter, 38,000 eggs, 1,000 kg of fruit, 1,000 liters of milk, and 220 kg of sugar; its preparation took 16,000 man-hours. Given the rising levels of obesity in Mexico, it is to be hoped that the recipe used was for a “reduced calorie” rosca

Credits: Thanks to Fatimah Araneta for suggesting valuable modifications to the original article, and to Cristina Potters for emphasizing that gift-giving on Three Kings Day is still very much alive and well in much of central and southern Mexico. Cristina Potters’ blog Mexico Cooks! has a comprehensive account of the significance of the cuisine associated with Three Kings Day and Candlemas Day.

Many aspects of Mexico’s culture feature in Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, a handy reference guide to all aspects of Mexico’s geography. If you have enjoyed this post, please consider gifting a copy of Geo-Mexico to a friend.

Dec 082016
 

Corn (maize) has been the principal food of the Tarahumara Indians since long before the Spanish arrived in Mexico. There are several precolumbian varieties that are still grown, including the ancient and delicious “blue corn”. Maize is the source of a wide variety of foodstuffs and drinks including flour (pinole), a non‑alcoholic drink called esquiate, tortillas, atole and tamales. Green corn and blue corn tortillas are made when in season, for special occasions. A version of corn beer (Spanish “tesgüino“) is also important, and is described separately below.

The Tarahumara continue to “hunt and gather” locally available foodstuffs, though these activities now supply only about 10% of their diet. Several varieties of cactus fruit are collected, edible agaves are cooked, and small river fish are caught where possible. Small animals are ruthlessly hunted. Squirrels, birds and deer, though rare today, are considered particular delicacies.

Beans, mustard green and squash also play important parts in the Tarahumara diet which is rounded out by wheat, potatoes, peaches and sweet potatoes. Those Tarahumara with access to lower elevations, such as Batopilas Canyon, also include crops typical of warmer regions such as oranges, figs and sugar‑cane. Chiles and tobacco are also cultivated.

Meat is hard to come by, and eaten only on ceremonial occasions when a goat or cow is sacrificed. It probably accounts for less than 5% of the average Tarahumara diet. Most protein comes from beans; these are usually prepared by roasting, grinding and then boiling with water, to produce a hot soup. Pork, chicken and eggs are rarely found, while sheep are kept mainly for their wool.

Squash is only eaten in season though the Indians know how to preserve it by drying. The squash flowers are eaten too, boiled with water and salt. Mustard greens (Tarahumara “maquasori“, Spanish “quelites“) are grown in the rainy season and carefully gathered and dried, for use throughout the year, providing minerals and vitamins. Quelites include the epazote plant (Chenopodium ambrosioides), described by Diana Kennedy, the world’s foremost authority on Mexican cuisine, as “the Mexican herb par excellence”.

Many families have a small number of scrubby fruit trees, usually peaches, near their house. Fruit is often picked and eaten green. Peaches are an important trading item, and may be exchanged for cigarettes or cloth. At higher elevations, apples are grown.

Given the well-documented endurance feats of Tarahumara runners, this diet clearly provides adequate nutrition! In the 1994 Denver, Colorado, “Sky Race”, Tarahumara Indian Juan Herrera (25 years old) smashed 25 minutes off the previous record, completing the 160 kilometers in 17 hours, 30 minutes, 42 seconds. He came in more than half an hour ahead of his nearest rival!

However, in many years (including 2011, 2012), and seemingly with increasing frequency, food is in extremely short supply by the time the summer growing season arrives. Fortunately for the less successful Tarahumara farmers, an age‑old tribal custom, korima is still observed. This custom requires the better‑off to share food with the less fortunate in times of need. The poor person visits successive ranchos, collecting small quantities of food to last him a week or two, then repeats this procedure as necessary. No lasting debt is incurred. The severe drought in northern Mexico over the past 24 months – see Many states in Mexico badly affected by drought – has meant that many Tarahumara have no food reserves left and have had to rely on infrequent emergency aid organized by charitable organizations, and the federal and state government.

Tesgüino (corn beer)

The average Tarahumara family expends 100 kg of corn a year to make tesgüino. This is sufficient corn to last a family of 4‑5 about a month, a significant quantity, given the regular annual food deficiencies in this region.

Tesgüino is a form of corn‑beer. It is a thick, milky, nutritious drink, supplying much needed vitamins, minerals and calories. The corn is first dampened and allowed to sprout in a dark place, then ground and boiled for about 8 hours with a catalyst to promote fermentation. The catalyst may be local grass seed (basiahuari) ground in a metate, or bark, leaves, lichens or roots, depending on the place. The liquid is then strained and left to ferment for about three days. The total preparation time is therefore about seven days. To avoid spoilage, the beverage must be drunk quickly. It’s at its best for only 12‑24 hours. This explains why it would be so wasteful to leave any corn beer tesgüino undrunk at a “tesgüinada” (see below); it would be far too wasteful, even if as many as 50 gallons have been made.

Other alcoholic drinks are also made, one based on green corn (pachiki or caña) and another on maguey (meki). In earlier times, there were no alcoholics as we define the term, since tesgüino can’t be stored, but today the greater availability of commercial alcohol poses a serious problem.

Why are tesgüinadas so important?

The tesgüinada system is the social device which ties individual settlements (ranchos) together in a cooperative framework for performing all kinds of agricultural tasks. The person requiring assistance with a particular task will invite his neighbors and friends to a “tesgüinada”. He takes responsibility for providing the tesgüino, other refreshments and food. In return, the persons who attend will help plow. sow, reap or weed..

Lumholtz, recognizing from his time among the Tarahumara at the end of the last century the importance of the tesgüinada, summed up their philosophy writing that, “Rain cannot be obtained without tesgüino. Tesgüino cannot be made without corn and corn cannot grow without rain.”

The tesgüinada is necessary since many families cannot supply the labor required for both herding and cultivation at certain times of the year. In small groups like the ranchos, high mortality inevitably leaves some families unable to manage on their own. The tesgüinada is their response to the economic uncertainties facing them just as collective religious rituals help them face the unpredictability of weather, sickness and plagues. The cooperative effort moves from one rancho to another, from one tesgüinada to the next.

The tesgüinadas, which are like large, boisterous parties, provide a focus for Tarahumara social life, a chance for entertainment and to make extra-familiar friendships. Being held in a succession of different ranchos, they offer some communal resilience against the risks of becoming further isolated and marginalized. The Tarahumara attach no shame to being drunk; indeed, they positively revel in getting as drunk as humanly possible at tesgüinadas. Children are excluded until they are 14 years old or so.

Tesgüinadas do come at a cost. They increase the incidence of accidents, such as adult men falling off precipitous rock ledges that would normally pose little risk, even when running. They increase violence, which may result in serious injury or death. They also limit the amount of corn that can be held over from one year to the next. Assuming an average of 4‑6 tesgüinadas per year per family, with additional visits to tesgüinadas held in perhaps 15 other households, many Tarahumara Indians would be likely to attend more than sixty tesgüinadas a year. Even if the true figure is only 50% of this total, it still means that the Tarahumara spend as many as 100 days a year either preparing for a tesgüinada, attending one, or recovering from one.

Sources /  Bibliography:

  1. Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
  2. Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
  3. Lumholtz, C. (1902) Unknown Mexico. 2 volumes. Scribner’s Sons, New York. Republished in both English and Spanish.
  4. Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.

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23 July: Happy Geographers’ Day! – ¡Feliz Día del Geógrafo de México!

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Jul 232016
 

Today, 23 July, is Día del Geógrafo de México or Mexican Geographers’ Day. See this earlier post for a brief history of why 23 July came to be chosen.

The community of geographers in Mexico has always been strong, and geographers are held in higher esteem in Mexico than in most countries. Online, for those speaking Spanish, the Facebook page of 23 de Julio: día del Geógrafo de México regularly has interesting links to publications, cartoons, photos and other resources.

One of my recent favorites is this great scenic landscape image from the Facebook page of Los Gastronautas:

Los Gastronautas: Landscape of ham and parsely

Los Gastronautas: Landscape of ham and parsley

Geography is everywhere! A Happy Mexican Geographers’ Day to all geographers, whether in Mexico or elsewhere.

Dec 212015
 

The National Statistics Institute (INEGI) has released the results of its inter-census study carried out in March 2015 which involved visits to more than 7 million households across the country.

Children in Zitácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Children in Zitácuaro, Michoacán. Photo: Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

As of March 2015, Mexico’s total population was 119,530,753 (48.6% male, 51.4% female), up from 111,954,660 million in 2010, a growth rate averaging 1.4% a year. This is the first time for 45 years that the rate of growth has not fallen. Analysts had expected a 1.2% growth rate over the period, but attribute the 1.4% figure to a slightly higher fertility rate than anticipated, together with an unexpected fall in the number of young people emigrating from Mexico. [Note that the total population figure is slightly lower than the figure released in July from Mexico’s National Population Council (Conapo) of 121,783,280.]

Since 2010 the proportion of seniors (over age 65) has risen from 6.2% to 7.2% of the total, and the proportion of households headed by a female is up from 25% to 29%. The median age in Mexico is now 27 years. The youngest median age is in Chiapas (23), the oldest in the Federal District (33). Overall, Mexico’s dependency ratio is falling, continuing a period of “demographic dividend“.

INEGI found that the number of households in Mexico is rising 2.4% a year and now totals about 32 million, giving an average number of 3.7 occupants/household. 98.7% of homes have electricity, 74.1% have piped water inside the building, a further 20.4% outside the building but on the property; 75.6% connected to drainage.

Mexico’s most populated states remain the State of Mexico, the Federal District (Mexico City) and Veracruz, while the smallest states in terms of population are Baja California, Campeche and Colima. The most populated municipality is Iztapalapa (1.8 million), followed by Ecatepec (1.7 million) and Tijuana (1.6 million). The most rapidly growing municipality in the entire country is Pesquería, in Nuevo León, which has grown a startling 35.2% a year since 2010, mainly because of the new Kia vehicle factory opening there.

The item of inter-census news that attracted most press attention was INEGI’s so-called discovery that there were 1.4 million black Mexicans. This was hardly news to most demographers, but the inter-census survey was the first time INEGI had included a question aimed at identifying Afro-Mexicans, as a pilot question for the full 2020 census: “Based on your culture, history and traditions, do you consider yourself black, meaning Afro-Mexican or Afro-descendant?”

INEGI did indeed find that about 1.4 million citizens (1.2% of the population) self-identified as “Afro-Mexican” or “Afro-descendant”, with significantly more women opting for the category than men (755,000 women; 677,000 men).

It was no surprise to find that most Afro-Mexicans live in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz. The survey showed that Mexico’s self-identified black population is not currently disadvantaged in terms of access to education and health services or work opportunities, putting it well ahead of Mexico’s indigenous population in that regard.

Afro-Mexican activists welcomed the inter-census question and results, but called for Mexico’s history books to reflect their contribution. Benigno Gallardo, an Afro-Mexican activist in Guerrero, pointed out that, “In school they teach our children about Europeans and indigenous natives, but the history books practically don’t recognize our history.”

Certainly more awareness of the long history of Afro-Mexicans is badly needed. For example, how many people realize that Blacks outnumbered Spaniards in Mexico until after 1810 or that Vasconcelas’ “Cosmic Race” (La “Raza Cósmica”) excluded Mexico’s African heritage?

Want to learn more? A good place to start is Bobby Vaughn’s website Afro-Mexico or his Black Mexico Home Page, Afro-Mexicans of the Costa Chica, on MexConnect, which provide links to several of his articles including Blacks in Mexico. A Brief Overview.

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Mexican clothing and culture exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto

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Dec 142015
 

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, continues to showcase Mexican textiles in a major exhibition entitled Viva México! Clothing and Culture.

The exhibition opened in May this year and closes 23 May 3, 2016. It occupies the museum’s Patricia Harris Gallery of Textiles & Costume. Even though the museum’s collection of Mexican textiles is one of the largest and most important collections of its kind in the world, very few items from the collection have ever been publicly displayed previously.

“Vibrant expressions of creativity, the pieces in this exhibition combine remarkable technical skill with exquisite artistry. Over 150 stunning historic and contemporary pieces are on display, including complete costume ensembles, sarapesrebozos, textiles, embroidery, beadwork and more.”

Rebozo (detail), Ikat-patterned silk, Mexico, 1825-1875. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W.K. Newcomb.

Rebozo (detail), Ikat-patterned silk, Mexico, 1825-1875. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. W.K. Newcomb.

As the promotional material claims, “The evolution of Mexican fashion reflects the history of Mexico, where the textile arts reach back over many centuries. After the Spanish Conquest of 1521, European styles influenced the distinctive clothing of the Maya, the Aztec and other great civilizations. Contemporary Mexican textiles owe their vitality to the fusion of traditions. ¡Viva Mexico! celebrates this rich and enduring cultural legacy.”

The guest curator for this exhibition is Chloë Sayer, a specialist in Mexican popular art and author of numerous works on the subject, including Costumes of Mexico (1985); Arts and Crafts of Mexico (1990); Mexican Patterns: A Design Source Book (1990); Mexico: The Day of the Dead: An Anthology (1993); Mexican Textile Techniques (1999); Textiles from Mexico (2002); and Fiesta: Days of the Dead & Other Mexican Festivals (2009).

Sayer believes, with good reason, that Mexican textile handcrafts should be named a UNESCO cultural heritage, due to their centuries-old history, and because they are still worn by Mexico’s indigenous peoples. She sees the challenge as being how to ensure that “new generations of Mexicans continue to learn how to make these textiles”

The exhibition comprises about 200 pieces, some dating back to the nineteenth century. “The collection tells the story of Mexican textiles through centuries, and that’s why it’s so valuable,” Sayer said. Sessions when visitors to the exhibition can watch Mexican artists hand-crafting traditional textiles are also scheduled on a regular basis.

There are significant regional differences in the “typical” traditional textiles in Mexico. This exhibition delves into the geography of Mexican textiles and brings long-overdue attention to their extraordinary diversity.

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Sep 142015
 

Happy birthday, Mexico! On 16 September 2015, Mexico celebrates the 205th anniversary of its independence from Spain.

Mexican flag

When was Mexico’s War of Independence?

The long struggle for independence began on 16 September 1810; independence was finally “granted” by Spain in 1821.

Want some map-related geographic trivia associated with the War of Independence?

Events in the War of Independence called for an accurate map of Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake. The cartographer for this map was José María Narváez, whose major contributions to Mexican cartography in succeeding decades have largely been forgotten.

The first truly national map, compiled in 1857-1858 from a meticulous reconciling of the work of numerous local cartographers, was drawn by Antonio García Cubas. García Cubas did not graduate from university until a few years after completing this map!

Nationalism and the start of Mexico-USA migration, but not in the direction you might think…

Following independence, the rush was on to draw an accurate map of all of Mexico’s territory. Mexico’s boundaries following independence were very different to today. Flows of migrants linking the USA to Mexico at that time were from the USA to Mexico, the reverse of the direction of more recent flows, which have seen millions of Mexicans migrate north looking for work:

Some national symbols are not quite what you might think, either!

The story of the national emblem (used on coins, documents and the flag) of an eagle devouring a serpent, while perched on a prickly-pear cactus, is well known. Or is it?

Why is “El Grito” held on the night of 15 September each year?

In 1910, then president Porfirio Díaz decided that the centenary of Mexican independence should be celebrated in style. One of the reasons why the “traditional” Grito (“shout”) is made on 15 September each year, rather than on the morning of 16 September (when Father Miguel Hidalgo apparently gathered his parishioners in revolt) is because 15 September 1910 happened to be Díaz’s 80th birthday. Why not have one big bash and celebrate both president and country at the same time? Even though the Mexican Revolution broke out later that year (and Díaz was later exiled to Paris), Mexico continues to start its annual independence-day celebrations on the evening of 15 September.

Not to be confused with Cinco de Mayo (5 May)

Many people incorrectly assume that Cinco de Mayo (5 May) is Mexico’s independence day. The Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with Independence, but everything to do with a famous victory over the French. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, fought on May 5, 1862. The battle marks Mexico’s only major military success since independence:

Independent country, independent book:

Mexico has come a long way in 200 years, but amazingly, to the best of our knowledge, Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico, is the first-ever book in English focused exclusively on the nation’s varied and fascinating geography.

¡Viva Mexico!

Mexican flag

The geography of the Spanish language: how important is Spanish around the world?

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Aug 242015
 

The Index of Human Development ranks Spanish as the second most important language on earth, behind English but ahead of Mandarin.

Spanish is the third most widely used language on the internet (graph), although less than 8% of total internet traffic takes place in Spanish. Spanish is the second most used language on Facebook, a long way behind English but well ahead of Portuguese.

Languages used on the Internet (2015). Source: Internet World Stats

Languages used on the Internet (2015). Source: Internet World Stats

According to El español, una lengua viva – Spanish, a living language, a report from the Instituto Cervantes in Spain (which promotes the Spanish language abroad via language classes and cultural events) there are about 559 million Spanish speakers worldwide. This figure includes 470 million native speakers and an additional 89 million who have some command of the language.

While Mexico remains the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country, with about 121 million Spanish speakers, second place belongs to the USA, followed by Colombia. The USA has an estimated 41 million native speakers of Spanish plus 11 million who are bilingual; Colombia has 48 million Spanish-speakers.

In terms of economic importance, the report’s authors calculate that Spanish speakers contribute 9.2% of the world’s GDP. About two-thirds of Spanish-linked GDP is generated in North America (USA, Canada and Mexico) and the European Union, while Latin America (excluding Mexico) accounts for 22%.

The main concentrations of Spanish speakers in the USA are in the states of New Mexico (47% of the population), California and Texas (both 38%), and Arizona (30%). 18% of New Yorkers speak Spanish and, somewhat surprisingly, more than 6% of Alaskans are also Spanish speakers. Interestingly, the US Census Office estimates that by 2050, the USA will have 138 million Spanish speakers and could then overtake Mexico as the largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world. This assumes that current predictions for Mexico’s population increase over the next 35 years hold true.

Want to learn more?

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Christmas in Mexico, according to one news agency

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Jan 252015
 

According to its website, “The QMI Agency is French and English Canada’s leading news reference for daily, intermittent and event-driven needs. Its offering most notably includes texts, images, videos and other interactive content.”

QMI’s Facebook page promotes its graphics department which “creates infographics for use throughout our chain” and boasts that “QMI Agency provides reliable, complete and up-to-the-minute news coverage over a full range of platforms.” And, indeed, many of the infographics shown on its Facebook page are very well designed, interesting, colorful and informative.

QMI-Christmas

Infographic from Niagara Advance newspaper for 25 December 2014

However, this infographic attributed to the QMI Agency, published in the Niagara Advance newspaper for 25 December 2014 (which Geo-Mexico happened to see while admiring Niagara Falls) was far less convincing. Entitled “Christmas around the world”, this particular infographic  took a “look at various traditions and customs”, and opened with a description intended to summarize Christmas in Mexico:

Mexico: Christmas dinner consists of oxtail soup with beans and hot chili, as well as roasted turkey and vegetables. Instead of receiving their gifts on Christmas Day, they get presents on Jan. 5, the eve of Twelfth Night.”

Hmm… really? As we have noted many times on Geo-Mexico, Mexican cuisine varies regionally. Even so, if any reader knows where “oxtail soup with beans and hot chili, as well as roasted turkey and vegetables” is the typical menu for Christmas, please let us know, to add to our list of regional delights.

As for presents being received on “Jan. 5, the eve of Twelfth Night”, err… no. The Mexican tradition of gifts on Three Kings Day involves Mexican children stuffing shoes (or a  box) with straw, and leaving them outside their bedroom door on the night of 5 January, in anticipation of finding gifts (new toys) the following morning, the morning of 6 January, Three Kings Day.

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Seasonal greetings from Geo-Mexico!

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Dec 242014
 

Geo-Mexico wishes all its readers the warmest seasonal greetings.

tenango-de-flores-xmas-tree2

The photo shows Mexico’s only floating Christmas Tree. It can be seen near Tenago de las Flores in the municipality of Huachinango in the northern part of the state of Puebla. The 15-meter-high tree, with Christmas lights, stands on a wooden platform atop a raft of 32 metal drums in the middle of the Tenango reservoir, upstream from the Necaxa Dam, Mexico’s first hydroelectric project, dating back to 1905. The tradition started only three years ago when local residents decided that a floating Christmas tree might prove to be a tourist attraction.

The 10-min video below shows the “light up” of the tree early this month, complete with music and singing.

Tenango de las Flores has been more famous in the past for its large-scale production of flowers (floriculture) and for its annual Flower Festival, as well as for featuring in an award-winning 1957 film called Tizoc: Amor Indio, starring María Félix and Pedro Infante. The film won the Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 15th Golden Globe Awards (1958).

tenango-de-flores-xmas-tree-day

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The regional geography of music in Mexico

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Nov 062014
 

Here are brief descriptions of some of the most commonly heard forms of regional music within Mexico. What you hear depends on where you travel!

Mariachi

For many decades, mariachi has been widely considered to be the quintessential Mexican folk-music genre, and has become an important symbol of Mexican music and culture.

A mariachi band is a term used to describe an ensemble band of five or more musicians that wear the traditional costume of a charro or Mexican cowboy. The costume consists of a waist-length jacket, tightly fitted pants and boots and a large sombrero. The jacket, pants and sombrero are elaborately decorated with colorful metal ornaments and intricate embroidered designs.

The unique sound of mariachi music is created by combining trumpets, violins, and guitars with two traditional Mexican instruments, the vihuela and the guitarrón. The music is characterized by loud, hard driving rhythms, spirited melodies and humorous lyrics. Shouts and cries (gritos) are periodically given while a song is being sung, giving the music an additional lively character.

Music and dance in Mexico.

Music and dance in Mexico. Fig 13.3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. All rights reserved.

Ranchera

Another very popular Mexican music form is the ranchera (ranch song), which originated during the time of the Mexican Revolution. It is basically cowboy music, and the singers dress in the traditional style of the Mexican horseman with tight breeches, jacket, boots, gun holsters and a large sombrero.

The lyrics of ranchera songs typically deal with rural life, unrequited love, or about the struggles of ordinary people living in the country. The songs are sometimes joyous and sometimes nostalgic or tragic, and are often sung in a very dramatic and passionate manner, with the singer crying out “Ay, ay, ay, ay, ay!” at various points.

Norteña

Another popular music genre, particularly in northern Mexico, is the norteña. This form of music has its origins in the ballads that were traditionally sung by people living along the USA-Mexico border. This music style is typically a hybrid of many other musical forms, including the waltz, polka, and country music.

Norteña is high energy music, driven by the accordion and the booming bass sound of the bajo sexto, a large 12-string guitar. The lyrics of norteña songs typically deal with stories of life along the border, illegal immigrants, outlaws and desperados, drug dealers (narcotraficantes), corrupt public officials, rejected lovers, etc.

Many norteña bands are quite large, with a full horn section and strings. The genre’s most famous group, Los Tigres del Norte has cultivated a large number of fans both in Mexico and in the USA.

Banda

Banda (Band) refers to the form of music played by large brass ensembles that first appeared in the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa several decades ago. A typical banda ensemble features trumpets, trombones, tubas and percussion instruments, and may include keyboards. String instruments are used sparingly, if at all. Banda sounds somewhat similar to American Big Band music, but with a distinctive Hispanic twist.

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Holy Innocents’ Day (28 December)

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Dec 272013
 

Among the many interesting facets of Mexico’s cultural geography are the subtle differences between beliefs in Mexico and similar beliefs in the USA and Canada. For example, 28 December, Day of the Holy Innocents ( Día de los Santos Inocentes) is the Mexican equivalent of north-of-the-border April Fools’ Day (1 April).

This is when Mexican children will borrow, but not repay, small loans from unsuspecting friends and relatives that they consider a soft touch. Once they’ve received the loan, they say either the following verse (quoted in Frances Toor, A Treasury of Mexican Folkways, 1947) or something similar:

Inocente Palomita
Que te dejaste engañar
Sabiendo que en este día
Nada se debe prestar.

Innocent little dove
You have let yourself be fooled
Knowing that on this day
You should lend nothing

So, be careful on 28 December if anyone admires one of your prized possessions… especially if it is your only copy of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico!

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Foreign runners help preserve an ancient Tarahumara tradition

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Jul 262013
 

While generally referred to in English as the Tarahumara, the people’s own name for themselves is Raramuri“, literally “the light‑footed ones” or “footrunners”. The Tarahumara live in the Copper Canyon region of Mexico and are renowned for their long distance running exploits across some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain. As “modern” life encroaches on the Tarahumara and begins to change their traditional way of life, bringing problems like environmental damage, loss of native lands, and narco-trafficking, will they manage to preserve their ancient traditions such as long distance foot races?

As his contribution towards helping the Tarahumara preserve their foot races, a few years ago, Micah True, an American better known as ultramarathon runner “Caballo Blanco”, who regularly visited the town of Urique in the Copper Canyon, organized a Copper Canyon Ultramarathon. True, who died in 2012, was featured in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. As True hoped, the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon has become an annual event, now known as the Ultra Caballo Blanco that helps maintain the running heritage aspect of Tarahumara culture. The event is usually held in March. Completing the race requires running an estimated 50 miles (80 km) of tracks, trails and and dirt roads, which start and finish in the main plaza of the town of Urique. The event has become the focal point for a cultural celebration.

This short 9-minute Youtube video–Super Athletes of the Sierra Madre–describes the 2009 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon.

Ini additional to some great shots of the rugged scenery and the race itself, the video includes brief references to the history of the area, and details some of the current pressures on the Tarahumara way of life. The Copper Canyon ultramarathon is aptly labelled “the greatest race the world has never seen”. The race is not sponsored and there are no huge monetary prizes for the race winners. Donations are accepted to offset the cost of prizes. Anyone who completes the course within the 14-hour time limit is awarded a voucher for 500 lb of corn. Foreign athletes who compete alongside the Tarahumara in this event donate their corn and prizes back to the community. The event attracts more than 200 runners, with about half of them normally completing the course.

Route of Ultra Caballo Blanco

Route of Ultra Caballo Blanco

This image of the course (from Ultra Caballo Blanco) gives some idea of the terrain in which this race is run. The race starts with a 21+ mile loop up-river from Urique, followed by another 18+ mile loop down-river, and then a final loop (up to the Tarahumara village of Guadalupe Coronado and back down to Urique) adding another 10+ miles to the total distance.

The 12th Annual Ultra Caballo Blanco will take place on March, 2, 2014.

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Tultepec: the fireworks capital of Mexico

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May 252013
 

No Mexican festival is complete without a dazzling display of fireworks. Gunpowder was unknown in Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, but its use in fireworks quickly caught on. Firework production is usually a small-scale family affair, and there are workshops specializing in fireworks throughout the country. The undisputed  capital of fireworks is Tultepec, a settlement with 130,000 inhabitants on the northern edge of Mexico City. Generations of expertise have led to Tultepec becoming the source for about half of all the fireworks manufactured in Mexico.

  • Tultepec: Mexico’s Skyrocket Central from The Southwest Center, by Dan Duncan (26-min video)

To celebrate its skilled pyrotechnic craftsmen, Tultepec hosts a 9-day National Pyrotechnic Festival in March each year. The festival, first held in 1989, includes competitions for the best castillos (castles) and toros (bulls) or toritos (little bulls). Castillos can be several stories high, with an intricate interconnected network of sections representing saints, animals, flowers, birds and other designs. Toritos, first recorded in the nineteenth century, are bull-shaped frames placed over the heads of willing volunteers. As the firecrackers explode, the toritos are carried through the streets or dance in imitation of a bull fight as young bystanders pretend to be matadors. About 250 toritos ran the streets of Tultepec in 2013.

The manufacturing of fireworks is tightly controlled by the military, but accidents are all too common and often serious, sometimes fatal. About 2,000 people work directly in the industry, in some 300 small workshops. The creativity of these coheteros (fireworks makers) knows few limits. For example, mid-way through this video, look for the small, firework-propelled vehicle that goes alternately forwards, then backwards, entirely on its own once its fuse has been ignited.

Want to read more?

  • Mexico’s Fireworks Capital by Matthew Power

Striking photographs of Oaxaca by Cynthia Roderick

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Apr 162013
 

Cynthia Roderick is an award-winning photographer whose work has been widely published in major newspapers, magazines and TV news programs. However, I had not realized until recently that Roderick has a strong affection for Oaxaca. Several portfolios of work related to Oaxaca can be accessed via her website:

  • San Mateo Rio Hondo (40 images) San Mateo Río Hondo, a town and municipality in Oaxaca, is situated in the Miahuatlán District in the south of the Sierra Sur.
Credit: Copyright held by Cynthia Roderick

Credit: Copyright held by Cynthia Roderick

Festival Our Lady of Guadalupe – Image by Cynthia Roderick

Her informal images capture the personalities and sights of these events, warts and all. Roderick has a keen eye for subject matter, color and detail. Her fine photographs bring these events and the magic of Oaxaca to life for her viewers.

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Mar 232013
 

“Visions of San Miguel. The Heartland of Mexico”, a book about San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, portrays the city, its people and its fiestas, as seen through the lenses of thirty talented photographers. This visually exciting book is an ideal introduction to San Miguel de Allende for the armchair traveler, or a perfect memento for anyone who has visited this splendid city. All four sections of the book are of interest to geographers, not only because they provide a visual guide to many aspects of the city, but also because they reveal some of the reasons why San Miguel has become a popular retirement location for Americans and Canadians.

Geo-Mexico is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

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“Foundations of Greatness”, the first of four sections, opens with a wonderfully atmospheric untitled black-and-white photo (taken by Bill Begalke) showing the town center emerging from the overnight mist. A short selection of historical photos, some dating back to 1870, causes one to muse on just how far the city has progressed (in every way) since then.

The second section, “Cobblestones of Color”, explores the textures and hues of San Miguel. Images range from the earthy tones and patina of an ancient doorway (Glenda Kapsalis), to the brilliant purple jacaranda trees in spring (Dixon Adams); from the elegant interior of the Casa Luna dining room (Douglas Steakley) to an open-air artist putting the finishing touches to a painting of Aldama Street (Atención). There’s a nice design touch here: the next page is a photo (Amanda Moulson) of the view enjoyed by the painter! Two photos (Chuck Jones) show important murals, whilst others show fascinating exteriors of colonial buildings. A fabulously evocative “abstract street scene” (Elsmarie Norby) captures the very essence of San Miguel for anyone who enjoys strolling the back streets, admiring the design, the architecture, the sense of color, the peeling walls.

smd26a

“Abstract street scene.” Photographer: Elsmarie Norby

Several portraits enliven this section. A formal study of a “quinceañera” (Sondra Zell) at her coming-of-age party is next to a strong portrait of a particularly thoughtful older woman (Jill Genser). A sense of fun and humor pervades several of these photos. The children bathing in tubs at the public laundry (Don Wolf) are certainly enjoying themselves and it looks like the two young children asking a woman about a chicken (Ed Foley) might be about to take on more than they can handle! Don Eduardo, woodcarver and folk artist (Jennifer Haas) is apparently finding the whole business of having his photo taken an enormous joke, while deep in conversation, two flower vendors (Ned Brown) are seemingly oblivious to the photographer as they catch up on the latest news.

The third section, entitled “Fiestas, Fiestas and More Fiestas”, is by far the largest section of the book. Any thought of imbalance is quickly dispelled as an endless stream of fiestas is paraded past the reader. The selection begins with mid September’s Independence Day celebrations and the whirling fireworks of a castillo (Fred Edison). An action-packed street scene of the running of the bulls by the same photographer highlights the exuberant activities of the San Miguelada held the following weekend. This leads into colorful photos of the fiesta for the town’s patron saint at the end of September. A plumed Indian headdress (Ed Foley) suggests the richness of the costuming.

November’s Day of the Dead commemoration amongst the decorated gravestones is luminously captured in the photo “Mountain Light” (Galen Rowell). Colorful scenes from the Day of the Revolution and Christmas pageants follow, but the largest number of photos relate to the Easter celebrations when San Miguel re-enacts the Easter story along flower-carpeted streets. A photo of two elderly ladies in black lace under the cross is a classic portrait of piety (Sue Beere). The Fiesta section concludes with an informal study of the “Blessing of the cowboys and horses” (Richard Kriegler) and a stately photo of one of the world’s least likely events, the “Blessing of the taxis” (Peter Olwyler).

"Two flower vendors". Photographer: Ned Brown

“Two flower vendors”. Photographer: Ned Brown

The fourth section, “La Parroquia, Icon of the Heartland”, focuses on the Gothic Church of St Miguel which dominates the town landscape. Ancient and modern appear side by side: old drawings of the parish church followed by a variety of exterior and interior shots depicting the real thing as we see it today.

The quality of design (by Patricia Anne Tripp) and reproduction is extremely high. The book appears fault-free, barring a handful of missing accents on some Spanish words such as jardín.

This is a memorable book. The photos capture the essence of this vibrant, historic city, but go way beyond that by reminding us of so many uniquely-Mexican sights, sounds, events and personalities. A keeper!

Note: This is an edited version of a review first published on MexConnect.com as Visions of San Miguel. The Heartland of Mexico

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The cultural geography of Mexico’s carnival celebrations

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Feb 092013
 

Carnival celebrations are underway in many Mexican towns. Carnival (carnaval) is a time for merry-making in the days prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Christian liturgical calendar. (In 2013, Ash Wednesday falls on 13 February.) Carnival originated in Italy and was introduced into Mexico several centuries ago by the Spaniards. Even though the proportion of Mexico’s population that is Catholic has fallen steadily in recent decades – see Religious diversity is increasing in Mexico – the popularity of carnival shows no signs of decline.

Carnival float, Veracruz

Carnival float, Veracruz

According to Wikipedia, more than 220 towns in Mexico celebrate Carnival. Frances Toor, an authority on Mexican folklore, claims that carnival festivities in Mexico City “reached their climax about the middle of the nineteenth century and have died out since the 1910–1920 Revolution.” Very few large cities in Mexico have important carnival celebrations, the most notable exceptions being Veracruz, Mérida and Mazatlán.

Carnival float, Veracruz

Carnival float, Veracruz

By far the most interesting carnival celebrations in Mexico are those held in smaller towns and villages in non-tourist areas. In this regard, the carnival in Huejotzingo, in the state of Puebla, stands out. It is aptly labeled by Toor in “A Treasury of Mexican Folkways”, published in 1947, as “the most elaborate and brilliant of the village carnivals”. Toor describes this carnival in considerable detail, saying that it “dramatizes the capture and death of Agustín Lorenzo, a famous bandit, who with his men used to rob convoys between Mexico City and Vera Cruz and then hide in the near-by gorges or mountains. According to the carnival plot, he ran off with the beautiful young daughter of a rich hacendado, took her to one of his hideouts and was having a wedding celebration when the federal soldiers fell upon them.”

In Toor’s time, about 1000 villagers participated each year, dressed as soldiers in elaborate costumes representing several different battalions. She notes that “In recent years [1940s] some new features have been added to the Huejotzingo carnival. At dawn, all the forces fight against the French, who occupy the plaza, which is besieged and taken. The bride is said to be the beautiful daughter of the French Emperor Maximilian, instead of a rich hacendado”. Today, more than 2000 villagers take part. Most modern descriptions of the carnival in Huejotzingo describe it is an intermixing of three separate plots: the Battle of Puebla (where Mexican forces defeated the French on 5 May 1842), the kidnapping of the mayor’s daughter, and the first Christian marriage in Mexico.

Other places with idiosyncratic carnival celebrations include Huixquilucan (State of México), Calnali (Hidalgo), Tlayacapan (Morelos), Tuxpan de Bolaños (Jalisco), San Juan Chamula and Chenalho (both in Chiapas) and Zaachila (Oaxaca).

This Youtube video clip shows 2012 carnival revelry in Cozumel:

As with almost every aspect of Mexico’s cultural geography, there is no one fixed or rigid “tradition”. Instead, there have been so many significant changes over time that today’s celebrations of carnival across Mexico are characterized as much by their distinctive regional variations as by their similarity.

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Jan 312013
 

The remote mountains and plateaus of the north-west corner of Jalisco where it shares borders with the states of Nayarit, Durango and Zacatecas (see map) is home to some 18,000 Huichol Indians, as well as their close cousins, the Cora.

The Huichol heartland (central part of the rectangle on map) is an area of about 4100 square kilometers which straddles the main ridges of the Western Sierra Madre, with elevations of between 1000 and 3000 meters above sea level. There are dozens of dispersed small Huichol rural settlements (ranchos) in the area. We will take a detailed look at their settlements and traditional way of life in a future post.

In this post we focus on the regional setting of the Huichol heartland and the links that now exist between the Huichol and other places in the same general region of Mexico.

huichol-regional-setting

The Huichol refer to all other Mexicans (whatever their ethnic origin) as “mestizo”. The nearest non-Huichol “mestizo” towns are  Mezquitic, Colotlán, Bolaños, Chimaltitán and Villa Guerrero, all in Jalisco, and all about 2-3 days’ walk from most Huichol settlements.

Migration to the tobacco fields

Many Huichol have left their home villages, where economic prospects are limited, in search of employment elsewhere. This kind of migration is often temporary or seasonal. For example, some Huichol undertake seasonal agricultural work, from November to May, on the tobacco plantations of coastal Nayarit. This may guarantee some income but the living conditions are poor, the work is hazardous and pesticide poisoning is all too common. Most of these Huichol return home each summer to plant their corn, beans and squash.

The center of tobacco cultivation is Santiago Ixcuintla, a town which has a very interesting support center for Huichol Indian culture and crafts. Tobacco cultivation, no longer as important as it once was, required as many as 15,000 local plus 27,000 temporary workers. While the businesses involved all have guidelines about how chemical sprays (including including Lannate, Diquat, Paraquat and Parathion) should be applied, these have rarely been effectively enforced. Many of the Huichol live in shanty-like accommodation in the fields, with no ready access to potable water. Some studies have shown that pesticide containers are sometimes used to carry drinking water. There have also been many cases of organophosphate (fertilizer) intoxication from working and living in the tobacco fields.

The tobacco workers often have no place to purchase basic food supplies apart from a store run by the same company they work for. The company holds their wages until the end of the week, and deducts the cost of any items they have bought. This is a virtually identical system to the “tienda de raya” system that was employed by colonial hacienda owners to economically enslave their workers.

Making the pesticide problems for the Huichol even worse is the fact that chemicals including DDT have been used to fumigate parts of Sierra Huichol in order to kill malarial mosquitoes. The Huichol refer to the DDT sprayers as “matagatos” (cat killers). The effects of most of these chemicals are cumulative over time.

Movement to the cities

In the past thirty years, about four thousand Huichols have migrated to cities, primarily Tepic (Nayarit), Guadalajara (Jalisco) and Mexico City. It has also become quite common to see Huichol Indians (usually the menfolk in their distinctive embroidered clothing) in tourist-oriented towns, such as San Blas and Puerto Vallarta. To a large extent, it is these city-wise Huichols who, in search of funds, have drawn attention to their rich culture through their artwork and handicrafts. In addition to embroidered bags and belts, the Huichol make vibrant-colored bead work, yarn crosses and (more recently) yarn paintings, often depicting ancient legends. Income from artwork is very variable, but it is an activity that can include the participation of women. However, trading may depend on middle men who siphon off potential profits, and the Huichol artists now face stiff competition from non-Huichol imitators.

Encroachment by outsiders

As we saw in an earlier post—The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians—the Huichol consider themselves the guardians of a large part of western Mexico. Inevitably, traditional Huichol lands have been encroached upon by outsiders for agriculture and ranching. Some non-Huichol ejidos have been established on land that was formerly communal Huichol land. Unfortunatley, the Huichol have had little defence against these pressures.

Mining interests are also threatening some traditional Huichol areas. For example, there is a serious dispute between the Huichol and the First Magestic Silver company over the area the Huichol call Wirikuta (where they gather their sacred peyote on an annual 800-km round-trip pilgrimage). First Majestic Silver has obtained permission from the Mexican government for its proposed La Luz Silver Project, which will extract silver from the Sierra de Catorce, despite this area’s historic significance for the Huichol.

Want to see their artwork?

One of the museums in the city of Zacatecas houses one of the relatively few museum quality displays of Huichol Indian art anywhere in Mexico. The collection was bought by the Zacatecas state government, in order to prevent its sale to the University of Colorado. The 185 embroideries (as well as many other items) were collected by Dr. Mertens, an American doctor who lived in Bolaños and worked for the Bolaños mining company. After the company closed its mines, Mertens continued to live in Bolaños, and to offer medical services to the Huichol, asking only for the occasional embroidery in lieu of payment. Another place to see high quality Huichol art is the small museum in the Basilica de Zapopan in the Guadalajara Metropolitan Area.

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The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians

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Jan 242013
 

The remote mountains and plateaus where the states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas all meet is home to some 18,000 Huichol Indians, as well as their close cousins, the Cora. The Huichol (Wixárika = “the healers” in their own language) live in scattered, extended family, settlements (ranchos) and rely entirely on oral tradition. They are intensely religious, and see their time-honored responsiblity as protecting nature’s creations. Their shamen perform elaborate ceremonies to a pantheon of gods to ensure  bountiful crops, health and prosperity, as well as to preserve nature and heal the Earth.

The center of the Huichol world – Tee’kata (see map) – coincides with the village of Santa Catarina in the Huichol heartland. Central to some Huichol ceremonies is peyote, an hallucinogenic cactus, obtained from an annual pilgrimage eastwards to the sacred land of Wirikuta, near Real de Catorce in San Luis Potosí. The pilgrimage is an 800 km (500 mile) round trip. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is called jicuri by the Huichol.

Map of the sacred geography of Mexico's Huichol Indians

The sacred geography of Mexico’s Huichol Indians. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico; all rights reserved.

Equally important points in the Huichol cosmos lie to the north, west and south:

  • north: Huaxa Manaká =  the mountain of Cerro Gordo in Durango
  • west: Tatéi Haramara = the Isla del Rey, an island near San Blas
  • south: Xapawiyemeta =  Scorpion Island (Isla de los Alacranes) in Lake Chapala

The sacred geography of the Huichol (shown by the rhombus on the map) echoes the significance they attach to the number 5. They view the world as having five regions, corresponding to five mothers (one under the earth and the other four at cardinal points). They believe that the sun is carried through the universe by five serpents. The flowers of their sacred peyote come in five colors, as do their cobs of corn  (Blue, white, reddish purple, yellow, multicolor). The Huichol have different terms for the five colors of corn, which are closely associated with the five main points of their cosmos:

  • yuawime – blue – south
  • tuxame – white- north
  • ta+lawime  – purple – west
  • taxawime – yellow – east
  • tsayule – multicolor – center

huichol-yarn-crossEvery rhombus has four corner points and a center. Their traditional yarn crosses (often mistakenly referred to as “God’s Eyes”) are made by wrapping colored yarn around two twigs to form a rhombus of color. Most yarn crosses use several different colors. Compound yarn crosses are made by adding small yarn crosses at each end of the two main supporting twigs, giving five crosses (eyes) in total. Huichol fathers will make a simple yarn cross when a child is born, adding additional crosses annually until the yarn cross is considered complete. This, of course, is assuming that the child survives, given that infant mortality among the Huichol is very high.

The colors used in Huichol artwork also carry lots of symbolism. For example, blue is taken to mean water or rain and associated with Lake Chapala to the south. Black symbolizes death and is linked to the Pacific Ocean in the west. Red, the color for mother, is usually reserved for sacred places such as Wirikuta in the east. White (clouds) is associated with the north.

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The important role of telenovelas and historietas as forms of communication in Mexico

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Dec 312012
 

The highest rating programs on TV are televised novels, telenovelas. A telenovela is a limited‑run television serial melodrama, somewhat like a soap opera but normally lasting less than a year, and where the eventual ending has already been scripted.

image of los ricos tambien lloranThe first global telenovela was Los ricos también lloran (“The rich cry too”), originally shown in 1979. Telenovelas are now a $200 million market. Some critics claim they are effective promoters of social change, others deride them as being nothing more than mass escapism. Whichever view is more accurate, their portrayals reflect society’s values and institutions.

Advocates of telenovelas point to their role in challenging some traditional Mexican media taboos by including story lines about urban violence, racism, homosexuality, birth control, physical handicaps, political corruption, immigration and drug smuggling. Early telenovelas tended to be shallow romantic tales. The form subsequently evolved to include social commentaries and historical romances, some applauded for their attention to historical detail. Some were used for attempts at social engineering. An early government-sponsored telenovela promoted adult literacy programs. Several others openly advocated family planning and have been credited with contributing to Mexico’s dramatic decline in fertility rate. Other telenovelas have targeted younger audiences, focusing on issues connected to pop music, sex and drugs.

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Rius historieta: The failure of education in Mexico

Besides the shallowness of the plot lines in most telenovelas, the other common criticism is that their stars are almost always white-skinned, blue-eyed blondes. Sadly, all too often, actors with indigenous looks are relegated to roles portraying menial workers such as home help or janitors.

Telenovelas have been extraordinarily successful commercially. They have become immensely popular not only in Latin America and among the US Hispanic population but also in more than 100 other countries, mainly in Eastern Europe and Asia.

In print media, a similar role to the telenovela has been played by historietas (comic books), the best of which have tackled all manner of social, political and environmental issues well before such topics made the main-stream press. Historietas helped educate millions of Mexicans and were also a commercial success. Their circulation peaked in the 1980s but has since declined due to competition from television and, more recently, the internet. The most influential creator of historietas is the cartoonist and writer Eduardo del Río (Rius) whose work earned him a 1991 United Nations Environment Programme prize.

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Dec 102012
 

Geographic Travels, one of my very favorite Geography blogs, recently posted a photo of a Mexican Christmas Tree, accompanied by a short history claiming that the Christmas tree was first introduced into northern Mexico by German industrialists and others.

That may be a popular notion, but the true history of Christmas trees in Mexico is far more interesting!

According to Historia del árbol de Navidad en México by Hector de Mauleón, prior to 1870, no writers describe the use of Christmas trees in Mexico. By 1890, however, Mexican author Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera (1859-1895) includes the Christmas tree in an inventory of Christmas customs writing that, “¡Tristes aquellos que no tienen un árbol de Noel!” (“Sad are those who do not have a Christmas Tree!”). At that time, small candles were apparently used to illuminate the tree.

Historians, including Teresa E. Rohde (1933-1992), generally agree that the Christmas tree was first brought to Mexico during the French Intervention by none other than Emperor Maximilian, whose execution in 1867 brought an end to this unfortunate episode in Mexico’s nineteenth century history. At some point during their three years in Mexico, Maximilian and his wife Carlota imported a Christmas tree from Europe and installed it in Chapultepec Castle, their palatial home. The tree impressed at least some of Mexico’s wealthy families, who began to install their own trees at Christmas time.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro.

Artificial Christmas Tree with Coca-Cola decorations in Querétaro. Photo: http://burrohall.blogspot.ca/

Within a few years, the Christmas tree had become a tradition in many homes and had begun to replace the elaborate traditional nativity scenes (nacimientos).

In 1878, General Miguel Negrete, who had fought against the French Intervention, decided to have a Christmas tree in his home. According to some sources, he may have brought the idea back from the USA, independently of the earlier European introduction. His tree garnered considerable press attention. It was decorated with 250 toys. As each of his guests arrived at the house, they were given a number, and later took turns to select a gift from the tree, according to one journalist’s contemporary press account.

Despite the popularity of Christmas trees in Mexico, some nationalists continue to decry the practice, considering them a cultural invasion that continues to threaten the much older tradition of nacimientos.

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr);

Modern Mexican Nacimiento. Photo: Ariaski (Flickr); creative commons license

Christmas trees are a good historical example of cultural invasion, but at what point (as Hector de Mauleón asks) does a new custom become a tradition? After 150 years, can we now agree that Christmas trees have been assimilated into Mexican culture? Or do we need to wait another 150 years?

Wherever you may be, and real tree or not, warmest Mexican seasonal greetings to all!

In an interesting follow-up post, Geographic Travels considers the possible “Layers of Geopolitical Myths” behind the introduction of Christmas trees into Mexico: The Christmas Tree in Mexico: Layers of Geopolitical Myths?

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The geography of music and dance in Mexico

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Nov 272012
 

Numerous different regional music styles are found in Mexico (see map), some strongly influenced by indigenous instruments but most relying on the string and brass instruments brought by early Spanish settlers. Curiously, mariachi music, which is often considered Mexico’s national musical style, is believed to owe its origin to French immigrants and refer to wedding (mariage) music. Other popular music types include rancheras (country style songs), corridos (songs telling stories, often about heroes), norteño (northern), rock and pop.

Music and dance in Mexico.

Music and dance in Mexico. Fig 13.3 of Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico. All rights reserved.

Musical instruments vary regionally as well. For instance, the marimba, a kind of wooden xylophone, is most often heard in Chiapas whereas the harp is more characteristic of Veracruz.

Regional dance styles have provided the stimulus for Mexico’s numerous baile folklórico (folkloric ballet) groups, many of which tour internationally. Some examples of regional dances are shown on the map.

Dance of the Quetzals, Cuetzalan, Puebla.

Dance of the Quetzals, Cuetzalan, Puebla. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Some of these dances are very localized. For example, the Quetzal Dance, with its elaborate headdresses (see photo)  is performed almost exclusively in the village of Cuetzalan in the state of Puebla.

In addition to these cultural manifestations there are significant spatial variations among many other facets of culture, including sport, dress, architectural styles and handicrafts. Regional differences are also found in some forms of literature.

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Magic Towns #63, 64 and 65: Chignahuapan (Puebla), Cholula (Puebla) and Pinos (Zacatecas)

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Nov 072012
 

Three more Magic Towns have been added to the list: Chignahuapan and Cholula (both in the state of Puebla) and Pinos (Zacatecas). The new additions mean that Puebla now has five Magic Towns and Zacatecas has four.

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

Christmas ornaments in Chignahuapan

63 Chignahuapan

Chignahuapan is a town of some 20,000 inhabitants set in the beautiful mountainous landscape of the Sierra Norte in the state of Puebla, very close to Zacatlán, also a Magic Town. Chignahuapan sits at an elevation of 2,290 meters above sea level, only 8 kilometers from an impressive 200-meter-high waterfall, the Salto de Quetzalapa, and several thermal spas. The town has several historic buildings, including the main church which dates back to the sixteenth century and has colorful wall decorations. Inside are several alterpieces and a monument showing St. James astride his horse. A short distance away a modern church, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, houses an amazing wooden sculpture of the Virgin Mary, almost 12 meters in height, reputed to be the largest interior sculpture of its kind in Latin America. A third church, the Iglesia del Honguito in the Ixtlahuaca quarter of town, was built in honor of one of the most unusual religious items in Mexico: a tiny petrified mushroom, found in 1880, which according to believers embodies several religious images.

Chignahuapan is one of the most important towns in Mexico for the manufacture of glass Christmas ornaments. Some 200 workshops in the town produce more than 70 million blown-glass ornaments a year, 20% of them for export.

Portales in Cholula decorated for fiesta

Portales in Cholula decorated for fiesta. Credit: Turismo Puebla.

64 Cholula

Cholula is a delightful city of around 80,000 inhabitants located 22 kilometers west of the city of Puebla, and now virtually contiguous with it. Founded in 1557, Cholula has numerous buildings of historic and architectural importance. The city is said to have as many churches as days in the year. Perhaps the most famous church is the one perched on top of one of, if not the, largest pyramids in Mexico. Tunnels into the pyramid, which was originally dedicated to the featherd serpent Quetzalcóatl, allow visitors to walk through the hill beneath the church. This church on top of a pyramid is often used as a symbol of how Catholic religion was superimposed on existing beliefs. Cholula’s massive central plaza is one of the largest in Latin America. The city is home to the main campus of the University of the Americas and is well worthy of its Magic Town designation.

For more information, see these two lengthy Wikipedia entries:

65 Pinos

This former gold and silver mining town, often called Real de Pinos, was founded in 1594 relatively close to the Camino Real that linked Mexico City to Santa Fe, and approximately equidistant from the cities of Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosí. Pinos (Pines), in the Sierra de Pinos at an elevation of 2700 meters above sea level, now has about 8,000 inhabitants. The attractive town has several historic buildings, including the San Francisco convent with its beautifully restored patio and 17th century decorations, and the church of San Matías, with fine stonework, which dates back to the same period. Pinos is the fourth Magic Town in Zacatecas, joining Sombrerete, Teúl de González Ortega and Jerez.

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The Day of the Dead – a Mexican celebration with regional variations

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Oct 292012
 

The indigenous Mexican peoples held many strong beliefs connected with death; for example that the dead needed the same things as the living, hence their bodies should be buried with their personal possessions, sandals and other objects.

With the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians’ pagan ideas and customs were gradually assimilated into the official Catholic calendar. Dead children are remembered on November 1st, All Saints’ Day, while deceased adults are honored on November 2nd, All Souls’ Day. On either day, most of the activity takes place in the local cemetery.

Children's graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves on Day of the Dead in Santa Rosa Xochiac, Mexico D.F. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Children’s graves have toys placed upon them and are decorated with colorful streamers and balloons. Adult graves are more elaborately decorated with offerings of the departed’s favorite foods and drinks, candles, flowers, and even personal items. Brightly colored Mexican marigolds, or zempasuchitl as the Indians call them, are the traditional flowers used to guide the spirits home. Unusual art forms which appear only at this time of year include richly decorated pan de muerto (bread of death), skull-shaped sugar-sweets, and papier-mâché skeletons.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Finishing touches being put to a Day of the Dead altar, Oaxaca City. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

The graves and altars for the Day of the Dead are prepared by the entire family who then stand vigil throughout the night to ensure that their dearly departed recognize close friends or relatives when they come to partake of the feast offered them. The following day, the spirits presumably having had their fill, family, friends and neighbors consume what is left. The village of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, is perhaps the single most famous place for witnessing Day of the Dead celebrations, but equally interesting observances of the Day of the Dead are held in many small villages elsewhere in Michoacán, off the usual tourist trail. In most of these places, the local Indians are uninfluenced and unaffected by outside contacts.

There are also significant regional variations in the observance of Day of the Dead. The link below is an index to more than forty original MexConnect articles relating to Day of the Dead:

The magic of the traditional decorated altars can also be appreciated by visiting one of the replicas constructed in local museums or cultural centers. You will be looking into the dim and distant pre-Columbian past of Mexico and the Mexican people.

[This is a lightly edited extract from Tony Burton’s Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books 2013). Also available as a Kindle e-book.]

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