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.


“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.


“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 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.


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:

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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