Mexico’s Artistic Legacy

Visiting the famed Diego Rivera murals at the National Palace skirting the zocolo in D.F (Districto Federal) as the locals call it, takes security to a whole new level.

We were not allowed to enter with umbrellas, pens, gum and a myriad of other items. These murals embody the story of Mexico’s heritage and are revered by people all over the world, hence the tight security. As an aficionado of all things Latin American, I had studied and admired at various times the Rivera murals. I underestimated though how extremely powerful it would be to see them in person.

I feel like everything that we have studied for the last month can all be summarized through the art on these canvases.

The muralist movement was born after the revolution as a way to communicate ideas to a mostly illiterate population. These murals were painted to capture a broad swath of Mexican history. They begin by a depiction of what Mexico City would have looked like upon Cortes’s arrival in the early 1500’s. The conquistador deemed it the Venice of the Americas and that image of the chinampas system that covered the city is clearly represented through Rivera’s Tlatelolco Market scene.

Admittedly the murals of history covering the walls of the National Palace is told through the perspective of Diego Rivera and can’t be classified as unbiased. After spending nearly an hour wandering through these massive murals served to peak my curiosity about the artist behind them. Diego Rivera, an important Mexican figure could be described as both a creative genius and enigmatic man. Subsequent visits to other galleries intertwined with Diego’s life would offer us a deeper glance into the life of this artist.

Dolores Olmedo was not only an important figure in the life and artistic development of Diego Rivera, but also maintained a remarkable art collection. This wealthy patron opened her estate and private collection as a museum upon her death.

Her residence can be toured and is best described as an eclectic shrine to the people she met and the places she traveled to during her life. Touring the property gives one the sense that Ms. Olmedo wanted to offer visitors a chance to discover through her eyes places that they might never be afforded the opportunity to see for themselves. Although pictures were not permitted inside the property, I couldn’t resist snapping a shot of these famed hairless dogs (1 is a statue and 4 are real) that were first noted in the journals of the Spanish conquistadors upon their arrival to the new world.

A visit to Coyoacan, a well heeled residencial suburb of Mexico City can’t be missed. It is said that 80% of the books sold in the entire country of Mexico are sold here. Cortes was so fond of this leafy oasis that he settled here with La Malinche after conquering Tenochtitlan. Coyoacan, thought of as the home to the Mexican Intelligencia, it is also home to Frida Kahlo’s famed Casa Azul.

Although the residence doesn’t house too many of the famous Frida paintings, it does provide an intimate glimpse into the troubled world and marriage of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

Their home, filled with fountains and courtyards serves as a stark contrast to their tumultuous life together.   Heather, the other Texan on our trip, and I pose for a quick photo in one of the gardens on the property.

It is hard not to take note that so many of the artists we have been introduced to on this trip paid a heavy personal price for their professional successes.

Published in: on August 5, 2011 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

On the Road to D.F.

This morning began with a few tears shed as we left Oaxaca, the town that most of us on the trip have unanimously decided was the favorite stop. When I first visited Oaxaca ten years ago and fell in love with this town I never thought I would be back and much less staying at the same little quaint hotel that I had that first time.

I am going to miss the tile decorated little patios and courtyards of the Hostal de la Noria.

How did I get so lucky to come visit twice? Some stories are just so good they can’t be made up!

In order to break up this long and tedious drive we had a planned lunch stop outside of Puebla.

The beautiful hacienda, Las Bodegas del Molino, where we stopped offered a welcome respite for the afternoon.

Not only was the property gorgeous with its expansive gardens

and rich history, the food was delicious! We were seated in a beautiful wine cellar

and feasted on a flavorful meal filled with things as varied as escamoles (ant larvae)

and gusanos del maguey (caterpillars).

It is amazing how a tortilla and guacamole can mask the flavor of anything!

This was all followed by a hearty beef filet and mouth watering chocolate flan.

The scenery on the drive can only be described as completely contrasting. The soaring mountain ranges of the Sierras and the snow-capped volcano outside of Puebla





were exchanged for urban sprawl as we started inching closer to the outskirts of Mexico City.

To put the population of Mexico City in perspective for my Texas readers, this second largest city in the world (behind Tokyo) has the same population as the entire state of Texas! It is mind boggling to picture all the people in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Austin plus the rest of Texas all existing in the same city. Another even more dramatic comparison would be to consider the populations of Wyoming, Washington D.C., Vermont, North Dakota, Alaska, South Dakota, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, Idaho, Nebraska, West Virginia, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Kansas and Arkansas all co-existing in the same city. I am NOT making this up, I promise:) It’s shocking and hard to grasp for those of us used to abundant land and wide open spaces.

After eight hours in the bus topped by the chaos of Mexico City traffic, everyone was thrilled to arrive to the Hotel Geneve in the Las Rozas neighborhood of Mexico City. This historic hotel first opened its doors in 1907 and counts among its visitors Porfirio Diaz, Frida Kahlo and Charles Lindberg. The lovely public spaces of the hotel house memorabilia of the hotel’s storied guests. Here is a shot of me posing in the picturesque lobby area.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the power of globalization as we disembarked at this century old hotel. There is a Starbucks and Chili’s directly across the street

and a McDonald’s, Subway, and Burger King less than a block away! The sad thing is that I am so sick at this point of tortillas, salsa and beans that those very American options sound VERY tempting:)

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 8:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Rugs and Mexican Politics

At first glance the topics of handmade rugs and Mexican politics might not seem to be interconnected.  But after spending our last day in Oaxaca learning about both of these things I found they have a few attributes in common.  They are most assuredly both interwoven, complicated and difficult to reproduce.

We have had the pleasure of being joined on this leg of the trip by the Mexico Fulbright program director, Arturo Borja. He has proved to be an invaluable source of information as we all try to decipher the complexities that characterize Mexican politics, culture and societal norms. Dr. Borja has studied extensively in the U.S and was a political science professor at Duke University at one time. As we have been traveling around Mexico, mention has been made of different political parties and I have seen signs and slogans for different candidates but, until this lecture, I didn’t have a clear grasp on all the varied interests at play.

He started by explaining to us the history behind the formation of the constitution and political parties in Mexico. Furthermore, he stated that the Mexican constitution was modeled after the U.S constitution but that the adoption of it wasn’t as smooth of a transition because Mexico didn’t have the same democratic climate at the time and was more accustomed to an authoritarian, vertical style of governance. The question still be debated today is whether or not a presidential system in Mexico is truly effective. The last almost fifteen years here has shown that divided government between the president and the legislature has led to inefficiency and little means to accomplish any type of reform. The debate now in Mexico revolves around the possible need for reform that would move the country to a Parliamentary system of government.

There are three principal political parties active today in Mexico. The PRI, or Partido Revolucionario Institutional was formed in the 1920’s after the Mexican Revolution. They virtually controlled the country for over 70 years which were marked by relative political stability. During this time the PRI acted as a political machine that virtually controlled the entire country. They were masters at gaining support from workers unions, peasants and other popular organizations by offering them economic and infrastructure incentives in exchange for votes. Elections were held but the PRI always walked away as the winner. Some people, like Peruvian noble prize winner Vargas Llosa, have even gone as far as to dub those years in Mexican politics as the “perfect dictatorship”. The PRI gave the “appearance” of freedom during this time by holding campaigns, debates and elections despite the fact that the results were already guaranteed.

Many members of the international community continued to hold Mexico up as an example for all of Latin America in the 1950’s and 60’s going as far as to coin the phrase the “Mexican miracle” to characterize Mexico’s economic growth, political stability and strong rate of exchange with the U.S dollar. This all began to change though in the months leading up to the Olympic games in 1968. Some of the growing urban middle class and student organizations began to question the PRI political machine and as a result, many students were killed by the army who had been sent in the quell their political demonstration.

The ensuing years led to the strengthening of the two additional political parties, the PAN, Partido de la Accion Nacional and the PRD, the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica. Finally, in the 1990’s, an apolitical entity, Instituto Federal Electoral, was established to oversee and organize fair elections. 1997 marked the first truly fair and free election in Mexico and as a result, the PRI party lost the majority in Congress. PAN candidate Vicente Fox’s election to president in 2000 saw an over 80% voter turnout and ended the PRI’s hold on the presidential office.

The last almost 15 years of divided government have hindered reform efforts on all levels. The 2006 elections were highly controversial as PAN candidate Felipe Calderon won the presidential election with less than 1% over PRD candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador. Calderon’s term has been characterized by a war on the drug cartels that monopolize the economy and security of much of Northern Mexico. Over 40,000 have been killed during the war on drugs and many Mexican citizens believe that it is a poor use of resources to use the Mexican army to fight the drug cartels. The drug issue is not one that will be quickly solved and given Mexico’s proximity to the U.S the constant flow of drugs and arms across the massive border inhibits many efforts to control this lucrative trade.

The day continued with a trip to Teotitlan del Valle and the house of a woman named Pastora.

The town itself is set up in the highland region outside of the city of Oaxaca. We first visited the 16th century church that forms the town center. The church was constructed upon the ruins of a ancient pyramid that probably held religious significance to the indigenous Zapotec people of this region. During the restoration process of the church a few years ago, it was discovered that part of the church was constructed with stones from the pyramids. Many of the original relief work could still be seen after the adobe layer was removed.

This village is famous for its long heritage of weaving.

The handmade rugs all have beautifully creative designs, use natural materials and dyes and require a tremendous amount of skill to make a finished product.

We were shown the rug making process from the combing of the wool to the intricate weaving of the final product. I had no idea how much work goes in to making something as intricate as a handwoven rug. I definitely have a renewed appreciation of the handcrafting techniques that this indigenous group works hard to preserve. The most fascinating step in my opinion was observing the creation of the myriad of colors of yarn with a base of only white or black wool.

All of the dyes used at this cooperative originate from natural sources like the indigo plant, marigold flowers, bark, the shells of nuts and the magical grana cochinilla. Before coming to Mexico this summer I was completely unfamiliar with the wonders of the cochinilla bug that grows on nopal cactus leaves. It is a parasitic bug that appears as a white dot on the cactus paddle in nature but provides a red dye when it is carefully extricated from its host.

To further its remarkable powers, it can be mixed with other natural products such as lime juice, vinegar or ashes to create up to 11 different shades of red. We have learned that it was used to create deep red colors that graced the murals, temples and pyramids of all the ancient sites from Teotihuacan to Palenque. Fun fact, it is used in present day to create a red color for the Italian produced drink, Campari.

This particular women’s cooperative, Mujeres de Nueva Vida, has been working together for 14 years to sell the products that they make.

When the group was first founded, with the help of an initiative of the Universidad de la Tierra, women in the village weren’t even allowed to gather together in an organized way.  But, with time, this group of now 35 women has helped changed the perceptions towards women in Teotitlan del Valle.   They have organized themselves into committees and work hard together to improve their community and future opportunities for their children by undertaking many progressive endeavors.

One of the reasons that they have gained the support of so many community leaders is because they have a tradition of giving back to the community by organizing a yearly service project such as addressing the issue of reforestation by planting trees, launching a recycling campaign, or distributing goodie baskets to widows. Additionally, they orgnanize workshops designed to educate members of the community in the issues of domestic violence and alcoholism prevention.

The final portion of our visit was dedicated to familiarizing ourselves with ancient Mayan medicine. Much of the information that we had learned in Chiapas at the Mayan medicine center and the church at Chamula proved helpful as it helped to provide context to the experience. Over 5000 plants are used for medicines, ointments and other healing treatments. Pastora ended the session by demonstrating the components of a ritual cleansing which involve the Mayan sacred elements of water and fire as well as copal incense, a raw egg and the herbs of rosemary and ruda.

Published in: on July 29, 2011 at 10:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Down but not out…

To my faithful readers that check this daily…. my posts over the last 72 hours have waned …. the inevitable moment has come when blogging has taken a back seat. Monteczuma’s revenge has struck me along with a really bad cold. Traveling for five weeks has finally caught up to me so the last few days have been rough to say the least.  The air quality here in one of the most polluted cities in the world isn’t helping matters either:)  Anybody who travels for long stretches knows this is just par for the course.  I feel like I am thankfully on the mend now and no worries, I have managed to collect some exciting adventures over the time I’m been sick despite feeling worse than I’ve felt in years.  Here is a preview of what’s to come in the blog:

Climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun

Surviving a hail storm in Mexico City

Attending a lucha libra

Visiting one of the largest public squares in the world

Seeing Diego Rivera’s famous murals

Details forthcoming, I promise!

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:05 pm  Comments (2)  

Only in Mexico

I had the absolute privilege of being able to wander around Oaxaca for an entire day taking in the sights, sounds and smells of this city. I loved shopping at the markets, happening upon enchanting little plazas and gazing at beautiful churches.  As I ambled about Oaxaca I took in so many scenes that would only be found in Mexico.

Pig legs anyone?

Maybe some grasshoppers?

Maybe crunchy pork skins?

How about some spicy chiles?

Perhaps some some clothes or hats?

A plethora of handicrafts?

Why not a bag to carry all your purchases in?

Yummy homemade Mexican chocolate?

What about a colorful balloon?

If you can believe it,  all this  was going on within a one block radius of a 16th century cathedral!

The day ended with a lovely dinner in a restored convent and then this amazing musical light show projected onto the side of the cathedral. Thanks to Jennifer in our group for getting this filmed and uploaded!

Published in: on July 25, 2011 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  

Our Fearless Leaders

I figured it was about time to introduce the courageous leaders that are guiding our trip and have handled everything so professionally thus far. I love to plan trips and travel but with that comes a lot of responsibility and decision making. I wasn’t sure how I would handle giving up control of everything for five weeks and putting my trust in someone else. I can now say that it has been so easy because everything is so perfectly planned and executed. So without further ado, I introduce you to our Fulbright Mexico 2011 leadership team.

Jaques is the trip lead and has been handling this trip for Comexus (Fulbright arm in Mexico) for the last six years.

He is an American born Frenchman who has lived in Mexico City since the 1970’s He embodies the perfect combination of laid back expertise. He is an author and historian by trade and is honestly a walking textbook. His language skills are impeccable as he has mastered French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. He has quite the sense of humor as shown by his July 4th greeting of all of us with American flags and a CD of patriotic music blaring on the bus as we boarded. One of his specialties is cooking and he holds great knowledge about many of the regional cuisines. There is a running joke among our group that we are so dependent on him that we can’t even make decisions any more on what to eat. We all just tend to order whatever local delicacy he recommends to us. He is also a published author of works of historical fiction.

Alejandro is Jaques’s sidekick. He is a budding filmmaker and photographer extraordinaire. He is always readily available to answer our questions, offer a perspective on Mexico from a youthful point of view and of course capture each moment of our trip through film. I can hardly wait until we get our C.D full of all the artistic pictures that he will have taken over our five weeks together. He desires to pursue his masters in the U.S and we are all cheering him along and hoping that he gets the scholarship for which he has applied.

The final and probably most important person is our ever faithful bus driver Benito. He is AMAZING! I have already extolled his driving expertise in several posts but I really can’t say enough about his professionalism, attention to detail and phenomenal attitude. From day one when he met us at the airport in Cancun, he has always had a smile on his face. He takes immaculate care of the bus and is often seen cleaning both the inside and out of it at all hours of the day and night. We have found ourselves in some fairly precarious driving and parking situations and he has managed with grace and calm to extricate us from each one of them.

Several people have asked me about our traveling conditions since we are covering such huge distances. Here is a quick glance into the bus that has become my home for the last month! We each have two seats to ourselves so there is plenty of room to stretch out and relax. I brought a small pillow and bought a blanket while here so it is no shocker that I spend a good portion of bus time asleep:) My spot is at the very back of the bus so I have the pleasure of feeling every bump, jolt and pothole! The bus also comes equipped with electrical outlets so that we can plug in and charge up on the go. I sometimes feel like we are traveling journalists on some sort of campaign trail because we make stops, learn a lot and then load back up and try to process and make sense of it all.

In addition to personal comforts, we have an area on the bus for snacks, drinks and reference books. The traveling library comes in handy during those long rides when I’m trying to recall something for my curriculum project or brush up on someplace that we have yet to visit. Jaques also frequently screens Mexican movies or documentaries for us during the longer rides. If we aren’t reading, watching a movie or working on our projects & blogs, he will also select regional music for us to listen to from the different areas that we are visiting. I am being completely serious when I say that the only time that I am not learning something is when I am asleep at night!

Published in: on July 24, 2011 at 8:30 am  Comments (2)  

Education Alternatives in Oaxaca

In addition to the more touristy encounters we have experienced in Oaxaca thus far, we also had the pleasure of being invited to the Universidad de la Tierra to learn about alternatives being offered in education within primarily the indigenous communities of Oaxaca. This fascinating endeavor is being lead by Oliver Froehling, a German man who immigrated to Mexico during the indigenous rights struggles of the 1990’s.

He saw an evident gap in the practical nature of the educational opportunities for the indigenous peoples and he determined to do something about the problem. Mexico is certainly a country of contrast. A large percentage of its population makes under the 57 peso (about $5) a day minimum wage while also being home to Carlos Slim, the richest man in the world. Programs such as this one at the Universidad de la Tierra are trying to make a dent in this income disparity.

It is very telling that a recent study released indicated that the drug cartels have done far more for job creation in Mexico than the formal economy. Many people in Oaxaca only have a primary school education as secondary education, which begins at 13 years old, isn’t obligatory. The increased rate of completion of primary education in recent years is thanks in large part to the federal program, Oportunidades. This cash transfer program offers incentives for families in rural areas to keep their kids in school. It has had such a high rate of success in Mexico that it is now being imitated in other countries in South America like Brazil.

Returning to the negative outlook, 7 out of 10 people who complete university studies here can’t find a job. Armed with this knowledge the Universidad de la Tierra strives to create apprenticeship opportunities for students so that they will be able to get hands on training and be prepared with varied practical skills to find work upon completion of their studies. The program sets students up with internships from fields as diverse as radio production to environmental management.

The programs offered has now grown to include several community based initiatives which address real problems. One such aspect is the need for better nutrition. Classes are held to teach about growing community gardens, composting and promoting urban agriculture.

I especially like the recycled materials that they use to grow their plants like these re-purposed plastic water bottles that are abundant and often end up in trash bins.

It was found though after starting the garden program that people didn’t know how to use the vegetables being grown since vegetables aren’t a big component of the diet here. To meet that need, the Univeristy de la Tierra has opened up a cooking class cooperative where recipes and hands on tutorials can be shared. A final component to the program that we learned about were the efforts to recycle and repair computer parts in order to outfit rural schools with workable technology options.

Our final community contact of the day came from a visit to the Ollin Tlahtoalli language school. The mission of this language and cultural center is to “promote the recognition and appreciation of diverse cultures through experiential learning and living.” Omar Nunez, the founder of the center talked to us about some of the most important tenants of their educational model.

His primary focus is on providing educational opportunities for under-served indigenous populations in the highlands of Oaxaca. His program looks to offer kids in rural, indigenous communities a motivation to stay involved in school. Only 24% off the indigenous community in Oaxaca goes to secondary school and only 1% on to university.

He starts off by engaging the students in art, video and photography projects in efforts to learn more about their culture and the challenges that they face through creative expression. He added that many times these kids have never seen themselves in a photo or on the big screen before so a printed photo or a community-wide movie screening event becomes a family’s prized possession.

Omar was even able to host an exposition of the students’ artwork at a museum here in Oaxaca and shared with us that for the vast majority of the students and families that was their first opportunity to even set foot in a museum.

He further explained that immigration to the U.S has become such a ritual that parents often give their kids English names like Jonathon, Heidi and Edward to prepare them for what is looked at here as inevitable migration to the U.S. Omar and his teaching volunteer staff is working hard to change this perception. While working amidst these communities for the last several years, he has encountered an interesting phenomenon of the so called “silent bilingual” that he is attempting to study and document through video.

The video series traces the challenges and hardships faced by students who were born in the United States but who return to Mexico when they are anywhere from 8-13 years old because of the threat their parents are under for deportation. These kids have never lived in Mexico before, speak fairly basic Spanish and associate themselves as Americans but find themselves thrust into a major life transition overnight. He shared with us that they often face persecution at school and are called “gringos” even though they look just like the other kids. For that reason, they are afraid of speaking English and thus dubbed, “the silent bilingual.”

He actually began to uncover the truth behind this trend when he started observing pictures of American flags popping up in some of the students artwork.  He initially thought those drawings were because they eventually wanted to immigrate to the U.S but when pressed, the students said they were there because they were born in the U.S, are American and long to go back to their friends and lives there. Sometimes, he said, the lifestyle is so difficult for them here that they end up being sent back to live in the states with friends or relatives. The issue of family separations in Mexico has reached epidemic proportions.

I left today pondering if any of these models of practical job training, rural education and environmental sustainability could be mimicked in communities in the United States.

Published in: on July 23, 2011 at 8:22 am  Comments (1)  

Grasshoppers and Hot Chocolate

A little sad to leave my luxurious room at the restored convent where we stayed in Puebla,

my sadness was quickly converted into wonder as we set out for Oaxaca. My eyes feasted upon sweeping mountain views of the semi-arid landscape that held forests interspersed with cacti, agave plants and other desert flora.

Oaxaca is a very mountainous state as the Sierra Oriental and the Sierra Occidental ranges meet in the highlands of Oaxaca. It is also the state that two powerful Mexican political figures hail from, Benito Juarez, the first indigenous president and Porfirio Diaz. Oaxaca is the native home to the indigenous group the Zapotecs and despite being one of the poorest states in Mexico, it is home to an exciting art scene that blends the contemporary and traditional elements. It is no surprise that a vast portion of the economy in Oaxaca depends on tourism. For that reason, the violent teacher strikes that lasted for months in 2006, crippled the economy here as tourists steered clear of Oaxaca for years after that social demonstration. The strikes were eventually quelled by federal intervention and although the situation is now at a more peaceful place, the teachers continue to demonstrate by overtaking the city center of Oaxaca during the entire month of May each year.

Never one to waste time while traveling, I set out to do the three most important things in Oaxaca before even being in the city for 24 hours. For lunch we feasted on these little guys called chapulines.

The variety we ordered comes ready to be eaten with some guacamole and tortillas.

Honestly it just tasted salty with a little crunch. The trick was not thinking about the fact that I was eating grasshoppers! The legend here states that eating grasshoppers ensures that a visitor will return to Oaxaca for a visit in the future.

I guess I will be back one day! I will say though that I definitely didn’t try grasshoppers when I was here the first time almost 10 years ago and I still managed to find my way back. 🙂

Another must try on the agenda while in Oaxaca is the famous hot chocolate. It can either be served with a water or milk base. I went for the latter for the more creamy flavor.

The third must on the list that I couldn’t resist visiting within the first few hours was the famous indoor market near the zocolo. It is crowded with wall to wall people, fragrant aromas, mounds of spices, chiles and chapulines for sale as well as my favorite, the artisan goods. I couldn’t stay too long though at the market though because I had to be back to meet back up with the group to start our more intellectual activities.

The first stop was the gorgeous 16th century Santo Domingo church

whose ornate altar pieces and soaring cupolas are reminiscent of cathedrals that I have visited in Spain and Italy.

The former monastery

attached to the church houses a fantastic museum that traces the origins of Oaxaca from the indigenous people of the region up until the years following the conquest.

Many important archaeological pieces are held in the museum collection like this funerary statue from 900 A.D.

One of the highlights of the visit was to get to witness upon exit from the complex this traditional Oaxacan dance performance.

We are in the days leading up to the important yearly festival here so there are daily processions, traditional dances and musical demonstrations.

Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 8:22 am  Comments (2)