Friday, May 9, 2008

Our Mexican neighbors at the Lake

A picture of contemplation. I’ve taken over 4000 pictures in Mexico so far, and used less than 200 in the various postings to this blog. Most of my posts have focused on a location or event such as a visit to a colonial city or a fiesta. I wanted to focus on people this time. As I sifted through those thousands of photos, some themes started to emerge. I decided to show the Mexicans I have encountered in the Lake Chapala area, such as the young woman above, engaged in typical activities that demonstrate their industriousness, their humor, their attachments to family and religion, their delight in music and pageantry, and above all their beauty and humanity. So, let me introduce you to my Mexican neighbors…

Lakeside Mexicans work hard at an wide array of jobs and businesses.

Saturday night chicken, comin' right up! Mexicans in the Lake area are small town people, mostly living in the numerous small villages and towns around the lake. Few jobs pay much. However, almost everyone—even the kids—seems to have one, and many have several jobs and/or small businesses they pursue. The boy in this photo is part of the family that owns the small clothing material store behind him. Every Saturday and Sunday they set up the grill and the wonderful smell drifts up the street, drawing hungry neighbors from all directions. A cooked chicken, accompanied by roast potatoes, and salsa—enough to last several meals for two people—costs about $7.00US.

Sharing a laugh at the tianguis. A lot of food is sold informally on the street, brought in fresh that day from gardens often owned by the person selling the food, or a relative. It is generally very inexpensive. Carole often buys enough vegetables to provide several of our meals for the equivalent of $1.00US. Every Wednesday people flock to the Ajijic tianguis, a street market several blocks long, shown above. Other towns along the Lake hold their own tianguis on different days. Shopping at the tianguis is great fun and the sellers often seem to enjoy it as much as their customers.

"Fast food", the Mexican way. Our neighbor Pancho has a small vegetable store across from Seis Esquinas Plaza, selling all the usual vegetables plus coconuts and sugar cane. He was happy to let me photograph him cooking garbanzo beans in front of his store. The hot, salty beans are sold in small plastic bags—the Mexican version of “fast food”. Quite tasty!

Craftsman at work. One can find small carpenter shops on almost every street. They make shelves, furniture, signs, and even crosses for graves at the local cemetery. Chumer, the craftsman shown here, very kindly invited me into his cool, shady shop on a hot day and chatted with me about his experiences living in California while he worked on his beautiful creation.

A work in progress. J.V. Lopez Vega is a noted local artist whose home and studio are just down the street from our house. His large murals grace the walls of Ajijic in several places and he is currently painting a masterpiece on the third floor ceiling of the Ajijic Cultural Center. As with many Mexican muralists, his work is very symbolic and mystical. His paintings are heavily oriented toward the Lake itself and the animals living around it. Ajijic has been an artist colony for over 80 years, attracting both Mexican and foreign painters, sculptors, jewelry makers, potters, and every other kind of artist imaginable. Public art is abundant, such as the huge wall mural now under way at the local city hall. Another example is the sculptor who is transforming a huge tree stump in the Plaza. Private art is displayed at art shows and exhibitions as well as on the exterior walls of shops and homes all over Ajijic.

Guillermo & Son. Selling Vinos y Liquores (wines and liquors) across the street from Seis Esquinas Plaza, Guillermo does a brisk business. He posed proudly with his son at my request. The first time I visited his store, which is a gathering spot for those in the neighborhood who like to tip a few, those in attendance insisted in pouring me a large glass of tequila. Hospitality seems to be the rule in a Mexican village. I also suspect that, as the new gringo in the neighborhood, I provided a source of cheap entertainment.

Bath time. Cowboys and their horses abound in Ajijic and the country around it. Most are working animals, not just for show, and appear to be well fed and cared for by their owners. This cowboy chose a hot day to wash his mount. The horse seemed to enjoy the cool spray. There are quite a few cattle too, and small cattle drives down the cobblestone village streets are not unusual. Carole and I once encountered a stray from one of these drives. The cow was quite anxious and followed us like a lost puppy as we walked, mooing plaintively if we drew ahead too far. When we turned a corner, the cow became almost apoplectic and mooed at us to keep moving in the direction she wanted to go. We had to decline.

Family life is central to Mexicans

Young family enjoying the activities at the plaza. This family was watching a mariachi band at Seis Esquinas Plaza during a fiesta when I approached them for a picture. I didn't pose them, this is how they were naturally standing, framed by the doorway in perfect balance. Even the dog was right. It is one of my favorite shots. The only thing unusual about this family is the single child. Perhaps they were just getting started. Mexican families usually have multiple children, even though the number has been dropping with the spread of education and birth control. It is a very family-oriented society. Mexicans we meet often seem puzzled when they ask about our children and I tell them Carole and I have none.

High spirits. Mexican village society is a young society and children abound. These boys are engaged in a spirited pick-up game of soccer-style kick ball. Even the smallest children practice soccer (or futbol) moves, and big international tournaments rivet the community. A family will place a TV on a table in the street and the whole neighborhood will gather around to watch and root for their favorites.

Families on parade. The whole family participates in the life of the community. This young family was walking in the parade commemorating the Virgin of Guadalupe. They looked so happy and beautiful as I took the shot that, on impulse, I followed them to the churchyard. Approaching them, I asked if they’d like to see the shots on my digital screen. They were so pleased with the result that I promised to email the photos to them after the parade. I got back a very gracious reply when I did so. Taking pictures is a great way to break the ice, even if there is a language barrier. I managed to conduct this entire interaction in Spanish, including my email message to them. A personal victory!

Proud mother shows off her little one. Parents who have dressed their children up for special occasions seem especially receptive to an offer to photograph them. This mom adorned her baby with a hand-stitched top and skirt and wrapped her against the cool fall air with a beautiful rebozo, the all-purpose shawl carried by many Mexican village women. The rebozo is used not only as a wrap, but to carry packages, and to tote kids on backs or around waists.

Getting his licks in. Was there ever a kid who didn’t enjoy a chocolate ice cream bar on a hot summer evening? This one was definitely getting his licks in and seemed very pleased with himself. I have to admit that the ice cream sold in stores found around nearly every Mexican plaza is excellent. I’m with you, kid!

Religion plays a complex role in Mexican life

Mexico has an ambivalent relationship with religion. It is rare to walk through a Mexican Catholic church and find it empty. Nearly always someone is praying quietly, head bowed, lips moving silently through the words of worship. Jalisco State is one of the most conservative, church-oriented areas of Mexico. The State Capital, Guadalajara, was the center of the Cristero War when Catholic activists fought against an attempt in the 1920’s by the Mexican government under President Carranza to curtail the power of the church by enforcing anti-clerical provisions in the Mexican Constitution dating back to the 1850’s. For many years, priests and nuns were forbidden to wear their robes and insignia on the streets. Church property was confiscated and turned into libraries, museums and other sorts of public buildings.

Until I read up on the Cristero War, I had been very puzzled to find a plaque on the wall of a local church stating it was property of the federal government. Referring to Mexico’s ambivalent relationship to both God and its northern neighbor, Mexican President Porfirio Diaz commented “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Currently, there is a huge controversy about an effort by the Jalisco Governor to allocate about $9 million (US) to help the Jalisco Catholic hierarchy to build a huge new church. The Governor claims that it will increase religious tourism and therefore provide jobs. It remains unclear whether he will be able to pull it off in the face of vehement opposition from some parts of the public who think the money better spent on programs for the poor.

Preparing the way. Many of the fiestas held throughout the year have a religious core, such as those for the Virgin of Guadalupe (patron saint of Mexico and particularly of its Indios), San Andres (the patron saint of Ajijic), the Day of the Cross, as well as Christmas and Easter. The whole community gets involved. In the case of Palm Sunday, neighborhood men come out to sweep and water down the cobblestone route of the procession on their block, and then the women and children spread greenery just as in the biblical story. Along with our Canadian neighbors, we joined in to support the community effort, although we are not religious. It was fun, and the neighborhood kids had a hilarious time when we turned the hose on them.

Front row seats. Once the processional path was prepared, families took their seats to await the show. This shot is typical of any Ajijic evening on my street, fiesta or not. Families gather on their doorstep or curb, a mixture of adults, kids, friends, even the family dog. Someone is sure to be selling tacos off a griddle or tamales out of a pot they set out on the street in front of their homes. Socializing goes late into the evening, and even the babies are up. I feel quite safe walking around Ajijic streets at night, because the whole community is out and about, and nearly everyone treats me with friendliness and courtesy.

Drumming up some business. Mexicans are a practical people, and every occasion—even a religious event—is an opportunity to add to the family income. Some of the local Indio women and young girls conducted a thriving trade in beautifully hand-woven palm fronds during the Palm Sunday procession. This woman strode briskly past our house toward a potential group of customers, carrying her baby the old fashioned way, in her rebozo. I have seen 16th Century wall murals portraying this very scene.

Playing the part. The religious fiestas are remarkable for their level of pageantry. Costumes are detailed and people actually look the part as they act out their roles. Even animals get into the act, although the donkey carrying Jesus in this photo seemed altogether more interested in munching the greenery on the cobblestones, hence the two assistants keeping a firm grip on his halter. Several days previously, I had been startled to turn a corner and encounter a Mexican toting a full set of very realistic Roman armor down a busy street, no doubt on his way to a rehearsal.

Our Mexican neighbors love to socialize at every opportunity

The morning lineup. These "viejos" (old timers) would no doubt have some stories to tell, if my Spanish was good enough to handle it. They gather nearly every day on the same bench, pretty much in the same order, to discuss the events of the day and watch the never-ending parade of activity around the center of the Ajijic Plaza. Who needs cable TV when you have a Mexican plaza?

Kickin' back at the plaza. Cowboys from the local ranches come to hang out in town at the Seis Esquinas Plaza. They were enjoying a mariachi band at the Virgin of Guadalupe fiesta. Carole tells me that you must have a certain “gravitas” to wear hats like these fellows. They seem to have more than their share. Throw on a serape, a couple of crossed bandoleers, and a Winchester, and any of these guys could have ridden with Pancho Villa.

Out on the town. All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) like this are becoming very a popular form of local transportation, especially among the younger set. And by “younger” I mean down to nine year olds. The ATV drivers zip around somewhat heedlessly, so it pays to look closely before attempting to cross the street. Apparently Mexico has no age laws for driving these vehicles on the street, or at least doesn’t enforce them. Since I have seen toddlers, unassisted, riding horses taller than I am, I suppose it all makes some kind of strange sense.

Abuelas give me the eye. I found these elderly women on a shady bench at the Chapala Plaza (see my November posting: A quiet morning in Chapala). Abuelas (grandmothers) like this are greatly respected in Mexico. This pair seemed very skeptical of my photographic efforts. They have wonderful, “lived-in” faces. I’ll bet their stories would be every bit as good as those of the viejos in Ajijic, and possibly truer.

Going for the gusto. Sights like this are an everyday occurrence in Ajijic. We have come to love the clop, clop, clop of hooves on the cobblestones outside our house. This pair were probably heading into town for a cold Modelo beer at a local cantina. This is one reason why we live in a Mexican village like Ajijic rather than a big city like Guadalajara.

Police come in all flavors, from friendly to scary

Friendly. There are many varieties of police officer in Mexico. Probably the friendliest and most easy going are the traffic cops who wear the white shirt and black trousers and are assigned to intersections in a rather random way, it seems to me, regardless of the traffic situation. This officer asked me to take his picture with his shiny Ford pickup. There have been reports of a “kissing cop” (not the cop pictured) among the traffic police. The kissing cop offers to drop a citation in return for a kiss from the women he stops, many of whom are well past sixty. The bemused women involved report that he is very genial and non-threatening about it. I haven't heard about any takers.

Sort of friendly. The city police have a somewhat more serious demeanor. They are very polite and always wave back at me when they zoom by in their pickup trucks, usually with a couple of heavily armed officers casually riding in the back. The level of armament carried by the police can be a little unnerving at first. This pair was standing at the entrance of the small Ajijic city hall annex across from the Plaza. The woman is toting an Israeli-made Uzi submachine gun, a light machine gun with awesome firepower. Police officers such as these take care of ordinary criminal activity. A couple of times I have seen them cool out large groups of young men who looked like they might be about to get into mischief at a party or fiesta. A quiet but very earnest conversation with one of these cops settled things down immediately, with no arrests.

Somewhat less than friendly. The scariest cops I have encountered are the State Police, who dress in black jump suits with bulletproof vests and carry large assault rifles. They always look very serious, probably because they deal with narcotrafficantes (drug dealers), and are fairly regularly killed. Sammy, my neighbor down the street, used to be a state police officer but gave it up to run his own one-man taxi business because the pay was too low and the work too dangerous. My advice: don’t even think about messing with these cops!

Mexicans like to participate in their culture as performers, not just spectators

Charros are Mexico's traditional cowboys. The term “charro” originated in Jalisco where there are more of them than anywhere else in Mexico. These great horsemen (and some horsewomen) train their horses to dance to the music of the mariachi bands, among other things. Mariachis are another group that originated in Jalisco. The cowhide banner this proud rider carries says “Charros of Ajijic, Guarantors of our Traditions”. Those traditions go back to charro origins in Salamanca, Spain. The figure on the banner is the Virgin of Guadalupe. Everything about these charros is classy, from their clothing, to their saddles and equipment, to the horses themselves.

Band practice at Seis Esquinas. Every neighborhood seems to have its own band, and Seis Esquinas is no exception. This group was practicing in our little plaza for the San Andres fiesta. What they may have lacked in musical quality, they made up for in volume and enthusiasm.

Dancing with the stars, or under them in this case. These beauties danced during the Day of the Dead fiesta. The stage was set up outside the local “panteon” or cemetery about ¼ mile down the street from our house. Even standing still, they show grace and poise. Notice the lovely hand stitched dresses and colorful rebozos used in their dance performances.

And now for something completely different. While walking down a back street in Ajijic, I suddenly came across this fellow. He managed to dance, play the flute, and tap on a tiny drum all at once. There was nothing else going on, no fiesta or other event, he was just performing and hoping to make a few pesos from passersby. Behind him came his tiny Indio wife, who shyly extended a cup for donations. I gladly contributed, amazed at his dexterity and ingenuity.

Send in the clowns. As far as I could tell, this fellow wasn’t interested in donations. He danced and made faces just to amuse the children at the hot air balloon contest during the Revolution Day events. The kids were delighted but his dog appears to have seen his show once too often.

On parade at the rebozo show. These women obviously put a lot of work into their dresses and gorgeous handmade rebozos. They proudly strutted their stuff at the Rebozo Fashion Show during the Independence Day fiesta.

The children get into it too. This bright-eyed pair giggled as they waited their turn at the Rebozo Fashion Show. The one on the left is wearing traditional Indio costume similar to what I saw Purepecha Indios wearing in their villages at Patzcuaro. They are wearing their rebozos as head coverings. All their clothing is hand made.

Gettin' down at the Ajijic pier. These guitarists set up on the steps leading to the Ajijic Pier just a sunset. They appear to be playing just for the fun of entertaining their friends and themselves. Wherever we go at Lake Chapala, we find wonderful live music like this.