Thursday, November 22, 2007

Viva la Revolucion

Here comes La Revolucion! I was in the shower when I realized el Dia de la Revolucion was erupting in my neighborhood. A rhythmic, thumping base vibrated the painted tiles in the shower stall. I couldn’t quite zero in the source or direction, so I quickly dried and dressed, realizing as I did that the sound was very close--on the street in front of my house! Then I remembered reading that this was November 20, Revolution Day, and that the parade would come through Seis Esquinas (Six Corners), a small plaza just down the street and pass in front of my house on its way to the Parroquia along Hidalgo Street.

Our new Canadian neighbors, Clarence and Gail, were already peering out the gate as I raced up the stairs to the broad terrace of the apartment above ours to get an elevated view of the festivities. Dan, our other new neighbor, strolled out to join me in his bathrobe. At this point the drum and brass noise of the marching band was deafening and we could see rank after rank of children formed up in the uniforms of the schools they attend. School children appear to make up a large proportion of marchers in Ajijic fiesta parades.

Grabbing my camera, I headed to the street for a close up view. I quickly realized that each group of identically dressed children was not only going to march, but most would carry on some sort of performance along the way. A photographic gold mine!

Paddling for La Revolucion. The first group carried semaphore paddles, making it appear for a moment that they were propelling invisible kayaks. Given their youth, their synchronization was surprisingly good.

Hoola Hoop review. Other groups carried jangling crescent-shaped tambourines, or multicolored flags, or hula hoops which they twirled on their arms or over their heads.

Charros on parade. Charros are Mexico's gentlemen horsemen. On their beautiful horses, they were dressed to the nines in tight-fitting pants and short jackets, stitched in striking patterns. These two looked like they could have ridden with Zapata.

Proud Papa. This proud charro father brought his lovely daughter, who seemed as much at home on a horse as him, even in her full skirts.

Eat your heart out, Mister Ed. Charro horses are noted for their skillful dancing in tune with the mariachi bands, something that must be seen to be fully believed.

Viva los ninos de la Revolucion! But the stars of the show were the tots from the jardine de los ninos (kindergarten). Everyone I talked to, Mexican or Gringo, remarked upon their wonderful period costumes, and the carefully choreographed dances they performed every time the parade halted. Heavy with their responsibility for carrying the essence of the day, they wore grave expressions, and their tiny voices periodically piped out Viva la Revolucion! The boys waved their carved wooden weapons in the air, crossed bandoliers sparkling on their chests, while the girls flourished their full skirts.

Painted Pancho Villa mustaches gave the boys fierce expressions. The girls were a little more demure and flashed shy smiles a the cameras of hovering parents and entranced onlookers.

As I examined the photos later, I realized that the parents had gone to great trouble to create these obviously handmade costumes. The boys’ clothing closely matched photos I have seen of the actual revolutionaries. The girls wore long colorful skirts and beautifully stitched cotton tops, with miniature rebozos over their shoulders sometimes containing a doll, dressed in identical fashion. These were not plastic-velcro-polyester creations, picked up on a rushed trip to the local Walmart. They were lovingly hand-sewn, with many personal touches, by parents who, for the most part, cannot afford the Walmart shortcut.

Spectators jammed the narrow sidewalks so tightly along the half-mile from Seis Esquinas to the Parroquia that I had to take a parallel street to reach the main Plaza where the parade would end and I could get a good vantage point for photos. At one of the most crowded points, I suddenly saw the packed mass start to heave and jump. People were shouting, laughing, and shrieking, barely able to move but scrambling to get out of the way of...something. I was baffled until a Mexican woman standing next to me explained with a grin, “ratta!” Somehow a confused rodent had raced around the ankles and over the feet of bystanders, certainly an unsettling experience for them with nowhere to go but up. They were remarkably good-humored about it, but that’s Mexico.

For the record. Mexico has had a long and tragic history of conflict, much of it in struggles against foreign domination, especially by the United States which expropriated half of the country in the 1840’s in a war that many US citizens at the time felt was illegal and shameful. Mexico’s Revolution began November 20, 1910, and officially ended in 1917, but armed conflict and revolts persisted until the late 1920’s. The real end was probably in 1936 when Gen. Calles, the last of the revolutionary generals, was arrested and deported by Lazaro Cardenas. President Cardenas nationalized the oil industry, taking it away from foreign control, and established a wide array of social programs and reforms which helped keep his party in power for the next sixty-four years. For wonderful period pictures of La Revolucion, click on this link and for detailed information, click on this link.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A quiet morning stroll through Chapala

The Chapala Pier. Early on a recent morning, I found myself with three hours to burn in Chapala, the Lake’s namesake town. Chapala lies along the north shore of the Lake, less than ten miles east of Ajijic. Carole was off to Guadalajara to get her FM3, the “resident, non-immigrant” visa which transforms us from mere visitors on a tourist visa into full-blown residents of Mexico with many new rights, most important of which is to become members of the Mexican national health plan, called the IMSS. At any rate, I brought her to Chapala to meet a group of fellow Gringos heading to the Immigration office with the same goal in mind. Since she would not return for hours, I took the opportunity to drift around Chapala with my camera to see what might turn up. Mexico never disappoints in this respect.

First, I headed for the waterfront which, in many ways, defines Chapala. This has always been fishing town, from boats or shore, and with pole or hand net. Many fishermen anchor their boats in the lee of the Chapala pier. The vegetation seen the foreground of the picture is water hyacinth, a floating plant that drifts in and out with the waves and wind.

Bringing home the catch of the day. Fishing is still practiced here, although it is unsafe to eat most of the catch because of pollution from factories located on the rivers that feed the lake. Not to be deterred, the fish restaurants have largely shifted to catch brought in from the Pacific Ocean ports such as Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo.

Tourist transportation. Many of the fishermen (I’ve never seen women crewing a boat) get a big portion of their income taking tourists out for rides on the lake. Carole and I have yet to see life jackets or any other safety provision, so we’ve been a little hesitant to go for a ride as yet.

Fishermen at work. The fishermen's fountain commemorates the history of Chapala as a fishing town. The statues in the fountain very realistically portray the strength and effort needed to handle the nets. I have seen this very activity along the north shore of the Lake on many an evening walk.

Lake front elegance. While Chapala has spread out and up the sides of hills which are extinct (hopefully) volcanic cinder cones, the heart of the town lies within a few blocks of the lake shore. Included are the Parroquia (parish church) named San Francisco, the main plaza, and the line of elegant old lake shore haciendas. Some of these homes are still residences, others have become restaurants such as Los Cazadores which was originally the home of Albert Braniff, who founded Braniff airlines. The steeples of San Francisco can be seen behind Los Cazadores.

Kiosco, the center of the center. The plaza is the heart and nerve center of most Mexican communities, and in the center of nearly every plaza is the bandstand, called the kiosco. It functions as center stage for fiestas, political rallies, and other community events, as well as providing a shady spot for the elderly and young lovers. The Chapala kiosco is quite elegant and well-cared-for, obviously a symbol of community pride. In the background is one of the extinct cinder cones.

Meet the newlyweds, Mr. & Mrs. Death. The recent Dia De Los Muertos fiesta left behind a fine example of Mexico’s humorous, lighthearted attitude toward death and the dead. The two large figures in the picture were in the main traffic intersection near the plaza.

Life in miniature. The plaza is a vortex of activity. Sidewalk street vendors sell clothing, fresh produce, hot food, and handicrafts such as this finely carved set of doll's furniture. Some of these vendors seem to have regular spots, and I picked up a strong sense of community among them. For all America’s talk about free enterprise, most Americans work for somebody else, usually a corporation. Mexico strikes me as a far more entrepreneurial society, no doubt out of necessity. As multinational corporations penetrate further, this will probably start to die, but maybe not.

Chapala harpist. Street performers and musicians are also part of the daily scene. The harpist pictured must be pretty enterprising given the difficulty of hauling the instrument around as well as playing it.

The Portales. Another typical aspect of a Mexican plaza are the colonnades, called the portales. Usually at least one side of a plaza has this feature. Generally there are vendors or open air restaurants nestling in the shade of the portales. In Chapala, the portales extend perhaps 50 yards and provide a nice breezy place to eat lunch and view the kiosco and the activity around the plaza.

Chicharrones, anyone? One of the most popular hot foods available from side walk vendors, and sometimes directly sold by butchers out of their carnecerias, are chicharrones. These are chunks of pork, boiled in oil in a huge wok-like pan over a wood fire or perhaps a rigged-up gas flame. The meat and the way of cooking it would give both US health experts and fire inspectors heart attacks, but the Mexicans seem to love it and it smells great.

Blessed shade for an incandescent day. As you move away from the bustle of the plaza and the waterfront area, Chapala becomes quieter, but has other charms, including some wonderful shady cobblestone streets. Mexicans seem to love their trees, particularly the big ones with spreading branches providing welcome shade from the sometimes intensely bright sun one encounters most days at our 5500 foot altitude. Rather than cut down one of these great old trees, Mexican builders tend to incorporate them right into walls or just build around them.

Everyone an artist. Chapala homeowners, like those in Ajijic, employ vivid, often contrasting colors. A walk down a side street can be startling, amusing and a revelation on what colors actually work well together.
A gate both draws in and keeps out. Another very common architectural feature is placement of a door or a gate at the corner of a block. Wood, wrought iron, archways, clay roof tiles, vegetation and many other features are used to catch and please the eye. The owners seem to enjoy making a statement with their doors and gates, even as these features help conceal what is behind.

New and old on Cinco de Mayo Street. As usual in Mexico, I found new and old juxtaposed in Chapala. Racy looking scooters are a very popular low-cost form a transportation. I often see adobe exposed on walls of older buildings where the plaster has chipped away. The mud bricks were manufactured in the same way, with the same materials, that people in pre-Columbian Mexico used.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Dia De Los Muertos

Ajijic celebrated the Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) this week. The fiesta lasts from the evening of October 31, through the evening of November 2. For us, it began with a surprise parade up Calle Hidalgo past our house on the 31st, just at sunset. It was a surprise because we had only heard about the activities on the 1st and 2nd, but that's Mexico for
you--always the unexpected! The parade included local marching bands, pick-up trucks with living tableaux portraying various Catholic religious themes, and the finale was a large troupe of dancers in pre-Colombian costumes.

The mixture of Spanish and Indian religious traditions is also typical of Mexico. In fact, the Day of the Dead was an attempt by the Church to co-opt native traditions about death and the dead into the Catholic All Saints Day. All Saints Day in the US has morphed into Halloween, which has lost nearly all of its religious significance and is about "ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night." In other words, a highly commercialized horror show.

In Mexico, the meaning of the Day of the Dead could not be more different. It is a true celebration, focusing not on the horror and monstrous aspects of death, but on death as a transition to a state from which dead relatives and associates can return to visit. It is a kind of family reunion of living and dead, with the living preparing altars containing offerings of food and objects that the dead person especially enjoyed in life. Some of the altars are dedicated to famous people like Pope John Paul, and I even saw one with the picture of Errol Flynn. School Children are encouraged to make their own altars, which were displayed at the Ajijic Cultural Center. For a fuller explanation of the history and significance of this national fiesta, click on Days of the Dead.

November 1st is reserved for dead children, who are supposed to be especially blessed since they are too young to have sinned and thus go directly to heaven. They are considered to be little angels, or Angelitos. The 2nd is reserved for adults. However, the whole family seems to participate in both events. On the night of the 2nd there were two activities going on at opposite ends of town. One, at the town cemetery, was just down the road from us. The other was at the Ajijic Cultural Center, on the main plaza. They were both scheduled to start at the same time, just a dusk, but we decided to try to do both, the cemetery first, then the plaza.

Carole was a little concerned about the cemetery event, fearing that we might intrude on solemn family gatherings. However, as we walked down the narrow cobblestone street it became evident that the event was anything but quiet and solemn. More and more people were streaming in our direction, as we passed neighbors setting up food stands and their personal family altars along the street. Firecrackers exploded around us with startling regularity.

When we got to the entrance to the Panteon (cemetery) the street was mobbed and all sorts of stands and stalls lined the road. It had the feel of a tailgate party. On a stage at the end of the road were colorful dancers, with a giant skeleton figure as a backdrop. The atmosphere was gay and festive.

After watching various troupes of dancers, and listening to a Mexican poet give a dramatic recitation of what I gathered was a headless-horseman sort of tale, we decided to head for the plaza, which promised an art show, more dancers, and more altar displays. Carole was tired, so I decided to go it alone. I enjoy walking around Ajijic in the evening because the whole community comes out of their homes to hang out on the street, even on non-fiesta nights. It's not uncommon to see a young mother with children, even infants, walking around at 11:00 PM.

At the Plaza, I talked to an elderly Mexican man whose English, though limited, was much superior to my Spanish. At my request he very kindly explained some of the symbolic elements of the altars (see the link).

I was entranced by the costumes and the skeleton faces worn by children and adults alike. At one point I was able to go backstage and got permission to photograph four very pretty dancers. Be sure to take in the Dia De Los Muertos if you ever visit Mexico at this time of year!