Monday, September 26, 2011

Puebla Part 4: Pre-hispanic women and the art of daily life at the Amparo Museum

Maya fertility offering. This beautifully crafted piece shows the great skill of Maya sculptors, who were the best in all Mesoamerica. Small and very realistic, the work above clearly represents a woman of high status, and may have been modeled from a real person. Her headdress includes a jaguar, a symbol of great power. In some Maya city-states such as Palenque, women could become rulers. Sak Kuk, the mother of Pakal the Great, ruled Palenque for 3 years as regent during his childhood, and a woman named Yohl Ik'nal ruled Palenque in her own right for 20 years. The fine sculpture above was on exhibit at the Museo Amparo in Puebla's Centro Historico. The Amparo contains an extensive collection of pre-hispanic objects from all the cultures of Mesoamerica, as well as colonial and modern art. A large timeline, covering a whole wall, shows the relation to one culture or civilization to another. All the major and many of the minor Meso-american cultures are included, from the earliest times to the Conquest. If you visit the museum, it is worth studying the timeline for a bit before viewing the exhibits, because it really helps put things into historical context.  For information about the location, hours, and fees of the Museo Amparo, click here.

Tattooed woman is from the Western Highlands of Mexico. Notice the facial tattoos and how they replicate the design on the fabric she wears on her upper body. Her breasts are not covered, as is often the case with such female statues. The designs on her thighs may indicate a knee-length garment, or may represent tattoos.  The bulging thighs and hips are typical of sculptures created to express fertility. Marriage and procreation were very important as a way of securing and improving a family's social position in these ancient societies. The filed teeth, elaborate hairstyles, tattooing, and ample hips were all considered marks of beauty. In addition, women of the noble classes took steps to artificially elongate the craniums of their babies so that as adults they would have a different appearance from the common people. The statue above appears to express just such an elongation.

Pregnant figure is nude, except for tattoos, a necklace, and a nose ring. Childbearing was a dangerous rite of passage for both the mother and the baby. As such it was often considered the equivalent to warfare for men. After they had passed childbearing age, women sometimes became mid-wives, a highly respected role. It was believed that midwives were responsible for bringing the child into being.

Women also played important roles in food and textile production. The thin, contemplative figure above was so different from its curvaceous neighbors that I at first took it for a statue of a male. However, upon closer examination, I noticed the small but unmistakeable breasts. In addition to the beautifully designed upper garment, she also wears a small loincloth and a necklace. She sits as if huddling from a chill, wrapped in beautifully designed fabric with her arms covered and crossed at her waist. Textiles like the one above were produced mainly by women. The fabrics were woven out of cotton, feathers, and other natural materials. The Zapotecs of Monte Alban, outside of modern Oaxaca, were famous for their weaving, producing textiles as early as 500 BC. When the Aztecs finally subdued them in the 15th Century AD, woven cloth was one of the key tributes demanded. Not much of the ancient cloth has survived. However, wall murals and statues such the figure above give us an idea of their style and quality, and archaeologists have found women's tool kits for weaving. In addition to childcare and weaving responsibilities, women tended gardens, ground maize on stone trays called metates, cooked, and transported water.

Daily life in ancient Meso-america

An ancient home from Mexico's Western Highlands. The home above is raised above the ground on a platform. Often, villages were sited near water, and homes were placed on such platforms to avoid flooding. The sides are open air, with a tall, steeply sloping roof, painted with a design that is mostly faded. Such roofs would have been made from woven palm fronds, similar to the palapas I see all around the Lake Chapala area. Inside, a man sits cross-legged, leaning forward in apparent anticipation of the meal his wife is preparing before him. These sorts of homely little vignettes have been found all over Western Mexico, usually in tombs. They create a 2000-year old window on the daily life of Mesoamerica's ordinary people.

A man and his pets. Lying on his back on a sort of couch, a man plays with the pet monkey over his head. Meanwhile his little dog perches with its forelegs on the bed, hoping for an invitation to join the fun. One of the things I love about ancient art like this is the personal connection it creates with a people so long gone. My own dear-departed pet dog used to assume just such a position beside our bed, with an identical expression of hopeful anticipation. The posture of the man is relaxed and natural, unlike the formal and stylized portrayals found in temples and palaces. The monkey looks playful as it perches, wearing its little pointed "dunce cap". Unfortunately, its curled tail was apparently broken off.

A beautifully carved stone bowl. You can still see around the rim some of the red paint with which the bowl was originally painted. The carving shows the profile of a reclining figure that appears to be looking into the mouth of a large snake. The fineness of this work is extraordinary given that the artist had no metal tools to cut the rock, and that any mistake would ruin the piece. It is unlikely that such a bowl would have graced the table of a commoner. More likely a wealthy noble or merchant would have commissioned the work. The figure shown might even be a portrait of the owner.

A multi-breasted pot. This odd little piece appears to sprout breasts at each of its four corners. The slanting marks between each set of breasts may represent tattoos. A pot to hold water or food is one of the most common items in all settled societies. In fact, one of the surest signs that a culture has moved from the nomadic, hunter-gatherer stage to a settled, agricultural lifestyle is the presence of pots, usually made from the local clay. A culture that must constantly, or even just periodically, be on the move rarely creates such pots because of weight and breakage. Instead, they specialize in woven containers that are lighter and sturdier. Once people have settled in one location, they can possess articles that may be more fragile and heavier. As the culture develops, the decoration of the pots becomes more elaborate, with painted designs and interesting shapes. Archaeologists often can place a new site in time, and show the geographical extent of a culture, by the pots they find.

Anthropomorphic pot. The term means "resembling a human form". This wonderful little pot is not only painted with lovely designs, but is steadied by a human figure. The attached man is about to pick it up and carry it off, using a "tumpline".  This is a strap attached to a heavy burden, which then extends over the top of the head, just back of the hairline. Tumplines have been used to carry heavy objects for thousands of years by cultures all over the world. In Mexico and the rest of Latin America, tumplines are still regularly used, particularly by indigenous people. In Mexico City of recent times, a man used to deliver pianos using a tumpline. On the pot above, the tumpline that extends from the side of the pot to the man's hands cleverly forms handles allowing the container to be easily moved. The pot-man's expression clearly conveys an anticipation of great effort.

Humble, but extremely important household items. The various small bowls are made from clay or carved wood. The brown one on the left is decorated with a snake on the inside. The large, square metate on the right contains a cylindrical stone called a mano, which is moved up and down the surface of the stone metate to grind maize or other grains into powdered form. In the NewWorld, manos and metates originated in the Neolithic Age, probably around 5000 BC. Items virtually identical to these can still be purchased at local hardware stores in my town. They are not tourist knick-knacks, but are functional tools for the kitchen. Manos and metates form a direct, unbroken connection between the Stone Age world and that of the present day.

The manufacture of tools and adornments shows great skill. On top are 3 pieces of jade, one of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world, roughly equivalent to diamonds today. Both jade and diamonds can be used either as personal adornments or as tools, and both are extremely hard and difficult to cut. A further similarity is that fierce wars have been fought to control their sources. The beautifully carved ancient jade that I have seen in the Amparo and elsewhere is especially impressive in that the ancient craftsmen would have had to find stone of even harder quality than the jade in order to do the work. The large blade is probably made of flint which, along with obsidian, was used for cutting tools and weapons such as knife blades, arrowheads, and axes. Both flint and obsidian (volcanic glass) are easily worked through a flaking process. Obsidian blades can be sharper than modern surgical tools.

An early form of printing

A monkey sello. The ancient craftsmen of Mesoamerica invented an early form of printing using sellos (seals) like this. This one shows a gesturing monkey. Sellos have been found everywhere from Teotihuacan (north of Mexico City), to the Maya city-states of the Yucatan and Guatemala. Although they are clearly devices for the reproduction of images, virtually no evidence exists for how they were actually used. Archaeologists have speculated that the ancients used them for decorating clay pots, textiles, bark paper, and even for body painting. However, there are no surviving examples of paper or textiles with identifiable sello prints. Descriptions by early Spanish chroniclers such as Bishop Landa describe body painting, but not with sellos and in fact make no mention of the the devices at all. There are almost no examples of ancient Mesoamerican pottery where sello use can be definitively shown. They remain one of many mysteries of these ancient people.

Sello roller. Numerous types of sellos have been found. Some have animal motifs, and some are abstract. Some are small and flat, like the one in the previous photo, and some were made as rollers like the one shown above. Still others were large, with complex designs, and others had handles and looked a bit like a rectangular clothing iron.

Music and Dance

Beautifully carved conch trumpet. Music in the Mesoamerican world served social, political, and religious purposes. The presence of conch trumpets in many areas far from either the Pacific or the Gulf Coast indicates both their popularity as wind instruments and the efficiency of the vast network of trade routes throughout Mesoamerica, stretching not only from coast to coast, but from the southwestern US to Honduras. Shell trumpets have been found in Western Mexico tombs of the Pre-Classic era (300 BC - 150 AD). In Teotihuacan, the shell trumpets were considered so sacred that the Templo de los Caracoles Emplumados (Temple of the Plumed Conch Shells) was dedicated to them. There, a mural shows a procession of jaguar-headed priests blowing conch shells as they dance. According to mythology about Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent creator god, he formed the first human beings out of bones from past eras. However, he could not access the bones until he blew the conch trumpet 4 times, once each for the 4 cardinal directions. He was assisted in creating the first conch trumpet by insects that drilled the blow holes for him.

A dancer with nut-shell rattles. This semi-nude and anatomically correct dancer wears only an elaborate headdress, and bunches of rattles attached to his lower legs. Through music and dance, often accompanied by the use of psychotropic drugs, people could attain a trance-like state in which they could contact the world of the gods. The rattles were sometimes made out of nut-shells or of moth cocoons strung together and filled with seeds, pebbles, or fragments from clay pots. Other kinds of percussion instruments included rattles made from gourds, and drums made from carved, hollow logs.

Carved wooden flutes. The first flutes in the Western Hemisphere probably arrived with the Paleo-hunters who crossed the Bering Strait landbridge. Flutes and whistles were manufactured by these people to imitate animal sounds, and some instruments date back to 10,000 BC. It is believed that Maracas (pebble-filled gourd rattles) were developed to encourage rain. The use of sound instruments to influence the natural environment evolved into more complex religious rituals.

Flutist at work. The figure above, from Western Mexico, puffs away on an ancient flute. Beginning in the Pre-Classic period (1200 BC - 300 BC) Mesoamerican people began to manufacture ceramic flutes as well as using wood. They even invented a wind instrument that did not require human breath to create sound. The "whistling vase" was partially filled with water. When moved in particular ways, the vase could produce whistling sounds that were attributed to magic.

A duo of dancers. The Amparo has many displays of dancers, large and small. These two stand in a slightly crouched position, with their arms held in front and wrists crossed. They are dressed identically for the performance. From various painted murals and clay statues, it appears that the musicians often stood in the middle of a circle of dancers. Among the Aztecs, the musicians and dancers who performed during religious rituals were a different group from those who performed for the royal court. The religious performers lived with the priests at the temple complexes and the royal performers lived in the king's household. In many Mesoamerican cultures, the musicians and performers were of the noble classes.

Sacred instruments. Sometimes the instruments, in this case whistles, included animals in their designs. The one on the left appears to have a jaguar, while the one on the right may be a tattooed face or skull. This indicates that they were probably for sacred purposes.

Beautifully carved zoomorphic whistle. A zoomorph is a carving that represents a mythical creature, part man and part animal. The figure on the top of the whistle has 2 legs, 2 arms, and wears a garment with a skirt. The head, however, is definitely from a creature of fantasy. This was my favorite of all the instruments shown at the Museo Amparo. It is about 4 inches long and perhaps 2 inches wide on the circular part. The carving is very fine, and the zoomorph is a fascinating little creature.

This completes Part 4 of my Puebla series. The next part will also be from the Amparo, but will focus on male humans, animals, and fantastic zoomorphs, as well as gods, rulers, and items from the famous Mesoamerican Ball Game. I always welcome comments. If you would like to leave one, please either do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, September 16, 2011

Puebla Part 3: Centro Historico's fascinating streets

Talavera peacock decorates the front of a gallery on a Puebla sidestreet. Puebla's Centro Historico is huge, one of the largest I have encountered in Mexico. On strolls along its streets, block after block of beautifully preserved architectural gems unveil 500 years of the city's history. For much of this history, Puebla has specialized in the manufacture of painted tiles called talavera. Sometimes the designs are abstract and repeated, but other times the tiles are painted and then assembled into pictures like the peacock seen above. Although we drove our car the 655k (406 mi) from our home in Ajijic to Puebla, Carole and I are agreed that future visits will be by long-distance bus. Driving in Puebla is bewildering for the uninitiated. On the other hand, its Centro Historico is a great place to walk, the streets being flat and straight with sidewalks in good condition. While there, we kept our car parked the whole time and hoofed it, except for one time when we used public transportation to visit the neighboring city of Cholula. For a map of the Centro Historicoclick here.

Centro Historico's pedestrian-friendly streets

Calle Cinco de Mayo is one of several pedestrian-only streets. While Puebla closes off some streets around the Zócalo to auto traffic on Sundays, others are permanently auto-free. Begining at the northwest corner of the Zócalo and running due north, Calle Cinco de Mayo (5th of May Street) is lined with colonial and 19th Century mansions and other structures that now contain stores of all kinds. Spaced along the walking area are wrought-iron benches and beautiful old lamp posts as well as trees and potted plants. At intervals we encountered what I like to call "vest-pocket parks," small, shady nooks perfect for a short rest. The auto-free zone goes on for a number of blocks, making this street a walker's delight. 

Winged dragons support the glass globes of this lamp post. This sort of whimsical design was popular in the late 19th Century during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, Mexico's dictator from 1876-1910.  In the background, you can see some of the wrought-iron railings that adorn the second-story windows throughout the Centro Historico. Carole sometimes chides me for taking so many pictures that I end up with 10 times the number I can actually use in my blogs. In a place like Puebla, there is something to photograph almost all the time, in any direction you choose to look. The expression "kid in a candy store" gives some sense of my delight in the photographic possibilities.

I also found the area good for "people shots." At certain times of the day, the pedestrian streets are mobbed, and attract sidewalk vendors like the balloon man above. Crowd shots can be difficult, because everyone tends to be in motion. Fortunately, I have a setting on my camera called a motor-drive where I can just focus on a scene and press the shutter release which then rapidly clicks off shots. Later, I can go through and pick out the best one. In this one, I was able to capture the tall column of the balloons in the background, with the smiling couple strolling towards me in the foreground. I think this photo captures the color and activity that one finds on Calle Cinco de Mayo.

Casa de los Muñecos

Architecture as a political cartoon. La Casa de los Muñecos (The House of Dolls) is an 18th Century mansion whose facade froze in time a political feud. Like many places in Mexico, this building has a wonderful story behind it, one that may or may not be true, but is so good it must be recounted. In 1531, shortly after Puebla was founded, the property in this prime spot near the northeast corner of the Zócalo was awarded to Captain Juan Ochoa de Elejalde, one of the original conquistadors. Eventually it passed into the hands of the Count of Castelo, Don Andres de Pardiñas. Needing funds in 1784, the Count sold the valuable property to a man with the ten-dollar name of Don Agustín de Ovando y Cáceres Ledesma y Villavicencio. He was extremely wealthy and wanted a house to show it off. None of the other mansions around the Zócalo at the time rose more than 2 stories high. More importantly, neither did the Palacio Municipal (City Hall) across the street. Don Agustín decided his house must have 3 stories. The announcement of his proposal provoked an uproar.

The Muñecos, or dolls, cavort across the front of the building. Talavera designs had become very popular as a way of decorating the exterior walls of homes and buildings by the 18th Century in Puebla. The City Council was outraged that anyone would dare to build something higher than the Palacio Municipal and saw this as an assault on their authority and presige. They sued and caused a considerable delay in the construction. Don Agustín ultimately appealed to the Spanish King, who granted him special permission to add the 3rd floor he desired. No doubt Don Agustín's wealth helped grease the way. In revenge for the delay and extra expense they had caused him, he commissioned 16 special talavera panels depicting members of the Council as buffoons. The panels were clearly visible from the windows of the Council's chamber across the street. Council members were apoplectic, but could do nothing, and these talavera tile political cartoons still amuse passersby more than 200 years later. Ironically Don Agustín never lived in the house, but rented it out as apartments and stores. Eventually, in 1984, the property was acquired by the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (BUAP) a large public university based in Puebla. Restored by the university, the Casa de los Muñecos is now a museum and art gallery.

Casa del Alfeñique

A house named after candy. Alfeñique is a type of candy similar to meringue, made of sugar and egg-whites. The white trim on the eves and around the windows and doors of the Casa de Alfeñique closely resemble the favorite candy of the wife of Ignacio Morales, the man who built the house in 1791. He was the wealthy owner of an iron-works and commissioned architect Antonio de Santa Maria Inchaurregui to build the house this way to humor his girlfriend. She had refused to marry him unless he built her a house of candy.

The white plaster "alfeñique" seems almost to drip off the eves. Above, you can also see the talavera tile work and the beautifully shaped wrought-iron railing around the balconies. The balconies were probably made in Sr. Morales own factory. The home remained in the Morales family until 1874. 

The windows are also surrounded by the intricately shaped white plaster. In 1896, Alejandro Ruíz Olavarrieta, a public spirited citizen of Puebla, ceded the house to the City of Puebla. The building went through some hard times but was restored in 1926 and opened as Puebla's first museum. Among the 500 items in the various exhibits are a painting of the Battle of Puebla (Cinco de Mayo), maps and other documents, and examples of period clothing including China Poblana, a style that became extremely popular in Puebla and throughout Mexico in the 19th Century.  Open 10 AM - 5 PM, Tuesday through Sunday.

Teatro Principal

Teatro Principal is the oldest theater in the Americas. It is built around Plazuela San Francisco in the central eastern part of the Centro Historico. Work on the original theater began in 1742 but dragged on so long that the City Council despaired of its completion. Finally they commissioned the master architect José Miguel de Santa Maria, and master carpenter José García Serrano to finish the job. Their plans were approved in 1759, and the theater was opened during Easter Week in 1761. Teatro Principal is the oldest theater in the Americas and it is considered a jewel of architecture. However, by the beginning of the 19th Century, there were not sufficient theater company renters, so the facility began to sponsor other kinds of performances including puppets, jugglers, and acrobats. Between 1812-1814, the theater was closed by the City Council as offensive to God. For a time, the patio in front was used as an artillery park. Then it hosted bull fights, with subsequent damage to some of its furnishings. 

Interior of Teatro Principal. The interior has four levels of boxes built in a U shape around the general seating area. The theater was closed when we visited, but we persuaded an attendant to let us take photos. After the bull fighting era, the theater began to show light operas from Spain until the end of the 19th Century. In 1902, Teatro Prinicpal was heavily damaged in a fire. From then, through the years of the Revolution and the turmoil that followed, the theater remained in ruins. Finally, in 1937, restoration began, and Teatro Principal reopened in 1940. However, by 1950 it was again in ruins, and it was not until 1959 that restoration work began and the present building was reopened in 1960. 

La Casa de los Hermanos Serdan

Where the Revolution began. The house above belonged to the Serdan family in 1910. Aquiles Serdán, his brother Máximo, and a friend named Jesús Nieto were killed here on November 18 in a desperate defense of the house. 400 police and soldiers had come to seize arms hidden in preparation for the beginning of the Revolution scheduled for November 20. Aquiles Serdán had been an early ally of Francisco Madero, who was calling for the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Diaz. In addition to Madero, Serdán had been in touch with guerilla leader Emiliano Zapata who had launched his own revolt in nearby Morelos State. Aquiles' brother Máximo and sister Carmen were also actively involved in the political underground. Aquiles' wife and mother were both at the house on November 18 but apparently took no active part in the fighting.

Bullet holes from the furious battle remain after more than 100 years. Unfortunately for the Serdán family, informers were everywhere and someone tipped Puebla police chief Miguel Cabrera. He mobilized his forces and attempted to take the house and its cache of weapons, but the Serdáns fiercely resisted. In the end, Aquiles, Máximo, and Jesús Nieto were all killed. Carmen was wounded as she bravely harangued a crowd of spectators below one of the windows you see above. Thus, two days before its officially intended start, the Mexican Revolution began. Ironically, one hundred years before, the War of Independence also got an unplanned start in 1810 when its leadership were betrayed and forced into hasty action. Today, streets all over Mexico are named for Aquiles Serdan, his martyred brother Máximo, and Carmen his brave sister. Carmen survived the siege, was jailed by Diaz, and released when he was overthrown by Madero. Later, after Madero was assassinated in a counter-coup, Carmen worked as a field nurse for the Revolutionary army of Emiliano Zapata. She lived until 1948. The Serdán house is now the Museum of the Mexican Revolution, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM to 5 PM. 

A university neighborhood

Colegio de San Jerónimo, part of BUAP. I wandered into this campus building a few blocks from the Zócalo, curious to see if Mexico's university neighborhoods would have a similar feel to those I remembered from the United States. The answer is a definite yes, but the students looked incredibly young. Perhaps I am just getting incredibly old. Memory is a funny thing. Still, the atmosphere was the same: youthful, earnest, idealistic, and anxious about doing well. Benemérita Universidad Autónomo de Puebla (BUAP) is a huge state-owned school that has autonomous control over its curriculum and functions, hence the name. BUPA originated as a Jesuit school of higher education, founded in 1587 as the Colegio del Espiritu Santo at the request of the Puebla City Council. It remained under Jesuit control, with some interruptions, until the end of the colonial period. In 1825 it became a public college, and in 1937 a public university. Most of its buildings are former colonial religious facilities. However, the building seen above was once the home where Mexican poet Rafael Cabrera was born in 1884.

University neighborhood street. The two-story colonial buildings of Calle 6 Sur (South 6th St.) were filled with little galleries, restaurants, antique shops, and crafts stores. The colors were a delightful mixture of pastels, definitely a great place for an afternoon stroll. I recalled reading an article in the Puebla newspaper (I read Spanish pretty fluently now) about the recent publication of the names of those accepted into BUAP. The article was accompanied by photos of the joyous smiles of those who made it and the tears of those who didn't. A BUAP degree in one of the professions can mean a ticket into Mexico's affluent middle class. The stakes are high in a country where the working poor live hard lives.

Galeria de las Casas. I was attracted to the vibrant colors of this little gallery, formerly the comfortable home of a middle class colonial merchant. The talevera panel to the left of the main door is the same one shown at the beginning of this posting.

A talavera frog investigates a tasteful sign, also in talavera. I like talavera best when it is used to accent, rather than dominate, the facade of a building. This sign formed the address of the Galeria de las Casas, owned by Elizabeth Joyas (see previous photo).

An eclectic collection. You could buy anything here from a child's toy dump truck, to a backpack, to a suit of armor. I was rather partial to the armor, myself. It's just what every well-dressed gentleman needs. 

And, of course, the ubiquitous college bar. What would any campus neighborhood be without the local college bar. In this case it was filled to capacity with the late afternoon student crowd, relaxing from their final classes. How many of these did I bend my elbow in, during my own college years? As with many such bars in Puebla, it is on the second floor with balconies overlooking the street.

A tribute to John Lennon. I was touched to find this small plaque outside Colegio San Jerónimo dedicated to ex-Beatle John Lennon and his song "Give Peace a Chance." The sign says "Puebla recognizes John Lennon (1940-1980) for his musical, cultural, and humanistic contribution to the world. 'Give Peace a Chance'." It was placed there by the Puebla City Council in 2006. Lennon and his music seem to be still quite popular in Mexico. I have often walked down a street in Ajijic where I live, past a humble working class Mexican home only to hear the strains of Lennon's song "Imagine" or another of his hits. Some things and people seem to be universal in their appeal.

This completes Part 3 of my Puebla series. Next week we'll take a look at some of the wonderful pre-hispanic artifacts to be found in Puebla's famous Amparo Museum. If you would like to comment on this or any other of my postings, please do so either in the Comments section below or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Puebla Part 2: What to do at the Zócalo

The fountain in the center of Puebla's Zócalo is a work of art in itself. It is also a convenient bench, and a handy vantage point when there are crowds.  The fountain is at the center of the plaza, with pathways radiating out to every corner of the park. Although beautiful, such fountains were not constructed simply as artistic flourishes, but had practical uses. This fountain was Puebla's main source of water from the 16th Century until the late 18th. The current fountain, built in 1777, replaced an earlier one built in the mid-16th Century.

In Part 1 of my Puebla series, I presented an overview of the Zócalo, particularly the wonderful architecture around its perimeter, including the Cathedral and the Palacio Municipal. In Part 2, I will focus on the fun and colorful activities that go on here almost non-stop. So, what's to do in the Zócalo?

A sculpture walk

A set of water-splashed cupids supports the bowl of the fountain. A statue of San Miguel (St. Michael, the warrior archangel) stands on a shaft, or plinth that rises from the center of the bowl. The cool mist from the fountain makes it a comfortable spot to hang out during the heat of the day. The name zócalo arises from the Italian word zoccolo, meaning plinth or pedestal. In the 1800s, a large pedestal was set up in the center of the main plaza in Mexico City, intended for a statue that never materialized. People began to use the name for the empty pedestal as slang for the whole plaza. Gradually, zócalo became the term used to describe the main plaza in any Mexican city. The Zócalo is also known as Plaza de la Constitución, but I rarely heard it described that way.

The city's original name was "Puebla de los Angeles." The statue above was unveiled in 1999 to help celebrate Puebla's designation as a World Heritage Site. Like many locations in Mexico, Puebla has a wonderful founding story. In 1530 Julián Garcés, bishop of Tlaxcala, contacted the Queen of Spain about the need for a city to act as a way station between the port of Vera Cruz on the Gulf Coast and Mexico City in the interior. The bishop told of a dream where he saw a group of angels descend to a green valley full of fertile land dotted with springs. There, the angels traced out the plan of a city for him. Bishop Garcés recruited a group of monks to help him look for the site of his vision and found it in the Valley of Cuetlaxcoapan. When the Queen agreed to his request, the City of the Angels, or Puebla de los Angeles was founded. The city retained its traditional name until the 1860s when it was renamed Heroica Puebla de Zaragoza in honor of the general who defeated the French invaders at Puebla in 1862 on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo).

Light and lacy, this is one of the more unusual pieces of art I have encountered in Mexico. Located at the eastern end of the Zócalo, the metal structure honors Ángeles Espinosa Yglesias Rugarcía (1942-2007). A Poblana (woman of Puebla), she was a great patron of the arts and sponsored  efforts to conserve Puebla's historic patrimony. The work above is called "La Senda de Angeles" (The Path of Angels).

La Senda de Angeles is large but ethereal, like a wispy cloud of smoke. The curved, white-painted, metal walls are cut into intricate tracery, seeming to leave more open space than metal work. Above, the sculpture rises against the sky with the clock tower of the Palacio Municipal in the background.

La Senda is irresistible to kids. Whenever we walked by there were always children climbing on it like some sort of fantastic jungle gym. When not climbing, the kids loved to race around and through its passageways.

A statue donated by the foreign residents. There were several of these nymphs scattered around the perimeter of the zocalo in various states of undress. This one was donated by members of Puebla's British community.

Watching the tireless Aztec dancers

Aztec dancers perform a traditional ceremony. One dancer fans the embers of incense while another kneels and blows into a large conch shell. There are troupes of these dancers all over Mexico who perform in zócalos, at events, and during fiesta parades. At least 2 separate troupes were performing in Puebla when we were there. The existence of these dance troupes is part of a movement in Mexico to revive ancient traditions and connect people with the greatness of their past.

A sample of implements used in traditional ceremonies. The conch is similar to ancient ones I have seen in pre-hispanic museum displays. Likewise, the incense burner (standing up in the center) resembles many that have been unearthed in ruins all over Mexico. I am not sure what the incense in the basket might be, except that it was not copal, which has a distinctive smell. The device with the feathered handle was used to fan the smoke in the censer and to distribute it over the people performing the ceremony as part of a cleansing process.

Aztec drummer seems entranced. The drumming, as well as the dancing, takes enormous energy since it goes on almost non-stop for hours and sometimes draws performers into a trancelike state. The drummer is using is a hand-carved, hollow log. While they are called "Aztec," in fact that term was invented by European explorer Alexander Humboldt in 1810. It refers to the legendary origin of the Mexica people in a place called Aztlan. These are the people who built an empire around their capital city of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City). The name is pronounced May-sheeka. They were part of the wave of primitive but fierce Chichimeca tribes from the northern deserts who moved down into the civilized parts of Mesoamerica after the fall of the Toltec Empire in the 12th Century.

A mask-wearing Aztec blows a long wooden trumpet--into a modern microphone. Notice the cluster of rattles around his lower leg, another form of musical instrument. The rattles are made from nut shells with small rocks or dried peas inside. The dancers and musicians take great pains to achieve authenticity in their costumes and instruments, even if they are occasionally assisted by a bit of electronic amplification. On their way to the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica had passed by the ruins of the Toltec capital of Tollan (modern Tula, 55 miles north of Mexico City). They were captivated by the symbols and imagery they found, particularly the warrior societies, the cult of death, and the worship of the Feathered Serpent god Quetzalcoatl. The Mexica adopted these and melded them into their own culture. For a while after they arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica lived on the outskirts of the cities they found there. Because of their primitive origins, they were despised by the sophisticated city people. Eventually, the newcomers settled on a marshy island on the central eastern part of the great lake that covered much of the Valley of Mexico at the time. There, in 1325, they founded Tenochtitlan, their capital. One part of civilized culture they had learned well was organized warfare and this matched well with their fierce nature and recently-adopted Toltec warrior traditions. By 1428, the Mexica had conquered a huge empire, but its glory lasted only about a century, and it fell to the Spanish conquistadores in 1521.

A young performer watches the ceremony intently as he prepares to join the dance. The Mexicas were like sponges as they encountered various cultures on their way from the northern deserts. While they brought with them their old desert gods, they also adopted the deities of those they conquered, somewhat like the Romans adopted Greek gods, giving them new names. There were scores of these gods, all with their own attributes and requirements for worship. However, there were three of particular importance: Huitzilopochitli (Left Handed Hummingbird) who was the God of War, Quezalcoatl (the  Feathered Serpent) who was The Creator God, and Tlaloc (He Who Makes Things Grow) who was the God of Rain. Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc were clearly borrowed from the Toltecs, who had in turn borrowed them from Teotihuacan, their predecessor empire.

Artists at work

A graffiti artist sprays his way to fame. It was fascinating to watch these artists rapidly make intricate paintings with nothing but cans of spraypaint. Better here, on canvas, than on city walls or other surfaces so often marred.

Anti-smoking message. The artist has portrayed the tobacco industry as a hideous monster leaning over a parapet of upright cigarettes and trying to sink his claws into an innocent child playing with a ball. Not much of an exaggeration, in my opinion.

Bring on the clowns

Clowns appear every Sunday on the west side of the Zócalo. They cavorted, interacted with the crowd, and put on impromptu skits. Their antics have become a regular, accepted, and expected part of the weekend scene at Puebla's Zócalo.

"Well, I never...!" A female clown in a monkey mask assumes a posture of exasperation. For a price, children up to the age of 60+ could have their faces decorated in clown makeup. It appeared to be a popular activity, from all the painted people I saw wandering the park.

Random encounters

Young Chilean musicians added rock music to the cacaphony surrounding us. The Chileans were part of a protest against the cost of higher education in Latin America. At any one time the sounds around us might simultaneously include rock music, bells from the church, the Aztec drumming, marimba duos, and strolling individual musicians on a variety of instruments. Add to this the sound of the crowd and city traffic, and you have some idea of the auditory feel of the Zócalo.

As foreigners, we attracted the attention of young students. Twice we were politely approached by pairs of students requesting interviews. They were from a local university linguistics program, and asked simple questions about our backgrounds and our experience in Puebla. While one interviewed, the other would take pictures. They were so cute and earnest that we couldn't say no. This pair were astonished and pleased when we told them that we live full-time in Mexico and love it.

"Now where did I leave that crashed car?" This fellow, dressed as a crash-test dummy, was handing out literature about safe driving. A good project, given that sometimes the environment on Mexican highways resembles a "bumper-car" game at a carnival.

The joy of life. This little guy was bursting with the simple joy of running through the plaza. Mexico is a young society and children are everywhere. The extended family structure has not broken down yet, as it has in the US where the majority of households are single adults. Of course, as Mexico modernizes, the same atomization and alienation may set in, but perhaps not. Mexico seems to have its own way of doing things, and family is still very important.

This completes Part 2 of my series on Puebla. Next time, we'll take a walk around the streets of the Centro Historico to see some of the wonderful architecture and street art. I always welcome feedback. If you would like to comment, you can do so either by using the Comments section below, or emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim