Category Archives: 2020
By Jane Bauer
“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.”
― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish
I love books. I can easily conjure up the memory of the feel of the carpet at the Children’s Library where I sat for hours as a girl. A few years ago I started keeping track of my reading and I average about forty-five books a year.
“How do you read so many books?” I have been asked. The secret is that I am rarely without a book at hand. Sitting in the car while gas is being pumped, lines at the bank, waiting for a friend in a restaurant – these are all slivers of opportunity to slip into another world.
If you have been to my restaurant on Christmas Eve you know how much I love books. For many years we have gifted each guest a random book. Inspired by the Icelandic tradition Jolabokaflod (Christman book flood), I like to tell people that they will get the book that is meant for them.
While I have lived in Mexico for more than half my life, I am a little disappointed to tell you that I haven’t read that many Mexican writers, but this issue is so full of fascinating writers that I can’t wait to read. I have read some Mexican writers and here are a few of my favorite books that aren’t mentioned in this issue.
Lost Children Archive, by Valeria Luiselli (2019)
The story of a woman, her husband and two children traveling from New York to Arizona. Touching upon the horrors of children being separated from their parents while searching for a different life. This novel examines identity and questions our humanity. Also check out her first novel The Story of My Teeth (2015)- it is a humourous and surreal tale that is primarily set at the Jumex Museum in CDMX.
Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquivel (1990)
I was first introduced to Mexico by watching this film in a Montreal movie theater on a cold winter evening. It was easy to fall in love with this revolutionary love story that centers around food. The novel is a fun read and includes recipes.
Into the Beautiful North, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2009)
Nineteen-year-old Nayeli notices that her small town is devoid of men because they have all gone north. She heads north to find her father and to find men to return to save the town.
What all these novels have in common is the ability to weave the surreal into the every day giving the reader a different perspective on life- much as Mexico itself does.
Writing in Mexico:
Female Authors, Fantasy, and Femicide
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Last month, the New York Times profiled a “new vanguard” among the women writers of Latin America (October 9, 2022, “For Latin American Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle”). Make no mistake, though, book critic Benjamin P. Russell, warns – the fantasy he’s talking about is not the magical realism we have known and loved from Columbian Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), Chilean Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, 1982) or Mexico’s own Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate, 1990).
Magical realism integrates the magical or supernatural into a realistic setting (although you can easily argue that the magic overtakes the real in Like Water for Chocolate!). The magical elements serve to comment on how the real world works – often very badly. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita falls in love at first sight with Pedro; however, Tita is her mother’s youngest child, and is expected to stay single and care for her mother until she dies. Mom makes Pedro marry Tita’s sister. Esquivel uses Tita’s magical ability to incorporate her emotions into the food she cooks to comment on the injustice of her loneliness. While magical realism can include death and destruction, the very fact that it combines magic and realism, that it makes the magic “real,” means that it does not lend itself well to depicting true horror and evil.
From the Magic to the Unusual
But there are women writers who have no qualms at taking on true horror and evil. Russell points out that a “conspicuous number of women writers are using fantasy, horror and the unfamiliar to unsettle readers and critique social ills” throughout Latin America, with half a dozen authors from Mexico. The critic finds the trend unsurprising, given the widespread “frustration against restrictions on women’s rights and rising gender violence.”
Russell quotes the work of literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay, from the University of Alicante in Spain, in defining this work as the “narrative of the unusual” (narrativa de lo inusual). Fantastical and horrific elements are presented realistically, Bay says, but leave the reader to decide “what is possible and what is not.” Calling these novels magical realism is “a big, big mistake,” she says. “They may contain elements of magic, but that isn’t the foundation.”
For the most part, evil is possible in the narrative of the unusual. And what is more evil than femicide, the killing of women because they are women? Half of all femicides happen in Latin American countries; homicide is the leading cause of death for Mexican women aged 15-25. In absolute numbers for 2020, Mexico ranked second with 948; Brazil was nearly double, with 1,738. (The Eye has regularly covered domestic violence and femicide in Mexico.)
Among the female Mexican authors of novels of the “unusual” are two who have directly addressed femicide, violence against women, and systematic abuse and discrimination. Their themes are remarkably similar, the integration of what is fantasy and what is reality is seamless, and they both have a talent for depicting their settings and characters in extraordinary language redolent of place and time. For your reading pleasure, each has been rendered in English by remarkably skilled translators.
Brenda Lozana: Witches (2022)
Brenda Lozana, born in Mexico City in 1981, was recognized in 2015 by Mexico’s National Council on Culture and the Arts (Conaculta), the annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts (held at Hay-on-Wye in Wales), and the cultural promotion organization the British Council as one of Mexico’s most important authors under the age of 40. By 2017, she made the Hay Festival’s list Bogotá 39, the most important new authors from Latin America.
Her novel Witches, translated by Heather Cleary, is really two intersecting stories – that of Feliciana, a curandera (healer) modeled on María Sabina, the Mazatec traditional healer and shaman from Huatla de Jiménez in the Sierra Occidental in northern Oaxaca, and Zoe, a Mexico City journalist who has come calling to report on the death of Feliciana’s mentor and cousin, Paloma. Paloma is a muxe, a man who takes on the appearance and obligations of a woman; referred to as the third gender, they are widely accepted in Zapotec culture, especially in the Isthmus. Paloma, originally a curandero named Gaspar, has transferred to Feliciana the family’s healing abilities, in particular healing through the use of language. The healing power, however, is usually handed from male to male, leaving Feliciana – like Paloma – in an ambiguously gendered position.
Since neither Feliciana nor Zoe speaks the other’s language, the story proceeds in two different voices. Here is what Feliciana sounds like:
It was six at night when Guadalupe came to tell me they had killed Paloma. I don’t remember times or dates, I don’t know when I was born because I was born like mountain was, go ask the mountain when it was born, but I know it was six at night when Guadalupe came to say they killed Paloma as she was getting ready to go out, I saw her there in her room, I saw her body on the floor and the shine for her eyes on her fingers and I saw her hands they were two in the mirror and the shine was on both like she had just put it on her eyes, like she could get up and put some on mine.
Zoe, of course, sounds completely different:
I agreed to write the article about Paloma’s murder because gender-based violence sends me into a rage. I couldn’t take the unending stream of news stores about femicide, rape, and abuse anymore—or the sexist jokes I’d hear around the office, for that matter. Any situation or remark that targeted a woman or someone who identified as one would set me off, and I wanted to do whatever I could from the trench I’d dug at the newsroom. Plus, I wanted to meet Feliciana. I was fascinated by her. When I took the assignment, I didn’t know any more about her than anyone else did: I new she was the legendary curandera of the Language and the most famous shaman alive. I knew that the words she used in her veladas, the ceremonies she performed, had miraculous healing powers, and I knew the stories about the artists, writers, directors, and musicians who’d traveled halfway around the world to meet her. The professors and linguists from other countries who’d gone to see her in the mountains of San Felipe. I knew that books, films, songs and paintings had come out of these visits—I didn’t know exactly which ones, but I knew they existed. I received a photo of Paloma lying on the ground in a pool of blood next to a bed draped with a peacock throw.
Together, Feliciana and Zoe tell each other their stories, their worries and fears, their traumas with violence against women, their desires for independence.
Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season (2020)
Fernanda Melchor, born in Veracruz city in 1982, was, like Lozano, named one of the most important Mexican authors under 40 in 2015. Hurricane Season won the Anna Seghers literary prize and the International Literature Award of the Haus de Culturen (both given by Germany), and was short-listed for the International Booker Prize in 2020.
Hurricane Season tells of the murder of the Witch of a tiny, cinder-block town called La Matosa, outside the city of Villagarbosa (Melchor’s stand-in for the city of Veracruz). The story is told by four people who know Luismi, an ex-lover of the Witch who also happens to be a trans woman who does traditional healing. Luismi’s cousin Yesenia thinks of him as a sexual deviant; Brando is a porn addict who can’t decide whether he wants to have sex with Luismi; Norma is a pregnant (by her stepfather) 13-year-old; Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the Witch for an abortion, which turns out poorly. These four voices surround the murder with clues to the crime, the identity of the Witch, and the abysmal context of life in La Matosa. Melchor’s language ranges from the brutal to the languid, it piles up in ever-lengthening sentences, and is never less than precise and deeply evocative. Here is the opening of Hurricane Season:
They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underwear, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of an ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn around. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.
By Jane Bauer
“To a dull mind all of nature is leaden. To the illumined mind the whole world burns and sparkles with light.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson
I love all the stories: mythological, religious and especially the fairy tales. I was raised in a practical family that eschewed the dogma of religion and anything New Age. Myths were in a separate category- not based on reality, but as an interpretation of the world. When people used to ask if I was religious I would answer that “I hadn’t been given the gift of faith.”
Secretly I wanted to believe in everything. I’ve explored every avenue of religion and spirituality that has come my way. I’ve attended dozens of bar mitzvahs and seders. I’ve gone to Unitarian services and confessed at Notre Dame in Paris. I’ve celebrated the Virgen of Guadalupe and participated in a puja on the bank of the Ganges in India. Psychedelics with a shaman, ten-day silent meditation retreats, sessions with a channeler, past-life regression hypnotism? Sign me up! Am I religious? I am multi-religious and multi-spiritual – I believe everything is possible.
I find inspiration in the transcendentalists, for whom Nature was the true cathedral. I always find a walk in the forest or a sunrise on the ocean to be the perfect thing when I need to be reminded of the beauty and magic of this world. The dance of fireflies, the ballet of hummingbirds, the snake hanging out around my house – I consider all of it sacred. One day a large black moth followed me around my office. flitting from my computer to perching on my shoulder, over a period of several days. When I got home there was another by my kitchen door and he followed me around my house for hours. I don’t know what it meant, but it felt like a blessing, a positive omen. Myth and religion are our way to explain what we cannot grasp – the world is full of invisible forces. Life is much more enjoyable when we can find wonder in the mundane, even Shakespeare wrote of fairies.
This month our writers explore the intersection of myth and folklore and religion. Mexico is the ideal environment to suspend your disbelief and see where it leads you.
See you in November,
By Karen Bach
My husband and I originally planned to spend our two-month winter vacations in a different location each year. After visiting several tropical locations including Puerto Vallarta, Playa del Carmen, Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Huatulco. We found ourselves always wanting to return to Huatulco, we even tried Hawaii and Barbados.
The reasons Huatulco is the best place we have visited in Mexico are numerous. Of course one of the first reasons is the amazing weather, guaranteed hot sunny weather year-round and especially important for January and February when most people want to escape our harsh winters in Canada.
Another reason we are so fond of Huatulco is the local people; they are extremely friendly and eager to help with any questions we might have. And another huge plus is the amount of amazing chef-prepared-high-quality foods served in the small local restaurants as well as the street vendors with amazing foods such as fresh home-made potatoes chips, daily baking, several El Pastor spots – so many hidden gems.
We have been to Huatulco six times so far and each visit we find some new restaurant or local store with great foods and drinks. Next and very important are the beautiful beaches and bays. The water is almost Caribbean-like with great snorkeling, clear calm blue water to swim in.
We also love the fact the Huatulco is Eco friendly and looks after its beaches . There are no buildings over four stories and no Mcdonalds or Walmart (yet).
It is a very authentic Mexican vibe and we feel very safe walking the streets day or evening. We love so many things including the organic market every Saturday in Santa Cruz or checking out the markets in La Crucecita . We call Huatulco the hidden “Diamond of Mexico,” and that’s why Huatulco is the best place we have visited in Mexico and continue to come back year after year.
By Julie Etra
This month we’ll take just a little bite out of food and menus.
Appetizer(s): entrada(s) (NOT the main course)
Breakfast: desayuno – ayunar is the verb for “to fast,” as in break [your] fast, just like English
Corn Chips: totopos
Dinner: cena – cenar is the verb. As in ¿Donde quieren cenar esta noche? Where do you all want to eat tonight?
Drinks: bebidas Your mesera/mesero/joven will ask you ¿Quieres algunas bebidas? Anything to drink? (The verb beber means “to drink.” You could also use tomar for “drink”: ¿Algo para tomar? Something to drink?
Lunch: comida. Yes, I know comida also means “food,” but if you go to a translate app or, God forbid, a dictionary, “lunch” will translate as almuerzo, which is not a quick and easy meal; almuerzo could be used for a full brunch or a “lunch” that starts late (maybe 2 pm) and is a heavy meal. And comida is a more complicated term. You will see signs for comida corrida, a fixed-price lunch special with three to four courses. In Huatulco, try the restaurant Albahaca (which means “basil”) on Gardenia, or La Cabaña de Pino on Guelaguetza on the east side of the canal. A comida corrida menu typically includes soup, tortillas, rice or pasta, and a choice of main course. Sometimes they offer a dessert – and sometimes it’s on the house (postre de cortesía)!
Ice cream: helado. Around the zocalo (“central square” in southern Mexico, although an architectural term as well), you will find food carts selling nieves (nieve means “snow,” and in this case is a refreshing frozen treat, like shaved ice flavored with syrups); push carts also sell paletas, the Mexican popsicle on a stick. They are water-based and flavored with natural ingredients.
Snack: bocadita (“little bite”), or antojitos (literally, “whim” or “craving”), from the verb antojar (“to crave”).
Pun of the month: ¿Qué dijo el tortillero filósofo? No hay más allá.
Fertile Ground for Life-Changing Insights,Self-Forgiveness, and Joy
By Kary Vannice
For our women’s issue several years ago (2017), I wrote an article about the mistreatment of inmates in women’s prisons in Mexico. My research uncovered unspeakable human rights abuses and a judicial system that turned a blind eye to reported sexual assault and torture. Many of the accounts were too stomach-turning to include in the article, and I felt deeply for these women. Their stories stuck with me because even law-breaking inmates deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.
There are 102 women’s jails and prisons in Mexico, one of the toughest of which is in Ecatepec de Morelos, in the state of Mexico on the outskirts of Mexico City. This penitentiary houses several hundred women and many report living conditions that are borderline inhumane. Some have reported having to sleep standing up because there is no room for them to sit or lie down at night. Any possession, even a toothbrush, must be carried on one’s person at all times, or it will be immediately stolen.
It is a harsh environment filled with hardened criminals with hardened attitudes toward life and everyone around them. Forced to live in survival mode 24/7, there is no time to contemplate or create community, and vulnerability could mean death.
This is not the kind of environment that seems ripe for spiritual transformation work, unless you’re two Mexican women with a shared dream of helping this largely forgotten and underserved population.
Enter the Give to Give Foundation, a not-for-profit organization headquartered in New York that supports an organizational change technique called neuro-change solutions, based on the work of Dr. Joe Dispenza, a neuroscientist, researcher, teacher, and best-selling author. As the pandemic closed organizations down, Dispenza became interested in using his approach in prisons. Rose Caiola, Chair of the Board of Directors of Give to Give was more interested in working with women in prison. Through a series of coincidental meetings, Give to Give began a pilot project with at the penitentiary in Ecatepec – a simple three-day workshop to help rehabilitate and bring positive change to the lives of female convicts living in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The project was headed up by Verónica Ontiveros, who is with Give to Give in Mexico, and Sonia Peña García, a certified NCS consultant based in Monterrey.
It may seem that three days would not be nearly enough to change the mindset of someone who had been incarcerated for decades, attempted suicide multiple times, or sold their own child for grocery money, but, in fact, the opposite was true. The depraved conditions offered the perfect fertile ground for life-changing insights, self-forgiveness, and joy to bloom once more.
Twenty-eight women participated in the pilot project. Over the three days, they learned how to shift out of survival mode by releasing emotions like shame, blame, selfishness, anger, hatred, and resentment, and take 100% responsibility for their lives and their circumstances.
Slowly, the women began to laugh, trust, and smile again. One woman said, “I haven’t laughed in years. I didn’t even remember what it felt like to smile.” She was moved to tears just by seeing her own smiling face in the mirror again. Something had awakened in her, an inner knowing, an inner light.
At the end of the training, another woman raised her hand and exclaimed. “I finally got it! It’s not about having freedom outside. Freedom is a feeling. It’s a state of mind. So, if I think and feel that I am free, then I’m free here, even in prison.”
Each day, the women were also taught how to quiet their minds and meditate on the feelings of freedom, joy, and inner peace so that they could feel more in control of their lives again.
Twenty days after the three-day workshop, organizers returned to the prison for a surprise visit to see if the participants had integrated what they had learned into their daily lives. Upon arrival, they discovered that two of the participants had been released for good behavior and that every other woman that remained had been completely transformed. Their faces were brighter, they looked happier, they were more open and accepting of others around them. They were genuinely living examples of what they had learned. So much so that other inmates were requesting to take part in the next workshop.
Many of the women also reported improved relationships with their families on the outside and had eagerly shared what they had learned with their children, parents, husbands, and extended family.
Because of the success of the pilot project, Give to Give is now planning to expand the project to other women’s prisons in several other states in Mexico; they have the support of prison officials, who also noticed the change in the participants immediately, even though the conditions around them had not changed.
These 28 women, who were living in the very worst of conditions, now understand that it’s not the world around you that has to change for you to feel free and happy; it’s your inner world that must change first. That is where the true power lies to control your environment.
By Jane Bauer
“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”
It’s almost Valentine’s Day … again. When The Eye contributors discuss upcoming topics there is always a bit of a sigh when it comes to this issue as we try and weave something about love and romance into it. Most of our contributors are married and have been for decades – the Chaikens met as children and have been married for almost 60 years! Can you imagine! Well, maybe you can, but I assure you it is difficult for me.
I am from a generation that craves variety and doesn’t really expect anything to last that long. Just a few decades ago people bought appliances for life. They would have a TV set for 20 years! I am from a generation that upgrades. And while the latest model may be sleeker and have a sharper image, it’s also made of flimsy plastic and not made to last. It’s built to be tossed into a landfill in four years.
With a cultural diet of romantic comedies, love songs and fairy-tale happy endings, is it any wonder that many of us have gotten used to moving on when things aren’t picture perfect, rather than focusing on repair? We live in a time where you can reject dozens of people with a swipe over your morning coffee. Has romantic love become disposable?
I am very fortunate to be surrounded by many amazing and long-term couples like those who work on The Eye, but I am sure they would tell me it hasn’t always been easy. In a time where women celebrate their financial and emotional independence more than previous generations it is understandable that we have come to expect more, although I am not sure we are better for it.
I also know many inspirational women who are going at it alone. When I asked an older Mexican friend if she would consider getting a boyfriend she laughed and said that she didn’t want to have to do more laundry or cook for more people.
Wherever you are on the romantic relationship spectrum, it’s easy to invite more love into your life this month. Talk to your neighbors, help a stranger, write a letter to someone you haven’t spoken to in twenty years, call your parents, your siblings. Wish the best to those who have wronged you and fissured your heart and surround yourself with people who want the best for you. Hug a tree, pick up garbage, repair things, use less, buy less, give stuff away, pick up the check. Love your life and let that love spread out and touch everything.
See you next month,
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