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A Notable Mexican Artist … and a Noble Father

By Brooke Gazer

In 1951, Vicente Gandía immigrated. with his widowed mother and sisters, from Spain to Mexico. He was just sixteen, but within a few years he enrolled in UNAM to study architecture. After two years, he realized he preferred drawing existing buildings to designing new ones and left to pursue his career as an artist.

Those two years were not wasted, however; many of his pieces are grounded by detailed architectural elements like windows, patios, and doors. His work was strongly influenced by the great French impressionist and post-impressionist painters: Manet, Bonnard, Cezanne, and Matisse. This movement is inspired by the concept of capturing the moment. His paintings have a decorative quality with a bold use of color. Organic matter springs to life as landscapes, gardens, and floral arrangements seem to move within the canvas.

Like many artists, he struggled, but by the mid 1970s, Gandía began to achieve international acclaim. His work has appeared in museums and galleries throughout North and South America, as well major cities in Europe. In 1988, the catalogue for the Palacio de Bellas Artes, in Mexico City, stated: “The work of Vicente Gandía is part of the best tradition of Spanish painting. It starts out from real, solid things, and makes them glow from within, as though with the hidden splendor of their true essence.”

I like the work of this artist, but even more, I believe I would have liked the man. He was my friend’s father, and she told me a touching story about him and one of his paintings.

When she was nine years old, Mariana walked into her father’s studio, which was part of their home in Cuernavaca. She’d fallen in love with an enormous canvas titled, Ventana con Magnolias, which he had recently completed. Even as a small child she was frugal and had been saving her pesos. Their Spanish conversation went something like this.

“Pappa, I love this painting and I want to buy it from you.”

“Oh, sweetheart, you don’t have to buy it, you can have it. It is yours.”

“No, this is your work. I want to pay for it, but I can only pay 9000 pesos because this is all I have saved. Will you sell it to me?”

“Of course, my love.”
This was 1985 and 9000 pesos might sound like a lot for a nine-year-old girl to have saved. To Mariana it was, but keep in mind that Mexico suffered a horrific devaluation in the 1980’s, and in 1985 it was the equivalent to about $40 USD.

Vicente was becoming “discovered.” The writer Gabriel García Márquez had heard his name mentioned in art circles, and asked to come to the house to see Vicente´s work. He intended to purchase a piece of this up-and-coming painter. This was a huge opportunity for any aspiring artist and of course Gandía was both honored and excited.

When Garcia arrived at their home, he was immediately drawn to the piece Mariana had purchased. Unaware that it was not for sale, he asked the price. Vicente told him it was not for sale because it belonged to his daughter. The writer’s ego could not accept that this artist, of some small acclaim, was refusing to sell him the piece of his choice. But he was infuriated that the man was withholding it in favor of a mere nine-year-old girl.

Gabriel García Márquez left in a huff, without making a purchase, and never returned. The sale to a famous writer might have advanced Gandía’s career, but to Vicente, a promise to his daughter was more important. This painting, which is currently valued at $50,000 USD, is prominently displayed in Mariana’s Mexico City apartment.

Vicente Gandía passed away in 2009 but both originals and prints can be found online and in several galleries.

One Family after the Revolution

By Brooke Gazer

Anyone who has visited Mexico will have heard of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20); well over a million people perished in that struggle for land and freedom.

But what about the displaced estate owners? What became of them and their families? A friend recently told me how her great, great grandfather lost most of his property during the revolution and continued her saga to the present. Mariana’s story demonstrates how loss and resilience can bring about great things.

The Revolution and the Family
Ángel Zimbrón and his family lived a privileged life on a vast tract of land in the Mexico City area, which included several ranchos. Zimbrón controlled over thirty-three square kilometers of livestock, corn and produce. His holdings were known as Azcapotzalco, and after the Revolution, the estate was incorporated into the northwestern part of Mexico City. The area, which still bears the name Azcapotzalco, is one of sixteen municipalities that comprise Ciudad Mexico; there is a neighborhood called Ángel Zimbrón, where you can now rent an apartment on the park, near the Metro, for under $400 USD a month.

During the Revolution, they lost all their land, except a small triangle called El Pañuelo. A pañuelo is, among other things, a handkerchief that has been folded into quarters and folded again into a triangle. Señor Zimbrón built homes for reach of his six children on this property

Third Generation
Alejandro Velasco Zimbrón, one of Ángel’s many grandsons, was born in 1908, towards the end of the Revolution. Despite his mother’s being widowed at twenty-four, he had a happy childhood playing with his siblings and numerous cousins. He was a kind child who ministered to injured animals, putting splints on chicken’s broken legs.

As Mexico City grew, the municipality developed major streets through Azcapotzalco. One cut a swath through their property, causing the family’s landholdings to shrink even further. As families expanded, the El Pañuelo estate became insufficient for supporting the growing brood. Several young people left to seek their fortune elsewhere, including Alejandro Velasco Zimbrón.

Young Velasco became a noted orthopedic doctor, a visionary who developed procedures and treatments for victims of polio. He co-founded Mexico’s first Children’s Polio Hospital. In the late 1940s he also founded a “bone bank” and implanted bone in people with severe bone damage. One of his patients was the artist, Frida Kahlo, who, after being struck by a bus in 1925, suffered from these injuries her entire life. Despite his status, Dr. Velasco was a generous and caring physician. He treated all classes equally, commonly accepting a chicken or a sack of corn in payment for his services.

Many of the children he treated expressed fear of the radiology machine, so to reduce their stress, he held them during the procedure. As a result, Dr. Velasco died in 1960 of complications from overexposure to this radiation. He was only fifty-two.

Fourth Generation
Octavio Velasco was one of the doctor’s six children. While studying architecture, Octavio met a young Spanish man named Vicente Gandía. Growing up in Spain, Vicente developed polio at age three. His family had heard of Dr. Velasco’s success in treating the disease, but could not afford to travel to Mexico. Even though polio left Vicente needing a cane to walk, he matured into a handsome man with a charismatic manner.

During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Vicente’s communist-leaning uncle was forced to flee his homeland, and Mexico accepted many refugees from Spain. In 1951, Vicente’s widowed mother brought her family to live with her brother in Mexico. At age 16, Vicente helped support his family as an assistant to a newspaper illustrator, and he painted greeting cards. Later, he had some success printing his work but, believing that art provided a poor income, his mother encouraged him to study architecture. As classmates, Vicente and Octavio quickly developed a friendship.

Architecture did not inspire Vicente. When he dropped out to pursue a career as an artist, the two men lost touch. Vicente struggled as a painter, while Octavio became an accomplished architect. Ten years later, the two friends renewed their acquaintance and frequently met in coffee houses.

It was only by chance one day that Vicente caught a glimpse of Andrea Velasco, Octavio’s twenty-one-year-old sister. They were both visiting the same hospital maternity ward, each attending to members of their own family. Three days later, Vicente told Octavio that his sister’s beauty had captivated him to the point of obsession. He begged permission to court Andrea.

At the age of thirty, his work showed promise, but living a loose bohemian lifestyle, Vicente had insufficient income to support a family. He wanted not only to win Andrea’s affection, but also her hand. This was a turning point. Inspired by his new love, Vicente dedicated himself to becoming a well-established artist. Four years later, Andrea and Vicente were married.

By mid-1970, Vicente Gandía was beginning to be “discovered” and by the late 1980s, he had become a distinguished artist of international acclaim.

Fifth Generation
Vicente passed away in 2009, but his daughter, Mariana Gandía Velasco, carries on the artistic family tradition as a respected costume designer in Mexico City.

In five generations since the Revolution, this family has experienced remarkable twists and turns. Had the family stayed on the hacienda, their lives would have been far less interesting. Fewer Mexican children would have received treatment for polio. One of Mexico’s artists may never have reached his pinnacle. And I would not have met my friend Mariana.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast in Huatulco http://www.bbaguaazul.com.

Lemons and Limes

By Brooke Gazer

North of the border, we assign a specific name to each of these tangy citrus fruits, but in Mexico they are all called limones (lee-MOH-ness), regardless of size, shape, or color.

There are several varieties of lemons, but in north America, the Eureka lemon is the most common. This bright yellow citrus fruit was propagated in California in the mid-nineteenth century. It is slightly oblong, with a pointed tip on one end. Lemons have a sour flavor, but are considered sweeter and less acidic than the citrus fruit we call limes. The “lemon” type of limón is occasionally sold in Mexico, but is more expensive than limes.

There are two common varieties of limes. Persian limes (Citrus latifolia) are shaped like lemons, with a slightly smaller nub on the end. The small round ones are key limes (Citrus aurantifolia). These are usually bright green, because it is easier to ship and store the hard unripe fruit. But when this tiny lime ripens, the skin turns yellow. It also becomes softer, juicer, sweeter, and less acidic. Mexicans tend to prefer them green, but if you have access to a tree, leave some to turn yellow – the ripe ones make the best lemonade.

In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards introduced this little citrus fruit from Malaysia into the USA and Mexico. It was a commercial crop in the Florida Keys, until a hurricane in the 1920’s decimated the trees. After that, growers substituted the larger, hardier, Persian variety. Key limes still grow in Florida, but most small round limes in your grocery store originated from Mexico.

Mexico exports over $500 million dollars’ worth of limes annually. In the 1990s, NAFTA played a huge role in this economic windfall, as 90% of limes imported into the USA are from Mexico. These little green juice balls are beginning to be labeled “Mexican Limes”, and, were it not for the famous pie, the designation “key lime” might disappear altogether.

Regardless of its huge export potential, Mexico maintains a good portion of their limes for domestic use. This country devours 1.9 million tons per year and is rated as the world’s third largest consumer of limes. This citrus fruit, which is as indispensable as chilies in Mexican kitchens, plays an integral role in Mexican cuisine. Locals use both kind of limes but show a slight preference for the smaller round variety in savory dishes. These are slightly more acidic, which would be essential in a dish like ceviche.

Persian limes are seedless and, as they are larger, you can use a regular citrus juicer to make lime juice. The tiny ones require a hand-held apparatus resembling a garlic press. Key limes have a thin leathery rind, but Persian lime peel is closer in texture to a lemon. This makes it easier to grate and due to its size, it yields more zest. This is an important feature for baking because the zest packs a lot of flavor. For either lemon or lime, half a teaspoon of zest is equal to about a tablespoon of juice.

This may seem like sacrilege, but for the reasons mentioned above, I use Persian Limes to make Key Lime Pie. I’m including my recipe in this issue, adapted for the Huatulco grocery scene, along with a couple of simple alternatives.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco: http://www.bbaguaazul.com.

A Brief History of Coffee in Mexico

By Brooke Gazer

Those who live in Huatulco know that great coffee is grown in the region, but most of the world has no clue. Mexico’s history with coffee goes back three centuries; like many commodities, coffee has fluctuated from a highly lucrative enterprise to economic failure. Currently, at least for some, there is good news on the horizon.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, wealthy Europeans saw the potential of Mexico’s perfect climate to grow coffee. They were granted huge tracts of land and took advantage of cheap indigenous labor to establish profitable fincas (coffee farms) where they grew high-quality, shade-grown arabica coffee.

Revolutions in Mexican Coffee Production

But everything changed radically after the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Land reform was a major outcome of the Revolution; coffee plantations were divided and peasants who had worked the land were allotted small plots.
Currently, there are about 515,000 independent fincas, of which 95% are smaller than three hectares (7.4 acres, or a little more than 5½ football fields).

In 1973, the government saw an opportunity to increase Mexico’s cash flow by forming the Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Méxicano del Cafe, or INMECAFE). This organization helped independent farmers to market collectively on an international level, and within ten years, it became Mexico’s most valuable export crop. Coffee represented 35% of all agricultural output, and by 1990 production peaked at 440,000 tons.

It seems that nothing good lasts forever, though, and the Mexican coffee industry was dealt a double whammy in 1989. First, as a result of the decade-plus long Latin American debt crisis – Mexico had basically declared bankruptcy in 1982 when it said it could no longer service its debt to foreign banks – Mexico was subject to restructuring measures demanded by the World Bank and other financial institutions to which they owed massive amounts. By 1989, then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari agreed to relinquish internal control of Mexico’s coffee market. INMECAFE disintegrated and Mexican coffee farmers were left to compete in the international coffee market.

The international coffee market had been regulated by the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), a treaty that was renewable at five-year intervals; 1989 was the year no one could agree on the terms, so the ICA was not renewed. With neither country-level nor international regulations in place, small finqueros (coffee farmers) were devastated by wild volatility in coffee prices. Before the collapse of the ICA, finqueros had been receiving relatively stable prices, between $1 and $1.50 USD per pound. By 1992, the price per pound had plummeted to a meager $0.49 USD.

With a selling price below production cost, many independent growers were ruined. A drop of up to 70% in revenue caused many farmers to abandon their plots and migrate to somewhere they could earn wages. Others cleared their land for more profitable crops, including drugs. Childhood malnutrition and other social issues spread across rural Mexico like a plague of locusts.

Other Pressures on Mexican Coffee Production

Looking more closely at the crushing collapse in coffee prices, we find the explanation more complicated than just removing the Mexican and international price regulations. Forced economic restructuring was indeed a major factor, but there have been other pressures as well.

World development banks – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international institutions – look for ways to relieve poverty in underdeveloped nations. The coffee industry had done wonders for countries like Mexico, so they funded increased production in several Asian countries. Vietnam became a perfect success story for the World Bank; by 1991, it had increased production by 1100%. Unfortunately, with so much of the commodity flooding the free market, prices were bound to plummet.

Major multinational corporations – think Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, the Kraft Heinz Company – encouraged increased production of coffee, in particular Robusta (Coffea canephora) beans. In comparison with Coffea arabica, Robusta produces a high-caffeine, low-sugar, and thus more bitter, bean that is more disease- and pest-resistant and thus cheaper to produce. Historically, Robusta beans were only used in cheap brands or as a filler.

New technology, however, allowed companies to process green Robusta beans into a more palatable product. This meant that big business could significantly increase the amount of cheaper beans in their blends. The clever marketing of flavored coffee also helped mask the bitter taste of Robusta beans.

With a diminished demand for the higher quality arabica coffee, the price throughout Latin America dropped like a stone; and, as the supply of Robusta swelled, that market price also shrank. These corporations made enormous profits on coffee, but for producing countries, profits tumbled from 30% to a mere 8% over a ten-year period.

For consumers of Folgers Coffee, actually owned by the jam conglomerate J.M. Smucker, it may be of interest that the majority of beans are not harvested by Juan Valdes, more likely by someone whose last name is Nguyen. And there is no adorable Latin American burro carrying product to market. Other popular brands who buy beans from Vietnam include Maxwell House (Kraft Heinz), Nescafé, and Nescafé Tasters Choice (Nestlé). In fairness, though, most commercial coffees are blends consisting mostly of Robusta.

Mexican Coffee (Agri)culture)

Most of Mexico’s 711,000 hectares of coffee plantations are located in the mountains of Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca, where the high altitude and cooler temperatures produce the best arabica beverage. The rise of the coffee culture has given the industry a huge boost and many of those who held on are reaping the benefits.

There have always been connoisseurs of coffee, but the phenomenon is expanding. Varieties of coffee are being described in the same terms as fine wines. One small producer from Chiapas won an award that enabled him to sell his crop for $35.40 USD per pound. The judge’s comments included, “Notes of jasmine, bergamot, lemongrass, and vanilla, and an overall sweetness with a buttery mouthfeel.”

Edy Hidalgo Espinosa, who is coordinator for grower education and sustainability at Caravela, a green bean wholesaler, says, “Mexican coffees tend to be lighter bodied and mild, with subtle flavors.” Hidalgo Espinosa offers these descriptions of Mexico’s three main coffee growing regions.

Chiapas: “Notes of chocolate, bitters, nuts, citrus, and lemon, along with a round and lasting body.”

Veracruz: “Light red fruits, blueberries, caramel, panela, delicate with a bright acidity, and very juicy with a sweet and sour aftertaste.”

Oaxaca: “Tends to be sweet with caramel overtones, notes of yellow fruits, orange acidity, a creamy body, and floral hints.”

My palate is insufficiently developed to detect any of those subtle “notes,” but I can attest that coffee from each of these states has its own distinctive flavor.

Currently, Mexico exports about 172,000 tons of coffee annually. This is only about 1% of world coffee exports, but savvy growers in this country are developing a niche market. Mexico is now one of the world’s largest exporters of organic-certified coffee, which garners a premium price per pound.

Twenty years ago, it was hard to get a good cup of coffee in Mexico. If you ordered café con leche, they brought a glass of warm milk and a jar of instant Nescafé. Today baristas are everywhere, and many specialize in nationally grown varieties. The sophisticated Mexican population have become discerning coffee drinkers and are consuming more of it.

Before we moved to Mexico in 1999, I sold an expensive Italian cappuccino machine because I did not expect to find quality coffee in our new home. Who knew!

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Women and Water

By Brooke Gazer

From the comfort of Huatulco’s first-world development, it is hard to imagine that there are places in the state without access to water. But this is not an uncommon problem – over a third of Mexican households lack potable water, 2 million households have no water at all, and over 10 million receive water only every few days. Often the lack of water has “deep roots,” going back to land disputes that can go back to Spanish rule. For many communities throughout the Oaxacan Sierra, water is an all-consuming daily concern.

One of these communities is San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla Mixe, a town located about 123 kilometers (75 miles) east of Oaxaca City, with over five thousand residents (2010 census); about 87% of the residents live in poverty.

You might wonder why a town would develop without a viable score of water? The answer is that it did not. Originally the residents drew water from pipes connected to a natural spring, but rural Oaxaca is rife with complicated land and water disputes. The one between Ayutla and Tamazulapám del Espíritu Santo is only one of three hundred in the state. When this dispute reached a violent climax in 2017, Ayutla lost access to the spring they relied on. Hauling water is currently the only alternative the residents have to survive.

For families in the Sierra, roles are clearly defined. Men labor in their fields, or travel away from home to take jobs on construction sites. Providing water for the family is women’s work. To meet the minimum needs of her family, each woman hauls an average of ten buckets per day. Ten buckets. If the bucket held eight liters (a little more than two gallons) it would weigh over 17 pounds. This would mean five grueling trips, carrying two buckets weighing roughly 35 pounds per trip.

The well is located 40 minutes into the forest, but the difficulty is not just the distance. It is downhill to the well. On their return, these women must carry their burden uphill, possibly on their shoulder or with a rope around their forehead. It is likely some can only carry one, which might mean ten trips, or smaller buckets. Half of a women’s day may be consumed just hauling water.

Ten buckets of eight liters would provide her family with 80 liters per day, less if the buckets are smaller. With care, she could boil black beans, prepare dough for corn tortillas, wash dishes and clothing and reuse wash water for bathing. To put this into perspective, in Mexico City, the average daily water consumption per person is 150 liters.

Life has always been hard for rural women in the selva (forest). This backbreaking chore is over and above her normal household duties, which are all performed without electricity or any modern conveniences. But for the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has placed an added burden to her nearly impossible routine. Extra water is required as everyone must wash their hands more frequently and to wipe and disinfect high-touched surfaces. This requires additional arduous trips to the well each day.

It has been over four years since this community was denied access to the spring that brought water into the town. Even understanding that this is a poor community with limited resources, one might still ask – was there no way to install a pump and a pipe from the current water supply? There may be two possible answers to this question. One might revolve around precarious land and water claims, preventing the town from installing any infrastructure surrounding the water source. The other could be that in these communities, men make the decisions regarding how resources are used … and it is women who haul the water.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an oceanview B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Romantic Picnic Options in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

Pondering ideas for a romantic Valentine’s Day? This year you might want to consider something safely away from crowded venues. Huatulco offers many possibilities to enjoy the great outdoors, so an intimate picnic for two could be the perfect option. Here are a few suggestions for sparsely populated destinations and some ideas as to what to bring.

Where to Go

Huatulco is blessed with beautiful beaches. If you are up for a bit of a hike, here are four possibilities.

La Bocana – From Los Güeros Restaurant (the one on the left facing the beach), follow the shoreline to the river. The walk on the sand is about fifteen minutes, passing enormous boulders reminiscent of Henry Moore sculptures. This beach can be rough for swimming, but you can refresh yourself along the way by getting your feet wet.

Playa Arena – On the highway heading west (from Santa Cruz towards Secrets Hotel), about 2 km past the hotels and shops in Tangolunda, you will find a footpath leading to this dramatic virgin beach. The entrance is not marked, but look for a cement post on either side of the path. The walk should not take more than 20 minutes and while not completely flat, neither is it overly challenging.

Cacaluta – Following the highway to Maguey, there is a sign for Cacaluta where the road branches off to the right, about 200 meters before Maguey. Do not confuse this with a service road marked “Tanque Cacaluta,” which dead ends and is difficult to turn around on. Your turn is a bit farther ahead. About 2 km past the turnoff is a small parking lot where the paved road ends. You must leave your vehicle here to continue along a dirt road down to the beach. This scenic walk through the jungle might take about forty-five minutes. Foot traffic and bicycles are permitted on the road, but not motorbikes.

El Órgano – On the opposite side of the highway to Maguey, i.e., when you are returning from Maguey to Santa Cruz, there is an opening in the forest with a sign that says “PRIVATE,” located about halfway between the turnoff to Cacaluta and the last glorieta (traffic circle) after Santa Cruz. There is no parking lot, but people do leave their cars parked on this road. The walk is fifteen to twenty minutes down to El Organo beach. Only foot traffic is allowed on this path.

For those who don’t find the prospect of hiking very appealing, you can rent a panga (small motorboats with overhead canopies) at the marina in Santa Cruz. Your hotel or a tourist stand can make the arrangements for you; if your Spanish is good, you can go down to the marina and negotiate for yourself.

The panga can take you to beaches farther out – Playas Chachacual, La India, Riscalillo, or Cacaluta. These are all gorgeous virgin beaches within the Bahías de Huatulco National Park.

For a shorter excursion, a panga will take you to virgin beaches within a half-hour ride, like Violín or Órgano. The captain will leave you and return a few hours later. You pay only for the return trip, so you can rest assured you will not be left stranded.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a non-beach interlude, here are two options.

The Huatulco National Park has an access in Santa Cruz. Follow Boulevard Benito Juarez as it branches off to the right at the Binniguenda Hotel and becomes Avenida Oaxaca. The sign says “Sector E.” At the end of Av. Oaxaca, a dirt road takes you into the park. Bicycles, but not motorbikes, are permitted on this. A short distance into the Park is a rustic open-air church where you can sit down for your picnic – just remember to carry out whatever you brought in! There are paths past the church through the park that will take you all the way to the beaches mentioned above or out to the main highway (Route 200) into Huatulco.

The Parque Ecologico Rufino Tamayo is underused and somewhat neglected, but it has some paved foot paths and concrete stairs. There are a few dilapidated benches and picnic tables (bring a cloth to clean them off!). This forest reserve has three entrances; the one on Calle (not Avenida) Oaxaca has parking. Calle Oaxaca is the street heading away from the main entrance to La Crucecita; the park entrance is located directly across the street from Jessic Toys.

What to pack…
Assuming you do not want to cook, these are a few suggestions should travel easily.

Several vendors throughout Huatulco offer roast chicken with tortillas and salsa.

Either of the big supermarkets has an excellent assortment of cheeses, cold cuts, and condiments like olive, pickles, or artichoke hearts.

Dozens of local restaurants will do take out, but these two do only take out. Nutrición Gourmet Huatulco offers a wide selection of sandwiches, salads, and sushi. Order by phone or WhatsApp, 958 124 2799. Punto y Come – offers vegetarian dishes, and falafel pitas, a 90-peso bargain, packed to assemble upon arrival at your picnic spot. Calle Palo Verde 210 in La Crucecita; order by phone or WhatsApp 958 125 5679.

Don’t forget a hat and sunscreen, and of course something to keep you hydrated.

You are unlikely to encounter any vendors, so leave your wallet at home. However, officially there is a small fee to use the Huatulco National Park. If you see a ranger, you might be asked for 10 pesos to buy a paper bracelet indicating you are authorized to be in the park, so have some change in your pocket.

Wherever you go and whatever you consume, I am sure it will be a memorable day. To ensure that others can enjoy a similar experience, please remember this simple international rule for visiting national parks and reserves: Take nothing but pictures. Leave nothing but footprints.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view Bed and Breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).

OXXO – What’s Behind the Ox in the Room?

By Brooke Gazer

With eight locations in Huatulco, OXXO signs seem to be multiplying like a squad of bunnies all across Mexico. Who are they and where are they from?

In 1977, the first OXXO stores opened in Monterrey, selling mainly beer, snacks and cigarettes. The name originated with a stylized logo that resembled a shopping cart. Two diagonally stacked XX’s formed the frame of the cart, and the O’s on either end looked like wheels. Before long OXXO expanded its inventory to compete with the 7-Eleven international chain, which had opened its first Mexican store in Monterrey in 1971.

Brandishing a simplified logo, OXXO now boasts in excess of 18,000 convenience stores across Mexico, and the chain is rapidly expanding throughout Latin America. It is estimated that OXXO serves 13 million customers daily. If convenience stores were part of a farm, OXXO would be the Ox – the biggest animal and the one who controls the most pasture.

The OXXO brand is owned by FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, S.A.B. de C.V.), the fifth-largest company in Mexico. FEMSA has far-reaching tentacles into a vast number of other companies in Mexico and throughout much of Latin America. It is the second-largest Coca-Cola bottler in the world; Del Valle fruit juice is also bottled under the Coca-Cola brand. FEMSA owns 20% of The Heineken Company’s international operations, including Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, a major Mexican major brewery, which means FEMSA controls sales and operations of not only Heineken Beer, but Dos Equis, Sol, Tecate, Bohemia, Superior, Carta Blanca Indio, and Noche Buena. It might be safe to assume that all the beverages inside the refrigerated wall of the OXXO stores are controlled by FEMSA. But this mega corporation also has a refrigeration division, so it is likely that the coolers belong to FEMSA as well.

Solistica, another branch of FEMSA, controls much of the beverage distribution in Mexico, moving its brands from production to warehouse to point of sale locations such as OXXO and its competitors.

A favored location for OXXO stores is adjacent to gas stations, so FEMSA has been a major franchisee of Pemex stations. When Mexico reformed the laws that ended Pemex’s monopoly on petroleum, FEMSA began investing in this sector as well. OXXO Gas has yet to arrive in the state of Oaxaca, but there are over three hundred OXXO gas stations dotting the rest of the map of Mexico. In the past, the government set the price of fuel through Pemex, but could FEMSA trucks buy their own fuel at a discount?

The little beer store OXXO has come a long, long way in just over forty years, and they continue to expand their services. It is estimated that about sixty percent of Mexicans have no bank account – OXXO saw a tremendous opportunity. They introduced computer scanning software that allows anyone to plunk down cash and pay for goods bought online, partnering with retailers like Amazon and Mercado Libre. Like VISA, OXXO charges a percentage to the merchant, and they add ten pesos to the buyer’s purchase price. Even those with bank accounts might find this service useful. You can deposit cash into someone’s bank account simply by giving the receiving person’s bank card number. For a mere ten pesos, it’s quicker, easier, and more accessible than going to the bank.

Without question, OXXO is a convenient place to stop for a snack or a drink. It is easy to spot these ubiquitous outlets and they have so much to offer. I’ve used the payment option myself when my bank card was being uncooperative. But I worry, just a bit, when one firm has so much control over a market. It’s practically impossible for independently owned stores to compete with these clean, well-lit, well-stocked convenience stores. But when the company also controls the product and its distribution, it is no longer an even playing field. Yes, the customer wins – at the moment. But what if they became the only game in town?

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Ten Gifts from Mexico

By Brooke Gazer

December is the month that many of us associate with exchanging gifts, so I thought it would be a good time to remember some of the scrumptious gifts that Mexico has given the world. I’ve wrapped each gift in some interesting bits of history and trivia.

Popcorn
This may be the world’s oldest snack. Next time you go to the movies, thank Mexico when you order a tub of popcorn, called palomitas in Mexico. The people of Mexico domesticated corn some 10,000 years ago, but even before that, a hard variety of corn called teosinte grew wild. These kernels were too hard to eat or to grind into flour but could be popped; some form of popcorn existed a millennium before the domesticated corn used for tortillas came into being.

Avocados
Archaeologists have found evidence of avocados growing in central Mexico 12,000 years ago. Due to the shape of the fruit, the Aztecs called them ahuacatl from the word huacatl, meaning “testicle,” and they were thought to be an aphrodisiac, possibly due to this shape.

Chewing gum
Ancient Mayans chewed a sticky substance from the Manilkara sapota, or the chicle tree. Later, when the Aztecs adopted the practice, they established firm social rules surrounding its use. Only children and single women could chew it publicly, while men and married women could only chew it in private. It was used to stave off hunger and to freshen their breath. In the 1850s, a New Yorker named Thomas Adams was working as secretary to General Antonio de López de Santa Anna, the exiled former president of Mexico. Santa Anna was a chewer of chicle, which Adams had imported as a possible substitute for rubber. When it proved unsuccessful, Adams adapted it as the base for chewing gum and the popular brand Chiclets was born.

Chili Peppers
Chili peppers may have been the world’s first introduction to fusion cuisine. When Columbus discovered America, he found chili peppers growing on the Caribbean islands. However, the word chili comes from the Aztec language. and this plant was originally domesticated around 5000 BCE in the Tehuacán Valley, which lies between the cities of Puebla and Oaxaca. The word pepper was combined with the name chili, because of the hot taste. Columbus was seeking a similar plant; black pepper corns were known in Europe as “Black Gold” and before long chili peppers were grown around the world.

Beans
If you are on a budget, these could be your best friends. One cup of cooked beans equals 14 grams of protein, the same as 2 ounces of lean meat, which only provides 9-13 grams of fiber. While a few varieties are from Africa or the Middle East, most beans originated in Mexico, with evidence of their cultivation dating back seven thousand years. Some 200 different varieties of Mexican beans have been identified, but the most commonly known are kidney, pinto, black, red, and white beans.

Papaya
Some people associate this exotic fruit with Asia, but it originated in southern Mexico and Central and South America. Spanish explorers spread its cultivation; papaya was the first crop to be genetically modified for human consumption.Aside from its mildly sweet flavor and soft buttery texture, this tropical fruit contains enzymes that aid in digestion and protect tissues that line the digestive tract. And without papaya, New York City would have been bereft of its beloved combo, papaya juice and hot dogs. Purveyed by Papaya King, Gray’s Papaya, Papaya Heaven, Papaya Paradise, Papaya Place, Papaya Circle, Papaya World, Frank’s Papaya, etc., etc., from the 1950s on (Papaya King lays claim to another two decades, 1932), the combo had its heyday in the 70s. No less than Julia Child declared the hot dog served at Papaya King the best in New York, better even than Nathan’s Original! After many ups and downs and franchise failures hither and yon, you can still get a Papaya King drink and a dog on St. Marks Place downtown and on East 86th Street (the original) uptown in Manhattan.

Tomatoes
Some say that tomatoes grew wild in the Andes, but the Aztecs had domesticated and cultivated them by 500 BC. Cortez brought them to Spain and tomatoes became popular in southern Europe soon after the conquest. In some parts of Europe, however, they were considered poisonous. This was because acidity from tomatoes caused the lead in pewter plates and flatware to leach into food. Over time, lead poisoning is fatal. It was not until the time of the American civil war that tomatoes became a common part of our diet. Thank goodness they did, because without tomatoes from Mexico, there would be no pizza today!

Tequila
Compared to some spirits, tequila is a fairly modern development. The Aztecs fermented the juice of the agave cactus into a drink called pulque somewhere around 300 BC, but the Spaniards found it a bit rough for their tastes. Using the same plant, they distilled something called Vino de Mezcal. Later, copper stills were introduced and they enjoyed an even more refined product. In the 17th century, the town of Tequila in Jalisco developed a reputation for the fine quality of mezcal they produced from a variety of blue agave.

Soon people began referring to all distilled agave spirits as tequila. However, in 1902, an official distinction was made and only blue agave spirits from this region in Jalisco could be labeled “tequila.” All tequilas are technically mezcals, but not all mezcals can be called tequila. (See many articles in The Eye by Alvin Starkman on the making and enjoying of mezcal.)

Vanilla
This delicious flavoring is from the pod of an exotic orchid of the genus Vanilla. It grew only in what is now the state of Veracruz and the Totonacs were the first to cultivate it. The flavor quickly became popular in Europe, but until the 1840s, Mexico had the vanilla market cornered. This was because the orchid needed to be pollinated by hummingbirds or bees specific to the region. Then a French entrepreneur discovered how to pollinate the plants by hand, and production of vanilla expanded to other countries. Like saffron, vanilla is a labor-intensive product, making it an expensive flavoring regardless of where it is produced. However, many experts agree that Mexican vanilla is smoother, darker, and richer, with more floral notes. So, if you are going to spend the money – wouldn’t you want the best?

Chocolate
Cacao trees grew wild in Mexico for nearly10,000 years, until the Olmec people began cultivating them. Mayan glyphs suggest that a beverage made with fermented cacao pods was reserved for only the most elite members of society. The dried beans from the cacao pods were so prized that the Mayans used them as currency to trade with the Aztecs. The Aztecs mixed them with chilis to make a bitter drink that no one today would recognize. Our English word “chocolate” derives from the Aztec word chocolātl, or xocoátl, but it was not until 1590 that cacao began to gain popularity. This was when Oaxacan nuns had the brilliant idea of sweetening the beverage. From that simple innovation, chocolate spread across Europe becoming the world’s favorite flavor.

Thank you, Mexico!

Brooke Gazer runs Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

A Business Owner’s Recap of 2020 in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

We began 2020 full of optimism; 2019 had been a good year for our B&B, and January’s bookings indicated this trend would continue. Many guests book months in advance, but about half make their travel decisions four to six weeks ahead. This means that after Christmas, we usually see a lot of requests for late February and into March. When this didn’t happen, I knew we had a problem but had yet to identify it.

People were talking about something called the “corona virus,” but no one seemed to be taking it too seriously. On February 1, one guest took a selfie with a pyramid of empty Corona beer cans. He posted it with the caption, “Recuperating in Mexico from the Corona Virus.” A month later, no one was laughing.

Hindsight is so much clearer, but to be objective, few of us saw this coming, nor could we imagine how rapidly the fabric of our society would be altered. On January 7, Canada’s Chief Public Health Official declared, “There has been no evidence to date that this illness, whatever it’s caused by, is spread easily from person to person; no health care workers caring for the patients have become ill; a positive sign.” Just over two months later, the World Health Organization uttered the dreaded word – “Pandemic.”

On March 14, Canada suggested that anyone abroad should return home; the USA seconded the motion days later, and flocks of snowbirds headed north. With several bookings throughout March and April, we faced a dilemma. My husband has a severe heart condition, putting him into the high-risk category, but on-line booking sites penalize properties for canceling reservations. Most of these were for Mexicans and Mexico had yet to acknowledge the severity of the crisis. Incredibly, Mexico’s President insisted that charms and amulets would protect him. With heavy hearts, on March 18, we began canceling future reservations. A week later, memos from booking sites urged us to waive any cancelation fees due to COVID-19. It seems we were ahead of the curve, but only slightly.

Before long, Mexico started implementing emergency restrictions. In Huatulco, hotels and bars were closed, a few restaurants stayed open but strictly for take-out, many stores and all tourist services shut down, and beaches were declared off limits. Even construction came to a halt.

In a town that exists for tourism, this caused unimaginable hardship. Mexico has no unemployment insurance and a lot of people live from payday to payday. Not working could mean not eating. But this is also a compassionate community, many businesses and individuals donated generously to food banks and soup kitchens. Our Municipal President realized that domestic violence is exacerbated by difficult economic conditions, so he prohibited the sale of alcohol. The section in supermarkets displaying spirits, wine and beer was roped off and Huatulco became a dry community.

As the death toll rose, many rural communities restricted travel to or from their region. Towns and villages without medical facilities erected blockades to restrict access and residents were unable to leave without good cause. Our full-time maid lives in Copalita, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Huatulco. In early April, Vicki arrived an hour late, explaining her town was locked down. At the end of the day, I paid her a month’s salary and drove her to the edge of Copalita. When the lock down extended through June, we paid her again; she has been a loyal employee for six years and has a family to support.

Our life changed significantly over the next several months, it was quieter but we’ve adjusted. Our property is open enough that I didn’t feel closed in and for this I feel fortunate. I can’t imagine the stress of many local families sequestered together in small apartments during the hottest months of the year.

Without guests, there was no need to shop daily and we limited our excursions to once a week. Driving through La Crucecita felt eerie, it seemed like a ghost town; most shops were closed, we saw almost no traffic, no street venders, and no one walking along the sidewalks.

Having lived with a daily maid for the past nineteen years, I had to relearn the art of housekeeping. Vicki swept and mopped the floor of our common room twice daily. I bought an industrial sized push broom and moved all the chairs into the entrance. This made sweeping the large area much easier, but I asked myself, ‘Does it really need to be done so frequently’? And I applied the same logic to a number of other household tasks.

I knew I’d need more to fill my time and might have worked on perfecting my Spanish, or taken an internet Master Class in cooking, photography, or writing. Instead I subscribed to Netflix and held marathon sessions of movie viewing.

Gyms were closed but walking through our neighborhood offered a reasonable alternative. I also had the pool all to myself. Enjoying my solitary walk or swim, I sometimes thought about those who had left early. In March and April, much of Canada is either coated in snow or a muddy mess of spring melt.

Throughout the lock down, we may have lamented the lost revenue and we missed the social interaction, but life was not so bad. If we had to be sequestered, there were far worse places to be. We counted our blessings.

Things in Huatulco got a little shaky towards the end of June when the region was hit with an earthquake of 7.4 magnitude. The epicenter was only a thirty-minute drive southwest of the La Crucecita, and for a moment it felt as if we were under attack. The earth roared as our villa swayed, and objects flew across the room as if hurled by angry poltergeists. Fortunately, due to Huatulco’s strict building codes, any damage we experienced was only cosmetic and most buildings in Huatulco also withstood the onslaught. Unfortunately, some homes in U2 were severely damaged and a few older apartment buildings had to be evacuated. Frequent aftershocks continued over the next two months; violent shakes, on top of the financial crisis and social isolation, caused even the most stoic of us to admit to feeling a bit harried.

It has been over seven months since Huatulco rolled up its red carpet. Masks are still mandatory and social distancing is the new norm, but things are gradually beginning to reopen. Beaches, some restaurants, and hotels can function at a limited capacity. It is a relief to have Vicki back, and gradually we are “expanding our bubble,” inviting friends for dinner or meeting for coffee. After being deserted for an extended period, Huatulco beaches are crystal clear with occasional wildlife wandering along the white sand.

We have made some minor changes to our business and hope that eventually things can return to some semblance of normalcy. Huatulco has suffered, but the death toll has remained relatively low compared to some regions. Mexico has weathered many storms, and this too will pass. Sooner or later regular national and international flights will resume and tourists will again flock to our pristine piece of paradise.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view bed and breakfast (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Allhallowtide: The Sacred, the Sublime, and the Silly

By Brooke Gazer

When Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, he was seeking fame and fortune, but the priests who followed had a more challenging purpose. They wanted to save souls and gain converts for the Catholic church. Many Aztec rituals, like those surrounding the Death Goddess Mictecacihuatl, appalled them, but these practices were so deeply ingrained that some could be traced back to the Toltec Period (800-1000 CE). In Mexico, as in much of the New World, conversion would require compromises and one technique was merging existing native rituals with Catholic ones. With this in mind, they moved the festival of Mictecacihuatl from July to November, and incorporated Christian concepts.

The notion of rearranging festival dates and focus was not a novel one. In 609 CE, Pope Boniface IV created a day to commemorate holy martyrs. Two hundred years later, Pope Gregory IV moved and expanded it to include all saints. This three day celebration became known in Europe as Allhallowtide – October 31, November 1 and 2.

For traditional Catholics, November 1 is All Saints’ Day; it may also be referred to as Day of the Innocents or Little Angels. Catholics are encouraged to pray for martyrs and saints as well as deceased children, who are assumed to be innocent. November 2 is All Souls’ Day, when Catholics pray for the souls of everyone else, including those who may have gone to Purgatory and are awaiting entry to heaven.

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated on the same dates, but in Mexico it bears little resemblance to what Pope Gregory IV originally had in mind. Deceased children are remembered on November 1 and adults on November 2. However, people are not praying for their souls to enter heaven; they are awaiting a reunion. Many traditional Mexicans believe that death is part of a continuing cycle, and that on this hallowed night, the spirits of their ancestors are able to walk among them.

Since the dead return at night, people begin sitting vigil the nights of October 31 and November 1. After dark, Mexican families gather at home in front of ofrendas (altars for the departed), and at the gravesite. They offer favorite foods and beverages while sharing stories about the deceased. It’s a joyful time, about celebrating the life of the person, not mourning their loss. One might compare this to an Irish wake, except that this is an annual event, and the spirits of the deceased are believed to consume the offerings left for them. Believers will tell you that the flavors are altered after the dead have inhaled their essences.

In addition to believing that a loved one may return to enjoy earthly pleasures, Mexicans have continued other indigenous practices. Marigolds, called cempasúchil from the Nahuatl (Aztec), were believed to awaken the dead. Graves and the altars displaying candy, alcohol, favorite foods, and small mementos, are heavily adorned with these distinct orange flowers. On a practical note, it bears mentioning that the pungent fragrance of marigolds repels ants, so that chocolate and other treats are not overrun by these tiny pests. Those ancient priests knew more than we give them credit for.

Candles also play a major role and cemeteries are brightly lit with hundreds of velas as families gather to welcome their loved ones back to earth. Candles are part of Catholic rituals that have merged into this festival and it is believed that the light from the flames helps to guide the spirit home.

If you have an opportunity to visit a cemetery in Mexico during this time, it is an awe-inspiring experience. People are proud of the artistry employed in decorating their loved one’s graves and will welcome you as long as you are respectful. Oaxaca is one of the most traditional states in Mexico, so it stands to reason that this is an excellent place to experience this spectacular celebration of life. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, this might not be the year to visit.

While not all Mexicans celebrate Día de los Muertos, most do – if only to respect their ancestors. It is a lovely ritual, like agnostics decorating a tree and exchanging gifts in December. Adorning a grave or an altar is way to remember loved ones and allowing ourselves to do this is a healthy tradition that we might all benefit from.

This holiday should not be confused with the festival that we call Halloween. Since they share the same origins, the date overlaps, but this is where the similarity ends. During the medieval period in Ireland and Britain, Christians and pagans gathered around bonfires on Allhallowtide to ask for God’s protection from the evil in the world. It became tradition to dress in costumes of saints and demons and act out battles of good vs. evil. Somehow when this antiquated tradition crossed the Atlantic, it was adapted into a frivolous candy fest for children.

Halloween pales in comparison to Mexico’s spectacle, seeming rather crass to those who never grew up with it. For a child, however, the allure of dressing like a kitten or maybe as Superman and filling a sack with free Chiclets, Reese’s Pieces and mini Hershey bars is irresistible. Even as far south as Huatulco, this American/Canadian tradition is creeping into the culture. Each year, I notice more kids roaming our streets and begging for treats. An interesting twist, however, is that in Mexico time has a different perspective, so that local kids have cleverly extended October 31 into a multi-night candy grab.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa,
an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco.
http://www.bbaguaazul.com.