Tag Archives: chaiken

New Year of the Trees

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

A deep appreciation for trees is integral to Judaism.  Trees are mentioned over a hundred times in the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Hebrew generic word for fruit also appears over a hundred times. In addition, specific trees and fruits that grew in ancient Israel, including the date, fig, olive, and persimmon, are described and praised throughout the Bible.

Two trees, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge, are central to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, as is a fruit that they were not supposed to eat but did. The tree of life later came to be metaphorically associated with the entirety of Judaic knowledge or with the totality of human generations, and representations of the tree of life are commonly found in synagogues, works of art, and the titles of books or movies. Traditional sayings about the tree of life are commonly inscribed in Hebrew on the walls or doors of Jewish schools and places of worship.

When the State of Israel was reestablished in 1948, much of the land had been stripped bare of trees during the centuries when most Jews had been in exile. A major effort was launched to turn Israel’s desert land into fertile areas of orchards and forests. Trees were planted that were the same species that Jews had nurtured 3,000 years earlier at the time of King David.  Children around the world collected coins to support that effort, and each was rewarded with a certificate stating that a tree had been planted in Israel with the funds they provided.  The beautiful lush forests and orchards in modern Israel are testimony to the success of that effort. In those early years, many people during their first trip to Israel would ask to see “their tree” – but it was impossible to identify individual trees that had been established with particular donations.

Many Jewish holidays incorporate fruit and nuts into festival meals and traditions.  On Passover, a sweet mixture of chopped fruits and nuts, called “charoset,” offsets the taste of horseradish, eaten to remember the bitterness of slavery.  On the spiritual New Year, Rosh HaShanah, apples dipped in honey are served to wish the family and guests a sweet year the year round. In the fall at the festival of Sukkot (tabernacles), branches of the myrtle, willow and date palm are bundled together and, along with the fruit of the citron tree. are used in a celebratory ritual.

Not only do trees and fruit play an important role in Jewish holidays, but they have been awarded a holiday of their own – the New Year of the Trees. The holiday is commonly called Tu B’Shevat, which means the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat, the date of the holiday on the Hebrew lunar calendar. On the secular calendar, Tu B’Shevat falls in January or February. While in some places, such as Mexico City, the temperature on Tu B’Shevat can be bitter cold and the trees still dormant, and in other places such as coastal Oaxaca the weather can be witheringly hot and dry, in Israel or Guadalajara Tu B’Shevat is a time when trees begin to flower.

Tu B’Shevat is celebrated in different ways depending on the community. Many communities essentially celebrate an Earth Day, providing information about sustainable growing methods.

Others hold seders, which are meals incorporating seven species of fruits and grains mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures. Some communities in temperate climates plant trees, while other communities raise funds for planting trees in Israel. Almost everyone celebrating Tu B’Shevat eats fruit.

One of our favorite Tu B’Shevat celebrations took place in Huatulco with The Eye staff and their partners. Everyone brought a dish made with fruit for brunch – a delicious variety of salads, frittatas, salsas, cakes and cookies. We talked about and sampled four kinds of fruit and compared them to human personalities – hard on the outside but soft inside; soft on the outside but hard on the inside; soft on the outside and inside; and hard on the outside and inside. And then everyone told a story about a favorite tree they remembered from a period in their life.

Tu B’Shevat is a relatively minor holiday. It is not mentioned in the Scriptures but rather was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud – Jewish oral tradition written down around the year 500. But for those of us who love trees, it is a wonderful time to appreciate their diversity and the bounty they provide and to commit ourselves to their protection.

Saintly Mexican Mothers and Fathers

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Some of the most famous Mothers and Fathers in Mexico are truly saints. Mexico has more saints than any other country in this hemisphere, and many of them began their road to canonization as priestly fathers or mothers in convents. The very first father who became a Mexican saint was Saint Philip of Jesus, the patron saint of Mexico City, a Franciscan friar who died in 1597; he was canonized by the pope 265 years later, in 1862. This is an example of how the posthumous path for mothers and fathers to become saints in the Catholic Church can be lengthy and requires many steps.

The first step in becoming a saint is to submit an application to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (CCS, formerly called the Congregation of Rites), one of the nine congregations in the Roman Curia in the Vatican. The application is submitted by the person’s diosecan Bishop, who, after waiting usually five years or more after the death of the potential applicant, investigates his or her life to determine whether he or she appears to have the holy attributes of a saint. The investigation entails examining witnesses and exploring written works. The findings can either be used to end the path to sainthood or passed on to the authorities in the Vatican.

One of the first Mexican applicants for a potential path to sainthood was Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop of Mexico City, who died around age 80 in 1548. Although he was known for his cogent doctrinal writing and praised as the protector of the indigenous population, the application submitted in his behalf was never acted on by the Vatican organization that preceded the CSS.

One of the most recent applicants is the Reverend Mother María Concepción Zúñiga López, who died in 1979. Raised during the post-revolutionary period in Mexico when Catholicism was brutally suppressed, young María nevertheless sought out clerics and nuns in hiding who could be her mentors. At age 28 she founded an order of nuns devoted both to contemplation and acts of kindness. Her writings were sufficiently influential to be deemed noteworthy by the Pope. Given the glacial pace on the road to becoming a saint, it would be surprising if the Reverend Mother had already reached the next level.

The second step to sainthood is to become a Servant of God. Once a bishop submits an application to the Vatican, the CCS, consisting of 34 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, reviews the application and the supporting documentation. If the application is accepted, the applicant is designated a Servant of God and the CCS takes on the mission of further investigation.

Numerous Mexican applicants were accepted for further investigation as early as the 16th century and were designated Servants of God, but stalled in the process of being recognized as a Saint. María Regina Sánchez Muñoz was one of the several Servants of God recognized for founding religious organizations. Also known as María Amada del Niño Jesus, she did not found an order for women seeking an exclusive religious life, but rather organized lay people seeking a way to contribute to the church and betterment of their community – Missionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Mary of Guadalupe. First founded in Guadalajara in 1926 during the period of Catholic suppression, the organization currently operates in many Mexican states and in Belize. While Mother María Amada has not yet reached the stage of recognized sainthood, her enthusiastic and committed followers appear to have recognized her as an unofficial saint.

The third step is to become a Venerable. The CCS examines the life of the Servant of God to determine and document whether there is sufficient evidence of living a life of holiness which drew others to prayer and participation in the church, including whether miracles have been attributed to the Servant before or after their death. Once the CCS completes their investigation, the documents are sent to the Pope. The Pope decides whether the Servant has led a life of “heroic virtue” and, if yes, a mass is held in which the Pope raises the Servant to the status of Venerable.

The majority of Mexico’s Venerable mothers and fathers were early Bishops or founders of religious orders. One of the newest additions to the Mexican Venerable list is Father José Antonio Plancarte y Labastida, founder of the Sisters of Mary Immaculate of Guadalupe. He was born in Mexico City in 1840, and died there in 1898. His heroic virtues were recognized by Pope Frances in January of this year

The fourth step is to become a “Blessed” which entails examining witnesses who attest to miracles having been performed for them after praying to a Venerable. The intent of the examination is to rule out cases in which, rather than miraculous events having occurred, natural causes can be demonstrated. Once one miracle has been attributed to a Venerable, the miracle is believed to be evidence that the Venerable is in heaven and capable of interceding with God for the sake of living human beings. The Pope then designates the Venerable as a “Blessed.”

Since Martyrs just need to have one miracle attributed to them to be canonized as a saint, they can be designated as a Blessed without miraculous intervention. A large majority of Mexican Blesseds are Martyrs from across decades of persecution and slaughter of Catholic fathers and mothers.

One of the most recent papal elevations of a Venerable took place in a Mass on June 8, 2018, by Pope Francis, who formalized the attribution of a miracle to María Concepción Cabrera de Armida and recognized her as a Blessed. Born in 1862 in San Luis Potosí, and known as La Conchita, she was known for her piety, visions and self-mortification from a very early age.  Rather than becoming a nun, Maria decided to marry and have many children, which she did.  In addition to raising her brood with the goal of teaching them to love God, she was a prolific writer, and described her life succinctly:

I carry within me three lives, all very strong: family life with its multiple sorrows of a thousand kinds, that is, the life of a mother; the life of the Works of the Cross with all its sorrows and weight, which at times crushes me until I have no strength left; and the life of the spirit or interior life, which is the heaviest of all, with its highs and lows, its tempests and struggles, its light and darkness. Blessed be God for everything!

She suffered many deaths in her family before she herself died at age 74 in Mexico City in 1937.

Finally, sainthood is confirmed upon the Blessed, if and when other miracles are testified to and found not to be based on natural causes.  Basically, Catholic doctrine holds that a person who is a saint has been recognized by God as holding that attribute and canonization by the Pope is confirmation of that status.

Mexico currently has over 30 Saints.  About one-third of them were Martyrs, primarily Fathers who were killed during the Mexican Revolution.  Between 1926 and 1934, about 40 priests died violently for carrying out the government-banned Church sacraments and refusing to renounce their faith.  They are all celebrated in masses on May 21.

The most recent Mother to be canonized, by Pope Francis in 2013, is María Guadalupe García Zavala, better known as Mother Lupita.  She devoted her life in Guadalajara to caring for the poor and the ill and founded the Handmaids of Saint Margaret Mary and the Poor.  During the period of extreme anticlerical suppression, she risked her own life hiding priests in her hospital.  And during periods when the hospital ran low on funds, she begged in the streets until she had sufficient funds to continue her efforts.

The newest Father to be recognized as a saint, by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, is Rafael Guízar y Valencia.  Originally from Michoacán he became the Bishop of Xalapa. Rather than hiding, he openly provided comfort to the wounded and dying during the Revolution.  He died in 1938, and when his body was exhumed in 1950, it was said to be virtually intact.

The most famous of all saints in Mexico, the Virgin of Guadalupe, was not recognized by the Catholic Church for centuries.  First appearing in a vision in 1531 to Juan Diego (who himself became a Saint), the reported appearance of Saint Mary mother of Jesus as a dark-skinned Mexican native, speaking the indigenous tongue Nahuatl, was decidedly rejected by Church officials. Nevertheless, Mexicans en masse prayed for her intervention with God, and so many miracles were attributed to her that the Church could hardly ignore the phenomenon.  Beginning in the 1700s, Church officials began to bow to the grassroots movement and started to accord respect and recognition to her followers’ belief. Ultimately, Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego and, in 1997 during his first foreign trip, proclaimed the Virgin of Guadalupe to be Mother of the Americas as he prayed to her in her basilica near Mexico City. This basilica is reportedly the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Obviously Mary, mother of Jesus envisioned as the Virgin of Guadalupe, holds the title of the most saintly Mother in Mexico.

Memories of Times Past: Huatulco

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We first drove into Huatulco in 2001 – almost twenty years ago. Our trip from the U.S. down to coastal Oaxaca had been spread over many months, Mexican cities and states, and thousands of kilometers of rough roads filled with potholes, topes, dogs, burros and pigs. We were literally homeless at the time, and our old grey Toyota Camry held all our possessions that weren’t being stored in the U.S. Essentials in our car included a PC for Marcia’s research projects, some clothes, a pot, pan, and toaster oven, snorkel equipment and a cooler filled with water, cheese, and tortillas. Since the Kindle had not yet been invented, Marcia had stuffed all the remaining space with paperback books. Book exchanges in the major cities helped circulate used books out and new books into the car.

Our stay the night before our Huatulco arrival had been in a cabaña in San Jose del Pacifico, on the highway from the city of Oaxaca. Our fire had gone out well before dawn, and when the roosters started crowing, we awoke to temperatures hovering around freezing. We decided to leave as soon as there was enough light to see the road clearly when driving through the mountains. In many places the road had been entirely washed out by previously gushing water, and we held our breath as the trusty Camry forded arroyos and streams, often scraping bottom. When we reached Pochutla, the topes slowed us to a crawl, as we needed to navigate each slant-wise to prevent losing our undercarriage, but they were welcome since they let us know we were almost to Huatulco.

The highway from Pochutla had many tight curves and was primarily jungle for kilometers on both sides. Highway 200 had not yet been straightened and widened, so the trip from Pochutla was almost three times as long as it is today, especially when we encountered one of the ubiquitous, lumbering Coca Cola trucks that were impossible to pass. But the occasional glimpse of sandy roads toward the ocean were exciting promises of deserted beaches for snorkeling. Given our early start, we reached the Huatulco turnoff in the early afternoon and couldn’t believe our eyes.

The roads were straight, wide, multi-lane, flawless and held very few cars or trucks and almost no taxis. Rather than burros and pigs, the animals crossing the streets were large iguanas that scrambled across in front of our car. The areas now home to supermarkets, stores and restaurants were stretches of trees and bushes filled with birds. There were no traffic lights or traffic circles or topes. The many Alto (Stop) signs were gleaming red but so numerous that obviously no one was going to stop at each of them for the nonexistent pedestrians. We followed the Centro signs to Crucecita down a street with a few tiendas; the Madero Mall was not yet even a twinkle in a developer’s eye.

We stopped at the central plaza; it was pristine and absolutely charming. We promised each other to return in the coming days to tour the church. Ravishingly hungry, we felt as if we had struck gold when we discovered, right off the plaza, Panificadora San Alejandro. The sight and smell of the fresh empanadas were irresistible. Since our Spanish at that time was minimal (and there were no English speakers anywhere around), it took us a while to figure out that one takes the items on a tray to the front counter, receives the total on a slip of paper, pays for the items at the cashier counter and then returns to pick up the baked goods – a process that eventually seemed normal. We were concerned that it seemed we were being charged for only one empanada when we actually had five in the bag — the price was so low. With a lot of sign language and laughter we completed our purchase, returned to the plaza to sit on one of the benches in the shade and wolf down the empanadas.

Bellies full, we drove to Tangolunda, where we had rented an apartment. We had previously searched the internet for places to rent all over Mexico and had easily found condos, apartments, casitas, and hotels with kitchen facilities. Our needs for Huatulco were simple – a bed, a bath, a stove and a refrigerator – but we really wanted a place with a view. Since plans for constructing condominiums in Huatulco had not yet reached the stage of development, Huatulco had a dearth of places with views other than hotels. One condo associated with the Camino Real Zaashila kept popping up in internet searches but, compared to other places we had rented elsewhere in Mexico with great ocean or city vistas, the price seemed exorbitantly high. Ultimately, we found an ad for and rented an apartment that turned out to be located at the west end of Tangolunda over a Budget rental car office (which is no longer there).

It was perfect. The bedroom looked out over the golf course, and a spiral staircase from the kitchen area led to a rooftop terrace with a view of the ocean – a distant view over the golf course – but still close enough to see waves and imagine we heard them at night. We were within walking distance of the hotels lining the bay but far enough to escape the noise of parties. And we loved having a few geckos sharing each room with us. We were far less enchanted with the scorpions and spiders and a few small snakes that visited from the surrounding undeveloped areas; but we learned to shake out our shoes before wearing them and watch where we were stepping.

The hotels in Tangolunda were essentially earlier versions of the ones that still exist. The most popular resort, the Gala, was later resurrected as Dreams. The Sheraton became the Barceló. And Club Med eventually became Las Brisas. Although one or two of still existing restaurants were operating, most, such as Viena, had not yet been established. Since most of the hotel guests didn’t venture off the grounds, we were guaranteed a good night’s sleep – which we really needed.

Our agreement was that Marcia would stop working at 2 pm, after which we would head to a different beach every day for hours of snorkeling. The work day began at 5 am with a break around 8:30 am for a quick trip to Crucecita to buy piping hot tortillas and one of the local cheeses for breakfast, and – for that night’s dinner – fresh fruits and vegetables from one of the tiendas or street vendors and whichever fish had slept in the ocean the previous night; these were available directly from fishermen who sold their morning’s catch from coolers on several downtown street corners.

Exactly at 2 pm, on sunny days, we’d head off with our snorkel gear to one of the bays. We quickly learned that not all of the bays were inviting for watching fish, but those that were provided expanses of wide, pristine beaches, absolutely crystal clear water, primarily undisturbed coral, and thousands of fish and other sea life. Although Maguey and Entrega hosted many local families on the weekends and holidays, on weekdays the beaches and palapa restaurants were largely vacant. Even when families flocked to the beaches, very few people ventured beyond the shores, and they weren’t even dressed in what you would call swimwear. Our snorkeling was by and large undisturbed for hour after hour, except for the occasional motorboat that passed too close for comfort.

It was possible to hover over the coral and watch scenes that were worthy of National Geographic presentations, such as a hungry octopus camouflaged under a rocky ledge darting out a tentacle to catch unaware fish. Or a veritable food chain in action, with tiny fish nibbling at the coral being eaten by slightly larger fish who, in turn, were gobbled by good-sized fish who became tasty morsels for larger fish who swept in from the depths and after gulping down their prey, quickly returned to deeper water. The colors were brilliant and the varieties seemingly endless. Sometimes, schools of fish of the same variety would form large masses, and by slightly waving our hands, we could orchestrate the school to perform a water ballet.

The local families were as interesting as the sea life. Usually appearing in groups of three or four generations, the grandmothers wore dresses and aprons, and organized their clan at tables and designated the position of the coolers that the sons and grandsons carried to the beach. Babies were passed from family member to family member. Toddlers carried small pots or pails down to the water edge and were primarily supervised in their digging activities by older siblings and cousins. We almost never heard squabbling among the children. The adults, although seeming to be engaged in their own conversations, immediately dashed down to the children if one of the youngest seemed in danger of being caught up by the incoming tide or if a pail was suddenly caught by a wave. We must have presented an anomaly to these families, given their surprised looks when we emerged from the ocean wearing our snorkels.

We quickly became spoiled and instead of snorkeling on cloudy days, we happily spent afternoons watching the thousands of birds that inhabited Huatulco or were migrating back to northern territories.  The antics of large flocks of magpie jays in the brush were always a source of amusement.  Many beautiful herons and egrets inhabited freshwater ways running down to the ocean. Almost every bay had resident pelicans to watch filling their bills, holding more fish than their belly could; they seemed very tame and merely grunted at us if we walked or swam close.  The three local varieties of vultures circled high above; since their nesting grounds were relatively undisturbed by development, unlike today, they rarely mixed with humans.

The noisy squawking and flash of color of hundreds of parrots filled the air at every sundown as they left and returned to their roosting trees; we especially loved the parrot clamor in Santa Cruz – which, before the cruise ship dock was built, was a quiet village, except for the parrots. But no bird was as loud and grating as the large ungainly chachalacas that were our alarm clocks in the morning and entertained us as they squabbled over territory which they ultimately lost to the development of single-family private homes.  At the other extreme, little doves visited our terrace and they billed and cooed as they searched for tiny bits of tortilla that escaped from our table.

Some days, work-related tasks required communicating with colleagues north of the border.  Internet connection was possible through several internet service stores in Crucecita – Terra Cotta was one of the first restaurants to install a computer that could be used to check and send international mail. To make an international phone call, one had to go to a specialized office in Crucecita, sign up for a call, wait until a staff member connected to the number being called, and, when informed by the staff member that the call had gone through, enter a designated telephone booth, wait for the phone to ring, and answer the ringing phone hoping that the desired person would actually be at the other end.  As was true of almost all purchases at the time, we paid for the call in cash.

In 2001 Huatulco, credit cards were largely useless and ATMs a feature of the future.  Use of travelers checks, an acceptable method of payment in large cities in Mexico, required a long wait in a line at a Huatulco bank that accepted them, provision of passport and visa and prayer that the particular bank teller would agree to the extensive paper work required to hand over cash for the travelers check.  Fortunately, even though the exchange rate of dollar to pesos was under 1:10, we needed very little cash.  Our expenditures were mainly for food and fish, fruit and vegetables, which were very inexpensive. We’ve never been bar-goers.  There were no movie theaters, upscale restaurants, or the now ubiquitous fundraising concerts or festivals.  An evening’s entertainment was usually a trip to San Alejandro’s for a delicious pastry to share in the Plaza while watching the local children play, and then back to the apartment to curl up with one of the books stuffed into the Camry.

There were no vendors with extensive displays of their wares in the plaza. There were no stores that could by any stretch of the imagination be called a supermarket, much less a department store, no air-conditioning at most of the airport, no caravans of buses delivering tourists. Yes, Huatulco has greatly changed since 2001.  But when we mention this to our Chilango cousins who visited Huatulco from Mexico City years before we arrived, they laugh and say, “But we remember back to when the area was entirely fishing villages.”