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Body Art: Mexican Tattoos

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Many tourists in Mexico shop for art in tattoo parlors rather than in galleries. Instead of buying a Frida Kahlo poster, or a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or a clay reproduction of an Aztec or Mayan museum piece, they have sketches of these art works indelibly inked into their skin on various parts of their anatomy. Flowers, fish and aphorisms in Spanish are etched into shoulders, backs, hands, breasts and derrieres. Those with a penchant for the Gothic, after more than a few margaritas, may opt for an inking that turns their face into a permanent day-of-the-dead mask. Given the ubiquitous tattoo artists in Mexico and their creativity, the possibilities for transforming human hide into artistic canvasses are virtually endless.

Some Mexican tattoo artists proclaim that they are carrying forward the traditional forms of art practiced by their Aztec, Mayan or other indigenous ancestors. To incise the skin and insert dyes, they use natural materials such as sharpened bones or plant spines. Many of their designs are images of artifacts readily visible in the National Museum of Anthropology. The assertion that there has been an unbroken chain of generations of indigenous tattoo artists seems to be as much a romantic story as an archeological fact.

The study of tattoos by archeologists has long been a rather neglected and, at times, disparaged approach. Recently however, as the art of tattooing has become more accepted, the study of tattoos has gained wider respectability. The firmest archeological evidence of the use of tattoos is the appearance of colored incisions on the skin of mummies. The earliest tattooed mummy found so far dates back over 5000 years and was unearthed, or perhaps the better term is un-iced, from under a glacier in the Italian-Austrian Alps. This “iceman” had over 60 tattoos colored with charcoal. However, based on the positions of the incisions, archeologists hypothesize that the tattoos were applied to alleviate pain, much as acupuncture is used, rather than for artistic reasons.

Mummified bodies bearing tattoos have been discovered on virtually every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. In Mexico, a mummy bearing tattoos on her arms was discovered in the state of Oaxaca in 1889, and scientific analysis has found that she lived sometime around 250 AD. Although the tattoos on the earliest dated mummies can be quite complex, anthropologists have postulated that the primary purposes of the tattoos were other than simply artistic decorations. Some appear to denote tribal affiliation, others were used to ward off demonic or other evil powers, and many appear to be symbols of owners who claimed slaves as their property. Seagoing communities seem to have used tattoos, much as relatively more modern sailors, as individually distinctive marks that could be used to identify bodies lost overboard that washed up on near or distant shores.

Another method of studying the use of and regional differences in tattooing is based on the examination of prehistoric or pre-Columbian figurines painted with tattoo-like marks. Anthropomorphic statutes or pots bearing such designs are considered to provide representations of similar designs incised into the skin of people who lived in the communities where the artifacts were produced. Hollow ceramic figurines with extensive tattoo designs have been found in tombs in Mexico that date from 100 BC to 400 AD; the figurines are hypothesized to represent the people with tattoos who were buried in the tombs. These tattoos are thought to be marks portraying status and ideology rather than simply artistic decorations.

During the period of the early European geographic expeditions and colonization, the writings of the explorers paid detailed attention to the tattoos of the indigenous people they encountered. The English word “tattoo” and the Spanish word “tatuaje” are derived from Cook’s descriptions of patterns borne by the South Pacific Islanders he encountered and the Samoan term for how the patterns were created: “tatau,” or “hit” or “strike.” Europeans who first explored Mexico were quite taken by the tattoos used by different cultures and communities. Some were literally impressed with the designs and returned home with tattoos. But indigenous tattooing was almost obliterated in Mexico and around the world by the European usurpers who repressed all native forms of customs and practices as being barbaric and heathen. The repression of tattoos lasted for centuries.

When we were children, tattoos were still rare and exotic. Circus sideshows sometimes had a “tattooed lady” on display; and for 25 cents we could gawk at her inked designs until it was time to move on to the “bearded lady.” Sailors started to return after War World II with anchors or stars tattooed on their biceps. But whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, we were told that tattoos were body mutilation, and therefore, forbidden. It took courage or imprisonment to reject this strong norm and become inked.

Today, tattooing has once again become ubiquitous. There are virtually countless places in Mexico to be tattooed. In the large cities of Mexico there are tattoo conventions and tattoo competitions. But once again the use of tattoos is not always merely decorative. Among drug cartels and other organized criminal subcultures, tattoos are often used to display group affiliation – and the wrong tattoo in the wrong setting can be fatal.

Many people who have opened parlors with the latest technology for producing tattoos consider themselves artists with the creative license to provide a wide spectrum of designs. And their clients are delighted to work with them to find the perfect design for almost every part of their anatomy. But before you head out to find your perfect design you might consider the following.

Tattooing is painful … think about a paper cut and then multiply that sensation for every incision. Tattoos are permanent – the cute little rosebud on a perky young butt often turns into a wilted, wrinkled flower in middle age. In the wrong hands, tattoos can be dangerous; our granddaughter’s unauthorized butterfly tattoo turned into a staph infection. There is still a prejudice against tattoos in some circles and that may be a circle possibly important to you in future years.

If you want to try a tattoo on for size, you might consider the temporary type – also widely available in Mexico. Henna tattoos are offered on many beaches in Mexico and gradually fade away; just be sure you don’t have a henna allergy. And inked paper in many designs can be safely applied and easily washed away. They look so real that we suspected our daughter was having some form of crisis after seeing multicolored flowers circling her wrist, until we realized that, rather than a crisis, she had had an interesting vacation.

Enlarging Your Scope in the Time of COVID

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

We are inveterate and indepen-dent travelers. We’ve touched down in every continent except Antarctica (too cold) and love immersing ourselves for weeks or sometimes months at a time in different communities and cultures. We’ve kidnapped our grandkids to live with us in Rome, Paris, Geneva, London, Jerusalem, Mexico City, and safari camps in sub-Saharan Africa.

So when we flew back to our home in California from our home away from home, Huatulco, on March 15 and immediately went into quarantine, followed by shelter in place, there was every reason to expect to feel trapped – that our world would shrink to our two-bedroom cottage. It hasn’t. In fact, we are bouncing around the world on a daily basis, meeting new people and as ever, immersing ourselves in communities and cultural events.

This of course has been made possible by incredible new technology including Zoom, WhatsApp, and AirPlay. We’ve also been supported by the unbelievable generosity of major music and arts institutions. And there is such ingenuity at universities and schools with a passion for providing opportunities for learning even in the most trying times.

During the first couple of months of shelter-in-place we binged on virtual trips to New York and London. Although we had frequently traveled from Huatulco to the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City or the Teatro Macedonio Alcalá in Oaxaca, where we saw operas in HD streaming live from the Met in New York, during some months we were just too busy to leave Huatulco. And of course, we later heard about the superb performances we missed. We were very gratified to learn in March that the Met would be streaming recordings of a different opera every night gratis into our homes. And so, many nights in the first few months of confinement were spent captivated in a good way, watching the operas we had initially missed.

When the Met ultimately depleted its stock of recent recordings of live streaming performances, they began to present relatively old videos of past performances. We were reminded of why we used to travel to Europe for opera. Unlike European opera performances (and today’s in the US) that emphasize the story and character development, the Met formerly concentrated on each aria as an individual performance, and great applause – even curtain calls or encore performances – were encouraged in the middle of scenes. We didn’t appreciate the interruptions then, and even less did we enjoy them in old recordings. So, with nearly the totality of recent HD live operas happily part of our repertoire, we bade farewell to the Met.

Our virtual trips to London were weekly and specifically to visit the National Theatre Live. Although we have more than excellent theater in the U.S. and Mexico, and have seen memorable performances in the Teatro Telcel in Mexico City, there is nothing quite like a London performance. The brilliant performance of Jane Eyre was worth the cost and time for flying across the pond, but this year of course we only had to hit a button or two to attain first row seats. One Man, Two Guvnors was such a comical romp that we completely forgot we weren’t actually in pre-COVID-19 London.

Although we enjoyed other weekly offerings, we were pleased with the National Theatre’s fresh take on some of the Bard’s finest. We had completed our Shakespeare folio several years ago with a superb Pericles at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and were even thinking of skipping the NT Shakespearean offerings. We’re so glad we didn’t. Twelfth Night, which we have seen at least five times, was stunning! Malvolia (yes, Malvolia) emerged as the main character in an unforgettable and deeply emotional performance. And we certainly weren’t sorry we didn’t have to navigate the tube stations and “mind the gap” to get to and from the theater.

By summer, we were ready for a virtual trip to Israel. We signed up for a three-week program of study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. There were so many classes offered that we were like kids in a candy store trying to decide which to attend. Classes on art, on poetry, on philosophy, and current events, all tied to two predominant themes – social justice and living through plagues. We decided to view classes separately and then compare notes during meals. Our classes took place on Sundays to Thursdays from 9 am PDT to evening seminars. It was definitely like being back in college – but now we had a better appreciation for the professors than we did in college days.

Our studies at Hartman were followed by a week-long virtual tour of Israel – a different community every night. The most interesting community by far was an Ethiopian neighborhood in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv. Our tour guide that evening was a young woman who was very open about the discrimination she had experienced as an Israeli of color and her life with one foot in the modern Israeli world and the other in the culture of her immigrant parents. We also met with a very gracious rabbi who described his passage from Ethiopia to Israel, including his shock at learning that Israel was full of white Jews. He knew no English and spoke to us in Hebrew with a translator. His final wish was that we all would learn enough Hebrew so the next time we met, we wouldn’t need a translator. We are trying to make his wish come true.

We are now zooming to an Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language program) on a kibbutz in the Negev south of Beer Sheva. We join fifteen other students who are located in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Argentina for two-and-a-half to three hours every Wednesday. During the other days we have plenty of homework. And we practice our lessons with the other students on WhatsApp.

When we’re not bouncing around the world for incredible learning experiences, we’re widening our horizons right here in our own community with book clubs, play readings, and classes in our congregation, and dinners with fascinating people – all these also safely on Zoom. Sometimes, admittedly, in the middle of the night, the walls do seem to being closing in, especially with windows all closed to keep out wildfire smoke. But, for the most part, our world is growing larger, not smaller, and including a greater variety of people. So, if you’re finding yourself feeling confined to wherever you’re now located, Mexico or the U.S. or Canada, open your mind and your computer, and join us in our explorations or your own.

The Cheeses of Mexico

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The United States in the mid-20th century was not a place where children developed a palate for cheese. Our families’ forays into cheese-tasting extended not much further than Philadelphia cream cheese, which was liberally smeared on bagels, and some soft substance called American cheese that was grilled between two slices of white bread. When well-travelled cousins introduced us to exotic cheeses imported from France, or even just purchased in Wisconsin, we quickly created the name “stinky cheese” for them.

Although in the following decades small US dairies began experimenting with and producing some wonderful cheeses, by savoring them, or visiting France and Italy, we still weren’t fully prepared for the varieties and differences of the cheeses we learned to love while living in Mexico. Even the mass-produced cheeses that one finds in the supermercados are wonderful for snacking or cooking. Our weekly supermarket shopping in Mexico is never complete until we toss into our basket a block of manchego, a ball of Oaxaca cheese, and a round package of panela. And, in the enormous Chedraui near our favorite condo in the Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City, the huge cheese department tempts us with varieties from virtually every state in Mexico and beyond.

But in our opinion the very best cheeses are found in small specialty stores or from sellers in outdoor markets. One such store was in La Crucecita in Huatulco, Oaxaca, and offered a wide selection of cheeses: La Cremería Costa del Pacifico. Unfortunately, the shop recently closed due, in part, to the economic effects of the pandemic. Last March, the owner, Rebeca Barboza, was gracious enough to discuss their cheeses with us.

Most of the cheeses available at such specialty cheese stores are made from cow’s milk, but each type has a distinctive taste and properties. Fresh, crumbly Ranchero, made in the State of Mexico, is a great addition to salads. Panela, also fresh from the State of Mexico, is the delight of nutritionists since it contains no fat or salt. We sometimes grill panela, and since it has no fat, it softens into a spreadable consistency but doesn’t melt.

Quesillo, the pride of Oaxaca, is also a fresh cheese made without salt. But because of its fat content quesillo can melt. If we don’t immediately snarf it down, we use it in omelets or other dishes calling for a taste of melted cheese. An alternative to quesillo for cooking is Mexican mozzarella made using the same process as mozzarella in Italy – but the Italian process uses buffalo milk while mozzarella in Mexico is made from cow’s milk. While mozzarella is traditional on pizza, quesillo is everyone’s favorite on the Oaxacan alternative to pizza, the delicious tlayuda.

The manchego that was available in La Cremería Costa del Pacifico came from Guadalajara after being aged two or three months. Originally made in Spain from sheep milk, it is perhaps the most versatile of cheeses. Whether from specialty stores or supermarkets, we grate manchego for a variety of dishes, melt it for others including queso fundido which sometimes is served with tortillas or vegetables for dipping, or sometimes we simply cut up the manchego into cubes for a snack. The best cheddar (yes Mexican not Wisconsin cheddar) is aged 12 months and comes from the mountains of Jalisco where, according to Senora Barboza, “milk is cheaper than water.”

Both specialty stores and supermarkets also carry goat cheeses. One of the best is the crumbly feta that is made in Guanajuato. And our favorite queso de cabra is spreadable and is sold in many stores in small logs, often covered with black ash which gives the cheese a delicious smoky flavor.

For the very freshest of cheeses we head to the organic market which is held outdoors on selected Saturdays in Santa Cruz Huatulco. According to the cheese seller, Isabel Ramos, all their cheeses are made from cow’s milk the day before the market on a ranch located twenty minutes north of Puerto Escondido. The organic designation requires that no chemicals be used in the cheese preparation, just milk from free-range cows.

We can heartfully recommend all their cheeses. The queso de prensa is firm enough to slice. Chiles and epazote are integral to the queso botanero and different batches range from mildly tasty to moderately picante. The queso ranchero and quesillo are on a par with the same types of cheeses found in specialty cheese shops – but we like buying local and knowing that the cows producing the milk were free to wander around pastures. The requesón is sold under the name of ricotta since foreign frequenters of the organic market are more familiar with that term. But whether one calls the cheese ricotta or requesón, it is great heaped on toasted bagels with tomato slices – much better than cream cheese.

While at the organic market, it is worthwhile searching for the vendor who sells Gouda cheese from Quesería La Pradera in Tilzapotla, Morelos. The cheese maker is originally from Holland. More information about the production of this Gouda can be found at
https://www.facebook.com/queseria.la.pradera/.

During these weeks of sheltering in place to avoid COVID19, we miss our friends and our wonderful view of the ocean in Huatulco. We also miss the cheeses. We will miss La Cremería and hope that the owners and staff of the other little shops and market tables that sell our favorites are safely weathering the earthquakes and the virus. Provecho!

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.”