Tag Archives: Deborah Van Hoewyk

An Eye on the Women of The Eye

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Deborah Van Hoewyk

Deborah joined The Eye writers in January 2012 and more recently took on the role of copy editor. Her articles often focus on fund-raising activities of local nonprofit organizations and Mexican culture. Deborah has been actively involved with small community activities since her childhood. Although she was born in Providence, Rhode Island, she was raised and educated in Cumberland, Maine, starting with a one-room schoolhouse. Her first high school years were spent at a local co-ed high school until her parents arranged for her transfer to an all-girls high school. After that, she attended Wellesley College, a prestigious women’s educational institution in Massachusetts, where she first majored in Latin and then English. Having met and married the requisite Harvard man, she left Wellesley after three years and followed her new husband to New York City.

The marriage lasted 10 years, during which Deborah completed a BS degree in English at Columbia University and launched her career in writing and editing, working for a number of organizations including the Foreign Policy Association, Columbia University, New York City agencies, and (Stanley) Kaplan, Inc. After leaving her husband to live on a barge moored in the Bronx, Deborah continued her writing career and earned an MA degree in English from Queens College of the City University of New York. She also met John, her second and current husband, at a cafeteria at CUNY.

After 20 years in New York and a brief hiatus back in Maine, Deborah moved to Detroit and a job writing materials for the auto companies to support their training and development programs. She then enrolled in the urban planning Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, first concentrating on socio-technology and then switching to the field of microenterprise. To support her studies, she taught technical communication in the UM College of Engineering for 18 years. John followed Deborah to Ann Arbor and found a long-term position as a statistician conducting social survey research at the university. They were married in 1986 and in 1987 bought a 40-acre farm on which they raised sheep, goats, pigs and poultry for over 20 years. They retired to Maine in 2010.

Deborah’s first trip to Mexico was in 1979 to visit a friend in Jalapa. After a number of later short visits to various parts of Mexico, in 2004 she and John visited Oaxaca City and decided to also see Huatulco, since it looked “so close” on the map. Even though the road trip was much longer than expected, once here they knew they would return. They bought a house in Huatulco in 2007 where they spent every vacation, renting it out between their stays. Once they retired, their Huatulco time increased until currently they are here about 5.5 months each year. Deborah’s busy life includes belonging to two book clubs but doesn’t allow much time to read other books. She devotes much of her time to writing grant proposals for nonprofit organizations, often gratis, and helping other worthy organizations raise funds. And of course, copy-editing and writing for The Eye is a substantial commitment. Her favorite contribution to the Eye is “The Wisdom of Maíz –Will It Lose Its Voice?” (September 2012).

Monarchs Butterflies Migrate, Marigolds Bloom: Myths, Legends, and Politics of the Day of the Dead

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

If you spend time in Oaxaca, you’ve heard of El Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. Maybe as a snowbird, you’ve even arrived in Mexico in time to watch or participate in the celebrations; The Eye has published any number of articles on it. This year’s Day of the Dead – it’s really two days – takes place on November 1 and 2, 2022.

The general idea is that the border between the world of the spirits and the world of the living dissolves, allowing the departed souls to return and celebrate with those they left behind. People prepare altars (ofrendas) at grave sites or in their homes, decorated with mementos of their loved ones, along with food and drink for the celebration and return journey. November 1 is thought to be when the souls of children come back to visit, and November 2 is the return of the souls of adults.

The Disputed Origins of the Day of the Dead

Past historians have mostly proposed that the holiday is “syncretic,” a combination of the traditions of two (or more) cultures. In this case, the synthesis combines the pre-Hispanic Day of the Dead, intended by various ancient indigenous peoples as a remembrance of the dead, with the imported Catholic traditions of the conquistadores, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. This is the way the Day of the Dead is taught in schools, and how it has been listed in Mexico’s “Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” a program of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

Today, however, Mexican historians are less likely to agree that what we see now is genuinely a product of any classic indigenous culture (dated generally from 500 BCE – 1521 CE, when the Aztec empire fell to Cortés), or even of the synthesis between indigenous and colonial events. In a special issue (2006) of Cuadernos Patrimonio Cultural y Turismo (Notebooks of Cultural Heritage and Tourism), a publication of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y los Artes (National Council for Culture and the Arts, now the Secretariat for Culture), fifteen academics of various disciplines, mostly history and anthropology, explore the issues involved in understanding the Day of the Dead.

Maybe it was syncretic. Maybe it came from similar celebrations in Europe, brought over by the Spaniards. Its importance may lie in the rituals that “tame death” and ensure continuation of life as it was. Maybe it’s a 20th-century evolution of President Lázaro Cárdenas del Río’s program to promote nationalism and national pride through indigenismo, the valuing of all things indigenous, which is a story in itself for some other time.

Mythic Origins of El Día de los Muertos

Despite the disagreements on how the Day of the Dead came to be, there is no doubt that Mexico’s ancient peoples saw life and death as continuous, and had their own version of Day of the Dead. In the high plains of south-central Mexico, it was believed that death destroyed the body but the soul was indestructible. Many of these tales of the afterlife share common ideas with the mythologies of other cultures.

People who died natural deaths entered the afterlife in Chicunamictlán, a nine-level underworld of the Land of the Dead. Depending on the cause of death, there were other destinations for the dead. Children went to Chichihuacuauhco, where they were fed by the Tree of Milk – they waited there to repopulate the world after the human race was destroyed (not sure why that was supposed to happen!). Warriors killed in battle and women who died in childbirth went to Ilhuuicatl-Tonatiuh, the Kingdom of the Sun. Those who died by water, including rain and lightning, went to Tlalocán, the Mansion of the Moon.

Souls bound for Chicunamictlán were cremated with a sacrificed dog who served as a guide and companion on the arduous, four-year journey to the last level, Mictlán. The dog was a red xoloitzcuintle, or xolo, the ancient hairless dog of Mexico. The xolo was created by a dog god called Xolotl, a dog-headed man whose province was fire and lightning and whose job it was to accompany the sun each day from dawn to dark, the “dark” representing the death of the sun. Xolotl bears a striking resemblance in appearance and responsibilities to a similar Egyptian dog-god called Anubis.

The dog was first tasked with carrying the soul across the great river Apanohuaya, counted as the second level. The remaining levels of the journey presented horrendous challenges – giant underwater lizards, flying arrows, paths paved with slashing obsidian shards, mountains crashing together. On the sixth level, for example, the defunct soul had to cross Tecoylenaloyan (the land of a thousand fierce wild beasts); if a beast caught the soul, the soul had to throw open its chest and let the beast eat its heart – reminiscent of the Greek myth of Prometheus, whom Zeus punished for giving fire to humans by chaining him to a high mountain rock and sending eagles to eat his liver every day.

Upon reaching Mictlán, the soul finally could achieve eternal rest or be condemned to suffer further. Eternal rest was darkness, a great commingling into a single common soul.
Back on earth, the families of departed souls celebrated Hueymiccaylhuitl, the great feast of the dead intended to help the soul on its journey to Mictlán. The families offered up food, water, and tools to help meet the challenges; the holiday also allowed the souls to return and visit with their families. Sound familiar? Perhaps those who downplay the ancient roots of Day of the Dead have been unduly influenced by the commercially constructed holiday we now see.

Marigolds and Monarchs

When you think of El Día de los Muertos, what color comes to mind? Could it be … orange??? The color of marigolds, the color of monarch butterflies, of candles to light the way through the darkness of the graveyard. Those orange marigolds and monarch butterflies are linked to Day of the Dead through several ancient legends and beliefs.

Because the annual migration of the monarch butterfly ends in the fall in central Mexico, often in the Reserva de la Biosfera de la Mariposa Monarca in Michoacán. Monarchs have long been associated with the Day of the Dead, providing the means for departed souls to return to their families. Legend has it that the souls of the departed travel in the wings of the monarchs, and those wings shed their orange color on the marigolds. Mexican marigolds (Tagetes erecta) are members of the aster family, and in ancient times bloomed in the fall, just in time to take their colors from the monarchs.

There is an Aztec tale of two young lovers, Huitzilin (humming bird) and Xóchitl (flower), who celebrated their love by climbing to the top of a mountain to leave offerings to the god of the sun, Tonatiuh. When the couple is torn apart by war, and Huitzilin dies in battle, Xóchitl climbs the mountain to beg Tonatiuh to reunite them for eternity. Tonatiuh turns Xóchitl into a beautiful flower, the color of the sun – that would be orange, people – and who should arrive but a hummingbird, who carried the soul of Huitzilin. When the hummingbird touched the flower, it opened its 20 petals and gave off a wonderful scent. Thus marigolds, called cempasúchil, lead the returning souls both with their color, so bright it lights their way, and their unmistakable, pungent scent.

Day of the Dead in the 20th Century – Politics and Economics

Before President Cárdenas started promoting the Day of the Dead as indigenous tradition, there was La Calavera Catrina (the elegant skeleton). She was created in 1910, amid the opening salvos of the Mexican Revolution, by the political cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1851-1913). Posada created her to satirize both the poor women street vendors who had left off selling corn in favor of chickpeas, all the while wearing French hats, and the Mexican elites who fawned over all things European, especially fashion and culture, and patronized the empolvacas garbanceras (sellers of chickpea powder, used to lighten complexions). The elites were much encouraged in their European aspirations by the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori (ruled off and on from 1876-80, then from 1894 to 1911).

At the time, Posada’s Catrina received a bit of attention from the politically inclined, but got a big boost in 1947, when the renowned artist Diego Rivera painted the mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (Dream of a Sunday afternoon in Alameda Central Park) on a wall in the muy-muy upscale restaurant in the Hotel Del Prado, one of Mexico City’s Art Deco masterpieces (after the 1985 earthquake, the mural was moved to Museo Mural Diego Rivera, adjacent to the Alameda).

As usual with Rivera’s work, the mural was nothing if not political. About 400 characters from the panorama of Mexican history parade through the Alameda, showing the brutalities of the conquest and colonialism, wars and revolutions, cruel dictatorships. The center of the mural shows La Catrina on the arm of her creator Guadalupe Posada, Frida Kahlo and a young Rivera, Porfirio Díaz (shown higher than an angel), all intended to be observed by elite patrons of the Hotel del Prado’s restaurant. What is notable about Rivera’s Catrina, and is perhaps the root of her popularity thereafter, is that Rivera gave her not fancy European fashion to wear, but a simple white dress from the Isthmus, much like one of Kahlo’s own. He blots out the fancy hat with huge white feathers – featherwork, particularly for headdresses, was a major art form for the Aztecs. These attributes ensured that La Catrina became a heroine to the Mexicans, fit for a starring role in the Day of the Dead.

The researchers who disagree on the origin of Day of the Dead do agree that commercialization, particularly tourism promotions, presents a great threat to the authenticity of Day of the Dead celebrations. However, accounts of New Spain written by Diego Durán (1537-88) and Bernardino Sahagún (1499-1590), Dominican and Franciscan friars, respectively, tell us that markets held in advance of the Day of the Dead in Tenochtitlán were bustling – Duran was “astounded” to see what local people spent to offer food, drink, and other goods to the souls of their dead. By the 1700s, that market had become so frenzied that the government had to step in with regulations for market operations and requirements for vendor permits.

Commercialization of the Day of the Dead has continued apace ever thereafter; by the early 20th century, both Mexican and U.S. anthropologists discovered holiday markets in rural villages, basically commercial regional fairs attracting shopers who traveled long arduous distances to sell their wares or make their purchases. By mid-century, Mexico’s tourism apparatus was promoting Day of the Dead to tourists from the U.S. and Europe, pointing out which regional celebrations offered the most authentic experience for the tourist. Ruth Heller-Tinoco, an associate professor of music at the University of California-Santa Barbara, investigated the commercialization of the Day of the Dead on the island of Janitzio (corn silk) in Lake Patzcuaro, Michoacán. The festival is that of the Purépecha, an indigenous group the Aztecs never managed to subjugate, so their celebration was considered the “purest” example. Heller-Tinoco concluded that “selling” Day of the Dead on Janitzio transformed what was a small community ritual into a tourist spectacle drawing over 100,000 tourists a year. You, too, can go – just Google it.

Of course, all this commercialization has ensured that Day of the Dead has survived, and even transformed, has been handed down to younger generations. In the last “normal,” i.e., pre-pandemic, Day of the Dead in 2019, Secretary of Tourism Miguel Torruco predicted that 829,000 Mexicans would travel, they would spend about $2 billion pesos (±US $104 million), and hotels in Mexico City would see an occupancy rate of nearly 90%. In 2021, when the pandemic showed signs of abating, about US $5 million was spent on marigolds in Mexico City.

Think Coco, the 2017 Pixar Animation Studios film released and promoted by Disney, in which the young Coco, in a “vibrant tale of family, fun, and adventure,” ends up in the Land of the Dead, learning from his departed ancestors the stories behind his family’s prohibitions on music – Coco wants to be a musician. All ends well, and Coco ranks in the top 20 highest grossing animated film ever – streaming today on Disney+.

In the Cradle of Corn, Farmers Go Broke and People Go Hungry

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Maybe nine thousand years or so ago, corn was “born and bred” by the early peoples of the modern states of Oaxaca and Puebla, most probably in the Valley of Tehuacán. It took centuries of careful selection to turn a grass called teosinte into corn, but farmers in even the most remote areas developed hundreds of corn varieties adapted to different growing conditions. Although there are only about 60 strains of corn still grown in Mexico – Oaxaca is the origin for well over half of them – this genetic diversity should make corn a reliable food source even when natural or man-made disaster wipes out some types of corn.

(The Eye has published a number of articles on the history and cultivation of corn, go to https://theeyehuatulco.com/ and use the search box.)

Over time, corn has shaped the cultures and the lives of the indigenous peoples of Latin America; indeed, the Popol Vul, the sacred book of the people we now call the Maya (fl. c. 1800 BCE – 900 CE), reports that the gods tried to create humans first from mud and then from wood, but they failed. When the gods tried to create humans from corn, they succeeded, and the Maya became “the Children of the Corn.” Corn is thus way more than elotes y esquites sold from street carts – it is life itself. But the capacity of Mexican corn to sustainably support its people has faded almost entirely away.

How we think about hunger

People go hungry all the time. Drought here, famine there, and people in poverty have nothing to eat – we send money to food banks and hope for rain. That, however, is a response that only provides immediate relief. Growing and distributing food is by no means solely a natural phenomenon, and treating hunger as an unfortunate failure of nature is useless.

In 1981, the economist Amartya Sen, who notably also studied philosophy, published Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation – one of those books that changed the way we think about something. In 1943, when Sen was nine years old and growing up in Bengal, three million Bengalese starved to death, ostensibly due to famine. (Bengal is now divided into the state of West Bengal, India, and the country of Bangladesh.)

Analyzing the Bengal famine, as well as multiple famines in other countries, Sen argued that people do not go hungry for lack of food. In fact, there were adequate supplies of rice in Bengal to prevent people from starving. But starve they did, because the system that provided food did not provide equally for everyone. In 1942, in the midst of WWII, Japan took Burma (now Myanmar) and Singapore, cutting off their rice exports. The Indian military overreacted, stockpiling large quantities of rice, which led the public to panic buying, hoarding, price increases and then price gouging. People in Calcutta (now Kolkata), which was the capital of British India, could still pay the price – but three million people in marginal occupations and rural areas, where wages were stagnant and resources were few, could not.

Hunger in Mexico

For a country with a history of rebellion and revolution on behalf of its “ordinary people,” Mexico has a complicated, century-long history of poverty and hunger. The latest statistics on hunger, food insecurity, and nutrition indicate that overall, about 1 person per hour starves to death in Mexico; about 1 in 5 kids under age 6 is morbidly malnourished; about a quarter of Mexico’s population is food insecure (lacking access to basic foods); and a quarter of the population is obese. Mexico is the largest Latin American consumer of highly processed, “hyper-caloric” food products – raising the incidence of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

In rural areas, where poverty is endemic, food is available but people can’t pay for it; on average, over 40% of the populations of Guerrero, Oaxaca, and Chiapas suffer from “food poverty.” (Statistics on Mexico’s social development status are collected by CONEVAL [Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social], which in 2008 developed the first multidimensional – both social and economic deprivation – poverty measurement protocol in the world.)

However, as both Amartya Sen and CONEVAL would point out, the connection between poverty and hunger is not simply a matter of whether you can afford to buy healthy food. For millennia, corn was the main staple in the Mexican diet, and it was a healthy food for the Mexican families who grew it. Tortillas made from native corn (maíz criollo) provided over 40% of a day’s protein requirement, they prevented rickets in kids, and offered lots of fiber. Between 1982 and 2018, however, tortilla consumption dropped by over half, and tortillas were “industrialized,” made from commercially grown and ground masa harina (corn flour). What happened?

NAFTA and the collapse of Mexican corn

A lot of things happened – agricultural, social, and political – but most significantly economic, starting with the promotion of free trade policies in the 1980s. Mexico, like other Latin American countries, had borrowed internationally to support modernization and industrialization. On August 12, 1982, Mexico defaulted on its debt. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailed Mexico out with a loan that required, among other things, reducing trade barriers, deregulating industry, and

liberalizing foreign investment. These conditions, along with other measures to facilitate international trade, especially with the U.S., led a decade later to Mexico’s participation in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, signed in 1994), renegotiated in 2020 as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). On the surface, NAFTA seemed to convey great benefits on Mexico’s ability to trade with the U.S. and Canada.

But NAFTA didn’t work out all that well in relation to agriculture and domestic food production, particularly the native corn. Concurrent with NAFTA, and required in part by the agreement, Mexico shuttered the few agricultural support programs it had in place, some of which were considered anti-poverty programs as well. The Mexican government made strenuous efforts to acquire imported grain, mainly corn, from the U.S. Scads of American corn arrived in Mexico, and was sold more cheaply than the more nutritious native corn. The impact on Mexico’s food system and people at the economic margins was profound.

By 2003, nine years after NAFTA, the zócalo in Mexico City was crammed with machete-wielding campesinos – farmers demonstrating against the impact of NAFTA on their ability to make a living growing corn. An additional clause took effect in 2003 – Mexico would no longer impose duties on agricultural imports from Canada and the U.S. That meant even more foreign corn, cheaper than ever; 900,000 farming jobs in Mexico had disappeared by 2003.

By 2004, the U.S. had quadrupled its corn exports to Mexico, and prices of native corn had dropped by 66%, driving many mid-sized corn farmers – the ones who were producing corn for sale, not subsistence – out of business.

By 2011, two million small and mid-sized farmers had left their land because they couldn’t support themselves; the land most of their farms occupied was rough and rocky, and couldn’t be adapted to compete with larger farms in flatter territory. For at least five years now, Mexican agricultural production has been shifting to export crops popular in the U.S., notably berries and avocados. Neither crop is integral to the Mexican diet, and small farmers do not have the resources to switch to such export production.

By 2016, corn was Mexico’s #1 agricultural import from the U.S. Mexico became the #1 export market for the U.S. not only for corn, but for dairy products, soybean meal, and poultry – all basic foodstuffs. It was the #2 export market for highly processed food from the U.S.

By 2018, Mexico was importing 45% of its food, ranking it 7th in the world as a food-importing nation.

In Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico (2018), author Alyshia Gálvez argues the food-system case against NAFTA’s “unintended consequences,” finding that a global and financial definition of “food security” has been more valued than subsistence agriculture, that commercial development has been more important than sustainability, and that market participation outweighs social welfare, particularly in relation to the Mexican diet. Galvez saw little chance for changing these outcomes.

On a more hopeful note, tortillas to the rescue

Just as healthy, protein rich tortillas made from heirloom corn seem to be a thing of the past, they may be back, ironically rescued for their potential to offer a gourmet food experience, albeit with a social purpose.

In May 2018, the Alianza por Nuestra Tortilla (Alliance for Our Tortilla), a collaboration among 75 or so businesses, food producers, corn farmers, and researchers, was formed to ensure Mexico can recover “la buena tortilla,” the ideal tortilla, made from native corn that has been nixtamalized (processed in an alkaline solution that unlocks nutrients and enhances flavor and scent). The corn will have no agricultural toxins or additives, and will not be genetically modified.

One member of the Alianza, businessman Rafael Mier, had founded the Fundación Tortilla in 2015, and its main program, Tortilla de Maíz Mexicana, a year later; the goal was to promote the “culture and consumption of corn and the tortilla as fundamental elements of national wellbeing.” Mier’s program works on public policy to revitalize native corn; preserve the traditional “three sisters” (corn, beans, squash) method of corn cultivation; and generate and disseminate knowledge of native corn and how to use it.

Taking a non-tortilla approach, the Scorpion Mezcal company launched Sierra Norte Native Corn Whiskies in 2016, made from 15% malted barley and 85% maíz criollo. Although the new product was driven by the burgeoning popularity of mezcal, which in turn caused a shortage of agave, owner Douglas French sees it as a way to help keep Oaxacan “native cultures and traditions alive,” specifically by buying endangered heirloom corn produced by small family farms at a fair price.

New tortillerías have opened in Mexico City that specialize in traditional tortillas, which have started appearing on the menus of upscale restaurants, e.g., Pujol; the first, Maizajo in Azcapotzalco, opened in 2016 and is “dedicated to the research, production, and commercialization of native corn products.” Cintli, opened in 2017 in the La Roma neighborhood, likewise focuses on native corn, uses nixtamalization in its processes, and practices social justice in its relations with corn producers. You can take a tour of Cintli, and try out their tortillas (and other heirloom corn products).

You don’t even have to go to Mexico to experience tortillas made from maíz criollo. In 2014, Jorge Gaviria, originally from New York, founded Masienda in San Francisco; now located in Los Angeles, Masienda aims to “elevate the everyday tortilla through a return to its origins,” which Gaviria found in Oaxaca. By now, Masienda has relationships with over 2,000 smallholder Oaxacan corn farmers, and produces traditional tortillas from their native corn. You can purchase Masienda’s Corn Tortillas (pink bag) and their Blue Corn Tortillas (blue bag) from Whole Foods in New York City for $4.49 US each.

Whether creating a market for gourmet tortillas will create enough demand to help small farmers in Oaxaca is an open question, though. If you’re in Mexico now or even a couple of years from now, that corn tortilla under your taco will most probably have been “born in the USA.”

Immigration to Mexico – Emigration from Where?

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

According to the 2020 decennial Mexican census, the population of Mexico was 129,932,753 people, of whom 1,212,252, or less than 1%, were officially counted as immigrants. In the United States, which has the highest number of immigrants in the world (nearly 50 million), they comprise about 15% of the population; in Canada, it’s 21.5%. The vast majority of immigrants arrive in Mexico from the United States, mostly in the form of retirees and snowbirds who hold temporary or permanent residency; the next largest groups come from Central and South America.

Although the numbers of immigrants to Mexico may be very small – every year, more Mexicans leave the country than foreigners arrive – immigrants have exerted a fair amount of impact on Mexican life and culture. Immigration to Mexico started, of course, with the conquest; during the colonial period, the Spanish rulers were not eager to have immigration from any place besides Spain. After independence (1821), however, Mexico sought to attract other foreigners, who brought their purchasing power and businesses with them. The General Colonization Law of 1824 allowed foreigners to buy land in Mexico, as long as it was farther than the border than 20 “leagues” (60 miles), and farther from the sea than 10 leagues (30 miles) – the General Colonization Law is the ancestor of the trust system, painfully familiar to home-owning residents from abroad.

The law, with a hostile hiatus for the U.S. Mexican War (1846-48), which finally defined Mexico’s northern border, gave impetus to immigration to Mexico, particularly in the 20th century. People came, and continue to come, for religious freedom, to escape unfavorable political conditions, to improve their economic situation.

German immigrants started coming in the 19th century, and were quick to start mercantile/manufacturing and agricultural businesses, in particular coffee and henequen and sisal plantations. Cubans boosted the performing arts, including film production, in the mid-nineteenth century. Tacos árabes and Carlos Slim Helú? Lebanon. Look elsewhere in this issue for short profiles of immigrant contributions to Mexico.

Cubans in Mexico: How and Why They Got Here

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In the beginning – that is, when Spain set out to conquer Mexico – the Spaniards used Cuba as a staging base. Seemed logical, as they had already colonized Cuba by 1511; one Hernan Cortés served as clerk to the Spanish treasurer of Cuba, then moved up to be mayor of Santiago de Cuba. Clearly, Cortés needed more fame and fortune, and set off for Mexico with 11 ships and more than 500 sailors and soldiers, a few of them Cubans.

During Spanish rule in Mexico (1521-1821), and through the 19th century, a small but steady flow of Cubans emigrated to Mexico in search of better opportunities in the much larger country. A much bigger wave of Cubans arrived in the 20th century, escaping the results of Castro’s Cuban Revolution; Cubans who do not want to live under Communism have continued to leave Cuba for Mexico.

In the 21st century, younger Cubans have traveled in large numbers to Mexico in an effort to cross the southern U.S. border – up until 2017, if they made it to U.S. dry land, Cubans had a one-year path to legal residency. This is no longer the case, but Cubans keep coming. In five months last fall/winter (October 2021 through February 2022), 47,000 Cubans fleeing crackdowns on dissent, rising prices, shortages of essential supplies, and a general lack of opportunity, ended up trapped on the Mexican side of the U.S. border.

Obviously, those Cubans are not aiming to immigrate to Mexico, although they may well do so; according to the 2020 Mexican census, there were 25,976 immigrants of Cuban origin living in Mexico, a 644% increase over the 4,033 counted in 2010. A quarter of Cuban immigrants live in the state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatán.

Of the 52 notable Cuban immigrants listed in Wikipedia, more than half were or are performing artists: stage and screen actors, dancers, and musicians. Their list includes eight athletes, three noted writers, three director/producers, two each of politicians and fine artists, and 1 architect, 1 chess grand master, 1 archeologist, 1 cardiologist, and 1 chef.

Perhaps the most interesting Cuban contribution to Mexican culture came during the “Golden Age of Mexican Cinema” (c. 1935-55). The rumberas, or dance films based on Afro-Caribbean rhythms – that would be the rumba, and most succeeding Latin dances – were imagined, created, and performed by Cuban émigrés. With roots in both film noir and Hollywood musicals, a typical rumberas film stars a woman who has, though bad choices or fate, fallen into the underworld, where her dancing and singing skills make her into a flawed and on-her-way-to-a-bad-end femme fatale. The rumberas films may sound melodramatic today, but at the time they were thought to provide a realistic social portrait of a significant sector of Mexican urban life.

The Lebanese in Mexico:How and Why They Got Here

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

The Lebanese began arriving in Mexico even before Lebanon existed as its own country. Its official geographic identity started in the late 1400s, as the Emirate of Mount Lebanon, part of the Ottoman Empire. Mount Lebanon was home to multiple religious groups; leaders of the emirate came from different groups over time, but no one seemed to like each other, much less the Ottoman (Turkish) governors, so there were several uprisings. France first (1860) became an interested party in the area when they came to the rescue of Maronite Christians being attacked by Druse Isamites. (Lebanon would become a French protectorate when the West divided up the Ottoman Empire after World War I; it would win its independence in 1943.)

In 1869, the Suez Canal opened, connecting Europe with the Far East and causing the Lebanese silk industry to collapse. Thus it was, in 1892, that the first Lebanese immigrants arrived on a French ship sailing from Beirut. Over 100,000 Arabic speakers – mostly Lebanese – arrived between then and the 1930s; they settled mostly in the Yucatán and along the Gulf of Mexico, with some moving out across northern Mexico. Although the Lebanese made up only 5% of immigration in the 1930s, they were responsible for about 50% of immigrant contributions to Mexico’s economy. If you go to the harbor in Veracruz, you will find the Plaza of the Lebanese immigrant, which contains a statue dressed in 19th-century Lebanese garb. There are copies of this statue elsewhere in Mexico and around the world, but the one in Veracruz is matched by one in Beirut – the starting and ending points of the Lebanese diaspora in Mexico.

Perhaps the most noted Lebanese citizen of Mexico is Carlos Slim Helú, born on January 28, 1940. Multi-billionaire business magnate Slim made his money mostly in telecommunications. In 1989 President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Mexico’s first economist president, embarked on a program of economic modernization that included privatizing telecommunications. In 1990, Carlos Slim put together a partnership that bought a controlling interest in TelMex. Nowadays, building on his fortune – he was the world’s richest person in the early 2010s – Slim is more known for his philanthropy, if not for the Soumaya Museum in Plaza Corso in Mexico City (there is an earlier one [1994] in Plaza Loreto). Slim built it in 2011 in memory of his wife Soumaya Doumit, who died in 1999.

As Maronite Christians, the Lebanese brought with them a favorite religious figure, the “miracle monk of Lebanon,” Charbel Maklouf (1828-98). Maklouf, a hermit thought to be responsible for miracles of healing; although he was not beatified until 1965 or canonized until 1977, he arrived in Mexico with Lebanese immigrants in the early 1900s. Saint Charbel is fairly popular; people adorn his statues with listones, long ribbons with requests for miracles or intercessions written on them, accompanied by a drawing of a cedar tree. Lebanese Muslims built the first dedicated mosque in Mexico in 1989; the Suraya Mosque is located in the city of Torreón in Coahuila.

Perhaps the most delectable Lebanese contributions to Mexican culture are culinary. While the meat on the spit is more likely to be pork or goat, not lamb, don’t we all crave tacos al pastor (shepherd tacos) or tacos árabes (Arab tacos)? Lebanese culinary influences are probably strongest in the Yucatán, where the Lebanese first arrived. Eggplant and potatoes, legumes such as chickpeas and lentils, lamb, yogurt, onions, and olive oil, not to mention mint, oregano, cinnamon, and cumin, are all used in Mexican adaptations of Lebanese cuisine.

Politics, Petroleum, and the Environment:How to Doom Your Country’s Climate Targets

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

About last month: Did you emerge from the mental fog induced by St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 in time to face the festivities of March 18? Completely missed it? March 18, what’s that?

Mexico’s Oil Belongs to Mexico – via PEMEX

In Mexico, March 18 is “Expropriation Day,” the anniversary of President Lázaro Cárdenas’ 1938 nationalization of the country’s oil fields and production facilities. It seemed like “a good idea at the time,” and many Mexicans think of the expropriación petrolera as a second Mexican Revolution, one that liberated Mexican workers from low wages and oppressive working conditions imposed by the foreign companies that dominated the oil industry in Mexico. It is taught in schools as a story of resistance to American imperialism, a source of great national pride.

Before expropriation, there were 17 international firms producing oil in Mexico, dominated by the Mexican Eagle Company (a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch/Shell Company, now just “Shell”) and various U.S. firms (Jersey Standard, a branch of Standard Oil, and Standard Oil Company of California, SOCAL, now Chevron); together the Dutch and the Americans (basically, the Rockefellers) controlled 90% of the production of Mexican oil; Gulf Oil added another 5%.

Under Cárdenas’ plan, the Mexican government would control the production and commercialization of all petroleum resources derived from Mexican territory, significantly increasing government income while shoring up public finance and the social benefits it provided. To do this, he created a government corporation, Petróleos Mexicanos – that would be PEMEX, for those of us who drive in Mexico.

PEMEX was designed as a country-wide monopoly, jointly owned by the state and the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana (petroleum workers’ union). It was tasked with all phases of oil and gas production in Mexico: exploration, development, transportation, refining, storage, distribution, and sales. It was designed to partner with the Comisión Federal de Electricidad, known far and wide as CFE, which had been set up in 1937.

Mexico as Petrostate

And what has 84 years of government control of the oil and gas industry done for Mexico?

International oil companies had been encouraged to come to Mexico by President José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori, who ruled Mexico in dictatorial style from 1877 to 1911 (with a four-year hiatus due to term limits, which he canceled after his re-election). Porfirio Díaz was overthrown by the Mexican Revolution (officially fought from 1910-17). In 1917, there were 440 oil production companies working in Mexico, they produced 55 million barrels a day, and Mexico was the world’s second-largest producer of crude oil.

In 1917, Mexico voted in its Constitution, which restored national control of the oil industry. Foreign companies could produce oil from Mexican wells, but needed to obtain official government concessions, which the largest companies refused to do. Both sides succeeded in ignoring the tensions, but oil production began slipping away to Venezuela, where it was cheaper to extract the crude.

Two decades later, the event that brought on expropriation was a labor strike against the international petroleum companies; after a year of negotiating, the petroleum workers’ union walked off the job for 11 days, and the government sent the contract to federal arbitration, which defined a new contract. The international companies refused to accept it, expropriation had been established by law in 1916, and there you go – Mexico took it all.

Over time, that hasn’t worked out all that well. The greatly simplified explanation is that, had the motivations for expropriation, the establishment of PEMEX, and tying it to CFE, been strictly economic, all might have been well. But the public monopoly was also intended to support Mexico’s socioeconomic programs – health, housing, education, recreation, retirement. (PEMEX revenues also funded Mexico’s repayment of loans incurred during the financial crisis of the late 1970s.) Ultimately, PEMEX has been used to pay for everything but financing the company itself: there has been little exploration for new sites, there is no infrastructure to develop them, and lack of maintenance has produced huge oil spills, particularly into the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, PEMEX has been heavily subsidized by the government to keep retail prices low, thus obscuring real production production costs, so there is no government or public appetite for “remodeling” PEMEX to do a better job.

Back to the Future in the Oil Industry

Every so often, especially when the petroleum industry teetered and later as NAFTA was being negotiated (1994, renewed 2020), figures in the Congreso de la Unión (the federal legislature) or various presidents would make noises about letting international oil companies return. Between 2004 and the beginning of the presidential term of President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-18), oil production had dropped from 3.4 to 2.5 million barrels a day, and continued to drop, but the nation’s budget depended on PEMEX for a third of its revenues.

If the nation’s oil industry were left to PEMEX on its own, “Much of Mexico’s estimated 30 billion barrels of oil and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” would “simply remain locked in the ground” (Forbes, October 30, 2013). PEMEX was hamstrung, without “sufficient technical expertise” for exploration, and was legally denied the ability to acquire the expertise. Even if PEMEX could have brought in outside expertise, “big oil” wouldn’t come without financial guarantees, which PEMEX of course could not provide.

In 2013, Peña Nieto managed to amend the Mexican constitution to permit private international investment in oil, gas, and electricity production and distribution, including in the retail fuel market. Mexico auctioned off blocks of deep and shallow water exploration concessions, and welcomed international gasolineras – indeed, those of us who drive in Mexico saw BP (née British Petroleum), RepSol (Spain), and Gulf (U.S.) stations on our southbound treks to Oaxaca.

Not So Fast!

Many – notably, future presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) – opposed the constitutional reform on the grounds that oil and gas were a treasure of Mexico’s national heritage. “Treason,” said AMLO. When AMLO won the 2018 election on the basis of his populist nationalism, cloaked in the language of the left, he immediately set out to dismantle Peña Nieto’s energy sector reforms and restore PEMEX and fossil fuels to a position of pride – although not necessarily productivity, and certainly not to the benefit of the environment.

However, AMLO’s approach to Mexican energy – restore PEMEX/CFE and achieve self-sufficiency, the environment be damned – has brought on sharp criticism from analysts concerned with environmental protection. Combined with the environmental impacts of other AMLO strategies in tourism and economic development, Mexican energy policy is raising alarms at home and abroad; the policies are seen as detrimental, if not disastrous, in a country as “mega-biodiverse” as Mexico.

Mexico is party to the 2015 Paris Agreement, a UN-sponsored international treaty that records voluntary “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, from its signatory nations to meet targets for (1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions and (2) adapting to climate change through developing sources of alternative energy. Mexico was the first “developing country” to submit a plan for participating in the Paris Agreement, including an NDC of cutting emissions 22% by 2030 and obtaining 35% of its energy from alternative sources by 2024.

Countries are supposed to boost those targets every five years; new targets were announced in October 2021 at COP26, the second UN-sponsored climate change conference (Glasgow, Scotland, October 2021). Despite a visit from U.S. climate envoy John Kerry in advance of COP26, Mexico – along with Russia and Brazil – said it would work on increasing targets, but would not raise them. Mexico is the 14th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and the 2nd-largest in Latin America, bested only by the Brazil of Jair Bolsonaro, who promotes “land use change” in the form of slash-and-burn conversion of jungle to agriculture and industry. Climate Action Tracker, an international research partnership, finds that, given its policies and performance, Mexico’s emissions will rise, not fall, and the Mexico’s targets are “not at all consistent with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature limit.”

AMLO and the Environment

It would, of course, be difficult to lower emissions when you are “pouring money into PEMEX, at the environment’s expense” as Bloomberg analysts put it in January 2021. In search of an energy-independent Mexico, AMLO has also made regulatory changes that “cut the knees off a booming renewables market” by ordering regulatory agencies to favor PEMEX/CFE by means of over-regulation of about 200 wind farms, solar arrays, natural gas plants, and other private projects.

AMLO is promoting two major infrastructure projects. First, to shore up oil production, he is building an $8 billion US mega oil refinery at Dos Bocas in his home state of Tabasco, on what was a protected mangrove forest. The refinery has been opposed by both business and environmentalist groups, and has been prejected to fail on financial grounds. In addition, AMLO has asked PEMEX to increase output at the country’s six current refineries, which burn highly polluting fuel oil. CFE is using high-sulfur fuel oil, and has bought tons – 2 million tons – of coal as a further source of fuel.

And then there’s the (in)famous Tren Maya, a tourism initiative that is laying over 1,550 kilometers of rail tracks across Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Chiapas – right through the rainforest that is home to the endangered Mexican jaguar. The price tag is now $200 billion mxn (about $9.8 billion US); in a bid to add utility to the Tren Maya, freight capacity has been added to the original vision. The Tren Maya is opposed by both indigenous and environmentalist groups.

AMLO’s strategies for meeting Mexico’s NDCs are to plant trees and update 60 hydroelectric plants. The Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life) program, funded at $3.4 billion US, pays farmers to plant trees for fruit and timber production. Intended to bring income-producing agriculture to degraded land, the program actually encourages farmers to clear the jungle (that would be slash-and-burn again) to plant the program-provided trees.

Modernizing the hydroelectric plants receives high marks from agencies and experts in general, but in the first quarter of 2019, hydroelectric produced 6.4% of Mexico’s power, other alternatives (wind, nuclear, solar) produced 9.6%, and fossil fuels produced the remaining 84%. Hydroelectric power is much more expensive to produce than wind or solar; all the plants involved are over 50 years old, and modernization will be complicated and expensive. Many areas of Mexico face drought conditions, and dammed water is diverted to agricultural use rather than the hydroelectric plant. Promoting hydroelectric power with these improvements is a policy with only minor benefits.

When his policies and programs are criticized on environmental grounds, AMLO is dismissive, conspiracy oriented, and attacks the opposition: “There’s a lot of deception. I would tell you that they have grabbed the flag of clean energy in the same way they grab the flag of feminism or human rights. Since when are conservatives concerned about the environment?”

When he was elected, AMLO said he would have a mid-term review of his presidency. On April 11, 2022, he is holding a consulta de Revocación de Mandato, a consultation with voters on whether to “revoke his mandate.” The ballot question is carefully awkward, if not confusing, in its wording; it conflates the issues of whether or not a voter approves of AMLO’s policies with whether AMLO should stay in office. Given a general social bias towards continuity, AMLO is likely to win in a landslide.

International Women’s Day, Mexican Style

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Over the years, the March issue of the The Eye has observed International Women’s Day (March 8) with articles on the famous, the fierce, the creative, the entrepreneurial – and the murdered – women of Mexico.

Mexican women have been world-class artists, actors, writers and photographers; they fought in their two national revolutions and have played key roles in the Zapatista movement. They are businesswomen and entrepreneurs; they occasionally give men a run for their money in corruption.

Politically speaking, Mexico has just become a leader in gender equity: by law, half the Congress must be women (The U.S. Senate is 24% women, and the House of Representatives is about 28%; in Canada, the Senate recently reached 50% women, but only briefly, while the House of Commons is 34% women.)

International Women’s Day is a worldwide celebration of what has been achieved in terms of women’s social, economic, cultural, and political equity; IWD works to raise awareness of what remains to be done. It emerged early in the 20th century – from labor struggles in the U.S. and Europe, from suffrage struggles in Russia, and in Mexico, from the Revolution of 1910-20. Although the U.S. labor movement celebrated National Women’s Day in 1909, the first International Women’s Day was observed in Europe in 1911. With the second-wave women’s movement of the 1960s, recognition by the U.N. in 1975, and official U.N. designation of March 8 as the date in 1977, IWD became a mainstream, but largely unofficial, holiday throughout the world.

International Women’s Day in Mexico

In Mexico, IWD was first celebrated in the 1930s in Mexico City. Mexican feminism began to emerge in the late 19th century, aimed mostly at achieving education for women; these efforts bore fruit before, during, and after the Revolution, as schoolteachers started entering the workforce. (The right to divorce came during the Revolution, in 1914.) Feminist magazines began appearing in the decades surrounding the Revolution as well, but they did not focus on broad social, economic, and political rights of full citizenship; rather, they promoted the emancipación of women within traditional social structures – they should broaden their intellectual and cultural horizons, and the importance their roles as wife and mother should be recognized.

With the support of progressive forces, including the Communist Party of Mexico, the Frente Único pro Derechos de la Mujer (The United Front for the Rights of Women – Frida Kahlo was one of the leaders), focused directly on national suffrage (there had been local progress on voting rights in the Yucatán and San Luis Potosí). Although the United Front was very active in the late 1930s, women did not win the national right to vote until 1953.

Until recently, there has been little research on mid-century Mexican feminism, but if we look carefully at a 1960 Mexican poster commemorating International Women’s Day and the 50th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, we can get a picture of just what the emancipation of women meant Mexico.

First, the poster shows the involvement of women in larger revolutionary struggles. The central figure, bearing a torch, is backed by the Cuban flag and has the number 26 emblazoned on her shirt – “26” was the symbol of Castro’s campaign to overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista (the effort began July 26, 1953). On the right of the poster appear Asian women – the Chinese Revolution that brought that Communist Party and Mao Zedong to power concluded on October 1, 1949. To the left appear three Mexican women, who arguably represent, from front to back, women of direct Spanish descent, mestizos (Spanish and indigenous descent), and indigenous. A Mexican girl releases a dove, symbol of peace, to the flock in the sky. Nonetheless, the idea that women have participated in national revolutions is not the same as promoting a major revolution for the rights of women.

Second, and what is perhaps most interesting – and complicated – is the slogan across the bottom of the poster: LA EMANCIPACION DE LA MUJER ES LA OBRA DE LA MUJER MISMA (The emancipation of women is the work of the woman herself). “Emancipation” is a fraught word, saying more about the condition women want to escape – it reeks of restraint and control, if not slavery. And to say it is women themselves who must do the work of emancipation passes the buck on the long history of Church-influenced social structures and laws, much less the culture of machismo (literally, maleness) that have led to the need for emancipation.

International Women’s Day 2020

The Mexican feminist movement grew, as it did all around the world, during the 1960s through the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, the phenomenon of femicide in Mexico surfaced in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, where hundreds of women went missing, only to be found dead. Evaluations of interventions to quell the violence have shown they have had little effect, due to lackluster implementation or the country’s culture of impunity that favors men.

Thirty years later, with femicide and violence against women only growing, the slogans of the International Women’s Day marches of 2020 and 2021 said nothing about “emancipation.” Nor were the marches merely demonstrations, but serious, and violent, protests about femicide and gender-based violence.

On Saturday, February 8, 2020, Érick Francisco murdered his partner Ingrid Escamilla by stabbing her to death with a kitchen knife, then proceeding to skin and dismember her. This is femicide, which is far more prevalent in Mexico than the official statistics allow. For the murder of a woman to be considered a femicide, the woman must have experienced ongoing domestic, particularly sexual, abuse, and she must have been tortured or mutilated as part of the murder.

In 2018, Mexico registered 3,752 femicides, over 10 a day; in 2019, it was 3,825. Femicides surged 7.7% in the opening months of the pandemic. Feminists have called Mexico the “Femicide State” (Mexico Feminicidio) and cite a “culture of impunity” coming straight from the top.

In March 2020, there were over 26,000 calls to domestic violence hotlines. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manual López Obrador (AMLO) said 90% of them were fake. AMLO has also expressed impatience with feminist protests – they were just a distraction to make sure his airplane raffle failed; the March 8 demonstrations were the work of neoliberal opponents from the last regime “who want to see this government fail,” and “suddenly conservatives are dressing up as feminists” to attack him (reporting from The New York Times, May 31, 2020).

On International Women’s Day, Sunday, March 8, 2020, about 80,000 women took to the streets in Mexico City alone. Femicide and gender-based violence were the major themes: “Fight today so we don’t die tomorrow,” was accompanied by hundreds of posters of murdered women.

On Monday, March 9, the movement sponsored “A Day without Women,” a universal strike by women who stayed home from work (4o%, or 21 million, of Mexico’s women are in the formal workforce, countless more comprise the informal workforce) or did not leave their houses, in particular, they spent nothing to contribute to the economy. Major corporations (Walmart employs 108,000 women) gave women a paid day off to demonstrate.

International Women’s Day 2021

The National Palace – the seat of Mexico’s government and the home of the president – prepared for last year’s march with a barricade running all around the building. AMLO said it was to prevent “damage to historic buildings” (another barrier was erected around the national art museum, the Palacio de Bellas Artes), and to eliminate “provocations” that might be “infiltrated” by people seeking to use the women’s movement. AMLO himself, he said, is not a “male chauvinist” (reporting from BBC News, March 8, 2021).

On Monday, March 8, International Women’s Day saw a smaller number of protestors than in 2020, perhaps due to the pandemic, perhaps because there had been no ghastly femicides recently. Women, however, remained equally outraged. They were outraged by the barricade, which on Saturday night they had painted with a seemingly endless list – actually, 939 – of the names of murdered women.

They were also outraged by AMLO’s insensitivity to women’s issues, expressed this year in his steadfast support for Félix Salgado Macedonia, a candidate for governor of the state of Guerrero accused of rape by multiple women. According to AMLO, the accusations are “politically motivated,” and news-conference questions about Salgado brought a sharp “That’s enough!” (¡Ya Chole!). (Salgado’s daughter, Evelyn Salgado Pineda, is now governor of Guerrero.)

Protestors attacked the barricade with hammers, blowtorches, and their hands. Police threw flash-bang grenades and sprayed protestors with fire retardant; protestors sprayed well-shielded police with fire extinguishers. Injuries were reported by 62 police and 19 protestors.

While not all women in these protests agree that violence should be the tactic of choice, they also recognize that it seems to be the only way to focus attention on the issue of violence against themselves. Violence against women is the most basic way to keep women from achieving equality, and Mexico’s police have been “heavily implicated” in the crisis of violence against women. It should not be surprising that the “new” feminists of Mexico are younger women dedicated to supporting each other in the face of violence, using violent protest themselves when they consider it necessary.

Play Ball! Play Mesoamerican Ball! Play Ulama!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s Mexico’s oldest sport, played formally with rules, courts, and rituals for at least 3,000 years, and informally for a millennium or more before that – it’s also the world’s oldest team sport. While the folks of the “Initial” and “Early Formative” periods in Mesoamerican culture (1900-1000 BCE) played all kinds of ballgames, with all kinds of balls, when we say “Mesoamerican Ball,” we’re talking about a sport that is thought to have originated in the lowlands of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador, probably because that’s where the rubber for the rubber ball was most common.

Mesoamerican ball (ōllamalīztli, ōllama in Nahuatl, pitz in Classic period Maya) is a fundamental feature of pre-Columbian culture in the region – archaeologists have identified nearly 2,500 ball courts (tlachti in Nahuatl), with the oldest known court (originally thought to be from about 1400 BCE, but recently redated to 1650 BCE) in Paso de la Amada in the coastal lowlands of Chiapas.

The oldest court in the Mesoamerican highlands dates from 1374 BCE, and was just found in 2020, under another ballcourt in San Mateo Etlatongo by Jeffrey P. Blomster and Victor E. Salazar Chávez, archaeologists from George Washington University. (Etlatongo is 90 km (54 miles) northwest of Oaxaca City, off Routes 190 and 135D.)

Of course, discovering the second oldest Mexican ball court in the Oaxacan highlands has upended the idea that the game came from the lowlands, so the academics are in a bit of a tizzy right now. We, however, are happy that the discovery tells us more about the sport itself.

How to Play (Really Ancient) Ball!

That ballgame was there at the creation, so to speak, as part of the origin myths of the Mayan people recorded in the Popol Vuh, an ancient sacred text of the Maya. The version we have was prepared from oral recitations of the story, first (most probably) as a phonetic rendition by a Spanish scribe in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, sometime after 1524, when the area was conquered Pedro de Alvarado. No one’s ever found any such manuscript, but we do know that the priest Francisco Ximénez, who served in Santo Tomás Chichicastenango (or Chullá or Chilá), prepared a manuscript of “the histories of the origin of the Indians of this province of Guatemala.” It was “translated from the Quiché language into Castilian for the convenience of the ministers of the holy gospel.” The Ximénez document, produced between 1701 and 1703, put the phonetic version on the left and Spanish on the right. Given the Spanish penchant for destroying indigenous documents and artifacts, it is a remarkable contribution to what we know of ancient Mayan thought.

And what does the Popol Vuh have to say about the ballgame? Not all that much about the rules, although it implies sacred, political, and ritual components of the game.

Hun Hunahpu and his brother Vucub Hunahpu are playing ball on a court set up by the lords of the underworld, Xibalba. The noise of the brothers’ game annoys the lords; when the brothers fall asleep, the Xibalba lords capture them, kill them, and bury them in the ball court. All except Hun Hunahpu’s head, which they hang in a fruit tree. Along comes a goddess, and Hun’s head spits into her hands; she becomes pregnant and bears his sons, the Hero Twins, who through a series of adventures, end up in a ballgame with the lords of Xibalba; the Twins win.

The myth links the ballgame with overcoming death, with heroic mortals overcoming underworld deities on a field that links death with life, thus creating the universe in which we mortals live in.

As for how the game was, is, and would be played in our time, the Popol Vuh doesn’t really tell us. What we do know is that it was played in different ways in different places; our information comes from the balls themselves, of various sizes; excavated ball courts, with bouncing walls (rather like handball) or rings mounted high on the wall (rather like basketball); paintings of ball games, even in places where no ball courts have been found; remnants of pottery figurines of ballplayers showing the player wearing a protective yoke, with a loincloth below (confirmation that the hip-ball version, rather than hand- or foot- or stick-ball, was predominant); human vertebrae (confirmation of the notion that losing a ball game could be fatal).

The games were played sometimes one on one, or in teams of up to four players. In places with no upper goal rings, the point is to keep the ball in play. Scoring is very complicated – when one team allowed the ball to go out of bounds, the other team scored. If a player let the ball bounce twice before returning it to the other team, a penalty. With goal rings, some think a failed attempt penalized the team that tried, when the ball actually went through the ring, the game was over. Others think the goal ring, which was a difficult target for a hip-shot ball, was just for bonus points.

As for the human sacrifices, certainly foreshadowed in the Popol Vuh, sometimes yes, mostly no. There’s evidence that the upper classes played the game, so sacrifice was out. As the ballgame moved from the Maya to the Aztecs, however, issues of war and prisoners of war became more prominent, and sacrifice was in. There is evidence of human sacrifice at the huge Zapotec ballcourt at Monte Albán, but doubt as to whether it was the winners or losers who were sacrificed. At Chichen Itza, home to skull racks and unconfirmed rumors that the game was played with severed heads, it’s definitely the winning team that gets done in.

About That Ball …

We don’t know much about the size or weight of the balls used in play, although the ball is responsible for the “lowland paradigm” among archeologists, i.e., that because the Panama rubber tree (Castilla elastica) grows along the coast, the game developed there. And wrapping around the rubber tree was the white moonflower (Ipomea alba), a night-blooming morning glory. Combining the sap of these two plants created a particularly bouncy rubber, which fascinated the Spanish conquistadors – rubber was virtually unknown in Europe at the time.

It may have been the ball more than the game that led Hernan Cortés to take a team of indigenous players back to Spain in 1528, seven years after the Conquest, when he went to plead his case for continuing to rule Mexico (even some of the Spanish found the destruction of the Aztec Empire unnecessarily brutal). While Cortés brought many “wonders” back to the Spanish court, the ballgame – especially the bouncing rubber ball – was apparently a big hit. Columbus might also have brought rubber balls back to the Spanish court, but not accompanied by teams of barely clad but completely literate, extremely athletic players – we even have a 1528 drawing of them at play!

Although the clergy present supposedly muttered about human skulls in the core of the ball, two representatives from the Nahua teams (we know one was Benyto Maçatlaquemi – the scanty records do not name the second) went off to visit Pope Clement VII. They had learned both Spanish and Latin, as well as Court and Vatican etiquette – Cortés presented them as gentlemen scholar athletes, in their finest indigenous clothing, dyed scarlet with cochineal, iridescent with quetzal feathers. Clement bounced the ball, and cardinals laughed. Clement bestowed on the Nahuas the usual Vatican gifts, e.g., Italian clothing, but he also gave each of them a gold chain, a mark of rank and status, made by the most noted goldsmith in 16th-century Rome, Pompeo de’ Capitaneis. Clement prepared four papal bulls in the wake of the ballplayers’ visit: he established churches for indigenous peoples in Mexico City, in Culhuacán and Tlatelolco, now parts of Mexico City, and in the neighboring state of Tlaxcala.

The Vatican’s goals were to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write Spanish, to preserve indigenous languages in the Roman alphabet, and to encourage indigenous peoples to write their own histories. These goals were undertaken by the Jesuit priests of New Spain; their efforts are generally credited with the creation of Latin American humanities. It should be noted that the influence went both ways – crimson-dyed clothing and featherwork became very popular across Europe.

Play Ulama!

Mesoamerican ball is still played in a number of Latin American countries, both at home and against each other. An exhibition game was played at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (see article elsewhere in this issue).

Now called “pok ta pok,” after a 1932 adaptation by a Danish archaeologist from a Yucatecan word, as often as “ulama,” the sport’s last World Cup (the third) was won by the Black Jaguars of Belize, beating out El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Mayan Ball Game World Cup is held every two years – if COVID allows, the fourth World Cup is coming right up in Mérida, in the Yucatán, December 2-6, 2021.

At the Xcaret eco-archaeological park, there’s an ulama court where exhibition games are played. Mexico City has an ulama court where amateurs form up teams to play matches. And Mexico’s Secretariat of Culture has been urged by other government agencies to “formulate, establish, or evaluate the candidacy of the ulama tradition that comes down from the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican ball game, practiced in some Sinaloa communities,” to be considered for UNESCO’s designation as an intangible cultural heritage.

Glocal Gastronomy: Growing Tourism in Mexico

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

The Stealth Food Tour

Almost 20 years ago, my husband and I left Orizaba, Veracruz, after visiting a friend, and set off down the Sierra Madre del Sur to see the Pacific Ocean. We stopped over in Tehuacán, where we wandered around the zócalo (main square) that evening, eyeing the brightly-lit taco carts with trepidation. We were intimidated by the rapid-fire system for ordering, paying, and getting plates of three tacos with bewilderingly different fillings. But the local eaters, perched on the plastic stools circling each cart, didn’t let us go hungry. They gestured, they pointed, they chattered in Spanish we didn’t yet understand – and we had a delicious dinner!

Further down the road was the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, where we ate more tacos, crunched on grasshoppers, and tried to figure out why the sauce on the chicken was redolent of chocolate. The food highlight, however, was the La Noche de los Rábanos (The Night of the Radishes), which takes place on December 23.

The zócalo was turned over to an elaborate network of boardwalks past tables displaying scenes largely made up of intricately carved radishes. These are not your namby-pamby Cherry Belles or French Breakfast radishes. They put Japanese daikon to shame, reaching a weight of up to 10 pounds and a length of up to 2 feet. Complemented with separate competitions in scenes made of cornhusk (totomoxtle) and dried flowers (flores inmortales), the radish displays compete for a large prize ($21,000 pesos in 2018) in the traditional and free (libre) categories. Traditional includes religious and cultural scenes, while there’s no limit to the imagination in free scenes. Unfortunately, the radishes wilt, so the whole thing – including the actual carving and competition – is over in one day.

Back on the road, at the end of the road, we discovered La Bocana, then a quiet paradise of palm trees and the Pacific Ocean (not so much, not no more). As it still is, however, Los Güeros was very much a family restaurant, and there we learned to love camarones al mojo de ajo.

While we were completely unaware that we had taken a food tour, we had. We had walked through a century-plus-old cultural event with the radishes, eaten traditional foods (those grasshoppers and that mole), and talked to (sort of) local people eating local street food. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Tourism Trend Alert – It’s All about the Experience!

Although we see a lot of old-style tourism in Huatulco, aimed at relaxation and consumption – all-inclusive hotels with endless buffets, massages, and multiple pools, cruise ships with guided tours and careful activities – we also see that newer trends in tourism have arrived in Huatulco.

Sometime around 2015, tourism associations and researchers started commenting on “experience tourism.” Travel now offered the chance of “having a once-in-a-lifetime experience or gaining an emotional connection with cultures and nature.” By 2016, the Harris poll reported that 72% of millennials (25- to 40-year-olds) preferred spending their travel dollars on unique experiences than on souvenirs, embroidered blouses, or standardized hotels. The poll doesn’t mention that experiences take a lot more travel dollars than, say, an alebrije carving that fits in your carry-on.

Journey Mexico (www.journeymexico.com), a guide-owned and -operated agency located in Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and Cancun, “specializes in crafting unique, authentic and unexpected travel experiences for the discerning and sophisticated traveler.” The words “luxury,” “adventure,” “culture,” “nature,” and “villas” appear on the photos scrolling across the home page.

According to Stephanie Schneiderman, of Tia Stephanie Tours in Ann Arbor, Michigan (www.tiastephanietours.com), “People are turning away from mindless consumerism and are realizing that what really fills the mind and soul are experiences, not things.”

Experiencing Food

And, of course, what better way to experience a culture than with food? In 2010, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), designated traditional Mexican cuisine an “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” because it is “a comprehensive cultural model comprising farming, ritual practices, age-old skills, culinary techniques and ancestral community customs and manners. It is made possible by collective participation in the entire traditional food chain: from planting and harvesting to cooking and eating.”

There are many ways to experience food in Mexico – sampling the range of regional cuisines, learning to cook popular and/or specialized Mexican dishes, visiting the makers of tequila or mezcal – and the Mexican government has jumped on the food-culture bandwagon. Impelled by the UNESCO Patrimonia Mundial de Humanidad designation and building on the already established Rutas Turisticas de México (e.g., the Missions Route through Baja California, the Route of Silver in Aguascalientes, the Mezcal Route in Oaxaca), the Secretariat of Tourism has organized 18 Rutas Gastronómicas de México. The routes involve 155 destinations in 32 locations, more than 1,500 dishes and beverages, and over 500 chefs who have “created dishes that merge tradition and modernity.” There are routes about particular foods – cacao in Chiapas and Tabasco, coffee and vanilla in Veracruz, the “thousand flavors of mole” in Oaxaca. In Querétaro and Guanajuato you can order “dishes with history”; in Jalisco your experience is accompanied by the “sound of the mariachis.”

Like the Rutas Turisticas, the food routes are self-guided tours. The Secretariat of Tourism has put together a 96 page booklet that covers all the tours – download it from https://cedocvirtual.sectur.gob.mx/janium/Documentos/12282.pdf.

Both Journey Mexico and Tia Stephanie offer experiences in Mexican cuisine, for example, an 8-day tour of “Food, Wine and Tequila in Colonial Mexico” and another 8-day tour, “Maíz, Mole & Mezcal: Traditions and Flavors of Oaxaca,” respectively. Eat Mexico Culinary Tours (www.eatmexico.com) will take you on a street food and market tour in Puebla; see “¡Salud! A Toast to the Vinyards of Mexico” in the May-June 2021 issue of The Eye to put together your own wine-tasting tour in Guanajuato, Querétaro, Baja California, or Coahuila. Intrepid Travel (www.intrepidtravel.com) provides a mega itinerary from Mexico City through Puebla and Oaxaca City right on down to Huatulco, where tour participants experience a Pacific Ocean boating expedition followed by a coastal cuisine masterclass on one of the area’s “stunning beaches.”

Not that the Huatulqueños don’t have their own culinary experiences to offer – most take a half or whole day. Wahaca Cooking School in La Bocana offers a tour to the Monday market in San Pedro Pochutla (https://wahacacooking.mx/). Maxi Travel will take you to the Pochutla market en route to the El Pacifico Coffee Plantation high in the mountains of Sierra Madre del Sur (https://www.maxitravel.mx/). A number of local guides will take you to agave fields to explore the making of tequila and mezcal, or to coffee plantations.

Hagia Sofia is a fascinating place on the Magadalena River in the mountains between Santa María Huatulco and Pluma Hidalgo; proprietor Armando Canavati has created an eco-park with adventure activities and the largest collection of exotic heliconia flowers in the western hemisphere. Armando’s underlying goal, however, is to cultivate exotic fruits from around the world that will grow in the lower Sierra Madre, with an eye to creating agricultural employment. Have you ever eaten the fruit that surrounds a single cashew? How about mangosteen? You can on a trip to Hagia Sofia! (https://hagiasofia.mx/hagia-sofia-eco-park/).

And we don’t just write about the foods of Mexico at The Eye. Multi-entrepreneur Jane Bauer offers cooking classes at her Chiles&Chocolate school in the village of Zimatán, where she also hosts “Village to Table” dinners of 8 courses with wine pairings (http://www.huatulcocookingclasses.com/). The dean of mezcal education is Eye writer Alvin Starkman, who runs Mezcal Educational Tours in the rural areas around Oaxaca City. Alvin offers day tours to local palenques (mezcal-making operations), and multi-day tours (up to a week long), “Comprehensive Mezcal/Culinary/Cultural Expeditions.” Were it nor for the pandemic, I would have been on one of Alvin’s tours in March 2020 … sigh. Tours have resumed, however: https://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com/.