Tag Archives: Deborah Van Hoewyk

It Came from Outer Space –and the Dinosaurs Were No More

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

A long time ago, in an asteroid belt – or maybe a comet cloud – but definitely far far away … a “space rock” escaped its orbit and slammed into Earth. It was the end of an era.

An Astronomical Event
A long time would be 66 million years ago (mya), apparently on a day in the northern-hemisphere spring. The impact marked the end of a geological period called the Cretaceous, which ran from 145 to 66 mya). The Cretaceous followed the Triassic (237- 201 mya) and Jurassic (201-145 mya); these three periods comprise the Mesozoic Era, or the age of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs, except for those that could fly, were pretty much instantaneously over as well.

There is not yet agreement on whether the “space rock,” 9.6 km (±6 miles) in diameter, was an asteroid, basically a giant rock, or a comet, made of ice, rock, and dust. Whether it came from the asteroid belt, a donut-shaped collection of debris left over from when the planets of our solar system were formed, or from one or another of the more distant debris clouds that generate comets, doesn’t really seem to matter. Either way, Jupiter got into the act and set the space rock on course for a place named Chicxulub (chicks-oo-loob) on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.

What did Jupiter do? Exerted gravity. Jupiter is about 318 times the mass of Earth, and its gravitational pull is about 2.4 times that of Earth. As astrophysicist Amir Siraj, a student at Harvard when he did his research on the “Chicxulub Impactor,” explains, “the solar system acts as a kind of pinball machine,” and “Jupiter, the most massive planet, kicks incoming long-period comets into orbits that bring them very close to the Sun.” The complicated interaction of these “sun grazer” comets with solar tidal forces makes them smaller and faster, and increases the chance they’re headed straight for earth.

What Happened the Day the Dinosaurs Died?
About a thousand species of dinosaurs inhabited the earth. From ancestors to extinction, they lasted about 230 million years, with the age of recognizable dinosaurs running for about 165 million years. They originated when the earth had a single land mass, called Pangaea; as Pangaea split into areas we now know as the seven continents, the dinosaurs went along for the ride on most of them.

Mexico hosted a range of dinosaurs, with most fossilized remains coming from northern Baja California and Coahuila. There were horned dinosaurs like the Cohuilaceratops, 4 meters (±13 feet) long and weighing just over a ton – but its horns were 1.2 meters (±4 feet) long. There were some of the largest duckbilled hadrosaurs – remains of Tlatolophus galorum were just unearthed in Coahuila, as well as smaller duck-bills like Velafrons and Latirhinus. Tlatolophus was 8-12 meters (26-39 feet) long, weighing in at about 3.6 tons. There were the “apex predators,” the tyrranosaurs, who preyed on the hadrosaurs; Mexico’s best-known tyrranosaur was the medium-sized Labocania, only 7 meters (23 feet) long and weighing in at a ton and half.

Mexico’s dinosaurs were the first to go when the Chicxulub Impactor hit the tip of the Yucatán peninsula with the equivalent of a 100-million megaton blast – 60,000 times the energy of all the nuclear weapons now in existence – hollowing out a crater ±150 km (90 miles) wide.

The impact generated a core of super-heated – over 10,000 degrees – plasma, i.e., matter that has reached a fourth state, beyond solid, liquid, and gas, basically a gas “soup” of charged ions (positive) and electrons (negative).

This thermal pulse lasted for only a few minutes, but it sent out an air blast, a shockwave of air pressure that created winds well over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) per hour. The air blast radiated across the seas, sending raging wildfires through ancient forests and bringing tsunamis with waves 100-300 meters (±330-990 feet) over the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico.

The impact also produced a seismic pulse equal to a magnitude 10 earthquake, causing landslides on the sea floor, which was already deeply eroded by the backwash from the tsunamis. The seismic pulse radiated far from Chicxulub, with tremors gathering surface water and pushing it up the Western Interior Seaway, an inland sea that split what is now the United States in two.

All terrestrial flora and fauna, along with marine life, within a 1,500-1,800 km (900-1008 miles) radius was roasted or buried alive. And all of this occurred before any debris ejected from the crater could fall back to earth. Within minutes, however, the debris – mostly rocky rubble and “ejecta spherules” (tiny glass beads called tektites, composed of melted rock and dust) – began falling over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, covering the end of the Yucatán Peninsula and the adjacent sea floor several hundred meters (±800 feet) deep; 350-600 kilometers (210-360 miles) away in Campeche, at the base of the Yucatán, the ejected debris was 50-300 meters (165 to 980 feet) thick.

Chicxulub and Mass Extinction
The gas, dust, and “geologic shrapnel” flung up by the Chicxulub impact did far more than fall to earth in Mexico. It followed global air currents to create an “impact winter,” in which the entire earth was plunged into darkness and freezing cold as the ejected material circled the globe and blocked out the sun. It was a winter that lasted three years. Hot fragments set off wildfires around the world. Acid rain poured down. Plants died. Animals that ate plants died. Animals that ate the animals that ate the plants died. In what is now called the “Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event (K-Pg),” three-quarters of all species then on earth – including and especially the dinosaurs – went extinct.

Not everyone agrees that Chicxulub is the whole story. After studying over a thousand dinosaur-egg fragments, Chinese scientists have argued that in the two million years before K-Pg, dinosaur diversity was dropping. They conclude that the “end-Cretaceous catastrophic events [saliently massive volcanic eruptions in India that would also have caused climate change] probably acted on an already vulnerable ecosystem and led to nonavian dinosaur extinction.”

There were survivors. Some of the avian dinosaurs, ancestors of today’s birds (not the pterosaurs, though, pterodactyls were actually flying reptiles); early small mammals that lived in burrows; small amphibians like frogs and salamanders; and reptiles – snakes, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, turtles – made it through.

Researchers in evolutionary biology at Cornell University have been studying the ancestors of primates (that’s us!) and marsupials (kangaroos and possums). Before the K-Pg extinction, these mammals had been arboreal, living their entire lives in the trees, not a good place to be as incredibly high temperatures sent wildfires tearing through forests. Right around the time of the impact, however, these mammals were making an evolutionary transition out of the trees and a few survived.

It should be noted that we are now in the “Holocene Extinction,” in which human activity – increasing population, overconsumption, and pollution – threatens the extinction of over a million species in the next ten years; the World Wildlife Fund calls it the “largest mass extinction event since the end of the dinosaur age.”

How Do We Know All This?
You could spend time struggling through academic analyses to gather all this information, but there’s an easier way. David Attenborough, the British dean of natural history documentaries, has just released his latest work, a 90-minute film titled Dinosaurs: The Final Day with David Attenborough (premiered April 15, 2022, on the BBC; in the U.S., May 11, 2022, as a two-part special, Dinosaur Apocalypse, on the PBS show Nova).

The documentary shows Attenborough walking with dinosaurs as the Chicxulub impactor is gathering speed in space (the dinosaurs were created by the animators of The Lion King and The Jungle Book). Surprisingly, the documentary starts out not in Mexico but in Hell Creek, North Dakota, about 3000 km (1800 miles) from Chicxulub. Attenborough spent three years with the researchers at the Tanis dig, and devotes most of the documentary to exploring their findings.

The key? The “K-Pg boundary,” a sharp demarcation between life before, during, and after the impact. At the actual boundary there is a concentration of iridium, a hard, iridescent mineral rare on earth but known to occur in meteorites (meteors are “space rocks” once they have entered Earth’s atmosphere, and meteorites are the post-impact remains of the meteors). In 2016, a group of international marine scientists drilled a thousand feet into the edge of the Chicxulub crater about 30 km (18 miles) northwest of Progreso, Yucatán, extracting a core sample that showed iridium at the point of impact.

The Tanis dig shows this even more clearly. British paleontologist Robert DePalma, working with an international team, found large, astonishingly well-preserved fossils below and in a crumbly layer of rock full of the ejecta spherules. Fossils from the Tanis dig are so well preserved because the post-impact inundation of watery mud engulfed living creatures, preserving them much as volcanic lava preserved the victims at Pompeii in the year 79 CE.

Among these fossils are saltwater fish, obviously not native to North Dakota, with gills full of spherules chemically identical to ones found at Chicxulub, indicating that the fish came with the water that rushed from the Gulf of Mexico up the Western Interior Seaway. It is thought that the spherules may have taken as little as 13 minutes after impact in Mexico to fall in Hell Creek.

Chicxulub and the Future
Will Chicxulub happen again? Probably. But definitely not in our lifetime. Amir Siraj, who identified the sun-grazer comets, has determined that, even though the chances of a similar impact are 10 times greater than previously thought, it’s only projected to occur every 250-730 million years.

In the meantime, Chicxulub has lessons for the future. The crater was open on its northeast side to the Gulf of Mexico, allowing nutrient-rich water to circulate in the crater. Life started up very quickly in the form of microscopic marine life, perhaps within 200 years. A consortium of scientists who study the return of life to Chicxulub say it offers lessons for restoring the oceans, threatened today by oxygen deletion, ocean acidification, and rising temperatures. According to Christopher M. Lowery, of the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas (Austin), Chicxulub “might be an important analog for the recovery of biodiversity after we finally curtail carbon dioxide emissions and pollution.”

What in the World is a Water Rabbit? Plus – Your Pet Rabbit Does NOT Want to Go Swimming!

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

When I was told it was the year of the water rabbit in the Chinese zodiac, I was a tad miffed. What was wrong with the regular rabbit I’ve examined on countless red-and-white paper placemats in the Chinatown restaurants of New York? Would having a water rabbit instead of a regular rabbit change the way the year of the rabbit went?

Not to worry. The rabbit is the same as always, but the Chinese zodiac is more complicated than we think. It is governed by ideas and forces, some of them deeply embedded in Chinese philosophy, that beg for further study. The forces that characterize the twelve zodiac animals, however, are pretty straightforward.

The Yin and the Yang

First, each animal has either a “yin” or a “yang” identity. Yin and yang, if you’re not familiar with them, are the polarities of energy that together shape existence. Yin energies are considered to be feminine, intuitive, and receptive, while yang energies are masculine, logical, and giving. Everything has both yin and yang, and yin and yang work together, but one type of energy will be dominant.

The rabbit, along with the rooster, the ox, the pig, the snake, and the goat (or sheep), are the yin signs of the zodiac. The yang signs, then, are the monkey, the horse, the dog, the tiger, the rat, and the dog. Both the yin and the yang animals have related personality traits. The rabbit (yin), for example, can be described as “quiet, elegant, kind, responsible”; the other two animals in the rabbit’s “compatibility triangle” (determined by the positions on the zodiac circle) are the goat (yin) and the pig (yin) – described as “calm, gentle, sympathetic” and “compassionate, generous, diligent,” respectively.

The Five Elements

The zodiac is also built on wu shing – the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal (gold), and water. The idea is presented in that popular classic for 1960s college students, the I Ching (the Book of Changes). Originally written as a how-to book for divination sometime between 1000 and 750 BCE, and morphing into a cosmological text sometime before 200 BCE, the I Ching contains the roots of both yin/yang and wu shing.

The elements govern the interdependent and interactive relationships among all things; relationships are a balance of creation and destruction, just as ying and yang balance energy. When elements interact, progress – positive or negative – occurs. The five elements move in a cycle; when it’s positive/creative, the cycle goes like this: wood starts a fire, fire creates earth, earth holds metal, metal carries water, water feeds wood. When it’s negative/destructive, the cycle goes like this: fire melts metal, metal chops wood, wood separates the earth, earth absorbs water, water puts out fire.

Combining the Cycles

The zodiac animals rotate in a 12-year cycle, and the zodiac elements in a 5-year cycle. This of course, does not match up. The “regular” rabbit years are 1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011, and this year, 2023.

Since the elements go in the same order every cycle, the element-rabbit cycle has been:

1939: earth rabbit
1951: metal rabbit
1963: water rabbit
1975: wood rabbit
1987: fire rabbit
1999: earth rabbit
2011: metal rabbit
2023: water rabbit!

And what does the water rabbit portend for 2023? The year starts on January 22, 2023, and goes through February 9, 2024. If you were born in any of the years of the rabbit, this will be a year of hope, and your life will take a turn for the better. You will be lucky in love and career, although you should stick with the job you have now. Your lucky colors are red, pink, purple, and blue; your lucky flowers are hostas and jasmine; and your lucky numbers are 3, 7, and 9. Of course, other Chinese horoscopes list completely different colors, flowers, and numbers. Fortune cookie, anyone?

Are Water Rabbits Real?

No, and somewhat yes. Can rabbits swim? All rabbits can manage to swim, usually under extreme duress. The same fluffy coat that makes rabbits cute and cuddly also absorbs water, adding weight and dragging the rabbit down. Rather like trying to swim in your winter coat and boots. Should you have a pet rabbit that likes the water, make sure it swims in a very shallow pool. A foot of water would be the max, and there should be an easy exit.

There are two types of rabbits that do swim regularly, swamp rabbits and marsh rabbits – they have fur described as “sparse.” The swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus) is largest of the cottontail rabbits. It lives in the south-central United States (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama) in cypress swamps, marshes, and river estuaries. The swamp rabbit is the most hunted rabbit in the United States, and is also prey for domestic dogs and alligators. When threatened, they sink down in the water with only their noses showing so they can breathe.

The marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris) is a small cottontail found in the coastal southeast United States. It favors freshwater marshes and brackish estuaries. The largest current population of marsh rabbits is in the Great Dismal Swamp, located on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. They are more prone to swimming than the swamp rabbits. Their worst predators are the great horned owl and the marsh hawk.

Writing in Mexico:
Female Authors, Fantasy, and Femicide

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

Last month, the New York Times profiled a “new vanguard” among the women writers of Latin America (October 9, 2022, “For Latin American Women, Horror and Fantasy Capture Everyday Struggle”). Make no mistake, though, book critic Benjamin P. Russell, warns – the fantasy he’s talking about is not the magical realism we have known and loved from Columbian Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1967), Chilean Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, 1982) or Mexico’s own Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate, 1990).

Magical realism integrates the magical or supernatural into a realistic setting (although you can easily argue that the magic overtakes the real in Like Water for Chocolate!). The magical elements serve to comment on how the real world works – often very badly. In Like Water for Chocolate, Tita falls in love at first sight with Pedro; however, Tita is her mother’s youngest child, and is expected to stay single and care for her mother until she dies. Mom makes Pedro marry Tita’s sister. Esquivel uses Tita’s magical ability to incorporate her emotions into the food she cooks to comment on the injustice of her loneliness. While magical realism can include death and destruction, the very fact that it combines magic and realism, that it makes the magic “real,” means that it does not lend itself well to depicting true horror and evil.

From the Magic to the Unusual

But there are women writers who have no qualms at taking on true horror and evil. Russell points out that a “conspicuous number of women writers are using fantasy, horror and the unfamiliar to unsettle readers and critique social ills” throughout Latin America, with half a dozen authors from Mexico. The critic finds the trend unsurprising, given the widespread “frustration against restrictions on women’s rights and rising gender violence.”

Russell quotes the work of literature professor Carmen Alemany Bay, from the University of Alicante in Spain, in defining this work as the “narrative of the unusual” (narrativa de lo inusual). Fantastical and horrific elements are presented realistically, Bay says, but leave the reader to decide “what is possible and what is not.” Calling these novels magical realism is “a big, big mistake,” she says. “They may contain elements of magic, but that isn’t the foundation.”

For the most part, evil is possible in the narrative of the unusual. And what is more evil than femicide, the killing of women because they are women? Half of all femicides happen in Latin American countries; homicide is the leading cause of death for Mexican women aged 15-25. In absolute numbers for 2020, Mexico ranked second with 948; Brazil was nearly double, with 1,738. (The Eye has regularly covered domestic violence and femicide in Mexico.)

Among the female Mexican authors of novels of the “unusual” are two who have directly addressed femicide, violence against women, and systematic abuse and discrimination. Their themes are remarkably similar, the integration of what is fantasy and what is reality is seamless, and they both have a talent for depicting their settings and characters in extraordinary language redolent of place and time. For your reading pleasure, each has been rendered in English by remarkably skilled translators.

Brenda Lozana: Witches (2022)

Brenda Lozana, born in Mexico City in 1981, was recognized in 2015 by Mexico’s National Council on Culture and the Arts (Conaculta), the annual Hay Festival of Literature & Arts (held at Hay-on-Wye in Wales), and the cultural promotion organization the British Council as one of Mexico’s most important authors under the age of 40. By 2017, she made the Hay Festival’s list Bogotá 39, the most important new authors from Latin America.

Her novel Witches, translated by Heather Cleary, is really two intersecting stories – that of Feliciana, a curandera (healer) modeled on María Sabina, the Mazatec traditional healer and shaman from Huatla de Jiménez in the Sierra Occidental in northern Oaxaca, and Zoe, a Mexico City journalist who has come calling to report on the death of Feliciana’s mentor and cousin, Paloma. Paloma is a muxe, a man who takes on the appearance and obligations of a woman; referred to as the third gender, they are widely accepted in Zapotec culture, especially in the Isthmus. Paloma, originally a curandero named Gaspar, has transferred to Feliciana the family’s healing abilities, in particular healing through the use of language. The healing power, however, is usually handed from male to male, leaving Feliciana – like Paloma – in an ambiguously gendered position.

Since neither Feliciana nor Zoe speaks the other’s language, the story proceeds in two different voices. Here is what Feliciana sounds like:

It was six at night when Guadalupe came to tell me they had killed Paloma. I don’t remember times or dates, I don’t know when I was born because I was born like mountain was, go ask the mountain when it was born, but I know it was six at night when Guadalupe came to say they killed Paloma as she was getting ready to go out, I saw her there in her room, I saw her body on the floor and the shine for her eyes on her fingers and I saw her hands they were two in the mirror and the shine was on both like she had just put it on her eyes, like she could get up and put some on mine.

Zoe, of course, sounds completely different:

I agreed to write the article about Paloma’s murder because gender-based violence sends me into a rage. I couldn’t take the unending stream of news stores about femicide, rape, and abuse anymore—or the sexist jokes I’d hear around the office, for that matter. Any situation or remark that targeted a woman or someone who identified as one would set me off, and I wanted to do whatever I could from the trench I’d dug at the newsroom. Plus, I wanted to meet Feliciana. I was fascinated by her. When I took the assignment, I didn’t know any more about her than anyone else did: I new she was the legendary curandera of the Language and the most famous shaman alive. I knew that the words she used in her veladas, the ceremonies she performed, had miraculous healing powers, and I knew the stories about the artists, writers, directors, and musicians who’d traveled halfway around the world to meet her. The professors and linguists from other countries who’d gone to see her in the mountains of San Felipe. I knew that books, films, songs and paintings had come out of these visits—I didn’t know exactly which ones, but I knew they existed. I received a photo of Paloma lying on the ground in a pool of blood next to a bed draped with a peacock throw.

Together, Feliciana and Zoe tell each other their stories, their worries and fears, their traumas with violence against women, their desires for independence.

Fernanda Melchor: Hurricane Season (2020)

Fernanda Melchor, born in Veracruz city in 1982, was, like Lozano, named one of the most important Mexican authors under 40 in 2015. Hurricane Season won the Anna Seghers literary prize and the International Literature Award of the Haus de Culturen (both given by Germany), and was short-listed for the International Booker Prize in 2020.

Hurricane Season tells of the murder of the Witch of a tiny, cinder-block town called La Matosa, outside the city of Villagarbosa (Melchor’s stand-in for the city of Veracruz). The story is told by four people who know Luismi, an ex-lover of the Witch who also happens to be a trans woman who does traditional healing. Luismi’s cousin Yesenia thinks of him as a sexual deviant; Brando is a porn addict who can’t decide whether he wants to have sex with Luismi; Norma is a pregnant (by her stepfather) 13-year-old; Luismi’s mother takes Norma to the Witch for an abortion, which turns out poorly. These four voices surround the murder with clues to the crime, the identity of the Witch, and the abysmal context of life in La Matosa. Melchor’s language ranges from the brutal to the languid, it piles up in ever-lengthening sentences, and is never less than precise and deeply evocative. Here is the opening of Hurricane Season:

They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare. There were five of them, their ringleader the only one in swimming trunks: red shorts that blazed behind the parched crops of the cane fields, still low in early May. The rest of the troop trailed behind him in their underwear, all four caked in mud up to their shins, all four taking turns to carry the pail of small rocks they’d taken from the river that morning; all four scowling and fierce and so ready to give themselves up for the cause that not even the youngest, bringing up the rear, would have dared admit he was scared, the elastic of his slingshot pulled taut in his hands, the rock snug in the leather pad, primed to strike anything that got in his way at the very first sign of an ambush, be that the caw of the bienteveo, perched unseen like a guard in the trees behind them, the rustle of leaves being thrashed aside, or the whoosh of a rock cleaving the air just beyond their noses, the breeze warm and the almost white sky thick with ethereal birds of prey and a terrible smell that hit them harder than a fistful of sand in the face, a stench that made them want to hawk it up before it reached their guts, that made them want to stop and turn around. But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognized what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.

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.