Tag Archives: Environment

Ocelots

By Julie Etra

Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis, ocelotes in Spanish) are beautiful animals found here on the southwest coast of Mexico. They are medium-sized cats (adults are 70-100 cm long – 28-40 inches – not inluding their tails). They resemble the oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus), also called the tigrillo, which occurs from Central America to central Brazil.

Ocelots and People

The ocelot is endangered in the very small area where it lives in southern Texas and in Mexico, as a result of illegal poaching for their prized pelts (records show 566,000 ocelot pelts were sold in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s), along with habitat loss and fragmentation. Collisions with vehicles have become an increasing threat. Hunting them is now forbidden throughout their range, which runs from southernmost Texas, through Mexico and Central America, and across the northern half of South America (except in Peru, where it is regulated but not forbidden).

In the heyday of ocelot fashion, people kept them as pets as well, most notably the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, who took Babou with him to all sorts of places, often to the dismay of the people in those places. He is reported to have told an upset diner at a Manhattan restaurant that it was just an “ordinary house cat,” painted up like Op Art.

In Mexico ocelots have been culturally significant since at least the Aztec (Mexica) civilizations, as depicted in their multimedia art and mythology, although whether the Aztecs distinguished between ocelots and jaguars is unclear – the Nahuatl word for jaguar is ocelotl. The ocelotl appears on the Aztec sunstone as the day sign for fourteenth day of the Aztec religious calendar (there was a different calendar to govern agriculture), and was considered auspicious for battle with success and valor.

Ocelots in Nature

Ocelots are cryptically colored in that they blend into their typically dense forest environment. They have a small, speckled brown head with two stripes on either side of the cheeks and four to five parallel black stripes along the neck. Their ears are short, wide, and rounded. Ocelot fur is spotted with elongated, irregular, rosette-shaped rings. Their bellies are dark, and tails are 26-45 cm (10-18 inches) and tapered with dark colored rings or spots. Individuals have their own unique pattern, making them easy to distinguish.

In Mexico, the ocelot’s distribution is discontinuous, but includes the coastal Pacific and Gulf of Mexico, the eastern slopes of the state of Tamaulipas to the Yucatán peninsula, and south from Sonora in northwestern Mexico. It is both diurnal and nocturnal, meaning it is active both in the day and night, but is more active at dusk and at night when it hunts. They are solitary, and make their homes in caves, hollow tree trunks and tree canopies for protection. In Mexico habitat includes tropical forests, tropical deciduous forests (which we have here on the coast), mangrove forests (also on our Costa Chica), temperate forests, and thorny desert scrub.

The ocelot is a predator, like other wild felines, but is opportunistic in its diet. It is an agile animal that climbs and swims as well as leaps after its prey, which includes small terrestrial mammals, reptiles, fish, and small birds, and even insects. In tropical Mexico, iguanas are a preferred quarry.

Litter size is typically between two and three kittens. Gestation averages two to three months, and they can reproduce year-round. Their life span has been observed to be as long as ten years.

Seeing Ocelots

Camera traps have been used for decades to monitor wildlife. In Mexico they have been used to study ocelots and other mammals in the Mexican states of Campeche, Veracruz, and Tabasco, and here on the coast of Oaxaca, Starting in 2016, the Huatulco National Park (Parque Nacional de Huatulco) installed at least three camera traps in different points in the Park to monitor native mammals as well as feral dogs (the latter have become problematic on the beaches of Huatulco where they have killed egg laying turtles as well as the hatchlings). The camera traps have captured images of ocelots as well as white-tailed deer, rabbits, anteaters, opossum, coyotes, and armadillos. My stepdaughter Joy caught one on film at her place on the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica.

Time to set up our camera again, as the back of our place faces the forest. So far, we have only captured photos of the ubiquitous opossum and the pygmy skunk, an endemic. I have my doubts, given the number of barking dogs in the neighborhood (including our own barky), but we will give it a try. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and see one while employing one of the local nature guides.

Year of the Tiger 2022: Big Bold Books to Devour

By Carole Reedy

In China, the tiger is considered the king of beasts, symbolizing power and a great deal of nerve. The authors below have proven their power, using the written word as a way to understand our mysterious world. These are the fresh voices of the 21st century exciting us about the future of books and keeping high the bar for fine literature. (Publication date in parentheses.)

Douglas Stuart: Young Mungo (April 14, 2022)
Stuart stunned us in 2020 with his first novel, Shuggie Bain, richly deserved winner of the Booker prize that year. His story of a young boy growing up in Scotland has assured Stuart a place among classical writers. The ambiance of the place and time, the vivid endowment of the characters, and the raw emotion in the novel drew millions of readers who ended up loving little Shuggie.

Stuart may have another hit on his hands with Young Mungo, the tale of two young men, one Protestant and the other Catholic, growing up in Glasgow. Assuredly, it will generate some of the same emotion and tension that drew readers to Shuggie Bain.

Stuart has led a rag-to-riches life, growing up in Scotland, moving to England, and ultimately having a successful career as a designer in New York. With Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo, his writing career is just beginning, and we can look forward to many incisive novels in the future.

Hanya Yanagihara: To Paradise (January 11, 2022)
A Little Life, the lengthy, imposing novel of friendship and pain, put Yanagihara on the map as a brilliant writer. Many of us thought she deserved the Booker Prize that year for her story of the very emotional journey of four young men.

A new twist, but surely another whirlwind of emotion, is presented in her new novel, On Paradise, which spans three centuries and covers three different versions of what the US becomes. Surely the themes of love and pain will dominate, as they did in A Little Life.

Olga Towkarczuk: The Books of Jacob (February 1, 2022)
Get ready for the literary ride of a lifetime. This book is being called the War and Peace of modern literature. Polish wordsmith Olga Towkarczuk has gifted us with books such as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and taken us on philosophical journeys with her award-winning Flights.

Towkarczuk has clearly taken seriously the responsibility and implications of the Nobel Prize she was awarded in 2018. The Books of Jacob has already won the coveted Nike award in Poland for best novel.

Marcel Theroux of The Guardian explains: “It is a visionary novel that conforms to a particular notion of masterpiece – long, arcane and sometimes inhospitable. Tokarczuk is wrestling with the biggest philosophical themes.” He compares it to John Milton’s Paradise Lost and calls the novel one that “will be a landmark in the life of any reader with the appetite to tackle it.” I hope to be among the first to try!

Emily St. John Mandel: Sea of Tranquility (April 5, 2022)
This young Canadian writer follows up her successful novels The Glass House and Station Eleven (available to stream as a limited miniseries on HBO Max) with her latest glimpse into the future.

The novel begins in 1912 on Vancouver Island and takes us 300 years into the future to a dark colony on the moon. That should pique your interest, but in addition to the metaphysics and time travel, St. John brings the delicate side humanity, as always, to the novel.

This is just the beginning of our 2022 review. In future issues of The Eye, we’ll explore the new books of our favorite and new authors. Perhaps, as I am, you are grateful for the hours of entertainment and contemplation brought to you by these writers.

Learning to Surf

By Randy Redmond

The first thing I will tell you is this: you are going to hate it before you love it! (Remember these words …)

Here are the five things you need to do that help you succeed in starting your new life of surfing.

  1. Hire a surf instructor! Too many people feel that they can learn on their own, which only leads to learning bad habits and it’ll take you twice as long to get to the point of loving the sport.
  2. Start yourself on a soft top surfboard no shorter than 2 meters (7 feet).
  3. Do some beach training with your board. Using your board on the sand, learn how to pop up and stand up out of the water.
  4. Before entering the water, if your instructor has not already done so, please ask them to explain surf etiquette to you. There are rules of the road out there in the water – once you learn them you’ll avoid a lot of drama and possible injury to yourself and others.
  5. Have patience! It’s not gonna happen in one day. Let your surf instructor push you into waves – this is not humiliating- this is how you learn. You will eventually learn how to paddle into the waves yourself.

Surfing is not only one of the healthiest sports, it’s low cost and you get to enjoy nature! Every surfer I know remembers vividly the feeling of their first blue-water wave, in other words not riding the white wash anymore. Every surfer can tell you what board they were riding, where they were surfing, how they got there and who was on the beach. Your first blue-water wave is probably the most important step to your newfound addiction. This is the feeling that you’ll be chasing and cheering for the rest of the time that you enjoy this incredible activity!

I highly recommend that you watch the many YouTube channels that will further instruct you on technique, style, and basic logic of surfing. Once you have mastered the pop-up and stand up on your board and actually catch some blue-water waves, you can graduate to a harder board. I suggest a “fun board,” yes, that’s what the board is called. A fun board will allow you to take your surfing to the next level, staying on a soft top will only keep you from excelling. From there you can gradually work your way down sizes or upsize it depending if you would like ride a short board or a classic longboard.

Huatulco Surf Company is located in the shops at Tangolunda; you can visit them to obtain a list of professional surf instructors.

Once They’re Gone, They’re Gone Forever

By Kary Vannice

As we come into a new year, many of us get rid of or eliminate things in our lives that no longer have a purpose to make room for the new. We’ve become accustomed to lightning-paced technology turnover as we willingly and regularly upgrade to the latest and greatest smartphone on the market.

We, in our plastic and metal world, have become so used to “planned obsolesence” that we now simply accept that in a few years, most of our everyday objects will be outdated and worthless. And we’ve started to see it as a sign of progress … out with the old and in with the new.

Unfortunately, in the natural world, there is no research and development team working on new species to replace the many that are rapidly being extinguished from our planet. New mammal, amphibian, and insect species are not coming online as fast as Apple comes up with a new version of the iPhone.

No, once a species is lost to us, it is gone forever, and with it a critical piece of biological biodiversity, which upsets the balance of an ecosystem forever. There are no replacements or upgrades in the natural world. Each species is integral to the healthy functioning of the whole.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes a yearly “Red List,” which lists most of the threatened and endangered species on the planet.

According to the IUCN, “Currently, there are more than 142,500 species on The IUCN Red List, with more than 40,000 species threatened with extinction, including 41% of amphibians, 37% of sharks and rays, 34% of conifers, 33% of reef-building corals, 26% of mammals and 13% of birds.”

In 2015, IUCN listed Mexico as the country with the most threatened or endangered mammals globally – 101. And of course, that number didn’t include any insect, amphibian, bird, plant, reef coral or reptile species, all of which are included in Mexico’s top threatened species.

In recent years, studies conducted in Mexico have confirmed the vulnerability of the monarch butterfly (insect), the leatherback sea turtle (reptile), the Mexican axolotl salamander (amphibian), the scarlet macaw (bird), elkhorn coral (reef coral), the white nun orchid (plant), in addition to several mammal species including the Mexican grey wolf, the jaguar, the ocelot, the Mexican long-nosed bat, along with dozens and dozens of other lesser-known mammal species here in Mexico.

Just a few months ago, The New York Times ran an article online titled “Here’s the Next Animal That Could Go Extinct,” and yes, that animal only exists in the waters of Mexico. It’s the vaquita, a small ocean porpoise. Only ten are known to be living in the wild, in the waters off the coast of San Felipe, a small fishing village on the Gulf of California.

One of the main reasons Mexico has so many threatened and endangered species is that its diverse landscape translates into high biodiversity. Mexico is number four in the world for the highest number of mammal species, boasting over 500 species. But the sad fact is, nearly a fifth of them are in trouble. Most are threatened because of habitat loss due to clearing to create agricultural land or commercial development.

Many of the species on the “Red List” are collateral damage from commercial activity, such as farming or fishing. Of the 101 species listed in 2015, 60 were rodents. At that time, the San Quinton Kangaroo Rat had not been seen since 1986 and was declared possibly extinct in 1994. However, in 2017 researchers caught one in a survey trap, proving that, while their numbers are small, they are still surviving on Baja California’s coast. That is encouraging news, but one species among nearly 100 just doesn’t seem like a big enough win.

Eighty percent of the threatened or endangered species on the IUNC’s “Red List” for Mexico are endemic, meaning that they do not exist anywhere else in the world in the wild, which means if they go extinct in Mexico, they are gone forever.

In nature, there is no such thing as planned obsolescence; all species strive to survive. It is only a system out of balance that causes extinction. And right now, man’s manipulation of nature is the number one cause of species loss both on land and in the sea. If you’d like to do your part to prevent extinction in your area, support local land conservation efforts and pitch in to keep green spaces clean and safe for all species.

Controversial Tigers

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Thousands of years ago, when the Chinese zodiac calendar was first formulated, the Tiger was selected to symbolize power and speed. Greatly admired as the King of Beasts (yes, the tiger, not the lion), the sign of the tiger evoked awe. Today, the tiger, whether real or fictional, is more likely to evoke controversy.

In the year that we were born, there were still an estimated 72,000 tigers roaming wild in India and Asia. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 tigers in the wild, mainly in India, and that number is rapidly diminishing. There are more tigers in captivity than free, including in Mexico – a territory where jaguars were indigenous but tigers were not. Some say that keeping tigers in captivity helps preserves the species. But naturalists caution that even tigers raised in state-of-the-art zoos cannot be released back into their natural environments because they lack survival skills.

Even more controversial is the practice of the raising of tigers as pets. Those cute little tiger cubs, such as the one the U.S. border patrol found not long ago being smuggled in a car crossing from Mexico, grow up to be dangerous and powerful beasts. When they slip from the control of their inexperienced owners in cities, including during the past year in Guadalajara, they cause panic and endanger their own lives as they are hunted down. And the owners of big cat parks who bill themselves as “experts” in the care and feeding of tigers appear to be themselves a breed apart.

Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness, an eight-episode series released by Netflix in 2020, attracted a very large audience. Detailing the contentious history between a big cat park owner and an animal rights activist, the documentary literally had a captive audience, since much of the world was locked down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Given the wide-spread discussion about the series, we decided to watch the first episode and were so disgusted with the characters, the topic and poor quality of the video, that we became part of the controversy between those who breathlessly watched every episode and those who would prefer to be eaten by a tiger than to watch this series.

Even tigers in fiction can’t seem to escape modern-day criticism and controversy. The children’s book Little Black Sambo, written by the Scottish author Helen Bannerman and published in 1899, was based on an Indian tale, Little Babaji, the Boy and the Tigers, by Chibikuro Sampo. Both versions charmingly tell the tale of a little boy in India who was so brave he was able to fool fierce tigers into running so fast in a circle that they turned into butter or ghee. But recently there was a movement to ban the book in the U.S. as politically incorrect – equating Sambo with African Americans. And one small-city book store that placed the book in its shop window was virtually shut down while the community argued about racial insensitivity versus censorship.

The beloved character Tigger in Winnie the Pooh (Winny de Puh in Mexico) did not escape criticism and pushback. When a psychologist gratuitously analyzed the book’s characters, Tigger was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Ardent Tigger fans growled in outrage, especially when Ritalin and family therapy were prescribed.

Both the book Life of Pi and the movie of the same name – featuring as a main character a magnificent and possibly imaginary tiger – were mired in controversy. The author of the book, Yan Martel, was accused of plagiarizing the story from another author’s earlier book. The film tiger, who of course spoke Spanish in the version we saw in Oaxaca, was virtually created by the visual effects artists at VXF. The industry was in an uproar when VXF was not mentioned by Ang Lee in his Academy Awards acceptance speech when he won the Oscar for Best Director for Pi.

We hope the designation of 2022 as the Year of the Tiger does not portend twelve months of controversy. We have had enough polarization around the world in 2021. We have fond memories of our son as an infant and toddler, hugging his stuffed “tigger” until the plush fur wore thin and the stuffing appeared at the seams; for us the tiger represents the love of a child. Let us hope that for the world, the Year of the Tiger will be seen as originally projected – one of power and speed that can overcome conflict.

On Sand and the Making of Castles

By Randy Jackson

To build a snow fort or sand castle? That is the (real) question. At this time of year, some northerners enjoying Huatulco might be wondering if their snow-fort building skills are transferable to constructing a sand castle. The short answer is no. But the desire to create an objet d’art out of something you try not to track in the house shows the right attitude. To build a moderately impressive sand castle involves five simple steps following the acronym LWBSF, and remembered by the phrase: Leave Winter Before Soul Freezes. Just two pieces of equipment are needed: A good sized bucket for hauling water, and something to sculpt with.

LOCATION: Choose a location. First choose a beach, one of the bays of Huatulco based on the type of sand. The more powdery the sand, the better it will compact for a lasting structure. Grainy beaches like Cacaluta are not good for sand castles. Once on the beach, choose the location of the castle itself. A place where the sand is moist below the surface is best. The farther from the water, the longer the water-hauling trips. And, of course, you want a spot above the high tide line.

Sand: As an avid hiker in the Canadian Rockies, I sometimes stand on some majestic rocky peak and grapple with the time scale it would take for the rock beneath my boots to become sand on a beach. It will, eventually. Sand is ground or eroded rock. Ocean waves do some of the work bashing against rocky shores, but streams bring most beach sand from rocky areas to rivers, then to oceans, where currents and tides deposit the granules back on land to make a sandy beach. Once a granule is chipped off a rock somewhere on a continent, it takes about one million years to move that granule each 100 miles along waterways. Think of the eons of time we could save if we all brought a jar of sand down on the plane.

WET DOWN THE AREA: Often a good location for a sand castle is closer to a beach restaurant where beverages can be supplied to the castle builder, but this usually means the sand is dry. Mark out a six-foot square with your foot. Then haul buckets of water up to this spot to soak the sand at least to the depth of one foot.

Sand: Not all sand is the same – there are some differences in the sand even among the bays of Huatulco. Around the world, sand comes in six different colours: white, grey, black, pink, green (yes, green – the most famous is a green beach in Hawaii), and the most common, golden or brown. Consistency of the grains also varies widely. Desert sand differs from beach sand. Beach sand and sand mined from river areas is in great demand, whereas desert sand has few uses. The issue with desert sand is that the grains of sand journey to the desert overland, blown by the wind. This makes the desert sand grains smooth and rounded, and rounded grains don’t bind well even in concrete. It’s the angular grains delivered through rivers and oceans that allow for bonding between grains and allows for compaction. Dubai, for example, has imported millions of tons of sand from Australia to build their new islands for condo towers. Their own nearby desert sand is of no use.

BUILD A VOLCANO: When the sand in your spot is sufficiently soaked, build a base in the shape of a volcano. Dig the sand up around the sides of a base about three feet across and keep piling it on, up to a height of about three feet. Keep flattening the top as you go. Once the sand volcano is high enough, scoop a crater out of the flattened top.

Sand: Sand is the second most-consumed natural resource on the planet, right after water. Cement is by far the biggest use for sand. But there are other substantial uses as well. Asphalt, glass and computer chips use significant quantities of sand. Civilization as we know it could not exist without the buildings, roads, and computer chips that are made from sand. Although in geological time, sand is a renewable resource, on a human timescale sand is a limited resource.

Demand for sand is outstripping supply. Most Southeast Asian countries have banned or restricted the export of sand. Sand mining has completely obliterated at least two dozen islands in Indonesia since 2005. The main culprit – Singapore, the world’s largest sand importer. Singapore wants to make more land, and sand is the best material for that. The Times of India has reported that the Illegal sand trade amounts to $2.3 billion per year. There have been hundreds of killings between “Sand Mafias” in India. Even beaches themselves are a source of demand for sand. The US Geological Survey estimated that two thirds of Southern California beaches may be gone by 2100 – only 80 years down the road. Moreover, virtually all of California’s water flows into the ocean are dammed and used upstream. This means the natural erosion of beaches is outstripping the natural sources of supply.

Remember in the movie, The Graduate, where Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) says to Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), “I just have one word for you – plastics”? He could have said “Sand.”

SOAK THE VOLCANO: Haul more water and pour it slowly into the crater on top of your sand volcano. Physics experiments have shown the optimum strength in sand structures has the ratio of eight parts sand to one part of water. Keep patting the sides of the volcano. Haul sufficient water until the flattened top of the volcano seems solid when you push down on it. Once this is done, flatten the top out further so it no longer looks as much like a volcano. You will now have the base of your sand castle, and it should last for more than a day.

Sand: Given sufficient geological time, with the gradual erosion of continental mountains into sand, will the earth one day be a planet of sand, as in the book/movie Dune? No: Very slooooooowly, rock makes sand, and sand eventually makes new rock. Sand settles in certain places where winds and currents leaves it. More gets added, and more and more, and the weight of the sand compacts and pushes the sand deeper and deeper into the earth. Pressure, temperature, and chemical reactions eventually transform sand into sedimentary rock. Yada yada … , and eventually tectonic plates push that sand-made-rock up to form new mountain ranges.

FREEHAND SCULPTURE: Here is where you need a wood sculpting tool. A wooden ruler is ideal, although one of the wooden book markers that vendors pedddle on the beach works OK, too. Begin by squaring out the sides of your flattened sand volcano. Next, scoop sand into your bucket, about 1/3rd full. Add to that enough water to easily cover the sand and let the sand settle into the bottom, below the surface of the water. After a minute or so, scoop out a handful of wet sand from the bucket and work it between your hands until enough water is pressed out to make a mucky ball. Place the ball on the top of your sand base, near the edge, making small piles about eight inches high. Each pile you make will become your castle turrets.

Once your blobs have been arranged all around the edge, use your sculpting tool to carve the sides into circular turrets. Notches can be carefully carved out of the turret tops. Use your sculpting tool to make a brick looking crosshatch in the turrets and the base of the castle. Use the soaked sand to add other features like walls between the turrets and a drawbridge.

Knowing a bit about sand makes the construction of a sand castle a kind of celebration. Celebrating that in the face of geological forces and time scales beyond our comprehension, we are here on a beach, making something from a substance the earth itself uses like playdough. True, our structure lasts a day, mountain ranges somewhat longer. Yet, both are temporary, on different time scales. But then again, who tries to contemplate all that when the air is warm, the waves are washing ashore, and you’ve built an outdoor structure without having to wear your snowsuit!

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“History teaches us that man learns nothing from history.”
—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The Mexican Revolution began on November 20th, 1910, with a call to arms to overthrow the government of Porfirio Díaz, which favored the wealthy. Here we are, over a hundred years later and the world is still full of similar stories of inequity. I don’t listen to the news too often – maybe a few times a week – and it is always dire. Between elections, Afghanistan, COVID updates, and natural disasters, it seems as if we are slowly self-destructing. But the news that made me the saddest came at the end of September when the ivory-billed woodpecker was declared officially extinct, along with 22 other species. It was an add-on piece of news, the sort BTW update thrown out by reporters – certainly not breaking news like a bombing or hurricane. Where do our concerns as a collective lie when the extinction of 22 species is not breaking news?

Since 1500, over 190 species of birds have become extinct and the ivory-billed woodpecker hadn’t been spotted since 1944. The biggest causes of extinction are loss of habitat through agriculture and housing for humans – in the U.S. alone, 4.8 million acres were converted for agricultural purposes between 2007 and 2018; climate change, which is causing temperature fluctuations and forcing birds to move; and collision with other structures such as powerlines (25 million bird deaths each year), wind turbines (410 000 bird deaths each year), communication towers (7 million bird deaths each year). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that as many as 72 million birds die each year from pesticide poisoning.

The list of lost birds is long and tragic. Do you remember the excitement of finding a feather when you were a child? I can feel the tactile memory of my fingers brushing against the grain. Will future generations only know birds from their likeness produced on a digital screen?

Even if you don’t care much about nature, ask yourself – If the environment we are living in is inhospitable to birds, how long before it is inhospitable to us?

This is the true revolution of our time.

See you next month,

Jane

Mexico’s Northern Border c. 1890:Saints, Unrest, and Rebellions

By Julie Etra

When you think about the Mexican Revolution, the larger-than-life characters typically come to mind: Emiliano Zapata in the south, Francisco (Pancho) Villa in the north. Before the Revolution, there was plenty of unrest and dissatisfaction with the centralized Mexican government led by José de la Cruz Díaz Mori. Near the border with the United States, pro-revolutionary, anti-Porfirio exiles living in El Paso and vicinity helped foment revolution through a variety of publications, also intended to gain support from the US Government. One of these Mexican expatriates was the inventive engineer and newspaper editor, Lauro Aguirre. (You can learn more about Aguirre in The Hummingbird’s Daughter, a wonderful book by Luis Alberto Urrea.)

The Rebellion of Tomóchic

After reading The Hummingbird’s Daughter, I became interested in the Rebellion of Tomóchic (1891-92) and the border unrest. This area, located in the state of Chihuahua, includes the Sierra Madre Occidental and the famous Copper Canyon (Barrancas de Cobre), home to the Tarahumara, or Rarámuri. It has always been geographically isolated, and essentially autonomous even after the Spanish conquest. Before the rebellion, the Tomochitecos resisted exploitation by the Spanish-descended hacienda owners (land barons) and mining companies. Constant unrest included land and property ownership conflicts as well as on-going threats by the Apache tribes from the north. Local skirmishes also resulted in violent conflicts with Mexican federal forces.

Around 1890, the community of Tomóchic became under increased scrutiny due to the rising fame of Teresita Urrea, the daughter of the Hummingbird (also the author’s great aunt), and the town’s adoption of her as their patron saint. Although she never set foot in the town, she was perceived as a Saint due to her purported healing abilities and posed an existential threat to the Porfirio regime solely due to her following, despite her claims to be apolitical.

The Catholic Church never had a strong presence in this remote region due to the lack of permanent priesthoods in isolated areas. This led to a vacuum of leadership and an atmosphere ripe for the cultivation of ‘saints’ to whom the locals attributed miracles due to their presumed direct communication with God and associated power. The only way for the Church to combat the dissemination of these alternatives to Catholicism was through the rare presence and ranting pontifications of priests in the Sierra Tarahumara. This situation became complicated since religious dissent was tied to notions of social justice and the “saints” provided guidance and comfort to the Tomochitecos suffering from exploitation and precarious socioeconomic conditions.

Since the early 1800s, the Porfiriato and the Church had both been trying to strengthen and centralize their control of remote regions. With the arrival of the railroad on the Chihuahuan border with the U.S., American exploitation of the area’s natural resources, particularly timber, took off. On December 1, 1891, Tomóchic staged an organized rebellion and declared its autonomy.

Although viewed by some historians as a precursor to the Revolution, other historians viewed the rebellion as a local affair, mestizos rebelling against their lighter-skinned, exploitative oppressors and the Church.

The story is told that the first time federal troops arrived in Tomóchic, they had talked themselves into a fright at the thought of facing the savage rebels. They were confused when they were met by a silent line of thirty women, all dressed in black, advancing slowly closer. The women dropped their black shawls, revealing themselves to be men, whipped out their Winchesters, and shot down the front line of troops. Nonetheless, after a year of confrontations with Porfirio’s troops, the rebellion ended with the annihilation of the entire town.

The Role of the Hummingbird’s Daughter

As noted above, the Tomochitecos were followers of Teresita Urrea, the Saint of Cabora. Before the uprising she had participated in other so-called insurgent movements, as defined by the federal government, that addressed social justice, particularly for the poor. She was demonized by an itinerant Catholic priest, offending the locals, and thereby planting the seeds of confrontation with the church. (Before the Mexican Revolution [1910-20] the church and the government were one state, intertwined and codependent.)

The true influence of la Santa de Cabora in the uprising has never been clear, as the entire town was destroyed during the conflict, along with most witnesses. Teresita Urrea and her father, perceived as a threat to the federal government, were exiled (or fled) to the United States. The Porfirio regime believed that if they had been executed in Mexico, it would have led to intolerable and counterproductive martyrdom. The Mexican Revolution had yet to be born, but this conflict undoubtedly fueled the flames of discontent.

If you are interested in reading more about the Rebellion of Tomóchic, check out these sources:

Frías, Heriberto. The Battle of Tomóchic: Memoirs of a Second Lieutenant, translated by Barbara Jamison. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. This is a historical novel by Frías, based on his experiences in the Rebellion of Tomóchic. The author sharply criticizes the actions of the federal government in crushing the Rebellion.
Urrea, Luis Alberto. The Hummingbird’s Daughter. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2005. Queen of America. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2011.
Vanderwood, Paul J. The Power of God against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. This is a broader (academic) view of the Mexican Revolution and how the Rebellion is a key precursor to it.

If you are interested in Mexican music, the corrido, or heroic ballad, achieved its high point during the Mexican Revolution; “El Corrido de Tomóchic” is considered the first revolutionary corrido.

Lamadrid, Enrique R. “El Corrido de Tomóchic: Honor, Grace, Gender, and Power in the First Ballad of the Mexican Revolution.” Journal of the Southwest, 41:4 (Winter 1999): 441-60.

Holiday / Festival Dates in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

While November is the month when we celebrate the Mexican Revolution, virtually all towns and villages throughout the state of Oaxaca have their own festival weeks honoring one saint or another. Such an enumeration would be close to impossible to catalogue in a brief article, if not in a book. However, noting bank and government office closures and commemorative dates typically celebrated with festivities, is manageable.

So here goes, with assistance from the listings in Barbara Hopkins’ book, Oaxaca: Crafts and Sightseeing (3rd edition is 1999, currently out of print).

January 1 – New Year’s Day: National holiday with banks and government offices closed, as well as some retail outlets including restaurants.

January 6 – Epiphany, Day of the Three Kings (Día de los Reyes Magos): Bakeries sell roscas de reyes, to be eaten that evening usually at an extended family gathering. There is gift giving to children. The rosca is typically a large wreath-shaped egg bread with one or more tiny white plastic dolls inside representing the baby Jesus (Niño Diós). Whoever finds the doll(s) must prepare and serve tamales to other members of the same group, at a party on the night of Candlemas – see next item.

February 2 – Candelmas (Candelaria): More recently, when several plastic babies are found by separate people, each might contribute to the meal in different ways. Leading up to and including this date, residents purchase their larger Niño Diós dolls, and outfits for them, last year’s clothing often interchanged with those of relatives and friends. They take their finely dressed dolls to church to be blessed in memory of the presentation of Jesus to the Temple. This is the end of the Mexican Christmas season.

February 5 – Constitution Day: This date commemorates the publication of Mexico’s Constitution in 1917, during the Revolution. A national holiday, now celebrated on the first Monday in February; banks and government offices closed.

Tuesday before Ash Wednesday – Martes de Carnaval: Occurring on March 1, 2022, “Fat Tuesday” represents the last day of freedom before Lent. In cities, but more impressively in towns and villages, there are parades with live music, locals decked out in costumes representative of devils and more.

Fridays during Lent – Paseo de los Viernes de Cuaresma: They vary from locale to locale, but tradition in the state capital dictates sale of flowers at Llano park, for the purchaser to present to girlfriends / lovers.

Fourth Friday of Lent (three weeks before Good Friday) – Day of the Good Samaritan: Celebrated throughout Oaxaca’s central valleys, usually from noon to 2 pm. Churches, businesses, schools, parks and street associations gift fresh sweet juices and sometimes other food stuffs to all passersby.

Palm Sunday until Easter – Holy Week (Semana Santa): Holy week begins on Palm Sunday. Sale of intricately woven palms, visits to seven capital churches, with processions around village/town churches as well. Different locales have different mass traditions for Saturday and Sunday, culminating with the Resurrection. Churches solemnly chime, with the march of silence. Banks and government offices are closed Holy Thursday and Holy Friday.

March 21 – Birthday of Benito Juárez: Juárez, the 26th president of Mexico and the first of indigenous origin, held office from 1858 until his death in 1872. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

May 1 – Labor Day (Día del Trabajo): Parades, with banks and government offices closed.

May 3 – Day of the Holy Cross, Mason’s Day (Día del Albañil): Parties for construction workers, crosses affixed on construction sites, typically a complimentary meal for all workers. Often dances in the streets with revelry.

May 5 – Cinco de Mayo): A national holiday commemorating Mexico’s 1862 victory in Puebla over invading French troops; banks and government offices closed.

May 10 and thereafter – Vela Istmeña (Vigil/Festival for people from the Isthmus): In Mexico City and elsewhere, Mexicans who originate from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec gather for public/cultural events, with masses and processions showcasing traditional regional dress.

Last two Mondays of July – Lunes del Cerro (Mondays of the Hill): Entire month of July is festive, in particular those Mondays (date is adjusted if a Monday falls on July 18, the date of death for Benito Juárez); celebrated throughout Oaxaca but especially in the capital – Oaxaca de Juárez. The Guelaguetza is performed throughout the weekend leading up to the Mondays; the Guelaguetza promotes Oaxaca’s rich cultural traditions by showcasing regional song, dress, dance and items locally produced for sale and consumption. Spectacular!

August 15 – Day of the Taxi Driver: Celebrated mainly in the state capital. Taxis and colectivos are adorned with flowers and parade through the streets and in the course of daily work taking fares.

August 31 – Pet Day, Bendición de los Animales (Blessing of the Animals): Performed at the Merced church in the capital and also elsewhere. Residents bring their pets and parade them through the streets all dressed up.

September 16 – Dia de la Independencia (Independence Day): Commemorates indepenence from Spain, proclaimed in 1810. The night before (September 15) at 11 pm, people celebrate El Grito (The Cry), during which the nation’s president and all governors and mayors, with support from police and army, shout aloud re independence, typically with fireworks near government palaces. Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on September 16.

October 12 – Día de la Raza (Day of the Race): In Hispanic countries, Columbus Day has become Day of the Race, a celebration of the heritage and culture of peoples who were eliminated or exploited by the Spanish conquest – similar to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which has been substituted for Columbus Day in places in the United States. Banks and government offices are closed.

October 31, November 1. November 2 – Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Also celebrated on subsequent dates depending on the locale, especially November 1 (All Saints’ Day) and November 2 (All Souls’ Day). The celebrations combine pre-Hispanic roots with Christianity, and include attending rituals in cemeteries day and night, decorating gravesites and home altars, honoring the departed, and parades through the streets in cities, towns and villages throughout Mexico (comparsas). Oaxaca city and environs, along with Pátzcuaro, are recognized worldwide as the best places to experience Day of the Dead. Again egg bread is traditional, as is construction of elaborate colored sand carpets (tapetes). Spectacular! Banks and government offices are closed on the last two dates.

November 20 – Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution: On this date in 1910, Francisco Madero issued a call to arms to unseat the dictator Porfirio Díaz. A national holiday with parades, sporting events and banks and government offices closed.

December 8, 12, 18 – respectively, celebrations of the Virgins of Juquila, Guadalupe, and Soledad: The celebration for the Virgin of Juquila is regional; for Guadalupe, it is national, with banks and government offices closed; and for Soledad, it is regional, although she is the patron saint of Oaxaca state). There are pilgrimages to Juquila, Mexico City, and Oaxaca City throughout the year, but especially with arrivals on the specific dates, with prayers for miracles, parades, and other festivities.

December 13 – Another Vela Istmeña (see May 10).

December 16 – Start of the Christmas season: Nightly processions (posadas) through the 24th, passing through city, town and village streets, representative of Mary and Joseph seeking a bed for the birth of Jesus. Building of crèches (nacimientos).

December 23 – Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes): In Oaxaca City, the zócalo is adorned with stalls where state residents construct scenes of carved radishes of all sizes, representing market activity, crèches, regional dress and dance, heads of famous Oaxacans, and much more, competing for cash prizes. There are smaller competitions with scenes made of dried flowers and of corn husks and stalks. A uniquely state capital occurrence, with other daytime and evening activities. Noche de Rábanos is over a century old. Spectacular!

December 24 – Calendas de Noche Buena (Processions of Christmas Eve): The final night of posadas, with floats representing neighborhood churches from Oaxaca City neighborhoods, local marching bands, and participants in elaborate dress, all heading to and circling the zócalo. Zócalo attendance spectacular!

December 25 – Christmas Day (Navidad): Mostly celebrated at home with family. A national holiday with banks and government offices closed.

December 31 –Noche de la Cruz del Pedimento (Night of Petition) also Nochevieja (Old Night), Año Nuevo (New Year): Banks closed, and government offices have been on skeleton staff for the past two weeks, until January 2. On a hill near the central valley town of Mitla en route to Santiago Matatlán, stands La Cruz del Milagro, where this day and evening people gather near a tiny chapel and large white cross, praying for their needs and wishes to be met the coming year.

If you don’t have easy access to information on these significant dates and occasions, consider hanging on to this edition of The Eye for quick reference.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).