Tag Archives: julie etra

Talavera Ceramics

By Julie Etra

Talavera refers to a type and style of ceramics, including tiles, that originated in Talavera de la Reina, Spain. King Philip II of Spain (1527-98) famously used these tiles to decorate the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, an enormous complex in the city of the same name northwest of Madrid.

Mexican talavera is referred to as Talavera Poblana to distinguish it from its Spanish relative. The clay used for Mexican Talavera is natural earth, the same used to produce terracotta. The best clay is found in Puebla and Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City and the center of Mexico’s Talavera production, while the Moorish and European work uses white clay.

The glazing technique is the same, though, and was brought by the Moors to Al-Andalus (Andalusia, in southern Spain) in the 14th century. Called “faïence” after Faenza, Italy, which became a major pottery production center, the glazing technique adds tin to the lead-based white “slip,” or liquid clay applied over the surface of the piece, to create a smooth surface for painted decoration. In addition to the metals incorporated into the glaze, the faïence technique requires very high-temperature kilns.

The pottery of Spain and Mexico retains the name Talavera from the city of its origin; tin-glazed pottery from Majorca, the Mediterranean island off the eastern coast of Spain was called “Majolica” or “maiolica,” and was shipped from the island to Italy, where, as noted, the glaze became known as faïence.

In Mexico, production is centered in four Puebla cities: Puebla itself, Atlixco, Cholula, and Tecali. Most likely introduced by Catholic monks, demand increased in the 17th century as Puebla grew and more churches and monasteries, that is, buildings subsidized by the Church, which was able to afford the lavish, ornate decorations. Elaborate tile façades of private homes were also indicative of wealth and prestige.

The terracotta clay is brick red (pun intended) and visible at the base of the pieces, left unglazed so the piece does not fuse to the shelf of the high-temperature kiln. To meet regulations for authenticity, Talavera pieces are hand thrown on a potter’s wheel – they cannot be mass produced. Glaze colors are limited to blue, yellow, black, green, orange, and mauve (pinkish purple), and must originate from natural pigments. Historically, blue was the dominant, if not only, color, derived from cobalt, prestigious due to its rarity. Cobalt does not typically occur in free form but is chemically combined, requiring smelting to be isolated. The bottom of the piece is signed by the artist, where the logo and location of the manufacturer also appears.

The production process of Talavera ceramics is slow, meticulous, and complicated. With the many steps come the risks of failure at each juncture, one explanation for the relatively high cost for such exceptional art. There are two firings, as with stoneware and porcelain ceramics. Following the first firing the pieces are hand painted, and then fired at a high temperature.

Talavera is a proprietary product, like tequila or Champagne, with production authorized only from a particular place – in this case Puebla (and Tlaxcala, surrounded by Puebla), with nine certified workshops regulated by the Talavera Regulatory Counsel (Consejo Regulador de la Talavera). Techniques and materials are very thoroughly scrutinized by the Board. The Consejo tests glazes to ensure that the glaze does not have lead content of more than 2.5 parts per million, since many pieces are used to serve food and beverages.

These days, you can find the workshops online and order pieces ranging from all sizes of tiles and full place settings. From my perspective there is no substitute for a trip to Puebla (also famous for its excellent cuisine) to admire and examine the beautiful architecture and associated ceramic embellishments, and to personally check out the workshops and markets. Talavera is Puebla!

Photo: Modern Talavera – Daniel LLerandi

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.

World Surf League Visits Mexico for the 2020-21 Championship Tour

By Julie Etra

We all know about the pipeline at Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, and some of the surf spots just to the east of Huatulco, including La Bocana and Playa El Mojon. A bit farther east is Barra de la Cruz, known almost as much for its wildlife conservation activities as for its surfing.

The 2020-21 Tour (2020 canceled for COVID-19)

In August of this year, Barra de la Cruz hosted the Corona Open Mexico tournament, part of the World Surf League (WSL) Championship Tour. The Corona Open is an international competition, featuring professional surfers from France, Australia, Japan, South Africa, Brazil, Italy, and the United States, all being countries with good surf. The World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfers, started out in the 1960s, going through multiple organizational and name changes until it became the WSL in 2015, when it was acquired by an investor group with surfing and media interests. The majority backer is the American billionaire Dirk Ziff, an indication that surfing has now become serious and profitable business. The fact that surfing made the Tokyo Olympics this year doesn’t hurt!

Competition in Barra is completely different from what goes on in Puerto Escondido, famous for its huge waves that attract thrill-seeking adrenaline surf junkies. I am told this by my daughter-in-law Joycelyn Turk (aka Joy), who knows much more about surfing than I do. Joy is a “Tica,” living in Costa Rica as a professional chef and avid surfer, and has surfed, up close and in person, Zicatela, Mojon, and Barra. Barra has a “point break” wave, where the wave comes off a headland or point, while the famous Playa Zicatela is a “beach break” that forms huge waves off the ocean floor.

The WSL competition is very intense and difficult to manage due to tournament protocols and the unpredictability of both the surf and the surfers. This is the first year that competitors overlap during heats, with two paddling out about five minutes before the two previous surfers are still in competition. The competitors paddling out must give priority to the pair in the final minutes of their heat, meaning the second pair has to give way to any wave either of the previous competitors has taken.

The championships at Barra de la Cruz were swept by the Australians. For the men’s tourney, Jack Robinson approached Barra ‘”correctly,” by sitting in the critical position outside the farthest rock, where the wave can be bigger and starts off with a “dredging barrel.” For the women’s tournament, seven-time women’s world champion Stephanie Gilmore narrowly won against Hawaii’s Malia Manuel.

Winning the WSL Championship

In 2021, the WSL is offering each of the winners (one man, one woman) of the entire tour a prize of $100,000. In addition the WSL has a prize pool of over $1 million, which is divided by competitive ranking among all competitors during each event.

The finals of this year’s WSL tour took place September 9-17 at Lower Trestles Beach in San Clemente, California; the men’s competition was won by Gabriel Medina of Brazil, who took fifth place in Barra, while American Carissa Moore, also fifth in Barra, took the women’s title.

According to the WSL, judging is on a scale of 1-10. The surfer’s performance on each wave is scored by five judges on five characteristics: difficulty; speed, power, and flow; and different assessments of the surfer’s maneuvers. The highest and lowest scores are dropped, and the three remaining scores are averaged. Then the two highest-scoring performances combine to become the surfer’s “heat total.”

The competition begins with 100 participants, male and female; occasional vacancies are filled with “wild card” competitors, which is how Huatulqueñan Regi (Regina Perez Paoli) was able to compete this year (more about Regi: https://www.montecito.mx/razones/surfing-huatulco – her scores were not available when this was written).

Why Did the Tour Come to Barra de la Cruz?
So, the next obvious question is WHY BARRA? The break, of course, the infrastructure to support the event and its large staffing and entourage, and – very important – COVID-19. Other potential host countries had less friendly protocols during the pandemic, with tourism and foreign arrivals curtailed or prohibited, although Joy and I viewed websites shouting RED status for COVID-19 in Huatulco, “LEY SECA!” (limits on alcohol sales), “50% occupancy!”

Interview with a Surfer
Naturally, to further my education on surfing, I took advantage of Joy’s visit to interview her on the topic.

How long have you been surfing? 22 years. It’s wild. All because of my friend Neal McCombs. We met in Carlsbad, California, where he and his family taught me how to surf. North County San Diego has a lot to offer surf-wise – something for everyone. I grew up in Tahoe so it was a natural transition from snowboarding to surfing, but still it took years to actually understand and be decent in the sport. I moved to New York City to work in Michelin kitchens and become a professional chef. While I was there, I was surfing at Rockaway in the city and out on Long Island in Montauk, before The Surf Lodge [a Montauk hotel/restaurant] opened, before it was as trendy as it is now. That’s also where I met another close friend, Danny DiMauro, who heavily influenced my surfing style.

Where is your favorite surf spot? That’s a hard question to answer. I have to say overall, five minutes from my house [in Costa Rica] is the break I’m at every day, all my friends are there, and the vibe is great (most of the time) and it’s always different. Some days it’s big and nasty, some days it’s small and playful, and almost every day it’s head-high for me because I’m short. Pavones would be a close second in Costa Rica because it is only a day of driving to get there and the second-longest left-hand wave in the world.

Tell me about Barra de la Cruz. Depending on the day, it can be very technical, starts off fast, and if it’s the right swell direction there’s potential to get some pretty serious barrel action both on the outside and on the inside of the wave. It can also be scary if there are large swells with overhead and double overhead waves. The current gets really strong during those moments and it’s hard to stay in position. And you have to get behind the rock and avoid falling into the rocks. If you are more to the inside of the rock, the takeoff is easier but that doesn’t mean it’s not intense.

The locals can be pretty territorial. which is normal for surfers, particularly in Mexico, which is completely understandable and ok, as long as you are respectful and give a friendly hello. It is a little different for women, we can get away with a little more, but we really have to prove ourselves. And we sometimes have to fight a little harder to get a good wave if there are a lot of people in the lineup. It has been my experience that, all too often, men will assume you can’t handle certain waves or that women can’t surf as well as men. So, you had better go when it’s your turn or you will forever be at the back of the line.

And other surf spots along the coast? Mojon is a gem. There are a lot of these gems along the coast. I cannot stress enough how important it is to speak Spanish or at least try. It goes a long way with the locals both in the water and on land. Also, really important, if you want to surf the more remote beaches, hire a guide. That will take you to hidden spots, get you some great waves and feed the local economy that depends on surf tourism. I have heard that Lalo with Surf Tours Salina Cruz is excellent.

I know this article is about Mexico and the competition, but where else have you surfed?
Most of Central America with the exception of Honduras because there’s not a whole lot of surf there.

Drew (my media naranja) and I met in Las Manzanas, Nicaragua, located on the Emerald Coast of the Pacific 45 minutes northwest of Chinandega. There’s lots of remote surfing up there, but none of the breaks really had names then. I was shocked to see another person in the surf and in true surfer fashion we thought the same thing at the same time “Who the f*** are you?”

El Tunco and Las Flores in El Salvador. The setup in Las Flores is very similar to Barra De la Cruz.

Bocas Del Toro, Panama, goes off during wet season and has a well-known big wave break called Silverbacks, and then lots of other breaks off the various islands that you can only get to by boat taxi.

Chile has Chicama and Los Lobos. both epic world-famous lefts, Chicama being the longest left in the world (makes goofy footers happy) at 2.2 kilometers from start to finish.

And then there’s Indonesia and the Maldives and South Africa. So many waves, so little time.

To see almost an hour’s worth of the WSL tournament in Barra de la Cruz, check out this video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJOKVxFHo8Y.

The Many Quelites de México

By Julie Etra

Do you ever wonder about the romeritos in the produce section of Super Che (the Chedraui supermarket in Huatulco), or wherever you shop for produce? How are they are cooked? Or served fresh? As an ingredient in a particular dish? They are one of many Mexican edible wild greens (think of young dandelion greens, which by the way, are not native to North America), known as quelites. The name is Nahuatl in origin, from quilitl, which means “tender edible herb.” They are vital in Mexican cuisine, their use predates the Conquest, and they are recognized for their high nutritional value.

These greens typically grow wild, like dandelions, and can be found in fields of other crops. Over a dozen plants, not all of which are native to Mexico, are considered quelites. Some of these plants are classed as weeds or pests in the United States, as we have not learned how to appreciate them. For hispanoparlantes, this video offers the best explanation and description of quelites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OSFM5dy_2Y (it is fun to watch even without knowing Spanish!).

The following is a list of some of the most popular quelites, and examples of their preparation.

Romeritos (Suaeda torreyana), known as sea-blight in English, grow in tidal wetlands and salt flats, and likes salty soils. It is known by many other names in the indigenous languages of different areas in Mexico (as are the other quelites). It is prepared as a traditional Christmas dish, or Romeritos Navideños, which includes mole paste, nopales (cactus paddles), potatoes, and garlic, but can be more simply simmered and served with nopales and shrimp.

Huazontle – the name is shortened from the Nahuatl huauhzontli – is also known as quelite cenizo (Chenopodium berlandieri). It is frequently found in somewhat salty soils, and is considered a weed in the western United States. It is related to another “weed,” lambsquarters (Chenopodium alba), which is actually quite tasty as a leafy green when it is young. Although huazontle is bitter when eaten raw, it is highly nutritious and can be prepared in a variety of ways, including with battered eggs (capeado), fried, simmered, in soups, and stews; it is bitter when eaten raw. (See “Mexican Vegetables: How about Huazontle?” in The Eye, August 2014.)

Verdolaga, Portulaca oleracea, or common purslane in English, is another quelite that shows up in irrigated pastures and vegetable gardens, including mine, and is highly nutritious. A common recipe is to sautée it in oil with onion, garlic, tomatoes, and chilies, but it is also eaten raw and in salads and tacos.

Alache, Halache or Vilota (Anoda cristata) is malva cimarrona and is in the same family with the hibiscus, the source of the delicious jamaica tea, and hollyhocks. These greens grow rapidly, like a robust weed. The tender leaves are used in the preparation of soups and broths, in combination with garlic, onion, pepicha (Porophyllum linaria, in the sunflower family. another quelite) and served with serrano peppers. It is also prepared as a medicinal tea.

Chepil (Crotalaria longirostrata), also known as chipilin, is an attractive quelite in the pea family. Once you recognize this plant and its pretty yellow pea-like flowers, you will see it growing everywhere around Huatulco. The leaves are used in traditional Oaxacan tamales in the masa, or dough. They are also used in the Oaxacan soup called espesado de chepil, which includes squash blossoms, zucchini, corn, lime, and salt. In Chiapas they make a soup with corn dough balls mixed with chepil. Sometimes you can find the tamales de chepil in the Mercado Organico de Huatulco, and it is very popular in Oaxacan cuisine.

Hoja santa or momo (Piper auritem). Hoja santa means “holy leaf”; a favorite Mexican recipe, quesadillas de hoja santa, uses the leaf of this plant as a substitute for the tortilla, with quesillo (Oaxacan cheese), mushrooms, onion, garlic, epazote (another Mexican herb), salt and pepper. YUM. There are recipes for chicken in hoja santa, and aguas (beverages) made with hoja santa. This is a versatile plant, with the leaves used to wrap all sorts of ingredients, and is an essential component of the green mole of Oaxaca.

Pápalo (Porophyllum ruderale). This leafy green is said to taste somewhere between arugula, cilantro and rue, and is used in salsas (salsa verde, guacamole) and to season meat. It is also used in tacos, and soups, and should be served raw. Also known as quilquina and papaloquelite, the root of the word, so to speak, comes from papalotl, the Nahuatl word for butterfly.

Quintonil, also called bledo (Amaranthus spp). This quelite is well known from its seeds, but preparation of the greens varies, and it is used in several dishes. The leaves can be boiled with salt and combined in stews with chilis, onion and tomato. Sometimes they are also steamed and sauce is added. In the municipality of Naupan, Puebla, the greens are used in tamales with pork.

Hierba mora (Solanum nigrescens). This plant has good company as it is in the same family as potatoes, chilis, and tomatoes, all edible, and the nightshades, which are poisonous. It has medicinal value, for pain relief and for cleansing of the liver and kidney. The leaves, flowers, fruit and even the root are used. It is also used in stews and soups and is a vegetarian alternative for Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays. The tender leaves are boiled; sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and onions are added. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpdFRAyVzgk

Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius). I first learned about this plant in Merida, as it is very popular in the Yucatan, but I have also enjoyed delicious agua de chaya at the Saturday Huatulco Organic Market, which is especially tasty with cucumber (pepino). Chaya leavers make an excellent soup an a great torta with potatoes, like a potato pancake. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHE3XKWludM

Flores de agave. Also known as galumbo, agave flowers can be simmered until tender, and with, guess what, sautéed tomatoes, chilies, and garlic. Add a pinch or two of salt and bicarbonate of soda, then add the drained flowers. Serve with tortillas de nopal. Although not directly related, yucca flowers (Yucca spp.) can be fleshy in texture, almost like endive, eaten raw and in salads.

Flores y cogollitos de Colorín (Erythrina coralloides). Flowers and flower buds of the colorín tree – yes, we do have a Calle Colorín in la Crucecita, where the streets are named for native trees. This beautiful tree attracts lots of hummingbirds. They can be prepared with beans to make pancakes. In the Nahua region of Mexico state, they are eaten cooked or fried; scrambled with eggs; mixed with a chili sauce, garlic, and epazote; served with beans and flavored with chili and cumin.

Lengua de vaca, or cow’s tongue (Rumex mexicanus). This quelite is used as a condiment due to its sour and slightly bitter taste. It is related to dock and sorrel, both foraged and grown in the U.S. Its use varies with location, of course, as Mexican cuisine varies enormously by region. In central Mexico, ground stems and leaves of lengua de vaca is used to flavor the mole de olla broth; they are also used in salads and sauces, steamed or stewed in tomato sauce.

Malacate, Malacote (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides) is an aquatic plant. Known as floating pennywort in English, the plant has naturalized to the point of being an invasive species in Europe. A relative of carrots, celery and parsley, the young leaves and stems of malacate are used in salads – the fresh flavor is reminiscent of celery. Older leaves are bitter, but can be cooked.

Okay Eye readers, you have enough to digest. ¡Buen provecho!

Mexico’s Reckoning with NAFTA and GMO Corn

By Julie Etra

Andrés Manuel López Obrador (aka AMLO), president of Mexico, recently called on Mexican farmers to stop using the herbicide glyphosate by 2024. By his final executive order of 2020, AMLO made a surprising decree to phase out both genetically engineered corn (GE, maíz transgénico), often referred to as GMO, or genetically modified, corn, and the use of the herbicide glyphosate.

Glyphosate, commercially known as Roundup, is a non-selective herbicide in that it kills all herbaceous (non-woody) vegetation to which it is applied. GMO corn, however, has been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. This creates a market cornered by the multinational agro-chemical giant Monsanto (bought out by Bayer in 2016), as they produce both the genetically modified corn (among other crops) and the herbicide. The national campaign, known as “Without Corn There is No Country” (Sin Maíz, No Hay País), and Greenpeace Mexico support the initiative that opens a path to eventually eliminate the use of glyphosate in Mexico by 2024. They urged AMLO to sign and publish the decree in the government’s Official Gazette of the Federation (Diario Oficial de la Federación), which occurred on December 31, 2020.

According to Reuters (May 24, 2021), the decree has held up: “A Mexican federal judge ruled against a request by the National Farm Council to freeze a government plan to ban genetically modified (GMO) corn and the widely used herbicide glyphosate by 2024, the national science council said on Monday. Judge Martin Adolfo Santos Perez’s ruling allows the executive order issued by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador late last year that outlines the planned ban to proceed.”

This is a huge economic issue. Since the passing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) during the Clinton administration (1992), there has been a catastrophic decrease in domestic production, particularly of what we would call heirloom corn (maíz criollo) by small farmers who could not compete with the industrially-produced U.S. corn that poured into Mexico after passage of NAFTa. (An essential read on the subject is Eating NAFTA: Trade, Food Policies, and the Destruction of Mexico, by Alyshia Gálvez [Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018]).

On the Mexican side, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari signed NAFTA betting that privatizing the economy and relying on market forces would modernize and grow the country, so to speak. This has not quite worked out as planned. Of the 20.4 million metric tons of corn imported by Mexico from the United States during from 2018 through March 2020 – 95% of it yellow corn, and 78% of it (16 million tons) in 2020 alone. According to Mexico’s national feed association (CONAFAB, Consejo Nacional de Fabricantes de Alimentos Balanceados y de la Nutrición Animal), Mexican feed companies used about 11.1 million tons of imported corn in 2020, the vast majority of it sourced from U.S. farmers; U.S. corn represented nearly 70% of the sector’s total corn purchases for the year.

What remains unclear as of this writing is that, although the ban would eliminate GMO corn for human consumption, the decree did not clarify what products would be included and it appears that feed corn would be exempt from the decree.

On the other hand, and as the wagons circle, the executive decree of course has its detractors. Mexico’s national association for Crop Protection, Science and Technology (PROCCYT, Protección de Cultivos, Ciencia y Tecnología), among others, rejected the order. PROCCYT warned that “the greatest economic and social blow will be dealt against Mexican farm workers, by promoting the publication of the Decree by which any possibility of import and use of glyphosate to protect food crops, despite the fact that it is scientifically proven that this herbicide does not harm health or the environment.”

But supporters of the decree have vowed to “defend our corn, since Mexico is considered the center of origin, domestication and diversification of at least 64 breeds of corn, and more than a thousand other species, including chili, beans, squash, vanilla, cotton, avocado, cocoa and amaranth.” The origin of corn is indeed Mexico, and more specifically the state of Oaxaca, where it was cultivated from its ancestor, the wild plant known as teosinte. Corn has achieved its current robust form over 8,000 years of plant breeding (my three-part article on the history of corn in Mexico appeared in The Eye in 2012).

Although there are few valid studies that link glyphosate to human health problems, the selective breeding of corn just for the ease of industrial production and the associated resistance to herbicides (and maximum profit) is anathema to Mexican culture, and has resulted in loss of nutrition and exhaustion of the soil as a natural, living resource. This depleted soil now relies on huge inputs of commercially produced, high nitrogen fertilizer, accompanied by its own suite of environmental problems. And the summer sweet corn we are accustomed to eating in the USA is mostly water and sugar and tastes nothing like the street corn – esquites y elotes – we find locally.

From this writer’s perspective Mexico has taken a big, progressive step forward.

Pulque: Another Ancient Mexican Beverage

By Julie Etra

We’ve all heard of, and no doubt tried, tequila and mezcal, which are made from the piña (heart) of the agave cactus. There are many varieties of agave in Mexico (called “maguey” locally). Tequila can be made only from Agave tequilana weber, while mezcal is made from any variety – and often from several varieties of agave at once. Agave salmiana and Agave americana grow throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Until recently, the salmiana was identified as the species from which another traditional fermented drink – pulque – was made; botanists now identify Agave atrovirens as the variety the pulqueros (pulque makers) call “maguey pulquero” – the pulqueros, of course, are not as fussy as the botanists, and make pulque, like mezcal, from any number of different varieties.

Pulque comes from the sap of the stem of the maguey pulquero, as opposed to the heart used to produce tequila and mezcal. The liquid is called aguamiel (honey water). When the agave matures, which takes from 8 to 15 years, depending on the variety, the central “leaves,” called meyolote, are removed to prevent the plant from blooming. The resultant circular shallow pad, where the sap concentrates, oozes the aguamiel, which is then extracted with a hollowed-out gourd called an acocote (from the Náhuatl word acocohitli) by a tlachiquero (person who extracts the liquid). Once or twice a day a scraping tool called an otomio is used to enhance the process as the plant continues to exude more aguamiel. The tlachiquero pours the aguamiel into a vat for fermentation, which begins as soon as the aguamiel is exposed to air. The plant will continue producing aguamiel – up to 1,000 liters, about 264 gallons – until it dries up and dies. In between harvests, the pad is covered with pencas (maguey leaves) and rocks to protect it from wildlife, insects, rain, bacteria, etc.

Sometimes a small tree branch known as a timbre was placed in the vat of aguamiel to speed up fermentation, especially during cold weather. Word has it that other materials get added, including meat wrapped in a sock (no thanks!). Hibiscus, lime (cal) from corn processing, seeds, and roots were sometimes added to thicken the liquid. Although some of the materials used in the process have changed over the centuries, such as plastic buckets in place of gourds to collect the aguamiel, the basic processes have not changed. To cut the pencas and scratch the pad, the pre-Hispanic pulqueros fashioned knives from volcanic obsidian mined in the vicinity of Puebla (crossing the altiplano in Puebla, you can see the volcanic “twins” Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl – the former is still erupting).

Pre-Hispanic Pulque

Before the Spanish conquest, aguamiel was consumed in the central valleys of the kingdom of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica (later known as Azteca), by the Maya in the Yucatán, and in the region known as the Huasteca (present-day Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Guanajuato). In addition to its intoxicating characteristics, it was also used by some peoples as an enema. It was essential in certain pre-Hispanic rituals and central to several legends.

According to these myths, one of the creator Gods, Quetzalcoatl, sacrificed a young maiden, Mayahuel, who was reborn as the maguey deity to endow humans with the sustenance from her body. An extensive and complex symbolic system connects pulque with the moon, the underworld, rain, fertility, agriculture, and sacrifice. It is said that Mayahuel determined the method of extraction of the aguamiel, while Patecatl, the Aztec god of healing and fertility, the discoverer of peyote, and the “lord of the root of pulque,” figured out the fermentation process.

Who was allowed to drink this beverage of the gods in pre-Hispanic times? The royalty and high society, of course, but also elderly people, including women, and even soldiers, but perhaps only on particular occasions, as depicted in the Mural of the Drinkers (Mural de los Bebedores) one of the most notable works of art addressing the consumption of pulque. This great mural, approximately 60 meters long and covering the façade of a building in Cholula, Puebla, dates to approximately 200 AD. It is basically a depiction of a borcachera (binge, or drinking party). Besides the 164 guests and servants, participants include a pair of dogs and a monkey. Other extensive murals can be found in Teotihuacán, the pyramid city south of CDMX. Abundant pulque artifacts, including crocks and cups from which the beverage was imbibed, sculptures, nose rings, chest plates, and opossum-shaped urns – the opossum was supposed to have discovered pulque by scratching at the agave and drinking the sap – were found throughout pulque production sites.

And Then What Happened with Pulque?

The story of pulque after the Spanish conquest is totally different. The rituals and religious practices associated with consumption of pulque only remained in certain indigenous communities, while regular drinking of pulque became widespread among all social classes. Pulquerías (pulque cantinas) became common and flourished in the 19th century, particularly in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Paintings from the 18th century and historical photographs from the early 20th century show people drinking in the streets and in bars in Mexico City. There are advertisements for pulque from the haciendas of the Llanos de Apan in the state of Hidalgo, where pulque production was common. The mid-20th century saw a decline, as the popularity of other beverages such as beer increased, but it has recently seen a resurgence in interest and consumption. In fact, I found Pulque by Llanos de Apan, the only bottled pulque, for sale on Facebook, What’s App, and YouTube.

If you visit Mexico City on your way to Oaxaca or Huatulco, you’ll have no trouble giving it a try. There’s a 106-year-old pulquería in the Centro Histórico called Pulquería las Duelistas, the Pulquería los Insurgentes, Pulquería La Hija de los Apaches, and so on and on. They serve the brightly fizzy milk-white traditional pulque, but curados, “doctored” or flavored drinks, are more popular. At La Hija de los Apaches, you can get a curado made with melon, tomato, guayaba, blackberry, coconut, passion fruit, celery, oysters, or, of course, Viagra. Or so they say on the menu.

I, for one, have never tasted it, and have not yet seen it available on the coast. My hubby told me it was quite popular in Jalisco when he was there a few decades ago, and recalled a mucilaginous texture (think kombucha). His companions assured him it had medicinal properties and was/is a beneficial cure for cruda, or hangover.

Huatulco does have other locally fermented, readily available beverages such as tepache, which is made from pineapple juice. You can try tepache at Tepache Felix, at the southwest corner of highway 200 on the way to Copalita. Tepache Felix is owned by Felix Ramos, father of Cornelio Ramos, the well-known Huatulco bird guide. It is delicious and surprisingly strong.

For more technical information on pulque production check the publications of Eye writer Alvin Starkman:

https://www.oaxacamezcaltours.com/mezcalarticles/pulque-aguamiel-in-oaxaca-even-locals-rarely-witness-the-harvest

In Mexico City, you can not only make the rounds of the pulquerías, you can visit a pulque ranch north of the city: https://www.viator.com/tours/Mexico-City/Pulque-Ranch-Day-Trip-in-Tepotzotlan/d628-40687P2.

For hispanoparlantes, the journal Arqueología Mexicana, ran a special edition (#78) on “Un Don Divino: El Pulque” (A Gift Divine: Pulque) in February 2018. It is an excellent read; you can get a copy for 98 pesos on their website: https://raices.com.mx/tienda/revistas-el-pulque-ES078.

To Hibernate, or To Migrate?Bats in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Mexico is well-known for hosting migrating birds and butterflies on their seasonal journeys north and south. Bats? Maybe not so much, but it’s hard to tell. In cooler climates, the majority of bats just hibernate for the winter. It’s apparently very difficult to track bat migratory patterns, so there’s only one bat that’s well known for migrating south to winter in Mexico.

Bats have been getting a lot of bad press these days, given that they were the most likely source of the spillover, the technical term for pathogens jumping from animals to humans, of the COVID-19 outbreak that started near Wuhan, China last year. Bats were also responsible for the SARS virus outbreak in 2002 and are notorious vectors of rabies. Bats carry a huge assortment of viruses to which they are not susceptible. Spillovers generally occur when we humans encroach on a wild animal’s habitat. It can happen in reverse as well, as COVID-19 is known to have recently passed from humans to the mountain gorillas of the equatorial African rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Humans have passed a nasty fungus to bats, called the white nose syndrome, most likely from Europe, that has led to huge die offs of this essential mammal, particularly when they are hibernating and vulnerable. This is unfortunate, because bats are extremely important in many ecosystems. They consume insects that would otherwise damage crops, and pollinate numerous species of plants, including agave, or maguey, as it is called here in Mexico. Besides insects, nectar, pollen, and fruit, some species also eat vertebrates. According to science writer David Quammen, “A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States.”

Bats are a hugely diverse group of mammals, varying in habitat, behavior, diet, morphology, longevity, you name it. They are the second most diverse group of mammals following rodents (mice, rats, rabbits, and other chewing animals). There are over 1,400 species of bats – among them is the much maligned but well named common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, which occurs from Uruguay to Mexico, including our lovely Parque Nacional de Huatulco. The rotundus part of the name, which means “portly,” comes from the fact that they get so fat after drinking blood they can’t fly again until they pee away a substantial amount of urine.

The two traits in combination that uniquely characterize bats are that they have “colonized” the air and they are nocturnal; they fly and feed at night. Bat species that eat insects have an extraordinary capability – they hunt by “echolocation,” that is, they emit high frequency sounds that bounce off their prey (e.g., swarms of mosquitoes) and bounce back to the bats’ highly sensitive ears.

Bats in Huatulco

The National Commission on the Protection of National Areas finds that here on the Oaxacan coast, and more specifically in the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, have six species of bats in the park.

Great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus). Obviously, this bat eats fruit, and occurs from Mexico through southern Brazil, and on some islands in the Caribbean. They are polygamous with groups called harems, one male and two to five females. They change their feeding behavior with the position of the moon, decreasing feeding time when it is full, most likely to avoid predators that hunt by moonlight, like owls.

Jamaican, common, or Mexican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis). This is a large, stout bat that roosts in caves, hollow trunks, and under palm leaves. Its range is Mexico to northwestern South America. It loves figs, which don’t grow in the Parque Nacional in Huatulco, but does eat other fruit and vegetation. Because it carries its food all the way back to its roost, it is an important seed disperser. The Mexican fruit bat also has harems, and can live as long as nine years.

Little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium) is another frugivore, critical for seed dispersal. It is opportunistic in its eating habits, feeding on whatever is available.
Palla’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga soricina). This nectar-feeding bat is super interesting. It has the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, similar to that of a hummingbird. Although it uses 50% of its stored fat over a day, over 80% of its energy comes directly from simple nectar sugars as soon as the bat consumes them. Its tongue is are powered by bloodflow and the tip can increase by over 50% in length.

Vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), described above.

The fishing or greater bulldog bat (Noctilio leporinus) occurs from Mexico to northern Argentina and on most Caribbean islands. It uses echolocation to detect waves made by fish, its prey.

As for the bat that migrates, it’s the Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tailed bat, which likes to live in caves, although it will make do with a bridge underpass if it has to. In the summer, it lives – and breeds – in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; in the winter, it moves to southern Mexico and Central America. The Mexican free-tailed bat makes a formidable migrator: if they get a tail wind, they can cruise along at 60 miles an hour, and they’ve been tracked at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

A 2013 study in Ecosphere, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, located winter cave roosts for the Mexican free-tailed bat in Hidalgo, Michoacán, Jalisco, Querétaro, and Chiapas, but who knows? In Huatulco, a popular cocktail-hour pastime in Santa Cruz is to take your margarita and beach chair to sit on the greenspaces atop the Sector E canals. Bats about the size and color of the Mexican free-tailed bat emerge in droves at sunset.

Women, Females, Chickens, Hens

By Julie Etra

Last February, just as COVID 19 was showing its lumpy, spherical, and toxic configuration in the United States, we left Huatulco for a month on a trip to Africa. One component of the trip was a visit to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park in Uganda; the park is home to a population of the dwindling mountain gorillas. This park is just a few hours north of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Uganda, located on the African equator, is much poorer than neighboring Rwanda, and is currently governed by the apparently self-appointed President for Life Yoweri Museveni.

Geopolitical details aside, we were very anxious and excited to closely observe these special vegetarians in their native habitat, high in the equatorial cloud forest. The tours are extremely well organized, with a maximum of seven visitors, led by a guide and flanked in the front and back with minimally armed guards to scare off the jungle elephants. We were also offered the services of a porter, for an additional price, to help carry our packs, etc., and to hold our gear as we approached the gorillas and avoid making unnecessary noise.

After an arduous four-hour hike deep into the forest, our trackers had indeed located a silverback and two of his offspring, male and female, about two to three years old. We were allowed an hour of wonder, well worth the planning, the expense and the journey. Porters, as it turned out, were indispensable, the least of which was to help us carry our gear. The hike through the cloud forest was difficult, often steep, slippery and muddy. When I saw the guides were all wearing rubber boots, I thought to myself: hmmm I have the wrong boots. My porter helped me negotiate the mud and rocks, pointing out where to place my feet and helping me to maintain my balance.

After our magical hour with the silverback and his kids, we were told by our guides hey, no worries, we will take the short cut back, a less arduous route. NOT, at least not for me! The final river crossing was very difficult, as my sense of balance is not great, but I was additionally assisted by another strong young porter, with whom I became friends, Abaho Jason. After the last haul up a muddy steep slope, we obtained our certificates, and loaded into the Land Cruisers. Abaho approached me through the open window in the back, and asked for my WhatsApp address. Why not? I said to myself. Can’t hurt.

I heard from him in March 2020, and frankly I was confused since I thought he was my original porter, Ngabirano Justus, but sorting through photos and with his clarification, I recognized him as the last porter from the last crossing and again at the Land Cruiser. Of course, we all realized a bit later that COVID19 would have a huge impact on ecotourism, and that these communities depend on tourist dollars for both their own and the gorillas’ survival (other than the gorillas, sounds like Huatulco) and it was obvious that he and his village, Rubuguri, Uganda, would need help. I sent the first wire for the purchase of corn porridge for the village (first connection with Mexico!) and received photos and messages of gratitude. This evolved to the establishment of big cabbage and potato gardens.

I continue to get reliable correspondence, all in English, not in Rukiga, the common language of the region, which comes from Bantu roots. He indicated he needed to do something different and wanted to raise chickens, in addition to the new gardens. So next we helped him with resources to build a hen house, after which he would purchase hens and a rooster. Then the camera on his phone died, oh no! – and I really wanted to see the hens and the rooster, so the new phone was next.

Ten hens, and now we circle back to women, females, hens. I asked Abaho if I could name the hens, and he said, sure! Although there are barriers to women’s participation in Ugandan politics and the situation is culturally complex (as it is everywhere!), there would certainly be enough well-known women to name all the hens. The Right Honorable Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, for example, is Speaker of the Parliament, the first woman to be elected to the position – the third highest position in Uganda’s national leadership (she was Deputy Speaker for a decade before that).

When Abajo said sure, I could name the hens, he added, “But please – in English,” so I took the opportunity to teach a little US history, and about current and recent very strong and smart women in government. Accomplished, fearless, compelling life stories, and diverse backgrounds. I also had in mind that the US is a nation of immigrants, and my friend lives in a community where his people have lived for thousands of years, and it presented an opportunity for me to learn a little more about women I admire, and to share that admiration, albeit perhaps not resonating with Abaho, with more important things to do. So here they are, in no particular order, and if you are not from the US I have added a few sentences about each “womhen.”

Kamala for Kamala Harris. Current Vice President, former senator and Attorney General for the State of California, graduate of Howard University and the University of California School of Law, and of Asian and African American descent.

Ruth for Ruth Bader Ginsberg, recently deceased Supreme Court Justice, graduate of Cornell and Columbia Law School, brilliant scholar, and pioneer for gender equality and of Jewish descent (Russian and Polish immigrants).

Amy for Amy Klobuchar, senator from the State of Minnesota and ex Presidential candidate. She is an attorney and graduate of Yale University and the University of Chicago and is of Swiss and Slovenian ancestry.

Elizabeth, for Elizabeth Warren. She is a senator from Massachusetts, a graduate of the University of Houston and of Rutgers Law School, and is a well-known progressive with particular focus on consumer protection and equal economic opportunity. Like everyone in the USA she is from immigrant roots, but not recent. Her great, great, great, grandmother was part native American, not unusual for families that have been in the US for generations.

Stacy, for Stacy Abrams. This African American woman, although she narrowly lost the last race for governor of the state of Georgia in 2018, was largely responsible for increasing voter turnout and changing the state from red (Republican) to blue (Democratic) with the election of a Democratic president and two Democratic senators, thus shifting power in the United States Senate. Educated as a lawyer, she is a representative in the Georgia House and holds degrees from Spelman College, University of Texas, and Yale.

Nancy, for Nancy Pelosi. She is currently Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and has represented the state of California since 1987; she is the only woman in U.S. history to serve as Speaker and, until Kamala Harris came along, the highest-ranking female elected official in United States history. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant mother and Italian American father, and a graduate of Trinity College.

Hillary, for Hillary Clinton. Clinton has long served in public office as the former Secretary of State and the first female senator from the State of New York. Of English, Welsh, Scottish, Dutch, and French descent (we call this Heinz 57), she graduated from Wellesley College and the Yale School of Law. As the former First Lady, she advocated for health care reform and universal coverage.

Elena, for Elena Kagan. She is a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, obviously an attorney by training. Of Russian Jewish ancestry, she holds degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and the Harvard School of Law.

Sonia, for Sonia Sotomayor. She is also a Supreme Court justice, holds degrees from Princeton and Yale School of Law, and is of Puerto Rican descent. She reflected in 1998: “I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten.”

Michelle for Michelle Obama, the first African American First Lady and outspoken advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity, and healthy diets. Trained as an attorney, she graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School.

We can’t forget the rooster, Barack Obama! No explanation needed here. He will be very busy.

I can’t comment on women and empowerment in government in Uganda, since that is not why I was there, and would not have had an opportunity or reason to broach the subject with the few women I encountered in our brief stay. A revival of US based Evangelical religious activity in the county supports “traditional” women’s roles as homemakers, but existing and changing roles of women in the household and community are undoubtedly more complex than can be adequately discussed here.

As of this writing, Amy had succumbed to a parasite, despite expensive medication, but Ruth and Stacy have laid eggs, and Ruth’s clutch should hatch soon. I am happy that Abaho has found an alternative “career,” that the girls for the most part are doing well and that our friendship continues. There is always more to learn on both sides of the planet, and who knows, maybe I will be there when the hens come home to roost.

Travels with Pulque in the Time of COVID-19(Or, What Were We Thinking?)

By Julie Etra

Chapter 1

Love. COVID-19. Non-sequiturs? Like everyone last summer, we were stuck at home, as lovely as it is, but surrounded by fires and smoke for two months. My husband Larry (aka Lars) says “Let’s get a dog.” I am thinking, “My honey needs a dog. I am gone a lot and he needs the company, a buddy, a shep.” We had been dogless for almost five years, and he said it never occurred to him that we would not get another dog.

I remind him about our age (me 67, him 73) and dog longevity (estimate 16), but I am thinking “Good Idea! Responsibility! Exercise! LOVE!” Lars can sit on the deck with the dog, read a book with the dog, shoot squirrels, or watch the dog chase them and the rabbits. That was Friday, we started looking online and making a few calls as we had already decided we would get the same breed we’ve always had since we’d been together. This would be our fourth Australian cattle dog, aka Queensland heeler, and our last. Monday afternoon Larry looked at the pups and Tuesday he selected a 6-week-old male queenie from the back of a pick-up and, lo and behold, we were the parents of Pulque. That was June 23, we now had a handful of puppy love and lifestyle change in what we thought was mid-pandemic.

Why Pulque? Pulque is fermented agave juice, a pre-Hispanic Aztec (Mexica) beverage that preexisted the Spanish introduction of the distillation process. It is also the name of the ranch dog in the great book Como agua para chocolate by Laura Esquivel. He would be bilingual, we’ll take him to Mexico, he can practice there, immersion is a good thing.

Chapter 2

By July 16, in mid-summer heat typical of the Great Basin, I had ants in my pants (thankfully not sweeper or army ants found here on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca), and needed to see our friends on the Sonoma Coast of California. First road trip with the pup, now 11 weeks young, his maiden voyage in a puppy doggie halter. I had been working in Tahoe, about an hour drive from the office in Reno, so I was somewhat aware of the challenges of road travel during a pandemic, namely few pit stops or lunch options. We took our tow-behind trailer, to spare friends not particularly partial to dogs or rambunctious puppies, but also to have a toilet and fridge on the road; it is a long drive. This turned out to be a good plan. Rest areas were closed, the wildlife viewing areas were closed, the stop at the fruit stand proved fruitless, the taco joint in Dixon infeasible with the pup, even if it was open. Valley Ford, where we always stop for local cheese, great wine, and sometimes a sandwich prepared by the same older ladies, but nope, they were not there and had been replaced by creepy young men, but the temperature was 20 degrees cooler and the puppy was miraculously behaving and letting us know when he needed a pee stop (an on/off highway ramp).

We drove through dense summer fog to our destination just north of Fort Ross. It was great to see our friends, enjoy outdoor cocktails and snacks while socially distancing with mandated masks, facing the stunning Pacific from the deck of their former restaurant at Ocean Cove, the pup chewing our feet. The trip home was uneventful, with our typical stops closed and a pup we could not leave in the truck, regardless. He would bark, bark, bark if one of us was out of sight, a trait (often annoying) he maintains to this day.

Chapter 3

August 10. Still no facemask or social distancing mandates in the state of Nevada, still hot and smoky in Reno in the eastern valley of the Sierra Nevada (which means “snowy mountains” in Spanish, as Nevada was once part of Mexico), time to get out of town. Lamoille Canyon was the next COVID-19 Pulque trip, seven hours east across arid, flat, and dull I-80 with nary a tree in sight until we reached Elko and fueled up.

In spite of the pandemic, or because of limited entertainment and recreational opportunities, the campground was almost full. The remote canyon is awesome, formed by a retreating glacier and atypical for Nevada in terms of geology, morphology, vegetation, and wildlife. The energetic pup is hard to handle in a somewhat confined campground with leash regulations and lots of other dogs. He loves to play with and chew his retractable leash, he loves other dogs, he loves EVERYONE, another trait he has maintained (and a bit unusual for a heeler). We try to be patient and are entertained by his other antics and curiosity, bounding up the trail, pouncing through the vegetation, curiously cocking his cute puppy head from side to side at the creek, but again saying to ourselves, “What were we thinking? Are we too old for this?”

Chapter 4

Ocean Cove Campground, California, October 25. The pandemic was in what we thought was full throttle, little did we know at the time. Towing the trailer to the coast again, the pup is now 5½ months old. We have joined our friends again but this time at a private campground located above cliffs facing the ocean. What a gorgeous place. Masks are required at the little store, but folks are not social distancing, and there was the uninvited visit from a totally obnoxious cigarette-smoking COVID-19 denier getting way too close, with of course no mask. It was not easy to manage Pulque with so many other dogs, but he had started playing with the frisbee, which is great exercise and a great babysitter, us tossing it to him on the sandy bluffs in between the rock outcrops.

Chapter 5

At last, dear reader, the trip to Huatulco. After some debate, we decided to return to our house here where we usually spend about five months. We were nervous not so much about catching the virus in Mexico as we were about catching it en route, and if we did come down with it in Mexico, we would have very limited options for care. But we did not want to remain in the US, where we presumed it would get much worse, as proper health protocols had become volatile political statements and people were headed inside for the winter.

And so, we began to plan. Not so easy! And of course, it became almost exponentially more complicated with the dog. American Airlines would no longer take dogs, Aero Mexico had too many stops and layovers, including Mexico City. After consulting a few friends and our neighbors here in Huatulco we decided to drive a one-way rental to the border, a two-day trip, and fly directly from Tijuana to Huatulco on Volaris. Yes, they would take the pooch, with super-specific requirements for the paperwork, and kennel. It was also interesting that the cost for the pooch was half that of a U.S. carrier. We also thought that being in country, customs would be easier.

We left around 11:00 on November 13, having picked up the sanitized rental at the empty airport desk and upgrading to an SUV. We took off in the first winter storm of the season. As we left a full rainbow appeared, I am thinking this is a good omen, but driving into an 80-mph headwind, with the pooch perched in between the seats for a good view, we passed four wrecked tractor trailers and I am reconsidering the rainbow and what may lie ahead along the drive to San Diego. Reno to Lone Pine, once we were out of the storm, along the steep and dramatic eastern Sierra Nevada is a stunning drive and we have a styrofoam cooler loaded with snacks and libations, and four home-cooked meals for Pulque. One night in Lone Pine, take out dinner, then back on the road south.

We made it to the border at Chula Vista, staying in the sanitized, restricted, and sort of pet-friendly hotel closest to the airport (an additional unadvertised and non-refundable $150.00 for our precious puppy). San Diego County was now red, with no inside dining, so we ordered delivery and watched CNN and the not-happening transition to the new administration. This was really hard on the puppy. ACK. But so good so far.

The following morning, after dropping the car off, we did a pre-check-in at Volaris on the U.S. side, where they scrutinized the pooch’s paper work. We were fortunate to grab two baggage carts as we had the wheel-less kennel, two big rollers, and our laptop rollers. We figured that once we were on the Mexican side we might be able to find porters (they have their own union). With our Cross Border Xpress passes, we crossed the pedestrian walkway and went through security (and customs, as it were) for the first time and bingo we were in the chaotic and surprisingly full Tijuana airport where we were immediately told to put the dog in the kennel. People were masked but not socially distancing and there was one helluva long line! Barkie, barkie, bark, bark, bark, even with a half a doggie downer. We finally made it to the special needs counter, and with a knot in my stomach I watched the Volaris rep read through our paperwork, not knowing whether we would pass, or what to expect. BARK, BARK, BARK, BARK. Another half a doggie downer, the paperwork seemed to be in order, but wait! The kennel does not meet their specs, it is too big. Can’t be, we mutter to ourselves, after having bought the last suitable but wheel-less kennel in Reno, but this is resolved with an additional too-big-kennel fee, and off goes our six-month old pup (not the required eight, ahem) down the conveyor belt, bark, bark, barking, the knot still there.

We go through security again, and board. The flight is crowded, and has, typical for Volaris, little leg room. Everyone is wearing cubrebocas. The passengers are mostly nationals, maybe a few Americans as we think we hear a little English. Four long hours later we land in Huatulco, get our luggage, here comes the bark, bark, barkie on the conveyor belt, and our friend Larry is there to help us disassemble the kennel and take us home. The pandemic had not even peaked yet in the U.S., we did not know precisely what to expect in Mexico, but this is what we were thinking: “Doggie, Huatulco, home, at least for now.”

The “Poor Man’s Ox” – The Mexican Burro “¡No seas burro!”

By Julie Etra

Burro, donkey, jackass, mule, hinny.

Starting with nomenclature, burros are the same as donkeys and are related to horses and zebras (the Equidae family). They were bred in Egypt or Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago, originating from the African continent, where they were used as beasts of burden. A jenny or hinny is the offspring of a male horse and female donkey; they are usually sterile and therefore cannot reproduce. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, and is also sterile (sterility also applies to zebra hybrids). A male donkey is also called a “jack” or “ass” (hence the word “jackass”). A young donkey is called a “foal.” In Mexico one often hears the expression “no seas mula” or “no seas burro,” as per the COVID 19 signs posted around Huatulco (also saying ‘with all due respect to the animal), and meaning “Don’t be stubborn,” just as we say, “Don’t be a jackass” (although that implies more than stubbornness).

Although I have read that the current population of burros in Mexico is estimated to be three million, I have also read that they are in danger of extinction with only 300,000 burros left. We do, however, forget about the usefulness of this animal in Mexico, and its historic significance.

Popular belief has it that Bishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548), felt sympathy for the native load carriers or porters (cargadoras, or Tlamemehs or tamemes in Nahuatl), and the strenuous burdens they carried. Part of the lower social class called los macehuales, tamemes were not slaves but were trained from birth for this work, following in their parents’ footsteps. They fulfilled an important role in Aztecan society and were essential, as there were no pack animals in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. They wore a wide leather strap with ixtle (agave fiber) rope that held the load carried on the back. Called a mecapal, the strap was wrapped around the forehead; some of them included wooden structures for additional support. The tamemes could carry up to 60 pounds; although travel routes and distances varied, a common trip averaged 15 miles.

Back to the burros. At the time of their importation to New Spain, burros had been domesticated in Spain for at least 3,000 years. There is evidence that four male and two female burros accompanied Columbus on his 1493 voyage, and that they disembarked either in Cuba or Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On his first voyage (1492), Columbus – with a European eye – noted that crops and domesticated animals were in short supply, and recommended that all subsequent voyages include them. Along with the burros, horses, longhorn cattle, crates of chickens, and seeds and cuttings of about 30 crops, including sugar cane. The cattle lost no time crossing the Gulf to Mexico and quickly became successful, in terms of both production and money-making. So, although oxen (technically speaking, an ox is just a big strong cow, usually male, trained to work – plowing, hauling, milling, etc.), were well-established in New Spain by perhaps 1520, they belonged to the ranchers of New Spain, not the lower classes of the conquered Aztecs.

Fray Juan apparently accomplished the Mexican importation of burros in 1533, with animals from Castile (Castilla), in northwestern Spain. The burros evidently found conditions in New Spain to be ideal, and so the donkeys went forth and multiplied throughout areas of the Spanish conquest, but particularly in Mexico and Central America, where llamas, endemic to areas of South America, were already in use as pack animals.

What makes a burro a burro? We know they have long ears and colors vary. They are usually calm and astute but can also become stubborn; they are known to be playful and affectionate. They emit a long “bray” (rebuzno in Spanish). Lifespan averages 15 to 30 years, depending on the care they receive. They are vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, alfalfa, shrubs, vegetables and, especially hay (which can include multiple baled species including alfalfa), but are very tough and can find forage even in deserts. Reproduction varies according to sex: the male reaches sexual maturity at about three years and the female at about four years. Pregnancy varies from 11 to 14 months, typically with just one offspring. In the wild, they are solitary and don’t form groups or harems of females as do wild horses. They have a well-developed olfactory system, detecting smells up to six miles away. And unlike a llama, they can carry up to four times their own weight. Hooves help.

So, “¡No seas burro!” Wear your cubreboca, maintain social distancing, be respectful, and listen to what the experts and authorities tell you. We’ll get through this pandemic eventually.