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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.

Recycling in Mexico:One Person’s Garbage is …

By Julie Etra

This is not a typical discussion of recycling of aluminum, PET containers, cardboard, paper, foam, plastic, etc. For the basics on that, you can look back at my 2014 article in The Eye:
(https://theeyehuatulco.com/2014/04/01/recycling-in-huatulco/). In Huatulco, recycling of these items by the Federal government via FONATUR is standard and in our neighborhood, Conejos, we get pick up three times a week (although the garbage is no longer sorted).

Used plastic bottles
Look around town and the surrounding communities and you will see all types of flowers and herbs grown in re-used bleach and detergent bottles. Instead of a clay cazuela, shattered in the June earthquake, I now have an indestructible sawed-off plastic bottle birdbath, thanks to my buddies Mick and Maggie (the kiskadees also thank you). Hold on to your 5-gallon paint buckets, there is no Home Depot here, and you won’t find empty buckets to purchase at the paint stores.

Corn
Let’s start with recycled corn components, primarily used in folk art. Corn husks, known as totomoxtle in Nahuatl and hojas de maíz in Spanish, husks are used in handicrafts and furniture. They primarily come from one region of the State of Jalisco, Jala, and from a particular variety of corn named for the location (maíz de Jala). This variety of corn is well-known for the large size of the stalk as well as the cob and is, or at least has been, genetically distinct. It can grow up to five meters in height and prefers a very fertile soil and humid climate. Common handicrafts include dolls, flowers, and furniture. Look for the flowers at the organic market (MOH, or Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco) on Saturday in Santa Cruz. A cooking tip: I like to leave the husks on the cobs, sprinkling them with a little bit of chili powder, tying the husks, and steaming them over the grill.

Multi-Media
My friend Irais says that, due to COVID, she is home-schooling her 5-year-old daughter Sofia. Their current school project is to fill in a drawing of “Adelita” using recycled and/or natural products to instill appreciation of both materials in young children. What a concept! Adelita represents the women soldiers who participated in the Mexican Revolution, typically shown with a bandolier (bandolera or cartuchera in Spanish) across her chest (there is also a famous song or corrido “La Adelita”). So, Sofia is using totomoxtle for the skirt and part of the sombrero, the seed of the tabachin or flamboyan (royal poinciana) tree for the bullets, beans for her toes, petals for her blouse, and corn silks for the braids. Her skin is colored with the native red clay; this is a work in progress. And for Día de los Muertos, the children were similarly tasked with making a mask out of natural materials. Sofia (and her mom) chose the petals of marigolds, known as cempasúchil in Spanish (cempohualxochitl in Nahuatl), the flower of the dead, a Mexican endemic, thus teaching the children horticulture while instilling traditions.

Coconuts
In between the outer green shell of the coconut fruit and its hard internal shell is found a fibrous husk. This material is used in a variety of common products, including door mats, hanging planters, paint brushes, mattresses, furniture stuffing. It is also used in horticulture. I work in erosion control, and this material, also known as coir, is woven into nettings, blankets, and mats to help stabilize erodible soils, in combination with vegetation. Coir is an excellent byproduct of coconut cultivation, where the primary products are the coconut meat, milk, and oil. Coir has historically been produced in India and Sri Lanka. More recently Mexico has begun processing this versatile material in Cihuatlán, Jalisco, as Fibredust™, a growth medium that can substitute for peat moss, which is an extracted, non-sustainable, environmentally harmful resource. The Fibredust™ parent company produces the same product in Sri Lanka and India, but chose Cihuatlán due to the abundance of plantations in the vicinity, and convenience of container shipping from the nearby port of Manzanillo. The material is superior as a growth medium due to its water retention and associated slow-release properties.

The coconut shell, or concha de coco, can be sanded, carved, and polished and used as ornamental bowls, light fixtures, inlay, jewelry, etc.

Palm fronds

Let’s not forget these. If they fall off or are harvested, they are what makes a palapa a palapa, after all!

The Muralists of Huatulco

By Julie Etra

Most of us are familiar with the most well-known Mexican muralists of the 1920s, and the associated political movements: Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. But here in Huatulco there are murals everywhere, on public and private spaces, for example the market Tres de Mayo as you drive into La Crucecita on Guamuchil. Those of us who frequent Xipol, a popular corner restaurant and bar on the zócalo in La Crucecita, or even just pass by, can’t help but notice the outstanding murals by Irving Cano depicting Mexican women of all ages. Another well-known excellent local artist, although not strictly a muralist since he also works in other media, is Hergon Hernandez Gonzalez, known as Heriberto.

Our good friends Doreen and Larry Woelfel commissioned local artists to paint the dome at their residence in Conejos with native birds common to the area, and what a wonderful job they did. I was lucky enough to contact one of the muralists, Marco Daniel Galguera Perez, known as Daniel, and learn a little bit about him and his subjects.

Daniel reminds me that “My artist name is ‘Xants,’ in reference to my village in the mother language of my people. I am from the community of [Santiago] Xanika in the Sierra Madre Sur de Oaxaca. I am 22 years old, and began my studies as an artist at age 15.

“I had a somewhat limited life in art as a younger person, for family reasons, as they did not appreciate that I was passionate about art. It was why I left home at that age, the teacher who mentored me was José Ángel Del Signó, he gave me direction in art. Then the Colectivo Tilcoatle opened, where I developed a bit artistically, and lived in Huatulco for three years. Before starting to live as an artist, I worked with a monitoring network of professionals monitoring medium and large mammals in the Sierra Madre Sur.

“At age 19 the doors opened for me to study at the university in Huatulco [UMAR], but where I only studied for 2-and-a-half years, since for economic reasons I could not continue, but there I worked on what is known as screen printing, plastic arts [in Spanish, the “plastic arts” can refer to all the visual arts], graphics. I specialized in el huecograbado [in which an image is engraved into the printing plate or cylinder], and began developing the skills of mural painting and handmade paper.

“I recently completed a mural at the Laguna Manialtepec [west of Puerto Escondido]). Now I’m traveling along the coast leaving large format paintings (murals) in public spaces. About a month ago I started murals documenting customs and social groups in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca.”

Those of us lucky enough to have a surface worthy of their work should consider supporting these local artists by commissioning a personal work of art.

Learning Mexican Spanish

By Julie Etra

Spanish was established as a distinct language around the 13th century, distinct from Catalan and Portuguese, when Alfonso el Sabio (Alfonso the Wise), assembled his scribes in the courts of Toledo to document various subjects, including astronomy, law, and history, thus acknowledging it as a written language. Spanish, like its cousins, was considered a Latin dialect, the Romans having invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 206 B.C. It is laced with Arabic words, such as almohada (pillow), as the Moors, from Morocco, arrived on the Peninsula about 711 (and were conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella in Granada in 1492). It is the fourth most common language in the world, following English, Mandarin, and Hindi. Standard Spanish can be considered Castilian Spanish.

Oaxaca, the name of our home state, is not a Spanish word. It is derived from the Nahuatl word Huaxyacac, which refers to a tree called a “guaje” (Leucaena leucocephala) found in many parts of Mexico. The name was originally applied to the Valley of Oaxaca by the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, aka Aztecs, who had conquered the region.

Here are some helpful words and phrases to help you with your coastal Spanish.

Let’s start with “cool,” an American word supposedly coined in the 1930s by saxophonist Lester Young to describe something as intensely good.

There are three common ways to say something is cool.
padre (this widely accepted term means “father”)
chido
perrón (literally, “dog”)

And then there is chingón. This is a bit more intense and means something outstanding, super, and is very slangy. Watch it with this word as conjugations have totally different meanings. Chingar, the verb, is very vulgar in Mexico. Chingadazo means easy and quick, as in a quick and easy recipe, but also means a forceful blow. (The -azo suffix is very common, for example slamming a door is a portazo, derived from puerta). And chingadera, well, that means everything is screwed up, annoying, much like the US expression “SNAFU”; it also means to be far away in a nebulous place, as in hasta la chingada. You will hear these, but I don’t recommend using them.

HANDY EXPRESSIONS

A menos que: unless, as in “unless the flight is late.”
¿A poco? and No me digas: Both mean REALLY? As in “Are you kidding?” or “No way!”
¿A ti que mas te da?: What’s it to you?
¿Como vas? ¿Como te vas?: How are you doing? What’s happening?
Con permiso: Excuse me – literally, “with permission,” as in when you want to pass in front of someone; perdon also means “excuse me,” as in when you bump into someone or want to get someone’s attention.
Cuanto antes, en cuanto: as soon as
De vez en cuando: from time to time
Estamos a mano: We are even, as in when you pay your bill.
Mas vale tarde que nunca: better late than never
Ni modo: Too bad, tough luck
Para llevar: to go, as in food to go
Por si acaso: just in case
¿Que tal?: What’s up?
Sale vale: okey dokey
Sin son ni ton: neither here nor there, it does not make sense
Tengo ganas: I feel like it, I have the urge. As in Tengo ganas de regresar a Huatulco – I want to go back to Huatulco! Or Tengo ganas de llorar – I feel like crying.
Vale la pena: It is worth it.
Que pena: What a shame. (Also, que lastima – What a pity.)

HANDY VOCABULARY

Atajo: shortcut
Ballena, caguama: big bottle of beer
Banda: group of friends, clique
Chavo/chava: kid/child
Chela: beer (instead of cerveza)
Degustar, probar: taste, as in try a taste
Disponible: available
Eso (literally, “that”): That’s right, looks good, quite so, thumbs up
Garrafón: the 5-gallon jug of water
Grupo: band (music)
Hielera: cooler, essential for llevando las chelas a la playa
Huevos revueltos: scrambled eggs; huevos bien cocidos: over hard; huevos tiernos: over easy
Lana (literally, “wool”): money
Los invitados: guests, like those coming for dinner, as opposed to huespedes (hotel guests)
¿Mande? ¿Como?: What? Say that again? (used almost exclusively in Mexico)
Nunca: never
Próximamente: coming soon, like a vaccine for COVID 19
Quizás, a lo mejor, tal vez: perhaps, maybe
Pausa, descanso; break (as in take a break) – Tomar una pausa. Tomar un descanso.
Sino: in addition, on top of it

SLANG

Although we extranjeros may not feel comfortable actually “slanging,” we hear a lot of these common sayings.

Dale: Give it your all, everything, best effort
Fresa: snob (literally, strawberry)
Fuchi: smells bad
Güey or wey: dude, as in ¿Que honda güey? What’s happening, dude?
Hasta la madre: fed up
Huacala or Guacala: gross, tastes bad
Hueva: laziness, noun with same import as the adjectives
perezoso or flojo. Tirar/echar la hueva, tener hueva: to be doing
nothing
Porfa: short for por favor, please, Also porfi, porfis
¿Q’ hubo?: What’s happening?
¿Que onda?: What’s up?
Sale, dale, vale: Ok, let’s go! Let’s do it. Also, sale: See you
later.
¡Simón!: Yes! i.e., with enthusiasm
¡Ya basta!: Enough already!

Al Pastor and the Lebanese Influence on Mexican food

By Julie Etra

Yum! One of my favorite Mexican dishes is Tacos al Pastor, layers of marinated meat, slow-cooked on a spit with a vertical flame, slivered up and served on a warm corn tortilla with all the side fixings. The spit, called a trompo (“spinning top”) in Spanish, slowly rotates as it cooks the al pastor, which in Mexico is usually pork. Marinades vary, but can mostly be classified as “adobo,” which includes achiote and ground red guajillo chilies, resulting in the reddish colored meat. The pastor part, which means “shepherd,” is derived from the verb pastorear (“to herd”), as this fixture in Mexican street food is actually Lebanese in origin and the corresponding meat was lamb (pigs are not herded). In the Middle East, the dish is called “shawarma,” and originally consisted of spiced lamb roasting on the slow-turning spit and served on pita bread; when it arrived in Mexico, the pita eventually became a wheat flour tortilla (as in tacos árabe). This method of cooking on a rotating spit is also customary in Greek food, e.g., the gyro (think gyroscope), a meat sandwich of beef, veal (oh no, not a fatted calf), lamb, pork, or chicken.

Lebanese Food Comes to Mexico

Records show that the first Lebanese arrived Mexico in 1892, initially concentrating around Puebla and to a lesser extent Mexico City and the Baja. At the time, Lebanon was not a distinct country but part of the immense Ottoman empire. The immigrants were largely Christians fleeing political persecution, and they rapidly assimilated in Mexico.

The first Middle Eastern restaurant in Mexico was opened in Puebla by Yerbagues Tabe Mena y Galeana in Puebla in 1933. Called “La Oriental,” it was located at Avenida 16 de septiembre, #303. Since lamb apparently was difficult to find and expensive, and since the Mexicans preferred pork, the family quickly adapted. Traditional Lebanese spices, such as caraway, cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger were gradually replaced with Mexican spices but tacos árabes are in part defined by the wheat flour tortilla, not corn.

The restaurant moved to its current location near the zocalo in 1942; it’s at Portal Iturbide, #5. The sign reads “La Oriental: la cuna del taco Árabe” (“The Eastern: the birthplace of the Arab taco).

Speaking of spices, there are numerous spices not originally Mexican but over the centuries and decades have found their way into Mexican cuisine, e.g., cumin (comino in Spanish) and cilantro.

Cumin, which seems indispensable in so many Mexican dishes, is in fact from the Mediterranean, introduced to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores. Cilantro (called coriander when you are referring to the seeds) is related to cumin, as they are both in the carrot/parsley/celery family. Although its origin remains uncertain, it is also most likely from the Mediterranean and it has been in use as a spice and as a medicinal plant for about 5,000 years. There are references to the use of coriander in the Old Testament (in Exodus) and The Arabian Nights. Coriander, too, arrived in Mexico with the Spaniards, along with cinnamon (canela) and cloves (clavos).

Lebanese Culture in Mexico

Who are some famous Mexicans of Lebanese origin?

Number Uno has to be Carlos Slim Helu, better known as Carlos Slim. I have to assume, dear readers, that most of you know he is the 5th-richest person in the world, the wealthiest Latin American and worth about $68.9 billion US dollars, but did you know he is of Lebanese descent? Slim is the son of Julián Slim Haddad (born Khalil Salim Haddad Aglamaz) and Linda Helú Atta, both Maronite Christians from Lebanon. Slim’s father emigrated to Mexico from Lebanon at age 14, apparently to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army, making Slim first generation on his father’s side. His mother was from Chihuahua, but both her parents were also Lebanese immigrants. The Soumaya Museum in Mexico City – and most of its contents – are the gift of Carlos Slim.

The actress Salma Hayek Jiménez, aka Salma Hayek, is also of Lebanese descent. She was born in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. Her father, Sami Hayek Domínguez, is Lebanese, having emigrated from the city of Baabdat, Lebanon. Her mother, Diana Jiménez Medina, is Mexican/Spanish (her maternal grandmother and great-grandparents were from Spain).

The supermarket Chedraui, aka Super Che, is one of the two big box stores in HuatuIco and is part of a chain of super stores founded by the Lebanese immigrants Lázaro Chedraui Chaya and his wife Ana Caram in 1927 in Xalapa, Veracruz. First known as Port of Beirut, this highly successful chain now includes stores in the United States in California, Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, under the names El Super and Fiesta Mart.

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.