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Huatulco’s Selva Seca

By Julie Etra

How many times have you heard a newbie’s surprise upon arriving in Huatulco in the dry season, which corresponds with the high tourist season, wondering what happened to the lush tropical green jungle shown on glossy brochures and websites?

What is the Selva Seca?

Welcome to the selva seca, the “dry jungle.” Huatulco has a caducifolio, or deciduous, ecosystem, an unusual semi-tropical forest in which most trees lose their leaves. Although not unique to Mexico, it is best represented in this country, and it occurs in a number of Mexican states, in particular along our beautiful Oaxacan coast. The selva seca occupies approximately 11.7% (226,898 km²) of the total area of Mexico, along the Pacific coast from southern Sonora and southwestern Chihuahua to Chiapas, continuing to Tehuantepec with small portions in the extreme south of the Baja California Peninsula and in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula. Selvas secas are generally found from sea level up to 1,500 meters, and occasionally to 1,900 meters above sea level in very dry areas.

The selva seca is described as warm-subhumid tropical – it gets HOT. As any Huatulqueño can attest, this warm climate has an average annual temperature of 27ºC (80.6ºF), a bit lower in the ‘winter’ and dry months, with approximately 330 sunny days a year. The rainy season, which dumps an average of 100 cm (over 39 inches), ends around November/December, and starts again in late May/June, preceded by a very hot, humid, and buggy period in mid-to-late April until the rains begin. Soils are typically rocky, with a poorly developed layer of organic matter.

This ecosystem can be further divided into subcategories; the selva seca on the Oaxacan coast, about 66,492 sq. km (about 24,670 sq. mi.), is described as selva baja caducifolia or selva baja espinosa caducifolia, with espinosa meaning “spiny,” as we do have a number of spiny plants and many species of cactus. In English it is also referred to as low (the baja part) deciduous forest, tropical deciduous forest, low deciduous forest, or sub-humid forest. These forests are considered evergreen when less than 25% of the species lose their leaves, sub-evergreen when 25 to 50% of the species lose their leaves, sub-deciduous (50 to 75% of the species lose their leaves) or deciduous (more than 75% of the species lose their leaves). Since more than 75% of the coastal trees lose their leaves, the coast of Oaxaca is best defined in English as deciduous.

Plant Life of the Selva Seca

This forest has approximately 6,000 species of plants, of which almost 40 are endemic, meaning they are only found in these ecosystems and are adapted to drought.

The height of the dominant woody vegetation is often 15 meters or less (under 50 feet) for the selva baja. In addition to trees, this ecosystem supports a variety of shrubs, lianas (vines), epiphytes (the pinkish pineapple-like piñuela seen in the planting beds of many of the medians on major roads) and agaves.

Small trees include the huaje or guaje (Leucaena leucocephala), for which Oaxaca was named (it means “place where the huaje grows”), which produces a pea-like pod replete with peas. Some trees like the cuachalalá or cuachalalate (Amphipterygium adstringens), whose bark is used for medicinal purposes, drop their leaves at the very beginning of the dry season – snowbirds never get to see the leaves.

The guanacastle or guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum), Huatulco’s magnificent huge shade tree, welcomes visitors and residents en route from highway 200 to Huatulco, along the median just south of the Fonatur logo. In early to mid-April, the guanacastles exhibit new bright green leafy growth, having detected the increase in ambient humidity.

There are at least five species of copal (Bursera spp.), all of which drop their leaves in winter. One species, known commonly as mulato, has the gorgeous flakey red bark so visually outstanding in the native forest. Copal trees produces a resin which hardens into incense used in spiritual ceremonies for centuries; the bark apparently also produced pigments for painting the ancient ruins of Mexico. Most people who visit Mexico, however, will encounter the wood of a copal tree when they purchase an alebrije, the colorful, fanciful figures carved and painted by Mexical folk artists.

What Stays Green in the Selva Seca?

Of course, not all our native species fall into the 75% deciduous category (by the way, coconut palms are not native, but we do have a native palm, the sabal Mexicana whose pencas (fronds) are used in palapa construction). Riparian corridors stay green, the shrubby ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens or madcogalii), with its white or red flowers, respectively, is barely deciduous, and the ceiba tree, also called pochote, can look a little ratty, but not for long.

The Best of the Selva Seca

What I especially love about the dry season is the number of trees that flower! We have three species of macuil (Tabebuia rosea) with their big, showy purple, pink, and yellow flowers, the guayacán (Guaiaccum coulteri)with its yellow-centered purple flowers, and the magnificent cojón de caballo or cojón de toro (Tabernaemontana donnell-smithii), its large yellow flower appearing early in the winter, contrasting with its smooth white/silvery bark. Translated, as you might guess, as the horse- or bull-ball tree, it is named for the shape of its fruit, which grows in pairs.

The final benefit of being in the selva seca in the dry season is the birdlife, both residents and winter migrants. They are so much easier to see and identify in the less leafy landscape, making this area a winter birder’s paradise!

Sandra Cisneros

By Julie Etra

I knew nothing about Sandra Cisneros when my Spanish teacher in the United States suggested I read La Casa en Mango Street (The House on Mango Street). Cisneros is a Chicago born Chicana, so the 1984 book was originally written in English when Cisneros was 30. I read it in Spanish as part of my ongoing study of Mexican culture and language; there have been at least three Spanish translations – one in 1994 by the renowned Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska. Coincidentally a great article and interview with Cisneros was recently published in the The New Yorker in September of this year http://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/sandra-cisneros-may-put-you-in-a-poem). To save you from fighting with The New Yorker’s paywall, I’ll be quoting from the article.

Cisneros is perhaps best known for her poetry, although I am a fan of both Casa and the collection of short stories Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991; translated by Liliana Valenzuela in 1996 as El arroyo de la Llorona y otros cuentos).

Although I read both of these books in Spanish, Cisneros has the unique bilingual knack of bridging the two languages, inserting Spanish translations of the English. The 2021 bilingual paperback Martita, I Remember You/Martita, te recuerdo, is written in English on one side but the reader can flip the pages to read the Spanish translation. Clever.

Technically speaking, Cisneros is not a Mexican writer since she was born in the United States. She grew up in a poor neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, the only daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother, surrounded by six brothers. According to Cisneros, she felt isolated as a child and was lumped in with her brothers, described as siete hijos instead of seis hijos y una hija (seven boys instead of six boys and a girl) by her father. Her father was an upholsterer, her mother a book lover.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s her father took the family back and forth to Mexico on a frequent basis; thus she developed the self-identity schism between the two cultures. This was further exacerbated when in 1976 she entered the writer’s program at the Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where she continued to feel like a misfit. She went on to write Casa and then began teaching in San Antonio where she lived for 15 years and founded the Macondo Writers’ Workshop, named after the fictitious town in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967).

Cisneros never married nor had children, her rationale being that she did not want to be distracted from her writing and that she was a bit old fashioned in her belief in the sanctity of marriage in that she didn’t want to have a future divorce. According to The New Yorker, she is relieved and apparently happy that she never selected the wrong guy: “It’s hard to live with someone, and it’s hard to live alone. But I prefer living alone. … I’ve never seen a marriage that is as happy as my living alone. My writing is my child and I don’t want anything to come between us.” She has said that the greatest love of her life was her dog Chamaco.

Tired of living in San Antonio, and in particular provincial Texas, she returned to her mother’s Guanajuato roots and now resides in San Miguel de Allende, México, immersing herself in Mexican culture, but not without challenges. She did not take much time to explore the town before she moved there following an auspicious visit.

When the interviewer from The New Yorker remarks, “So you decided to move to San Miguel de Allende,” Cisnero answers, “Yes, I came here. I didn’t know the town was colonial and had a very colonial writing program, all white and expensive and structured in a very colonial way. I didn’t realize it was San Miguel apartheid, and, when I told them that, they were offended and shocked, so I lost my enthusiasm for the book fair. I’m going to be onstage there next spring. I’m only going to do it if I can donate my honorarium to the Spanish-language portion of the fair, so, you know, that’s my way of making my peace with them. I came because this is the land of my mother’s people. I wanted to investigate those roots.”

She named her house in San Miguel Casa Coatlicue. In Nahuatl it means “Serpent Skirt”; Coatlicue is the Nahua mother goddess, symbol of the earth as both creator and destroyer, mother of the gods and the goddess of childbirth, fertility, life, and death, and one of the most important Aztec or Nahua gods. A fitting name for a house of this remarkable and independent woman.

One of my favorite short stories in Woman Hollering Creek (a real creek located behind her house in San Antonio) is “Ojos de Zapata,” (Eyes of Zapata), as told by Inés Alfaro Aguilar, the primera mujer (first woman) of the famous Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. Reports indicate that Zapata had anywhere from 9 to 16 “wives” (some of whom he may actually have married); he did not marry Inés, with whom he fathered at least three sons and one daughter.
(That of course stimulated my interest in both Zapata and Inés and led me down the rabbit hole of a chapter of Mexican history before I eventually returned to Cisneros’ next story.) “Ojos de Zapata” is fascinating not only from Inés’ perspective as the neglected “wife” of this famous revolutionary general, but for its sensual descriptions of a time, a place, and a relationship.

Back to The New Yorker interview regarding her residence in San Miguel:
Interviewer: “Is this it? Do you think you’ve finally found home?”
Cisneros: “I think I have one more house in me.”
Interviewer: “Where would it be?”
Cisneros: “Oaxaca, maybe.”

Spanish Lesson:
Masculine/Feminine

By Julie Etra

Spanish is a gender-inflected language, which means that the forms of nouns, adjectives, and articles change according to whether someone or something is considered masculine or feminine. In general, but not always, an ending of ‘o’ indicates the masculine, and an ending of ‘a’ indicates the feminine. Sometimes the word for an obviously gendered noun is completely different in the masculine vs. the feminine.

The very language is macho in that Spanish favors things and people being male – if there is one boy present in a group of girls, just ONE, they are all niños or hijos, etc. Now, linguistically speaking, that’s not really offensive, because the masculine gender includes words that in another language – e.g., Latin, from which Spanish is descended – would have been neuter. The feminist perspective, however, finds it really offensive. Efforts at language neutrality in Spanish are underway in Argentina, but that’s a long and complicated story for some other time!

Baby: el nene, el bebe (masculine), la nena (feminin- also means girlfriend, like babe), la bebe
Boy/girl: muchacho/muchacha. Muchachos can also equate with fellas, boys, as in ‘let’s go boys’: ‘vamos muchachos’
Kid(s): chavos/chavas,chamacos/chamacas, esquincles/esquinclas
Child: el niño, la niña
Man/woman: el hombre/la mujer
Son/daughter: el hijo/la hija
Son-in-law: yerno
Daughter-in-law: nuera
Stepson/daughter: hijastro/hijastra
Male/female dog: macho, hembra.

Here’s a funny story on the sex of dogs. Many years ago, before I spoke Spanish, we drove down the Baja Peninsula with our male dog. When the cops asked us if the dog was macho, which was obvious as he was intact, I thought they meant aggressive. So I answered, “No es macho, es muy amigable” (“He’s not male, he is very friendly.”) No wonder the cop looked confused!

Next month I’ll continue with other family members and friends. Maybe more animals.

Spanish Lesson: Expressing Happiness

By Julie Etra

As in English, there are various ways to say you’re happy.

Happy: feliz, felices (pl). “Feliz” may be the most common word used for “happy.” There’s a wonderful song, “Sé feliz,” written by the Cuban singer Anaís Abreu, with big hits by singers like the late Mercedes Sosa from Argentina and Lila Downs from Mexico. The lyrics contrast states of sadness and despair with buoyant happiness:

Si la soledad te enferma el alma
If loneliness makes your soul sick
Si el invierno llega a tu ventana
If winter comes to your window
No te abandones a la calma, con la herida abierta
Do not abandon yourself to calm, with an open wound
Mejor olvidas y comienzas una vida nueva.
You better forget and start a new life.
Y respira el aire puro
And breathe the fresh air
Sin el vicio de las dudas.
Without the vice of doubts.
Si un día encuentras la alegría de la vida
If one day you find the joy of life
Sé feliz, sé feliz, sé feliz, sé feliz.
Be happy, be happy, be happy, be happy.

Happy Birthday: feliz cumpleaños (don’t forget the tilde over the ‘n’).

Congratulations: felicidades, felicitaciones – obviously, these terms are related to feliz.

Other words for “happy”:
alegre – happy, gleeful, joyous, stronger than feliz.
contento(a) – happy, less emphatic than feliz, equivalent to “content” in English: Estoy contenta – I am content, I am happy, I am satisfied.
satisfecho(a) – much like contento(a).
dichoso(a) – especially happy, blissful, fully satisfied: Me siento dichoso por haberte conocido – I am really happy to have met you.

Words for “happiness”:

alegria – happiness, gleefulness, cheerfulness.
gozo – joy, enjoyment, from the verb gozar, to enjoy.
júbilo – joy, glee, jubilance. It is not the same as jubilado(a), which means retired (which, dear readers, I am not).

We’ll save triste and tristeza (sad and sadness) for the next issue of The Eye.

The Myths and Legends of the Conquest: Moctezuma II vs. Hernán Cortés

By Julie Etra

Various myths and legends surround the arrival of Hernán Cortés at the court of the last Mexican emperor, Moctezuma II (there are many other spellings) in Tenochtitlán, located in present-day Mexico City. Perhaps the most interesting story is how Cortés was perceived. One version is that the Mexica (Aztec descendants, also called Nahua) perceived him as the long-lost god Quetzalcóatl.

Who was Quetzalcóatl?

Quetzalcóatl (“feathered serpent” or “plumed serpent”) is the Nahuatl name for the feathered-serpent deity of ancient Mesoamerican culture; Quetzalcóatl is not to be confused with Quetzalcoatlus, which is a member of the ancient group of flying reptiles called pterosaurs, and is the largest flying animal, with a wingspan up to 52 feet. It lived during the late Cretaceous period (from 145 to 66 million years ago) and was indeed named for the Nahua god.

Quetzalcóatl has a complicated genealogy, but was recognized as the creator god, creator of mankind, as well as the sun, wind, and air. According to one version (there are many) Quetzalcóatl was coerced by Tezcatlipoca, the god of the night sky (among other things), into getting drunk on pulque (fermented agave juice), and attempted to seduce his older sister, Quetzalpetlatl, a celibate priestess. The next morning, Quetzalcóatl, embarrassed and regretful, either fled in a canoe to the east or laid himself down in a stone casket and set himself on fire, and his ashes rose and traveled to the east, turning into the morning star. The Mexica awaited his return, and in theory mistook Cortés for the long-awaited god.

Cortés as Quetzalcóatl

The Mexica were already well aware of the Spanish army’s march from Veracruz, where Cortés’ ship had landed, and of his appearance leading the cabalgada (cavalry, i.e., soldiers on horseback) to the capital, where they arrived on November 8, 1519. Complicating the interpretation that he was perceived as a god is the assumption the Spaniards and the Nahua had a similar concept of what ‘god’ meant, which is certainly not true, as the Nahua world consisted of many gods.

History is always retold by the conqueror, so this myth was documented by the Spaniards in the 16th century, 50 years after the conquest (the most famous documentation is in Book XII of the Florentine Codex. (A codex [pl. codices], is a Mesoamerican manuscript, produced by the Aztecs, the Nahua, or Spanish priests. The Florentine Codex was written by the Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún working with native people – the text is in Nahuatl; it is now located in the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy.)

Moctezuma had warned the Spaniards not to enter the city and was trying to delay their arrival until a more auspicious date on the Nahua calendar. Legend has it that the Nahua were meek, and that Moctezuma was deferential to Cortés. The Spanish description of the Nahua as naïve and simple of course supports their rationale for the brutal conquest.

What do we know about the first meeting between the last monarch and the Spanish conquistador? A special issue of Arqueología Mexicana, a magazine put out by INAH, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, indicates that Moctezuma was fully aware of Cortés’ intent, but he was cordial (keep in mind that translations between Moctezuma and Cortés were conducted by Malintzin, a multilingual Nahua woman better known as La Malinche). According to Cortés, the Mexica kissed the ground in front of him, but they stopped him in his attempt to embrace Moctezuma (we know the Spaniards reeked; a humorous interpretation is that a returning and revered god would not smell that bad), but neither gesture is mentioned by indigenous accounts.

If Moctezuma’s entourage really believed they were facing Quetzalcóatl, their behavior does not make sense; they did, however, offer him garlands and covered him in flowers (perhaps a way of dealing with the stench) and other gifts. In a magical-religious context, it is possible that this was meant to placate an antagonist. Cortés offered glass beads known as margaritas.

Supposedly the first words spoken by Cortés were “Are you really Moctezuma?” manifesting his surprise at finally meeting this almost mythic figure. Moctezuma cordially answered “Yes, it is I.” According to some scholars, politeness in the Mexica culture was a way to assert dominance and show superiority. If indeed initially, or for a few months, Moctezuma thought Cortés was the returning feathered serpent, Cortés found Tenochtitlán to be mythical, a resplendent city glittering in the sun in the distance. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador with Cortés, wrote a memoir, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain in 1568; he wrote that upon approaching Tenochtitlán, “It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, or dreamed of before.”

Moctezuma already knew the Mexica were defeated, since the Spanish were accompanied by the Tlaxcaltecas (from the present-day state of Tlaxcala). The Tlaxcaltecas were skilled, fierce fighters who successfully resisted Moctezuma’s forces and greatly resented the tax collectors from Tenochtitlán. Cortés had subjugated the Tlaxcaltecas en route to Tenochtitlán, and convinced them to become allies in the conquest of Moctezuma.

There’s More to the Story

If you are interested in this remarkable history, I suggest you read Díaz del Castillo’s book (used copies are available on Amazon for less than $10 US). However, recall that the idea that Cortés was perceived as a returning god was not developed until after the conquest; also note that the carefully formulated, formal speech Moctezuma delivered to Cortés, which implies Moctezuma sees Cortés as some sort of divinity, has been misinterpreted. Even Wikipedia debunks the notion: “The legend of the returning lords, originated during the Spanish-Mexica war in Cortés’ reworking of Moctezuma’s welcome speech, had by the 1550s merged with the Cortés-as-Quetzalcóatl legend that the Franciscans had started spreading in the 1530s.”

So, there you have it, a post-conquest myth proliferated by the conquerors and religious figures, but on closer examination, we find its origins are more complicated.

Bananas / Plantains/ Plátanos

By Julie Etra

Called the banana in America, this lovely and versatile fruit is just one in a group of fruits more commonly known as plantains or plátanos (in Spanish). They are the most widely distributed and consumed fruit in the world and consist of a large number of species, hybrids and cultivars of the Musa genus. Only the grains wheat, rice and corn surpass the production of plantains (bananas) globally. In many parts of the world, the kind of plantains that are cooked are distinguished from the sweet, raw bananas familiar to us in North America.

The origin of this starchy fruit is most likely Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, or the Philippines. The first references appear as early as 600 BCE, but it was noted by Alexander the Great during his travels to India in the 4th century CE. Through trade, like every other valuable commodity, it was dispersed to China, Africa, and well, the rest is history. This original seed-filled fruit barely resembled those consumed today, which has resulted from centuries of plant breeding. The world’s largest producers of bananas in 2017 were India and China, which together accounted for approximately 38% of total production.

One banana, two bananas, and many more

Are you confused by the variety of bananas and banana-like fruits displayed at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco (MOH)? Or in the various fruteriás along Calle Carrizal or elsewhere in La Crucecita? A pity most of us are only familiar with the common and ubiquitous Cavendish (Musa acuminata), named after Englishman William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire, who began its cultivation in British greenhouses around 1834. (More about this common banana later.)

As shown in the graphic, there are eight principal banana crops produced in Mexico, including, of course, the Cavendish. As an alternative to that “standard” banana, try the diminutive Dominico bananas, also known as plátano enano, or dwarf plantain, most of which come to Huatulco from neighboring Veracruz. This is the smallest banana available in Mexico. It is a very sweet variety and is widely used in pastry and other confections, including drinks. It is rich in vitamins B, C, and E and has a high magnesium content. It is our favorite banana, and although we can find them when we are going through withdrawal upon our return to the USA, they are very expensive and it seems they never ripen. It usually takes me three plus tries to give up on these expensive imports. When in Huatulco, this banana is our favorite snack.

Later in the Mexican winter the slightly larger Manzanos are available. They are different, of course, with the Dominicos being slightly sweeter and easier to find, even in the super stores like Chedraui and Soriana. Our previous neighbors have a Manzano tree, but I have not been bold enough to approach the present occupants. Manzanos are a bit nuttier and harder in texture than the fast-ripening Dominico.

Problems with popular bananas

The Gros Michel is an example of monoculture disasters. At the beginning of the 20th century, this was the most popular banana in Europe and North America. In 1940, however, a fungal infection arrived in Panama, more precisely Fusarium oxysporum, which attacked the roots of the Gros Michel. Since it produced no viable seeds, only reproducing asexually, it was particularly vulnerable to disease, and hence its demise 20 years after the fungus arrived.

The Cavendish, resistant to the fungus described above, became more popular, with several available varieties including the big dwarf, the small dwarf (redundant, I know), the Lacatan, Valery, Robusta, and Poyo. Recently, another variety of the fungus that infected the Gros Michel has been discovered, and this banana could go the way of its predecessor as it is also asexually cultivated in monocultures (clonal propagation). This type of monoculture cultivation results in plants very vulnerable to plagues and possible extirpation, exactly what happened to the Gros Michel.

Broaden your banana repertoire!

The plátano macho is the largest and heaviest of the bananas and is not sweet. It is cooked in a variety of ways, and can be yellow-, green-, or dark-skinned when very ripe. Machos are consumed in many tropical countries but are virtually unknown in Europe.

The red bananas you see at the MOH and grocery stores, the thick-skinned plátano rojo, is very popular in Latin America, and its availability and use has recently expanded to Europe. It can be consumed raw or cooked.

And yes, there are even more varieties, typically available on a local level, such as the Tabasco (Mexico) and Roatan (one of the Bay islands in Honduras).

Patacones, as they are known in Costa Rica and elsewhere in Latin America, but usually called tostones in Mexico, are small pancakes or pucks made from green Machos, cut in cross section, fried, then flattened and fried a second time. Another fried plantain, cut lengthwise, is a typical accompaniment to Latin American breakfasts – it is a favorite in istmeño cooking (the cuisine of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca). You can enjoy patacones in Huatulco at the restaurant Bladuyu at the entrance to Bahia Chahue. For dessert they can be fried with a liquor, honey and/or cinnamon additionally dribbled/sprinkled on top and accompanied with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. Yum.

And for a real treat, try molotes de plátano, Macho pulp dough stuffed with quesillo, the lovely Oaxacan cheese (alternatively with black beans), fried, and bathed in condensed milk (or not), frequently offered at Playa San Agustín. The women walk up and down the beach with rectangular plastic containers filled with these tasty, filling units. Don’t pass them up!

Spanish Lesson

By Julie Etra

This month we’ll take just a little bite out of food and menus.

Appetizer(s): entrada(s) (NOT the main course)

Breakfast: desayuno – ayunar is the verb for “to fast,” as in break [your] fast, just like English

Corn Chips: totopos

Dinner: cena – cenar is the verb. As in ¿Donde quieren cenar esta noche? Where do you all want to eat tonight?

Drinks: bebidas Your mesera/mesero/joven will ask you ¿Quieres algunas bebidas? Anything to drink? (The verb beber means “to drink.” You could also use tomar for “drink”: ¿Algo para tomar? Something to drink?

Lunch: comida. Yes, I know comida also means “food,” but if you go to a translate app or, God forbid, a dictionary, “lunch” will translate as almuerzo, which is not a quick and easy meal; almuerzo could be used for a full brunch or a “lunch” that starts late (maybe 2 pm) and is a heavy meal. And comida is a more complicated term. You will see signs for comida corrida, a fixed-price lunch special with three to four courses. In Huatulco, try the restaurant Albahaca (which means “basil”) on Gardenia, or La Cabaña de Pino on Guelaguetza on the east side of the canal. A comida corrida menu typically includes soup, tortillas, rice or pasta, and a choice of main course. Sometimes they offer a dessert – and sometimes it’s on the house (postre de cortesía)!

Ice cream: helado. Around the zocalo (“central square” in southern Mexico, although an architectural term as well), you will find food carts selling nieves (nieve means “snow,” and in this case is a refreshing frozen treat, like shaved ice flavored with syrups); push carts also sell paletas, the Mexican popsicle on a stick. They are water-based and flavored with natural ingredients.

Snack: bocadita (“little bite”), or antojitos (literally, “whim” or “craving”), from the verb antojar (“to crave”).

Pun of the month: ¿Qué dijo el tortillero filósofo? No hay más allá.

The Trogons of Mexico – Then and Now

By Julie Etra

Meet the Trogonidae, an avian family with two branches of stunningly attractive birds – the trogons and the quetzals. There are 46 species altogether, 25 of them occurring in the Western Hemisphere. There are at least nine species of trogons in Mexico; in Costa Rica there are nine species as well, including two “endemics” (occurring only in Costa Rica), one of which is the rare Baird’s trogon. The fossil record of trogons dates back 49 million years to the Early Eocene; both trogons and quetzals have played an important role in Latin American culture since well before the Spanish arrived.

Along the coast of Oaxaca, the citreoline trogon (Trogon citreolus), also known in Mexico as the Coa citrina, is one of the most beautiful birds of the area, and has a very distinct but subtle call (https://ebird.org/species/cittro1).

Although some birding sources describe its range as being limited to southern and western Mexico, it has actually been found from Tamaulipas in northern Mexico all the way to the Gulf of Nicoya in western Costa Rica. In general, this trogon prefers drier or more arid habitats and is happy in our bosque caducifolio (winter deciduous forest). Habitat includes arid to semiarid woodlands, thorn forests, plantations, hedgerows, and other semi-open areas with taller trees.

In our neighborhood in Huatulco (Conejos), we often see a male citreoline trogon perched in the neem tree outside our upstairs bathroom. It is closely related to the elegant trogon (Trogon elegans), which is found as far north as southern Arizona and as far south as Costa Rica, but apparently not along our coast (the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology shows its habitat skipping right over Oaxaca, and picking up again in Guatemala and extending to northern Costa Rica). The citreoline trogon is also related to the resplendent quetzal (more on this later). The word trogon is Greek for “nibbling” or “gnawing.” These birds excavate and peck holes in trees and termite nests.

Like other trogons, the citreoline trogon has a varied diet that includes insects and fruits. They feed on the wing, so they are short legged with weak feet and don’t walk or hop very well. Unique features of all trogons are their heterodactyl feet where the outermost front toe points backwards, resulting in two toes in the front and two in the back. They also have short bristles around the nares (nasal passage of the beak). The citreoline trogon can be hard to detect, as it sits upright and usually motionless, except when foraging, displaying mating behavior, and feeding newly hatched chicks. They have a yellow belly and black or slate colored chest and may appear a bit dull in color until the light changes and one can see their gorgeous blue-green/golden-green iridescence. Another distinguishing characteristic is their pale-yellow pupils. The female is similar to the male in appearance.

The most compelling reference on citreoline trogon nesting behavior is old but fascinating; Alexander Skutch published “The Life History of the Citreoline Trogon” in The Condor in July of 1948. They make their nests in termitaria (termite nests). The birds excavate a cylindrical opening, with the male usually taking the lead. This is an arduous task, due to the tough material from which the termitarium is constructed and the fact that the trogons typically build the nest in the heat of the day versus in the cooler mornings, which is what one would expect in a hot climate. One account indicated that it takes the couple roughly six days to complete the nest, which is not lined and remains occupied by termites (perhaps the trogon occupancy deters termite predators).

The clutch consists of three eggs. The males and females share incubation duties, which lasts around 19 days. The hatchlings are fed regurgitated insects by both parents; this otherwise arboreal bird can be observed on the ground prior to entering the nest to feed the hatchlings until they are almost mature enough to leave at 16-17 days. The termites go to work resealing their nest after the birds have flown.

The most well-known trogon is the resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), in my opinion the most magnificent of all, especially the male with his long, elegant, colorful (brilliant teal), and iridescent tail. The birds have a very limited range, and are only found in cool tropical cloud forests with high humidity. In Mexico they can be found in Chiapas, and farther south in Guatemala and Costa Rica. The resplendent quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, and the namesake of the Guatemalan currency (the quetzal). We were exceptionally fortunate to observe a nesting pair in Monteverde, Costa Rica, a few years ago.

The resplendent quetzal is well known in Mexican (and Central American, particularly Guatemalan) culture – quetzal feathers, along with feathers of the lovely cotinga, roseate spoonbill, and Piaya cayana (squirrel cuckoo), formed Moctezuma’s penacho, or headdress. There is a reproduction of the original in the Museo Nacional de Anthropología e Historia; the original is in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria, and may (or may not) be allowed to return to Mexico on an extended visit. Quetzal feathers were the most valued and precious components of headdresses of Aztec (Nahuatl) emperors and the higher nobility, and the birds were raised in captivity for this purpose or trapped and the feathers harvested, as it was a crime to kill them.

If you’re not an avid bird watcher on your own, I highly recommend spending an early morning with a local bird guide to catch sight of not only the trogon, but all our diverse, rich Oaxacan coast bird life. (See the article “A Birdwatching Guide for Huatulco” elsewhere in this issue.)

Spanish Lesson

By Julie Etra

This month we look at pegar, a verb with many uses, and suerte, the word for “luck,” which, surprisingly enough, can come in quite handy!

Pegar

Pegar is, as noted, a very versatile verb, but rather than being verbose, I will keep it to a few fun phrases and definitions! Its primary use is “to stick” or “to glue,” but it can be used as a synonym for golpear, “to hit,” and it can be used to describe plants, to mean “well rooted” or “established.”

Examples

  1. Por favor, me gustaría pegar los carteles a la pared. Please, I would like to put up these posters on the wall.
  2. Hace tanto calor que se me pega el pelo a mi frente.
    It is so hot that my hair is stuck to my forehead.
  3. El campocorto pegó la pelota de béisbol al campo derecho.
    The shortstop hit the baseball to right field.
  4. Esa bugambilia tiene por lo menos tres años; está muy bien pegada en la jardinera.
    That bougainvillea is at least three years old; it is very well rooted in the planter.

Pegar derivatives (nouns, adjectives, adverbs):

Pegamento: glue
Pegajoso: sticky

Suerte

The word suerte means “luck.” If someone wants to wish you “Good Luck,” they will say “¡Buena suerte!” or just “¡Suerte!” Useful at the Chedraui checkout counter when they offer you lottery tickets: No, gracias, ¡nunca tengo suerte!

You can have buena suerte or mala suerte. Should you wish to practice your Spanish reading skills, try Rosa Montero’s 2020 novel, La buena suerte, in which good luck turns out to be bad luck, and vice versa – or maybe it’s hard to tell!

Here are some other phrases associated with luck:

  1. Mere circunstancia. Mere chance.
  2. Chiripada, chiripa. Lucky.
  3. Pura cajeta. Literally, “pure dulce de leche,” or pure caramel sauce; used to mean serendipitously lucky, as in a lucky shot in tennis.

Immigrants: Alcatraz, Agapanthus, and Sugarcane

By Julie Etra

Did you know that the calla lilies and agapanthus, common flowers found in many Mexican markets (and a mainstay at our own Mercado Orgánico Huatulco [aka MOH]) are originally from South Africa? Well, neither did I. In Mexico, they grow in the Sierra Madre del Sur and other temperate climates. Sugarcane, also commonly cultivated in multiple regions of Mexico, is also an immigrant, but with a much longer and more complex history.

The Calla Lily

Calla and arum lilies are both scientifically identified as Zantedeschia aethiopica – arum lilies are larger, calla lilies boast multiple colors. In Nahuatl, they are called huacalxochitl, while the Spanish name is alcatraz, a word derived from the Arabic Spanish used in southern Spain (the Moors ruled Spain in progressively smaller areas, ending up with only the southern part known as Al-Andalus, now Andalusia, from 711 to 1492).

How the word alcatraz came to name the calla lily is debatable; apparently when an 18th-century Spanish explorer sailing up the Pacific to what is now California reached San Francisco Bay, he found callas growing on one of the islands in the bay – and the bay was full of pelicans (alcatraz also means “pelican”). Through a series of cartographic mishaps, the originally unnamed island came to be named La isla de los alcatraces, which transferred to the calla lilies. Callas can be spread by bird-dropped seeds, which is most likely how they got to both San Francisco and Mexico. On the other hand, explorers who had reached South Africa had brought them back to Europe a couple of centuries earlier, so they could have been introduced to Mexico by the Spanish. The trail went cold as I tried to figure out the route of the alcatraz through Europe, and ultimately Spain, for its eventual export to Mexico. Who was responsible for its spread? Was it the Portuguese? The Dutch? Other European traders? Was it ever cultivated in Spain, and if so, where?

In Mexico it grows prolifically in temperate climates on the periphery of oak pine woodlands. In Oaxaca it is commonly cultivated around San José del Pacifico. The white, trumpet-shaped “petal” of the flower is actually a “spathe,” or bract (modified leaf); the flower is the central yellow “spadix,” or phallic-appearing spike covered with tiny flowers.

Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, had a particular fascination with white calla and arum lilies. He included them in both paintings and murals as a symbol of both purity and sensuality. Some critics believe he used callas to represent the “abundance of life and death” in indigenous life. However, the calla also appears in pre-Hispanic art. Given that it is not native to Mexico, how do we explain that? There are 700+ members of the Araceae family, all displaying the same spathe-and-spadix form; Mexico has 41 species, 26 of them native. Most probably the “flowers” portrayed in ceramics, sculptures, and other works of early art are the calla’s native relatives.

Agapanthus

Agapanthus, called agapando in Spanish, is derived from the Greek – agape meaning “love,” and anthos meaning “flower.” The purple flowers are clustered in an umbel-like form at the end of the stem, accompanied with fleshy leaves.

Like the alcatraz, it most likely followed a similar route from Africa to Europe, first arriving there at the end of the 17th century, possibly returning with Dutch traders. Europeans – in this case the Portuguese – first happened on the Capetown area in 1488, while searching for a sea route to the Orient in lieu of the dangerous and costly overland Silk Road. The Dutch, renowned flower breeders, settled Capetown in 1652, but numerous European traders followed. By 1679, the agapando had reached Europe by a returning trading ship; it loves to grow around the Mediterranean Sea (some countries have declared it an invasive species), so it made its way to Spain and thence to Mexico.

The cut flower trade is a multibillion-dollar industry; Mexican “ornamental plants and flowers” – also the name of Mexico’s overall trade association – were valued at $1.8 billion USD in 2021. The majority of production is located in the states of México, Puebla, Morelos, and Veracruz. There are about 25,500 producers of ornamental plants and flowers, providing 188,000 permanent and about 50,000 permanent jobs. More than a million jobs are indirectly related to the ornamental sector of Mexico’s economy.

Mexico is unique in that it produces cut flowers under natural conditions in open fields, as well as under controlled – usually in greenhouses – conditions. Both agapanthus and calla lilies are field-grown, which may be why they are not in the top 10 flowers produced for export (in 2007, they were about 13th and 14th on the list).
The Ornamental Plants and Flowers association will be hosting its international exposition, La Feria Especializada en Horti-Floricultura, Viverismo, Paisajismo, y Diseño Floral, September 13-15, 2022, in Mexico City at the Centro Citibanamex.

Sugarcane

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is in the grass family. It arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1522, brought from Cuba by Hernán Cortés. By 1524, there were already sugarcane plantations along the shores of the Tepengo River in Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz. Although the origins remain unclear, it most likely is a native of New Guinea. It arrived in Persia (Iran) around 500 CE, spread throughout North Asia, traveled to Egypt and North Africa, and from there on to southern Europe. In around 755 CE, it arrived in southern Spain and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. From Spain (or the Canary Islands) it migrated to Cuba in 1493. Its cultivation continued expanding into Central and South America. In Mexico, Veracruz was the ideal environment for sugarcane cultivation, given its soils, hydrology, and climate. Sugarcane spread rapidly throughout Mexico from 1550 to 1600, particularly in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco, around Puebla, and Cuernavaca and Cuautla in the state of México.

It rapidly became an important export, along with gold, silver, chocolate, and cochineal (the red dye created from insects that cluster on cactus), almost entirely to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Early production was very labor intensive using basically slave labor, indentured servitude known as the encomienda system (explicit slavery was outlawed by the Catholic church). Production evolved into haciendas or large plantations, and production surpassed that of cotton, a Mexican native. By the 18th century over 300 sugarcane farms were supplying the sugar mills and factories.

According to the Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural (Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development), as of August 31, 2021, there were 49 sugarcane processing facilities in Mexico, producing over 5.7 million tons of refined sugar, an increase of over 8% percent from previous years. Approximately 738,146 tons were exported to the United States in 2021.

The state of Veracruz leads national production at 35% of the total, followed by 14% in Jalisco and 8% in San Luis Potosí. More than 826,000 hectares are under cultivation. Refined sugar is produced by crushing the sugarcane stems, heating the juice, filtering and crystalizing the juices, and finally centrifuging the liquid to further the purification process.

In addition to refined sugar, Mexico produces a type of unrefined sugar called piloncillo, which is also found elsewhere in Latin America under different names including panela, panocha, chancaca, and rapadura. Cone shaped, piloncillo is a solid form of sucrose derived from boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. It is available in virtually every Mexican food market. Moscabado or mascobo is a type of Mexican sugar that resembles the brown sugar sold in the U.S. and Canada. It is a partially refined sugar with a strong molasses content and flavor, and dark brown in color. It used to be hard to find in Huatulco, but is consistently stocked at the Colorín market located on the south side of Calle Colorín between Rosa Laurel on the west and Chacah on the east.