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Bird Watching Guides and Resources
for the State of Oaxaca

By Kary Vannice

Of the 1,100 species of birds that live or migrate temporarily to Mexico, 736 inhabit Oaxaca. Oaxaca boasts the greatest biodiversity in the country, not just for bird life but for all plant and animal species.

For this reason, many biologists, naturalists, ornithologists, and birders flock to Oaxaca each year to explore and understand the immense diversity of bird life throughout the region. This avian diversity is attracted by Oaxaca’s vast territorial biodiversity, from 10,000-foot peaks and high mountain deserts
to coastal seashores and dense mangrove lagoons – it’s no wonder so many bird species either live or temporarily migrate through this region.

Whether you’re a serious, money-investing birder or simply a casual observer of nature, there’s a resource out there to help you enhance your appreciation and understanding of the birds of Oaxaca.

Several detailed bird books have been published dedicated to the birds of Oaxaca alone. If you’re the type that wants to have an entire encyclopedia of local birds to leaf through when out exploring, then you may wish to add these to your personal library.

Aves de la Lagunas Costeras de Oaxaca, Mexico – This detailed and beautifully published paperback book identifies 133 species of birds that live in or frequent the lagoons of the coastal waters of Oaxaca. Written by Paul Germain and Mateo Ruiz Bruce, this book was published in 2016. Paul, an Englishman who lived in the small village of Ventanilla while writing the guide, took years to painstakingly detail the characteristics of each bird species, as well as photograph them in their natural habitat. The book is written in English and Spanish. Even for those not dedicated to birding, it is a delightful book to explore and may just inspire the reader to pick up their binoculars and take to the lagoons in search of the unique species that live there.

This book is available for purchase locally in several shops in Ventanilla and the surrounding area.

Birds & Birding in Central Oaxaca by John M. Forcey is more of a checklist than an Audubon-type field guide, although it provides some information on each bird species included. One reviewer described it this way… “This annotated checklist includes details of habitat, elevation, breeding, dates for migratory birds, and local subspecies alongside information on the best locations in the area for bird-watching.”

This guide focuses on bird species you will find in the central portion of Oaxaca, including the Sierra Madre and high desert areas that occupy the center of the state. A handy tool for serious birders to keep a running tally of species they’ve spotted in the dense jungle or wide-open spaces as they tick each one off the list. The second edition was published in 2009 and is still available via Buteo Books online.

There are also many general field guides that cover the region of Oaxaca. A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas: Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador, by Ernest Preston Edwards (3rd edition, 1998) is an illustrated guide to birds of these regions and contains 850 beautifully drawn, full-color depictions of regional birds. Many of the most common Oaxacan birds can be found in this guide.

Another popular bird book is A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America, by Steve N.G. Howell and Sophie Webb (2003, a new edition is coming out in August 2022). This book is very similar to the one mentioned above. It contains similar drawings/paintings of bird species, and it covers, generally, the same information about each individual species. Either of these books is a good choice for a general bird book for this region.

If you’re not serious enough about birding to invest in a field guide to have on hand but still enjoy identifying local birds while you are out enjoying nature, make a trip to the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, held in the main square in Santa Cruz Huatulco on the first and third Saturday of each month. Once there, ask for local naturalist photographer Jon Church. Jon almost always has a booth set up and sells some excellent one-page laminated bird guides that you can easily pop into your backpack or beach bag to have on hand.

If you have an excellent memory (or a good camera), you can snap a mental or real photo of the birds you see in the wild and use some of these online websites to identify the birds you’ve spotted once you get home.

Avibase – the World Bird Database is an excellent online resource that allows you to search by region (Oaxaca) and access a vast amount of detailed information about each species, including photos and recorded bird calls. (https://avibase.bsc-eoc.org/)

Ebird – Much like Avibase, this is a crowd-sourcing database where birders can register and submit data, including photos, bird calls, location found, and other details about each sighting. The page dedicated to the state of Oaxaca identifies 739 different bird species from this area. (https://ebird.org/region/MX-OAX)

Naturalista – This is a Mexican website written in Spanish. Still, with the photos provided, one can easily identify the bird they are looking for and use the translation feature to learn more about the habitat and unique details about each species. This site also has an interactive map that will show you the location of each observation, if you are aiming to locate that one elusive bird, you just haven’t been able to cross off your list yet. (https://www.naturalista.mx/projects/aves-de-la-costa-oaxaca)

Of course, there are many friendly, dedicated birding guides with local knowledge that can arrange to take you to exactly where you need to go to get all the bird-watching action your heart can handle (see articles elsewhere in this issue). Checking out some of the books and websites above just might spark a passion you didn’t know you had!

Five Environmental Wins in 2021

By Kary Vannice

While climate change research is producing issuing dire assessments about the very short timetable and the very large commitments required to avoid environmental disaster, there have actually been some bright spots on the ground. Here are five of them.

1) The Monarch Butterfly Bounces Back

In the January 2017 issue of The Eye, I reported on the death of 6.2 million monarch butterflies in a freak severe winter storm in the Sierra Madre mountains of Oaxaca. At that time, experts were so concerned about the fate of the monarch that they speculated that they might be listed as threatened in just a few short years. In 2020, the numbers hit an all-time low.

In 2021, however, some areas along the migration route saw an increase in monarchs by as much as 4900% from the previous year. While others saw only a 25% increase from 2017, biologists and conservationists are encouraged that this is the beginning of a new era for the monarch butterfly.

2) The Giant Panda Delisted

China’s giant panda’s iconic black and white markings have long been a symbol for conservationists worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund, which has used the panda as their logo since 1958, upgraded them from endangered to vulnerable in 2021.

There are now about 1800 pandas thriving in the wild; last year, China also announced the creation of the Giant Panda National Park, which will contribute to growing numbers of wild pandas. The park will be roughly the size of the United Kingdom and will also serve to protect other threatened and endangered species such as the China tiger and the Siberian leopard.

3) Ocean Protection and Coral Reef Recovery

Fourteen countries banded together in the name of ocean conservation. Australia, Canada, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Portugal, Fiji, Jamaica, and Palau collectively committed to protecting all of the world’s oceans, not just focusing on the areas that were already in preservation status.

From shutting down illegal fishing operations to restoring depleted mangrove forests and renewing coral reefs, these 14 nations are committed to doing their part to solve the more significant climate change crisis.

Off the coast of Australia, in the Great Barrier Reef, a “coral IVF” project has aided in the birth of billions of new coral babies in 2021 alone. Australia also announced a plan to create 60 new marine reserves, with two massive reserves planned in the Indian Ocean, one of which will encompass 194,000 square miles.

4) Indigenous Peoples Recognized and Protected

The Peruvian government established a 2.7 million acre reserve specifically for “uncontacted peoples” to preserve their way of life and the land they live from. After 20 years of political debate, a new law has been enacted to protect indigenous people from oil conglomerates and other companies that seek to extract natural resources from the Amazon rainforest.

At last year’s United Nation global climate summit in Glasgow (COP 26, co-sponsored with Italy from 10/31 – 11/12/2021), research was presented that suggested that if tropical rainforest nations wanted to meet their Paris Agreement goals, the most effective action they could take would be to return vast sections of land back to the indigenous peoples and once again make them the land’s legal stewards.

5) Mexico Bans GMO Corn and Pledges to Phase Out Glyphosate

In January 2021, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador issued a special decree that prohibited genetically modified corn and committed the country to phasing out glyphosate by 2024.

There are 59 distinct varieties of corn that are native to Mexico, the birthplace of corn, and many believe that planting GM corn could threaten the biodiversity of Mexico’s native corn.

Glyphosate, the herbicide used in Roundup, kills broad-leafed weeds and grasses. Glyphosate is suspected of causing illnesses such as cancer, infertility, and liver disease. In the decree signed last year, farmers and other agricultural producers will have to stop using glyphosate by 2024.

Both of these protections are important steps towards keeping the food supply in Mexico safe and healthy, as well as preserving the integrity of Mexico’s most important native food, corn.

A “Trashy” Olympic Scandal

By Kary Vannice

A pile of garbage bags sparked a very interesting (and very embarrassing) controversy for team Mexico at this year’s Olympics – a controversy that raised the question, are the Olympics really about patriotism and national pride or just another chance for athletes to compete and win worldwide fame?

How did something as mundane as a sack of trash lead to such a provocative question and spark a global debate? Well, to be fair, it was the contents of the bags that made headlines.

On July 29th, a female Mexican Olympic boxer posted a photo on her social media showing several sacks of trash thrown out by the Mexican softball team. The bags contained official Mexican Olympic team uniforms and training gear.

Along with the photo, she posted this quote:

“This uniform represents years of effort, sacrifice, and tears. All Mexican athletes yearn to wear it with dignity, and today the Mexican softball team sadly left it all in the garbage of the Olympic villages.”

This act of disrespect was made much worse because 14 of the 15 women competing for the Mexican Olympic softball team were born in the United States.

In fact, Mexico qualified for its first-ever Olympic softball appearance by recruiting American collegiate athletes of Mexican descent, a practice that is totally legal according to the International Olympic Committee, which requires that athletes be citizens or nationals of the country they compete for. Athletes with dual or multiple citizenship can choose which country they want to represent and declare a transfer of allegiance specifically and only for the Olympic games. When the games are over, they can go right back to competing professionally or collegiately in their home country.

Because each of the 200 countries that participated in the Tokyo Games has its own laws governing citizenship and residency, countries wanting a better chance at an Olympic medal can easily bend the rules by actively seeking athletes from other countries who have ancestral ties to the country.

The United States, which has more professional athletes than any other country, is a prime hunting ground for Olympic athletic talent. Only the best of the best qualify to compete on the US Olympic team, but many who don’t make the cut easily qualify to join the team of another country, where the talent pool isn’t so deep or over-crowded.

And that’s exactly what happened in the case of Mexico’s 2020 Olympic softball team, with all but one being born in the United States. This led one news outlet to publish an article titled “Mexico’s Olympic softball team is made in the USA.”

But what are the consequences of stacking a potentially winning team with players who are in it solely to compete and not to “bring home the gold”? How would the Mexican people have felt had the softball team won gold? Would they feel a sense of national pride knowing that 14 out of the 15 metals would go home to the United States and never touch down on Mexican soil? It’s very unlikely.

It also seems quite clear that the women themselves felt more allegiance to the Olympics than to Mexico, eventually admitting that they threw out the team jerseys given them by the Mexican Olympic Committee to make room for bed comforters and quilts from their rooms at Olympic Village. Essentially, they favored souvenirs with six colored rings on them over the uniforms that sported the Mexican flag.

In an official statement (after becoming an international sports scandal), a representative of the softball team said that it was simply a matter of “too much cargo.” Yet ESPN Mexico reported that sets of softball equipment, clothing from the opening ceremony, sneakers, and suitcases were also found in the garbage, begging the question, what’s it worth to represent a country that’s not your own in the greatest sports games on the planet? As it turns out, for some, not even the price of overweight luggage.

But to be fair, Mexico isn’t the only country taking advantage of the transfer of allegiance rule. In the last Olympics, nearly 200 athletes competed for countries they were not born in. Two athletes have even won medals for two different countries in the history of the games!

Each individual must, for themselves, weigh the balance of national pride vs. the chance to compete at all costs. But it’s a powerful statement that in 2016 the Olympic Committee formed the Refugee Olympic Team so that athletes who have been forcibly displaced from their home countries could still compete.

In this year’s Olympics, 29 athletes from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela competed for the Refugee Olympic Team in 12 events. They entered the Tokyo Olympic stadium under a united flag that represents refugees around the world, all 29 of them proving it’s not the flag you stand under, but solidarity that matters most.

The Original Buzz-Inducing Elixir

By Kary Vannice

What could be better than chocolate and wine? How about chocolate wine?

It is a little-known fact that chocolate wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the early Mesoamericans’ insatiable lust for fermented fruit, and a good buzz. The cocoa tree that grew wild throughout the tropics of what we now know as the Americas was originally sought after for the juicy flesh that surrounds the cocoa seed. Indigenous people found that they could harvest the small, football shaped pods that grew directly from the bark of the tree and create a slightly alcoholic drink to be used in religious ceremonies and celebrations.

In fact, “cocoa wine” was the real motivation to domesticate the cocoa tree. The eventual processing of beans into chocolate became a fortuitous byproduct, but initially was never even considered. Chocolate was only discovered because wasting the leftover beans was unthinkable in a society where all of nature’s sacred gifts were used to their fullest advantage. (See “Chocolate – Drink of the Gods,” elsewhere in this issue for what the ancients did with the seeds.)

Ironically, now that our modern society has developed their own insatiable lust for all things chocolate, the original buzz-inducing elixir is now considered a waste product in the chocolate-making process.

Several years ago at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, I noticed a cocoa vendor displaying an odd assortment of bottles filled with a white, slightly transparent liquid, clearly producing the tiny bubbles that are a hallmark of active fermentation. Curious, I asked him what was in the bottles. He said it was the liquid that came off of the cocoa beans as they were fermenting in the sun, before being dried, roasted and processed into chocolate. Amazed and delighted, knowing the benefits of fermented foods for the health of the human gut, I told him I would buy all the bottles. For me, the novelty of getting to try this mysterious, effervescent juice (and its health benefits) far outweighed the fact that the drink itself might be less than delicious.

I immediately removed the mesh covering on one of the bottles and took a cautious sip, my curiosity getting the better of me. As it turned out, the taste was pleasant, if not sweet, and didn’t taste at all like chocolate. The vendor smiled with delight as he saw my reaction to this newly introduced probiotic. Noticing this, I asked him to tell me more about the fermentation process.

Seeing that I was clearly taken by this discovery, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to share his knowledge with me, from start to finish. He picked up one of the ripe cocoa pods at his fingertips and adeptly sliced it open with this pocketknife, exposing 40-60 tightly packed fleshy, seeds inside. They looked a bit like a fat, ghostly-white corn on the cob, if the kernels were about ten to twenty times as plump.

He proceeded to tell me that chocolate would not have its chocolaty flavor at all if it were not for the process of fermentation. After harvesting the pods and scooping out the seeds, they are packed into containers to ferment for about six to ten days. During this time, yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes break down and ferment the juicy white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans. As this happens, they release a juice referred to as the “sweatings” that is generally tossed out as a waste product.

However, this ingenious farmer, true to his indigenous roots, saw opportunity, not waste, in this bubbly, slightly boozy froth. Fascinated by the agro-history lesson and eager to support his sustainable practices, I told him I would take at least two bottles a week for as long as he could provide them. Sadly, the supply didn’t last long, but the lesson remains.

And now you, too, know that the origins of your favorite chocolate were not chocolate at all, but a fruity fermented wine that dates back to 1400 BC and remains a link between us and the ancient peoples of the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan cultures.

The History of the Cow in Mexico

By Kary Vannice

In 1521, Capitan Gregorio de Villalobos set sail, probably out of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but there’s evidence he left from Cuba, heading for Veracruz, Mexico, with some heavy weight contraband on board – contraband that would forever change the culture and landscape of North America. Below decks he harbored six cows and one bull, at a time when cattle trading was strictly prohibited in Mexico.

Cattle, first brought to the Caribbean islands by Christopher Columbus, had not yet made their way to Mexico. Spanish stock raisers, afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of cattle to the Spanish settlements, had petitioned the crown to institute severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stock to Mexico. They had good reason – the vast landscapes of Mexico made for ideal grazing country.

Modern day cows come from a breed of animal that was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Asia. This huge beast, called an auroch, was about twice the size of a cow today and originated in India, spread into China, then the Middle East, and eventually to northern Africa and finally to Europe.

When European sailors brought cattle to the Caribbean islands they were a thin-legged, wiry Moorish-Andalusian breed known as “black cattle” (ganado prieto). Turned loose and left on their own, it didn’t take long in their new lush surroundings for them to evolve into the heavy-boned, swift breed that Villalobos smuggled into Mexico.

These first cows arrived in Mexico just as Cortés and his men were completing their conquest of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. By the end of 1521, the conquistadors had all the money and power they could want, but they found the local meat supply not to their liking. Thus, Cortes himself petitioned King Charles V of Spain to lift the restriction on cattle importation.

To supply his men with the meat they desired, Cortés developed a breeding program in the high-altitude valley of Mexicalzimgo (around what is now San Mateo Mexicaltzingo, south of Toluca) and started the tradition of cattle raising in Mexico. The modern-day practice of branding is even attributed to Cortes, who it is said branded all his cattle with three crosses, the first brand recorded in North America.

Soon, missionaries also arrived on the shores of Mexico. As they established communities around their new age culture and religion, rich European landowners mounted native Indians on well-trained horses and began teaching them to handle cattle using methods originating from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Missions became the impetus for encouraging the local indigenous people to raise livestock, to supply a steady stream of meat to the growing population of Anglos arriving from Europe.

Native cow handlers quickly blended their local knowledge with their new skill of horsemanship and surpassed their European counterparts in both skill and precision. The wide open spaces of Northern Mexico became a major center for raising cattle. Ranching, farming and trading of livestock became the primary economic activity in that region, which we know today as Texas.

Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the cattle industry grew in Mexico, which at the time included New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado. With such a vast territory and no way to contain herds to a specific tract of land, huge roundups were often held to collect cattle for sale and transport. With their expert horsemanship and roping skills, the hard-riding vaqueros and charros controlled the chaos and laid the foundation for our modern day cowboy culture.

During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the number of wild cattle increased as ranchers on both sides turned their attention toward the war effort and no longer had time to organize the huge roundups required to regroup the scattered herds.

After the war ended, with a newly established border, the two countries developed common routes for moving large amounts of cattle between the north and south. The most famous was the Chisholm Trail, which became the path for the greatest movement of cattle ever known. This established a trade network for cattle between the two North American countries and cemented a strong ranching culture in both countries that remains to this day.

An extension of ranching culture in both the USA and Mexico is the rodeo, where charros show off their skills in horsemanship, cow handling, and bull riding. Another Spanish tradition that would not exist without the cow, and is still practiced today in some Mexican cities, is the bull fight.

While the ranching and cowboy culture remain strong in many of the states in both Mexico and the United States, the cattle industry has largely become an industrial affair. Today, industrially raised cattle account for nearly half of the cattle in each country.

In 2016, Mexico reported over 16 million head of cattle within its borders, the vast majority of which would not be considered “open range” cattle, but instead are raised in feedlots to produce meat for both Mexican and foreign markets.

In 2019 beef ranked 58th among Mexico’s top 100 exports, bringing in over a billion dollars in revenue for the country. And that amount does not take into account any of the byproducts such as tallow, rawhide, bones, horns and hooves.

The 2020 beef export numbers may be even stronger because of the pandemic. When factories in the United States were forced to shut down due to COVID-19 protocols, Mexico beef producers came to the rescue. Between January and May, Mexico’s meat export numbers were 32.6% higher than they were in 2019.

So, from its first illegal origins on the shores of Mexico 500 years ago, the humble cow has not only shaped a distinct part of Mexican culture but has also become a major economic contributor to the Mexican economy.

Trash to Cash: The Positive Impact of Scavenging on the Mexican Economy

By Kary Vannice

On November 18, 2020, the Mexican Senate approved a bill that first had been proposed back in February of 2019. The bill proposes an overhaul of waste management at every link in the supply chain, starting with city garbage collection and ending with a “zero waste” circular economy where all garbage is either recycled, reused or composted.

However, there is one critical link in the chain that is often overlooked by policy makers because it comprises the politically disenfranchised and socially marginalized poor – scavengers.

In 2014, a study sponsored by Boston University estimated that somewhere between 500,000 and 4 million people scavenge through trash for a living in Latin America. Six years and at least a dozen economic crises later, it’s only logical that number is now much higher. And like much of the rest of Latin America, Mexico has not been spared economic hardship in the last six years.

When interviewed by Bloomberg Law, Rusty Getter of Balcones Resources, an American environmental services company with close ties to the Mexican recycling sector said, “Any significant change in the Mexican waste processing landscape will be a major challenge and affect untold throngs of people who currently depend on that stream for their livelihood.”

He went on: “I would go so far as to say that the true recycling rate in Mexico is significantly higher than that of the U.S., due to the fact that the ‘hand-picked’ commodity volume can apparently allow a family to eke out a subsistence income.”

According to Greenpeace, Mexico produces more than 37.5 million tons of garbage a year. And while Greenpeace and other environmental organizations are applauding the bill on the grounds that it will mean reductions in land based pollutants as well as improvements in both air and water quality, they are leaving out the fact that families who make their living from scavenging trash bins and dumpsters may suffer if the government’s total cleanup a success.

Martin Medina, a Mexican-born political scientist, has dedicated his life to the study of trash scavengers. He remembers as a child often seeing men, women and even children picking through piles of garbage in the Mexican town where he grew up. He is one of the world leaders on the underground economy of turning trash to cash and just what it means to local, regional and national economies.

His studies have helped shed light on what most societies and governments would prefer to keep in the dark, or at least push to the outskirts of what they consider to be civilized living. In an article published by ReVista: Harvard Review of Latin America, Medina broke down the numbers of the true economic impact of the life of the lowly scavenger:

The World Bank estimates that about 15 million people worldwide work as scavengers. Assuming a median income of US$5 a person per day, their global economic impact is at least US$21.6 billion dollars a year, and about US$7 billion in Latin America. Scavenging cuts down on imports of raw materials, which enables the country to save hard currency. Scavenger-recovered materials are often exported, thus generating hard currency. In Argentina and other countries, for instance, PET, the clear plastic used to make beverage containers, is exported to China, where it is recycled into new products. … In Brazil alone, scavenging has an annual economic impact of about US$3 billion.

But plastics aren’t the only high ticket item here in Mexico. Medina’s article also pointed out that wood pulp in Mexico is seven times more costly than the recycled wastepaper recovered by scavengers. Couple this with the fact that recycling factories are cheaper to build and use less energy, and all of a sudden, those scavengers are dramatically helping to reduce a company’s bottom line.

Medina also often debunks the myth that scavengers have no place in the modern waste management systems. He argues that relying heavily on advanced technology not only reduces the number of available jobs, but also edges out the critical link scavengers play in the garbage chain. They essentially offer free labor to municipalities. Their positive impacts are not only economic, but also environmental, since they contribute to more items being recycled than normally would be, which saves both energy and water. It also means fewer raw materials are needed to manufacture goods, thus reducing the destruction of Mexico’s valuable natural resources.

While last month’s “Zero Waste” bill did pass, the means to achieve that lofty goal have yet to be determined. Perhaps Mexican policy makers, like Medina, will see scavengers as part of the solution and not the problem, and find ways to ensure they can continue to feed their families and positively impact the Mexican economy.

Look to the Walls

By Kary Vannice

One of the things you’ll notice when traveling in Latin America is that you don’t have to look far to find out what’s on the minds of the people who live there. All you have to do is read the walls.

By definition, graffiti is “a form of visual communication, usually illegal, involving the unauthorized marking of public space by an individual or group.” But graffiti is more and more becoming understood as an expressive art form as well. And municipalities here in Mexico are using it to send messages of public health and safety, encouragement and acknowledgement during the current global pandemic.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has recently sponsored a movement of young artists to create larger-than-life murals to encourage its citizens to mask up and take precautions in an effort to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The Director of Culture and Traditions invited local street artists between the ages of 14 and 25 to participate in a city-wide muralist workshop. Various buildings and walls were designated in strategic areas throughout San Miguel to serve as their canvas for creating powerful PSAs for the people living near them or passing by.

The workshop featured two well-known and accomplished graffiti artists who designed the murals and then acted as mentors to younger artists who apprenticed under them, perfecting their technique while bringing the designs to life.

Luckily for San Miguel residents, the two have very different artistic styles, which makes the murals distinct and meaningful in their own unique ways. One artist, Juce, focused on honoring the many men and women who have contributed to the safety and well-being of all Mexicans, by featuring health care workers, supply-chain employees carrying boxes of safety equipment and even the general public wearing masks. He named the work “The triumph of society and work over a pandemic.”

The other artist, Persak, choose a more artistic approach, literally, designing three enormous murals of the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh and even Mexico’s own Frida Kahlo, all wearing masks.

San Miguel is not alone in leveraging street art as a public and popular way of encouraging Mexicans to participate in the effort to slow the coronavirus. Recently the news outlet El Universal featured Sergio Morales, known as Applezman, a Mexico City street artist who has also been spraying his visual messages along the city’s metro lines. One huge mural features Capitan America, Iron Man, Batman and Spiderman, all flanking a Mexican female nurse in scrubs and a mask. The tagline above it reads A Las Héroes de Verdad, Gracias (To the real heroes, thank you). It is significant in Spanish that the artist wrote “Las” Héroes and not “Los” Héroes. By using the feminine article (las) he is speaking about women, in this case nurses, as the true heroes of the pandemic here in Mexico.

When asked about the mural, Applezman said, “The image is of the nurse because they are the ones who are protecting us, not the National Guard or the Army; they will do so at their due time, but now, the honor is for these doctors and nurses, and everyone who is fighting.”

When questioned about how he hopes his art is affecting the people of Mexico City, he said, “Sometimes we think seeing is believing, but I only tell them to take care of themselves because sometimes those who don’t believe are the ones who fall. We know that everyone can get infected, ourselves, or our colleagues; that’s why I ask people to follow the rules. There are people who are against the system but that is not a reason to not take care of their own health and their families.”

An interesting message from a graffiti artist, someone many in our society would see as “against the system” himself.

It seems, in the time of coronavirus, factions who would have once stood against each other, municipalities and graffiti artists, have found a way to come together to send a message of hope, encouragement and gratitude. And at the same time made our bleak world more colorful and our outlook for the future a bit brighter.

A Muffled Cry for Independence

By Kary Vannice

Several years ago, at midnight on September 15th, I stood misty eyed in the zócalo of San Miguel de Allende as thousands of Mexicans reenacted “el Grito,” the cry for independence that occurred in Dolores de Hidalgo in 1810, just 40 kilometers from where I stood. This famous “call to arms” to rise up against Spanish rule is acted out in cities and towns all across Mexico annually.

And this was exactly what brought tears to my eyes, the effect of thousands of Mexicans joyously singing their national anthem. I had never before felt that kind of national pride. My countrymen have long since turned their Independence Day into a commercial affair and an excuse to party with pyrotechnics. It has lost its meaning to capitalism and the almighty dollar. In all my years, never once have I experienced Americans singing the Star Spangled Banner in unison on the Fourth of July.

This year, once again, I found myself in San Miguel de Allende on el Día de la Independencia. But this year, because of COVID-19, it was a very different scene here, and all over Mexico. The town square was blocked off and police were posted at all the entrances. No one would be portraying “el Grito” in a public venue in 2020.

In Mexico City, where last year’s presidential address was nearly drowned out by more than 130,000 red, white and green clad revelers, the president’s words hollowly echoed off the facades of the Metropolitan Cathedral and surrounding buildings with only the local riot police there to hear them. Everyone else was watching the address from their televisions, safely at home.

Perhaps this is the highest demonstration of national pride, to put aside one’s own individual desire to take to the streets and celebrate en masse and instead stay home to protect others from a deadly virus that has yet to be fully understood or controlled.

For the safety of all, Mexicans did not come together by the thousands to celebrate their patriotism, but instead opted for a muffled “grito” from behind a cubreboca (face mask) in small groups or family gatherings, demonstrating that independence is not so much an individual ideal, but a collective one here in Mexico, more of an “it takes a village” approach than one of personal liberties.

Unlike its neighbor to the north, where individuals are being encouraged to gather in large public venues, with no measures of safety or control, to support the current administration’s bid to maintain office, Mexican officials are encouraging and enforcing social distancing and safety protocols to diminish the spread of COVID-19. And given the current state of affairs, it is essential that the public comply for the sake of the collective.

As of Independence Day, a reported 71,049 Mexicans had died of COVID-19. On September 24, just over a week later, that number passed 75,000,out of 710,000 confirmed cases. Yes, that’s a 10% death rate, the third highest in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center, despite the restrictions on large public gatherings.

The 10% death rate, coupled with Mexico’s being in the top ten countries with the most reported cases, makes it the 12th deadliest country in the world where COVID-19 is concerned, as reported by CNN Health (Sept. 24).

Why is Mexico suffering so much? There is much speculation, and some would say absolute quantifiable proof, to answer that question. On September 3, Forbes published an article by a Latin American-focused political analyst, Nathaniel Parish Flannery, who wrote “In Mexico, Covid-19 patients are dying because public hospitals are failing to save them. … According to Mexico’s publicly available epidemiological oversight database, only 20% of the country’s Covid-19 patients who died were intubated. An astounding 51,924 Covid-19 patients never received ventilator treatment before they died.”

He goes on to say, “the official death toll in Mexico is only a fraction of the real total. Tens of thousands of patients in Mexico never seek help, never get tested, and go unaccounted for.”

Flannery points the finger at the current administration for failing to manage the pandemic and for not focusing sufficient energy and resources on saving citizens’ lives.

There are few who would argue that numerous positive cases and deaths go unreported as millions of people in rural areas have little access to testing or adequate treatment if infected. It is likely that the true death toll will never be known.

Where does this leave the Mexican people? Well, quite frankly, bearing the brunt of responsibility to slow the spread of the virus themselves – which most are taking on willingly, as there were virtually no reports of any backlash to Independence Day celebrations being cancelled and the majority of Mexicans continue to wear facemasks in stores, on the street and especially in crowded areas.

If the government is indeed doing little more than handing down rules and regulations for the public to follow in an effort to stem the increasing death toll, individuals are left to shore up the public safety void by setting individual freedoms aside in deference to the survival of el pueblo.

It seems the “it takes a village” approach to overcoming COVID-19 may be Mexico’s best hope of celebrating el Grito in the town square next year and for years to come.

Calming Your Nervios

By Kary Vannice

“Nervios” is a classification of medical disorders used here in Mexico that, for us, would loosely be translated as the “jitters.” In reality, though, the symptoms go well beyond that.

The late professor Carlos Zolla Luque, an expert in Mexican traditional medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), described nervios as characterized by a “state of unrest” in which it is customary to experience “insomnia, loss of appetite or compulsive eating, anxiety, rapid pulse, occasional despair and other disorders such as hair loss, dermatitis and weakness. Any circumstances that alter the emotional state or mood are interpreted as possible triggering agents.”

Now, let’s be honest, we are all staring down the barrel of another six months of civil unrest, economic uncertainty, and social isolation – as if the past six months were not enough to make anyone reach for the Prozac.

Unlike the other North American countries, Mexicans have long recognized what modern science now calls “stress-related disorders.” Ancient folk remedies throughout Mexico always included several different plants and trees as cures to calm the nerves. In 2014, a team of UNAM scientists itemized 92 “medicinal plants for the treatment of ‘nervios’, anxiety, and depression in Mexican traditional medicine” – a great resource for getting high-strung, stressed out, insomniacs to chill out and take a nap.

In the midst of a global pandemic, regional economic crisis and racial tensions boiling over (for good reason, I might add), it’s safe to say we’re all experiencing more than a little stress in our daily lives. The good news is, here in Mexico, they haven’t lost touch with their ancient ways and some of these old folk remedies are still very much available to us today. Anyone who’s been to a traditional “tianguis” market knows there’s always at least one vendor there selling dried herbs to cure what ails ya’.

Two of the 92 Oaxacan antidotes for los nervios you’d more commonly associate with a flower shop than a pharmacy. They are a local chrysanthemum and Ipomoea stans, a variety of those lovely blue/purple morning glories you see on your morning walks. However, in their case, it’s not the flower that’s used, it’s the roots.

In other plants, it’s the bark or the leaves, or the berries that hold the power to relax one with a tense and uneasy disposition. Calderona Amarilla (Galphimia Glauca, or thryallis), for example, by far the most wildly studied of the folk remedies, uses the seeds and branches to make a soothing tonic.

Another recognizable Mexican flower, the cempasúchil, the Mexican marigold (Tagetes erecta) traditionally used Day of the Dead displays, while not reviewed in the study, has long been used to cure headaches, “fright,” insomnia, excessive crying and nervousness.

There are many other at-home treatments readily available in your local fruit and veg store. While not necessarily native to Mexico, these are well-known “medicines” for nervous Nellies.

Passionflower – There are over 500 varieties of passionflower and only some of them produce a curative effect, but you’ll often find dried Passiflora in local natural farmacías, which you can use to make a calming tea.

Ruda (common rue) – Originally from the Mediterranean, this herb has a long-standing place in Mexican households for its calming and relaxing effects. A tea can be made from its delicate leaves to reduce anxiety and nervousness.

Sage – What we think of as a nice addition to a savory dish is actually an antidote for anxiety here in Mexico. If you’re lucky, you can find it fresh in the produce section. But if you strike out there, move on to the dried herb section of the store and look for salvia.

Lavender – Oil of lavender can be put into a diffuser to create a peaceful and comforting atmosphere. The leaves can be made into a tea and flowers can be added to a hot bath.

Chamomile – You’ll often find this fresh in the herb section of most fruterías. And it is always available in the bagged tea section of the local supermarket.

Hibiscus tea – Yes, the ubiquitous agua de jamica served in cafés and street corners across Mexico is a great tonic for anxiety. So, if you’re feeling edgy, double down on this aguita the next time you have comida corrida.

Red rose – Even this iconic symbol of love and romance has calming effects. Four flowers left standing in a liter of freshly boiled water for one hour can be consumed a half-cup at a time to sooth the stomach and the nerves.

There are better days ahead, but until then, to keep from popping Prozac from a PEZ dispenser, why not take a more natural approach to calming your nervous system? It’s worked here in Mexico for thousands of years.

Earth Day Celebrates Mother Earth – Do We?

By Kary Vannice

April 22, 2020, marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, our annual celebration of Mother Earth. A day when we pay homage to the natural beauty that surrounds us and take stock of the environmental quagmire we find ourselves in 50 years after the start of the environmental movement.

There are few who would balk at calling our planet “Mother Earth”; after all, she does provide us with the essentials to maintain human life – food, water, and shelter (for some). But would any of us really treat our true mother as we treat Mother Nature?

Fifty years is a milestone, a time when we often take stock and look back to see how far we’ve come, to assess the progress that’s been made … or not made.

On the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million Americans, one in every 10 people, took to the streets demanding that the US government pass laws to protect them, the animals, and the environment from rampant air and water pollution, which, at that time, was almost completely unregulated.

Celebrations of Earth Day 2020, due to the COVID-19 virus “shelter in place” orders in 45 of the 50 United States, have been almost entirely virtual, and have exerted much less impact. It has been the same in Mexico, where one scientist candidly pointed out the irony of the situation: “Social distancing from home will imply an excessive increase in the use of electrical energy. The consumption of electrical energy is one of the factors that produces the greatest number of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This electrical power will burn more fuel, considerably polluting the atmosphere.”

But, while the only thing these situations may seem to have in common is irony, that’s not entirely true, as this excerpt from an Earth Day article published on Fortune.com points out.

Virologists and scientists say that our broken relationship with nature is at the very heart of this pandemic. Accelerating biodiversity loss—caused by a mix of pollution, over farming, urbanization, and changing temperatures—has made complex ecosystems much simpler and more unstable. That makes it easier for viruses to jump from animals to people, as they have begun to do with alarming frequency.

The truth is, we haven’t come far enough in 50 years. While some things have gotten better, many have gotten worse, and we are not where many eager young environmentalists had hoped we would be in 2020.

On the first Earth Day, polluted rivers, many of them veritable oil slicks from factories’ unremittent dumping, were a top agenda item. And, while most first-world countries have indeed regulated corporate sludge dumping, some developing countries still lag far behind. And our oceans are far more polluted than they were 50 years ago, so much so that scientists can’t even quantify the effects that plastics will have on the biodiversity of sea life, not to mention the fact that our oceans are also warmer and more acidic than they were in 1970. It all adds up to a grim prognosis for all, not just our fishy friends, since biodiversity really is the key to health, at both the macro and the micro level.

This year on Earth Day, The New York Times reported that the World Wildlife Fund estimates that, on average, thousands of different wildlife populations have declined by 60 percent since1970. And that “last year, a comprehensive scientific assessment from the United Nations warned that unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals.”

We haven’t done much better on land either. The rate of rainforest destruction has also increased. Before the 1970s, deforestation in the Amazon was mostly done by local farmers, clearing the land to grow crops. In the latter part of the century, deforestation became more of an industrial affair, when large-scale agriculture entered the region. By the 2000s, cattle ranching was the number one cause. In 2018, 30 million acres of the Amazon rainforest were lost. That was slightly less than in recent years, but it’s not slowing fast enough.

Why does it even matter? Well, this brings us back to our Mother. The Amazon has been called “the lungs of Mother Earth,” the largest producer of life-giving oxygen and a huge storehouse for carbon dioxide, which is the main cause of global warming. We humans need the trees to survive. But it doesn’t stop with the trees. The Amazon is also the richest, most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, home to at least 10% of the world’s biodiversity. And biodiversity equals health, not just for Mother Earth, but for all her inhabitants, including humans.

After 50 years, if you run the numbers for air pollution, water pollution, environmental toxins, species extinction, deforestation, overpopulation, waste disposal, and climate change, you’ll see that while some areas have made some small gains, there are simply too many losses to make up the difference. Far too often the real issue comes down to the environment vs. the economy. And in this fight, the environment will always be the loser, unless the consumer, the true driver of global economies, starts to make environmentally friendly products and companies a priority, sending the message that they aren’t willing to sacrifice one to benefit the other.

Now consider your real mother, what would you be (or have been) willing to sacrifice for her health and well-being? Does Mother Nature not deserve the same sacrifice?