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Black History Month, day 6

Reading about Elizabeth Catlett for yesterday’s post made me curious about Mexicans of African heritage. Catlett was an immigrant late in life, like other artists from the U.S., but Mexico does have a small population of people whose ancestors include Africans. As in the United States, many are descended from people who were enslaved, though the Spanish conquistadores brought comparatively few slaves to Mexico from Africa, preferring to enslave the indigenous population. The state my family and I lived in for six months in 2016, Oaxaca, actually has the 2nd-largest percentage of people who identify as afromestizo, people of mixed race that includes African roots, but I had no idea until now.

A significant number settled in the Costa Chica (little coast), defined here as the stretch of Pacific Coast “from the port of Acapulco, Guerrero to Huatulco, Oaxaca.” Huatulco is a beach town my family visited and loved so much when we were living in the city of Oaxaca–which is inland, a short plane ride over the mountains from the coast–that we just had to squeeze in a trip when we spent three weeks in Oaxaca city the next year. Next time we go, we’ll know to seek out afromestizo music and dance there, and not just swimming and snorkeling.

Even if you haven’t lived in Mexico, you have encountered Mexican afromestizos. The actor Lupita Nyong’o identifies that way, having been born in Mexico City and holding dual Mexican and Kenyan citizenship, though she is ethnically Luo (Kenyan) on both sides. That explains her first name, a nickname for Guadalupe, which for obvious reasons is a common Mexican name. The afromestizo probably known best to people who know a scrap of Mexican history, though, is Vicente Guerrero, a hero of the War of Independence, Mexico’s second president, and namesake of a street in probably every city in the country, as well as a state.

I didn’t know much else about him, so I looked him up. One of his notable achievements before being deposed by his vice president and assassinated: freeing Mexico’s enslaved people.

Vicente Ramón Guerrero Saldaña

Portrait of Vicente Guerrero, by Anacleto Escutia after an anonymous portrait. Chapultepec Castle [Public domain]

A Mexico first for me: yesterday, in order to get from Tlacolula (home of a huge Sunday market) to the small town of San Marcos Tlapazola, we and our friend Jacki took one of the ubiquitous tarp-covered trucks that are a cheaper alternative to taxis. I’ve ridden in Mexican taxis, colectivos, buses, moto-taxis, and–an experience our daughter remembers as one of the highlights of our six months in Oaxaca, and possibly her life–the back of a friend’s pickup truck. These transports are small pickup trucks with a bench running along each side. The rear is slats, which, like the uncovered last couple of feet, allow a view of the countryside one has just passed.
The ride was fun. The route to Tlapazola was dusty, and other women covered their mouths and noses with their rebozos, the also-ubiquitous long woven scarves that are used to shield one’s head from the sun or rain, hold babies, carry groceries, keep warm, and who knows what else. I have a beautiful one, but it’s wool and I left it at home on this warm day–foolish gringa! I commented to Indigo, “Otro de los muchos usos de rebozos” (another of the many uses of rebozos). I don’t know how much Spanish the woman closest to us spoke, because she was speaking Zapotec to her friend and Joy noticed later that some of the women in Tlapazola knew little or no Spanish, but she saw us covering our faces with our hands, and offered the end of her rebozo to both of us.
Tlapazola was having a feria de barro rojo, a fair to promote the red-clay pottery that is its particular art form; during the Guelaguetza most of the villages near Oaxaca hold an event like this. The woman with the rebozo had a table, and I bought a little skunk that she’d made, loving its snout and the curve of its tail. A troupe of small children–they couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, some younger–performed the Danza de las Plumas. Usually it is done by grown men, with huge feathered headdresses; the boys had smaller ones, but wow. (Girls also have a small part in this dance, but don’t apparently get to wear the headdresses or play the clowns who harass the other dancers.) Unfortunately, I can’t upload any of my photos or videos until I get back to the US, but here’s one on YouTube.

They did at least a dozen dances, standing patiently in between dances while a man told the story being acted out by the dance (and explained, every single time, that the group was from a cultural center at Teotitlan del Valle). I loved hearing the story, which was about Moctezuma and the “malos presagios” (bad omens) being told him by his advisers, as unknown people and monstrous beasts arrived on the shore. Lacking the perseverance of the children, I finally got so hungry I had to go get tamales from the food section, and missed the end of the story. I am sure it did not end well for Moctezuma. But it was very cool to hear this story of conquest, colonialization, and the culture that has withstood them, the first time I’ve heard the context for these dances.                                                                     
On the way back to Tlacolula, it was raining, which solved the dust problem. The bumpy road often adds false steps to a pedometer’s reading. This one didn’t add more than a few hundred, but my Fitbit seems to think they were all taken on stairs. It reports that I climbed 43 flights.

A friend circulated this video to remind us what risks the drivers of colectivos, town-to-town taxis in Oaxaca, take whenever they get behind the wheel. When we want to go to San Martín Tilcajete for the munchkin to learn woodcarving, or to Teotitlán del Valle to see the weaving, we usually get there in a Nissan Tsuru. This is what a 35-mph head-on collision does to the people in a Tsuru.

Crash Test Dummies Show The Difference Between Cars In Mexico And U.S.

When we return home later this week, I’ll be glad to be back in the land of airbags and strong steel frames, but like my friend, I worry more about the drivers than us. They’re the ones who spend half their waking hours in one of these cars.

But why is it made with so many safety shortcuts? We could blame Nissan, but it’s no different than most automobile companies in making cars to the standards set by the country, and no higher. Airbags were required by legislators, who passed that regulation over the decades-long protests of the manufacturers’ lobby; anti-lock brakes ditto; you can’t drive in the U.S. without working windshield wipers, the frames can’t crumple like they do in that video, and you can’t disable the seatbelts.

The only reason we have these safety features is that our government requires them. With an incoming administration dedicated to “easing regulations,” I wonder how long it will take for the cars sold in the United States to match those sold in Mexico.


In my last weeks in San Miguel de Allende in 2010, I set out to write 20 posts about things I would miss about it. I wrote 18, then followed up with #19 some months later, and as is my way, never wrote the twentieth. I felt a strange pressure to make sure it was about something really important, maybe about the thing I’d miss the most of all, and what was that? Now that I’m back in Mexico, it’s abundantly obvious.

The best thing about Mexico is Mexicans. Of the ten or so countries I’ve visited or lived in, Mexico’s people are the most generous. Most notably, they are generous with their time. Our experience today was a case in point. We went to Teotitlán del Valle, a town half an hour east of Oaxaca that is known for its weaving. At the final shop we visited, we asked if we could look at the looms. The man who’d woven the rug we were buying, Jerónimo, not only eagerly showed us his loom but invited the munchkin to have a go. She loved it, and he was a natural-born teacher. He didn’t just show her how to run the shuttle back and forth a couple of times; he worked with her on several inches of weaving, patiently showing her every step and letting her do them all.

While they worked, Julián, another member of the family (like all of them, it’s a family business; I think they are brothers) chatted with us about the process, with as much patience with our (especially my) limited Spanish as his brother had with Munchkin’s novice weaving. We had a dozen questions about the dyes, the wool, the designs, etc., and he was eloquent and thorough. He showed us a couple of his wife’s designs, abstract at first glance but actually a reference to the Pleiades, and explained why the Pleiades were significant. (I missed this part–my Spanish wasn’t up to it–but Joy says it was about his grandmother, who never wore a watch but always knew the correct time within 10-15 minutes by looking at the sun or the stars: specifically, often, this cluster.) Then he told us about his grandfather (grandmother? the two of us heard it differently and Joy’s Spanish is far better), still alive and still weaving, and the teachings he/she had passed on about the significance of a spiral motif that appears often in Zapotec art. Altogether they spent over an hour with us, sharing their knowledge as if there were nothing they would rather be doing.

Not every encounter with people here is like this, of course. They can be rude and impatient and I’m sure they aren’t always generous. But an experience like today’s, which would almost never occur anywhere I’ve lived in the U.S., is not at all unusual here. People are very quick to give of themselves: their expertise, their time, their attention.

And I don’t really have to say it’s something I’ll miss when we go home in December, because there are plenty of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and a strong presence of Mexican culture right in the Bay Area.



A funny thing about being in Mexico: although I’m not taking a class or working with a tutor at this time, just being here is giving a boost to a longtime project, that of reading Isabel Allende’s novel El Cuaderno de Maya in the original Spanish. I started reading it in 2013, I think, and I often joke that Allende has published three books in the time it’s taking me to work my way through this one. It’s the truth.

We own the English translation (Maya’s Notebook), and I could read it in a couple of days, but I worry that that would sap my motivation, and so I plod along in Spanish. Usually I read a couple pages at a time, once or twice a week, just enough to keep ahead of my weekly meeting with my Spanish teacher. Our hour is mostly spent in my reading a paragraph aloud in Spanish, then translating it into English, then our discussing any questions or mistranslations, and going off on various tangents of language, culture, or literature. Then we repeat. It is an excellent way to learn the language. Guillermo brought in a couple different novels; one by Junot Diaz was just confusing, but when I’d read the first couple of paragraphs of Maya (which you can read here, or in English here), I was so captivated by the character’s voice that I didn’t want to stop. So we knew that that was the one.

Last summer, I set myself the goal of finishing the novel by the end of 2015, but could not keep up the necessary pace of 2-3 pages per day. But here in Mexico, I am motoring through at a pace of 10-12 pages at a sitting and have read about 80 pages in the past couple of weeks. It’s just so much easier now. I love her writing, and I can’t wait to find out what happens. And I have time. And Allende’s language is all around me.

Homesickness for Mexico comes in waves, and for the past few weeks the tide has been high. As a remedy, I tried to list the things I don’t miss. The list is pretty short.

Making do with a makeshift kitchen. We bought some kitchen goods when we got there, and even brought a couple of items along that we didn’t think we’d be able to find (we may be the only people ever to carry a mushroom brush across an international border for purposes other than import), but it was still a pretty bare-necessity kitchen, which gets old when you love to cook and you’re there for six months.

Small gas tank / water tank. Neither gas nor hot water flowed in great quantities, so that it was hard to get the oven up to baking temperatures, and our gorgeous big bathtub filled to only 4 inches of depth before the hot water ran out.

Lack of good Chinese food. We made our own, but once in a while you just want a real Chinese dumpling made by an real Chinese person. There was good Chinese in Mexico City, but not in San Miguel. We went to dim sum several times in the week before we left for Mexico, and again in the week after our return.

The heat. Even in San Miguel, which is at about 6000′ and has weather not dissimilar to San Francisco’s, it can get pretty hot. May and June would have been more comfortable for me if I’d adjusted to the idea that I should just hunker down and stay inside for a few hours each midday.

Limited reading material. I didn’t come close to running through the English language collection at San Miguel’s impressive biblioteca, but still, I sometimes missed having easy access to books that, in the U.S., would have been no farther away than the main library.

Having a child under stress. There’s no question that living in Mexico was great for the munchkin, and she adjusted admirably to being uprooted from the places, people, and cats she knew for what must have seemed to her 3-year-old’s perceptions to be close to forever. Nevertheless, she showed signs of the strain. After all, as much as she liked school, she had no friends there or anywhere who spoke her language. Looking back, we realize that the high incidence of tantrums during those six months was probably not due purely to her developmental stage.

Being far from friends and family. We got a fair number of visitors from home, but there’s no substitute for seeing your mom every couple of months and your closest friends every week.

I can’t help noticing that most of these are not only trivial, but could be mitigated quite easily. Not to mention that they don’t outweigh the many things I do miss (see any entry from July 2010). I guess I’ll just have to wait for this particular wave of Mexico-missing to recede.

Here’s a good lead-in to my presentation at church tonight, “Journey to Mexico.” In my final few weeks in San Miguel I posted a series, “Twenty things I’ll miss about San Miguel,” except things got very busy the last few days there and I never did post #19 and #20. So here we go.

I grew up in a pretty typical suburban US town, and our house used outdoor space in a way typical of the single-family, stand-alone houses of such towns. You had a front yard, which you didn’t use much except to build snowmen on and to keep a little distance between your living-room windows and the street, and a back yard, which was a very nice little haven of outdoor private space. But the outdoors stayed out and indoors was for indoors. I was unduly amazed when my parents put a skylight in to our “back room” (a.k.a. “the den”) and you could see the sky right through the ceiling. I’ve always loved skylights.

Mexico’s architecture comes from Spain (especially in colonial towns like San Miguel) and Spain got it from the Arabs, and the Arabs know a thing or two about incorporating outdoor space into indoor spaces. So it is extremely common in San Miguel to have an inner courtyard, many skylights, and a roof that’s essentially another plant-filled courtyard. It’s such a humane and wise way to design one’s living space.

The photo above is of our patio, blessed by our neighbor Adriana (tenant of one of the three side-by-side apartments in our house) who’s a great gardener. She squeezes plants in everywhere until it’s like walking through a benevolent jungle.

From our second floor, in one of the glorious storms that June afternoons brought, it looks like this:

You’ll just be strolling up a street and peek through a house’s open gate and be treated to this:

And this is where we got our mail. In addition to the lovely flora, it has an abundance of fauna, lovely and less so: a cat, a dog, a bird in a cage, a fish in a bowl, three turtles in the fountain, and several rattlesnakes in glass cages, including babies. Somehow I can get my mind around someone’s having a pet rattlesnake, but not their breeding them. Rattlers aside, I love that a simple no-frills business like a mail delivery service considers it totally appropriate to have a gorgeous garden.






It’s such a gift to the spirit to be surrounded by nature’s beauty even when you’re indoors.

(#19 of 20 things I miss about San Miguel)

Hot water wells up from the earth in several locations close to San Miguel.  Unlike some other hot springs, their water is perfectly clear and unladen with a lot of minerals, stinky or otherwise.  We’ve been to two of the springs.

One is a real water park, very much for kids, so it’s the first one we went to, but the munchkin isn’t into going down water slides and so on, yet, so after her initial excitement about all the bells and whistles (giant mushrooms with water pouring off them, for example–the place is kind of like Disney on a budget), all she really wanted to do was hang out in the kiddie pool.  It was barely warm enough for me to be happy spending hours submerged, so I had no real desire to return.

The second place we went to, La Gruta (the cave), by contrast, is more like a spa, with a pretty good restaurant, roving waiters who will bring you drinks poolside, little tables dotting the lawns, massages for an extra fee, and lush greenery.  When I hear the term “spa” or “hot springs,” I think of dark little pools somewhere, and of course people covering themselves with mud.  But La Gruta’s are just small swimming pools in familiar blue, meant for fun as well as relaxation.  The munchkin adores the place and so do I, and even though we’re in the rainy season and it storms almost every afternoon (the last time we visited, we had to hop out of the pool because it started to rain), I was determined to bring her back there one more time.  Today was the day.

Munchkin likes the fountain with the fish

Carless, we have to take a taxi there, and because it’s remote, we have to arrange with the taxista to come get us again at a set time.  I guessed that three hours would be about right, and it was a good guess; the munchkin was just starting to get that glazed look and that grumpy attitude when the time came for us to get changed and meet the taxi.  We bought a floatie ring on one visit, which allows her to “swim” with an adult’s guiding hand, and today a family visiting from Mexico City let her ride on the back of their inflatable dinosaur.

La Gruta has five pools, which vary in temperature from “a little cooler than I like my bath” to “too hot for me to stay in for more than a few minutes.”  The hottest is in a cave that gives the spa its name, which you reach by wading or swimming (the water is about 3 1/2 feet deep) through a tunnel long enough to be good and dark.  The first time we went, the munchkin was a little nervous of the tunnel, but she still wanted to go back to the cave, and does on each visit.

I don’t usually enjoy swimming much because I’m a complete wimp about the initial cold, and even though most water does feel warmer after a few minutes if you just take the plunge, I can’t stay too long in water that’s significantly below body temperature.  Also, breathing the chlorine makes my lungs ache after an hour or two.  In blessed contrast, a day at La Gruta, with its warm, chlorine-free waters, is like a day spent in the bath, except that my bathtub at home isn’t surrounded by tropical plants and stone walls, nor is it under a blue sky, and if I want to sip a limeade I’m expected to get out and make it myself.

Even the showers are beautiful

At 100 pesos each way for the taxi, 90 pesos per adult for admission, and inevitably some money spent there on lunch–a total today of about $30 US–it’s a pricey day out by our Mexico standards, and in fact by our family outing standards, period.  But worth every penny.

There are hot springs near the Bay Area, but I’m not really interested in going to Calistoga unless it has pools to play in, lots of kids, and fresh-squeezed limonada.

(#18 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

photo by Joy Morgenstern

San Miguel has been a magnet for artists for decades due to the presence of two art schools, Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende, but even if the schools weren’t here, painters and other artists would probably be drawn by the quality of light.

Evening light (top photo) and morning light (bottom photo) both take my breath away.

(#17 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

I already wrote about how I’m going to miss the walls here, but I am specifically going to miss this one on Orizaba. It is the outer wall of a property that, when we peek through the gaps in the gates, seems to be just as quirky as the wall would lead you to expect, with partly-finished buildings, one of which appears to be a chapel.  The whole kit and kaboodle is for sale.  You get the feeling that if you called the US number that’s painted on the “for sale” sign, you might reach Simon Rodia.

I’ve gone by this wall many times, and, like any interesting sculpture, it always shows me something I didn’t see before.

(#16 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

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