Archive for the ‘Life in Mexico’ Category

Fiesta in Atemajac de Brizuela

Ciudad Guzmán, where I live, is a small city of around 100,000 people and the main commercial centre for the predominantly rural region of the south of Jalisco. It is surrounded by small towns, each of which – as I have come to appreciate more over the years I have lived here – has its own distinctive atmosphere, culture and traditions. A key part of these traditions are the fiestas that each town celebrates.

Many towns have more than one large fiesta, notably Tuxpan which is known as the town of the “fiesta eterna” for its almost continual fiestas.

The day for what is usually the main fiesta for the town is the Saint day for its patron saint or a day chosen for one of the many manifestations that Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary can take – in the case of María she can assume the names of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, la Virgen de la Defensa, Virgen María de la Medalla Milagrosa, la Madre de Dios, la Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción, la Bienaventurada Virgen María, la Santísima Virgen María amongst many others.

Atemajac de Brizuela is a small municipality of about 5000 people in the Sierra de Tapalpa about an hour and a half to the north-west of Ciudad Guzmán. Its main fiesta on 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 September celebrates the Virgin Mary in her name of the Virgen de la Defensa. However, the Virgin is shared with the major town of Tapalpa and the small village of Juanacatlan, spending three months in Atemajac, three months in Tapalpa and six months in Juanacatlan. She also has a well-travelled replica who journeys between Guadalajara, Mexico City and many cities in the USA.

On 6th September every year, the Virgen enters Atemajac de Brizuela from the small village of Ferrería de Tula about 8 kilometers away. She has spent two nights in this tiny village. On the morning of the 6th September, a mass is celebrated in her honour in Ferrería de Tula, after which she is carried out of the church, along the road out of the town to the main road to Atemajac, accompanied by the townspeople, a group of local dancers called sonajeros, and a brass band.

A kilometer or so down the main road, under a welcoming march, she is met by the people of Atemajac. As often in Mexico, due pomp and ceremony has to be first observed with various speeches made to the crowd of several thousand people who have gathered.

A key part of the  welcoming committee is a group of four moros – moors. They are wearing traditional Arabic clothing – or at least what the Spanish who colonized Mexico considered was their traditional clothing – and enormous crowns. These are made of paper and wax and weigh 15 kilos. They at first look identical but are different in details such as the flowers they display.

The same four families have been making these crowns for hundreds of years.  They have already walked from Atemajac, a distance of about 6 kilometers. Each moor has three assistants to help him with the crown and take over if necessary.

Before the virgin passes over to the people of Atemajac, there is a relato, which is a dramatic re-enactment of the struggle between the moros and  the cristianos, largely contested by two men on horseback representing the different sides.

I could not quite figure this out, because logic seemed to indicate that the Moors won, as the virgin is then accompanied by them back to Atemajac, but this did not seem to be consistent with the sense that in a strongly catholic country like Mexico, the cristianos should really be the winning team.

Having handed the virgen over to the mayordomos from Atemajac, she is then accompanied by the several thousand spectators, young men on horseback, a group of men wearing T-shirts with the name cuetero on it – whose job is to set off rockets at all points along the way (usually from their hands) which whizz into the air and explode with a loud bang – groups of traditional dancers (sonajeros), groups of Aztec dancers, and what seemed to me some very culturally eclectic groups of dancers.

The photo above is of someone in a dance group who are all wearing a combination of native American costumes adorned with traditional Mexican imagery such as the Virgen of Guadalupe, and heavy metal plates attached to the soles of the feet so as they walk they make a sound like thousands of knives being sharpened. Mexico, is indeed a mestiza (mixed) culture.

All along the road to Atemajac there are stalls selling every kind of food and drink, as well as religious icons. The Virgen even has a couple of stopping points where she can rest.

When the virgen arrives in Atemajac, her entry into the town is marked by a particularly intense bout of cuetero activity. She is taken to one of the many chapels in the town, where she spends the night, before being taken to the main church the following morning, once again accompanied by a large crowd and various groups of dancers.

This tradition has been occurring for 368 years. Every year, many people from Atemajac travel back to their place of birth, from all over Mexico and the United States, to participate in the fiesta. The event even has an international organizing group, with two mayordomos from Atemajac, two from Guadalajara, two from Mexico City and two from Los Angeles, one from Oakland, one from San Francisco y one from Seattle.

There are two different stories about the origin of the virgin. One says that she came from Arabia as a gift, which raises all sorts of questions about why and how. The other more plausible story is that she was presented to the people in this area of Mexico as a present from the Bishop of Puebla because the people here did not have their own virgin.

I had gone to the fiesta with a group of ten fellow students of a Diploma program in the Culture of the South of Jalisco which will prepare us to be officially certified tourist guides for this area. We went to experience this fiesta together as a live case study. As one of our number was from Atemajac, she invited us all to eat at her home after the virgen had been safely delivered to her chapel.

Once again it struck me how true the stereotype of Mexican hospitality can be. Our companion’s family opened their house to us, prepared us all a delicious carne asada (slices of grilled meat cooked on the barbecue) – with all the accompaniments such as locally made chorizo, a range of salsas (medium, hot, and very hot), guacamole, frijoles and of course tortillas. All this was done with warmth, simplicity, grace and no fuss.

One of the extraordinary things about Mexico is that nearly every small and large town and city will have its own fiesta, with some features in common, but each with its unique character. The effort, organization and money that goes into these fiestas is impressive – my companion on the Diploma  told me that just the fireworks in the evening cost 7000 USD. All this dispels the myth of Mexicans being lazy and incapable of organizing anything. Events do indeed get successfully organized but not in the typical western pattern.

Huautla de Jiménez: in the footsteps of María Sabina and John Lennon

A couple of weeks ago, after a pleasant overnight stop in Tehuacán in the state of Puebla, I set off for Huautla de Jiménez, a small town high in the Mazatec sierra in the Northern corner of the state of Oaxaca, close to the border with the state of Puebla.

Huautla is famous – or notorious – for being the place where María Sabina lived, worked and died. Continue reading

Valle de Bravo

One of Mexico’s many charms is its endless capacity to surprise. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I decided to visit Valle de Bravo as part of a two week road trip though the states of Estado de México, Morelos, DF and Oaxaca but Valle de Bravo has not been quite as I had imagined.

Certainly many Mexican friends had told me it was a lovely destination, and I could see from the map and from reading guides that it was located by a large lake, but I had not expected the landscape to have such a European feeling.

With its high, green, wooded hills surrounding a beautifully sculpted lake and large, fancy houses on the waterfront, I kept having thoughts of the French Riviera or Swiss/Italian/French lakes. Perhaps because it is an artificial landscape caused by creating a man-made lake in 1947 as part of a hydroelectic scheme named after the Mexican President Miguel Alemán at that time, it does not feel entirely naturally Mexican in some way.

But however much the landscape may have resonances with old Europe, the culture is distinctly Mexican. I was expecting the town to be more touristy – it is one of the 32 pueblos mágicos in Mexico – and indeed it has more than its fair share of galleries and too many kitsch gift shops, alongside a few interesting shops selling handicrafts – but the town still has a sense of having its  own distinctive life and identity, even though it has become a popular weekend destination for the vast metropolis of Mexico City, being only 156kms and about two hours south-west of the city by autopista, and many rich Mexican families have bought houses here.

The main plaza adjoining the church San Francisco has a relaxed, lively feel with families and couples hand-in-hand wondering around day and night and lots of ice cream shops and people selling jewelry in the portales. On one corner, every morning, there is a hugely popular stand of three men selling tacos of barbacoa out of a huge steaming container, made out of pigs and cows heads cooked  in the leaves of the maguey.

I still have not acquired the taste for all the parts of the animal that most Mexicans love to eat but I did find a similar taco stand selling barbacoa de borrego (sheep) in which the whole sheep is cooked in maguey leaves in a hole dug in the earth, and where it was possible to ask just for la maciza (‘normal’ meat).

I was also not expecting Valle de Bravo to be something of a gourmet’s paradise in a small way. Near the Iglesia de Santa María Ahuacatlán – which has an extraordinary Cristo Negro, a black wooden figure of Christ dating from the sixteenth century of which there are only two others in Mexico, one nearby at the famous pilgrimage site of Chalma and the other in Zacatecas – in the lower part of the town near the embarcadero (the jetty), there are a few specialist food shops.

One of them, at Calzada Santa María number 203, is owned and run by José Guadarrama, the baker featured in the photo above, whose artesanal bread could happily grace a Californian farmers market or London’s Borough food market.

Nearby, at 134E Calle Manuel Archundia, is an organic food shop, La Cosecha, from which I bought delicious trout pate and Manchego cheese for a waterside picnic at the lakeside which was interrupted by a sudden and heavy storm  – it is the rainy season here after all. At the embarcadero on the lake it is possible to go on a variety of boat trips – a one hour trip costs 60 pesos – less than five dollars and is pleasantly relaxing.

view from the terace of La Michoacana restaurant

One day, following my hotel owner’s recommendation, I ate breakfast at La Michoacana, which not only had spectacular views both towards the lake and back to the San Francisco church and main plaza, but also served an excellent chilaquiles with chicken. Following breakfast, I walked through the cobblestoned local streets nearby which had a lovely, mysterious early morning feel to them.

One of the big plusses of a town attaining Pueblo Mágico status is that all buildings in the city center have to be constructed and maintained in a traditional style and painted in the traditional colours and all the telephone and electricity cables should be run underground – unlike in the photo below.

Still on the theme of food, I ate lunch at Los Veleros, which is said to be the best restaurant in Valle. The food was good rather than exceptional, though the setting is delightful, on a terrace overlooking a garden with views towards the lake and the French owner who has lived in Mexico for 42 years is charming.

Apart from eating in Valle de Bravo, I also went on two morning walks to different viewpoints. The first, El Mirador Cruz de Misión, is about thirty minutes up Calle El Deposito at the back of the Church San Francisco. The walk takes you past some huge houses with impressive views towards the lake.

San Francisco

On arriving at the Cruz de Misión, with its accompanying statue of San Francisco, it is possible to continue walking up the mountain, where the large wealthy homes suddenly and surprisingly give way to much poorer houses. I wonder how long those houses will be there before their inhabitants are dislodged.

View of La Peña from a boat on the lake

The other viewpoint is Mirador la Peña. This is about a forty minute walk from the main plaza, which happily takes you past the taco stand selling barbacoa de borrego, at the entrance to the ascent of La Peña. Climbing La Peña is relatively easily as the local government have recently cleaned up the site. It used to be a haunt for drunkards – some of whom were killed falling off the rocks when plastered – and also for delinquents attacking people doing the  climb. It is possible to make a worthwhile small diversion to visit la cueva del diablo (the devil’s cave) en route to the top.

I was told by two women I met at the top that the main cross in the picture above is only one year old, and was placed there as part of the cleaning-up operations. The original cross is the thin iron one. Likewise, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in the photo below, apparently encaged, is also only a year old.

I had an interesting discussion with the two women I met about Mexicans’ attitude to the environment, and the sad fact that Mexicans are given to decorating with rubbish their most beautiful natural sites. One of them said that because of the history of Mexico, including the pre-hispanic era, there is an enormous amount of suffering in the Mexican psyche. She thought that Mexicans could not bear any external beauty as they felt so unworthy inside, so they despoiled it with rubbish.

She also told me that she had been involved in politics, but had stopped when her mentor told her that the only way to succeed was to lie and promise voters things that you knew could never be delivered. Rather than simply blame the politicians though, she had a sophisticated view of the way that people collude with the politicians, in that they expect to be deceived and almost prefer to be lied to, rather than face the truth.

The same woman also told me an interesting story about Valle. When the Franciscans had first arrived here to evangelise the local population, the response of the indigenous people was to hang them from the branches of the tree in the picture, which now is at least 600 years old. This tree is popularly known as el pino but its real name is an aguahuete.

On a final note, for the four nights I was here, I stayed at the Posada Familiar Hotel de los Girasoles. This has a great location, right on the corner of the main square, and is simple, clean and comfortable. The staff are wonderfully helpful and there is wireless internet access in the lobby. After two nights they gave me a good discount for the next two nights.

Another good accommodation option is an old building on the left – as you look at it of the Posada Familiar Hotel de los Girasoles. Here it is possible to rent a comfortable double room or an apartment for up to six people at very economic rates. Contact Emma Rodriguez at 01 726 26 20 134.

One thing I have not mentioned so far. Valle de Bravo is a world center for paragliding because it is possible to fly here all year round. If I can muster the courage, I may well take a flight as a pilot is staying in the hotel and has offered to give me a flight at a reasonable price. More news of this next.