Saturday, December 30, 2017

touring costalegre -- salting away memories


The name popped in a couple of times when I was researching where I should live in Mexico after I retired.

I had bought every book I could find with "retire" and "Mexico" in the title. One of the more clever authors had lived in the tiny village of Cuyutlán, and sang its phrases like a diva. Tranquil. Nostalgic. Soothing sea.

When I moved to Villa Obregon nine years ago, I was still auditioning places for my permanent home. So, I decided to drive down to Cuyutlán to see if the descriptors were true.

They were. And even less.

Let me give you a little context. I am not a big city guy. Even though I love such places as London, Paris, and New York. I doubt I could live in any of them for longer than a year.

Neither am I a person who is seduced by the tranquility of crickets chirping in hay fields. I live my life somewhere between those extremes.

And, nine years ago, Cuyutlán struck me as a cricket farm. It was a brusque judgment. It took me longer to drive there than I spent in town.

Six years ago, I took my friends Brian and Holden Sanders to Cuyutlán. I thought it would be something different for them. And I was willing to admit I could have been far too hasty in my first impression. After our visit, they agreed I was not.

America may be a land of second acts, but Mexico deserves consideration for third and fourth acts. So, on one of our free days, Robin and I decided to approach Cuyutlán with open eyes.

Robin was fascinated when I told him of Cuyutlán's two draws: the Green Wave tragedy of 1932 and the town's fame as a salt producer.

Let's take the Green Wave first. People who live in the area claim that giant waves will form offshore to a height of 20 or 30 or 50 feet -- depending on the naivete level of the listener -- that will then crash down on the beach. It is true that surfers will often find 15 foot waves for their craft.

But that was not true of the night of 22 June 1932. In the night, a truly giant wave (estimated at 60 feet) swept over the village. Washing nearly everything away. Jonestown in the tropics.

The day we were there, the waves were as tranquil as the town. Well, not really. At least there was some activity on the ocean. There was almost none in town.
Cuyutlán's beach is made of volcanic sand. Black volcanic sand. If it were not for the mud content, a visitor could mistake the place for Hilo. With one big exception.

The beach was almost devoid of people. Rows of tables, chairs, and umbrellas marched along the beach. Empty.

That obviously is not always true -- even though it has been on my three visits. I understand Mexican tourists frequent the beach on weekends and holidays. If our beaches this weekend in  Melaque are any indication, those tables are undoubtedly filled with people emptying their bathing suits of pesos.

The town was just as deserted on our visit. There were a handful of northern tourists. On a cruise ship excurion was my guess. Due to the presence of Proncess bags. But that was it.

Even the plaza was empty. With the exception of the obligatory statue of Benito Juarez -- who, in this rendition, has been reduced to the equivalent of a Olmec sculpture.

If the green wave was nothing more than a faded memory, how about the salt?

Cuyutlán borders a large salt lagoon where salt was produced by local tribes well before the Spanish arrived. But the Spanish were not interested in artisan production. They needed salt in wholesale quantities -- to salt their meats for voyages and further conquests, and to process silver. 

Between 1531 and 1800, Mexican mines produced 14,250 tons of silver. To process that amount of silver ore, the Spanish needed a million tons of salt. Much of it came from Cuyutlán.

There is still a salt operation in town run by the state government of Colima. Evidence of that dots the roads in our area where bags of unprocessed salt is sold. I have some in my kitchen.

The history of the salt process has been preserved in the -- what else? -- Salt Museum, housed in one of the 100 year old salt barns made of palm wood boards.

Each of the exhibits is well-signed, and the commentary is interesting, covering 1000 years of salt production. My favorite is the discussion on how the extraction process evolved over the years.

The rest of the building is still an active salt operation. Front end loaders move and load unprocessed salt into trucks for transport.

It turns out, to use a hackneyed expression, the third time was the charm. The drive to 
Cuyutlán is just over an hour from Barra de Navidad. And for those interested in taking dips on different beaches, this one is worth a try. After all, how many people can say they defied death by slipping a toe into the maw of killer waves?

If that is too adventurous, spend an hour 
or two in the museum -- or chat to Juarez's giant head. He's a good listener.  

Friday, December 29, 2017

touring costalegre -- the wrecks

"We never get to the Tate -- or the opera -- or the theater unless you are in town."

So, said my London friends earlier this year. And I suppose it is true for all of us. We seldom visit the sights in our own town unless we have guests. Several of my New York friends have never been to the Statue of Liberty.

I am no different. Even though I live here permanently, I have a limited litany in an even more limited venue.

Walking. Reading. Writing. Restaurant-hopping.

On my daily walk, I pass the dock in Barra de Navidad where the local boat owners pitch their wares as persistently as Bangkok bar shills. I greet them, and walk on by. If my neighbor, Jaime, is there, I tell him: "Mañana."

Well, mañana finally arrived along with Robin on his visit earlier this month. Last January, Jaime took my family on a two-hour boat trip. They are still talking about it.

The big draw for local boat trips is the wreck of the Los Llanitos -- a medium-sized ship whose captain decided it was a brilliant idea to head out to sea just as the hurricane with the highest recorded winds was about to hit the Mexican coast. And he was sailing right into it.

Of course, he didn't sail anywhere of his choosing. Hurricane Patricia decided the ship needed to dock. In a large rock outcropping just south of our bay.

And there the ship rests. Plans to refloat it were quickly abandoned. Instead, a salvage operation began.

Jaime has a dramatist's eye for introducing the wreck to his passengers. He approaches the ship at an angle -- giving the impression it is looming out of the rock like some modern Lost Dutchman.

When I was there in January, the ship looked intact. The salvage work performed this past year has greatly altered its appearance. There is a gaping hole in both sides, and the aft deck is now more askew than Kevin Spacey's acting career.

But the wreck was only half of our trip. Barra de Navidad rests on the shore of a vast lagoon. No boat trip is complete without a quick turn around it.

Some people think the marina at the Grand Bay hotel (what passes for luxury on this part of the coast) is the star of the lagoon. I love boats. But, for me, there are more interesting stars.

The lagoon is home to many species of birds. For some reason, I usually see only two on these boat trips. Pelicans. And this tricolored heron.

There are at least two fish/shrimp farms in the lagoon. Large netted areas where the "crop" is raised to harvesting size.

Los Llanitos is not the only hurricane-wrecked ship on the tour. An earlier hurricane sank this fishing boat within sight of the dock. Maybe it is left there as a reminder that the sea is not always the benevolent provider of beach holidays.

Robin enjoyed the trip. I enjoyed the trip. In two more weeks, my family will be here. And we will enjoy a similar trip -- maybe this time heading north to La Manzanilla.

Anything to break my routine.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

touring costalegre -- ancient ruins

Coincidence is a traveler’s friend.

The day Robin arrived in Mexico, the local chapter of the Federal Relations of Archaeological Undertakings and Development announced a new archaeological site in San Patricio.

”New” is the wrong word. Everyone knew it was there. But few knew of its significance.

”For years, local legend told us this complex was modern,” announced Professor Gilberto Nombre Falso, director of the project. “The legend was wrong.”

For the past five years Professor Nombre Falso has chaired a committee investigating the provenance of the large building that sits on the beach in San Patricio.

”This is a rare find. When we realized the structure is not modern, we dug several test holes around the property. We can now say to an archaeological certainty that the structure is pre-Columbian.

'”The presence of shaft tombs gives a potential date for the surrounding complex of 1500 BC. The multi-story structure is most likely from a later period.

”And we are not certain of the building's purpose. It has some elements of a palace -- ceremonial walkways, a large central assembly room. Or maybe a temple. But it also has a series of rectangular rooms that all look out on the Pacific Ocean. We think they serbved some religious purpose. Most likely, sun worship.

”A petroglyph on the west end of the structure is evidence that the people who built this ‘temple’ may have believed the Quetzalcoatl myth. If that is true, we may now have an answer to the question that has plagued anthropologists for years: What happened to the people of Teotihuacan? Maybe they moved from the Mexican highlands to enjoy the beach."

When asked if the site would be reconstructed, Dr. Nombre Falso responded: "That is a question people have been asking for years. But I am certain everything will be clear on 28 December. That is a special day in Mexico. You do know that, don't you?"

By now, I think we do.

May you walk joyfully through the Day of the Innocents.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

touring costalegre -- villa purificación

When my guests come to spend time at the beach, I drive them to the mountains.

Not out of perversity. Or not solely out of perversity. I am a big believer in variety. And the little mountain town of Villa Purificación provides a break from the modernity of the tourist villages here on the beach.

I cannot verify this, but I suspect there are no permanent structures in Barra de Navidad, Villa Obregon, San Patricio, or Melaque than are older than I am. My anthropologist friend says most of the pre-Conquest Indians passed through here in the winters and left before the summer set in. And, after building their ships in Barra de Navidad to send off to The Philippines, the Spanish soon left town. Our villages are relatively new.

Not so Villa Purificación. The 60 mile drive can be made in just over an hour from Barra de Navidad. But it is a different world.

The village does not rest on Mexico's central plain. However, it is half way there. After the first set of Sierra Madres, where it surrounded by fields of sugar cane and by a circle of mountains. Postcards were invented to 
memorialize such landscapes.

That is not what makes it different from the beach, though. Its history is rich. And long.

When the Spanish arrived, various Indian tribes had been living in the area for a centuries. That did not stop the Spanish from moving in and taking control of the land. In 1525.

Think about that date for a moment. Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519. The Spanish did not topple the Aztec empire until late 1520. Within 5 years, the Spanish had almost crossed the width of Mexico, conquering other tribes as they went.

In 1538, one of the true villains of the conquest, 
Nuño Beltran de Guzmán (we met him earlier on our trips to Pátzcuaro), sent an expedition to wrest a portion of the conquered land from their fellow conquerors. It is from that re-conquest that Captain Juan Fernández de Híjar founded Villa Purificación in 1533. Naming it for a basic Christian tenet. (The Calvinist village of La Predestinación is just a few miles down the same road.)

The result was a charming colonial town of about 5000 people that wears its history proudly.

Its claim to fame is the church. It was originally founded as a chapel, making it the oldest church structure in Jalisco state. I have been told it is the second oldest church in Mexico. The 1533 date makes that possible, but not very probable. Considering the other chapels Cortes established in the 1520s.

Usually, the church is open. But it was not on the day Robin and I visited. Instead of visiting inside, we toured the civic plaza that fronts city hall and other government buildings in true Spanish colonial style. Complete with the obligatory Porfirio Diaz-era gazebo.

But it is not the founders' plaza that intrigues me. One block over is a pocket-sized plaza next to the colonial jail house.

The plaza does not look like much. But it contains one of Villa Purificación's connections with Barra de Navidad's sole star turn on the history stage.

Most people know that the Spanish built ships in the lagoon of Barra de Navidad to find a path to and from The Philippines across the Pacific. The ships sailed on 21 November 1564 under the leadership of Miguel López de Legazpi.

But it never occurred to me to ask who were the sailors on those ships. I must have imagined that they were a Spanish crew. If that is what I thought, I was wrong.

The plaque in the plaza honors the village people who joined the expedition to The Philippines. Ancillary sources point out the villagers who "joined" were Indians and were press ganged into becoming crew members. Most of them died on the voyage.

Between 1926 and 1929, the village was very active in the Cristero War. Rising in rebellion against the anti-clerical laws of the Calles administration. A tourist can pick up an interesting book about the three years of war some believe to be the last armed conflict of the Revolution at Pemex (gas) stations along the highway in this part of Jalisco.

Compared to Barra de Navidad, Villa Purificación is a gold mine of history. On each visit, I have discovery some new tidbit that keeps me coming back for more.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

closing the loop

A reader once asked me if I enjoyed photographing greeting cards. The question had a slight chide to it -- as if I did it far too often.

Well, the answer is "no." What I do enjoy is receiving them.

Let me explain. (Of course, you knew I would. Why else would I have posed the question?)

I grew up on Risley Avenue just outside of Milwaukie, Oregon. The Concord neighborhood.

At the top of the street was a huge holly farm. At the bottom, the Willamette River and a forest. It was an idyllic place for a boy's life.

We had moved from southern Oregon to the Portland area when I nine. That is an easy age to meet new friends. And I did.

Stephanie Hunt lived right across the street from us. She was the first neighbor I met. Her soon-to-be boyfriend and husband, Jim Hunt, lived just a few houses away.

Colette Justice lived a few houses closer to the holly farm. Neil Hodgin lived down by the river.

The four of them were a major part of my life through grade and high school. Neil died last year. But the other three are members of the inside circle of friends I have kept since the 1950s.

And that is where those cards come into the story. They were in my mailbox today. A Christmas and birthday card from Jim and Steph, and a birthday card from Colette. All three sent in late November from Oregon, and arrived here on 20 December.

The Mexican postal service takes a lot of knocks from northerners who spend all  or part of their lives here. The complaints are undeserved. Admittedly, mail can take a bit of time to wend its way north and south. But four weeks strikes me as being rather timely.

I have received several electronic greetings for Christmas. And I appreciated each of them.

But there is something special about a card picked out just for me, signed by hand, and then taken to the post office. It shows a commitment to friendship. And I want to do the same in return.

So, thank you Colette, Steph, and Jim. Not only for the good times we have shared, but for the others that are yet to come.

Monday, December 25, 2017

getting christ out of christmas

Everyone has a Christmas tale. Here's mine.

I wore my dinner jacket to Thanksgiving dinner last month. Because none of the laundries in town are equipped to deal with the process of properly starching the collar, cuffs, and front of a formal dress shirt, I took it (with a few silk shirts) to my favorite dry cleaner in Manzanillo. Mar de Colima,

When I walked in, the woman behind the counter saw me and immediately headed in the opposite direction. I know I have that effect on women. But she was not even subtle.

However, she was not running away. She opened up a large clothes bag, dug through it, and handed me what I recognized to be one of my green silk shirts. There was no name or cleaning tag in it. But she knew it was mine.

Here's the Christmas part of this story. That shirt must have been separated from the rest of my dry cleaning that I left there just after New Year's day. In the eleven months between January and November, she not only kept the shirt for me, but recognized me when I came in.

Some people call that good customer service. But good customer service is rooted in several Christian virtues. Honesty. Trust. Virtue. She had a trifecta.

Hold it one minute, Steve. You said this was a Christmas story. All of this happened a month before Christmas.

Well, that is why the title of this piece is vaguely provocative.

This time of year, someone will roll out another example of how secular culture is attempting to take Christ out of Christmas. The most obvious one is the unfounded belief that "Xmas" is an attempt to somehow take Christ out of the very holiday that celebrates Jesus' birth.

But, that is simply willful ignorance. Christians have long used "X" as a symbol for "Christ." It is the first letter of Christ in Greek. Despite being debunked for years, the "X" myth rattles along like a zombie Barbra Streisand.

To fight back, many a bumper will proclaim: "Keep Christ in Christmas." I always assume the car is driven by an agnostic, because keeping Jesus in the manger helps to perpetuate the myth that Jesus is some sort of genie that we can summon up to do our bidding. Keeping him as baby makes him very non-threatening. Think of  John C. Reilly's paean to the baby Jesus in Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.

The adult Jesus, who decided to escape the confines of "Christmas" taught us what it means to be one of his followers. To feed the hungry. To provide drink to the thirsty. To welcome the stranger. To clothe the needy. To tend to the sick. To visit the prisoner. To love God with all of our being. To love our neighbor as ourself.

Christianity is not a religion of words. It is faith in action. And when Christians fail to live up to their own ideals, they will be rightfully criticized. Or when they get distracted by silly fights over words.

Having said that (and I just did), I cringe at the phrase "Happy Holidays." It is the type of phrase people use when they cannot think of anything meaningful to say. Like telling a grieving widow "He's in a better place." 

If people do not want to take the time to know me well enough to know which holidays I celebrate, why bother with a hollow attempt at jollity? So, do not be surprised if you greet me with "Happy Holidays" that I respond "And a pleasant Labor Day to you, as well."

Or we could just join together and tend to the needs of the hungry, thirsty, strangers, unclothed, sick, and prisoners. If we made that the center of our lifestyles, we would not need to worry about silly "X"s and plain red coffee mugs.

Not to mention writing cranky essays.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

stand and deliver

We bloggers are a weird lot. Especially those of us in Mexico.

We often rattle on about how easy it is to find what we need here. And, if we cannot find it in a local shop, we pull up our trump card. Amazon Mexico.

I am as guilty as the next fellow. In fact, I often am the next fellow.

Yesterday, the DHL truck pulled up to my front door with two packages. The first was a set of heel inserts for my walking shoes. Apparently, my shoes are too flat. As a result I have overextended my Achilles tendon -- tearing a small portion. The inserts came from a warehouse in Kentucky.

The second package was a custom-tailored lambskin jacket. A gift. The tailoring would be far too trim for me. The jacket's provenance was a bit more exotic. Bombay. Or for those of you who are fond of renaming everything -- Mumbai. (Remember. I am the guy who keeps referring to Red China and Siam. There is a little of Mr. Burns in all of us.)

This is the point where I would usually cue Elgar's Enigma Variation IX while a soothing voice over spoke of the wonders of internet shopping as if it was the very essence of purple mountain majesties, the true north strong and free, and happy and glorious all rolled into one big enchilada.

Well, it isn't. Internet shopping is not even a vaguely new concept. Those of us who lived in rural America in the 1950s lived by two books. The Holy Bible (King James version, of course) and the Sears catalog.

With only limited access to retail sales, the world was opened to us in the pages of the dream machine provided by Messrs. Sears and Roebuck. Milk pails. Hat racks. Lingerie. They were all there. And with a bit of cash, and a bit more patience, 
your order would appear at the post office before the snows arrived.
So, when I get too uppity with my paeans to modern technology, I need to remember the DHL truck that appeared yesterday was nothing spectacular. Even Meredith Willson got the drop on me with "The Wells Fargo Wagon." And he even gave a nod to Sears' competitor, Montgomery Ward.

Several readers have reminded me that a bit of nostalgia is not a bad thing. So, let me share Meredith's ode to the past. Whether it was better or not, it certainly sounds a lot like today.

All you need to do is to imagine DHL yellow.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

breaking the laws we make

Hi. My name is Steve. And I am a slacker.

Of course, you already know all that by my absence.

Robin headed north on Saturday afternoon, and I started to sit down to write up a series of essays on where to take visitors in our little corner of Mexico. And then -- I didn't.

And I am not going to do it now.

Don't worry. I will share my travelogues with you. But something glittery just passed by and caught my attention.

A blogger friend once complimented Mexpatriate as being "like The New Yorker." At least, I took it was a compliment. If the metaphor works, today will be the book review section.

Several years ago, long before I ever thought about moving to Mexico, I read what has become one of my favorite books -- Pedro Páramo. It is Juan Rulfo's sole novel. Other than a collection of short stories and a few film scripts, it is what he left us when he died in 1986.

On its face, the plot offers nothing special. Mexico is replete with social-realist novelists who have told similar tales in the first half of the last century.

The novel opens in pre-Revolution Mexico, and is narrated by the son of 
Pedro Páramo, the main character. Pedro is a cacique, a local boss, who rises to power by snatching up all of the land in his village through bullying and violence. Along with the land came many of the local women.

He sums up his ethic: “From now on we are going to make the law.” The villagers fear and loath him. But, he placates the local priest with a handful of coins.

When guerrillas of the Revolution show up, he has to make a choice. Having no other moral compass, he supports them with men and funds: “You have to be on the winning side.”

Rulfo's writing style saves what could be just another regional novel. He grew up in rural Jalisco. A background that made him particularly sensitive to the rhythms and feel of rural Mexico. What Faulkner did for the South, Rulfo does for Mexico.

But it is the surrealism that makes the novel come to life. Time is simultaneous, not sequential. A trait he shared with Carlos Fuentes.

Death is everywhere in the story. As is myth. I will not give away one of the novel's strengths. But, the reader will gradually realize that there is something awry with the characters to whom we are introduced.

I first read the novel in English. I have learned enough Spanish to know that certain verb tenses are ignored in English. Rulfo's literary surprise should be even more surprising in Spanish.

And why am I dusting off my age-old relationship with a Mexican writer?

The answer is simple. The novel's story is fresh. Not only because a lot of its events have echoes in modern Mexico, but man's use of power is so universal, it is impossible to not see the leaders of the two countries north of Mexico in the tale of Pedro Páramo.

If you have read the novel, or if you now read it, I would be interested in your perspective.

We seem to be surrounded by men who make their own law. And they often show up in our mirror each morning.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

the pen rests

Some lessons simply require re-learning.

I have received several email asking why I have not been posting essays on my travels with Robin. I thought I would be able to tell you about the places we have been visiting this week. And I should have. We have had some interesting trips.

But writing would take too much time away from enjoying this visit.

Robin flies north on Saturday. Starting next Sunday, we can have a discussion of some of the interesting places to visit near Barra de Navidad.

Until then, we will be on the road.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

does this navel ever move?

Talk about introspective.

I hint that I am going to stop blogging. Then I write two essays about my family.

At least, today, I am pulling our attention back to Mexico. Sorta.

I am currently sitting at the Manzanillo International Airport. That would usually mean I am waiting for a plane to whisk me either to Los Angeles or Mexico City.

But, not today. Today we are welcoming a guest to Mexpatriate -- and the house with no name.

He is not new to you. You met him last January. Robin Olson -- one of my best friends from my Air Force days. That is him on the right. Back in the days when we were young enough to look good in minimal clothing.

The other fellow (on the left) is another Air Force friend. Dennis Dooley. You met him almost three years ago when he came down from Wisconsin to regale all of us with his Irish wit and charisma.

For the next week, Robin and I will catch up on Air Force war stories, world politics, and whatever else two old friends manage to tote across the thresholds of their respective memories.

One of the joys of guests is that I get to see my part of Mexico through new eyes. What has become a daily humdrum to me is a fascinating and exotic world to our exotic northern visitors. And that is a boon to writers. The scales fall from our jaded eyes.

In theory, that means I will be writing about Mexico once again.

But, not right now. Here he comes. 

Friday, December 08, 2017

an anniversary to remember

I mentioned yesterday (duck, ma) that my brother's birthday was the day before my parents' anniversary.

That, of course, means today is the seventy-first anniversary of my parents' marriage. My mother has survived my father by twenty-one years. But their anniversary is still their anniversary.

I have previously mounted my moral high horse soap box (to mix my clichés) to decry the current trend of turning someone else's celebration into a love feast for the speaker. You have seen the greeting cards: "Thanks, Mom, for everything you did for me. I wouldn't be me without your attention to me and everything I did because I am me through you." Somehow parents become mere channels to validate our own solipsistic existentialism.

And that is almost exactly what I am about to do. I suspect the re-run of that photograph at the top has already telegraphed my vice.

Several readers commented yesterday on my relationship with my brother -- including my mother. I responded that Darrel and I could not now be such good friends without the excellent parenting we received.

We were not a wealthy family. At least, not in material goods. But our parents never failed to provide us with the raw goods that helped us to develop our individual lives.

Our Encyclopedia Americana was a perfect example. Dad and Mom purchased it for the family when I was in the fifth grade. For me, it was the key to a magic garden. Thumbing through its pages, I traveled to Ancient Greece, learned about the gross national product of the disintegrating British Empire, and peeked in on the wonders of the United States Congress. I trace my insatiable curiosity back to that giant shelf of books.

And there was music. My parents had an older record player that played 45 and 75 RPM vinyl disks. Most of the records were big band hits or Christmas tunes with a few popular songs like "May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You" and Kate Smith's "God Bless America."

Mom approved my request to update our collection with a membership in the Columbia Record Club. We certainly added variety. Jan and Dean. The Beach Boys. But, I was most taken with the classical music recordings. Especially, Handel's Messiah. I had never heard anything that magnificent.

I would sit straight through the full oratorio. For a boy just entering his teens, the two and a half hour recording had to be good to keep my attention. And it was. To this day, it is still one of my favorite Baroque works.

Various threads in our lives come together in odd ways. I had just recently listened to Messiah on YouTube. Then came my brother's birthday and today's anniversary.

For some reason, I listened to Messiah this morning. And with the opening notes of one of its better-known movements ("Unto Us a Child is Born"), the pieces of this week's jigsaw puzzle fell into place. "For unto us a child is born/Unto us a son is given."

The second line of that couplet filled me with joy. And in the next few months, I will undoubtedly tell you why.

But, not today. Today is a day for my mother -- and father.

Happy anniversary to two of the most honorable people I have ever known.   

Thursday, December 07, 2017

duck, ma

7 December is a memorable day.

For some, it is a terrible day. The day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. A day that will live in infamy -- as FDR would have it.

For me, it is my sainted brother's birthday. My father would tell anyone in earshot that my brother was born the day before his wedding to my mother. Of course, he would omit the fact that the wedding was in 1946 and Darrel was born in 1950. My mother found the joke gauche.

Darrel is now my best friend. It was not always so. At least, not in the beginning.

For almost two years, I had life's stage to myself. All of the wonders of being an only child were mine. Then, one day, my mother came home carrying a bundled baby boy.

So, I reacted as any well-bred child would do. I picked up a toy truck and hurled it at the enemy. It missed Darrel and smashed into my mother's glasses. My peremptory attack failed. Darrel stayed.

And I am glad he did. When we both entered grade school, I came to his aid in the playground after classes one afternoon. A bully had gotten the better of him, and I sallied forth in true quixotic style. I would like to say the moment was altruistic, but it was summed up by comment to the bully: "No one beats up my brother but me." (Yup. I talked like that back in the third grade.)

There are plenty of tales about my younger brother. Even some where I am not the central figure. But there will be an appropriate time for those. On some occasion where he cannot defend himself.

I called him a couple of hours ago to wish him a perfect birthday. He is still in Bend, and will be celebrating over a plate of prime rib with our mother this evening. I wish I could be there.

But he will soon be here. In just over a month. With Christy (his wife) and my mother. We may even see a guest appearance by my niece Kaitlyn.

Until then, brother, enjoy your dwindling 60s. They go past rapidly. I know.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

who's your mama?

Speaking of  essays that have been sitting incomplete in my inbox -- .

Last summer I saw a newspaper headlining a controversy in Guadalajara. About a statue. Of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The article offered up a double scoop of Mexican history.

Like most big cities, Guadalajara wants to be known for its artistic elan -- especially, its public art. In that spirit, the city paid 5.2 million pesos (about $275,000 (US)) for a statue entitled "Syncretism," and then installed it in the median of a major street.

That seems a bargain for a 30 foot statue. But the price itself is not an issue. Well, not entirely. It is the subject matter.

There is a bromide here in Mexico that the only two persons who cannot be insulted are the president and Our Lady of Guadalupe. If it was ever true of the president, it certainly is not today. Insulting any Mexican president is a national sport. And some of my friends have medaled in the event.

But, insulting Our Lady of Guadalupe is worse than insulting your own mother. She is the patron saint of Mexico. And she wears that honor with pride. For those of you who do not know much about Our Lady, here is a Classics Illustrated version of her story.

In 1531, an Aztec Indian named Juan Diego (not to be confused with Zorro) saw an apparition on the hill where the Spanish had destroyed an Aztec temple dedicated to a goddess known as Our Revered Mother -- Tonantzin or Coatlicue. The woman in the apparition claimed to be the Virgin Mary and requested a church to be built in her honor.

So, Juan Diego did as he was told and went to see the archbishop, who did not believe him. The apparition appeared three more times to Juan Diego.

The fourth time, the apparition told him to gather flowers from the hill. To find blooming flowers in December was rare. But the flowers he gathered were even more rare. They were Castilian roses -- not native to Mexico.

He gathered the flowers in his cloak and rushed to the archbishop. When Juan Diego opened his cloak, the archbishop was amazed to find his favorite flowers -- Castilian roses. But he was even more amazed when the roses fell from the cloak revealing mirabile dictu an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The archbishop built the church which was later dedicated as a basilica. And Guadalupe was well on her way to becoming the very essence of the Mexican spirit.

It is that spirit that got wrapped around the axle of True Catholic Believers in Guadalajara. The controversial statue depicts Our Lady emerging from an image of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin or Coatlicue.

And if there is any doubt that the artist intended to convey the idea that the Coatlicue myth gave rise to the Guadalupe myth, he underscored the point with the sculpture's title. 
"Syncretism." A theological term meaning "the importation of an object of reverence in one belief system into another." 

The artist's point is not original. For centuries, people have pointed out the similarities between the two women. The Aztecs worshipped a mother goddess at the same site where the apparitions appeared. Catholics worship a revered mother who described herself as "the mother of the very true deity."

A newspaper supporting the protesters breathlessly (and somewhat inaccurately) reported: "The erection of the nine-meter-tall image has provoked massive public protests in the thousands, by Catholics who denounce it for confusing the country’s most important Christian symbol with the very religion of human sacrifice that it helped to defeat 500 years ago."

Historians tell us that the Aztecs continued to worship Coatlicue at the site of her ruined temple. Because of the similarities, it was easy for the church to substitute the similar attributes from Coatlicue to Guadalupe.

It would not be the only example of the Catholic church substituting saints for local gods in the finest tradition of hostile corporate takeovers. The most obvious example is Christmas. If the gospels are accurate, Jesus's birth was unlikely to be in December. The presence of all those shepherds is a start.

The Romans celebrated a huge festival (Saturnalia) to honor the lengthening of the days in December -- on 25 December. A lot of the pagan traditions for the day were adopted, and the whole shebang was re-christened "Christmas."

Some holidays the church just appropriated without any attempt to hide the pilfering. "Easter" still bears the name of the pagan English goddess for which it was named. Very similar to all of those Norse gods who clutter the names of the week in northern Europe and the Roman gods who perform the same service for Latin-language calendars.

But I could rattle on and on, and it will not change the fact that Mexicans will defend the honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a matter of faith. And they have done that in Guadalajara.

Tens of thousands protesters have shown up to vent their religious spleens. At the statue. At the fact their tax money was used to insult their dearest beliefs. At the archbishop who was too weak to do anything about the travesty.

I would say they were up in arms. But that phrase has a very particular meaning in this context.

Following the Revolution, Plutarco Elias Calles became president. One of the goals of the Revolution was to finish the job of taming the Catholic church that was begun by Benito Juarez's Reform War.

Calles took that mission to an extreme by enacting anti-clerical laws that not only stole the church's property, but treated the clergy as if they were not citizens of the republic.

The more religious areas of Mexico rose in open revolt during the three years of the Cristero war. Jalisco and Guadalajara were in the forefront of defending the church against the central government -- a government that eventually repealed the more offensives portions of the anti-clerical laws. The city government may be getting off lucky with this current perceived insult.

But all of that is for big city folk. Here, in our little fishing villages by the sea, we are in the middle of celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on 12 December. Like most religious festivals, one day cannot contain the zeal.

Since the beginning of the month, celebrants have been firing off cohetes -- those sky rockets that could easily substitute for the cannons in the Overture of 1812 without any of Tchaikovsky's even more annoying music. Starting at 5 or so in the morning.

And then there is the daily evening religious procession. Rather simple. "Indian" dancers. A float. More cohetes. And a bushel of deep-hearted devotion.

The historian in me defends the sculptor in Guadalajara. But my faith fully understands that deep devotion.

Monday, December 04, 2017

where are you tossing that towel?

"Boy have I been lazy with this blog"

That was Scott Parks's last entry on Sparks Mexico. On 26 October. He never got around to following up on that bit of self-criticism (dying alone).

But it is a sentiment I understand. I think all of us internet writers have ridden that horse. I know I have. Frequently.

Internet writers are a navel-gazing lot. And often for altruistic reasons. We like to keep our readers amused. But, in the process, we can be as introspective as any aging jock or fighter pilot re-living our great moments.

That is why we often fall into writing topics concerning the top hits of the year on our blogs (and, yes, one is coming), or where our readers are located, or how people find our blogs. I know because I have written about all three. More than once.

Writing about our own sites is almost Seinfeldian. What Larry David would call "about nothing" -- that is unless he was doing something to young women that he shouldn't have. And did.

Sometimes, though, being self-referential is exactly the correct tone. Such as, when announcing the writer is packing it all in.

My blogger friend Barbara (better known to most of you as Babs) did just that last month (nothing left to say). That is exactly how she felt. After writing her blog about Mexico (especially her beloved San Miguel Allende) for eleven years, she felt that she had nothing left to add to the conversation.

That was too bad. Hers was one of the blogs that helped me to decide to move to Mexico. She almost even wooed me into the spider web of San Miguel. When she announced she was shutting down her writing, it was as if part of me had been lost.

I knew how she felt. Two years ago, I shut down the presses of Mexpartiate.

Fortunately, Barbara thought better of her decision (i am glad i am a woman!), and has now returned to speed her roadster down the internet highway. I did the same thing.

But, for the brief period she was offline, I considered doing the same thing. Not because I had nothing more to say. I have a notebook of potential essays beside my computer. For some reason, though, I have lost the will to write. Or, maybe it was the time to write.

It first struck me while I was at sea in October. I had been rather good at publishing an essay almost every day. At sea, that urge was burned out of my by languid days. And it has continued since my return.

That is partially due to my involvement in several projects around the community -- all of my choosing. But I find that my day ends before I can sit down and write.

This essay is an example. I started it on 11 November when I read Barbara's retirement notice. And here we are, almost a month later, and I am just polishing it off. Considering her change of mind, I am glad I waited.

OK, Steve. Do you have a point to make?

Maybe. I wanted to at least answer the people who have emailed me to ask if something is wrong. They wondred why my output had dwindled. Now, you know. Probably.

In true Seinfeld style, I guess that is about it. I will churn out essays now and then, and try to get back into some sort of regular routine.

There are plenty of tales to be told about this part of Mexico. And I will enjoy living them. I may even write about a few.

Yup, Scott. I understand. Like you "I have been lazy with this blog."

Saturday, December 02, 2017

dying alone

Scott Parks is dead.

To some of you the name may not mean anything. You may have known him better as Sparks, the author of Melaque on the Costalegre and Sparks Mexico. For a brief period, he started his own message board when he had a spat with the community board. But, he soon abandoned it.

Like most people around here, I first met Scott through his online writings. In the late 2000s,  I started looking for places in Mexico to retire. Scott's blog proved to be a great source of information. Some of his pieces were helpful; some less so. But, he gave me enough information to let me know the questions I should be asking.

For better or worse, I ended up in this area of Mexico in 2009. At that time, Scott lived right around the corner from me.

He had moved down from Seattle. I had moved from Oregon. Ad that geographical connection was enough for us to strike up a casual acquaintance.

Even though we had frequent lunches and conversations, "casual acquaintances" is what we remained. We were close enough that he would borrow money from me (when he lost his wallet) or accept rides to Manzanillo. Neither one of us had personalities that formed quick friendships.

And we quickly learned each other's boundaries. His van brandished a Kerry-Edwards sticker five years after the pair had lost their run for the White House. But it was symbolic of one of his strongest personality traits -- persistence. Detractors would call it stubbornness. I call it "being human."

I also discovered, once again, that judging a man by his bumper is a fool's mission. Kerry and Edwards were noticeably to Scott's right. But, they were Not Bush.

In the last election, he was just as consistent. He did not care for Hillary Clinton. But, she was Someone Other Than Trump.

My politics frustrated him. He loved starting sentences with "Of course, you believe" painting me as Attila's Chuck Colson. Half of the time he was wrong.

But, when it moved to Mexico, he was a true believer in this country. Anyone who read his blog knew he had strong opinions about northern visitors -- especially those who were deaf to Mexican culture.

He loved the country. He loved the people.

Like most of us, Scott was searching for a place where he would belong. And he wanted to belong with Mexicans. That desire ending up costing him a good deal of money in an unconditional act of trust that was unrequited.

Instead of turning his loss into hate, he moved on. Literally. He left the pleasures of the beach in Villa Obregon and moved inland to a much poorer village where he seemed to find purpose amongst his Mexican neighbors. Essentially transforming himself into a Mexican grandfather offering care and love to a local family -- including transporting a disabled child to and from school each day.

I last saw Scott two days before he died. His van was parked outside an abarrotes in San Patricio. I saw him walking out of the grocery stiff-legged with his arms held out in front of him as if he were having trouble with his balance.

I almost stopped to see if he needed help. I didn't. To this day, I do not know if what I saw was a prelude to his death.

We can all learn lessons from the lives around us. But Scott's death has grabbed my attention.

Scott was single and lived alone. As do I.

If I understand the story correctly, he had been dead a couple of days before his body was found in his bed. A neighbor contacted his sister in The States to tell her of the death.

By some odd coincidence, our local message board had just hosted a thread on the importance of creating a personal plan for emergencies and death that someone could initiate if the need be. I am currently putting one together. When I gather enough information, I will share some ideas. I hope you will add more.

And, Scott, I am going to miss our thrusts and parries. Thanks for the pieces of good information you passed my way. Maybe we will pass one another again elsewhere.