Saturday, October 29, 2016

Mexico's Day of the Dead & its ancient pre-hispanic roots

Participant in Ajijic's Dia de los Muertos parade. For many foreigners, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one of the most puzzling and misunderstood of all Mexico's innumerable fiestas. The event seems vaguely like Halloween, but the traditions, meanings, and history are entirely different. The fiesta is called "Day" of the Dead but it actually encompasses two days. An outsider, unfamiliar with the fiesta, might expect great solemnity among the families gathered around cemetery plots. Instead, copious amounts of tequila and cerveza (beer) are consumed and laughter rings out. Boisterous brass bands simultaneously playing different tunes compete for attention. Good humor and friendliness abound. In this posting, I will try to provide some understanding  for people who may read about, or attend, one of these events. The 2016 fiesta is scheduled for Tuesday, November 1 and Wednesday November 2. The first day, Dia de los Angelitos, is dedicated to dead children (angelitos=little angels). Because of their youth, they are believed to have died without sin and can intercede in Heaven on behalf of their families. My photos and commentary are focused on the second day, Dia de los Muertos, because that is really the main event. I should note here that traditions in Mexico tend to vary according to locality. I can only report on what I have observed and photographed at Ajijic and Chapala, in Jalisco.

El Panteon (the Cemetery)

A family surrounds the candle-lit plot of ground where their loved ones are buried. Candles and cempasúchil (marigolds) are two important elements of the fiesta. They help the souls of the dead find their way "home" for a visit. Many cemetery plots are raised and often contain elaborate above-ground structures, depending upon the resources of the family. Here and there, though, you will find a simple stone marker or rustic wooden cross at the head of a heap of fresh earth. I was touched to see that even the simplest burials were decorated with at least a few candles and a handful of marigolds in a tin can.

This tomb was decorated with a photo of the deceased, apparently an avid horseman. From the spectators in the background, he appears to have been a participant in the parades held during various fiestas throughout the year. Photos of the dead are often placed on grave sites as well as on the special altars families create outside their homes. Notice the elegant glasses holding the votive candles on this rather plush mausoleum.

A young girl decorates her family plot. She has spaced candles to form a cross and sprinkled marigold petals around them. Living marigolds in pots stand on either side of a bouquet of other flowers filling an empty paint can. When photographing individuals, I always seek permission. Virtually everyone I asked at the fiesta agreed with a smile. This girl was no exception.

No part of Dia de los Muertos is quiet. Music from this brass band blared through the panteon. The musicians adorned themselves with face paint and wore matching skull t-shirts. Street vendors outside the panteon's entrance hawked the shirts to celebrants passing by. I bought one to wear at this and future Dias de los Muertos. Several other bands circulated among the grave sites, ready to play requests for a fee. The competing bands, each playing a different tune, created a cacophony that should be familiar to anyone who has attended a Mexican fiesta.

Several elegant couples danced to the music. Skull face paint is wildly popular among fiesta participants. Some of the designs are extraordinary. The man wears a Charro outfit with a tight-fitting, embroidered jacket and a wide sombrero. His partner's black sombrero and lacy black dress are set off nicely by her white face.

Pre-hispanic roots of Dia de los Muertos

The painted skull on this woman's face is remarkably realistic. The people of Mexico have been fascinated by all aspects of death since the earliest pre-hispanic times. Human skulls decorated with inlaid turquoise were found in the ruins of the great city of Teotihuacan (100 BC - 650 AD). From then, all the way through the Aztec era (1250 AD - 1521 AD), human bones were used ritually. Skulls were sometimes substituted as balls in the pre-hispanic ball games. Human leg bones were carved with various mystic designs. Other bones were made into musical instruments such as flutes. The Spanish arrival resulted in a holocaust. Imported diseases, massacres, and general abuse reduced the indigenous population by 90% in less than 100 years. Beginning with the 1810 War of Independence and lasting through drug wars of the 2000s, a long series of fierce conflicts wracked the country. During the Revolution alone (1910 - 1921) Mexico lost 1 out of 7 people. More recently, the drug war (2006-2016) has cost at least 60,000 lives. All of this has given Mexicans a deep familiarity with death and, oddly, enabled them to laugh at it.

Three young women cheerfully pose for a photo. Notice the woman in the center, with only half of her face painted. This is a reference to the concept of duality, an idea that can be traced to the earliest pre-hispanic civilizations. It was central to their view of the cosmos. Everything had its opposite and, together, these created a whole. This included life and death, light and darkness, men and women, hot and cold. etc. Nothing could be fully understood on its own, but only in relation to its opposite. The most important god was the unknowable Ometeotl, the god of duality. This deity had both male and female attributes and was the creator of the cosmos and all other gods. In fact, Aztec priests at the highest level believed there was only one god, and all the others were simply facets or expressions of Ometeotl. The god of duality was so unknowable that no sculptures, paintings, or other representations of Ometeotl have ever been found. Only one temple was ever built for this deity, but it contained no images or statues.

This photograph represents another ancient concept: the cyclical nature of the universe. The photographer modeled his work on an Aztec terracotta sculpture contained in the unique Museum of Death, located in Aguascalientes. The ancient people of Mesoamerica believed that everything in the universe operated on a recurring cyclical basis. Youth turns to old age, which moves into death and re-birth as the cycle continues. Everything in the pre-hispanic world seemed to confirm this: the seasons; the movement of sun, moon, and stars; the life cycle of animals and plants. Some of the ancient civilizations created sophisticated calendars based on cyclical movements of the stars and planets. They were particularly fascinated by Venus which was seen as a symbol of death and rebirth since it appears in the evening and reappears in the morning.

This Dia de los Muertos altar in Chapala recreated an ancient Shaft Tomb. This method of burial was used between 300 BC and 400 AD in the western Mexico states of Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit. The ancient people would dig a shaft straight down into the relatively soft volcanic soil. Some of the shafts were as much as 20 m (65 ft) deep and had as many as 4 chambers extending out from the bottom. Objects of religious significance, as well as from daily life, were placed on and around the bodies. Much of what we know about the people who participated in the Shaft Tomb tradition comes from artifacts found in these burials. They include beautiful, realistic sculptures of people playing with children, making meals, chatting with friends, playing music, and circle dancing. There were also models of the homes they lived in, some containing a dog house with a pet peeking out. Archaeologists call these objects "grave goods".

A family altar recreates the architecture of an ancient stepped pyramid. This is the typical format for these altars. Once again the pre-hispanic roots of the fiesta emerge, not only in the shape of the altars but with the objects placed on each step. They are the modern equivalent of the grave goods found in shaft tombs as well as other burial sites around Mexico. Some of the objects have religious significance, but most relate to the likes, hobbies, and daily life of the person being remembered.

Los altares familiares (the family altars)

A typical altar tableau begins with the pathway leading up to it. The sides are lined with votive candles, while the surface is carpeted with marigold flower petals. More marigolds line the perimeter of the altar area. The altars are central to the fiesta. Think of the dead not as gone forever, but merely having passed over into a different plane of existence. Annually (i.e. cyclically), on the Dia de los Muetos, they return for a visit. The candles and marigold carpet help guide them home to the altar and their waiting family. It's a bit like leaving the porch light on so a relative who has been on a long journey can find your home.

Home at last! The photo the the deceased occupies the central position on the altar. Various objects used by the person are arranged on either side of the photo, such as the gloves to the left of the photo. On other altars, I have seen saddles and riding gear, musical instruments such as a guitar or clarinet, small tools, artists brushes and pallets, etc. Notice the food arranged on the lower level of the altar. After such a long journey, surely the traveler will be hungry!

Hygene first! Often you will find a pitcher of water, soap, and a towel arranged on one of the steps. A thoughtful family will not forget the need for a traveler to clean up before turning to the sumptuous meal that awaits.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you'll be dead again. The dearly departed's favorite foods are presented here. Apparently the deceased liked Coca Cola, Corona beer, and a brand of tequila that I can't make out. Fruit, pastries, frijoles and various Mexican dishes are all interspersed with candles and the step is dusted with marigold petals. After hospitality like this, the traveler will definitely want to return in a year. And the ancient cycle goes on.


A catrina strikes a dramatic pose in the Ajijic Plaza. This figure was one of a large number created by various groups and individuals for display at the Ajijic Plaza and along the malecones (waterfront walks) of both Ajijic and Chapala. All of the catrinas were creatively designed and most were clothed with recycled materials.

An elegant catrina wears the large floppy hat of a wealthy 19th century matron. The genesis of Catrinas is much more recent than other aspects of the fiesta. Actually, they weren't originally related to Dia de los Muertos at all, but grew out of 19th century political cartoons. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was a young man who was born and raised in Aguascalientes. His older brother was a school teacher who taught him to draw. Posada eventually got a job as a cartoonist with an Aguascalientes newspaper called El Jicote (the Bumblebee).

This blonde is quite a flashy dresser. El Jicote lasted only 11 issues. Apparently, one of Posada's cartoons stung someone important, because he and the publisher had to flee the city. Posada landed in Leon, far enough away from his angry critic to be safe. Rather than give up his profession, he was inspired to continue. However, because of a massive flood in Leon, Posada had to move again and ended up in Mexico City. There, he resumed his career as a political cartoonist. Posada began drawing his catrinas during the rule of Porfirio Diaz, a period called the Porfiriato (1876-1911).

This catrina is clothed with Mexico's famous Monarch butterflies. After Porfirio Diaz secured political stability, foreign investment poured in, railroads began to criss-cross the country, and trade and industry grew rapidly. The economy as a whole took off, but the vast majority of the gains were funneled to a tiny elite. Although there was a small middle class, most Mexicans were increasingly impoverished. The elite were enamoured of French culture and styles and it was their pretensions that Posada lampooned when he drew the elaborately dressed skeletons he called catrinas. Posada died in 1913, but in the 1930s the great muralist Diego Rivera resurrected his work. Catrinas have been wildly popular in Mexico ever since.

The Parade

After the festivities in the Panteon, celebrants formed a  parade back to the main plaza. Above, a young man balances a cardboard coffin on his head. Everything was very friendly and informal, so I decided to join the parade and photograph its participants. Again, there was a notable lack of solemnity.

What's a parade without music? Of course, with several bands playing simultaneously, and never the same tune, it was difficult to keep in step. Still, the disjointed cacophony lent an extra element of hilarity to the scene.

Paraders were not all somberly dressed. The woman with the bright orange dress caught my eye. I liked her handle-bar mustache. The fellow with the coffin follows behind. Even though his burden was light, I suspected that his arms would get tired long before he reached the plaza.

A giant skull with fireworks attached marched along on two blue jean-clad legs. The rockets are attached to flimsy reed wheels on either side, kind of like ears. When the parade reaches the plaza, he will light the fuse. As the rockets ignite, the wheels will begin to spin and throw off showers of sparks. The two-legged skull will then rush back and forth through the crowd, causing people to jump and flee, sometimes tripping over one another. Great peals of laughter will ensue. Any vacationing US or Canadian fire inspectors will no doubt collapse with heart palpitations.

More marchers, this time in brilliant red. The woman is accompanied by two muscular (although dead) jocks in sleeveless shirts. Whoever sells all this white greasepaint must be making a fortune. Maybe this year I'll see if someone will do me up like this to go with my skull t-shirt.

A handsome pair of spooks. I pondered long on the best photo to conclude this posting. This couple seemed a perfect fit. Their expressions fully captured the good humor of the whole affair. If you possibly can, participate in a Dia de los Muertos. It will be a truly unforgettable experience!

This completes my posting on the 2016 Dia de los Muertos. I hope you'e enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any questions or thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.  If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Taxco Part 4: Parroquia Santa Prisca, the jewel in Taxco's crown

Parroquia Santa Prisca perches on a mountain slope in the center of Taxco. The church was built in the 18th century Mexican Baroque style known as Churrigueresque. Santa Prisca is considered one of Mexico's two masterpieces of the style, the other being the Cathedral in Zacatecas. In this posting, we'll take a close look at the ornate exterior of the church. The following posting will examine the stunning retablos (altar pieces) that cover the walls of the interior. An immensely wealthy silver miner named José de la Borda financed Santa Prisca's construction. The project nearly bankrupted him. Borda built the church to thank God for his good luck in the mining business. Not coincidentally, his son Manuel was the priest who became the curate of the splendid new parroquia (parish church). To locate Parroquia Santa Prisca in Taxco, click on this Google map.

The entrance facade

The facade and steeples of Santa Prisca. The intricate sculptural decorations typical of Churrigueresque were so expensive that even a rich man like Borda couldn't afford to cover the entire exterior with them. Santa Prisca was built between 1751 and 1758, near the end of Churrigueresque's popularity in Mexico. During this period, the Neo-classic style began to gain favor, in part as a reaction to Churrigueresque's florid, over-the-top emotionality. Neo-classic, as the name implies, was modeled on the cool rationality and clean lines of ancient Greco-Roman architecture. Santa Prisca was constructed in a remarkably short time by two architects, the Frenchman Don Diego Durán and a Spaniard named Cayetano de Siguenza. A group of outstanding artists created the exquisite interior, which we'll look at in the next posting.

The facade of a church is composed of the area around and above the main entrance. Santa Prisca's facade was carved from pink sandstone, which glows warmly in the afternoon sun. As you can see, nearly every square inch is covered. In the oval center is a scene of the baptism of Jesus. On either side, framed by spiral columns, are the statues of Santa Prisca (L) and San Sebastian (R), two early Christian martyrs. At the top, the Virgin of the Assumption stands over a clock. Viewed as a whole, the effect is a overwhelming. There is so much detail that it can be difficult to focus. It is only when you zero in on particular elements of the design that you begin to appreciate it. That is the approach I will take, beginning with the clock topped by the Virgin.

The Virgin Mary stands on top of the clock, surrounded by cherubs and saints. This ensemble represents the Assumption which, according to Catholic dogma, occurred at the end of Mary's earthly life when both her body and soul were borne up to heaven. This dogma is relatively new, having been officially adopted only in 1950. There is no mention of the Assumption in the New Testament. However, in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, people began to ask "what happened to Mary after she died?" After all, if Jesus was the Son of God, surely his mother wouldn't have died as an ordinary mortal. In all cultures, when in doubt, people make up legends. According to one early story, the Apostle Thomas heard Mary was dying and came to visit but arrived too late. Her tomb was opened so he could pay his last respects, but it was empty except for her grave clothes. Over the centuries, the stories became more and more elaborate. Great disputes broke out among theologians about the details. In 1950, almost 2000 years after the supposed fact, Pope Pius XII settled the issue. Exercising his power of "papal infallibility" he declared a particular version the Assumption to be Catholic dogma.

Cherubs frolic all over the facade. To the left of the choir window, two cherubs kneel on either side of a coat-of-arms containing an eagle standing on a nopal cactus with a crown on top. Interestingly, the eagle on the nopal is an Aztec symbol. In the corner above, two others hold a shield with a face looking our of the sun. A cherub figures like this are called  putti (putto is the singular). A putto is a male child, usually naked and often with wings. They appear in both religious and secular art, especially during the Baroque period. In religious art, putti symbolize the omnipresence of God. The origins of putti go back to classical Greek and Roman times. They were believed to be half-human, half-divine companions of Aphrodite (Venus) the goddess of love. Putti fell out of favor during the Middle Ages but reappeared during the Renaissance. The 15th century Florentine artist Donatello is credited with the revival of putti and they remained popular into the 19th century.

The center piece of the facade is the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. The oval panel is surrounded by putti. Inside the oval, John baptizes Jesus while God and several angels look on. Grouped around the figure of God are the heads of more putti. Parroquia Santa Prisca is unusual for its unified artistic conception. The architects, masons, sculptors, and artists all worked together throughout the seven year building process and the overall project was financed and supervised by one man, José de la Borda. Most other large, distinctive churches were built over many decades, or even centuries.  Sometimes there were long periods when the work halted, due to lack of funding or political unrest. Over these long construction periods, successive architects and artists were employed. Each used different styles according to what was popular during the times in which they worked. For example, the Zacatecas Cathedral has a gorgeous Churrigueresque exterior, but its interior combines 19th century Neo-classical with 20th century modern, a jarring amalgamation in my opinion. By contrast, the style of Santa Prisca is the same throughout, resulting in a jewel-like quality that has been widely acclaimed since the 18th century.

A statue of Santa Prisca fills a niche to the left of the baptism scene. According to one version of her legend, she was martyred as a young girl by the Emperor Claudius (41 AD - 54 AD) because she refused to renounce Christianity. Santa Prisca was a 13-year-old member of a noble Roman family. She was arrested, beaten, and thrown into prison after she refused make a sacrifice to the Roman god Apollo. Released, she again refused and was flogged and burned with boiling tallow. Next, Prisca was thrown to a lion which lay down beside her and refused to attack. After that failure, she was starved, tortured on the rack, and thrown onto a burning pyre. Again, she miraculously survived. The frustrated Claudius ordered the young teen beheaded, a method which finally succeeded. Modern Catholic theologian Johann Kirsch maintains that all this is unhistorical and the details are impossible. However, she did acquire quite a following in the early Church and today is revered by the Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox faiths. The statue above was damaged at some point and lost its hands. She is often portrayed holding a palm frond, representing martrydom, in her right hand.

A statue of San Sebastian stands in the right side niche. I believe he may be the only saint who managed to get himself martyred twice. According to legend, San Sebastian was a young captain in the Emperor's bodyguard. He was also a secret Christian who tried to save other Christians imprisoned by the Emperor Diocletian (244 AD - 312 AD). Ultimately, the young officer was exposed and the Emperor ordered him to be tied to a tree and shot full of arrows. Their work done, the archers left Sebastian for dead. Miraculously, he survived and a local woman nursed him back to health. After recovering, Sebastian sought out the Emperor and loudly denounced him for persecuting Christians. Needless to say, Diocletian was both surprised and annoyed. He ordered Sebastian seized, beaten to death, and his body thrown into a sewer. This time, the martyrdom succeeded. The statue above shows Sebastian's body--contorted but still living--tied to a tree stump. The distinctive spiral columns framing the niches of both Santa Prisca and San Sebastian are carved in a Baroque style called Solomonic. According to legend, similar spiral columns were recovered from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem by Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. It's a good story, but archaeologists have established that the original Solomonic columns actually came from Greece.

The heavy wooden entrance door is beautifully carved and embossed with brass fittings. According to local legend, a miracle occurred during the construction of the church. One evening in 1751, masons and sculptors were busy at their work. They swarmed over scaffolding that covered the facade and steeples at the time. Suddenly, the sky darkened and wind howled through the streets. Bolts of lightning lit up the scene as terrified workers scrambled down the rickety scaffolding. Townspeople feared the church was about to be destroyed by demons. Then, a vision appeared. A beautiful woman dressed in Roman robes floated over the church carrying the palm of martyrs. It was, of course, Santa Prisca. The storm died away and the vision gradually dissolved into the evening air. The new church was saved by the saint to which it was dedicated.

The steeples

Santa Prisca's twin towers are as intricately decorated as its facade. Each tower contains eight bells.  Four small bronze bells are on the top level with four larger ones on the bottom. The bells are suspended from wooden scaffolds and rung by hand. Notice the figures of saints, reaching out their right hands, on each corner of the upper level.

The bell openings at each level are framed by columns with Corinthian capitals. These show evidence of Neo-Classic influence, which was beginning to spread in Mexico at this time. Between the columns, the Churrigueresque style dominates. The sculpture contains two complete putti, one on either side. The head of another forms a triangle. Within the triangle is a highly stylized heart. Above the heart are what appear to be three crowns, stacked one atop the other. Winding through all this are vines and floral embellishments, another typical Baroque feature. The amazing thing is that all this is barely visible from the street below. Only with a telephoto lens, or a telescope, can they be viewed and appreciated. In the 18th century, of course, no one had a telephoto camera lens. Very few people possessed a telescope or any other method of optical enhancement. These are embellishments meant to be appreciated by God, not man.

The face of a satyr supports a balcony in the lower level of the bell tower. The figure has pointed ears, a goatee and what appear to be curling horns emerging from its hair. Satyrs were companions of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, women, and song. Greek pottery from the 6th century BC sometimes contained artistic representations of satyrs drinking from goblets and playing pipes. Others show them chasing nymphs. Satyrs are creatures of physical pleasure, altogether a curious feature to appear on a Catholic church otherwise dedicated to the concepts of suffering and martyrdom.

The dome and side walls

The dome sits over the main altar of the church, at the far end of the nave from the entrance. The eight windows provide natural light for the most important area of the church. The roof of the dome is covered by talavera tiles. At the very top is a cupola with a cross. The cupola appears to be a smaller version of the dome below. Along the railings and positioned around the dome just below the tiled area are finials. These architectural decorations are solid carved stone in the shape of vases. They were a very popular feature in both religious and secular architecture during colonial times and right up through the 19th century.

Red sandstone was used to accent white plaster walls. Above is a section of the right side exterior wall of the church. The facade around the larger doorway is impressive and even the small door to its right his highly decorated. Each window is framed with elaborately carved stone. Numerous finials were used to highlight the railings and balconies.

Archangel San Miguel stands on a pedestal near the main entrance. He is a winged warrior, the leader of God's armies against the forces of Satan, as depicted in the New Testament's Book of Revelations. Above, he wields a sword and shield while stepping on the neck of Satan in the form of a snake with a human face. Archangel Michael also appears in the Old Testament's Book of Daniel. This reference pre-dates Christianity by centuries. He is a powerful symbol, particularly when used to justify violent action against the supposed enemies of God, such as Spanish Muslims and the followers of various pre-hispanic New World religions.

This completes Part 4 of my Taxco series. The next part of the series will focus on the exquisite interior of Santa Prisca. I hope you have enjoyed this posting and, if so, that you leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, October 10, 2016

Taxco Part 3- Baile Folklorico's colorful dancers

Dancers in traditional costumes whirl and stomp on a stage in Taxco's Plaza Borda. While visiting Plaza Borda, we stumbled across a free public performance of a baile folklorico (folkloric dance). Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of similar dance troupes perform regularly all over Mexico. While some are made up of salaried professionals, others come from small towns. The local troupes often include children and older people among their performers. Even the amateurs are fun to watch and there are several of these groups in the Lake Chapala area where we live. The baile folklorico troupe above is from Taxco and they are quite good. The performers regularly changed into the regional costumes of the areas where particular dances originated. In this short posting, you'll see the dancers in action and I'll provide a bit of the history of the art form.

Beautifully embroidered costumes are part of a dance from Mexico's Gulf Coast area. The music and instruments used for particular dances are also typical of that region, in this case marimbas. Folk dances have been popular among Mexico's common people for hundreds of years. Some even date back to the pre-hispanic era. However, until the 1910 Revolution, the culture of commoners was generally ignored, if not disparaged, by the society's elites. "Well-bred" people were focused on Spanish culture during the colonial and early post-colonial era. During the last part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, everything French was the height of fashion.

A pair of dancers strut their stuff. The embroidered white outfits of the performers are typical of the Gulf Coast and Yucatan. The great popular uprising known as the Mexican Revolution refocused attention on indigenous people and common folk in general. Revolutionary leaders like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata came from humble origins as did many others. The Revolution brought an ideological shift away from Europe and toward Mexico's roots. The broad public interest in pre-hispanic glory and Mexico's popular culture was viewed by Revolutionary leaders as a way of uniting a shattered country.

The couple above are attired much like the country people of previous centuries. Men wore home-spun white cotton pants and shirts. They carried serapes, which are folded blankets worn over the shoulder.  A head-hole is cut in the middle of a serape so it can be used either as a garment or a bed roll. Broad straw hats gave protection against the intense Mexican sun. Women wore full, ankle-length skirts, the more colorful the better. They tied their hair up in buns with ribbons and flowers.

Much of the dancing involved fancy footwork, a little like tap dancing. When the whole troupe danced together, they created a thunderous sound with the hard leather heels of their shoes. These kinds of drum-like dance steps are called zapateados. The Casa Borda cultural center, which sponsored the event, set up rows of chairs for the public. Many more people stood behind them to watch. One of the joys of Mexico is that there is so much free public entertainment. In most towns, the local plaza includes a cultural center. These tax-supported institutions promote art, music, and dance created or performed by members of the local community. People are encouraged to participate, not just as spectators but as performers.

The outfits above are typical of western Mexico, particularly of my home state of Jalisco. The vividly contrasting colors of the woman's dress remind me of the profusion of multi-colored flowers that blossom here year-round. The man is dressed as a vaquero (cowboy), wearing denim, leather boots, and a cowboy hat. This reflects a long tradition of cattle raising that dates back to the 17th century. In fact, Mexico's vaqueros invented the entire cowboy culture and technology 200 years before the first American cowboy pulled on his spurs.

The full, flowing skirts lend themselves to the dramatic twirls. The Jarabe Tapatio is one of the dances associated with Jalisco's capital, Guadalajara. El baile de los sonajeros (the rattle dance) is another Jalisco specialty. These dances are usually accompanied by mariachi music, which was born in Jalisco. Baile folklorico as an art form was invented in the 1950s by Amalia Hernandez. She established a school of folkloric dance in Mexico City and assembled a dance troupe called Baile Folkorico Mexico. Today, this troupe performs regularly in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. They also tour internationally. Several years ago, during a visit to Mexico City, Carole and I attended one of their spectacular performances.

In a dance about marriage, the bride and groom kiss. Baile folklorico is the antithesis of the winner-take-all, star-system which passes for public entertainment in the US. Baile folklorico encourages participation, even by some of the poorest pueblos. In the so-called First World, entertainment is all about glorifying a tiny elite who collect the Big Bucks. This star-system, promoted by TV, encourages a passive, couch-potato viewership. People become fans rather than participants. That there are well-paid, top-level troupes in Mexico is undeniable. However, the widespread participation in this art form by local dance groups makes baile folklorico an entertainment of, for, and by the people.

The "bride" twirls in her voluminous gown, ecstatic in her new status. Several times, as we passed through Plaza Borda on our way to somewhere else, we paused to watch these skilled performers. Each time, we saw a bit more of their repertoire and reflected on our good fortune to be here during a performance.

This completes Part 3 of my Taxco series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below, or email them to me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, October 3, 2016

Taxco Part 2: Plaza Borda

Plaza Borda bustles with activity, particularly the area in front of Parroquia Santa Prisca. At any one time, Santa Prisca may conduct a Mass, wedding, or funeral. Adding to the hubbub, vendors sell food, sombreros, balloons and shoe shines; shoppers look for bargains; endless streams of taxis load or unload passengers; folk dancers cavort on a stage; local folks stroll about, while tourists like myself gawk and take photos. I usually find Mexican plazas to be a lot of fun, but Plaza Borda is a 3-ring circus without the tent. Best of all, it is located right around the corner from Hotel Los Arcos, where we stayed during our visit to Taxco (see Part 1). In this part of my Taxco series, I'll show you some of the stunning architecture surrounding the plaza as well as some of the activities which occur within it.

The plaza is named after José de la Borda, the rich miner who built Parroquia Santa Prisca. This elegant, life-size statue of Borda is located in one corner of Plaza Borda. Other statues and portraits of him can be found throughout Taxco. Borda was a French/Spaniard who was born in 1700 and lived until 1778, a ripe old age in those days. His father was a French army officer and his mother a Spaniard. Borda was preceded in New Spain (Mexico) by his brother Francisco, who had founded a mine near Taxco. At age 17, José joined him to participate in what was, at the time, New Spain's biggest mining bonanza. After gaining some experience in the business, José de la Borda founded his own mine in 1734, a venture which proved very successful. When his brother died a few years later, Borda inherited his property, making him one of New Spain's richest men. The mining magnate decided to use some of his great wealth to build a magnificent church in Taxco.

Santa Prisca dominates Plaza Borda and its tall steeples can be seen throughout Taxco. The King of Spain gave José de la Borda permission to build the church, but said that the miner must mortgage his property to ensure its completion. Apparently the Spanish monarch was tired of boastful dreamers whose failed projects required the Crown or the Church to step in and clean up the mess. Trusting in the bottomless capacity of his mines, and in his own good luck, Borda signed the agreement to build this incredibly ornate church. In the end, it nearly bankrupted him, but his good luck held. With his Taxco mines playing out, and his loans coming due, he decided to take a chance on mining in Zacatecas, far to the north. Borda struck it rich again with a silver mine aptly named "La Esperanza" (The Hope). This bonanza made him the wealthiest man in New Spain at that time, and possibly in the world. Borda completed Santa Prisca and several other major architectural projects before he died. He succumbed to the cumulative, poisonous effects of mercury, a key element used in processing silver. In a later posting, we'll take a detailed look at this architectural gem.

A sombrero vendor scans the crowd for a prospective buyer. I am always amused by the creative way that these folks transport their wares. Since the straw hats are light, they can wear a considerable number of them at one time. The root of the Spanish word sombrero is sombra, which means "shade or shadow". He was one of many different vendors who roamed the plaza and nearby streets, hoping for a sale. Regardless of the weight of the hats, street vending is a difficult form of employment.

A couple of elderly residents relax in the brief early morning period before the plaza gets busy. The plaza contains one of the ubiquitous kioscos (bandstands) found throughout Mexico. Early colonial paintings and drawings rarely show kioscos in plazas. In colonial times, these were places to bring goods for sale, to slaughter and butcher animals, and to draw water from public wells or fountains. They also functioned as execution sites for criminals, rebels, and heretics--sometimes en masse. In the 19th century the function of plazas began to change, particularly after the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1821. Plazas became places of leisure and entertainment. In the mid-to-late 19th century, kioscos began to appear. This trend accelerated during the French intervention of 1862-67, when Napoleon II installed Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his wife Charlotte as Mexico's rulers. Culturally and architecturally sophisticated, the royal couple encouraged Mexican communities to re-make their plazas into parks. The royal couple curried favor by making gifts of kioscos throughout the county. The transformation of plazas continued even after Maximilian was overthrown and executed. French culture and architecture remained popular in Mexico, particularly during the rule of the dictator Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911).

Large metal stars hang from the branches of a tree that shades the plaza. These lamps help illuminate the plaza at night. The light shines out through the holes artistically cut in the rays of the star. Similar creations are hammered out in metal-working shops all over Mexico. During the day, the huge tree's thick branches provide shade for a large part of the plaza. It may have been only a sapling when Borda completed Santa Prisca in 1758, but it's a giant now.

A balloon-selling clown shows off his wears. As balloon sellers generally are, this fellow was popular with kids of all ages, including those with grey hair and spectacles. When I asked for a photo, he struck this pose. This clown doesn't just sell balloons, but twists them into various interesting shapes, upon request.

The Parroquia Restaurant and Bar's umbrellas are arrayed in ranks like soldiers. The Parroquia Restaurant and Bar, has been in business since 1984. It stands on the opposite side of the plaza from Parroquia Santa Prisca, hence the name. In order to take advantage of the views, many of Taxco's restaurants and bars set up balconies and terraces on their top floors and roofs. Although the temperature here is mild, the sun can be quite intense, making the umbrellas a welcome addition. 

Closeup of the Parroquia Restaurant and Bar. A roof-top table, or one in the window, provides a bird's eye view of all the activity in the plaza. The building's ground floor houses a jewelry shop selling all sorts of decorative silver objects. 

Down in the street, a family pauses while looking for an opening in the chaotic traffic. All of them wear helmets and long pants, two very good ideas when using a vehicle like this. All too many young Mexicans avail themselves of neither. I have seen family groups like this with as many as five riders on a single scooter. This often includes small babies strapped to their parents' chests. After all, what could possibly go wrong? 

Casa Borda, the cultural center, occupies most of one side of the plaza. Juan de la Borda built this mansion as his home in 1759, shortly after completing Santa Prisca. Today, it functions as a cultural center for art exhibits and performances of music and dance. It has two stories in front, but five in the rear, due to the drop of the terrain.

Folklorico dancers perform on a stage in front of Casa Borda.  Folkloricos are traditional dances by performers in regional costumes. They were performed several times during our visit and drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Some folklorico dances date back as far as pre-hispanic times. In a later posting in this series, I will show you some of the dancers dressed in their beautiful costumes.

A local cop strides across the plaza, intent on clearing up a traffic snarl. The police of Taxco seem friendly and helpful and we didn't have any untoward experiences with them. The lot of a cop in Mexico is often not a happy one. They are usually underpaid and undertrained and thus become tempted into corrupt behavior. In addition, the job can be very risky, especially when dealing with narco-trafficantes. A taxi driver I know used to be a Jalisco State police officer. I asked him why he gave up policing. His reply? "Too risky."

A Volkswagon taxi heads up into the plaza to deliver a passenger. There are hordes of these white VWs roaming the narrow streets. The two vans behind the VW are collectivos, a sort of mini-public bus. Their rates are a fraction of the cost of a taxi. On the other hand, the collectivos make multiple stops and can take longer to reach your destination. 

A passenger negotiates a fare while a jovial pedestrian strolls by.  It is always advisable to settle the fare before getting in the cab. We were warned against taxistas who sometimes overcharge unsuspecting tourists. However, even with an overcharge, the fares are still cheap. 

A pedestrian street, called an andador, branches off from the plaza to the west. The steeples of Santa Prisca can be seen in the background. Walking along an andador feels like strolling through a different century. 

Same andador, opposite direction. I discovered a small fountain at the point where the andador divided, with one route going up hill while the other headed down. Just behind the fountain, at the dividing point, is another of the ubiquitous platerias (silver shops).

A plateria owner relaxes outside his shop, waiting for a customer. This shop faces directly on the plaza, across the street from Casa Borda. Taxco continued to be a major silver ore producer until the 1810-1821 War of Independence. During the war, the mines were destroyed by their owners so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the insurgents. For the next 200 years, Taxco had little to do with the silver business. Then, American archaeologist William Spratling moved to Mexico to study its culture. When the road between Mexico City and Taxco finally opened up in the 1920s, Spratling settled in the old silver town. US Ambassador Dwight Morrow encouraged him to develop silversmithing in Taxco and Spratling took him up on it. The archaeologist designed jewelry based on pre-hispanic objects he had recovered in various ruins. He brought in a goldsmith from Iguala to teach jewelry-making and many trainees later opened their own stores. Spratling's dream was achieved. Unfortunately, he was killed in an auto accident in 1967, just outside Taxco. However, William Spratling's work has outlived him by almost 50 years. Taxco is now world-famous for the quality of its silversmithing. 

This completes Part 2 of my Taxco series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim