Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Party Central

Somebody may have already made this observation at some point in the past, but I'm here to tell you that Mexicans like to party. From what I've been told, this is a Latin-America wide phenomenon, but Mexican parties are the only Latin American parties I have personal experience with. It doesn't really matter if the party in question is a birthday party, a baptism, a wedding, or a Christmas party, they all follow the same general format. Parties with a religious or ritual theme are more likely to be preceded by a Mass, that's all.

With the single exception of a bachelorette party I once attended, all parties are all-ages. Children are welcomed and included no matter the hour... nobody ever puts a Mexican child to bed. Not that I've ever seen. Babies fall asleep in arms and toddlers fall asleep on laps and school age children occasionally fall asleep on the floor and are carried out to the car. More often, they don't fall asleep and are running around like hyperactive wind-up toys, jacked on candy and Coca-Cola, until midnight.

Because all Mexican parties last until AT LEAST midnight. Even if they start at 11 a.m. The guests will be arriving in staggered waves over the course of several hours, and the hosts just keep clearing and resetting the table. Sometimes the food or the booze runs out but not usually because every guest will bring something, either to eat or to drink. A bakery cake; a case of Corona; a raft of multicolored jello parfaits in disposable cups. Non-edible gifts are also given (it's very poor form to be invited to a party and to show up without a gift, be it ever so humble), as are guitars and other musical instruments.

A little guitar music in the wee hours

At least at our house, cleaning up is left for the next day. If I start to bustle around picking up empties and wiping down surfaces, my mother-in-law or sister-in-law will come over and literally grab me by the arm back to the party. "We'll do that tomorrow," they say. And as the night wears on, the combination of fatigue and tequila really does make it advisable to avoid carrying armloads of glassware around. It's a tradeoff - liberating in the moment to remain completely oblivious of the mess, but an extra big drag the next morning, to face with a hangover a house that looks like it was sacked by Huns.

The week leading up to Christmas is a big party week everywhere, but it was especially big at our house because of our anniversary. For a while, Homero and I thought we would be getting married on our anniversary, the 22nd. Yes, we are already married, but we don't have a Mexican marriage license and as I try to get my Mexican citizenship, it would be good to have one. For complicated bureaucratic reasons that will be the subject of a later post, we didn't get Mexican-married and won't be. However, I'd already ordered three full-sides of pork ribs for the giant American style barbecue party I intended to throw. So we called it an anniversary party and went on with the show. Barbecue is easier to pull off here than traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that's for sure. It was a hit, although everyone called the barbecue sauce "mole."

That was Saturday. The next day, the family came back over for the "recalentada," or the leftovers. We ended up spending the whole day sitting around the table picking at ribs and finishing up the beers. No serious cleaning happened at all. Towards dark, I gathered up all the empties and scraped the plates and stacked them in the sink, but I had no energy for more. That was Sunday. The next day, Monday, was of course Christmas Eve (Noche Buena). Abuelita Adelina, Homero's grandmother, hosted that party, as she usually does. More family, more presents, more roast chicken, potato salad, tres leches cake, and more beer. Fireworks, dogs going crazy, church bells ringing. Another late night.

One of many pinatas
I told the girls that they could get up as early as they wanted to see what Santa put in their stockings, but they'd better not DARE touch the presents under the tree until we had woken up of our own accord and were seated on the couch with hot coffee in our hands. That turned out to be about 9 o'clock. A lovely hour was passed watching the girls open their gifts. This is the year of the chemistry set - one of the few decent options I was able to find at the local bog box stores. Mostly they are a wasteland of cheap, beeping plastic and TV themed synthetic fabrics. At the Mercado I was able to find some awesome bamboo pea-shooters, and those were a big hit. We had time for a brief nap before the whole family came over again for yet another carne asada.

The girls seem a bit perplexed by the chemistry set
Late in the afternoon I had had my fill and went upstairs to make a few phone calls to my family and friends. For the first time in a week I was alone in a room. I got fifteen minutes, then my daughter came in and said "Papa says come back downstairs."

"I'll be down in fifteen minutes," I told her.

Five minutes later, up comes Homero. "People are asking about you! Why aren't you downstairs?"

I was a little snappy, I'm afraid. "Because I'm ready for a freaking break!" I think is what I answered. Now, I have a break, for a few days. On the thirty-first, we are heading out into the mountains for a two-day New Year's party in the ancestral pueblo. I'm sure it'll be a blast.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Visiting Daughter (Temascal)

This is my oldest daughter, Rowan. She is nearly nineteen, and as you can see, utterly gorgeous. Rowan did not come with us to Mexico, because she is just starting university. A talented artist, she's planning on the design program at Western Washington. 

It wasn't easy leaving Rowan behind. I left her in a pretty good position; a free roof over her head, a closet full of dry goods, paid up health and car insurance, and a small monthly stipend. Objectively and rationally speaking, she is sitting fairly pretty. But still, when one sends one's firstborn child off into the world to fend for herself, one doesn't usually imagine that she will be five thousand miles away and that, should the unthinkable happen, one couldn't rush to her side in less than three days. 

Rowan has been coping on her own for five months now, and doing it handsomely. I am inordinately proud of her. We missed her so much, we decided to fly her down here for the week before Christmas, while she is on break. Rowan has been visiting Oaxaca with some regularity since she was 7 years old, and there isn't a whole lot around here she hasn't seen. One tradition which neither of us have experienced, however, is the temescal. 

The temescal is basically a steam bath. As in many other cultures, a steam bath is used to purify and purge the body of toxins. Always, a temascalero/a is in charge of the procedure/ceremony. That person - most often an elderly lady versed in herb lore - is in charge of building the fire and heating the temascal to the right temperature; of interviewing the clients and choosing the right herbs for their needs; and of actually conducting the ceremony, which involves joining the clients inside the temascal and singing and praying while gently cleansing them by beating them with bundled herbs, which are them thrown onto the hot rocks to produce fragrant, medicinal steam. 

This particular temascal is located quite near our house. It has a lovely garden, and a whole house with various rooms devoted to various parts of the temascal ritual. There is an antechamber with a gorgeous altar, where clients disrobe and may have a few minutes to themselves to meditate and ask the powers that be for help in their particular cases. I can't reveal my daughter's petition, but I asked to be relieved of my impatience, of my restlessness and discontent. 

After an hour in the temascal, which is all anyone could possibly stand, we were led into another room and laid down on white-draped mattresses for a massage. It was a very thorough and not particularly gentle massage. I asked what style it was, from what tradition, and was told "indigenous." Apparently that means being pummeled to within an inch of one's life by a well-muscled middle aged stout Indian lady. I loved every minute of it. As soon as we could move again, we were given warm herbal tea and released to dress ourselves and wander about in the garden until our taxi came. 

The entrance to the temascal. 

We were left as limp as rag dolls, relaxed nearly into insensibility. This particular temascal, as enjoyable as it was, was clearly run mostly for foreign tourists. The temascalera did a fine and serviceable job, but she wasn't a professional curandera. I still hope to experience a true old fashioned temascal run by a curandera - not as a spa experience but as a medical/spiritual treatment. Perhaps up in the pueblo, come new year's. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Party for the La Lupita

"Lupita" is the nickname for Guadalupe, and the twelfth of December is the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas and beloved mother of Mexico. Festivities begin a week in advance and culminate in huge street parties and fireworks with marching bands and dancing giant puppets. These festivals are called "Candelas." 

We happen to live across the street from a small church dedicated to the V. of G., and so of course we attended the candela. Fireworks like these are not to be missed. 

I hope the above video works. It shows the last portion of the burning of the castillo - an amazing, sixty-to-seventy foot structure made of bamboo (I think). It had six separately rotating wheels with designs on them - doves, hearts, stars, and in this case, Mickey Mouse. A Giant wheel on the front rotates along a different axis, and this one was a spiral that was truly wonderful. And lastly, at the top, yet another rotating wheel spells out in words of fire "Viva La Lupita 2012." 

Compare the height of the castillo to the telephone pole on the right. It's easily four stories high. 

Alas, I didn't get any good pictures of the toritos ... the castillo is the main event, but before that, there are several toritos, which are paper mache and bamboo bulls decorated with fireworks and made to be worn over the head. Volunteers wear the bulls, set them alight, and dance around, charging the crowd and spinning. You can see the bull in the background to the left.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Little Fat Doggie Museum

Oaxaca has a museum with a stunning collection of pre-hispanic art, mostly ceramics. It's the Rufino Tamayo museum, named for a famous Oaxacan artist who amassed a truly impressive collection. There is also a Rufino Tamayo museum of pre-hispanic art in Mexico city, and although I have never visited it, I can only assume it is even more impressive. 

The Oaxacan museum is housed in Tamayo's former home, a beautiful colonial house which was once the headquarters of the Spanish inquisition in Oaxaca. I didn't realize the inquisition had branch colleges, so to speak, but apparently so. Of course it makes sense - why abandon a fully developed infrastructure and thousands of trained personnel with exactly the requisite skills to keep a large, untrustworthy subordinate population in hand?

The museum represents a large swath of regions and time periods, and so few generalizations can be made. However, I will say that one of the characteristics I noticed that seemed to be present in almost every epoch and region was a marvelous, playful sense of humor. Humor is perhaps the most subjective of characteristics, and it is possible, of course, that the ancients who created this art found it to be of the utmost gravity. But seriously. I dare you not to find the following pieces even a little bit funny. 

The first photo ought to adequately explain the title of this post: it is not the only little fat doggie in the place. In fact there is an entire room dedicated to little fat doggies, which Mexicans call "esquincles." The dog, along with the turkey, the duck, and the bee, was one of the very few domesticated animals the ancient Mexicans possessed. In pre-hispanic Mexico there were no beasts of burden, no milk animals, and precious few reliable sources of protein. The main one was the esquincle. These small dogs, of whom the Chihuahua is the modern descendent, were raised and fattened for meat. If the artistic evidence is to be taken as historical fact, they were fed corn and even breast-fed by women. My children named the museum the "little fat doggie museum" after those statues which most held their interest.

This goggly-eyed character above reminds me forcefully of a certain cartoon character, but I can't come up with it. Anybody?