Author Archives: Jane Rosenthal

Experiencing the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is one of 31 states along with the autonomous capital, Mexico City, that make up the United States of Mexico. Much of the land that makes up the 32 states continues to be occupied by the descendants of indigenous people who lived there thousands of years before. Though they’re now joined together as the country of Mexico, each state continues to maintain a unique identity; perhaps none more than the state of Oaxaca.

Located along the Pacific Ocean in southeastern Mexico, Oaxaca is made up of rough terrain and numerous mountain ranges, making it historically difficult for tribal groups to travel from village to village. The relative isolation of the inhabitants in different parts of the state created an environment where many different indigenous languages, customs, food, and art have been preserved to this day. One of the best times to observe the rich cultural diversity in Oaxaca is in early November, when Dia de Muertos celebrations are happening around the state.

Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, is a sacred Mexican tradition. It is believed that for a few days every year, the barrier between the living and spiritual world is thin enough to allow the dead to visit their loved ones. Dia de Muertos dates back thousands of years to the ancient Mexican civilizations like the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mexicos. They believed that death was a natural part of the life cycle and mourning the dead was disrespectful. Instead, they were believed to live on as part of the community in spirit. 

beautiful altars ofrendas

In Oaxaca, different villages have varied customs and traditions that begin on October 31st and continue through November 2nd. Most people in this part of the country celebrate the occasion in the old way. They start by cleaning and decorating the graves of their loved ones with candles and marigolds (because their strong scent is believed to attract the spirit making the journey back to Earth). On the night of Dia de Muertos, they sit at the gravesite of their departed loved ones, singing, toasting and celebrating them. 

Another tradition involves creating beautiful altars, ofrendas, in homes to entice the departed to come as well as to offer sustenance and support for their return journey. 

Many towns hold parades in which people decorate their faces with skull paint, perform traditional dances, and joyously celebrate those that have passed away. The local markets carry a delicacy called pan de muerto, a round yolk bread with decorative heads baked into. Another common part of the Day of the Dead tradition in Oaxaca is the creation of sand tapestries, tapetes de arena; whimsical images of skeletons made from sand. 

The Day of the Dead in Oaxaca

Late October is a wonderful time to observe the unique cultural identities of the various cities and villages in Oaxaca, as the people faithfully carry on ancient customs and traditions that have been passed down through numerous generations. 

What you don’t know about Mexico…

We’ve talked a lot about Mexican history and culture in this blog, but there are still many misperceptions about this country that stubbornly linger in the American consciousness. In today’s political climate of nationalism, many folks are guilty of lumping other countries and their people into simplified categories. What’s really at the root of these generalizations, though, is a lack of understanding of cultural differences. 

biodiversity the people of Mexico

Because of media coverage and political rhetoric, many in the U.S. think of crime, poverty and lack of modernization when we think of Mexico. But those misperceptions pay an enormous disservice to this beautiful, diverse and colorful country, with a long, rich cultural history that is still present today. So what are some interesting things about Mexico that are commonly unknown? 

The natural beauty and biodiversity of the country are unparalleled. It’s home to a great number of both animal and plant species, due in large part to the fact that there are seven different climate zones. Travelling across the country, you would run into everything from deserts to tropical rain forests to areas that enjoy a mild Mediterranean climate. 

about Mexico

One of the more pervasive and incorrect concepts is that the general lack of wealth in the people of Mexico is due to laziness and lack of work ethic. Compared to every other country in the world, Mexicans work the longest average hours. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken the time to get to know Mexican immigrants in the U.S., as they are one of the hardest working groups in our country as well. 

Another fascinating part of Mexico is the many archaeological ruins that reside within its borders. Are you aware that the largest pyramid in the world is not located in Egypt? It’s in the Mexican state of Puebla and is called the Great Pyramid of Cholula. It measures 180 feet tall and 1.480 feet wide on all sides. It was built prior to the Spanish Conquest  in the 1500’s. Imagine constructing something that impressive before the advent of modern tools!

Great Pyramid of Cholula Mexico

Finally, there’s the false belief that Mexicans are miserable in their own country and want nothing more than to leave and immigrate to the U.S.A. The Happy Planet Index ranks populations around the world based on factors such as well-being, life expectancy and equality. The U.S. ranked among the lowest in the world, while Mexico measured at the top of the range.

The planet would be a much better place if we all did a little more to learn about other cultures and resisted the urge to make gross generalizations. Though some politicians are reluctant to admit it, we have entered the era of globalism. Our economies, climate and very survival as a species are dependent on our ability to understand and work with other people from every part of the world, regardless of our differences.

The Story of Mariachis

The International Mariachi Festival held in Guadalajara, Jalisco, begins at the end of August and continues through the first week of September. This event includes concerts open to the public that feature visiting mariachi groups who’ve come from countries all over the globe. Workshops and lectures are also available to attend, focusing on the historical and cultural aspects surrounding one of the most recognizable musical traditions in the world. 

Mariachi music is believed to have originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco during the 1800’s. At that time, most mariachis were itinerant laborers, who wandered from one hacienda to the next. The music is a mixture of Spanish, native and African traditions and varies by region in Mexico. After the Mexican Revolution, the haciendas were forced to release the laborers, and mariachis began to play in public places for a fee. 

old traditions old mariachis

No matter where you’re from, you’ve likely seen and heard the unique spectacle that is a mariachi band. They’re easily recognized by the traditional costume they wear, called the “traje de charro”; a short jacket and tightly fitting wool pants, along with riding boots. Both the jacket and pants are often decked out with ornamental trim, and the whole outfit is topped off with a large sombrero, bow tie and belt. The band itself typically consists of a number of different instruments, including a least two violins, a Spanish guitar, two trumpets, a vihuela (high pitched five-string guitar), and a guitarron (a small acoustic bass). 

The Story of Mariachis

Mariachi music has always been intended for dancing. Zapateado, the traditional dance of mariachi music, originated in Spain and has the dancers driving the heels of their boots into the floor either on the beat or in syncopation with the music. Another traditional mariachi dance, the Mexican Hat Dance, has become the national dance of Mexico. The men wear the classic charro or cowboy outfit, and the women dress in bright, sequined skirts. The dancing is highly choreographed with specific movements. 

mexico dancers

Like Mexican culture in general, mariachi music has a festive, upbeat sound. It’s often played at joyous events like weddings, and is another example of the way Mexicans love to celebrate and cherish old traditions. 

How Mexicans honor the Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is a powerful national religious symbol in Mexico, where she’s often honored with rituals and celebrations. As one one of Mexico’s most beloved patron saints, Mary is also referred to as Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is a big part of the Mexican identity and faith, and her image is associated with important issues, like motherhood, feminism and social justice. The events of her life are demarcated in many different ways throughout the year, including celebrating her arrival in heaven on August 15th, “Assumption Day”.

Celebrating the day Mary ascended to heaven

Dia de la Asuncion de Maria,  is based on the belief that when Mary died, her body did not undergo the normal process of physical decay, but instead was “assumed” directly into heaven and reunited with her soul. To this day, on August 15th, churches all over Mexico give masses and hold feasts dedicated to this event. Many towns and villages put on processions or parades, often lead by someone holding a statue of her image. Others carry banners and roses, the flower that has special meaning in the legend of how Mary became known as Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

Juan Diego and Mary

Juan Diego was a peasant who lived in Mexico in the 16th century. The legend goes that he was visited in December several times by an apparition of Mary. Diego went to the archbishop of Mexico City to speak of what he’d seen and was met with disbelief. But when Juan returned to report a second visit from Mary, the archbishop requested proof. He told Juan to go back to the place where he’d seen her and request that Mary provide a symbol, an actual miraculous sign that would show that Diego was telling the truth. 

Upon relaying the message, Mary instructed Juan to go the top of a hill and gather flowers. Not expecting to find any, as it was the middle of winter, he found non-native Castilian roses in full bloom. Mary filled his cloak with the flowers, and Juan traveled back to show the archbishop the unusual site. When he opened the cloak and the roses fell to the ground, the material underneath was adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary. The archbishop displayed the cloth in church for public display, and on her last visit to Juan Diego, Mary told him she wished to be known under the name of Guadalupe. 

Today, the Basilica of Guadalupe stands on the site where Our Lady is believed to have appeared in front of Juan Diego. Everywhere you go in Mexico, you’re likely to spot a statue, painting or image of the Virgin Mary. She is revered both as a religious symbol and even more, as a universal symbol of all that is good in the world.

An Eagle Perched on a Cactus

In the year 1325, a tribe of people, known as the Mexicas, were wandering Central Mexico, looking for a place to settle. Legend has it that they were awaiting a sign from Huitzilopochtli, the God of war, sun and human sacrifice, to guide them home. They were directed to look for an eagle perched on a prickly pear cactus. (A variation on the legend includes the idea that the eagle has a snake in its mouth.) The prophecy was fulfilled when the symbolic sight appeared on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco. The Mexica people, who would later become part of the mighty Aztec empire, believed that their God had directed them to the location where they should build a great city.

Mexico warriors in full dress

It defies logic to imagine how an ancient civilization, with none of the technology, equipment and tools we use in construction today, was able to accomplish such a feat. To build a giant city in the middle of a lake and make it accessible to the mainland required a huge amount of resourcefulness and creativity.

The Mexicas began by building a series of causeways for foot traffic,  and canals, called chinampas, for canoes and other water vessels. They extended from the north, south and west, and connected the island to the mainland. Bridges were placed strategically on the causeways to allow water traffic to pass, and they could also be lifted to block entrance to the city for protection. Thus the city of Tenochtitlan was founded.

Initially, there was just a tiny island surrounded by swampland that wouldn’t have been sufficient to house and feed the population. Using the chinampas system, the Mexicas began building small, farm islands in the surrounding area, which would eventually help to dry out the land and increase the size of Tenochtitlan. If you were to look at it from above, you would see a large, complex expanse of interconnected “neighborhoods” with the main city in the middle. It housed the city center where up to 60,000 people would come to shop at the open air markets.

Spanish colonization

Today, Tenochtitlan has become Mexico City, sitting squarely in the middle of the long-ago dried out bed of Lake Texcoco. There are still chinampas in and around the city that serve as both tourist attractions and working farms. Ecologists have studied this ancient civilization’s model of farming, because it successfully operated without destroying any of the area’s natural ecosystem. And if you’ll notice, in the middle of the Mexican flag there’s an eagle sitting on a cactus holding a snake, a nod to one of the greatest civilizations in its history.

Mexico flag

What’s the story behind Mother’s Day?

Although the details vary, over 40 countries around the world designate a specific day every year to honor moms. People show their appreciation by giving cards, flowers and gifts, and many families go out for a meal. The U.S. National Restaurant Association reports that Mother’s Day is their busiest holiday of the year. While no one denies that mothers are known for providing unconditional love and support to their children, how did we end up with a holiday in their honor?

The first organized Mother’s Day celebration in the United States can be traced back to the year 1908 and a woman named Anna Jarvis. That first year, her goal was to memorialize her own late mother, and celebrate all that her mother had done for her personally as well as society as a whole through her volunteer work. Soon after Jarvis began a campaign to expand the concept into an annual yearly tradition of giving thanks to all mothers. She envisioned it to be a day whereby people expressed their appreciation to their moms for everything she’d done.

Anna’s efforts were so successful that within a few years President Woodrow Wilson declared the second Sunday in May was to be officially recognized as Mother’s Day. This spelling was of particular importance to Anna Jarvis, as the singular possessive Mother’s indicates that each family should honor its own mother vs. the plural Mothers, which implies all mothers should be commemorated together. Also important to Jarvis, the idea that the day should be marked by children writing to or visiting their moms to offer personal words of gratitude.

Sadly for Anna Jarvis, greeting card companies, florists, bakeries and confectioneries did not share her commitment to preserve the intimate nature of the holiday. Instead they spotted an opportunity to use the new holiday to boost sales, and the commercialization of Mother’s Day was born. This distortion of her original intent distressed Anna greatly. She fought to take back control; organizing boycotts of the retail organizations, protesting at a candy-maker’s convention and was even arrested for crashing “The American War Mothers” convention after the group began using Mother’s Day for fundraising.

As you know, Anna’s tireless efforts to protest the commercial nature of Mother’s Day failed. There is a positive message in her story, though. Taking a page from her book, we can change the way we approach this holiday. Next year, sit down with a pen and paper and write your mom a note from the heart. Tell her all the ways you believe she’s helped you become the person you are now, and acknowledge the enormous sacrifices she made along the way. As a mom myself, I can tell you that I would cherish these words from my children far more than a generic greeting card and long after a bouquet of flowers had wilted.

Protecting The Endangered Sea Turtle

One of the goals of this blog is to introduce U.S. readers to the wonderful complexity of life in Mexico. If you have visited there, but limited your trip to a beach resort, where you drank tequila and enjoyed the white sand and crystal blue water, you’ve missed out. There is so much to learn about the history and culture of Mexico through activities such as exploring ancient ruins, attending festivals and cultural events and walking through one of the thousands of museums. And then there’s the enormous variety of marine wildlife that live in the oceans surrounding Mexico, one of the most interesting of which is the giant sea turtle.

The giant Sea Turtle

It’s incredible to think that every species of sea turtle in the world (with the exception of a single one that calls Australia home) nests on the beaches of Mexico. Every year between the months of May and October, sea turtles return to the same beaches on which they were hatched to lay their own eggs. Thus earning the country the reputation of being the sea turtle capital of the world. Unfortunately all species of giant sea turtles are on the endangered list due to habitat encroachment, overfishing, pollution and climate change. However, in 2013, Mexico passed an unprecedented law that offers a whole slate of new protections to these gentle giants and their habitats.

endangered sea turtle

The new regulation forbids the removal of any native vegetation from nesting habitats. The coastal plants serve a dual purpose; they help prevent beach erosion and protect the specific species of turtles, like the Hawksbill sea turtle, who prefer to crawl up the sand until they reach vegetation before building their nest. It also prohibits artificial light in the area. After hatching, the babies are biologically driven to look for the shine of the ocean’s surface to find their way into it. Lights from nearby homes or hotels can make them head in the wrong direction.

Protect the baby sea turtles

Another threat to the hatchlings that was banned is a practice that has been used by local hotels, in which they offer specials to tourists where they can take part in releasing the hatchlings into the sea. The issue is that the hotels kept the babies in confinement for a long time while they waited for enough people to sign up and pay for the privilege. Hatchlings need to get to the ocean as soon as possible after birth or they become weakened and the survival rate goes down. As of 2013, this practice is forbidden and hatchlings have to be released immediately.

All of the protections put in place were long overdue and are aimed at protecting the beaches, nesting grounds, mother turtles and hatchlings. However, should you visit Mexico in the next few months, you can still safely and respectfully view the magnificent ritual of turtle nesting and even volunteer to help protect the eggs and make sure the babies make it safely to the sea.

An Easter Experience

Sunday, April 21st is the official date of Easter this year. If you have little kids, the Easter bunny might come by your home to put candy in their baskets, you may set up an egg hunt or two, and if you’re a practicing Christian, the whole event may be preceded by attending a religious service. For Catholics, the occasions tends to be more pious.

The great majority of Mexican citizens consider themselves Catholic, a religion first introduced by the Spaniards during their occupation of Mexico over 500 years ago. While they were in power, Spanish rulers worked hard to convert the entire population to the Catholic religion, often using force. Mexicans eventually fought for and won back their independence, but after 300 years, the religion was firmly entrenched.

Recent statistics released by the Vatican name Mexico as the country with the second largest number of Catholics in the world. Combined with the enthusiasm in which Mexicans approach their history and culture, Easter is a celebration that goes on for weeks rather than a single day.

Carnival

Carnival, derived from the Spanish word for meat, carne, begins up to two weeks prior to lent. This is a time of living it up with parties and parades, big meals and abandon. Carnival is celebrated in many places; the largest occur in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. In Mexico, Mazatlan is the site for the biggest celebration in Mexico, followed by Veracruz City, Merida and Cozumel. The decadence is in preparation for the period of deprivation to come.

Lent

Lent represents the 40 days that Jesus Christ spent in the dessert, and to honor His sacrifice, Catholics will often cut back on the luxuries in their lives. Some people will choose their biggest weakness, such as alcohol or sweets, and commit to abstaining from consuming them during Lent.

Semana Santa

Translated, Semana Santa, means holy week, and during this time Mexicans celebrate the last days of Christ. This is a particularly fascinating part of the Easter tradition, in which many cities and townships stage a full reenactment of the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The actors are chosen carefully and take their roles extremely seriously, offering moving and passionate performances.

Semana de Pascua

Easter week, the second week of the Easter, Pascua, celebration brings a different tone to the proceedings; a time for resurrection and new beginnings. Schools are closed and many families go to the beaches and other vacation destinations together.

Want to write a book?

Is there an idea for a story that’s been floating around in your head for a couple of years? Or perhaps you’ve been in the middle of reading a novel, and thought to yourself I could do this. I could write a book as good as this one. An article published in the New York Times cited a survey that had an astounding 81% of Americans who feel they have a book in them that they’re dying to write. If you’re one of them, why not consider following through?

How to write Jane Rosenthal

You no longer have to work deep into the night, tapping on an old-fashioned typewriter and ripping out the page if you decide to cut a passage. For the most part, all computers and laptops come equipped with a word processing program that makes it easy to type, edit and store your work. Below are some more tips from professional writers on how to turn that idea for the next Great American Novel into a reality.

How to be a writer
  • Think about a story that you simply must tell. Instead of shooting for whatever is trending in the market (IE: a book about a mortal girl falling in love with a handsome vampire), stick with a story that comes from your own creative mind. Doing so will make your work stand out among the competition rather than appearing like of a copycat version of someone else’s original idea.
  • Become a sponge. Good character development in your novel requires you to get into the mindset of the people you’re writing about. And you need to understand their lifestyles as well. So don’t be shy about trying out new experiences and asking lots of questions of new people you meet. You’d be surprised how much you can learn about others by simply becoming an excellent observer and listener.
  • Write for the right reasons. The most successful writers are driven to write, often for the pleasure of the process itself. If every time you sit down at the computer is an exercise in discipline and the whole thing feels like a chore, you may not be suited for the profession. Not to mention that it is damned hard to get published, so patience is key. Looking for instant results in the form of accolades or money is not realistic.
  • Set aside a specific time in an environment conducive to creating. Dedicate a span of time during the day that is devoted just to writing, and try to make it during the time of day you feel most motivated, energetic and clear-headed. I don’t know about you, but for me, that time is not morning. My energy level peaks in the late afternoon and evening hours, so that’s when I sit down at the computer to create. Your surroundings are important too. I’m someone who needs to be in a home office, instrumental jazz music on the stereo and no people around to interrupt my train of thought. But I have seen authors typing furiously away right in the middle of a loud, busy Starbucks.
  • Write, write, write. When I looked into becoming a writer, I thought I should take classes, maybe even seek a second degree in creative writing. It turns out that the only way to become a better writer is to practice as much and as often as you can. You’d be surprised at how your first attempt compares to your second or third. No amount of classroom instruction can be a substitute for honing your skills through repetition.
Learn to write a book

I encourage anyone who has the desire to try sitting down and putting their story on paper. To me, it is food for the soul, whether or not anyone else ever reads my material or not. And who knows? You may be an undiscovered talent, just waiting to be heard.

The Upside of Immigration

There is a growing effort in many of the developed countries around the world to stem immigration; to close ranks and try to protect one’s territory from the flow of newcomers. From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings are genetically programmed to establish groups. And the ability to do so is vital to our survival as a species. Organizing together is how we do everything from forming governments to building cities.

Unfortunately, this tendency toward tribalism can also lead to an “us” and “them” mentality, which is what I see happening in the U.S. and other developed countries today. The truly sad part about that attitude is that it cuts a society off from the richness of sharing traditions from other cultures. In the United States, countless contributions by the Hispanic immigrants from South America, Central America and Mexico are interwoven into our everyday life.

In fact, what many folks aren’t aware of is that a good portion of the U.S. was actually considered part of Mexico. In 1846, as a result of the Mexican-American war, the border between the U.S. and Mexico was moved nearly 1,000 miles to the south. Land that now constitutes the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas and Oklahoma was all part of the Mexican territory less than 200 years ago.

In addition to this shared history, Hispanic immigrants have made many wonderful contributions to the American culture. For example, Spanish has become a second language to many in this country, which is an improvement. Unlike most European countries, the United States is not known for prioritizing bilingual education. However, simply having many Spanish-speaking individuals around us provides the introduction to another language that we’re not getting in school.

Other Hispanic influences include major contributions to the performing arts. Through famous singers like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez to salsa music and Latin dance, we have come to embrace the Latino culture. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention food! Every city in America seems to have at least one Mexican restaurant, and the style of cooking is so beloved that major Mexican restaurant chains like Chili’s, On the Border and Chipotle, are springing up everywhere you go.

I could go on to list the Hispanic politicians that have helped shape our government and the countless others who have helped to improve the culture of the United States. The point is that between the historical ties and what immigrants from the South bring to our culture, it is in our interest as a country to continue to work toward an immigration system that welcomes people from all backgrounds. Instead of shutting down our borders, let’s agree on a fair and equitable path to citizenship.