Author Archives: Jane Rosenthal

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.

Dia de Reyes: Celebrating a Visit From the Magi

Traditionally, Americans ring in the new year with a kiss, a toast and a glass of champagne, and pronounce the holiday season over. January represents an abrupt return to reality as we put those pesky new year’s resolutions to test, and try not panic when the Christmas bills come rolling in. The joy of Christmas is officially behind us. To the south, however, the most magical part of the season has yet to take place. In particular, all over the country on January 6th, you can find small children running to their shoes to see if the three kings have stopped in for a visit, leaving presents in their wake.

Dia de Reyes

Dia de Reyes (Day of Kings) marks the end of the twelve days of Christmas, and honors the three wise men who travelled from afar, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the infant baby Jesus. In Mexican households, it is traditional for children to leave out a pair of shoes on the eve of Dia de Reyes, with a hand-written wishlist. When they wake up in the morning, the legend goes that the Magi, or the three kings, have come during the night and left presents for the children.

Mexico Novels roscadereyes

Of course it wouldn’t be a Mexican holiday without parties, parades, public celebrations, and feasts, including traditional dishes to be enjoyed with family and friends. The most important culinary treat of the evening is the Rosca de Reyes, a cake baked in the shape of a king’s crown. It is the consistency of a sweet bread, and is adorned with dried fruit to represent jewels. Not visible from the outside of the Rosca de Reyes, a tiny Jesus doll is baked into the dessert.

Mexican holiday nativity scene

The doll tucked away in the cake symbolizes how the real Jesus had to be kept hidden from then-King Herod of Jerusalem. Herod had heard rumors that the new and rightful king of Jerusalem was soon to be born. Because he feared losing his power, he ordered his minions to kill all baby boys born around the time of Jesus Christ. They did not think, however, to look for a child born in a manger. Thus Jesus was safely hidden away similar to the effigy that is baked into the Rosca de Reyes. Whomever receives the piece of cake with the baby Jesus doll inside is then obligated to host the next holiday, Dia de la Candelaria on February 2nd.

There is a wonderful spirit in the air around the Christmas season.I believe much of this has to do with the extra effort we make to spend time with the people we love. Mexicans are really good at gathering together to celebrate both religious and cultural events all year-round, and it contributes to the strong family values for which they’re known.

Blended Faith

With the holidays upon us, I’ve been thinking about the unique mixture of Christianity and ancient religious beliefs that make up the holiday traditions in Mexico. Prior to Spain colonizing the country, there were complex and deeply instilled belief systems in the indigenous Indian cultures, such as Aztec, Mayan, Inca and others. Specifically, they did not believe in a single almighty deity, but rather many different gods who needed to be placated and worshiped. If they incurred the wrath of one of them, terrible things would happen.

After the Spaniards began to rule the country, however, they embarked on an extremely aggressive crusade to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism. Unfortunately, they set about doing this using force and violence rather than education, and it became a matter of survival for the Indians to embrace the new belief system. But they didn’t completely abandon the one that was so deeply ingrained in their societies. The result was a blend of Catholicism and the ancient cultural traditions and beliefs of the indigenous population.
Christianity and ancient religious beliefs
The Spanish conquistadors showed no mercy when it came to insisting the indigenous people adopt their religion, and the Indians responded by finding ways to pay homage to the Christian god while still appeasing their own. Often this meant demoting their gods to saints, and practicing indigenous rituals under the guise of Christianity. Some of the more barbaric practices, such as human and animal sacrifice, were abandoned, but many other rituals were modified so as to appear within the parameters of Christianity.
Santa Muerte
One example of this confluence of beliefs is the pseudo-saint, Santa Muerte (Saint Death). Her image is depicted by a skeleton wearing a long robe and holding a scythe, which is thought to be associated with the Aztec goddess of death, Mictecacihuatl. Many Mexicans believe she has power and control over their daily lives, and mimic the Catholic ritual of praying to her spirit and asking for grace, though Santa Muerte is not associated with Catholicism.

Interestingly, now that freedom of religion is part of the federal law in Mexico, some of the older, more vibrant and involved rituals are coming back in popularity. It demonstrates the same loyalty and dedication to following ancient cultural traditions and paying homage to their ancestors that Mexican display in many other areas of their lives.

Political Privilege

Do you ever get frustrated with the political situation in America, and wonder if you’d be better off somewhere else? From climate to culture to cost of living and politics, every country in the world is different and each has its own unique set of pros and cons. One of the very things that most attracts immigrants to the United States is the political freedom we have here – something many of us tend to take for granted. In contrast, consider Mexico, where citizens have had to fight for their independence both from foreign powers as well as in-country military regimes, and yet still do not have a completely functioning democracy.

In the later part of the 19th century, Mexico officially shook off the last of invading foreign powers, the final one being Austria in 1867. However, the political scene didn’t improve too much over the next 35 years during the dictatorship and military rule of Porfirio Diaz. Can you imagine a U.S. president staying in office for what amounts to just over nine terms? It wasn’t until the Mexican Revolution, that began in 1910 and continued for ten long years, that Diaz was finally forced to give up control.

The Mexican constitution that provided the framework for democracy was written in 1917. However, many people would argue that Mexico did not actually come close to a democracy until recent times. This is underscored by the fact that there was a single political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for nearly the entirety of the 20th century. Furthermore, even though there has technically been a multiparty system in place since 2000, the PRI still retains the great majority of power. Violence, oppression and corruption continue to plague the very institutions that are supposed to provide fair and equal representation to all Mexicans.

With the contentious nature of politics today, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the U.S. federal government is a cumbersome, slow-moving, inflexible, behemoth of an institution. Before doing so, however, it’s worth taking time to consider the benefits to our system. Every citizen can give voice to their political beliefs without fear of retribution. We have a multi-party system that allows people to align themselves with a group of like-minded folks that best represents their goals, interests and values. And everyone over the age of 18 has the right to vote for the elected officials they want to represent their views in Washington D.C.

Even when the national debate becomes adversarial and the in-fighting annoying, living in a country with the kind of political rights and freedom of expression that we enjoy here in the United States is something we should all take a moment to appreciate. The best way to do that? Don’t take it for granted and go the polls to make your vote count!