Author Archives: Jane Rosenthal

Dia de Locos (Day of the Crazy People)

Between the ongoing COVID shelter-in-place business and the civil unrest happening in cities all across the U.S., everyone is feeling just a bit crazy right now. It seems they have a festival for everything in Mexico, and celebrating madness is no exception.

Although we don’t know the exact year it originated, the Dia de Locos festival has been happening the third weekend of June in San Miguel de Allende for many decades. 

Today the festival draws tourists from far and wide to witness how people choose to celebrate the bizarre through costumes, satire, dancing, folklore and music. What makes it all the more interesting is the juxtaposition of the backdrop; the baroque town of San Miguel de Allende, a world heritage site, and the parade of people, dressed garishly as politicians, cartoon characters, actors and monsters, marching to upbeat music through the town.

costumes and masks

How the craziness began

The origin of the festival can be traced back to an ancient ritual, whereby local gardeners would honor the patron saint, San Antonio de Padua, leading up to the harvest. Their offerings to him included performing special dances. Unfortunately, these performances attracted unwanted attention from curious townspeople, who began to gather and watch what they referred to as the “locos” or crazies. 

To scare off the onlookers, the gardeners began to dress up as scarecrows to chase off the crowd, so they could dance in peace. Over the decades as the tradition was passed down from parents to children, it evolved into a much different event, one that centered around the joy of letting go and expressing one’s inner craziness.

Day of the Crazy People

Embracing the crazy

In today’s Dia de Locos celebrations, participants compete for the most original disguises, with a particular emphasis on maintaining the purity of the tradition. This includes a general rule that all masks, signs and costumes are homemade. Materials such as old cloth, plaster and cardboard are used. 

Letting off steam is something that is sorely needed in our corner of the world right now. To dedicate a single day, where we march through the streets, expressing joy and celebrating our individuality and differences could help lessen the underlying tension in America today. It would be a nice reminder that behind the crazy costumes and bizarre masks, we are all human beings, united in the desire to live in peace.

Dia de Locos

Everything you need to know about Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has become a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. For most Americans, it translates into drinking margaritas or Mexican beer, eating Mexican food, and listening to traditional Mexican music.

Many Americans often mistake Cinco de Mayo to be a celebration of Mexican independence. Cinco de Mayo is actually a celebration of a failed invasion in 1861 by the French after the newly created Mexican state defaulted on its debt payments to European governments. At the time, Mexico was suffering financial ruin as a result of years of internal strife and had defaulted on debts with France, England, and Spain.

mexican flag

While Spain and England entered into successful negotiations with the Mexican government, Napoleon III, the French president, thought that it offered him a great opportunity to attempt to build an empire in Mexico. Well-armed French forces invaded Mexico at Veracruz, forcing the government and its forces to flee into Northern Mexico.

Capitalizing on their success, the French then turned their attention on the city of Puebla de Los Ángeles.  However, the Mexican president, Benito Juarez, pulled together a force of about 2,000 men to fight the French, many of whom were indigenous Mexicans or mestizos. On May 5, 1862, the French launched their attack, the battle lasting from daybreak into the early evening. In the end, the French were bested by the Mexican forces, losing 500 soldiers, while the Mexicans lost less than 100.

mexican singers

Unfortunately, the victory was more of a symbolic one because the French did not leave Mexico until 1867 when the U.S. sent troops in to help its neighbor to the south after the end of the Civil War.

Interestingly enough, Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in Mexico and is not celebrated nationwide. While the people in Puebla celebrate, the day is not recognized as a federal holiday. Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, the anniversary of the day that Mexican priest and revolutionary, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, issued his famous “Grito de Dolores,” a call to arms for his fellow Mexicans to overthrow the Spanish colonial government.

cinco di mayo food example

Here in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo was popularized by Chicano activists in the 1960’s as a celebration of Mexican cultural heritage, especially the role that indigenous people played in defeating the French at Pueblo de Los Ángeles.  Over the past 50 years or so, the holiday has really gained importance in this country, especially in areas with large Latino populations. 

The holiday is celebrated with parades, parties, Mexican folk dancing, mariachi music, and traditional food and drink. Some of the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations are held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston.

Want to write a romance novel?

Are you one of the thousands of people who dream about writing a book and becoming a published author? It’s exciting to think about creating an entire world with quirky characters and a fantastical plot…all from your imagination alone. While it’s true that getting published is notoriously difficult, there is one genre that stands out among the rest.

Recent statistics released by The Romance Publishing Industry state that romantic fiction comprises a whopping 48.7% of all paperback fiction sold in North America, and 33.8% of all popular fiction sold (including hardcovers, online books, etc.). So, if you really want to get noticed, one of the major plot-lines needs to include a sizzling romance!

romance novelist

Getting started

Becoming a writer doesn’t mean you need to go back to school and get a degree in English literature. What you do need is practice and dedication to the art of writing.  

Write, write, write and then write some more. The best way to become a better writer is to constantly hone your craft. Develop a daily routine and stick to it, regardless of what else is going on in your life. And after you’ve been writing for a while, look back at your early work. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how much more novice it seems compared to your current work. 

Honing your craft also includes absorbing as much as you can from other people’s work. Reading recently published books in your genre can help you see the type, quality and standard of work that is appealing to publishers. And observing different author’s styles can encourage you to find your own unique “voice” and creativity as a writer.

Romance novels Jane Rosenthal

The next step

Authors have more options than ever these days when it comes to getting their book in front of an audience. Traditional publishing houses, self-publishing, Amazon, e-books and more are all pathways toward having your work published and available to consumers.

To go the traditional publishing route, where a publisher offers the author a contract and then prints, publishes and distributes the book, you usually need a literary agent who has contacts within the publishing houses. This can be a tough way to go simply because big publishing houses get thousands of manuscripts sent to them each year, and getting your book noticed and singled out for publishing is a long shot.

Self-publishing guarantees that you’ll see your book in print, but it comes at a price. You invest your own money in producing, marketing, distributing and warehousing. The positive side is that you have complete control over your work and if it takes off and begins selling, you don’t have to split the profits with anyone.

novel writing

Self-publishing an e-book reduces costs by eliminating the costs associated with creating, handling and storing a physical product. Amazon has a number of options by which authors can get their books up on the platform for purchase quickly.

Worrying about publishing is putting the cart before the horse, however. For now, find a quiet place at home or in a coffee shop and start telling that story that’s been floating around in your head for years.

El Corazon: The Heart of Mexico

In the middle of Mexico, located in the state of Guanajuato, is the city of San Miguel de Allende. Aptly nicknamed El Corazon de Mexico (the heart of Mexico), it is one of the loveliest, most welcoming places to visit in the country. I chose to set my first novel “Palace of the Blue Butterfly ” in San Miguel de Allende after falling in love with the colonial architecture, welcoming people, beautiful colors, delicious food and thriving art scene that are all part of this romantic, old world city. Here are just a few of the most interesting places to visit in San Miguel de Allende. 

El Jardin

In the center of town is the bright, colorful city square. It’s referred to as El Jardin (the garden), because of the gorgeous, impeccably trimmed trees and bushes lining the walkways. The square is surrounded by interesting shops and restaurants, and it’s always pulsing with life. Artists, street vendors and local musicians provide entertainment and cultural wares for sale. Depending on the day, you may get to see everything from a mariachi band to a dance performance to a religious ceremony or even a political protest. 

San Miguel de Allende

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

Overlooking the plaza is the great Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, one of the most photographed churches in Mexico. The baroque architecture, towering spires and unique pink color make it impossible to miss. The pictures do not do it justice, however. You must see the imposing structure in person, hear the church bells ring and watch the color appear to change as the sun moves through the sky. To think that this incredible building was built in the 17th century, with no modern-day construction equipment is mind boggling. 

Fabrica La Aurora

Fabrica La Aurora is a converted factory that now displays both historical art and modern-day artists at work on their creations. You can take an art class, eat at one of the various restaurants or purchase a piece of local art. Over the years, San Miguel de Allende has become a hub for artists of all types, not in small part due to the Instituto Allende, a renowned art school, that has been drawing students to the area for 50 years. It’s also open to the public and people come to see the architecture, walk through the galleries or have lunch at the cafe it houses. 

El Jardin the garden

El Charco del Ingenio Botanical Garden

The botanical garden spans 170 acres and is an ecological preserve. Hiking or walking through the park, you can see both the native flora and fauna and various species of biodiverse wildlife that flourish there. 

If you’re thinking about visiting San Miguel de Allende, pack your walking shoes because there is so much to see and do that you’ll be on your feet a lot. However many sites you plan to visit, though, make sure to build time into each day where you can sit in the square and absorb the vibrant culture that thrives in this beautiful city. 

Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel

Why visit Mexico in the winter

Many people travel south to Mexico in the winter to escape the cold weather in their part of the world. They flock to southern beach towns, like Cancun, where the average air temperature in January is a balmy 81 degrees, and the ocean is only a few degrees cooler. What’s better than white sand, warm turquoise water and palm trees swaying in the breeze in the middle of winter? 

One of the top five most biodiverse countries in the world, you can see some animals in the wild in Mexico during winter that you can’t see anywhere else. It turns out that many species feel the same way as humans do about the cold months and migrate to this part of the world to wait out the winter. The chance to get an up-close look at these amazing animals is worth missing a few days beach-side.

monarch butterfly migration
credit to ca.myphotoscout.com20090121monarch-grove-sanctuary-butterflies How to photograph Butterfly Town USA

Animal encounters

Have you ever heard the sound of hundreds of thousands of butterfly wings fluttering in the air overhead? Every winter, as temperatures begin to drop in the U.S. and Canada, millions of monarch butterflies fly south to the oyamel forests in central Mexico. They align on every bush and tree branch. If you visit one of the monarch reserves, you can see a carpet of orange and black on the forest floor as well as monarch butterflies in the trees all around you. 

humpback whale migration

Many species of whales migrate south to swim in the warm Pacific waters off of Mexico, including humpback whales, sperm whales, grey whales and orcas. The trip south takes them approximately four months to make, and when they reach their destination off the Mexican coast, they breed and give birth. Of the group, humpbacks tend to be the most friendly with tourists. You can take a boat out and witness the mamas swimming with their babies. surfacing for air and breaching majestically out of the water. 

In Mexico’s Baja California Sur state, you can swim with whale sharks in the winter. They appear gray with white polka dots dotting their backs and fins, and can measure up to 65 feet in length. Don’t let the word shark scare you, however, as they have no interest in eating humans. These gentle giants are content calmly gliding through the water filtering plankton and tiny fish into their mouths. In fact, you can swim right up to a whale shark without being in any danger.

Baja California Sur state swim with sharks

And more..

The lovely weather, pristine beaches, warm ocean water and wildlife viewing aren’t the only interesting parts of Mexico in the winter. There’s also a tremendous amount of history that can be experienced in this diverse country. It’s the perfect time, before the heat and humidity of summer, to tour the ruins of ancient pyramids, temples and cities that were built by civilizations that existed hundreds of years ago.

Mexico pyramids

Christmas celebrations in Mexico

Like most religious occasions, Christmas is celebrated in a much more devout and elaborate way in Mexico than here in North America. For many in the United States, Christmas has become somewhat secular, symbolized by Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and celebrated by exchanging gifts with friends and family. 

In Mexico, Christmas traditions are centered on the biblical stories of the events surrounding the birth of Christ and include some historical traditions dating back to the indigenous cultures as well. Due to the diversity of those cultures, celebrations vary from region to region. The celebrations stretch from December 16th through January 6th. Here are some of the special traditions:

La Noche Buena Christmas Eve

Las Posadas

December 16th until the 24th, children parade from door to door in their town, singing a song that asks if there’s room at the “Inn”, signifying Mary and Joseph’s search to find lodging for the birth of Jesus. They are turned away until the last house (different each night), where they’re welcomed and a party ensues. 

Nativity Scenes

Known as Nacimientos, nativity scenes crop up all over the towns, including some that are life-sized. Many families display one in their home as well, and the figurines are passed down through the generations. The baby Jesus is added on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings on the Epiphany. 

Nacimientos, nativity scenes

Christmas Eve

Noche Buena, translated literally as Good night, is the most important family day. After the final posada, the whole family gathers for the main Christmas meal. There is great attention to detail from the place settings to the specific candles and flowers on the table, to the traditional foods that are served. Many finish the evening by attending a midnight mass with their loved ones. 

Christmas Gifts

Giving gifts is not the main focus of the season, though depending on their family’s particular traditions, some children will receive presents on Noche Buena, while others must wait until the Epiphany to receive theirs.

Rosca de Reyes, Three Kings Cake

Epiphany

El Dia de los Reyes, The Day of the Kings, happens on January 6th. This is when the Three Kings, or Magi, visited Jesus and presented him with gifts. If the children have already opened presents on Noche Buena, they may get candy on this day. A special Three Kings Cake, Rosca de Reyes, is baked on this day, with a tiny Jesus figure somewhere inside. The tradition is that whoever finds the figure in their piece of cake is required to host the celebration the following year.

Our Lady of Guadalupe: miraculous legend or convenient story?

Thursday, December 12th, Catholics all over Mexico, Central America and parts of the United States will be enjoying the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in honor of La Virgen Morena (The Brown Virgin). The story behind this particular celebration varies greatly, depending on the source of information. The official version states that in 1531, a poor Indian peasant, Juan Diego, was approached by a dark-skinned apparition, claiming to be the Virgin Mary. 

The encounter happened on Tepeyac Hill, which is on the eastern edge of what is now Mexico City. The apparition spoke to him in his native Aztec language and told him to urge the bishop to build a temple in her honor on the spot where they stood. Juan Diego took the tale directly to the bishop of Mexico, who wasn’t convinced of its truth. The Virgin Mary apparition appeared three more times to Diego and once to his ailing uncle and asked that she be called Guadalupe. 

La Virgen Morena

She performed several miracles to prove her true identity to them and the bishop, including imprinting her image on the inside of Juan Diego’s tilma (cloak) made of cactus fiber. Upon seeing this, the archbishop was satisfied, and the Basilica was built on the location she designated. According to historical records, upon hearing the story or viewing the tilma, eight million people in Mexico converted to Catholicism. To this day, the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City is the most popular Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. Inside, the tilma with the imprint or “Miraculous Portrait” is still on display. 

In modern times, there exists a culture of enormous devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe across Mexico. They put on an elaborate feast in her honor on 12/12, the last day in 1531 that she appeared to Juan Diego and imprinted her image on his cloak. 

There are quite a few historians and religious scholars, however, who debate the timing and basis of this story. Particularly in light of the fact that in the 1500’s, the Spanish conquerors were aggressively working to convert the indigenous people like the Aztecs from their native belief system to Catholicism. Oddly, the first written record of the historical event that has been found was dated in 1648, more than 100 years after it was purported to take place. 

Basilica

Another point of interest has to do with Tepeyac Hill, the spot on which the Mary image insisted that a temple be built in her honor. Coincidentally, Tepeyac Hill was originally the site where a temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin stood. Tonantzin was the mother of all Aztec Gods, and by tearing down her temple and replacing with one for the mother of the Christian God, Jesus, some believe they were symbolically replacing her with Mary. 

The historical image of Juan Diego has also been questioned, as he originally appeared tall, light-skinned and bearded – more like a Spanish conqueror than a native Indian. Which begs the question, was it a Spanish man who originated the story rather than a native? And were the first devotees of Guadalupe not natives but rather Mexican Creoles (people born of Spanish descent in Mexico)?  

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Lastly, there is debate surrounding the name that the vision wanted to be called. In the legend, the name “Guadalupe” is claimed to be of Nahuatl origins, the native Aztec language. But some point to the fact that, while the word was new to the Nahuatl speakers, the name Guadalupe already existed in Spain.

Whether the legend is a true religious miracle, or a myth invented to affect the conversion to Catholicism of millions of native Mexicans, Our Lady of Guadalupe is highly revered across the country today. The Virgin Mary is considered the patron of all things good and brings much joy and comfort to those who believe in and pay homage to her.

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.