Author Archives: Jane Rosenthal

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. 

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.