Category Archives: History shared

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

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.

La Familia

I have a dear friend who, long ago, immigrated from Mexico to the United States. She is a lovely, warm, spiritual woman and I am often in awe of her dedication to family over all else. Her children are grown and starting families of their own, but not a day goes by that they don’t talk on the phone and/or see one another. Like most people who’ve spent many years living in a different country, she and her husband have blended some of their traditions and beliefs with those that exist here in the U.S. Still, they continue to follow many beautiful customs rooted in their native culture.

The importance of family over the individual in Mexico encourages people to think, not just of their goals and desires, but of what they can do to serve the needs of the group. And keeping family close by is placed at a high value. In the United States, we revere independence, and the result is many families are spread out in different areas of the country. It is not uncommon to have several family units and generations living in the same house, however, in Mexico. This practice benefits both the senior family members, who may need daily care, and the grandchildren, whose lives are enriched by the close relationships they have with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It also ensures that family traditions and history will be passed down. Some of these customs involve deeply ingrained spiritual beliefs and practices.

A large percentage, some 80%, of the citizens of Mexico identify as Catholic, but their sense of spirituality extends far beyond organized religion. Before the Spanish occupation, Mexico was populated by ancient societies such as the Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mayans, and some of their unique practices continue to influence modern rituals. This is why, when you travel around the country, local customs tend to vary widely. Despite the different historical and religious practices, however, there’s a constant underlying theme of inclusiveness and family values. And a large part of that involves celebrations.

My friend never seems to run out of reasons to, “make a party”, as she calls it. She approaches every event with great enthusiasm, though the amount of work that goes into it boggles my mind. She starts by cleaning her house from top to bottom, followed by days of cooking. She and her husband pronounce the the party a success if people eat too much, stay until the wee hours of the morning, and put in plenty of time on the dance floor. Though the family unit is the most critical, they are always happy to include friends as well as their families. You can easily see how the group can grow large over time as the kids get married off and begin to bring their spouses and inlaws.

As Americans, we pride ourselves on standing our own two feet and leaving “the nest” as soon as we’re able. Certainly, there is a lot to be said for this type of self-reliance. Yet I also believe we can benefit, from observing the dedication to family values and traditions that is an integral part of the hispanic culture.

Carnival Time!

For Catholics, Lent is a 40 day time period, during which the faithful practice repentance, fasting, and preparation for Easter. The week before Lent is to begin, many places in the world hold festivals of all-out decadence. In New Orleans they celebrate Mardi Gras, Rio de Janeiro has Carnival, and in Mexico, there’s Carnaval. This year, the festivities kick off on February 8th and end the day before Ash Wednesday, February 13th. It’s a time of great celebration, infused as always, with the culture of the place in which it’s being held.

True to their good nature, the people of Mexico fully embrace the opportunity Carnaval affords to wear costumes and hold parades and parties. However, unlike places such as New Orleans, where this week has morphed into nothing more than an excuse for wild parties, Mexicans tend more toward family friendly events. Tradition has it that the festivities are initiated by the burning of an effigy, often a very unpopular politician or public figure, in order to get rid of The Ill Humor (El Mal Humor). Perhaps this year we will see the likeness of a particular U.S. official who has a reputation for stirring up trouble with our neighbors to the South?

Montage of carnival floats and a dog dressed in a pig costume

After Ill Humor is disposed of, it’s time to crown the Carnaval royalty and let the round the clock fun begin. Many big cities have developed their own time-honored rituals over the years. Such as Cozumel, where they’ve managed to stretch out the entire event, starting in January with “Pre-Carnaval” activities and events. In February, the official Carnaval is kicked off with massive parades and games for adults and children alike. Even pets get their chance to dress up and promenade!

Along with the larger cities, most small towns also have their own traditions surrounding the last hurrah before Lent. With different foods, festivities and competitions, many places in Mexico proudly practice their own unique traditions. One thing is for sure, no matter where you decide to visit during Carnaval, you’re going to get the chance to sample delicious, local cuisine and watch or participate in parades, parties and games.

El Dia de Los Muertos: The Day of the Dead

The Mexican people have a beautiful tradition surrounding their loved ones who have passed on. El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, has its roots deep in history, perhaps dating as far back as Aztec times, and has evolved into a national holiday throughout the country as well as other parts of the world. In ancient times, people believed the heavens opened on October 31st, allowing the spirits of deceased children to come back and visit with their relatives for twenty-four hours. Today, the holiday has changed and expanded into a two day affair.

Calaveras Dia de los Muertos

November 1st is the day to celebrate deceased children, inocentes or angelitos, and the 2nd is the day that adults are celebrated by their families. It’s important to understand that in the Mexican culture, death is not feared but rather considered a part of the normal life cycle. On this holiday, people are celebrating the lives of their relatives who’ve passed away — not grieving them. One popular tradition is to create an ofrenda or offering for the loved one, which is similar to a small altar showcasing a picture of the deceased relative. It is a place where family members can gather, pray for them and remember their lives.

Ofrenda Dia de los Muertos

Ofrendas are adorned with the deceased relative’s favorite foods, marigolds (Flor de Muerto, flower of the dead), candles, memorabilia, incense, chocolate and drinks. Families gather together, make feasts, eat, dance, drink and tell fond stories about the people they’re celebrating. Miniature skeletons and little sugar or chocolate skulls, calaveras, are passed around and placed on the ofrendas. Parades are held where people paint their faces with “death masks”, wear traditional, brightly colorful clothing, and perform lively dances.

Graves on  Dia de los Muertos

Many families then spend the afternoon or evening hours in the cemetery at their loved one’s gravesite. Instead of it being a scary or macabre observance, it is yet another chance to pray and show respect for the dead. Family members will clean the tombstone and grave, lay marigolds and decorations and more food on it. They bring along a picnic, and sometimes, mariachi bands or local musicians will play in keeping with an atmosphere that is light and festive.

There is no real American equivalent to El Dia de los Muertos. Here, death is almost always thought of as sad; a reason for grieving. Mexican people feel the same sadness regarding the death of a loved one, but they set aside a few days a year to gather as a family and joyfully celebrate that person’s life. What a lovely and comforting ritual.

Guest blogger, Jacqui Keady, is a freelance writer and lifelong, avid reader of mystery and romance novels. She lives in Folsom, California with her husband and two dogs.

Centro Historico

Mexico Series: Part 7Mexican Flag

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Now to the Cento Historico . . .

Palacio Nacional

The best place to observe the Zocolo, the Palacio Nacional, and the Metropolitian Cathedral is from the roof terrace of the old Majestic Hotel. It’s a bit down on its heels these days, which makes it all the more bohemian. When the Mexican writer and former ambassador to the US Carlos Fuentes was asked to write about the Palacio Nacional for the Mexico’s bi-centenial, he choose this terrace as the place to take notes for his article.

Majestic Hotel

Here, high above the noise and hustle and bustle, you can begin to image life in the zocolo during the Viceregal Period in Mexico — that 300 year period from the conquest to the War of Independence.

ZocoloWithin 100 years after the conquest, Mexico would go from being a Spanish outpost in the new world to one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the world. The conquistadores’ search for precious metals finally hit the motherlode, so to speak, in the silver mines of Mexico during the mid-1600s. By then the power and prestige of the conquistadores had waned — in fact Cortez himself was reduced to re-enacting the conquest once a year in an annual pageant in the zocolo much like Buffalo Bill and his Wild West shows — and a new merchant class had arisen.

The utopian vision of the early clergy, which had seen that the first printing press in the new world was established and the first university, which had tried to mitigate some of the harsh realities of the Indians lives if only to still have souls to save had been overlaid by a huge group of Spanish immigrants who filled the government offices with letrados, or government bureaucrats, and the courts with judges, lawyers, the church with increasingly misogynistic clergy and of course the Inquisition.

Manila GalleonInto all this poured the lower echelons of the Spanish ruling class, those with titles but no money who could marry well and confer status to a wealthy creole daughter and any one with a get-rich-quick scheme. Really, the characters in this period could populate volumes of historical romance novels with villains and beautiful maidens and thieves and poor but noble heroes, Dickensian pickpockets and Margaret Mitchell Rhett Butlers.

In a certain way, the story of Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries is a story of silk and silver. The silver mines in Zacatecas and Taxco yielded unbelievable amounts of ore. In fact, the total amount of silver in the world at that time — the mid 1600s — doubled within a few years because of Mexican silver production.

The ports of Acapulco and Veracruz opened up the New World to trade with Europe and the east and silver bullion was the currency. Through the port of Veracruz came wine, olive oil, olives, — why we have the famous dish huachinango Veracruzana made with those ingredients from the old world — Venetian glassware, furniture from Europe and so on. Through the port of Acapulco aboard the Manila Galleon came the riches of the east: silk, pearls, Chinese porcelain, teas and spices, mahogany wood, and if I were writing the novel there would be opium, of course!