The Latin Boutique

A few weeks ago, Manuel got in touch about his new business venture, The Latin Boutique. With his sister, Vanessa, he began importing artisanal goods from Mexico and Latin America, both to support local producers and to meet the growing demand for these kinds of items in the UK and Europe.

I absolutely loved everything handcrafted in Mexico and was really keen to find out more, so I asked Manuel a few questions about his business and why traditional Latin American products are so unique.

What inspired you to import products from Latin America to Europe?

We like these handcrafted products a lot, they have been present in our lives since I can remember. Unfortunately not everyone has the chance to travel to Latin America, so we would like to bring them to people here in Europe. Also we would like to explain which regions these products are from, so people can learn a bit about the local culture, traditions, cuisine and so on.

Why do you think there is demand for Latin American goods in Europe?

I have noticed that in Europe over the last few years the interest for Latin American culture has been growing rapidly. The number of Mexican and Peruvian restaurants has been constantly increasing as well as salsa classes and other Latin music lessons and venues.

If you could bring only one artisanal item back in your suitcase from Mexico, what would it be?

A handmade unique musical instrument from San Miguel de Allende.

Traditional Mexican castanets made from 'corazón del mar' seeds.
Traditional Mexican castanets made from ‘corazón del mar’ seeds.

What can we do to keep supporting local and rural producers of these specialist goods in Latin America?

We help the local artisans promote their goods and we’re finding customers for them. We aim to promote Latin America as a tourist destination and we would like to encourage people to discover that amazing part of the world.

What is your best-selling product?

Tin mirrors and leather accessories.

A beautiful Mexican tin mirror, available at The Latin Boutique
A beautiful Mexican tin mirror, available at The Latin Boutique.

Do you have any favourite Mexican artists?

I am really impressed by works of Frida Kalho and style of Diego Rivera, and I believe that the story of their lives is very fascinating. I also find the indigenous art of Chiapas, a region located in the south of the country, especially interesting.

What is your favourite place in Mexico, and why?

My favourite place in Mexico is called San Miguel de Allende. It’s a small city located four hours north of Mexico City. I like it because it’s very quiet and with picturesque colonial architecture, the streets are paved with stones and the houses are pleasantly colourful. The local food also really unique.

San Miguel de Allende.
San Miguel de Allende.

You can find all of Manuel’s current items at The Latin Boutique, with free shipping on UK orders over £20. You can also find out where they’ll be selling their beautiful products around Manchester and Liverpool.

A Pocket of Paradise

Cuetzalan is a small town set high in the hills of the Sierra Norte, about three and a half hours from Puebla. Its hot, rainy, humid climate make it incredibly fertile and home to an astounding level of biodiversity. It is known for its strong indigenous traditions and Nahuatl-speaking Totonac Indian population, but tourism has rapidly increased since it was declared a Pueblo Mágico in 2002.

The town is named after the exquisite (and almost extinct) quetzal bird, native to Mexico and Central America, who makes its home in cloud forests at high altitude. It’s a beautiful, delicate little creature with plumage of red, green and blue, which was considered sacred by ancient Maya and Aztec people. Most famously, Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (ruler at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore an elaborate headdress of quetzal feathers on a base of gold encrusted with precious stones: it is currently on display at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, and the Mexicans are more than miffed about it. The quetzal continues to be the emblem of Cuetzalan, the crest of which inspires the headdress of the local indigenous Quetzal Dance, and this distinctive circular shape is depicted in all sorts of souvenirs sold there from napkin holders to necklaces.

Just outside of Cuetzalan is the archaeological site of Yohualichán: it consists of five pre-Hispanic buildings once home to the Totonac people, who were until the 19th century the world’s main producers of vanilla and whose territory stretched right from the highlands of northern Puebla to the coast of Veracruz. Set up on high with spectacular views over the jungle valley below, the site is very impressive. And as we so often find in Mexico, right outside the site is the church built by the Spanish when they arrived and tried to eradicate indigenous Mexican beliefs and traditions.

Also just outside of Cuetzalan is the Jardín Botanical Xoxoctic, a beautiful botanical garden which shows, protects and develops much of the area’s natural wildlife, including an astounding range of orchids, coffee, cinnamon, passion fruit, bamboo. Additionally, there is a wonderful butterfly sanctuary and a tree which ‘bleeds’ red sap, the Sangre de Grado (Dragon’s Blood).

The deeply curving roads in the area are nausea-inducing – you’ll need to alleviate your symptoms as soon as you arrive with some of the best local cuisine – tayoyos. Like little squashed dough balls, they are made from maize, filled with a spiced mix of chick pea and avocado, and topped with green or red salsa (or go for both to create the bandera, Mexican flag).

Cuetzalan’s remote location makes its central Zócalo (main square) and Parroquia (parish church) seem particularly impressive, and one wonders how on earth they were built long before proper roads and modern machinery. A big attraction for weekend tourists is the Sunday tianguis, its bustling market. Local people descend from the hills to the town in their thousands to sell their wares, and you can find pretty much anything. There is an amazing variety of handmade souvenirs at very reasonable prices, including lots of jewellery made from coffee beans, hand-embroidered blouses and beautiful rebozos, a kind of traditional Mexican wrapped scarf.

A short climb up the steep hillside away from the Zócalo is the church charmingly called Los Jarritos, which means ‘little jugs,’ named after the little jugs which decorate its tower.

It is especially lovely to wander the peaceful streets at night when there is a refreshing lack of traffic and minimal light pollution. Just opposite Los Jarritos is the bar Peña Los Jarritos which is a great relaxed hideout for the evening: it hosts its own pole for voladores who perform in the dark amongst the fireflies, making for a truly magical experience.

En route home, about two hours from Puebla and one hour from Cuetzalan, is the town of Zacapoaxtla. It is like a smaller, quieter version of Cuetzalan and is famed for the brave contribution its population made to the Batalla Cinco de Mayo. It’s worth stopping by for a wander, toilet stop, and to fill up on tayoyos (again) before heading home.

The centre of Zacapoaxtla
The centre of Zacapoaxtla

Visitors complain that the ‘original’ Cuetzalan is now little more than a legend owing to the huge boost in tourism it has seen in recent years. This may be true, but there’s no doubt that the increase in visitors provides an important flow of business for the locals, who are able to maintain their life and culture in the hills rather than flock to the cities. Furthermore, they benefit from being able to sell directly to consumers rather than through a middle-man who would take a handsome wedge of the profit. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Mexicans young and old to escape from the cities and enjoy a slice of the incredibly beautiful nature and wildlife their homeland offers.

Mexico’s Forgotten Poor

When we talk of ‘marginalised groups’ we are normally thinking of minorities: those vulnerable groups in society who are outnumbered and without the necessary means to represent their interests. It’s easy to wonder how a group made up of millions of people could be marginalised – surely they could, would and should group together against the powerful few to make their voices heard? I couldn’t understand how such crippling poverty could exist alongside dramatic economic progress, until I came to Mexico and saw the jaw-dropping inequality for myself.

Real poverty

What is easy to overlook is how tragically debilitating living in extreme poverty is. In the UK, we measure poverty in numbers: so many per cent living below a poverty line, such a number educated and so many unemployed. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t understand it. When people live in real poverty (where they can’t afford to dress themselves, feed themselves, or shelter themselves adequately) they are living precariously from one day to the next. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from, how (and if) they will get their children to school, or where they might be living from one week to another. The ability and desire to plan meetings, strategies and long term campaigns to represent their interests publicly and politically is beyond comprehension. Survival itself is a full time occupation. The pressures of poverty in Mexico are closely linked to an intergenerational culture of violence, poor school attendance and ill health, with girls being likely to fare much worse. Mexico’s poor might be huge in number, but this by no means indicates the ability to mobilise themselves to defend their rights.

A middle class society

International headlines (carefully orchestrated by Mexico’s government and media outlets – which are practically the same thing) frequently rave about the rapidly growing middle class. It is generally believed that the larger a country’s middle class, the greater its potential for economic growth and, therefore, development. This may well be the case, but the middle class also tend to be very conservative in order to protect what they have. Wealth doesn’t necessarily redistribute itself – the government needs to introduce fiscal policy to encourage it. Mexico’s middle class don’t shop in the local markets but in Walmart; neither do they drink coffee on the street corner, but in Starbucks. Walmart and Starbucks do not employ Mexico’s poorest people, and even if they wanted to, the staff probably couldn’t afford the transport to work because the stores are located in the rich areas where the poor can’t afford to live or travel to (in December 2013 the fare for Mexico City’s Metro almost doubled from 3 to 5 pesos). In 2013 Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) calculated that the middle class constitutes 39.2% of the population, but the lower class still accounts for 59.1%.

Minimum wage

You’d think that all the “tremendous progress” of Mexico (OECD Better Life Index) would make a little leeway for the trickle down effect: thanks to the middle class spread everybody benefits and enjoys an improved standard of living. The reality, however, is quite the opposite: Mexico’s poor arguably shoulder the burden of the successful anti-inflation drive. The minimum wage currently stands at 66 pesos per day (although it varies slightly by region), approximately £3.00. Furthermore, 6.5 million workers (13% of the workforce) in Mexico currently earn this minimum wage, which is significantly lower than the poverty line. Not only is it low and lower than the poverty line, but in real terms it’s getting even lower: accounting for inflation, the minimum wage is estimated to have decreased by 43% in the last 23 years. Added to that, a government study conducted in July 2014 found that almost 60% of the workforce is actually in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and entirely without job security.

In August 2014 Mexico City’s Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 82.86 pesos per day (approximately £3.80), stating that low wages are “at the heart of the country’s economic and social problems.” Yet President Peña Nieto, the central bank, businessmen and pro-government unions staunchly oppose it, supposedly in fear of drastic inflation. Read alternatively, they want to protect their own interests.

Social mobility

In its mad dash for development, Mexico has largely forgotten its poor. Social mobility is not only a product of the effort of individuals and families, but also opportunities. As De La Calle and Rubio explain in their recent book Mexico: A Middle Class Society, “Mexico has countless impediments and obstacles to social mobility.” It is the absence of equal opportunities that deny Mexico’s poor access to products and services and the ability to invest in the future. In other words, they live with very little stability and no security. What’s more, the government doesn’t just passively neglect the poor, but actively limits their opportunities. “The regulatory framework and incentives of the Mexican economy tend to create obstacles, skew opportunities in favour of very few, reduce competition, impede the development of new businesses, and limit individual potential,” they state. Mexico may be getting richer, but the poor aren’t seeing a slice of the pie. Rafael Ch, Director of Economic Development at Cidac in Mexico City, even claims that the middle class is diminishing because of its high sensitivity to macro and micro economic shocks: real income is actually decreasing.

Extreme economic inequality significantly drives the abuse of power; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (amongst others) campaign extensively against human rights abuses in Mexico. Various types of gender, race and class inequality are inextricably linked to and exacerbated by economic inequality, especially when the rights and needs of the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society are so blatantly neglected.

It is often a feature of living in extreme poverty that the most fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security of person are not guaranteed. The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of a person and their family is not a given. We may have no control over where or the circumstances into which we are born, but we at least deserve equal opportunities to basic rights and services, and the Mexican government has the responsibility to ensure these as well as security and dignity to its people. Mexico may be desperate to develop, but it must not do so at the cost of the poor and vulnerable. Let’s not forget that decisions about those living in poverty are overwhelmingly made by the rich, who may not always have the redistribution of wealth as a genuine concern.

This post was written as a part of Amnesty International’s participation in Blog Action Day. Get involved on Twitter by following @AmnestyOnline or using the Blog Action Day hashtag #BAD2014

Being British: Through the Looking Glass

From my sun-singed-scalp and freckled cheeks to my pasty little toes, there’s no doubting that I’m as English as a crunchy Cox, and it’s not the first time I’ve written about it. I was (quite rightly, it transpires) terrified of missing English tea. I like order, precision, making lists and reading books. I appreciate it when people are timely, committed, modest and honest. I spend a lot of time observing the weather and (failing at) dressing accordingly. There are things about myself that I knew were very British before I left, and some that have transpired since. At times the line between my Englishness and my personality is far from clear. One thing’s for sure: after six months abroad I’ve learned not only a fair deal about Mexican culture, but through being the foreigner, dealing with people finding me funny and strange, and having the new perspective of looking from the outside in, a lot about my own as well.

I was funnily enough in a second-hand bookshop in Australia when I first came across Kate Fox’s book, Watching the English (2004). I snapped it up and chuckled my way through as she attempted to unearth ‘the rules of English behaviour’. I initially agreed with a lot that she had to say, but now being a Brit away from home with new insight, hindsight and general all-around-sight, I also believe Fox leaves her analysis a few cups short of a teapot. She claims that at the core of being English is social ‘dis-ease’ owing to our obsession with privacy and the home on the one hand, and crippling politeness and restraint on the other. “We do everything in moderation,” and are “the most repressed and inhibited people on earth,” apparently. Maybe so from the outside, but for me it is exactly the contrast between the image and the reality that makes being English so entertaining.

We love more than anyone else to ham up the stereotypes (intentionally or otherwise), but bag yourself an invite to a gathering of friends and you’re just as likely to see complete and uninhibited freedom of expression. Take sex, for example. Of course it’s taboo to talk about it with strangers, in public. But behind closed doors it’s another story altogether, and more often a case of TMI (‘too much for information’ for the over fifties) amongst my friends than evidence of the cautious, embarrassed behaviour we are more famous for. And that’s precisely what makes it so funny when we behave ‘out of character’. Sure, English culture is enigmatic and may seem inaccessible to those outside, but really it’s just like one huge inside joke. Work on getting that invite, it’s worth it.

Despite being English herself (and casting herself and her partner in starring roles), she titles her book Watching the English, and offers a very observation-based, distanced perspective. I, however, am talking about being English, what it is and how it feels. She offers commentary on how baffling our behaviour is to outsiders, but I think it is precisely our odd little ways that make us so intriguing (and, dare I say, enchanting) to foreigners. They don’t want to merely watch the English, but to be the English: every Mexican I meet is dying to get in on the joke. They don’t just want to go to England, but to know the Queen, to talk like James Bond and sing like The Beatles. I can understand why. There’s a lot of debate on ethnocentricity in anthropology, and it’s generally not the done thing to champion your own culture for fear of being perceived not only as self-centred (how horribly un-English), but to be harbouring some secret imperialist, colonialist, supremacist, even racist agenda. I don’t give a hooty toot, I’m not blowing our own trumpet but our Royal Philharmonic ORCHESTRA: being English is bloody hilarious!

People often ask me what I miss about England, and once I’ve reeled off the obvious, family and food (Marmite, ginger nuts, Branston pickle and cheddar cheese, English breakfast, warm scones and clotted cream, jacket potatoes and Heinz beans, to name but a few), it’s hard to define. But I spend a lot of time alone, pondering and wandering, and I think I’ve cracked it. It’s not the weather itself – of course, like every other Brit, I’ve spent enough light years complaining about it – but the quirky associated rituals. We can boast and laugh about picnics eaten in the car, barbecues cooked under umbrellas, and year after year after year as the nation is crippled by an inch of snow, all normality grounds to a halt and, love it or loathe it, everyone is comparing how much they’ve got, how long they were stuck in traffic for, and how tall their snowman is. I can’t complain about the weather here, but I have to admit, for the first few months I did find the eternal sunshine monotonous. What blasphemy – Brits are desperate to seek the sun! But I know now that it’s not the weather I found boring, but the lack of sunshine-worshipping activities – people in Puebla don’t even wear shorts for goodness’ sake. I missed ridiculing people in the parks flashing their flesh and slathering themselves in suncream, but really I was dying to be one of them and I longed to find companions to join me in my beloved silly English behaviour.

Each year, newspapers are predictably smothered in photos of Brighton beach at the first sign of a ‘heat wave,’ or of scantily clad teens shuffling through the snow in stilettos for their £2 Jaeger bombs, and we are still laughing at THAT faux pas from Michael Fish. Nobody pokes fun at us like we do. Whether we’re huddling around the pub’s open fire scoffing on a steaming pie; emptying our purses for this year’s must-have wellies and rain macs to style out the rain; urgently pulling sickies (aka ‘snowed-in’) to dash out with a sledge; or panic-buying disposable barbecues and sprinting for the beach for what could potentially be the only sunny day of the year, there’s no denying that being British comes with innumerable rites and rituals according to the weather. Our calendars are brimming with annual events we wouldn’t want to miss, rain or shine, heat or hail: it’s not talking about the weather but braving it that is the Great English Tradition. “I’ve heard the weather there is terrible” is something I hear a lot. Yes, it may be terrible, but there’s an associated activity for the best and the worst of it and everything in between. There is a general indifference to the weather here, and that makes me miss home.

Roger Scruton (England: An Elegy, 2000) claims a demise of traditional Englishness and miserably declares that there’s nothing to replace it, while Krishnan Kumar (The Making of English National Identity, 2003) states that the English have never in fact had a strong sense of themselves. And just to twist the knife Kate Fox claims that our rites of passage leave a lot to be desired. You’re telling me between them they don’t own a barbecue, paddling pool, gazebo, sledge, wellington boots or fluffy dressing gown? Poor writers, how silly they must feel, they published their books before the wonderful year of 2012 which saw the United Kingdom celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and host the Olympics. In your face, global recession of 2008, everybody I know celebrated quintessential British living that year. And you know what, the sun even shone (not that it would have mattered).

Disclaimer: yes, I use English and British interchangeably. I know the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish would probably take some issue with this, but for me, I’m both without distinction.

Heart and Soul: The Mexican Family

“I’m writing about women in the Mexican family,” I said to my host mum, “is there anything I need to say?”

“¡Somos incomprendidas!” came the reply – “We are misunderstood!”

Is there any feminist sentiment more universal than that? What separates women from men is the very same principal that unites women across every other boundary: we are something they are not.

Debate rages on in the field of feminist anthropology as to whether there is really any such thing as ‘universal womanhood’, depending on where one sits on the scale from cultural relativism to cultural universalism. I can’t answer that question, but I do know that I have felt a very strong sense of shared womanhood in my time here. This most commonly manifests itself in jokes and sentiments (both explicit and not-so) expressed between myself and my Mexican counterparts where gender provides the glue where there are otherwise crevices in age, class and experience. So I have to admit my gender bias from the outset: the very fact that I am a female (and always have been!)  intrinsically impacts my experience in Mexico and I have a much greater insight to womanhood here than I do to masculinity. I don’t pretend to be impartial – mine is a study of women, by a woman, with all its implications.

It is the worst kept secret in Mexico that women rule the roost. Infamous Latino machismo is alive and well, but you really needn’t scratch far beneath the veneer of masculine dominance to see that social life, particularly with regard to the family, is almost entirely orchestrated by women. Women are the diary-keepers (one tía in my host family dished out an Excel Spreadsheet listing all the family birthdays at our last gathering), cooks and cleaners, they tend to run the household finances and purchasing, and are most importantly the party hosts and organisers. As families are typically large and extended, this involves negotiating between and arranging a lot of people. Catering for forty-plus people ruffles no feathers, and the entire event (which in classically Mexican style starts early and never has a preempted finish time) runs without a glitch, even when this includes moving all of the furniture outside to make space for everyone and conducting numerous seatings to ensure that nobody misses out on what is always a feast worthy of an Aztec emperor.

Families are not only large, but also very close-knit – it’s not unusual for children to live with grandparents, aunties or uncles for a time for one reason or another, there are frequent reunions, and they place great emphasis on togetherness. Anything goes as a reason for a fiesta, and ‘the more the merrier’ applies as a general rule. This, paired with the prevalent lack of gardens, culminates in the ‘party in the garage’ phenomenon. It’s an actual thing – it must be because there are Internet forums headed with titles like “why do Mexicans do everything in their front yard?” Well, let me enlighten you. Often there isn’t that much space inside, and for security the cars are normally parked in a gated forecourt, so it makes sense, doesn’t it? Whip out the trestle tables, plonk a tarpaulin overhead and wire up some badass speakers, and you’ve got your very own party venue completely gratis!

Mexicans love to have their family around them, and also don’t like to see people without family, so invitations are always extended and lots of people who aren’t technically family are affectionately referred to with family-like nicknames. This makes Mexico a fantastic place to be as an outsider, because even if I hadn’t been welcomed so warmly by my own host family I would almost certainly have been adopted by another.

The importance of family isn’t only celebrated within families but is also recognised nationally (as it is in many countries) with celebration days. But tellingly, Mother’s Day is a really big deal here, whereas Father’s Day passed almost unnoticed. At my old school we spent weeks in preparation for Mother’s Day, making gifts, preparing songs, dances, and poems, and a whole day was dedicated to their performance. Father’s Day was ignored. I asked why this was, and the teacher told me it was because almost all of the children have mothers, whereas there are a lot of children with absent fathers. This made me really sad. What kind of lessons does this teach little boys and girls? Aren’t you just perpetuating the problem by normalising the father’s absence and sending out a message that dads don’t matter? To my relief, at my new job they hadn’t celebrated Mother’s Day or Father’s Day but created Family Day to celebrate family in all of its forms, which in a very poor area where traditional nuclear family is the exception and not the rule seems like a good idea to me.

Mexico also celebrates Children’s Day on the 30th of April, to demonstrate how much they are loved and appreciated. From the celebration of Children’s Day to the constant string of family parties, there is a huge culture of care in the Mexican family, and the extension of love, warmth and appreciation is most noticeably demonstrated through food and giving, usually simultaneously.

The notion of ‘independence’ just isn’t assigned the same value or meaning here, it is not something to be achieved but more likely to be interpreted as a by-product of neglect. Those poor people all alone, why don’t their families look after them? They’re really independent? What a shame, why do they push their families away? Our 20s in the UK is a decade cherished for establishing independence, for getting away from home, achieving things by ourselves and exploring things we probably wouldn’t want our parents to know about. In Mexico, you are very much a child until you have children yourself, at whatever age this happens. In the UK there is huge stigma attached to young people living with their parents past their mid-twenties, and they rarely wish to do so apart from out of financial necessity and benefit. Here, on the other hand, there is far less desire, financial nor emotional, to move out of home.

On the plus side of independence is the freedom and sense of personal achievement it offers, but the flip side of the coin is the feeling of burden – there is a far greater sense of embarrassment or even shame when we need help from family, either in our youth, mid-life, or ageing. Moving back in with family is often perceived as a kind of regression, a personal failure of some sort or the result of a lack of financial resources. It is widely accepted that care homes aren’t ideal but more suitable in terms of convenience when relatives are busy either working or just with their ‘own’ lives. Here it is very common that when a grandparent (or in fact anybody’s spouse) dies, the person left alone moves in with the rest of the family to a part of their house or an adjacent one. There is no sense of shame or embarrassment in asking for help from the family, on the contrary it is more likely for family members to fight over who can offer more assistance.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the Mexicans, it’s that there’s enough love for everyone. My absolute favourite thing about the culture here is its inclusiveness. The young and the old socialise together, and care together, and coming from a culture where we are so fiercely independent and defensively self-sufficient, it’s very touching. Right from the start it was the people’s warmth that I noticed, and time and time again people’s kindness and generosity has exceeded my expectations, from doors opened to hands shaken and food offered. Who is to praise for this culture of love and care that is the social cement of the Mexican family? The women.

Culture Shock: Traffic and Time

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty blasé about coming to Mexico. Not because I didn’t have any feelings about it, but because I made a conscious decision to suppress them. I was adamant that I wanted to come with an open mind and to minimise any preconceived ideas and expectations. One thing I was particularly unsure about was where Mexico lay conceptually in the continent of ‘America’. I’d always thought of Mexico as South America, but it’s actually geographically north of Central America, and is a member of the North American Free Trade Agreement – so did it technically count as North America? And what would it be like?

In all honesty, I had assumed Mexico to be far more US-influenced and Western than it is. Of course, there are coastal tourist hotspots that are full of North Americans, but residing in the ‘cultural and religious capital’ of Puebla as I do, European culture especially is largely unknown and irrelevant to most people here. From an anthropological point of view the Latin American culture is fantastic for me, but in terms of culture shock: it’s BIG! I spoke in my post ‘Participant Observation’ about my first impressions, but the food, climate and people are things that any tourist can learn about Mexico. Living with a local family allows me to experience real Mexican life, and the culture shock comes largely from the ‘comfortable chaos’ that is so characteristic of life here.

One thing that I learned about pretty quickly was the concept of time, or more accurately, lack of. When it comes to plans, schedules and organisation, time just doesn’t seem to be a consideration! I had learned that the Spanish for ‘now’ is ‘ahora’. In England, now means, err, now. And if you say now you mean now. Simple, surely? No no, in Mexico ahora is more like ‘maybe now but actually more likely at some unspecified time in the future’. If you mean right now, it’s ‘ahorita’. “Ok, got it” I thought to myself. In a couple of weeks, however, as I grew increasingly bewildered by my constant readiness and waiting, I realised that even ‘ahorita’ isn’t really right now either, but more like ‘slightly closer to now than ahora’. It’s funny, and confusing, but this is the Mexican way, and it certainly isn’t for those of a neurotic disposition!

If you think the Mexican notion of time would make you nervous, it’s probably best that you don’t read on: the traffic in Puebla is riotous at best and terrifying at worst. If you’re taking the bus, just try not to look out of the window. On my tenth day my taxi crashed with another car (don’t worry mum, I’m fine!) and full-on fisticuffs ensued between my taxi driver and the other driver and passenger involved.  A few days later, I was on a bus when another bus flew past and smashed the wing mirror. My friend Juliana who was sat next to me had glass in her lap. You ain’t seen potholes ’til you’ve been to Mexico. There are speed bumps at random intervals on the motorways. Most of the cars on the roads look like they haven’t have passed an MOT in the last twenty years. Seat belts aren’t compulsory for the back seats in Puebla, and there doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of passengers any given car can carry. The list goes on, you get the idea.

Despite all this, however, getting the bus is worth the fear for the pure entertainment. Bus drivers are blessed with freedom of expression and you just never know what kind of experience you’re going to get: Mr Horn-Happy was my least favourite but I really warmed to the proper MexiLAD who likes to play Robbie Williams and has smothered his windows in Playboy stickers. One day a whole band got on the bus, the harpist parked himself next to me and they played a jolly little tune. The drivers tip a scraggly old guy for hopping on the bus to spray the aisles with air freshener and give the dashboard a quick wipe. Being six inches taller than the average Mexican woman, I can’t say the seats are spacious, but I use my hip to knee length advantage to wedge myself in and reduce the frequency with which my bum lifts off the seat. Sorted.

A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)
A typical bus in Puebla (with San Francisco Church in the background)

The chaos is fun: you’d honestly have to be the most miserly of gits not to have a good time here, it would be such hard work NOT to get swept up in the sunshine spirit and totally infectious zest for life. There’s no such thing as a party animal, it’s just a given. So what’s there to do but party on?!

Why the Ballet Folklórico de México captures Mexico perfectly

In a flash, the stage is bursting with almost forty Juans and Marías whirling about at a hundred miles an hour, hankies in hand, dressed in dazzling costumes of orange and yellow like a bowl of zesty citrus fruit come suddenly to life. The first five minutes leave you simultaneously exhausted and invigorated, and that in itself lets you know it’s going to be really really Mexican.

Amalia Hernández’s Ballet Folklórico de México visited the London Coliseum in July for the first time in over twenty years as a part of the programme of events for the Mexico-UK Dual Year 2015. Dance, music, parties and celebration form such an integral part of Mexican life, and have done since time immemorial, that it’s just the perfect way to capture the essence of Mexico in one intoxicating showcase.

The dances are Mexican, of course; a varied programme of beautifully choreographed pieces that give us a political as well as historical and geographic tour of Mexico. It’s important to appreciate the impressive amount of research, training and technical ability that goes into its production (the ballet has a permanent residency at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City as well as its internationally touring company). But the show from start to finish is just so much more: it encapsulates the vital elements of Mexican life, and, crucially, the feel of it. Essentially, it’s a complete education in Mexican spirit delivered in full volume, at breakneck speed.

One of the things I love most about Mexican culture is how inclusive it is, nowhere more evident than at the regular family fiestas where guests both young and old are trussed up in ridiculous party paraphernalia dancing alongside one another from dusk until dawn. Mexicans just really get stuck in and throw themselves into things without the stuffy self-awareness and stiff upper lip that’s so characteristic of the British. The Ballet Folklórico appeals to everyone, it’s just impossible not to get swept up in the vivacious energy that radiates from the stage. They’re having fun and they love what they do; it’s evident and contagious.

With an abundance of sombreros and criminally tight trousers, and enough elaborate stomping to get Michael Flatley toe-tapping, the show is hugely entertaining, a visual and aural delight. The performance, like the culture, is totally immersive, not just literally (when the company dances with the audience in the aisles), but emotionally, too. It’s cheeky and romantic, raucous and unapologetic. There are shouts of encouragement amongst compadres on the stage: “¡Eso!” and “¡Viva México!”, and streamers are thrown bountifully into the auditorium. Just the same as you’ll find when visiting Mexico, they don’t just want you to enjoy it, they want to you to share it: it’s an open invitation to empathise with their national pride – an honour indeed as it’s hugely cherished and was notably hard-won.

I can’t talk about the Ballet Folklórico without giving the musicians – the mariachi and jarochos (who belt out the tunes as well as mastering their handheld instruments) – the praise they deserve. The show is not only a dancing triumph but a musical extravaganza. And I’m pretty sure they’re the only nation who could fit two full-blown fiestas into a couple of hours. It’s no mean feat, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. When you’ve got a British audience in one of the UK’s most prestigious venues whooping and cheering on their feet, I think you can safely say you nailed it.

You’ve now missed the opportunity for a slice of fiesta with your afternoon tea (hopefully they won’t wait another twenty years), but, as if you needed an excuse to go to Mexico, the Ballet Folklórico is performed throughout the year at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City and tours internationally.

 

This article was originally written for Mexico Retold.

A Long Time Home

Despite the lengthy break (insert torrential apology here) this blog definitely isn’t finished, I still have a long list of posts to write, and not a day passes when I don’t think of Mexico. In the meantime, I’ve been reading a lot, and I’m currently reading an incredible book with a passage I wanted to share. I know lots of people who have so kindly supported this blog are similarly wandering-minded, people who have shared that inexplicable but unignorable pull I felt before I went to Mexico, to escape the confines of my home country, culture and everything I knew. We all have our own reasons for going, but whether it’s borne of a simple boredom and restlessness or a valiant quest for the meaning of life, there’s a common denominator: we are compelled to question, to learn, to explore.

Culture and identity have been key themes explored during my time in Mexico and documented here, and just a short step on from analysing personal culture and sense of identity lays a broader international and political perspective: ideas of nationalism and borders, territories and boundaries. Stepping outside our own culture is hugely liberating; it is, metaphorically and physically, like stepping outside of your self. The freedom to form our own thoughts and opinions is a luxury we just seldom have the time or capacity for when we’re lodged prohibitively amidst the everyday doldrums of school, studies, work, politics; even the smaller cycles perpetuated by pressures and consensus amongst family and friends. And they’re just the external factors, never mind the pressure we put upon ourselves, the neverending drip of doubts that seep through layers of consciousness like acid rain. We might be struck by the odd bolt of inspired thought, but never seem to have the freedom to explore them fully, to develop our true selves as we’d like to.

 “But let’s just suppose. What if the whole deal – orientation, knowing where you are, and so on – what if it’s all a scam? What if all of it- home, kinship, the whole enchilada – is just the biggest, most truly global, and centuries-oldest piece of brainwashing? Suppose that it’s only when you dare to let go that your real life begins? When you’re whirling free of the mother ship, when you cut your ropes, slip your chain, step off the map, go absent without leave, scram, vamoose, whatever: suppose that it’s then, and only then, that you’re actually free to act! To lead the life nobody tells you how to live, or when, or why. In which nobody orders you to go forth and die for them, or for god, or comes to get you because you broke one of the rules, or because you’re one of those people who are, for reasons which unfortunately you can’t be given, simply not allowed. Suppose you’ve got to go through that feeling of chaos and beyond; you’ve got to accept the loneliness, the wild panic of losing your moorings, the vertiginous terror of the horizon spinning round and round like the edge of a coin tossed in the air.

You won’t do it. Most of you won’t do it. The world’s head laundry is pretty good at washing brains: Don’t jump off that cliff don’t walk through that door don’t step into that waterfall don’t take that chance don’t step across that line don’t ruffle my sensitivities I’m warning you now don’t make me mad you’re doing it you’re making me mad. You won’t have a chance you haven’t got a prayer you’re finished you’re history you’re less than nothing, you’re dead to me, dead to your whole family your nation your race, everything you ought to love more than life and listen to like your master’s voice and follow blindly and bow down before and worship and obey; you’re dead, you hear me, forget about it you stupid bastard, I don’t even know your name.”

It’s from Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, which follows three peoples’ lives knitted closely together only to unravel wildly throughout this tragic tale. I haven’t finished it yet but I highly recommend it. And I’m totally poaching “the whole enchilada” for my everyday lexicon. In the book, Rushdie explores themes of home, belonging, escapism and identity, as well as their consequences. His writing is as questioning and provocative as any work of political non-fiction, and while I’m back in England, it’s literature I turn to to give my mind the taste of liberty it craves.

There is such immense opportunity in independence; when chatting with friends we have likened extended travels to a kind of rite of passage¹ to peace of mind, self-knowledge and realisation. What makes us happy? What do we really care about? What do we value most? Egotistical though it seems, to leave our loved ones behind and spend so much time thinking about ourselves, it’s more like a simultaneously selfish and selfless finding and losing: you lose yourself in the bigger picture, and you find your place in it. We come home, and by all superficial appearances things go back to how they were, yet we continue to live in a heightened state of awareness and autonomy. What an incredible privilege to have had that experience.

Having a British passport gets me practically anywhere in the world, with relative ease. Many passports don’t have that kind of international leverage, and it’s just one of an endless list of consequences of that long-established global order that breeds a warped sense of cultural and national superiority and creates a kind of NIMBYism on a global scale. Having a sense of national pride isn’t wrong, but it is dangerous. It is natural to feel love for a country you have grown up in, to feel a sense of reciprocal obligation, but there is nothing natural about incarcerating others in the country they were born in, condemning them to a life of poverty and misery because they had the misfortune of not being born elsewhere. It’s so valuable to get out, to question our politics and motivations, open our hearts, feed our minds, and nourish our souls, for ourselves and for humanity. And to remember that even if we go back in, we’re not going backwards.

Image by one of my favourite artists, Lisa Congdon

Footnote:

1. The concept of the rite of passage was innovated by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep to describe rituals that initiate members into various stages of society, such as transition into manhood or marriage. His major work was Les Rites de Passage (1909), in which he observes a tripartite sequence in ritual observance: separation, transition, and incorporation. One hundred years on, we are truly global citizens: could the 21st century rite of passage be about getting out not getting in?

Tea and Tacos

A little guide to Puebla’s Top Tipples that I wrote for Soy Poblana. Alice offers great street food tours in Puebla – not to be missed!

Soy Poblana

I am very excited to be publishing this guest post by Ellie Cusack, an English culture-enthusiast who fell in love with everything Mexican while living in Puebla. You can read more on her experience of Mexico on her blog, Tea and Tacos, at elliecusack.wordpress.com.

Puebla’s Top Tipples

Puebla’s highly specialist cuisine is often lauded to be amongst the best in Mexico, and its best-known culinary dishes are well documented (and nowhere better than here on Soy Poblana!). But besides the more obvious tequila and mezcal, Puebla is also home to some lesser-known, but no less delicious, beverages. Here’s my pick of Puebla’s best sips: Pasita It’s obligatory to use the words rustic, characterful and artisanal to describe La Pasita. It is indeed all those things, but more plainly speaking it’s a dusty time machine back to Puebla of old, 1916 to be precise, when the famous cantina was first…

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Guest Post: La Posada- Having Ourselves a Merry Little Christmas

Here is a guest post I wrote for Mexico Retold on La Posada, the Christmas party, with my host family.

Mexico Retold

When I first saw Ellie’s blog Tea and Tacos, I was immediately drawn to the name. It perfectly blends the Mexican and the English and it made me smile, as do so many of her posts. You can read in every word, just how much Ellie has fallen in love with Mexico and the family that she lives with. She was therefore a perfect person to guest post on Mexico Retold. I hope you enjoy her piece all about the Christmas Posada, by line two I already had a big smile on my face! Happy Christmas to everyone…

Omar is the archetypal patriarch, and never more in his element than when hosting a traditional Mexican fiesta surrounded by his nearest and dearest and whoever else wants to tag along –  everybody’s welcome. They say that his sizeable paunch doesn’t house an enormous stomach but his corazoncote – his giant heart. Like…

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A Sudden Turn in the Tide

Firstly, apologies for not writing for the longest period of time since my arrival, the last month has been somewhat eventful. I went on holiday to the Riviera Maya, where my parents met me to share a blissful ten days of rest and relaxation (pretty sure they wouldn’t word it exactly like that); I had my last day at work – boo hoo; and my nephew who wasn’t due to be born until January decided he wasn’t to miss out on a sleigh-full of presents so arrived a month early. All these have made things a bit hectic writing-wise; I have been a terrible blogger and neglected Day of the Revolution, and the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and numerous trips which I will catch up on in due course, but in terms of my life in Mexico, a big shift has occurred. I came back from holiday and everything was different. Suddenly I had only ten days left at work. Suddenly I had passed the 11 month mark – only a month left to go. And suddenly I realised that Puebla had become home.

When I left the UK, I didn’t cry saying goodbye to anyone, not even at the airport. There were moments when a little welling in the ducts threatened to ruin my steely facade, but the ruling emotion was far more casual excitement at the unknown adventures to come than cautious apprehension (you will find the proof in my initial posts!). However, after ten months away, I was obviously ridiculously excited to see my parents. Our holiday was great: it made me realise how adult I’ve been this year (though I manage to hide it quite well), and I had an opportunity to share with them a slither of my experience here. Saying goodbye, however, was awful. Ten days together after so long apart was nothing but a merciless teaser. When I left the UK I knew I’d miss them, but not how much. Now I knew how difficult it was, it was much harder to say goodbye again. Silly really, because I knew I’d be seeing them again in a mere six weeks, but the heart does not always obey the head, and the prospect of a Christmas away from home was a tricky one.

The journey back to Puebla was spent stifling tears through a ragged tissue. As they always do, our holiday had gone far too quickly. But just a few hours later, there were my host mum and dad waiting for me at the bus station in Puebla, and how wonderful it was to see them! I gabbled away all the way back to the house, catching up on everything I’d missed and filling them in on all of our visits. It wasn’t depressing to be arriving back in Puebla rather than in England, but comforting. And that was when it hit me: Puebla really isn’t just a place I’m staying any more, it’s the place I’ve made home. It shouldn’t be surprising – it’s an essential part of minimising homesickness to try and immerse yourself completely and make your new location home as quickly as possible, yet in the back of your mind there are the constant reminders that it isn’t what you’re used to – the language, the people, the traffic, the climate – a subtle but persistent resistance to an unfamiliar culture that isn’t your own. I didn’t realise how normal life in Puebla had become until I left and came back again. And it’s a double edged sword, because now I am not only longing to go home, to be with my loved ones and surrounded by home comforts, but also all too aware that I have loved ones and home comforts here.

Then, all of a sudden, my nephew, due to be born the very day of my arrival back in England, pops his little self out (with some surgical assistance) wayyyyy before we were expecting him! I was already feeling anxious about making it back before he graced us with his presence, and the shock I went into upon hearing of his birth was agonising. Those precious first minutes, hours, days and weeks, I am missing – and will be counting down until the moment I squidge his fleshy little hands in mine. Not to be too dramatic (totally out of character), but it felt like somebody plunging an armoured fist through my chest before slowly and ruthlessly wrenching out my heart not to be comforting my sister through such a simultaneously tremendous and terrifying time. Anybody who has been away from home for any period of time can sympathise with this kind of longing I’m sure. I just had to remind myself to be grateful that it was a joyous event I was missing, and thankful that everyone is okay – surely much easier to deal with than if something tragic had happened while I was away (which was actually my biggest fear about leaving). Nonetheless, I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed, until there was no sob left and I’d given myself a headache. Unfortunately, I fear this may have started a trend which will continue until my departure and quite possibly some time into my arrival…¡más chillona que nunca!

Also, good to remember that it’s not all about me, and I’m not the only one missing my family. My host family are missing their son, who is in Germany as part of the exchange programme that allows me to be in Mexico; without their daughter who lives far away up in the north of Mexico; and without their Dad who has gone to spend Christmas with his daughter and her husband’s family. My host mum had to stay behind to look after her elderly mother (and me), so I have as much responsibility to nurture them in this season of love and family as they do me. I’ve enjoyed over 20 years of Christmases not just in England, in my home town, but in the very same house, so I’m excited to see what Christmas here has in store. And Mexico never disappoints on the celebration front. With a seasonal calendar full of fun festivities, my birthday, and a family holiday booked for over the New Year, my last month is sure to fly. What an incredible year it has been and I’m absolutely determined to make the most of every moment until the last.

“There’s no need to rush home now the baby’s been born, stay a bit longer,” say my host family.

“Remember that you’re only on loan and I do want you back,” says my mum.

Suddenly the prospect of going home has become a lot more wrought with emotion than leaving ever was.

Day of the Dead: Las Ofrendas

One of the most important elements of Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico is the making of an ofrenda – a number of offerings arranged around an altar. Day of the Dead is the time of year when the deceased come back to Earth to visit their friends and family, so Mexicans feel that is very important to do everything they can to firstly facilitate this journey, and secondly give the souls a very warm welcome. The ofrendas vary hugely in size and design, but almost all Mexican families will make one in their home; there are many compulsory components, although these too vary slightly by region.

Pre-Conquest Aztecs dedicated most of the month of August to the goddess of death Mictecacihuatl, but the influence of the Catholic Church that arrived with the Spaniards moved it to coincide with All Saints Day on November the 1st and All Souls Day on the 2nd. The current Day of the Dead festivities are therefore a result of ‘spontaneous syncretism’ between Pre-Hispanic celebrations of death and the Catholic tradition of All Saints. It is really interesting to see the different elements mixed together and there are many kinds of ofrendas, some of which have a more religious, indigenous or regional emphasis. For example, the ofrenda at my work was centred on teaching the children about Mexico’s pre-Hispanic traditions (including hot chocolate made from the water used to washed the body of the deceased!); Puebla’s public ofrendas featured famous Poblano characters and a lot of local talavera pottery; and the ofrendas in Huaquechula had a far more heavily Catholic flavour. Authentic ofrendas (as opposed to those made for tourists) are always dedicated to specific individuals, and the first Day of the Dead after somebody has died there is always a huge party held in their honour; in the following years a smaller ofrenda is made.

Some of the essential elements of the ofrenda are:

Cempasúchitl – also known as flor de muerto (flower of the dead), it is the bright orange-yellow marigold which fills the markets and the streets in the run up to and throughout Day of the Dead celebrations. The bright and strongly scented flower is crucial for decorating the altar to make it pretty and colourful; the petals are scattered on the floor around the ofrenda and in a path to the front door in order to guide the deceased to those awaiting them.

A glass of water – this is really important for quenching the thirst of the dead, who have had a long and difficult journey from the afterlife back to Earth.

Copal – the incense burned at the altar, with the belief that its strong and distinctive aroma calls the spirits.

Candles – a number of candles are lit to light the way, again to help the spirits find their home on Earth.

Hojaldra – also known as pan de muerto (bread of the dead). There are many types of pan de muerto, but hojaldra is by far the most popular and recognisable for its distinctive shape which represents the tomb, skull and bones.

Food and drink – the ofrenda is always decorated with the person’s favourite food and drink.

Toys and sweets – if the deceased is a child, toys and sweets are also included to make sure that the spirit feels happy and at home when they visit.

The ofrendas are generally installed from the 28th of October to the 2nd of November. The 28th is dedicated to those who died violently or suddenly in accidents; at noon on the 31st the souls of children are awaited; on the 1st of November adults who died naturally are welcomed; and the 2nd of November is the day of graveside vigils when people visit cemeteries in their thousands to clean and decorate the graves, eat their beloveds’ favourite foods, and pass the day and night recalling stories and memories of the lives lost.

At work we made an ofrenda to accompany Day of the Dead celebrations with the children, therefore it is a more child-oriented one with lots of sweets, candy and chocolate skulls, brightly coloured papel pikado, sticks of sugar cane and bright flowers.

In my house, a far smaller ofrenda was made, typical of those found in the ordinary houses of Puebla. Crucially, it has the photos of loved ones and little trinkets which invoke memories of them (including Sofia, the family dog!), little sugar versions of their favourite fruit, hojaldra, candles and water. The marigolds are missing, but this is only because the baby in the family was very poorly all week and there wasn’t time to buy them.

Traditional private family ofrenda
Traditional private family ofrenda

More public, tourist-friendly ofrendas were made all around the city centre, making a ‘Corredor de Ofrendas‘ in a trail to follow with different themes based on Puebla’s history. These were less traditional but no less impressive.

Huaquechula is a small municipality just under an hour away from the city of Puebla, whose ofrendas are famed for their grandeur, bringing tourists from near and far. It is a tradition of the town that each family which has a member who has deceased in that year will make a public ofrenda in their house. This year there were twenty-two deceased and therefore a route of twenty-two altars to visit. They are very proud of this tradition and incredibly hospitable – visitors are offered traditional Mexican refreshments such as agua de tamarindo, agua de jamaica and atole inside the homes. The ofrendas are extremely elaborately decorated according to the gender, age, occupation and personality of the person who has died. They feature more religious aspects such as crying angels, which represent the grieving family; the photo of the deceased is indirectly viewed using a carefully positioned mirror, representing the rift between life and death; and many of their favourite things from clothing to cigarettes.

Huaquechula was a really lovely, traditional, tranquil little Mexican town, hosting a former Franciscan convent and a troupe of voladores (‘flying men’). I have already written about voladores, but I saw the best display yet in Huaquechula and managed to get some better photos so I have included them here.

As you can see, the size, scale and intention of ofrendas varies hugely, as much as the extent to which people believe that the spirits really do visit. But it doesn’t matter so much whether they do or they don’t, it’s a really lovely way to remember the dead, celebrate their lives, and share the memories.

 

Day of the Dead: Calavera Catrina

You probably think you don’t know who or what Calavera Catrina is, but I’m sure you do, even if you don’t realise it. Mexican folk art and culture has been becoming more and more well-known in Europe, and the ‘Mexican lady’ is now a popular Halloween fancy dress choice – basically a swishy gothic-looking full length dress, a large hat with even larger feathers, and the all-important skull facepaint embellished with colourful swirly glitter around the eyes. Well this ‘Mexican lady’ is actually an iconic character called Calavera Catrina, the ‘Elegant Skull’.

Calavera Catrina originates in a zinc etching by renowned Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, produced between 1910 and 1913, which were crucial years in the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. It depicts a female skeleton wearing nothing but a flouncy hat in the style of the Mexican aristocracy emanating from European high-society fashion of the moment. The figure bears resemblance to Carmen Romero Rubio, the second wife of Mexican President Porforio Diaz, who’s turbulent time in office created much inspiration for Posada’s satirical critique of Mexican politics. Calavera Catrina is a potrait mocking Mexican natives who Posada felt were shunning their true roots in aspiring to adopt European upper class habits.

The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) crucially led to a new appreciation of Mexico’s indigenous past, and the Calavera Catrina became a poignant symbol of Mexico’s cultural independence from the more recently Eurocentric elite. By the time Diego Rivera included Calavera Catrina in his mural Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda (Dream of a Sunday afternoon along Central Alameda) in 1948, she had become a symbol of the integration of Pre-Hispanic and post-colonial ideals (Rivera’s work is notorious for its almost chaotic and contradictory ideas – he depicted communist ideals and fierce Mexican independence in any one moment, yet was highly criticised for taking commissions from US high society figures the next). Today, however, Calavera Catrina remains an important symbol of Mexican national and cultural identity, no doubt largely because of the importance of skulls and skeletons in Aztec ritual and worship.

Puebla hosted a Desfile de Catrinas – a Parade of Catrinas – on Sunday night, which saw hundreds of Poblanas dressed up to the nines flounce through the city centre accompanied by marching bands. Much like Sussex Bonfire Night parades (but without the fire) it also featured lots of glowsticks, devils and mummies; a sign of its inevitable melding with Halloween themes in modern times.

As well as the Catrinas and non-Catrina tag-alongs, the parade featured skeletons in all forms, shapes, and sizes. The generic name calaca is a colloquial term for skeleton in Mexican Spanish, given to the joyous skeletal figure that adorns everything around Day of the Dead. They can take male, female, or animal form (dogs are especially popular), and they’re usually in traditional Mexican costume and undertaking some kind of fun activity such as playing an instrument, singing or dancing. The jolly figurines (made of anything and everything) give the impression that the afterlife for Mexicans is just as much of a riot as the life of the living. Joy and laughter form such an integral part of Mexican life, why would the emphasis placed on pleasure and parties after death be any different?

Day of the Dead: La Calaverita

Calavera translates as skull –  they’re absolutely everywhere at this time of year and are undoubtedly the biggest symbol of Day of the Dead in Mexico. The skull obviously represents the dead, only the skulls and skeletons that adorn everything here are not grim, vacant figures at all, but jolly personalities always smiling or laughing and very often in character, for example in traditional Mexican dress, or as a nurse or mariachi musician. Mexico’s sugar and chocolate skulls are an internationally recognised symbol of Day of the Dead, and they are always brightly coloured and decorated, again demonstrating the fun of the celebration. There’s nothing haunting or spooky about the tradition, it’s about welcoming back loved ones who have died, who are only able to visit at this time each year.

In the UK we are much more uncomfortable with death, and rarely laugh at it. For that reason Day of the Dead can be misinterpreted as a little creepy and weird. However, once it is understood within the context of the Mexican culture and character it becomes apparent that it’s just an alternative way of dealing with the same emotions (of the universal experience of death), in a style that is more fitting with the Mexican approach to things in general. Mexican humour is very dark and clever, full of double entendre, and they do tend to laugh at everything no matter how disastrous, so it completely makes sense that the Mexicans take one of the most difficult and painful human experiences and spin it into something entertaining and fun.

As calavera means skull, calaverita just means little skull. Following in the traditional of double meaning in Mexican language (which can be very confusing for outsiders!), calaverita also refers to a special kind of poem which is written and shared around Day of the Dead. They are humorous rhymes which detail a prophecy of how a person is going to die. A few of my sprogs at work wrote me this Calaverita, it had me in stitches and I had to share it!

Calaverita Maestra Ellie

Estaba la maestra Ellie

comiendo un cachito de melón

cuando llego la muerte

acompañada de un viejo pelón.

-¿Que haces maestra Ellie?

-La muerte le preguntó

-Aquí, matando el hambre

-Ellie le contestó.

– ¡Matando! – La muerte se sorprendió

– Mmm, me quiere hacer competencia…

– Es lo que doña muerte pensó

– Pero no me ganará la impaciencia

– Solita se consoló.

-¡Ayudame! Le llegó su hora

– La muerte le dijo al pelón

– Ahora vamos a matarla

golpeandola con un balón.

Y así la pobrecita Ellie

nunca jamás volvió a Europa

porque la malvada muerte

se la llevó con todo y ropa.

En Juconi los niños lloraron

Pero se les olvido en un dos por tres

Porque al fin y al cabo…

Ninguno entendia su Inglés.

Loose translation:

There was Teacher Ellie eating a chunk of melon, when Death arrived accompanied by a bald old man.

“What are you doing?” Death asked her.

“I’m killing my hunger,” Ellie answered.

“Killing?!” she exclaimed, “she wants to compete with me,” thought Lady Death. “But hastiness won’t get the better of me,” she consoled herself.

“Help me! Her time has come!” Death said to the baldy. “Now we’re going to kill her, by thumping her with a ball.”

And just like that poor Ellie died, and never returned to Europe, because evil death took her with clothes and all.

In Juconi the children cried, but they forgot her in a jiffy, because in the end, after everything, nobody understood her English.

Genius!