Another day, another feria in Puebla: today was the turn of San Antonio de Padua. Saint Anthony – a compassionate man, and acclaimed worker of many miracles – is known as ‘the finder of lost articles’ and, more specifically in Mexico, as the Saint of matchmaking. To be ‘attached’ is, in Mexico, probably the most important character-defining feature. The question I am most frequently asked, often by the same person on each and every encounter, is “¿tienes novio?” meaning “do you have a boyfriend?” When I meet somebody, no matter who, it is guaranteed to be mentioned within the first few seconds of introduction. My response of “no” is usually met with a “why not?” – and even on one occasion with a sympathetic “don’t cry!” …Right. Being intentionally or happily single just isn’t an understandable or valid status here.
So imagine the furore when, on one holy day each year, women have the opportunity to appeal to that holy miracle worker and finder of things lost, San Antonio, to cure them of their shameful single status and the pitiful lament of solitude and match them with a man. People had told me about this tradition, and I had thought it amusing and interesting, but today I experienced how serious it really is. The young and not-so-young alike amassed at the church of San Antonio to pray for their most desperate wish to be granted: Please God, find me a boyfriend.
There are a number of procedures you can follow to maximise your man-catching potential. First option: fill a little felt purse (available for purchase at the entrance) with thirteen coins of the same denomination to deposit in the church; second, buy a red ribbon (also available for purchase) and tie it around the statue of Tony; or third, buy a red candle (handily available for purchase – spot the pattern?) to light and deposit at the altar. The most dedicated take no chances. I did none of these things, so it seems I may be destined to singledom forever BOO HOO.
I didn’t leave with hopes of being bestowed with a boyfriend, but with a great big beasty bread called pan de fiesta (also known as pan de burro). Contrary to popular opinion, I think I’ve got my priorities right.
Living in the city of Puebla, the fourth largest metropolitan area in Mexico and the capital of the state of Puebla, we are never short of things to do. But having been here for a few months, we decided that rather than continually spending our weekends at our favourite haunts in Puebla’s downtown, we ought to explore some of the cities in the surrounding area. And so one Saturday we chose to go to Atlixco. We had heard that Atlixco is famous for the cultivation and export of ornamental plants and cut flowers, and I LOVE flowers. I had the idea that the hour drive from Puebla would be like driving through the ‘Garden of England,’ the Kentish countryside, in the journey I often took between my home town of Hastings and the city of Canterbury where I went to university. This was not so. I don’t know what we did wrong, but we didn’t see any flowers. None, despite asking vendors in the market. Maybe we just missed the season. It’s also famous for its festive lights, so maybe we’ll try another visit in the run-up to Christmas.
It was a perfectly nice city, but nothing extraordinary, and really we’re spoilt living in Puebla because there’s honestly no Zócalo I’ve seen to rival ours. Pueblans will proudly tell you that this is because Puebla was at some point supposed to be the capital city of Mexico so got the best Zócalo, but there are a lot of stories Pueblans like to tell visitors about the city..! Zócalo is the name for a central square, and each one is supposed to serve three purposes: religious (home to an important church or cathedral), civil (political/public offices), and social (normally some benches and trees). Disappointingly, the most prevalent feature of Atlixco’s Zócalo is purely commercial: an ugly and imposing branch of The Italian Coffee Company, the Mexican version of Costa. The chain-you-can’t-get-away-from has trademark ugly green and wicker décor, and horrid looking ‘cakes’ screaming “we’re not fresh!” from their cellophane wrapping. I bought a coffee there once and won’t be making that mistake again. I feel a bit harsh putting my scathing review of The Italian Coffee Company under Atlixco’s post because there’s more to the town than that, but we all rolled our eyes when we saw it dominating the Zócalo.
We began scaling the hill up to what looked like a church at the top, but there was no clear path, and after trying a few dead-end streets and passing a few too many guard dogs pacing up and down growling, barking and bearing their gnashers, we abandoned the mission and headed back down to the square. Since being bitten on the behind I prefer to keep my distance. Some dogs are strays, some are semi-owned, and some are owned but completely neglected. Another flop in Atlixco – it wasn’t really our day.
The best thing about our trip was the food. Mexicans know that the best place to eat is in the market, so we headed straight there and weren’t disappointed. There isn’t a formal menu, the cooks just give you tasters as you wander through, and if you like it you take a seat, order the meat by weight, purchase tortillas from one of the ladies selling them in the market, and enjoy. We had a tray of cecina, beef that is salted and dried before being fried; carne enchilada, chilli-dressed meat which comes in many forms, but is essentially slow-cooked in a chilli and tomatoey sauce; and a salad of nopal (cactus), pickled carrot and jalapeños (¡pica, pica!), avocado, tomato, cheese and lettuce. All washed down with Boing fruit juice and refreshing Corona.
In every town centre you needn’t look hard to find a shop selling handmade ice lollies and ice creams of every flavour imaginable. On this occasion I had a triple scoop ice cream of cherry, coconut and pistachio, yum!
So although I won’t be hurrying back to Atlixco, it was a nice enough afternoon – good to explore somewhere different, and if nothing else reaffirm my love and appreciation of Puebla!
Naturally, the first thing I did when I found out that I’d be living in Puebla was take to the internet and scour the search pages. And what did I find? Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name, and is most famous for being the city in which the French troops of Napoleon III were defeated on the 5th of May, 1862 in the great Battle of Puebla. At the time the French army was considered the most powerful army in the world, and the Mexicans were outnumbered, under-skilled, and ill-equipped. Nevertheless, the Mexicans fought them off until they retreated, making it the first French defeat since Waterloo in 1815, and the first time that penniless, war-torn Mexico had defeated a foreign invader. The army leader heralded with this monumental triumph is General Ignacio Zaragoza. Heralded so much was he, that the following year the city was renamed in his honour from Puebla de los Ángeles to Puebla de Zaragoza. As if that wasn’t quite glorious enough, it was renamed again in 1950 as Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza. And to emphasise the heroical history of Puebla and General Zaragoza just a teeny tiny little bit more, when the children write the fecha completa (full date) at the top of every page in their workbooks, it is written ‘H. Puebla de Z., a 12 de Mayo 2014’. (Just don’t mention that the French came back in 1863 and successfully captured the city.)
We know by now that the Mexicans don’t normally need any excuse to celebrate, so you can imagine what happens when they do have one: all hands on deck! Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) was born, and is celebrated annually with the month-long Feria de Puebla, a huge fair held on the site of the battleground with rides, bars, daily music events, games and conferences. And on the day itself (of course a bank holiday), an enormous parade makes its way through the city. The Pueblans are very proud of it, and as preparations began, including huge stands and seating lining the Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, I grew increasingly intrigued to see what was in store. The parade was due to start at midday, and on the night before my host mum told me that we’d be leaving at 8am to get a good seat. Slightly excessive, I thought, given that we live a three minute walk from the Boulevard. But when we arrived we squeezed into the last two front-row spots and bought a pair of little wooden stools to wait. For the next few hours many minor spats ensued between people already there and others trying to squeeze in and get the best view. Apparently the raised stands had been full since 5am in the morning. Evidently, this parade was a BIG deal.
In the four hours we waited for the parade to start and reach us, the Boulevard was full of vendors selling traditional Mexican treats.
In the evenings the streets of Puebla’s ‘downtown’ are full of these carts selling crisps, ‘aguas’ (fruit drinks), and jelly pots.
This guy is selling nuts and amaranth sweets. Amaranth was a staple grain of the Aztec era and formed an integral part of religious ceremonies and rituals (it was notoriously, but not reliably, mixed with blood for use in human sacrifice). It has a very high nutrient content and is sold in health food shops, but is more commonly mixed with honey and sugar to make candy bars that look like bird food called alegría, ‘happiness’.
Squirt is the nation’s favourite grapefruit-flavoured soft drink, pronounced ‘e-squer’. In truly Mexican style, it is served in cups ready-lined with chilli powder. “Sin chile para mi, por favor.”
A TV crew arrived and the crowd got VERY excited. The people next to me started shouting, “¡tenemos una guera!” – “we have a white girl!” – to improve their chances of being filmed, hilarious!
To keep the baying crowds happy we were also treated to a flyover by the Mexican version of the British Red Arrows.
Finally, in the scorching midday sun, the parade got under way, and it was quite spectacular!
Armed forces marched in their hundreds.
There were more different uniforms than I could count, and various weapons, instruments and other paraphernalia, including eagles!
After all of the military forces came a whirlwind history of Mexico in the form of animated floats and reenactments.
Mexico is really famous for its murals, and Puebla is no exception. The promotion of mural painting began in the 1920s as part of an effort to reunify the country under the post-Revolution government. Painted onto public buildings, they generally had social or political messages: at a time when most of the country’s population was illiterate, they were encouraged as art for education and the bettering of the people in line with nationalist ideals. The mural-painting tradition continues to this day, and my Barrio of Xanenetla has some great examples. To see more on the murals in my area please follow this link: http://www.nileguide.com/destination/blog/puebla-mexico-74/2011/01/10/murals-in-the-xanenetla-historic-barrio/
The day was an absolute scorcher and the atmosphere was terrific. Celebrating in the history of Puebla and Mexico was very special for me, especially as an anthropologist wanting to learn as much as I can about the people, their culture and their sentiments. If there’s one thing Mexicans do really well, it’s coming together to celebrate, and it was wonderful to feel a part of that.
From Sussex to Puebla, a culture mash of English and Mexican