It's Wednesday in Holy Week, and I'm singing nearly every day, so I'm not going to be around here much except for posting a few photographs. And, after all those Mexican posts, I need to take a litte break!
This wrought iron knocker and grill were on a door in Coyoacan, and now that I look at them I think it must have been the front door for a convent or monastery; the wooden panel behind the cross probably slides out of the way so the person inside can see who is at the door. All the buildings on that street had tall walls along the narrow sidewalk and you couldn't tell what was inside or whether they were residences or offices or public buildings of some sort. Occasionally a door was ajar, and you could peek inside into a beautiful, mysterious courtyard, or an entrance hall.
Best wishes to all who are observing religious holidays this week.
For my final Mexico City post, I have to come back to the real source of the country's warmth: it's not the sun, but the people. Everywhere we went, we were generously and warmly welcomed. Sometimes people simply came up to us, wanting to say hello, try out their English, ask us some questions about our impressions, and in every case we were glad to meet them and happy to have had these interactions. I know Mexico has gotten a bad rap because of crime, both petty and major, and I don't mean to downplay the fact that there are dangerous places and violent people there, just as there are in the U.S. or other countries. But it seems to us that a careful and savvy visitor can do a great deal to avoid unpleasantness, and gain a huge amount by engaging with this beautiful country and its people.
Of course, I was fascinated by the artisans. This woman, for instance, was crocheting so fast her hands were a blur. Absolutely beautiful handcrafts are available, usually made by the Indians, at very low prices. However, a close observation of this economy, which caters to tourists, brings up many less-comfortable questions. Near the Zocalo, vendors who spread their goods on blankets on the pavement are routinely harrassed by the authorities, and periodically driven from the central locations to less-desirable places further away.
The prices for some handmade goods seem simply too cheap, and I wondered how much the makers were actually receiving: for instance, I bought a beautiful handmade blouse, covered with intricate embroidery, for about $30. A textile expert I met online told me that this is the last generation of native women who are wearing and making these traditional textiles, so not only are they receiving very little for their handwork, the craft itself is endangered. The tourist economy helps to assure both livelihood and continuation of the crafts, but the situation is far more complex that I was able to ascertain. The Indians are the lowest on the socal ladder, with the least chance of mobility, the greatest poverty, the lowest level of education. The darker your skin, the more prejudice there will be against you, the more doors that are closed, the more menial the labor, the worse your health care.
In tourist areas like San Angel, site of one of the best handicraft markets, open only on Saturdays, the light-skinned tourists enjoy excellent food and drinks in lovely open-air restaurants, while native people sell their goods or provide musical serenades outside the restaurant enclosures, which are guarded by restaurant bouncers. Restaurant hosts and hostesses tend to be lighter-skinned and fluent in English, while the racial hierarchy extends down through the waiters, the busboys and girls, the kitchen staff. This woman stood outside the fence for several hours while we ate our lunch, and the man below hawked his handfuls of artichokes, while I grew increasingly uncomfortable and she grew visbily more and more fatigued.
More affluent vendors are able to rent stalls in the market itself, pooerer ones sell from a blanket or wander the streets, sending their children -- with a handful of textiles or toys -- after tourists as well. I finally gave this little girl some pesos, after she came up to me the third time trying to sell a shawl.
The poorest of the poor simply sit on the streets with an outstretched hands, plaintively crying as you go by, while a few steps away, better-off people are buying and selling, or all dressed up for a wedding or a party.
If Mexico City can be condensed at all, perhaps it can simply be called a city of great contrasts. Wealth exists -- often behind lock, key, barbed wire and armed guards -- and luxuries like these beaded gowns are openly available...
...while third-world poverty is equally apparent.
In such a context, we can bring our first-world values and judgments with us, and exist within a bubble where we can visit comfortably. Or we can allow ourselve to be unsettled. Part of that latter experience, for me, is not only seeing desperate poverty, disability, and illness at close range, and allowing it to be painful and disturbing, but also being reminded that happiness does not always depend on money, and the acquisition of more. Happiness also depends on our ability to be in each moment and to enjoy simple things, rather than following out each anxiety and attempting to control our fate because we are terrified of death. Other people in the world know more about actually living than many of us do.
And so I remember the exuberant colors of Mexican textiles, the spiciness of the food, the joyful music, the warmth of families -- and finally come back to the two women we met on our first day, at the Guadalupe market, and their love-cakes. I know I have a lot to learn.
On our last day in the city, we went up 42 floors to the top of the Torre Latinoamericana to take a bird's eye view.
My first, and second, and probably final impression was how vast this city really is. It seemed like a video would show it to you better than any other way, so I took this one, walking slowly around the periphery of the cage at the top of the building. (It shows you a little of adolescent Mexican life, too.) If you use the full screen view you'll be able to see much better.
The Tower is located on the western side of the Centro Historico. The video starts looking north, approximately; the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadelupe is below the hills in the distance. Then it moves to the northwest; the white building in the foreground is the Palacio des Belles Artes, and the beautiful park beyond it is the Alameda. Then we move directly west, toward the business center with its skyscrapers and modern architecture. The video proceeds to the south and zooms into the neighborhood where we were living: Escandon. Finally, we look toward the east. The Zocalo is the large bare rectangle in the center; the Palacio Nationale is on its far side, and the Metropolitan Cathedral is on the north side. The camera moves down Avenue Francisco Madero, which is now for pedestrians only, and then back to the Zocalo.
Looking at this video now, I just want to be back there. I'm kind of amazed to realize how much we've learned about this enormous place in a short time, mainly because of studying maps and Google Earth and traveling around using different modes of transportation. The city begins to make at least some geographical sense to me, whereas at first - flying in for the first time a year ago - it just felt overwhelming. I'm very fond of Mexico City now, and in spite of being one of 25 million souls there, I felt like it welcomed me. Everywhere we went, including this tower, we met and talked to people who were warm, curious, open, and direct. They have made this place, over many centuries, and it reflects them.
We went down in mid-afternoon, walked around the Centro, had something to eat, and came back up to watch the sunset.
Our first day in Mexico was a national holiday as well as being a Monday - the day when most museums and many shops and restaurants are closed. A good time, we thought, to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Villa, as it's popularly called, since the site contains several churches and other buildings, is the most-visited shrine to the Virgin Mary in the world (over 20 million annual visitors) and the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in Latin America -- reason enough to visit. But I wanted to try to understand something deeper about the devotion to "Our Lady" -- this particular apparition of the Virgin Mary -- whose image appears everywhere in Mexico City, and who seems embedded in the hearts of the people, whether overtly religious or not. I wondered what I would feel.
We reached the site after quite a long ride by Metrobus to the northern part of the city, and a walk through a residential neighborhood full of first-floor souvenir shops and small retail stores. Within the walls of the shrine, one finds a huge stone plaza, and around it, the new basilica shown above, and several former basilicas, progressively older from left to right, dating back to the 16th century. Two of these are shown in the picture below; all of these buildings are very large, and suffered considerable damage from the Mexico City earthquake in 1985; one was so slanted that it felt extremely unsafe, but people were still worshipping in it.
On the top of Tepeyac Hill, in the upper right, is yet another church, the final destination of most of the pilgrims who come here.
Here is the official Catholic account of the story.
On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac. Speaking to him in Nahuatl (the dialect of the tribe of the Aztecs) the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumarraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the "lady" for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The first sign was the Virgin healing Juan's uncle. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Under the revisionist painting shown above, the caption reads "The Conversion of the Indians." You can see the Franciscan friars administering baptism from water held in an Aztec vessel, now serving as a font; above them, the Virgin of Guadelupe appears wreathed in smoke that billows from Popocatepetl. Through the Spanish Requirement of 1513, which was read aloud to the native people in Spanish, the Spanish monarchy had declared its divinely ordained right to take possession of the territories of the New World and to subjugate, exploit and, when necessary, fight the native inhabitants. Resisters were considered evil, in defiance of God's plan for Spain, and were forced to convert to Christianity or were killed. (Diego Rivera's murals in the Palacio Nationale depict what really happened.)
Below the painting is a reproduction of the famous image as it appeared on Juan Diego's cloak or tilma; the original tilma is displayed in the new basilica, above the altar, in an enclosure containing gases to help keep it in a state of preservation. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin became Latin America's first indigenous saint when he was canonized at this site by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Why, then, did so many native people become attached to Our Lady? Before the Spanish Conquest in 1591-21, Tepayac Hill had been the site of a temple to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The Spanish destroyed it and built a chapel there in honor of the Virgin Mary. After they were converted to Christianity, the Indians continued to come there, addressing the Virgin as "Tonantzin." Whatever the truth was about the story of Juan Diego -- an indigenous man -- only a decade later, the Indians formed the core of the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe: a devotion that continues to this day. As we visited the shrines and walked around the site, we saw hundreds of native people who had come with their families. There were very old women, walking with difficulty, supported by a daughter or son, and there were many young woman with newborn babies in their arms, bringing them to meet the Virgin for the first time, or to be baptized at a special building that is part of the Villa.
At the far end of the plaza is a raised area which affords a beautiful view of the entire site. I stood there and watched pilgrims crossing the rough stone plaza on their knees, toward the new basilica.
In the previous picture you can see a sign that reads "Mercado," or "market." Behind the main buildings is a large typical Mexican market -- a warren of interconnected tents and buildings -- full of souvenirs, and things to eat and drink. We stopped there for lunch: roast chicken with freshly-made corn tortillas.
You can see the roofs of the mercado behind this earliest church, where Juan Diego is interred.
Just above that church is this astonishing larger-than-lifesize bronze tableau of native people presenting gifts to the Virgin; from it, a path leads up the hill through beautiful gardens to the shrine at the top, the "shrine of the roses."
All along the path and through the gardens, people stopped with their families to be photographed.
There were professional photographers with tricky printers that produced large-format photos on the spot. Each of them had a shrine-themed photo-spot, some more kitschy than others. Here we have not one but two Virgins, a Pope, multicolored roses, and every stereotypical Mexican symbol you can think of. At the shrine, Pope John Paul II, "Juan Pablo," seemed second only to the Virgin in popularity; there is a huge bronze statue of him in the plaza. I didn't see a single image of Pope Benedict, but I'm sure Pope Francis will become popular here too.
A view of one of the older basilicas and plaza, as we climbed up the hill.
And some of the beautiful plantings. I loved seeing women carrying their babies in their arms, wrapped in a blanket.
The Shrine of the Virgin of the Roses, at the top of Tepayac Hill. Photography was not allowed inside; it was a simple, very old structure with a small dome, an altar, and some large paintings of the miraculous events.
Finally, we descended, becoming part of the large crowd enjoying a beautiful day, completely at ease in this shrine that clearly belongs to them. They were families on an outing; devotees coming to pray; people seeking some moments of peace and beauty in a crowded city -- but by their manner, their respect was clear: this was not a park like any other.
What did I feel?
At one point, crossing the plaza, I looked down at a stone beneath my feet and saw that, unlike its neighbors, it was covered with Aztec carvings. That is Mexico City: the past coexists with the present. They weigh upon each another in the stones of the buildings, mingle in the faces of the people. Our own past always seems both real and unreal, and so perhaps in this place with its unfamiliar and miraculous history I was able to suspend judgements and simply be present.
Did the Virgin appear to Juan Diego half a millenium ago? Does it really matter?
She is present today on this streetcorner in Escandon, and thousands of other corners, shop windows, tree notches, and public nooks throughout the city; as people pass by, they notice, pause, cross themselves. Her image appears in all the churches, and she is present in nearly every home in a ceramic statue, an image woven of palm fronds, or embroidered on a blouse, or molded into a folkloric retablo. She moves through the city around people's necks, or on their backs, and travels with strangers back to a far northern city: a dim image seen through a tiny crystal set in the cross of a rose-scented rosary.
In the end, I was touched by the beauty of the shrine, and I was moved by the old women, many of whom were probably not much older than me. There was a lot that I didn't understand, because I am neither Mexican nor Catholic, and a lot that I did, because I am human. I'm content to leave it at that.
Avocados and watermelon on a Moroccan plate. Watercolor (detail), 4/2/2014.
The blank canvas or watercolor sheet is just as intimidating as the blank page or screen...it's always hard to get back to either art or writing when I've been away for a while. In spite of all my preparations, i did absolutely no drawing or painting in Mexico; there just wasn't enough "sitting time" for that and it would have been an imposition on J. (plus we wanted to go around together.) However, the colors and vibrant life-energy have stayed with me, and I hope to be able to bring some of that into my work in the months ahead.