Mexico...in small bytes

TRAVEL..........STORIES OF MEXICAN LIFE..........& MORE

This month marks a first for Mexico...in small bytes...two consecutive articles about Mexico. From Spring & Solovino, we go to appreciating plaza life around the country and here at home, in and around Pátzcuaro.

 

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Plaza, Zócalo, Jardín, Plaza de Armas: Whatever it's called, most every town has one and this is where it's happening. All you need to do is stay put and watch the world go by.

 

At times that world barely moves from a soporific state and then other days it is abuzz with children running about blowing bubbles, skateboarders, balloon sellers, vendors of all denominations, a contingent from a nearby school practicing for an upcoming acto or participating in a race.

 

 

 

There might be a dog training class or a local village in traditional dress celebrating their town's fiesta.

 

 

Some days even the street cleaners are absent and only the traditional brooms are in evidence.

 

 
Other times, the plaza is aglow with color and bustling with activity.

It is possible that the local park or sitting area in Anyplace, U.S.A. is as alive as a plaza anywhere in Mexico, but I doubt it.

Even if one were to find such a place, it would be brimming with a different type of activity. In a place like the United States, one needs to justify such a colossal waste of prime real estate in the middle of a city. Joggers or the office workers eating bag lunches give the area more a sense of purpose.

But in Mexico, a plaza can exist for its own sake alone. And a town without one would be a mean place indeed. The square is the heartbeat of the town or the neighborhood and without one, you think the place simply could not exist. Or you wouldn't want it to. Like the corner café in small town Italy, it represents the center of the universe.

 

The most famous square is the Zócalo in Mexico City. It is home to the largest flag in the world. It is reputed that it would be impossible for a country to dispute this record. As soon as any government has the temerity to attempt such a nefarious deed, another flag sufficiently large enough to recapture the earlier lead replaces the tri-color in the center of the Zócalo.

 

 

Every year at midnight between September 15 and September 16, the square is filled with Mexicans out to celebrate the most important of the three Independence Day celebrations. Victory from Spanish rule did not actually occur for about a dozen years after the call to arms or El Grito, was issued by Padre Hidalgo in the small town of Dolores, now called Dolores Hidalgo.

A view of the church in the main square of Dolores Hidalgo where El Grito was issued.

But it is El Grito which is celebrated each year as the President appears in the balcony of the Palacio Nacional (Presidential Palace) and amidst much fanfare rings the huge bell five times and calls out ¡Viva México! With each ring, the crowd patriotically and enthusiastically echoes the statement. Some then irreverently add 'Y chinga los demás' (Long live Mexico and screw the rest). The fireworks display is stupendous and the opportunity for pickpockets is reputed to be choice.

The governmental buildings that ring the Zócalo are traditionally adorned each year with decorations in the colors of the Mexican flag.

The square is also the sight of numerous political demonstrations. Sub-comandante Marcos ended his march across Mexico with a rally in the Zócalo.

After campesinos were offered something like 10 pesos a square meter for their ejido land near Tecoxco on the outskirts of the capital so that a 2.3 billion dollar airport could be constructed, the landowners and supporters staged numerous demonstrations around the capital. The most spectacular of these protests was a march on the Zócalo by a sizeable group of machete wielding demonstrators, some on foot and many others on horseback. It was particularly impressive as from time to time; they stopped to sharpen their machetes on the curbs. Airport plans were put on hold soon afterwards.

There are often much smaller groups in the Zócalo camping out in tents, calling attention to one cause or another. My personal favorite was the gentleman who was in residence for quite some time with his burro, seeking an audience with the President over a land issue.

The supporters of Andrés Manuel López Obrador have made the latest and largest demonstrations in the capital. In April this year they twice filled the Zócalo to overflowing and spilled out into the side streets to protest the desafuero of the capital's popular leader. In a dubious political move, President Vincente Fox started in motion a legal procedure that temporarily removed Obrador from his position in the Districto Federal and threatened to keep his name off the presidential ballot in 2006.

The first of two marches in support of López Obrador. (photos from La Jornada, April 8, 2005)

Considering that Obrador is, according to various polls, the hands down favorite at this time to win the presidency, it all smacked of political shenanigans rather than a true regard for the spirit of the law.

López Obrador's offense consists of the allegation that he disregarded a federal order to cease construction of an access road to a hospital through privately owned land. He eventually complied with the ruling and stopped construction. This all occurred in 2001 and it wasn't until 2005 that the legal process was begun, some say just in time to prevent getting Obrador's name on the ballot.

Purists can say he disregarded the law and no one should be above the law, a highly laudable concept which might hold more water if other political figures shared the same fate.

In the neighboring state of Morelos, for example, the governor, Sergio Estrada Cajugal remains in office despite what the Miami Herald (international edition-18/04/05) called 'an impressive body of evidence that he may be guilty of collusion with narco-criminals in his state.'

The second march, The March of Silence. Protesters filled the streets leading to the Zócalo and the square itself. Three days later, Presidente Fox put in motion the changes that left the desafuero way on the back burner. (photos La Jornada, April 25, 2005)

One can't help but think Fox was wishing he had latched unto something more substantial so he could have appeared more credible in front of his countrymen and the world at large. Three days after the second demonstration when up to 1.2 million people were reported to have marched in support of the Mayor, Fox made conciliatory gestures assuring that the three parties could come to a political solution.

The 2006 presidential election is over a year away so everyone has lots of time for many new scenarios to play out, any one of which could fill the Zócalo once again.

Even on a day when there are no demonstrations and nothing more happens than the raising and lowering of the flag, the Zócalo is fascinating. One could spend the entire time in the capital there, confident that the place would not disappoint and would in all probability surprise. You do eventually have to go somewhere else, however, if you want to sit down, as it is a plaza singularly lacking in public seating. The ever-present benches of every other town square are nowhere to be seen.

About the only option for sitting in the general area of the Zócalo is resigning yourself to a 'Happy Meal' as the MacDonald's is the only place with seating.

As in any plaza in the country, what isn't supposed to be happening is often far more interesting than the planned spectacle. However, over the last few years, the city government has worked very, very hard to spruce up the image of the historical center. Some of the planned events have been pretty spectacular.

The mariachi send-off for Rosalia Robles as she turned the government of this city of 20,000,000 plus over to Lopez Obredor set the strains of popular songs like Cielito Lindo reverberating amongst the 1000 plus musicians. The sound was matched by the voices of the huge crowd in attendance. The next morning, not a trace of the past evening's performance remained.

A Brasilian guest and I stumbled unto the tail end of a city-sponsored concert by a popular salsa group and a Cuban singer. People of all ages were blissfully dancing about when the concert came to an end. The crowd understandably did not want the music to stop. The lead singer explained that the city had put a time limit on the event, and they had been told they absolutely had to be finished, 'Oh, about a half-hour ago.' As musicians and stagehands deftly began to pack up the set, he thanked the people there for their obvious appreciation and then offered them a last song…an acapella ballad.

The singer's magnificent voice filled the square somehow commanding even the ever-present traffic noise to cease and desist. The man simply captured the Zócalo. It's impossible to imagine a crowd of such magnitude so totally quiet as the haunting, powerful notes of the song filled the square to bursting and spilled out into the streets of this, one of the world's largest cities.

Every one of us standing in the Zócalo that night in the spot Cortez is said to have paved with the stones of Aztec ceremonial buildings was given a magical moment to keep and treasure.

And the fact that by the time the last note of the melody disappeared into the night air, the stage was conveniently dismantled and packed away did not diminish the moment one whit.

Just off the Zócalo are two impressive reminders of Mexico's past. The Templo Mayor is the ancient site where it is believed the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a cactus holding a snake. This was the sign they had been looking for during their years of nomadic life; the sign that was to direct them to the spot where they were to build their capital. The figure of that eagle graces the center of the Mexican flag today.

Two views of the ancient city.

The ruins of the temple built to consecrate the spot were not found until some electrical workers on routine repairs discovered a huge stone carving of an Aztec goddess. Unearthing the ancient city meant toppling the colonial era buildings that covered the area but this was done and the site excavated in 1978.

Nearby, conchero dancers celebrate a bit of that city's past daily with traditional dances performed to the beat of a pounding drum.

But Mexico City does not have a corner on the plaza market. Mexico's second largest city is no slouch in that department as well.

To some, Guadalajara is the sprawling, congested, polluted, noisy and smelly home to from four to six million people. But the clop of horses hooves on cobblestones still competes with the roar of badly muffled diesel buses. Although the buses are an ugly and sometimes dangerous reminder of the present, the horse-drawn carriages, known as calandrias, are a charming vestige of the city's past.

Surrounded by Colonial buildings, the plazas of Guadalajara provide a locale for impromtu and scheduled performances, a meeting ground for young novios, a place to read, talk, play or simply a venue for taking a load off ones feet.

And the historical center and environs are home to perhaps more plazas than I've seen anywhere else, which is no mean feat indeed. My favorite is at the end of Plaza Tapatia where a square is filled with the whimsical bronze chairs by Mexican sculptor, Alejandro Colunga.

Just three of the Alejandro Colunga chairs in the Plaza Tapatía.

These chairs so utterly captivated me that they forced me out of my usual reticence for picture taking. I spent over an hour carefully checking out the various angles to get the best shots for each and every chair in the plaza. In the process, I became rather a fixture of the place myself, obliging foreigners and nationals alike who asked me if I would use their cameras to snap their pictures. It was only later, on the bus home that I discovered the carefully framed shots of the chairs had been taken with a camera singularly devoid of film.

Plazas always fascinate. In Matehuala, an enraged woman circled the square, brandishing a rather large machete and shouting to the entire world, 'I'll kill him! I swear I'll kill the worthless son of a bitch!'

The gentleman selling my husband, Pablo, the daily paper interrupted the woman's rather graphic description of how this gruesome deed was to be accomplished. 'Don't worry, he confided to Pablo reassuringly. 'She does this all the time.'

It appeared the woman was a rather common and predictable occurrence in the plaza. The word was that she took this rather unconventional approach to announce that it was time for her man to get his sorry butt out of the near-by cantina and get home where dinner was served. As the woman geared up for her third swing around the plaza, the vendor nudged Paul, saying, 'See that fellow sneaking around the corner? That's her husband. Right on schedule.'

Sitting in the plaza in Tacámbaro years back, we saw a group of men walk by struggling under the weight of a grand piano. We were waiting for Pablo to come to the realization that, despite all our friends' assurances and promises to the contrary, the picnic we were invited to was not going to be budged from its firm hold on Mexican Time and would take place much later than the prescribed hour. In the meantime, the men and their piano mesmerized us. With great difficulty, they made it the entire length of the plaza and then disappeared from view. A short time later, the same group appeared with what was to be assumed the same grand piano and retraced their steps across the square and out of sight. It wasn't long before there they were back again. It was with great reluctance that we left town, torn from this entertaining drama of great strength and even greater indecision.

We were in such a hurry to be on time for the picnic that we missed the event all together, which in a way has nothing and everything to do with the concept of The Plaza as a place of endless possibilities, some of which may actually happen. Some writers have even suggested a daily diet of two to three hours of plaza sitting, assuring their readers that the prospects will never dull.

For instance, there's obviously more going on here than the scheduled lowering of the flag in the main plaza in Guadalajara.

If one ever tired of one plaza, one could go to another or indeed try another town. Each plaza carries a separate personality.

Here in Pátzcuaro, there are two. There is the rather formal Plaza Grande or Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. Some say it is one of the most beautiful in the world. It's certainly quite pleasing to the eye, with its ring of colonial buildings and the impressive arches called Los Portales.

A statue of the venerated bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, rises out of the principal fountain. Tato Vasco benevolently looks down at life around him and somehow gives a more sedate air to the plaza. Go early or late at night and you fall into a time warp carrying you centuries back in history. It would be very easy to jump out of the way of an imagined horse drawn carriage.

 

 

The Plaza de Gertrudis Bocanegra or Plaza Chica is situated a few blocks away by the central market. A statue of this gutsy revolutionary hero who was executed in 1818 for her part in the Revolution dominates the center of the plaza.

 

If the Plaza Grande is sleepy, sedate and tranquil, the Plaza Chica bustles. Even late at night, which for Pátzcuaro is anything after 10:00 PM, the place is jumping with bare electric bulbs illuminating a wide assortment of street eateries that seem to do an active business as the rest of the city sleeps.

Even on a quiet day in town, this plaza is hopping. There are more vendors, more people, even more dogs.

The every-changing face of the Plaza Chica, this time with a towering jacaranda in full flower.

It seems impossible that the two main plazas in town have such distinct personalities. What is even more amazing is that every plaza I've ever seen anyplace in Mexico has its own character - a character that sets it apart somehow from any other plaza in any other area of the country.

On a recent ride around the lake, something we like to do while there is still a lake; we stopped in a number of towns representing the epitome of small town plaza life. We realize we really are the Odd Couple in most of the places we go so we try to blend in with the eucalyptus so to speak, as much as possible.

Everyone can have a different idea of merging into the environment, however.

We remember the young man in 1974 who made a daily appearance in the Plaza Chica and spent hours hanging out right below the feet of the statue of Gertrudis Bocanegra. He had on peasant pants and a shirt reminiscent of those worn by the proletariat during the 1910 Revolution. In addition he was equipped with huarachis, a serape and a singularly bizarre sombrero.

Imagin the woman dressed as described above and you have a good idea of how the plaza looked during much of the summer of 1974.

He presented quite a picture. Finally one day Pablo could not resist and went over to question the fellow. It appeared he was a graduate student doing his thesis in anthropology. His plan was that by wearing 'native costume' he would appear to be the local equivalent of a 'good ole boy' and people would seek him out to chat and tell him their life stories. All of this would then make his thesis sort of write itself.

Noticing that people were giving him a wide berth, Paul asked how things were going. The young man stated that a couple of little kids had tried to talk to him, but 'since Mexicans were very shy', he would have to be patient. He was confident they would soon be lining up in droves to bare their souls.

We were rather relieved years later when Pátzcuaro sort of fell out of favor with the anthropological crowd.

So it was as a pair of obvious gringos that we made a little tour of Huecorio, Tzentzenguaro, Santa Ana Chapitiro, San Pedro Pareo, San Bartolo Pareo, Nocutzepo, Ajuno, Arocutin and Jaracuaro…names that evoke another era. Indeed, there is a feeling of timelessness in these places. We were there to appreciate whatever was happening, knowing full well that on a Sunday afternoon in a tiny Purepecha village, part of what was happening would be us.

The varied look of three small town plazas...Bernal, Taretan and one in a town in the Sierra Gorda known for its marble and more importantly for me, a place I could get a cup of morning coffee after driving for hours sans my caffein kick. Husband Pablo looks very fondly at this town since traveling with Maria without a morning coffee is not an enviable experience.

It made me think back to my first experience with plaza life on our initial trip into Mexico in 1972. It was summer and hot as only the northern Mexican desert can be in summer so all the car windows were rolled down. Of course, it was a Sunday so the majority of the small town's population was milling about the central plaza. We were traveling with a large, furry dog who occupied most of the rear window.

Since the town's streets were under major construction, progress was slow, giving everyone in the plaza a chance to eyeball the two hippy types making their laborious way through the rubble and giving the gringo dog ample opportunity to eyeball the chicken strutting her stuff around the plaza benches.

It was, naturally, a matter of seconds before gringo dog leaped out of the car hell bent on introducing himself to the Mexican chicken who wanted none of this camaraderie and took off at a remarkable clip.

Male gringo owner soon followed, joined shortly by female gringo owner, adding a bit of unplanned plaza entertainment for that particular Sunday afternoon. As everywhere in Mexico where something of interest is happening, a contingent of small boys soon formed and joined in the chase.

Chicken, dog, male gringo, female gringo and contingent of little boys were circling the plaza for the second round when the chicken must have thought, 'Enough is enough' and flew up a tree. This diversionary tactic left the dog so befuddled that he could be commandeered and led by his collar back to the car by his chagrined owners.

Resounding applause and whistles from the plaza denizens and the toots from the horns of the backed up traffic accompanied them.

After such a spectacular initiation, one thinks things have to go downhill from that point on but that's not the way of the plaza. Whatever happens, happens and even if nothing happens, plaza life is still entertaining.

The plaza in Tzentzenguaro is little more than a concrete basketball court in front of the church and the tele-secundaria (a middle school where instruction comes via TV), but it had the requisite statue, albeit in diminished form, and an absolutely fantastic view.

It had been a very long time since we had actually stopped at towns as small as those that circle the lake. Normally a ride along this route means a visit to the fish restaurant El Alemán or the mask-making village of Tócuaro or the sleepy little town of Erongaricuaro almost midway around the lake.

When we set out, I had a totally different idea in the back of my head for what might occur that day. But what happens in a plaza, except for parades or a fiesta, rarely goes according to plan. In fact, the most choreographed scenario often takes on a life of its own, independent of the organizers' plans.

What I saw was a different kind of square predicated by a completely different lifestyle. Here were towns too small to justify the normal governmental offices and businesses that normally abound. But all the locales had churches, impressive in their simplicity and yet surprisingly ornate, considering the miniscule population served.

The church obviously is the focal point for the community but the concrete square fronting the entrance was singularly devoid of activity that day in every place we visited. The squares have benches but are not particularly inviting, lacking most of the normal accouterments. Obviously a different kind of plaza life occurs here, as indeed a different kind of life period. Most likely, these areas are reserved for fiestas, street fairs and special events like funerals and weddings.

Two views of the church plaza in the ex-island of Jaracuaro.

Much of the population in each town is working in the states. These folks must be among those that send remesas back home (money sent back to Mexico from the states that now equals the revenue from oil) since the grinding poverty apparent in other areas is not visible. Houses are simple but solid and a lot of construction is going on or on-going…the famous obras negras that dot the countryside in these parts…a building that proceeds until the money runs out and the owner re-crosses the border to make some more, leaving the building in a semi-finished state.

The fear is that with the tighter control at the frontier, making trickier and riskier routes necessary, and the escalating cost of the pollero (the person that is paid to guide undocumented workers across the border), more and more of those working in the states will not attempt the return visit and simply remain in the U.S. How long the remesas will continue is anybody's guess.

There's no doubt that the Zócalo of Mexico City, the Plaza Grande or the Plaza Chica of Pátzcuaro and the unnamed plazas of the towns we visited represent different worlds within the same nation. After a brief afternoon in those unnamed plazas, I was surprised to find that when we arrived in Erongaricuaro, the place I had always thought to be a sleepy little town, seemed to me positively strident in its activity. Music blared from the pirate CD stall, traffic was congested, tables that spilled out of a small eatery were packed, people milled about at every corner.

On the ride home, I had the sinking feeling that with all my questions and musings I had been acting a little too much like an anthropologist for comfort. But at least I didn't go out in a camouflage costume.

An out-of-the way plaza in Uruapan and the central square of the copper village of Santa Clara, where the cupula is fashioned entirely of the metal that has made the village famous.

One could probably come to more profound sociological conclusions about the country from a serious perusal of its plazas than by an equally serious perusal of its books. Who knows? Maybe that was how the books were secretly written in the first place. At least, the best of them.

As an avid traveler, I am never happier then when sitting in the plaza of a new town or city absorbing the 'feel' of the place. Since most of our travels are to Latin America or Europe, we've had our share of plaza life. Now we're off to the U.S. to attend Pablo's Peace Corps Reunion and visit with friends. It will make an interesting comparison. Mexico…in small bytes will resume upon our return.

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