Saturday, December 25, 2010

Feliz Navidad

Merry Christmas from a very quiet Mexico City. After a week where people mobbed markets and buzzed around the downtown winter-wonderland-festivities, the past 24 hours have been mostly spent communing with family.

If not peace on earth, it is, at least, peace in the DF.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fiestas Decembrinas

December is a festive month in much of the world, but in Mexico it is particularly so.  This is due, in part, to a combination of the country's vibrant Catholicism and uniquely Mexican folk traditions.  Yet these fiestas decembrinas are deeply marked by cross-cultural penetrations.  On December 4th and 5th, Colombian ex-patriots filled a plaza in Colonia Roma with candles and prayed for peace.

The classic Mexican Christmas party is the posada, an all-afternoon binge of food, drink and music.  These fiestas can be both elaborate office parties and family gatherings, and the sheer number of posadas that are held clogs the social calendars in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  The jovial atmosphere at these events is enlivened with potent sugar cane-and-fruit punch and lively gift raffles and exchanges. 

December 12th is the commemoration of the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's spiritual mother and a powerfully unifying symbol of national identity, but this profoundly religious celebration is often blended with the general spirit of the holidays.  Nearly every altar to the Virgin is adorned not only with fresh flowers, but also with strings of lights and green-and-white garlands.

Mexico's most unique Christmas tradition--the piñata--is believed to be of Chinese origin.  Supposedly, the seven points of the piñata represent the seven deadly sins and with virtue--represented by the stick used to smash open the piñata--you can defeat the sins and release the rewards of clean living, which, in the case of the piñata, are the peanuts, candy and assorted trinkets hidden inside. Regardless of their provenance and meaning, for the past several weeks, piñatas have appeared everywhere, dangling from the awnings of taco stands and suspended over major streets.  The ceilings of Mexico City's massive Merced market are clogged with brightly colored tinsel and paper creations that jostle for space and the attention of shoppers.

Mexicans have traditionally celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, with gift-giving occurring during the first days of January over the festival of the Reyes Magos (the Three Wise Men).  But, just as Halloween has infiltrated Day of the Dead, Santa Claus and flashing lights have staked a claim in Mexico.

(shoes, clothes, perfume, gifts in general)

The religious aspects of Christmas are hardly lost in the shuffle, however.  Nativity scenes proliferate on the streets, and the markets are filled with countless. In the living nativity performed outside a famous Mexico City bakery chain, the Wise Men brought offerings not of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but of biscuits.

As Christmas approaches, there is a palpable excitement here.  Markets buzz with higher-than-normal activity, and decorations appear on ragged doorframes.  After nearly a month of anticipation, the holidays are nearly here.

Monday, December 13, 2010

La Guadalupana

The Virgin of Guadalupe is probably the most enduring totem of Mexican national identity. According to legend, not long after the Spanish conquest the dark-skinned Mary appeared to Juan Diego on the Cerro del Tepeyac on the outskirts of Mexico City, and, speaking to him in his indigenous language, enjoined him to tell the Bishop that she desired a church to be built on that spot so that the indians could worship her. To convince a skeptical bishop, the Virgin commanded Juan Diego to gather flowers in his cape which, when unfurled before the prelate, revealed a resplendent image of the Virgin and converted Tepeyac into sacred ground. The image, enshrined in the church that was eventually built there, would be reproduced and replicated as the cult of the Virgin became a powerful tool for evangelizing friars during the early colonial years, allowing church officials to sanction a high degree of religious syncretism with indigenous practice.

Over the years, the cult has remained a powerful hold on Mexico's faithful.  For this reason, on the 12th of December--the anniversary of the apparition--pilgrims from across the country converge on the Basilica of Guadalupe at the base of the Cerro del Tepeyac.

Carrying mass-produced statues adorned in garlands, elegant painted standards, small votives and elaborate altars, the pilgrims often arrive in Mexico City several days before the Guadalupana.  They travel on foot, in trucks, and often, on bicycles, clogging the highways into the city.  These throngs fill the plaza beneath the Cerro, and, like the Mexican Mecca that it is, they circle the huge round Basilica that was constructed in 1976 to house the miraculous image.  Amid this atmosphere of festive devotion, Aztec dancers pound on drums and twirl feathered headdresses while inside the churches white-robed priests deliver solemn masses.

But syncretism is a poor explanation for the cult's lingering centrality in Mexican life. If San Judas Tadeo has come to reflect the psychology of marginality, Mexican Marianism seems to combine the images of a suffering, devout, nurturing mother in a way that is profoundly resonant.  The Virgin is often credited with performing miracles--a popular tradition of ex-voto paintings attests to this--and on the 12th, many pilgrims placed candles in various niches around the Basilica and prayed for health and happiness.

Among the most remarkable features of the Cult of Guadalupe is its cross-class appeal.  As with most of Mexico's popular religious traditions, from the Virgin to the Narco-saints, veneration of the Virgin probably has its strongest roots in lower class groups.  Yet, in part because she is has been incorporated into Mexican Catholic orthodoxy, her image can be found in nearly every social setting.

Ultimately, the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe does not rest in her ability to command the devotion of millions of believers, but in her salience as a symbol of national identity.  It was underneath the banner of the Virgin that Miguel Hidalgo and other Independence-era insurgents gathered their forces to challenge Spanish colonialism, and her image has continued to resonate through the centuries as a marker of the country's unity.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Shelter from the Storm

You can't always outrun the rain.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Taqueria Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a rough holiday to celebrate abroad. As friends and family gather back home, expats either try to ignore the thoughts of turkey or mount large-scale reproductions of the gluttony, matching local ingredients to traditional recipes. Or, they binge on tacos and beer. With the complicity of my friend Matt, that is what I did.

Tacos, to be fair, take many forms, none of them resembling the crunchy, u-shaped, hard-shelled monstronsities served in middle school cafeterias. The basic idea--a soft corn tortilla filled with something--can become tacos de canasta, tacos de cabeza, tacos al pastor, tacos de mariscos, tacos al carbon, or tacos de guisado. Fillings come shaved off giant spits of seasoned pork, plucked from a cauldron of grease and diced into nuggets that melt on your tongue, flaked from the bones of meat simmered in rich sauces and ladled into the tortilla, or grilled over pungent charcoal and marinaded in their own smoke...

The humble taco is a meal at all hours. Savory and moist, warmed with steam and pulled from a basket on a street corner, it can be a satisfying breakfast. Served at sunny folding tables with plastic stools and topped with guacamole, it makes for a quick lunch. But most often, it is a meal for the night, when cantinas are closing and the warmth of the food and the spice of the salsa cuts the nip in the air.

There is, perhaps, a strange affinity between tacos and Thanksgiving. If the traditional autumn meal is best consumed in the cozy confines of a warm home amongst friends and family, the best taquerias are snug and comforting in their own way. There is a communion among those who slip into these dim nooks seeking a bit of rest and a quick meal; it is in the passing of salsas and the offerings of seats, in the crossed glances and murmured 'provecho's. Huddled around a cramped counter dotted with bowls of salsa, a bare bulb overhead pushing back the darkness, there is indeed much to be thankful for.