Friday, February 27, 2009

Adventures in the Big City

This past week Josh and I traveled to Mexico City (D.F. for Distrito Federal) for the mid-year Fulbright reunion. Each Fulbrightee presented a 10 minute synopsis of the progress they have had on their proposed project. The range of topics was vast and included the following:
• Katie Day Good, an MTV Fulbrighter with an easy-going personality and a great enthusiasm for a diverse range of music. She has been living in D.F. taking mariachi classes and studying pre-rock Mexican music and is about to move to Xalapa to diversify her studies. On her blog The Mex Tape she posts some terrific tracks of music, as well as witty writing.

• Colleen Kinder, a D.F.-er who is writing about ex-patriots living in Mexico, namely in Ajijic, a town located on Lake Chapala, which is 45 minutes from Guadalajara. She kindly let us take over her bed the last night we were in Mexico City.

• José Cabrerra, our friend the art therapist living in Queretaro. Part of his work includes the start-up of a men's group and dealing with violence within the home. His wife is Naomi and the pair have become fast friends of ours (see Day of the Dead post).

Aside from the few I mentioned, there were doctors, professors, performance artists, students, musicians, scientists... the whole spectrum. Much like orientation back in September, there was a summer camp-esque feeling to the reunion, yet instead of tents it was a comfortable hotel, and in place of camp food were delicious Mexican meals. Josh and I have made great friends who are all living in Mexico for similar reasons, yet have such different and interesting backgrounds and fields of knowledge. We are hoping to remain in contact with many for a long time to come.

On Saturday a group of 24 of us took a nearly two hour long taxi ride down to the southern edges of the city to a place called Xochimilco, which is a remaining glimpse of what Mexico City's landscape used to be. D.F. was built over the top of swamp land and is essentially sinking today because of the soft earth below. At Xochimilco the waterways have not been covered and intertwine between islands that have been built up for growing fruits and vegetables and decorative plants. This area is beautiful, yet has been "touristified" to accommodate the hoards of visitors who come to ride on man-powered boats and drink libations and eat good food amongst friends.

Intermingled with the boats occupied by merrymakers are smaller boats with vendors selling elote (corn on the cob), cerveza and micheladas (cerveza with a kick), flowers, candied apples and later when it became dark there were candle and blanket vendors floating by. Each boat offered something different to watch, whether it was a huge group celebrating with a mariachi band boat hitched up to their side, or a more intimate group sharing a meal and drinks.
A michelada vendor

Another michelada vendor

Naomi, Carlos and I enjoying the ice cream in fruit cups.

Colleen and the flower vendor

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I felt compelled to write a bit about Josh's work after viewing a video clip of the couple Pedro and Rocío who wash windshields on a busy thoroughfare. In Josh's video the focus turned to a tight shot of Pedro's mother's weathered face. His mom sits on a nearby sidewalk all day and sells gum to passers by. She is nearly blind and waits on her son to walk her home at the end of the day.

It is apparent that life has not been easy for her. She is probably in her early 60's, but looks to be in her late 70's, with deep wrinkles, missing teeth and cataracts. And what is so stirring to me is that in this video clip she is crying, revealing to Josh that she is not happy and that life has been hard. I choked up when I saw this, and am choking up as I write about her. I do not know much about her, nor her long life, but I know she does not deserve to sit in the hot sun day after day wishing that her life was better. This morning when I was talking to Josh I remarked on what I deem the lottery of life; where and what you are born into can determine so much of your destiny. We are very lucky to have what we have.

Some day Josh will publish the video, which will be much more powerful than my description. He is developing quite a collection of still and moving images of many stories which are going to take him months to edit. I am hopeful that his work can help be an agent of change for this very story and beyond.

Friday, February 20, 2009

An Invitation

This morning I rode the bus the long ride up to Cerro del Cuatro solo for the artisan cooperative bi-weekly meeting. During the first half of the meeting I spent much of the time listening intently for any hint of Spanish as they conversed and planned in Otomí. Then it turned over to Español and I was able to make a few announcements and show them a brochure that I am designing for the group. Afterward as I was leaving Alberta and her daughter Alicia (can see these women on the site) walked along with me, and I was about to part ways and they told me they wanted me to come and see their house.
We walked down the dusty hill a ways and came upon a gray cinder block house with a green door. The inside was modest, and Alberta apologized to me telling me that they were poor and did not have a very nice house. After that I made darn sure to compliment the place over and over. Light streamed in from the little back yard where they have a peach and guayaba tree as well as a young mamee fruit tree shading a little patch of grass. Back on the inside, Alberta sat down to show me how she weaves the straps for the bags that she makes, and Alicia and I sat at the kitchen table.

The neighbor came over, a woman who has five small children and who is married to an Otomí man. She talked about having little money- not even enough to pay for the uniforms for all of her kids to be able to attend school. This made me ever more grateful for CODENI, and the possibilities that this organization offers. I was quick to recommend this to her. As I walked back down the hill to catch the bus, I felt touched by the experience but also had a big weight on my shoulders, thinking about so many in need, and the notion that if they work hard enough, they can get ahead. It doesn't always work this way.

On a different note, I have posted some of Josh's photos from Tuxpan down below. He has so many that I wish I could share, but I kept it pretty limited, hopefully lending a bit of a sense of the people and the place.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Josh and I traveled this past weekend with our friends Liam, who is here working for the U.S. Consulate, and Meghan, who is working for NPR from afar to stay in the beautiful colonial city of Morelia, located in the heart of Michoacán (a state that borders Jalisco).

We spent a day wandering the city plazas and saw balloon vendor after vendor being sought after for gifts for loved ones. The buildings were grandiose, including an incredibly ornate cathedral dating back to the 1700's, beautiful convents and government buildings dating back to the 1500's, and a music conservatory in an impressive stone building that once housed widows and orphans. The city is saturated with European influences due to the occupation by the Spanish in the 1500's. This was all in great contrast to our experience in an indigenous pueblo a few days prior.

On Sunday we hopped in a van with five others and our tour guide named Carlos and drove three hours to a butterfly sanctuary called "El Rosario." Each year millions of butterflies migrate from the great lakes states and Canada down to this location in México for warmth, food and to mate. They all stay concentrated in small sections of the mountains and stick with each other for more warmth. We hiked up toward the top of the mountain, which was around 10,000 feet and were completely surrounded by fluttering magnificence. This is your preview... movie to be released by tomorrow. Please stay posted.

Lunch being prepared at the little 'cafe' we visited after our hike.

Liam and Meghan at lunch

Friday, February 13, 2009

Experience of a Lifetime

In preparing for this particular blog entry, I felt completely overwhelmed about where to begin and how to sum it all up. I decided that the best that I can do is break our trip to Tuxpan, Jalisco into more manageable categories. Many more photos will soon come (thanks to Josh), but for now it is primarily the info.

The Huichol community of Tuxpan is located on a small plateau in the Sierra Madre mountains. Josh and I began on a second-class 'tour' bus out of a station in north Guadalajara, and rode for around 6 hours on a winding road through the mountains. The views were incredible and included enormous canyons and craggy ridge lines. We arrived in a pueblo called Balaños and switched to a small and sturdy bus and rode for 3 more hours on a rough dirt road. Josh and I gaped out the window at steep drop-offs, with nothing to stop a vehicle from falling over the edge. All of our trust was in a bus driver we had only just met.
We were on one of the only buses that heads to Tuxpan, which arrives each day at 5PM from the south. The other, which we left on to head back to Guadalajara, arrives at 6AM from the north. The morning we left the bus was packed full of people. I did not notice until she was exiting that a woman who had been standing up near the driver was not only holding the hand of a small toddler, but also had a baby in a sling over her shoulder. No one had offered a seat for her! And at another point a mother and her small boy got on, and they were barely given enough room. I reached across the aisle and set him on my lap and he stayed.

I am going to sound preachy here, but many of us- especially in the United States- take this for granted with long showers, sprinkler systems and swimming pools, to name a few. I have thought that I have had it bad in Guadalajara, having to rely on the delivery of huge water jugs for our kitchen, and not daring to wash fruit or vegetables under tap water. But in Tuxpan no one is coming by with water deliveries. A flushing toilet, let alone a toilet at all is hard to come by. Showers and baths as we know them are an abstract notion. Each day a little bit of water was pumped in through a hose at Maria and Juan's, which was enough to supply for clean? drinking water and the washing of clothes and dishes.


There are limited resources in Tuxpan. The people who live in this harsh region are only able to grow corn and beans where they live, which must last them throughout the year. Though it is warm enough for year-round crops, the lack of water during the dry season limits production. There are the occasional chickens, cows and pigs, but for the most part, all food items must be brought in from afar. Hence, most of the food in the markets is the same; canned items, a little produce, and a few drink selections. When we arrived at Maria and Juan’s house, Maria, her daughter, and Maria’s ‘assistant’ were busy grinding the corn off of dried cobs. Every meal seems to revolve around tortillas, which were the best we have eaten during our time so far in México.

The Family
(The confusing part)
Because Juan was elected ‘governor’ of Tuxpan, he is living there with part of his family instead of Huamastita (another Huichol community that is a 12KM hike away) for the year. At their small house in Tuxpan there are five kids currently living with Juan and Maria. This includes Eugenia who is three, and Paola (the baby with hydrocephalus) who is one. Jesús and Elizabet (2-year-old twins) are Maria and Juan’s grandchildren, and are living with them while Maria’s eldest daughter and husband are working in Guadalajara. Maria and Juan’s 13-year-old daughter does not attend school and stays at home each day to watch all of these kids and help with chores. The other four of Maria and Juan’s kids are still living in Huamastita, two of which are daughters and each has an infant and a husband. And another child to the eldest daughter (who is living in Guadalajara) is living in Huamastita with this bunch.
If you have been doing the math, this totals to 8 children and five grandchildren to Maria and Juan (who are still in their thirties).

Maria and her second-eldest daughter who is holding her sister Paola. Her baby was asleep in a hammock.

The town itself includes various tiendas selling the necessities. There is a pavilion for gathering. A mysterious Huichol “church,” is located at the center of Tuxpan. Rarely a car goes by. A number of people simply sit in the pueblo center and pass the time. And from anywhere you look from this pueblo you see large, beautiful mountains.
There is no running water at Juan and Maria’s house, or most throughout the pueblo for that matter. People head to the nearby fields to go to the bathroom. Bathing is done down at a small well in the town center. There is a river nearby, but we did not venture down to see its state. People do have electricity in Tuxpan, yet use it sparingly. Stray dogs and cats roam the dusty roads in town. Burros can be found on every corner. Roosters crowed, dogs fought. This often annoyed the burros who would begin going into hysterics.

Juan and Maria's
Most of the Huichol families have separate little brick buildings for different sleeping quarters and the kitchen. At Juan and Maria's there were three buildings built around a small yard. In the yard hangs a clothesline, barrels for collecting water, a plastic table and chairs, a brick oven, and little patch of ground where there was always a little fire burning.

The kids were always dirty, as their yard is simply a gently sloping dirt hill. They would roll around and fall into the dirt and laugh at each other and themselves. Even Paola crawled along in the dirt. I found myself constantly comparing the scene to many homes in the states, and how overly cautious many people are with regard to cleanliness and safety. At the same time, it was incredibly hard to see them with runny noses combined with dirt and dry caked food.

They were always hungry. They had hot soup and tortillas for breakfasts, and it was less clear to me what they were having to eat for lunch and dinner, aside from more tortillas. The 13-year-old was often left to watch all of the kids as Maria would head into the pueblo center to see Juan or visit with other ladies.

We brought a tent along, but upon arrival Maria proudly showed us to where we could stay for our visit. We slept in a small concrete room that will soon serve as a little store run by Juan and Maria.
There was a thick smell of ammonia, so we kept the door open at night with a piece of cardboard propped up against the bottom to keep stray dogs and creatures out at night. On the third night as Josh and I were finishing a meal of canned tuna, veggies and tostadas, Josh looked up on the wall and exclaimed, “There’s a scorpion.” Sure enough, it was. All that I have known about scorpions is that they are bad, and in the videogame “Pitfall,” if you run into one, you die. So we (meaning Josh) acted fast and got rid of it. And then proceeded to set up our tent inside of the cement room. It felt so silly to do this as we looked out at the beautiful scene outside, but we did not want to offend.

My encounter

On the second day in Tuxpan I parted from Josh for a bit and began the hike to Huamastita. Along the way I came up behind a young woman carrying a baby, moving very quickly despite her load. It turns out that the baby was 5 days old. The woman had probably hiked into Tuxpan to deliver, and was then on her return hike. I offered to help carry the baby, but the woman declined (I cannot imagine giving my own newborn baby up for some strange woman that appeared out of nowhere to carry either). We walked up and down along steep terrain, I in my durable running shoes, she in plastic dress shoes. And she had the baby. It was quite a moving experience for me as I walked behind her, thinking about how I have trained for triathlons and running races in the states, and how ludicrous that would seem to her, as she was used to great physical feats out of necessity- not for recreation.

I had a lot of time to think while we were away on this trip, and thus wondered deeply about the Huichol community, and others like them around the world. How long will they continue to live so separate from the rest of society? There were many who were quite hesitant about Josh and I, especially upon sight of Josh's camera. This made us wonder if they are worried about their exploitation. Maybe they have been burned by others. Or possibly they feel that their exposure will only lead to a rapid demise.
In a time when life could be lived with conveniences, why are they living without many of them. Or do they wonder about us on the outside and shake their heads because many of us out here would not know how to survive without such conveniences. Whatever the case, I have a great sense of respect for the commitment that they have held to traditions that withstood the sweep of colonialism across this country.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Huamustita Bound

Tomorrow Josh and I are setting out to Tuxpan de Bolaños, the closest town to Huamustita, which is a Huichol pueblo up in the Sierra Mountains. Despite the fact this destination is still in the state of Jalisco, it will be a 7 hour bus ride on windy mountain roads. Maria, the Huichol woman with Paola, the baby with hydrocephalus returned home today after being told that the doctors in Guadalajara would like to reassess Paola's condition in June. Paola's head is still retaining a good deal of fluid, but it is not serious enough to carry out an operation. Yet. Josh and I are heading north so that he can document where they are from, which is an important piece of the story on the migration of indigenous groups in México. We aim to head back on Friday.

This past weekend was terrific, as we had our friends from Querétaro visiting. José and Naomi are art therapists living and working in Querétaro city, and Naomi's brother Will was along with them too. José is a Fulbright Grantee who has begun a couple of different groups helping men and families deal with violence within the home. We made an obligatory trip to the tianguis and hit Lucha Libre on Sunday evening as a special treat for José's birthday.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


There is a man named Luis who has a taco cart that he parks a few blocks from our house, and he calls me Meli. I introduced myself some time ago as Melissa, but he has remembered me as Meli and I have not corrected him. Throughout my life I have had a number of nicknames, many of them christened by my parents: Missy, M, Minerva, Mistletoe, Toe, Minnie, Mel, Mis, M'er. And now it's Meli. And today when I went to go and purchase a flower pot from a shop right next to his taco cart, the woman overheard Luis talking to me and when she gave me my change she said, "Gracias Meli." And so, on the corner of Nicolas Romero and Plan de San Luis in Mezquitan Country, Guadalajara, México, people know me as Meli.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


On Monday Josh and I decided to set out for a nearby archeological site called Guachimontones. We caught a bus at the old station, which put us on a slow path to get there. We also ended up with a driver who nearly hit a cyclist, and made a couple of highway passes with oncoming sugarcane trucks coming at us, and made a couple of cell phone calls along the way. I don't think Josh and I will sit in the front seat again as I think these things are better left unknown.
We were dropped off in Teuchitlán, a pretty little town at the base of the hill that hosts the ruins. It was beautiful. And quiet. At each of the archeological sites that I have visited, this is always the case... they are eerily quiet places that make it hard to imagine what went on when the place was thriving. Though we knew little about the history of the site, it was great to take in the views, for beyond the main circular structure is a great volcano and lake at its base. We hiked up to a lookout point (you can see our view below).

Afterwards we stopped at a spot along a river where there were a series of swimming pools. It was packed, as Monday was a holiday (Constitution Day) in México. And about every rule that I was used to enforcing as a lifeguard back in the day, was broken. People were sitting along the edges of the pools drinking beers in glass bottles, there was pushing, running on deck, there were chicken fights... a very drunk man in jeans and a cowboy hat was dropped into the pool by his buddy. And clearly he did not know how to swim. When he finally made it to safety, his buddies rewarded him with another beer.
The rule-following part of me was getting very stressed out. So we decided to go and purchase beers in glass bottles and sit along the edge of a pool.

The ride home was long, as the roads were packed with people returning to the city. Josh spent most of the busride standing along with other chivalrous men. As we were biking home from the bus station my tire flatted. I am not sure how many times this has happened now? All that glass in the streets from people not following rules and drinking beer in glass bottles...

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Our good friend Octavio invited us to his relative's quinceañera, or the celebration of a girl's "coming of age." This is a topic that I have not yet had the chance to cover. If one was to take a walk through the city center, they would encounter a block where there is store after store of brightly colored formal dresses. Each time Josh and I have gone running at our favorite park we see a different quinceañera girl in a brilliant dress getting photographed. The quinceañera industry in México is nearly as big as the wedding industry, and expenses include the dress, the hair and nails, photography, the music, the food... there is even a role for the muchachos as the girl of honor picks five to be her escorts throughout the event. On this particular evening, the girl of honor was Lupita, and we began by attending a church service, which featured her kneeling at the front of the church throughout the mass. All photos below were taken by Josh.

Lupita's little sister, dressed in the same color as her older sister.

Octavio and his niece, Estafaña

While we were waiting for the party to begin, a number of niños and I discussed the idiosyncrasies of language... ie; they asked me how I said a word in English, and I told them, over and over and over. Vaca=cow. Juan=John. Servieta=napkin.

Lupita making her grand entrance with her five escorts.

The escorts and part of the big green cake.

After Lupita's entrance, they put on not one, not two, but three choreographed dances.

And then they broke out the balloons.

Octavio's niece's Estafaña and Sofía enjoying the show. Well, actually, I think Estafaña was starting to get a little worn out.

Lupita's father presented her with a doll that was wearing a similar dress.

Then Lupita and her friends changed into something more comfortable and did another dance routine.

This was an event that Octavio thought we should see while living in México, and we were quite fortunate for that. It reminded me how awkward and complex it was to be a teen as I scanned the dance floor throughout the night and watched the party.