Archives for category: Mexican hospitality and culture

I’m back in the US,  but I can’t go without saying….

While in Mexico for a year, I developed an addiction that will be hard to get out of my blood, and certainly out of my heart, and that is my addiction to Mexico City. I visited five times–about a three-hour bus ride from Queretaro– and I was trying to figure out a way to get back there before I left. It did not happen. (I will just have to save up and get Aeromex from O’Hare.) And I will be back. The electricty that runs through me at the thought of this second largest city in the world will need recharging.A summer storm rolls in over La Reforma

I first visited late into my PC service, and when I finally did, I followed the usual routine: Go to the main plaza and figure it out from there. I was headed to the Zocalo anyway, to the Maya exhibit at the National Palace. I had no idea what I woud see when I came out of Juarez, one of the many streets that radiate from the central plaza. The Zocalo is 10 acres, anchored by the Cathedral, the largest in the world, and it seemed that Mexico had shown up that day, or at least a good percentage of the 30 million who live there.  I never saw so many people in one place at one time. A boy pulling a tarp heaped with scarves almost knocked me over. Everyone was selling something, or going somewhere. Where? Crowd-control fences  help direct the hoards moving  in and out of the metro stop to the dozens of neighborhoods surrounding this city on the plateau.

In front of the cathedral...Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

In front of the cathedral…Mexicans dressed for every occasion, in colorful indigenous skirt and vest, and bullet-proof vest

I just stood there, out of the way, gawking, which is  not a good idea–especially in Mexico City. You have to look like a big-city person. But now I had seen the big-city mother of them all. I have wanted to write about it, but I feel like that little kid pouring the ocean into a hole in the sand. I’d just had to pour more and more…

The Maya exhibit, thousands of years of history written on stone, still grips me. The shophistication, the horror–the smiles and terror etched on the faces. The two laughing statues with their pets–some things do not change, even in thousands of years. I spent a whole afternoon there, after wandering into an architectural museum on Juarez where I meant to stay a minute. Right. Hours later after studying sketches, the work of Barragan and O’Gorman, the beginnings of the building of Mexico City, a city built on a Lake Texcoco that the Aztecs had accommodated with canals, boats, gardens and pyramids–which the Spanish promptly destroyed, filling in the lake, killing off the people.

The Aztec Empire--detail from Diego Rivera's vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

The Aztec Empire–detail from Diego Rivera’s vast, fabulous murals in the National Palace on the Zocalo

When Cortes saw Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) for the first time, he reported to the king that it outrivaled Babylon and all of the greatest cities of the world. They had to have it. As if in retribution, Mexico City is sinking. I can only hope that Moctezuma is smiling somewhere.

When excating next to the Zocalo, the Mexicans unearthed one of the grandest temples to the gods ever discovered: The Templo Mayor. To walk the paths through the ruins, to see the altar of sacrifice, the black lava rocks and statues, the serpents dug up, is, in a word, thrilling.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

At the Templo Mayor, figures rest against steps of the pyramid.

The museum next to the dig is a treasure of pottery with painted stories, exhibits of gold, turquoise and obsidium, carved stone, including the great circle that shows the dismembered body of Coyolxauhqui. The story goes that her mother, Coatlicue, was sweeping one day when she picked up a ball of feathers, held it close to her stomach, and later was born, fully grown, Huitzilopochtli. Coyo was so jealous, she plotted to kill her mother, but the brother vowed to protect her, dismembering his sister with a fiery serpent.

On my visits to the city, I  anchored each trip to one or more excursions to museums or exhibits. I saved the Anthropology Museum in Chapultepec Park until last. I took the bus down La Reforma and got off at the park–wear good shoes and rest up before the trek. It is a lovely walk along the tree lined Reforma, but you need stamina for this museum, elevated on a rise in the park with a large “shade”–a beautiful length of stone that seems suspended in the air.

Stone shade at the archeology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

Stone shade at the anthropology museum in Chapultepec Park hovers in the courtyard.

The museum appears to be deceptively manageable, with two levels, one wing on each side of a courtyard, but the interior is vast, and fascinating. On one level scenes of different parts of Mexico show the cooking, the costumes, music playing (of course).  One exhibit shows the history of the maguey plant that has been around for 10,000 years, its fibers, leaves, heart used  for blankets, clothing, medicine, shampoo, rope, shoes–and, of course, pulque and tequila (although tequila comes from the blue agave, a sister of maguey).

While the Zocalo was the center for these visits, the thread that held it together was La Reforma, a wide–we are talking wide–boulevard modeled on the Champ d’Elysses with grand monuments marking the roundabouts. The stretch between the Zocolo and Chapultepec park is a sort of embassy row, with  hotels, enormous shaded trees, plenty of space for leisurely strolling.

In Chicago, we have cows;    at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands--dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

In Chicago, we have cows; at the Franz Mayer museum in Mexico City, we hands–dozens and dozens of manos with themes.

On Sundays, from 8a to 2p, the central traffic lanes from the park to the Zocalo, a distance of some six miles, are closed for bikers, skateboarders, baby carriages, all sorts of wheeled Mexicans, hoards moving at their own pace in the glorious sunshine. I thought of my cousin, Kathy, and how I have to get her down here. I did not not get a chance to ride, mostly because I did not have the time, and the traffic in Mexico City is daunting. Crossing the street on uneven pavement requires full concentration while the cars and bikes come with amazing rapidity from all directions. In the rain, it is even more terrifying.

Terrifying and surprising. Isn’t that the essence of a memorable trip? Not too much, but just enough.  One thing about visiting a city this size is the number of surprises: the variety of street food, walking in off the street into a bakery that is a small village of treats, the colorful neighborhoods I barely got to visit (Coyoacan, you are next), the music at every turn–Garibaldi Plaza is dedicated to the mariachi with dozens of bands waiting for gigs, or standing around playing in the street. I may be a Chicagoan at heart, but I’m also a good bit Chilanga–a Mexico City aficionada!!

Nancy Nau Sullivan, a former English specialist in the Peace Corps in Mexico, is the author of this blog and responsible for the content.

Las chavas  mexicanas...Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Las chavas mexicanas…Judith, Pat, Mari and Evelina

Like most Mexican meetings, this one did not start on time. I arrived at the office at 12:58, panting, ready to go at 1 as advertised. I don’t go to many meetings with the agency where I volunteer, and besides, it was Friday. I normally give myself Friday afternoon off: After 18 hours a week of teaching, I’m entitled. But who’s complaining? I teach 9 to 11 most days, and then for two hours at 4. I have a very long lunch hour, and if I’ve been up reading a novel all night, I’m tired and I want to take a nap.

I didn’t really want to go to this meeting, but Ingeniero said it would be “special.” When he says “special,” I listen.

We were going to caravan to the meeting out in the country at a state cultural center. At 1:45, the train had not left. I waited at my desk looking over the various letters, resumes and practice essays my students send me from time to time for editing. Now I was looking forward to the meeting.

At 2:45, Mauricio came to get me: “Listo?” I had moved on to Facebook and was figuring the plot to a novel by then, but we got in the car, headed out of Querétaro, down the crammed highway of semi’s and dusty cars (a little like the Chicago Dan Ryan), passing fields of cactus and mesquite–those low round trees reminding me of thin women with short feathery hair–past the broken and black soil ready for planting. If I didn’t know where I was, I’d swear it was Argentina. As always when I’m on one of these treks, I pump the driver for info: What are your favorite places in Mexico (Cancun, Guanajuato, the place where the hot river meets the cold river in the Sierra near Jalapan). Music? Mauricio wanted to know my favorite music. The guitar, when my sons play it and sing–the blues from my youngest son, Letter in September from the eldest, Cádiz played by my third son, lullabies from my second son to the babies, Yesterday when the Beatles sing it, anything Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nora Jones. I don’t know. I like it all, but I don’t care much for rap, except for when Eminem sings it. Mauricio likes balladas, rancheros, salsa, danzon (a mix of dance and Cuban influence from Veracruz).

After my meeting with Mauricio during the 25-minute drive, the special meeting started at 3:25. Ingeniero is funny, but I don’t understand half of the jokes. His sentences run together, and he uses colloquialisms that everyone laughs at uproariously. I got the general idea that the agency was doing very well, in fact, the secretary of education was there to say the “results are impressive in all areas with advances in science and technology… congratulations on your work. Angel Ramirez (Ingeniero) is an excellent leader.” The agency supported almost 40 students on scholarships in 10 countries–9 in the US. Many of them had been my students, and Ingeniero said so, and how happy he was I was there helping and teaching. That certainly made me perk up at the meeting.

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

Marco tends the chorizo, marinated beef and tortillas on the grill (the anafre).

The smell of smoke, of chorizo and arranchero (marinated beef), wafted into the meeting room. Time for comida. Wendy brought tubs of cooked meat, nopal (cactus), quesadillas, volcanoes, and the cake. The rondalla arrived: six men in black suits with guitars, their hair slicked back, ties knotted. One was Ingeniero’s son. Ingeniero sang, too. Evelina kept urging him to do a solo, but he declined–his throat, he didn’t have his guitar. Well, he sang along. He dedicated one song to the women–something lyrical that sang the praises of “divine” women and song and the bottle:

pudieramos morir en las cantinas
y nunca lograriamos olvidarlas
mujeres…o…mujeres tan divinas
no queda otro camino que adorarlas

Which translates something like this: We could die in the cantinas and never find ourselves forgetting them, women, o women, so divine. No other way remains then to adore them.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

The Rondalla: Singing ballads mixes nicely with business.

All of this sounds like the Mexicans aren’t serious about business. Al contrario. I think they understand the necessary balance of it, at least the ones I work with, my dozen or so comrades at HQ in Querétaro. They are on time for work, they grab the phones when Coco can’t, they stay long hours, they laugh, they share, they stop and have cake and sing for each and every birthday. They are courteous, and always concerned, but never intrusive. They have ideas. They seem to love my never-ending, annoying questions all the while I’m trying to be a large fly on the wall. I’ve never heard a cross word in nearly nine months. But when it’s time to mix the arranchero and tortilla with the meeting, it’s on.

This was a business meeting?

Sometimes people just know how to do business.

The views herewith are mine and not necessarily those of the Peace Corps–Nancy Nau Sullivan, University English Specialist, Queretaro, Mexico

Engineer Angel Ramirez, director (the boss) at the state agency, CONCYTEQ, in Queretaro, Mexico

Engineer Angel Ramirez, director (the boss) at the state agency, CONCYTEQ, in Queretaro, Mexico

Heavy on the cologne, never stopping in one place for very long, he cleans his glasses with the tips of his fingers and kisses everyone when he comes into the office.

I never see him angry, but if he is displeased, he might grumble something that sounds like: Aye, carramba!

He called me into his office this week.  When the boss does that, sometimes it makes a person fluttery, and not with love but anticipation of an ass-chewing or something of that nature.  He wanted to give me a CD of his band of 12 musicians and singers, Rondalla Ilusion Bohemia, which includes his three sons, five guitars and a bass. They write and play and sing rondallas, which are mostly peppy ballads and serenades.  He explained that the old custom was for the young man to serenade the senorita under her balcony at 1 o’clock in the morning (at the earliest), and if she let a light down to him, she was interested.

Times have changed. He pointed this out again on the way to Queretaro’s botanical garden in Cadereyta de Montes.  He was seated up front, then he unbuckled his safety belt and turned around to tell me how times have changed:  “I remember when there was no cell phone, and then we had them the size of bricks with antennitas.  The technology changes, but some things do not, like the friendship and love we have for our children, our friends and family, and our spouses (well, sometimes that changes but that’s all right, he said).

This seemed mundane, although true, and dangerous (I was hoping he’d put his seat belt back on).  He wanted me to listen to a CD in the console:  Out came the clear, beautiful voice of the late Rocio Durcal singing “Eternal Love,” written by Juan Gabriel about his mother who died in Acapulco while the two were vacationing there.  Then we moved on to: “Camino de Guanajuato” by Jose Jimenez, a ranchero song about an accident that killed his brother.   These were some pretty sad tunes, even when I couldn’t understand half of them!

“Many of our songs are composed in the moment of sadness,” said the boss.

“Yes, the story is sad but we sing happy,” said Hector, an engineer sitting next to me in the back seat.  The next song was about beer.

At the botanical garden,  the boss and the other staff members had a meeting, and I wandered around among the cacti with Erica, my guide. Suffice it to say, I felt a little like I was on another planet, a sort of Seuss-like wonderland of marvelous things, from tall thin cactus with white hair on top to flowering oregano plants (more later in another post).

Hector, Emiliano, me, and El Ingeniero, the boss,  l-r

Hector, Emiliano, me, and El Ingeniero, the boss, l-r

Afterwards, we went to a restaurant of the sort I find typical in Mexico:  It is quite large and resembles a renovated hacienda with tile, pillars, alcoves and cornices, painted in that ochre orange that reminds me of a beloved flower pot.  The chairs are straight-backed, and the linen, though it has holes, is clean and pressed.  The waiter appeared immediately for the drink order.  There was some discussion and laughing, and I said I would have what he (the boss) was having.  Then they really laughed.  Shots of Centenario tequila all around, with chasers of sangre (blood), a tomato juice concoction with a salted rim.  Preliminary to taking the first sip, I sucked a lime, licked the salt from my fist and then drank the tequila, followed by the blood.  Delicioso.

But nothing compares to what we ate.  A buffet was set up in front of the bar with vegetables, salads, breads,  and, among other things, chicken in mole, that delectable sauce of up to 30 ingredients with chocolate, pumpkin seeds, nuts, herbs, garlic, onions, and a variety of chiles.  This was not the main act.  A waiter came around with at least eight different cuts of grilled meat, chicken and sausage on skewers, each better than the last, crunchy on the outside with salted herbs.  At each pass, he slid a chunk or two on to our plates.  We had salsa made at the table with roasted tomatoes, chiles (pick the kind you want, pica–hot to taste–or not), garlic, cilantro, onion, and beer, ground in a sort of mortar and pestle of black volcanic rock called a molcajete.  (The flavors of tomato, beer and garlic were a sensation.)

All the while this parade of food went to the table–the boss ordered warm tortillas when our stack got cold, and he insisted I wait for the warm ones.  He ate with such vigor and determination, I wondered where he put it all, and the others, too.  Mario finished one of the skewers.  Hector ordered another table-side batch of salsa, Emiliano went back for pickled cactus, which I tried (weird, not sweet and not sour either),  pan de dulce (pound cake) and dedos de novia (fingers of my sweetheart).  The boss finished off with a bolillo, a French roll, and he offered me the end.  I didn’t ask, I just went along with it.  I’ll do what he says, except eat crickets (chapalinas), which he says are crunchy and delicious.  I’ll take his word for it.

On the way back, he took my arm when we went down steps, walked on the outside of the narrow sidewalk, opened the car door for me. He makes sure that I’m included among his staff:  It’s the small things, and some large ones but not over-the-top (simmer down, PC):  a pin with the state agency emblem, two uniform shirts that I wear on Mondays and Wednesdays with the others, an invitation to the Christmas party with a staggering buffet of Mexican treats at a fancy local hotel, a box of groceries (a dispensa) that everyone received, including canned peas, evaporated milk and Zucaritas (Frosted Flakes, I think).  To celebrate Candelaria, we all ate tamales together in the conference room. I always feel included. I gave him a box of Fanny May pixies, my dad’s favorite, and it was a major hit.

The boss is infectiously generous and happy, and I am one of his many happy people working for him, more like, working with him.  He greets us all with affection.  A hug can be peremptory; but, un abrazo–an embrace–is three syllables strong.   His cologne is a reminder of welcome.  And, by the way, his rondallas are maravillosas!

Nancy Nau Sullivan is a University English Specialist, Peace Corps, at the Consejo de Ciencia y Tecnologia (CONCYTEQ) in Queretaro, Mexico. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the Peace Corps.

%d bloggers like this: