Month: January 2012

Dia de los Muertos, November 2011

“the authentic and true death is forgetting”

Every November in Chapala, the community puts up altars for Day of the Dead on one of the town’s main streets. It is just amazing to go over there every year and see what they’ve done; it’s always different from year to year. Some of the altars are traditional ones honoring departed loved ones – relatives, friends teachers, important figures in the area, even movie stars and famous singers. But some of the most interesting ones are political or social – this year there were altars and processions honoring those who have perished in Mexico’s drug wars, a wonderful altar to the great Mexican painter Tamayo; an altar to protest the very controversial proposed new pipeline which will take water from the lake to provide water for the teeming millions in Guadalajara. We love going every year; in spite of the not-always-for-the-best incursions of global monoculture into Mexican traditional life, Dia de Los Muertos just seems to keep hanging in there, and in many communities, as young people put their own stamp on this ancient holiday which combines elements of the pre-Hispanic and Spanish cultures. It is fascinating for an outsider to watch.

In Chapala, lots of people chip in money, time and effort to make these altars and then, once night falls and the candles are lit, people from all over come to walk the several blocks where the altars are set up to walk by them all and check them out, the same way we used to drive by over-the-top suburban Christmas light displays when I was a kid. There is music, little kids perched on their dads’ backs, teenagers hanging around (Sofia of course was there checking it all out with her school friends), people handing out traditional drinks and pieces of the traditional bread of the dead, pan de muerto, foreigners, dogs, everyone having a great time. Of course, at all the local cemeteries, the graves are still decorated, families come to the cemetery to visit their departed loved ones with food and drink, kids run around, and the traffic in front of the cemetery requires bunches of extra cops to manage the flow.

As with many contemporary manifestations of tradition, some things – remarkably – still seem fairly permanent. They say that the orange of the marigolds was a holdover from the Aztecs, who thought that the brilliant orange of the flowers would light the way for the spirits to come back to touch base with the living; the purple of course was the color of Christ and of Christianity; black for European notions of mourning, and so forth. Every altar pretty much as the requisite mirror (so the dead can spiff themselves up after the arduous  journey back here), soap, towel, comb and basin. The usually four levels of the altars also have meaning and were taken from Aztec tradition. And so it goes.

Kids love putting on face paint....

Altar commemorating a fellow who died from drinking too much....


Altar to victims of the drug war


Traditional altar

Altar for the great Mexican painter, Rufino Tamayo. That is ME with the camera reflected in the mirror!

Detail of the altar for Rufino Tamayo
Death to violence in Mexico
Traditional altar
Traditional altar
on Calle 5 de Mayo

Papel Picado

Traditional altar

Parade of young people protesting violence in Mexico

Protesting the proposed new aqueduct taking lake water to Guadalajara

The Authentic and True Death is Forgetting

Rosa and Sofia

Moving to Mexico, one needs a maid. It is just written into the DNA of the culture that most “middle class” or “upper middle class” houses have maids. When I was a kid living in Mexico City in the ‘fifties we had two, an upstairs one and a downstairs one. They lived in a tiny little house in the back where the stone laundry sink was. Their quarters were very basic, to say the least. Our downstairs maid, Rosa, was just a couple of years older than I was, and we got to be pretty good friends talking about boys and clothes and makeup (which my mother disapproved of; she didn’t like me getting to close to the “help”.) The upstairs maid was Cuca. Refugio was her real name and I always wished someone would have named ME Refugio, but nice Jewish girls didn’t get names like that, or at least the ones from Encino like me. Maybe if I’d been Sephardic. Cuca was in her sixties at that point and was the only illiterate person I had ever met (granted, I was only twelve) and it fascinated me how she managed to answer the phone, take messages and navigate in the city.

In any event, landing in Mexico again fifty years later, we still needed a maid. One of our friends had a terrific maid who needed some extra work, so she joined our household, though nowadays most maids don’t live in, unless the house is a pretty big one. Rosa, who comes to clean three days a week, and stays here to guard the house when we are traveling, turned out to be an even better friend to me than the earlier Rosa had been. She is one of the most intuitive and sensitive women I’ve ever met. Now in her late forties, she was forced to drop out of school in the second grade because “girls don’t need to go to school” and because her family was so poor they couldn’t afford shoes and school supplies, let alone uniforms and the modest fees the Mexican primary schools require. She somehow taught herself to read and write and though she is more than bright enough to have done any number of things, her lot was to clean houses. She does this with dignity and grace and we have become very fond of her over the years.

Sofia (2009, age 13) and Rosa

Rosa of course got married way too young. She had a male child who died, but her other three daughters survived: Mireya, Gaby, and the baby, Sofia. Rosa had to endure quite a bit of rejection from her husband and his family because she never produced another boy. She couldn’t really move out, but she did manage to have as little to do with her husband as possible and swore to herself that if nothing else, she would raise her three girls without violence. She decided she would never, under any circumstances, hit them, and she never has. The two older girls now have children of their own (more on them later!) But when I got to know the youngest child, Sofia, she told me that all she wanted to do was study, that she didn’t want to be dragged down with babies like the others. She was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to go to secundaria (middle school) when the time came, because her mom was “just a maid” and even though she was at the top of her class and her school, she was not certain that she would be able to continue.

Me, Sofia and Arnold at her Primary School Graduation

Sofia's Graduating Class - Primary School

Of course, Sofia was smart enough to come to me! (She probably knew a sucker when she saw one). I told her that if she continued to keep her grades up, Arnold and I would help her stay in school and we’d help her go as far as she wanted. We began to help with tuition, uniforms, books, and other expenses through one of the local charities that exists as a go-between to help expats who want to provide that sort of assistance to deserving kids in the local public schools. That arrangement went on for a couple of years, and Sofia continued to do well academically, but we could see that she was utterly alone, without any friends, and I suspected underneath it all, she was pretty depressed. The girls were all pairing up with boys and the pressure was on her to find a “novio” pretty soon. She hated the whole business.

I felt that the time might be coming to yank her out of there and try to get her into a better school where she would meet kids from families who expected their children not only to finish high school, but to go on to college, since while she couldn’t fully articulate it, I knew that was what she wanted for herself as well. I wangled a meeting with the headmaster of one of the good private schools here, and showed up with Sofi’s grades, her “reconocimientos” (awards) and helped Rosa fill out an application for a scholarship. Sofia was accepted and given a 50% scholarship – we and other friends are making up the difference. Since she has been at the new school, she has been a whole new kid. For the first time in her life, she has friends – gobs of them, and a real social life. She loves it there.

We are about to get her first set of grades since she made the transfer – we’ll see soon how tough the coursework has been for her and how difficult the academic adjustment has been. But it has been fun to see her blossom into a regular old teenager, complete with a “crowd” of girls to hang out with, occasional bouts of predictable moodiness, and a keen desire to have the coolest clothes she can possibly scrounge together. Her new friends, most of whom come from far wealthier families, have been very kind to her and welcomed her into her new “salon” (class) with open arms. She was terrified of course, and so was Rosa, that it would be hard for her to make that social leap. Rosa and Sofia share a bed in Rosa’s tiny house; all Sofia wants is a bed and a room of her own someday. At least planning to go on to college, she may have half a chance of actually getting one.

Back home (wherever that is…)

Going back to the States is always so complicated….we get off the plane, we readjust to everyone speaking English, we hit the stores the second we unpack to begin stocking up on whatever we are missing. We dive into the retail offerings like children going after whatever a smashed piñata has scattered to the ground; then when we raise our heads from the bins and racks and go outside to whichever street it is, we marvel at the cleanliness and orderliness of it all…no plastic bags and empty bottles scattered around, no dead dogs by the side of the road, no dusty garbage heaps covered only by the weeds the current rainy season has so generously helped to cover.

We see family and friends and catch up on everything and wish, for a moment, that our lives had been different; that we had gone to the right schools and gotten the right degrees and had a life that would have enabled us to stay in our Ancestral Homeland with comfortable retirement funds and the luxury of living in one of these great cities without having to work and be in front of a desk every day despite blizzards or flu or rain or just not feeling like it that day. But our lives turned out to be vastly, vastly different. Who knows why?  There are hints, of course. Firstly that I had lived in Mexico as a kid, and loved it here. Did NOT want to come back to the U.S., having no interest in being an American teenager. I knew that any attempt short, dark, chubby ME would make at fitting in to a life where the kids were pert, blond, long-limbed and not particularly interested in listening to Beethoven or opera at age 14 was going to be a colossal failure. And in that, despite my youth, I was correct.


So for many reasons my destiny was to keep moving; away from New Haven, where I was born (and where one branch of my family still lives), to Los Angeles as an infant with my parents; then away from there to college in Boston; then away from there to San Francisco to put my then-husband through graduate school and begin a range of challenging – and rather interesting – bunch of varied jobs doing all sorts of things. We left Oakland for Santa Fe. And fifteen years into our Santa Fe life it occurred to us that the reason we had liked it so much was that it was about as close as you could get to living in a foreign country and not leaving the U.S. That, of course, begged the question “well, why not GO to a foreign country, then?” We made trips to Italy, to Germany, to France, and imagined ourselves living in all the cities where we rented apartments for a week or two. But Mexico was the most practical – my parents were both alive and needed constant attention and monitoring of their care back in Santa Fe; I still had to work enough to help bring in some income, and quarterly trips back to the U.S. were mandatory, at least for a while.

Thus it was that in 2006 we sold our house in Santa Fe, packed up our stuff and the cats, and headed south to see what Mexico could offer us in the way of a new life – willing to trade off the conveniences of our American life for the freedom of ditching the day jobs, the mortgage, the car payment, the stress.

So far, the tradeoff has been a good one.

Carnaval parade, February 2009

October 12, 2011 – Plane landed, and the bus takes us to Customs as usual. Was prepared for the usual “we are back in this crazy place, maybe we should have stayed in the States, it is so nice and clean and orderly there” feelings I always have when we come back from a trip. But was immediately distracted from all that by brand new desks for the customs agents and spiffy new uniforms for the porters that are white mariachi shirts and traditional red bow ties! They look terrific, handsome and eager to help. Got outside looking for Luis to take us home but he wasn’t there, but found his brother Miguel, assigned to bring us home. With him was his five-year old son Ivan (more often than not, Mexico has Bring Your Child To Work Day) who delighted us the whole way home by telling us how in kindergarten he has now learned to count forward AND backward from zero to twenty, how he has learned his colors and one-two-three-four-five in English, and how he has a new game which involves buying and selling toy cars and he has to learn the “marcas” of every single car on the road in order to play it. So it was “that’s a Ford!” “That’s a Chevy!” all the way home. His father said “Hijo, fasten your seat belt and then count from twenty to zero backwards for the Señor and the Señora”. This Ivan did, several times.

We got home, Rosa opened the gate when we rang, and the first sound I heard (other than Reina barking) was the splashing of our fountain. She threw her arms around us and insisted on dragging the suitcases into the house across the courtyard, through the pathway littered with the fallen orange blossoms of our galeana tree.. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all, I thought.

¡Hola! We Are Still Here…


Since my husband Arnold and I moved to Mexico (from Santa Fe, New Mexico) in 2007, any number of our friends have asked me “why don’t you start a blog?” Truthfully I never really considered it because I kept thinking “oh, honestly, all those ‘We restored a wrecked house in (insert name of exotic foreign country)’ books have been written, and they were pretty much all far better than what I could have written. But when we’d see friends back in the States, or they came to visit us here, and I would tell stories about this or that thing that happened to me (they really loved the tale of the carjacking-at-gunpoint I endured a few years ago, it was much juicier than the dishwasher blowing up). Anyway, folks have persisted and at least for the moment, overridden my “who cares about my little life?” protests, so here I am.

My family lived in Mexico City in the ‘fifties and I certainly must admit that I came to our present expat adventure with certain advantages: I knew and loved Mexico, even though it was the Mexico I remembered from childhood and quite different from Mexico in the 21st century. I spoke the language, loved the weather and the aesthetic, and I learned the first time around that I could survive and thrive here. In fact, now that we have indeed been here for awhile, I actually feel that I may have developed a better instinct for interpreting what I see around me. My Spanish is much better now, even Arnold, my husband, is much more comfortable here. It is an interesting time to be living in Mexico and it is also an interesting time to be viewing the events back in the U.S., our Ancestral Homeland, from another perspective. Now, here we are, in this no-longer-third-world-but–not-first-yet-either country, with a front row seat.

So, welcome to my new blog; let’s see how long and if I keep it up!

Sunset over Lake Chapala - the view from my office window.

Sunset over Lake Chapala – the view from my office window.