About a week and a half ago, the program went on our longest excursion yet to Mexico City and Puebla, a total of 10 days away from Oaxaca. It was a very packed 10 days, so I’ll pull out some of the highlights!
On October 9th we got onto a bus to head to Mexico City, and arrived 6 AM the next morning. While in Mexico City we stayed at Casa de Los Amigos—a hostel in the Centro of Mexico City with Quaker origins, that is a safe house for migrants who had been victims of crimes, taken advantage of, and/or just need a place to stay to plan their next steps and heal.
While in Casa de los Amigos, we heard many “charlas”, or lectures, related to various aspects of social justice in Mexico. Topics included the variety of reasons that leads to the “choice” to immigrate, discussions of Machismo and its affect on women and men (the effects on women are often obvious—elevated rates of domestic violence, objectification, lack of opportunity, less education, and many more, but effects on men such as intolerance of expressing emotion or affection, social pressure to be that “machismo” figure also need to be discussed), LGBT activism, the impacts of NAFTA on the people of Mexico, and more.
While in Mexico City we also had some excursions. The first day we went to the Frida Kahlo museum, which was awesome, and later on we went to another refuge house for immigrants called Techan, and got to meet and talk with several people who had encountered many difficulties on their way try and make a better life for themselves and their families. Here’s the group at the Frida Kahlo Museum:
One day in Mexico City was devoted to more touristy activities, the Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe and to the ruins of Teotihuacan. Both experiences were very interesting, but also problematic. I can’t have a simple day of tourism, and don’t know if I will ever be able to. Nacho, a Nahuatl man, accompanied us on this day. You’re probably wondering what Nahuatl is, and I hope I can give an accurate explanation. Nahuatl is an ethno-linguistic group of indigenous people in Central Mexico. There are several different indigenous groups that all speak Nahuatl, including the Aztecs. Most of the time people lump all of these groups together as “Aztecs”, but that’s not really an accurate description. Many of them were conquered by the Aztecs, but Nacho told me that he gets tired of people calling him Aztec—just because his people were conquered by Aztecs, does not make him Aztec. 2 fun facts:
- Not every indigenous person in Mexico is Aztec or Mayan. Just to make that clear.
- Many English words have Nahuatl origin. Like Tomato, Chocolate, Coyote, and Avocado! (Also, I had avocado ice cream today, which is possibly the best thing I have ever eaten)
First I will talk about the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Basilica was gorgeous, and so was the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is so so important to Mexican religious life. Here’s a transcript of the story, from Wikipedia!
“On the morning of December 9, 1531, Juan Diego saw an apparition of a young girl at the Hill of Tepeyac, near Mexico City. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the girl asked that a church be built at that site in her honor; from her words, Juan Diego recognized the girl as the Virgin Mary. Diego told his story to the Spanish Archbishop of Mexico City, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, who instructed him to return to Tepeyac Hill, and ask the “lady” for a miraculous sign to prove her identity. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. Although December was very late in the growing season for flowers to bloom, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, not native to Mexico, on the normally barren hilltop. The Virgin arranged these in his peasant cloak or tilma. When Juan Diego opened his cloak before Bishop Zumárraga on December 12, the flowers fell to the floor, and on the fabric was the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.”
So here’s me and Sydney on that Hill, and the fabric that is said to be the original that came out of Juan Diego’s cloak.
And here’s the Basilica that was built in the Virgin of Guadalupe’s honor:
This event happened early in the Conquista, at the beginning of the process of converting all of the Indigenous populations to Catholicism, quite forcefully. Nacho told me another way of understanding the story: that the woman who appeared to Juan Diego was the mother earth figure of the Nahuatl cosmovision, and that very important image was converted/ synchronized into a Virgin Mary figure. The syncretism of Catholicism with Indigenous religious symbols is very fascinating and can be seen almost everywhere, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. It’s incredibly interesting, but was also definitely a way to maintain control over the indigenous populations.
That same day, we went to Teotihuacan, a massive Nahuatl archaeological site close to Mexico City. As we walked through the entrance with Nacho as our tour guide, two people who worked at the site stopped us and said that because we were foreigners, we had to have an official tour guide (which is not a real rule, Nacho has been giving tours here for years). We said that Nacho is our tour guide, these are the sites of his ancestors. A large argument ensued, and we left to look at the hats while our fearless leader Giovanna took care of the situation. After a long time, they agreed to let us go with Nacho, but he couldn’t tell us anything about the history or the symbolism while we were here. And if they heard him talking, he would be fined. So we walked, climbed the pyramids and explored, and he sneaked comments to us every once in a while. As we were exploring the site, we heard the official tour guides giving dramatic accounts of the Conquista—not exactly the culturally accurate and fascinating information about the true religious, social, and cultural importance of this site for the Nahuatl people we received from Nacho afterward.
This experience was a really harsh reminder of the discrimination and disrespect that indigenous people around the world and in Mexico face every day. It’s not just that they don’t respect his culture, it’s that they glorify and appropriate the ancient culture, using these archaeological sites as tourist attractions, portraying them as if they are ancient, dead cultures. And then they don’t let Nacho, an incredibly well educated man who is a spiritual leader of his indigenous community, tell us about his own history? So it was very frustrating, but definitely a learning experience. Here’s us at the top of the Sun Pyramid, and a look down on part of the ruins– it’s too big to capture in one photo!
We also had a day where we got to walk around the Centro of Mexico City—I went to an awesome and free modern art museum, saw some ruins that are in the middle of the city, bought two 20 peso scarves, ate ice cream, saw the Murals of Diego Rivera (Fridah Kahlo’s Husband) in a really important government building, and went to a book fair! Here’s a snapshot of the vibrant, polluted, and GIGANTIC place that is Mexico City.
The next morning we woke up early and drove to Puebla. We arrived in Cuetzalan, which is another Indigenous Community, around 12 and ate lunch and went to a museum to learn about the town’s history. In Cuetzalan, we stayed in a hotel owned by a cooperative of Indigenous women, which is possibly my favorite thing I’ve learned about so far. The cooperative is a group of women who do so many things. They band together to sell their art products, many of which are weaving and embroidery products, at a fair price. They also make soap, other hygiene products like shampoo and lotion, medicinal tea, all types of food, and many other things, all in an environmentally sustainable way and with local products. Everything comes from the community of Cuetzalan, and all the resources they generate are used within the community as well. The women also give workshops on how to make artisan products, domestic violence prevention, public health issues, and any other topic that the community needs. They also support many local organizations focused on human rights. This cooperative is a group of incredibly inspiring and politically active indigenous women, who have created opportunities for themselves and the other women of the community to become economically independent and exercise their rights to be equal and contributing members of their community.
In Puebla we heard more charlas, from women in the group about their work, from a man about environmentalism/ sustainability, and a woman from a local shelter for victims of domestic violence. We also went to a neighboring Pueblo and visited a community radio station (that plays completely in Nahuatl) run by local youth. Overall, the Puebla trip was much more upbeat and hopeful, which is exactly what I needed after the very heavy themes of Mexico City. The photo at the top of this post is the group at our Hotel, with Dona Rufina (a leader of the cooperative who is now my hero) and her daughter, and Lisanne who works for Augsburg College and coordinated this trip.
I’ve also had some exciting experiences in the past week and half since I got back from the trip, but this post is already quite long! So I can get to those later. The important things right now are that:
- Speaking of religious syncretism, Day of the Dead celebrations begin tomorrow!! I have learned about this celebration in every Spanish class I’ve ever had, and am so excited to celebrate it in person!
- President Krise and his wife Patty, along with Marc Moulder and Adela Ramos, all from PLU, are here visiting for this week. Yesterday me, Tova, and Nicky accompanied them on another tour with En Via (the micro-lending program that supports women entrepreneurs) and got to do some translating, which was really fun and showed me how much I’ve improved from our first visit!
- Daylight savings time in Mexico happened last week. Which shows how arbitrary daylight savings time is. But now I’m in the same time zone as Montana!
- We are officially beyond our halfway point, which is exciting and a little scary. I miss home, but am still very happy to be here and not even close to ready to leave. I’ve been trying to make the most of every day, which is why this blog has been a bit neglected—I’m not even going to apologize about it this time :).