Tag Archives: anthropology

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.

We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.

A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween?  My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.

All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Skulls in the market. All altars have some form of them.

Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.

The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.

Calavera sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?

In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.

Nature science journal confirms indigenous Oaxacans descend from Asia

The roads to the Americas: ancient Native american migration patterns

nature: the international weekly journal of science, in its August 16, 2012 issue, published new findings that the Americas was populated in at least three distinct waves from Siberia across the Bering Straits beginning 15,000 years ago.  Genetic testing has confirmed this.

According to the article: 

The settlement of the Americas occurred at least 15,000 years ago by means of the Beringia land bridge that existed between Asia and America during the ice ages. Key questions about how many migrations were involved and subsequent dispersal patterns within the Americas remain unresolved. This new survey of genetic variation in Native American and Siberian populations shows that Native Americans descend from at least three waves of migration from Asia. After the initial peopling of the continent there was a southward expansion along the coast, with sequential population splits and little gene flow after divergence, particularly in South America.

Norma’s note: Indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, like the Zapotecs, Mixes and Mixtecs, are also Native Americans.  It’s fascinating to look at ancient stone carvings and paintings at Mexico’s archeological sites and see the resemblance to Asian origins.  The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca were physically isolated and have been able to maintain their native languages and traditions over the centuries, although that is changing in recent years as more people migrate away from their communities in search of jobs and more economic security.  For more about the peopling of the Americas, you can order a full nature article.  Recommended reading: 1491 by Charles Mann.

And, there are 2 spaces left in our 2012 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Photo Expedition.  We will visit the Zapotec archeological site of Monte Alban where you can see the stone carvings for yourself!

Bonampak Archeological Site: Mayan Treasure in the Chiapas Jungle

Bonampak is at the farthest reaches of Chiapas near the Usumacinta River in the Selva Lacandon — a rainforest jungle that is almost three hours from Palenque.  It’s one of those magical places that I have dreamed of visiting but never imagined I might get to.  To get as far as Palenque and not go another three hours to Bonampak would have been a mistake.

At the Palenque archeological museum and gift shop I bought Arqueologia Mexicana magazine, Vol. X, Number 55, that features the most recent reconstruction of the Bonampak murals.  Since not all the paintings are clear and have degraded over time, archeological artists have attempted to reconstruct them using accurate colors and now infrared drawings.  The magazine discusses (in English and Spanish) past interpretations, controversies and the most current reconstruction that uses the natural plant and mineral pigmentation.

Bonampak was part of the Yaxchilan alliance and was a smaller Mayan center.  However, the discovery of the murals in the 1940’s overshadowed its more magnificent neighbor which I will write about in my next post.

  

 

It takes a special effort to get there and plenty of patience.  The tour vans leave Palenque at 6 a.m. and you don’t return until 7:30 p.m.  It’s a long day, but definitely rewarding.  I took more than 80 photographs at Bonampak and can only show you a few of them here.  Plus, there is lots of information online about the political, social and cultural history of place if you are interested in reading more.

 

 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d recommend staying at a lodge either at Yaxchilan or Bonampak so you have two days to enjoy these two extraordinary sites. One day is too rushed since day tours give only two hours at Yaxchilan and one hour at Bonampak. I told them we didn’t need an hour for lunch or 45 minutes for breakfast!

  

 

Selva Lacandon Territory: A Chance Meeting

My journey into the Lacandon jungle along the Usumacinta River that is the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala began simply with a top-of-the-list visit to Na Bolom (Jaguar House) in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Here I was fascinated by Gertrude (Trudi) Duby-Blom’s descriptive black and white photos shot in the mid-1950’s of Lacondon people.  Na Bolom is dedicated to the Lacandones, who retreated deep into the rainforest to preserve their ancient practices in the face of the Spanish conquest.

The Selva Lacandon, a dense jungle rainforest, is where you will find Yaxchilan and Bonampak — two glorious and significant Mayan archeological sites.  To get there isn’t easy.  It’s three hours southeast of Palenque by van.  Palenque is five hours north of San Cristobal de las Casas IF you take a direct bus and don’t sign up for the tourist trip that stops at Agua Azul and Cascada del Misol-Ha along the way (extending the trip to eight hours one-way).  But I digress.

The day before I was set to leave for Palenque, Fay and I were on Real Guadalupe pedestrian avenue window-shopping.  I noticed an indigenous man and woman in the doorway of one of the shops who looked familiar, as if I had seen them somewhere before.  I asked the shopkeeper which indigenous group they belonged to and she said Lacandones.  I stepped into the shop and approached them with a “buenos dias.”

Carmela Chan Ak In and Cayhum Yuk Masha introduced themselves and told me that they lived in the jungle and had been friends with Trudi Blom.  I asked if I could take their photos and he agreed.  They requested and I agreed to send email copies to their nephew who has correo electronico.  As I set my lens, I realized that they may be the same people who were the primary subjects of the photos I had seen at Na Bolom and in the published books — taken at least 40 years ago. Our conversation ended with an invitation to me to visit their village.

Just yesterday, as I exited Bonampak, I met Daniel Chank In, a Lacandon native and registered eco-tourism guide who takes visitors through the jungle and arranges overnight stays.  Daniel is part of a Lacandona owned/operated eco-tourism cooperative called Jaguar Ojo Anudado certified by the Mexican Tourist Board.  He knows Carmela and Cayhum and says they live about 2 km from the ancient ruins and told me that, yes, they had been friends with the Bloms and subjects of her photography.

If you are interested in a guided visit with overnight stays (I highly recommend this, since one day to see both Yaxchilan and Bonampak are not enough), please contact Daniel at jaguarojoanudado2@yahoo.com.mx.  His website is www.jaguarojoanodado2.com.mx

Daniel introduced me to his wife, Victoria Chank In Chana Bor, his son Esteban Daniel (males wear white tunics, females wear floral tunics), and their newborn son wrapped and sleeping close to his mother’s heartbeat.

 

Book Review — Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun by Liza Bakewell

Liza Bakewell takes us where we may never have thought to go:  Down Mexico’s dusty back roads and cobblestone alleys, across neighborhood plazas lined with madre-derrogatory grafitti, through bustling markets, in a high speed car zig-zagging the wrong way down a one-way street, in provocative conversation with wise and deferential men, sequestered on the coast of Maine deep in contemplation, in lively debate with feminists, and befuddled and amused by encounters with people at all social and economic levels, including one’s own children.

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun is not your everyday discussion about Mexico – her culture, history, politics, women’s issues (and men’s, too), language, social structure, and how a people come to define and understand self.  Yet it includes all of this!  Bakewell’s premise is that language informs culture and vice versa.   After reading this book, I understand and agree.  It opened my eyes.  Mexico is an idiomatic maze and “madre” plunges us into the cultural and linguistic depths, revealing the mysteries and idiosyncracies of this most beloved and maligned noun.  And, this most beloved and maligned country!

Madre the book

Some have described this book as a “memoir,” and in some limited respect that is true.  Yet it is much more than that because the academic discussion (Bakewell is a professor of linguistic anthropology at Brown University) about the etymology of “madre” prevails throughout.  But the book is flavored with slang, the vernacular, curse words, and romance.  It describes her personal and professional quest to understand this most complex of Spanish nouns.  It is human, engaging and real.

Most importantly, this book is entertaining, witty, clear and insightful.  It is a must-read for anyone who is thinking about visiting Mexico or who is living there.  Understanding the culture helps one enjoy the travel, and this will definitely bring you enjoyment before or during your stay.

Bakewell examines what the word “madre” conjures up in Mexican society, and how it defines manhood and womanhood.  She takes us on a journey to explore gender roles, relationships, customs, traditions, church doctrine, and stereotypes.  The perilous journey is a metaphor, I believe, for the evolution of the word — one small, simple word now infused with powerful emotion: manhood, womanhood, honor, obedience, pride, machismo, “fight to the death,” and identity, plus all that is disparaging, insulting and base.

I love Bakewell’s discussion about the dualities and conflicts of Mexican identity and womanhood as exemplified by “The Malinche” and her alter-ego counterpart, Dona Marina.  They are one and the same woman, the first “bad and forbidden” and the second “baptized, good and pure.”  I see this drama danced out every year in the Danza de la Pluma that reenacts the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs.  Through this description, we come to understand who is the whore and who is the virgin, the themes that recur in the recesses of the language and icons hanging from every rear view mirror.

Bakewell explores the mixed messages and signals, expected behaviors, and role definitions for women and what constitutes femininity.   She describes Malinche, the translator for Cortes, and how her name became synonymous with traitor and betrayal. An indigenous woman from the southern coast of Mexico enslaved since childhood, passed from one tribal group to another, she was given to Cortes by her captors.  She was multilingual because of her circumstances.  Yet, she was redefined during the 1857 revolution as the antithesis of the good Mexican woman.  Mexican feminists are branded as Malinchistas.

Madre is about paternal creation and the power of the church to define and control.  It explores the subtle meaning of Virgin and Eve, and what constitutes purity.  The dilemma of madre in Mexico, according to Bakewell, is that the church believes the bride, once married is Eve, not the Virgin, and vulnerable to all the transgressions put before her.  Like Eve, Malinche was the mother of the first mestizo (indigenous Indian and Spanish blend), child of Cortes.  While Eve listened to the snake, Malinche listened to Cortes, betraying her people.

I imagine Liza Bakewell asked me to review this book because of my association with Oaxaca and love for Mexico.  In 2009, she spent the year there on sabbatical as a single mom with her twin daughters finishing up the manuscript in preparation for publication.  She talks about it being a warm, welcoming, safe and nurturing place for herself and her young children where she could bring her madre journey to a close.

Here, while she wrote, she also discovered that the liberal revolutionaries of 1857 – Benito Juarez, Melchor Ocampo, and Justo Sierra — politically reinterpreted what it meant to be a woman in Mexico.  In their endeavor to liberate Mexico from the stranglehold of the Catholic church they replaced one set of padres for another.

Ocampo, in his “Epistle,” defined the virtues of woman to be “self-abnegation, beauty, compassion, shrewdness and tenderness, and must give and shall always give her husband obedience, affability, attention, comfort, advice and treat him with reverence due to the person who supports and defends us.”  Ocampo’s “Epistle” became required reading at state civil marriage ceremonies  until 2007, when Mexican feminists asked individual states to replace it.  Most have, but Oaxaca has not.  The Epistle outlines perfection and impossible expectations for women to achieve.

The quest for the meaning of “Madre” was not a straight path.  Just like the taxi driver zigzagging the wrong way down a one-way street, “Madre” the book takes one turn and then another, to describe how “madre” the word came to include derogatory meanings in the Mexican Spanish language.  It caused me to sit up and take notice about our own gender slurs and how we casually use them until they become embedded in the vernacular and we are no longer conscious of the meaning.

Just as you are beginning to think that you understand, Bakewell starts a discussion about the articles “el” and “la” and “los.”  Spanish is organized by the system of la and el,” she says.  If you are confused about which article to use, consider  el amor (love), el sexo (sex), el matrimonio (marriage), el prenado (pregnancy), el embarazo (pregnancy), el parto (childbirth) and el nacimiento (birth).  Why are these words “masculine?” she asks.    A friend of Bakewell’s who studied Indo-European languages, traces it to the concern about descent lines – the patrilineage.   Culture and language are powerful padres.

Finally, Bakewell asks us to consider the origins of madre and padre.  She delves into the sounds of mmmmmm and ppppppp.   MMMMMmadre.    PPPPPPPPpadre.  She takes us to the very essence of birth, identity, survival and continuity.  She describes the mmmm sound as internal, humming, soothing, nurturing and nourishing.  Pppppppppadre is the force of spitting out, putting one’s imprimatur in the world, the first attempt at aggressiveness for what we must do to make our way as human beings.  One is internal and the other external, almost synonymous with how our bodies and reproductive organs are purposed.   She describes how the sound origins across languages and cultures are consistent.  Fascinating. Try these sounds and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyone who travels to or lives in Mexico, studies Latin American culture, history, art, Spanish language, or anything related MUST read this book.  Furthermore, there are no madre insults in Italy and very few in Columbia, Chile and Argentina.

Madre IS made in Mexico.

And, if you want to know the expletives, you’ll have to read the book!  They are plentiful.

Madre: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, by Liza Bakewell, W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.  ISBN 978-0-393-07642-4.  You can order the book direct from Dr. Bakewell.