Tag Archives: books

Cultural Dialogs: Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle

On Wednesday night this week, the San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center hosted the first in a series of community dialogs about indigenous life in Oaxaca.   The restored chapel was filled to standing room only with Teotitecos and friends who came to hear a panel discussion introducing the new book, La Danza de la Pluma en Teotitlån del Valle written by Jorge Hernandez-Diaz, a cultural anthropologist at the state Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca.

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In addition to Professor Hernandez-Diaz, panelists included Uriel Santiago, one of the 2007-2009 group of dancers who made a promise and commitment to God, their church, community and culture by learning and performing this ancient tradition for a period of three years.   Uriel first welcomed guests in Zapotec then moved into Spanish.  Years ago Uriel explained to me that the Dance of the Feather is not a folkloric event designed to entertain people.  It is a serious expression of Zapotec identity and cultural continuity.  We made a documentary film about his experience in 2008 which you can see on YouTube.

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The book, published in Spanish by the Oaxaca Secretary of Culture and Arts, with support from the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation and the Office of the Governor of Oaxaca, offers three possible explanations about the origins of the dance, how it is interpreted in Teotitlan del Valle, other Oaxaca villages where the dance is an integral part of annual celebration, the rituals and traditions associated with the dance, and how the dance is organized and who can participate, plus lots more.  The professor explains in his book that the dance is expressed with variations in many Mexican states, too.

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Each year in Teotitlan del Valle beginning in early July and lasting for about a week, the Dance of the Feather is performed in the church courtyard.  Every three years the group changes and is organized/trained by a different leader.  The 2007-2009 maestro was Don Antonio Ruiz.  The book recognizes all the members of this particular group by name and the role they danced–Moctezuma, the indigenous kings who succumbed to the conquest, and Malinche/Doña Marina.

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Some of the group members are cousins.  Since the time of the dance, many of them have married and had children.  They have become doctors, educators and skilled weavers.  They remain close, committed to each other and their community, treasuring the time they devoted to transmitting their cultural heritage and ensuring continuity.

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Want to Live in Mexico? Advice from a Wisecracker!

Nobody Knows the Spanish I Speak is a zany memoir by Mark Saunders (Fuze Publishing, LLC, McLean, VA, ISBN 978-0-9841412-8-9), who, with his wife Arlene Krasner, moved to San Miguel de Allende (SMA) shortly after falling in love with the place.  The book’s tag line is “Drop out.  Sell everything. Move to Mexico. Sounded like a good plan.”  Not!

Saunders’ writing is tongue-in-cheek witty, with a sprinkle of irreverent, brash, and self-deprecating thrown in for good measure.  Overall, it is an entertaining and fast read.  The book could be a primer for Baby Boomers on the eve of retirement who believe that relocating to Mexico is the answer to a less-than-adequate retirement income.   Saunders’ sardonic underlying message is a “don’t do what we did” warning to greenhorns who think they can move to Mexico on a wing and a prayer (or maybe in a 10-year old high-performance Audi Quattro) without adequate preparation (or an expert, specialized mechanic in tow).

Saunders’ memoir focuses on the couple’s experience moving from Portland, Oregon, to SMA, with their standard poodle and cat. (He’s originally from Sacramento, California, and she grew up in New York City.)  Wooed by blue skies and balmy days, bolstered by a vigorous ex-pat community, their story will resonate with anyone considering living anywhere in Mexico as an alternative to the northern part of North America.  Anecdotes and vignettes of mishaps, miscommunication, and missives fill the pages.

And, Saunders is unabashed while dissecting the realities of living in Mexico for uninitiated American and Canadian expats:  constant dust, barking dogs, lack of central heat and air, long queues to pay bills (which must be done in person) and at banks, past due utility bills and interrupted utility services, cars in need of repair, bodies in need of repair, the meaning of “manana,” and the ubiquitous language barrier.

Most importantly, Saunders raises important questions underlying the humorous pokes at himself, at “gringolandia” [a place where a lot of expats live in Mexico], and his situation.

Subtextual Questions — Self-examination BEFORE you move:

  • What are your primary reasons for the move?
  • What is your experience living in another culture?
  • How adaptable are you?
  • How dedicated will you be to learn or improve your Spanish?   How much patience do you have?
  • Do you need the same conveniences and lifestyle (food, entertainment, shopping, etc.) in Mexico as you had living in the U.S.?
  • Do you expect to live among English speakers?
  • How well can you negotiate through problems?
  • What special health care issues do you have that may require medical attention?

The book is sprinkled with Saunders’ own drawings and cartoons depicting daily gringo/a challenges and misadventures.  The ending is pure redemption  and I won’t give it away!  And remember, a sense of humor will take you a long way.

Here are my 9 Tips for Living in Mexico.

If you are an expat living in Mexico, will you share your advice with us for making the transition smoothly?  If you are a Mexican who wants to add your suggestions about ways to make the landing softer, please do so!

Liza Bakewell, MADRE: Perilous Journeys with a Spanish Noun, Gets Oaxaca Welcome

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My friend and Oaxaca colleague Shannon Sheppard writes about her experience reading the book, her impressions, and connecting Liza with both the local and ex-pat community in Oaxaca. I think you will find her comments entertaining and informative. Click on the link above to read

My mobile office is now two feet from Highland Lake in Bridgton, Maine. Thank goodness for 3G and my iPad. There is no Wi-Fi here nor is there a landline. It is definitely a retreat and I can bring the world in as I choose. Liza Bakewell is on a neighboring lake about an hour from here with her daughters. She and I plan a meet-up next week.

Last night, Stephen and I had dinner with Nancy Coleman and Dulcie Whitman at Vignola in Portland. Great restaurant with even better friends. Nancy attended the Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat last March. It inspired her to write and submit to national literary journals and she is getting great response! Dulcie just completed the MFA and is teaching. My hope is to connect them with Liza who is bring together Maine women writers.

What an extraordinary world we live in! Now, for the lake.

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.

 

Is Oaxaca Safe for Families?

I asked this question to my friend Lauren who spent a year there in 2009-2010 with her husband and three children.  They rented a house in San Felipe del Agua, took Spanish lessons, and immersed themselves in the cuisine, the culture, and the very agreeable climate.  “We had an amazing year in Oaxaca,” Lauren said.

She goes on to endorse the experience for others by describing Oaxaca as a family-friendly place that is safe for kids.  Her take on it is that the narco-wars are not occurring remotely close to Oaxaca, and although they took the same precautions anyone should in a large city, Lauren says the family generally felt SAFER in Oaxaca than they did in their home town — a large U.S. city.

We recommend “The Family Sabbatical Handbook” by Elisa Bernick.

Lauren used it to prepare her family for their residency in Oaxaca.  She says it covers perspectives from many different countries but the author and her family lived in San Miguel de Allende, so there is plenty of info specific to Mexico.   Though the book is not specific to Oaxaca, much can be extrapolated, generalized, and put to good use when considering Oaxaca as a destination for your family.  The Family Sabbatical Handbook describes how to go about choosing housing, type of schooling (immersion or bi-lingual),  finding medical care and health insurance, traversing cultural differences, coping with homesickness, and lots of resources to help you plan and enjoy the adventure.