Weekend 19: Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca

I waited until after my program officially ended to travel to the forbidden city of Oaxaca. Back in August (seems so long ago) at the orientation in Mexico City, some Fulbrighters had to be reassigned to a new city because of uprisings against teachers. Throughout my 4 months, there was nothing that I heard about that situation, but that does not mean it could still be dangerous in some parts of the State of Oaxaca.

I was there only a few days, but the experience was worth wait. First of all, the weather during the last week of December was perfect sun and shorts weather. I insisted on wearing my linen shorts everyday because when I get to New York tomorrow, my tanned legs won’t see those shorts until mid-June.

Oaxaca has many historical places outside the city, such as the Mayan Ruins of Monte Alban and the “frozen waterfall”. Both of these places were impressive because of their (respectively) historical significance and natural beauty. Within the city, there are museums. However, I felt that I had just spent the past 4 months visiting what feels like close to 20 museums and I was saturated. I loved every museum I visited, but the few in Oaxaca will have to wait until my next visit.

What’s actually good here are the artisan crafts and the food. I liked the woven woolen rugs and the intricately painted wooden menagerie of animals. I was able to squeak into a morning cooking class on Thursday (as there was one more space to make a group of 10!) to experience the complicated process of making Black Mole. Now I know that about 30 ingredients go into the making of that sauce and it’s not only chocolate that gives it that flavorful depth and complexity . It took several hours, but the meal was worth the group effort at the end. Also, I will just buy a jar of Black Mole and call it good.


Weekend 18: Puerto Morelos to Chetumal, Quintana Roo

I had planning to chat with another Fulbrighter researcher, Austin, in Puerto Morelos, but it did not happen. I wanted to go diving by the reef off the coast to bring back some stories for the Fish Club in Harlem New York.

This used to be a small fishing village, but with the increasing popularity of Cancun resorts, the tourist creep has come to disturb the natural fauna of the Mayan Riviera. I wanted to ask Austin about his work with the lobsters and the fishing rights for indigenous fishing industry. We did not meet, but this is what he emailed me a couple do months ago.

Austin said, “Fishing rights in Quintana Roo are granted to cooperatives, which distribute these rights among their members. The NGO I’m working with has a strong relationship with some of these cooperatives, who have made great strides toward sustainability. In 2012 and 2013, the cooperatives worked with the NGO to set aside some of their fishing concessions to create legally recognized “no take zones,” where fishing would be banned for 5 years in an effort to preserve fishing stocks. When the refuges were established, interviews were carried out with many of the fishermen from multiple cooperatives to assess their understanding of and attitudes toward these no take zones. Now that 4 years have passed and the refuges are coming up for their first round of governmental review, we’re going to repeat that study to see what benefits and costs the fishermen have observed with the refuges, and whether or not they are still in favor of them. Once this project is done, I’m planning on carrying out a more quantitative, economic analysis to see how the annual lobster catch has been affected by the implementation of the reserves, and more specifically, if certain fishermen benefit more from the reserves than others. Finally, plans are in the works to attempt a lobster-tagging study to assess migration of lobsters from protected areas out into fishing grounds, but this is permit-dependent, and I’ve heard the permitting process here is a nightmare.”

So, perhaps in Chetumal I can get some fish-related story for the Fish Club. I will go to two museums that focus on Mayan history and some markets that sell artisan items. I’m excited to go and see what they have!

From Tiajuana to Tulum

I made it to Tulum! That means I have spanned the country of Mexico from east to west: Tiajana to Tulum; and from north to south: Monterrey to San Cristóbal de las Casas. During my 4-month Fulbright, I did not travel to Tiajuana, but rather it was on my first trip to Mexico, in 1989, when I made a cross-country puddle-jump flight from Tiajuana down to Guatemala City , at the heels of Hurricane Mitch. I unofficially copiloted a 2-passenger fixed-wing Cessna150. It was the craziest thing I have ever done. Such a small aircraft is suitable for local flying, for example, around your city and state; not transnational flights. I live to tell about it as a testament to the saying that “ignorance is bliss”.

Tulum is quite a bit smaller than I thought, yet quite a bit busier with daily commerce and tourism. The ruins of the Mayan civilization are nice. They are like the ancestral beach resorts of the high Mayan priests. There are sacred caves that still are filled partially with rain or river water called cenotes. About an hour drive from Tulum is a cenote that I visited with my British friend, Chay, called Cenote 7 Bocas (Well with 7 Mouths). This was a true cenote because the caves were joined together by underwater passages drilling with stalactites! I wish I could have taken pictures underwater for you , but my smartphone is not that smart.

It was an eerie feeling just walking down the wooden ladder into the first Boca to the platform. Ropes were tied to guide you from platform to platform. This helped me initially. The first sensation when I jumped in was that rainwater is cold. No natural hot spring here! My rented mask helped me to make out the stalactites in the cave under the pale green waters. I couldn’t help but imagine that the guide at the reception area said NatGeo came here and measured the cenote depth at 150 meters. That’s half of the Empire State Building. So, I kept my head above the water.

Weekend 13: San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas

Thanks to Deborah Colvin, I was able to add her video project to my video project. Deborah works with English language teachers and a group of students in rural Chiapas who speak the indigenous language of Majosik. She and Frances Westbrook from the U.S. Embassy just produced a terrific video that highlights this community with these English Language Learners. My inquiry project on Significant Digital Stories on First Heroes overlaps their project, so I had to travel to San Cristóbal de las Casas! (Deborah and I met in Monterrey at the MEXTESOL Convention when the U.S. Cultural Affairs director at the U.S. Embassy, Brenda Bernáldez, connected us.)

The town itself is laid out in somewhat of a grid radiating (as usual in Spanish-conquered towns) from the central square, cathedral, and administrative buildings. It reminds me of Antigua, Guatemala. History links San Cristóbal, Antigua Guatemala, and Oaxaca City together.

The most memorable site for me in San Cris was a small, humble chapel behind the main cathedral. The chapel was open for the servants and slaves of that time to hear mass.

Tourism is heavy here as the trendy restaurants and trinket shopping areas attest. Eco-tourism is growing here because of the natural beauty that surrounds SCDC. The only time I had to see any rural areas was when I was invited to view a community property that is available to have a university-level school built on it, which is almost 2 hours east. I hope they include adult continuing education classes for those who want this instruction.


English for Vocations Needed Here

It was not enough just to relax in Zihua. I learned that among the tourist hotels and array of restaurants, an impoverished population serves as the social lubricant that keeps the tourist industry humming.

I learned that there is a disproportionately high population of unwed teen mothers in greater Zihua. Yes, reproductive education could be a solution However, despite the psycho-sociological reasons for this inclination to happen, the fact is there are babies born that need to be fed. Such a baby becomes a burden to raise for the unwed teen mother, the father, and the families that support all three involved!

Eventually, adding up the multiplying families, the number of babies will take a toll on the economic wellbeing of the community because these they will need to go to school. Overcrowding an already over-crowded educational system will force some adolescents to work. If they find work, great. But without having graduated high school (much less university), those who do not continue their education will likely have a baby themselves.

In a tourist location such as Zihuatanejo, English for vocations that see the most tourist may be helpful. The obvious one are hotels, spas, massage therapy places, and restaurants. Along with targeted English vocabulary and situational (experiential) learning, students can concurrently be trained in useful job-specific skills.

Weekend 2: Fiesta Indígena & Palacio Nacional

IIIra Fiesta de las Culturas Indígenas

This fiesta was going on all week, but I could only get to it today! I was amazed at all the people who turned out for the talks, expositions, and food for sale. I didn’t take too many pictures because there was just so much. The main collage shows one of the talks I attended on multiculturalism that is developing in Mexico. I believe that this is at the national level promoted by the ministries of culture and education, so I don’t know if it trickles down to the school level, especially in Mexico City. I’ll have to find out.

I made it a point to visit the expositions in the “Medicina Natural” tent, of course. I saw some of the treatments that we (Healer2Healer.org) trains the rural women in Guatemala. There was incense similar to moxa. Healing massage was going on as well as shamanic healing from the Nahuatl, or other, traditions. I didn’t want to take pictures since patients were actually getting treatment. I’m sure you understand!

My take away from the event was a couple of contacts of publishers and bookstores where I can resource some materials germane to my project. Namely, books in several languages for adolescents (and adolescents at heart!) on stories and fables in the traditions of indigenous cultures in Mexico. I am looking forward to getting a few to include in my project!


Palacio Nacional

The most striking part of entering the national palace was the simplicity of its grandeur. This is the seat of power in Mexico, but because I visited on Sunday there were only a few tourists roaming around. I loved the maguey plant! There are more pictures in the next section. The small sculpture section was quite nice. I got to see for my own eyes the work of national sculptors. I liked the naked man balancing himself perfectly on one foot on top of a column. Then there is the iron cactus! The two giant balls in front of the admin building were interesting, but I didn’t really find a “meaning” to them. Does there have to be one?


One of the wings in this immense edifice contains the homage to Benito Juárez, one of the more important presidents in Mexico, the 26th president from 1858-72. Here is a Wiki-link. He was an extremely important president for people apparently because there is a pristine colossal monument on the main street flanking the Alameda Park (where the Palacio de Bellas Artes stands).

Benito Juárez was also the first indigenous president; he was from Oaxaca. He wasn’t that educated growing up, but he was able to become president anyway. According to the museum placards (in the wing of the national palace where he and his family resided and where he died), I read that Juárez (following the trend of leaders of the time) tried to bring in as much European influences into Mexico as possible in order to copy the culture and know-how of the power countries (France, German, England) in order that Mexico become just like Europe. This mentality was carried on with his replacements, including the notoriously famous 29th president Porfirio Días. But more about him later!

These are pictures of the magnificent Maguey and Cactus plants that are symbolic of Mexico and Mexican-ness. In James Michener’s novel “Mexico”, he leads in with a chapter on these two symbiotic plants. I’ll let you read how he weaves them into his novel.

Week 1: UNAM-CEPE Intensive History

Today I began my intensive history class, taught by my Fulbright advisor, Maestro Juan Pablo Vivaldo (top left,p ictured in the middle). The class focuses on the Porfiriato Era leading up to the Mexican Revolution (1884-1920). This is the period in Mexican history that defines what Mexico’s culture, society, and economy are like now. The two close-ups from the famous murals of David Siquieros (top right) depicting Porfiro Días and the Mexican Revolutionaries. Of course, all this historical backdrop is helpful for my project!

I’ll be adding more about his topic in the weeks ahead. It should be a pleasant journey!

Week 1: Pre-columbian, Mesoamerican history in Mexico

Week 2: Porfiriato, part 1 Rise to Power

Week 3: Porfiriato, part 2 Society & Culture

Week 4: Porfiriato, part 3 Fall from Grace; Revolution, part 1 Rumblings

Week 5: Revolution, part 2 Momentum from North and South

Week 6: Revolution, part 3 Pancho Villa & Emiliano Zapata

Week 7: Final comments; class presentations

Week 1: Pre-columbian History

Who was in Mesoamerica before Christopher Columbus ran into it?

Today’s post seeks to dispel the common misconception that the Mayan, Aztecs and Incas were the only empires that existed in the Americas before European settlers arrived.

Today’s lecture was about who was already populating the territory called Mesoamerica, which today is in the country of Mexico. Pause: Click on a link to maps of Mesoamerica: en español and in English. What do notice about the territory of Mesoamerica compared to what is Mexico now?

Pre-Classic Period (2000-400 B.C.)

The Cultures Before the Olmecas

Before the Aztecs founded Tenochtitlan (today’s Mexico City) in the year 1325 A.D., there were four important civilizations tooling around the area, even before the first one (Olmecas) came to the scene around the 1200’s B.C. First there were the Hohokams (Southeast U.S.) from 2000 B.C. and the Adenas (midwest U.S.), then the Mogollons (Arizona-New Mexico), and the Anazai (Colorado-New Mexico).

The reason these were important was their abilities to organize their communities as social heirachy in settled areas with agriculture, build dwellings, and develop trade routes. (I’m not an archeologist; I’m merely condensing what I’m learning in class, museums, and books!)


Olmeca Culture (1000-600 B.C.)

The Olmecas were in present-day Veracruz. They reached their splendor between 1000-600 B.C. mainly because they luckily settled in an area made fertile by favorable rain patterns. They created great commercial centers based in La Venta (find a map on the Internet) and organized their society into castes of priests (who administered) and warriors (who kept the order).  This made them the most important in Mesoamerica during the Pre-Classic period. Also, this is the culture that is famous for creating the huge heads of stone.

World perspective: During the long reign of the Olmecas, these were events also happened: Carthage founded (814); First Olympic Games (776); Height of Assyria (750’s); Rome founded (752); Boo-duh born (563); and Confusions born (551).

More about the fascinating Olmecas (en español), please click link.

Classic Period (400-900 B.C.)

Teotihuacan civilization

Together with the Mayans (in present-day Guatemala-Yucatán) [along with Romans (in present-day Italy) and Hans (in present-day China)], the Teotihuacan civilization flourished after the Olmecas, their height of splendor from 100-600A.D.

Notice that the demarcation of time for "Periods" are Maya-centered, so there are overlaps with other civilizations.

The Teotihuancans was based just northeast of present-day Mexico City, an area that the Aztecs eventually sacked because of its agricultural potential, strategic trade routes from the valley basin to the gulf, many caves considered sacred, and obsidian mines (a highly-valued mineral). Two other rising civilizations coexisted: Monte Albán in present-day Oaxaca and El Tajín in present-day Veracruz.

Did you know? Despite their majestic civilization, the Teotihuacans did not have a system of writing!

Growth Phases I: 150-200 B.C. Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Sun (and Cholula Pyramid both) started to be built. II: 200-400 Moon Pyramid. III: 400-600 Height of population at 125,000.

(insert pic of timeline here)

The Mayan civilization (400-900 A.D.)

Mention Roman Empire (26BC-476AD)

Post-Classic Period (900-1521 A.D.)

The Toltecs, then the Aztecs, Incas, and Mongols (Wha-what?!)

Toltec Empire

Dominates much of Central Mexico (900-1100)