December 12, Guadalupe Day

The Virgin of Guadalupe is arguably the most popular religious and cultural icon in Mexico and throughout Latin America.  The dark-skinned Virgin is known as Queen of Mexico and Empress of the Americas. Many children, boys and girls are given the name Guadalupe (Lupe, Lupita), sometimes in combination with names of the Holy Parents, as in María Guadalupe or José Guadalupe. December 12 is a special day for everyone who is named Guadalupe, and especially for the lady whose name they share.

On December 12, 1531, Juan Diego was lost in thought as he walked across a hill near the Tepeyac Desert on the outskirts of  Tenochtitlán. He was astonished to see a beautiful young woman walking toward him. She was wearing a beautiful garment, and she seemed to appear from nowhere.

There is no record of the words the young woman said, but Juan Diego, a recent convert to Christianity, understood that she wanted him to build a chapel on that spot. Juan Diego ran to the bishop to tell him what he had seen and heard on Tepeyac Hill. The bishop was less than enthusiastic. "If this is true," he said, "bring me a sign that this is a holy vision."

Juan Diego, a bit downcast, returned to the hill, hoping that the young woman would show up again. He didn't have to wait long. There she was.

"I need a sign to show the bishop," he said.

"Pick up those roses," said the young woman. "Take them to the bishop."

("Roses?") thought Juan Diego. ("Roses don't grow here, and especially not in this cold.") But when he looked down, he saw a rose bush in full bloom.

Juan Diego was wearing a tilma, a blanket-like outer garment made of cactus cloth, so he used it as an apron to collect the roses. The beautiful dark-skinned heavenly lady arranged them with her own hands. 
He hurried back to the bishop, holding the flowers closely in his garment. When he reached the church, he released the garment to allow the miraculous roses to fall to the ground. An image of the young woman had been imprinted on the cloth.

The image, they say, is the same one that hangs today, almost five hundred years later, in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Tepeyac Hill, one of the world’s most visited shrines.

Although many people are devoted to the story of her miraculous appearance, The Virgin of Guadalupe has been controversial among religious  historians, including a number of noted Catholic scholars. There is no mention of the image in Church historical records until 1556. At that time, Francisco Bustamante, head of the Franciscans who had custody of the shrine, attributed the painting to native artist Marcos Cipac de Aquino.

The chapel was built on the site of a temple to Aztec mother-goddess Tonantzin, which had been destroyed by the Spanish in 1521.  Indigenous converts came to worship there, but they continued to call the Virgin Mary Tonantzin.

Montufar and the Dominicans prevailed.  The Franciscans were relieved of custody of the shrine, the church was enlarged, and the image was mounted and displayed in enhanced surroundings. 

In 1883, noted historian and biographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta, after an extensive investigation of documents for Bishop Labastida, stated his conclusion that Juan Diego, who first appeared in the historical record in a written story in 1649, never existed.

Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II beatified Juan Diego in 1990, but in a 1996 interview with the Catholic magazine Ixthus, Guillermo Schulenburg, abbot of the Basilica of Guadalupe, said that Juan Diego was “a symbol, not a reality.”

Schulenburg, who was 83 years old at the time, was forced to resign. In 2002, Juan Diego was declared Saint Juan Diego Cuahutlatoatzin.

My First Year in Mexico

“Aren’t you scared?” Alfonso, my new brother-in-law, asked as we concluded a family visit near the Texas border before my husband and I headed for the city with the strange-sounding name: Guadalajara.  Of all the things I had felt as I left Texas to move to another country, scared was not one of them.

The drive was long, but I was overjoyed to be in the interior of Mexico at last.  A twelve-week college missions trip in Juarez, barely across the Texas border, with a weekend side trip to Chihuahua, had made me want to see more. We stopped in Monterrey, where I met my husband’s Tia Chucha, then we drove on to San Luis Potosi, where we stopped for the night. I’m not sure that I clapped my hands like a child when we finally saw the lights of Guadalajara in the distance, but I was that excited.

Some friends who had already been there for a year invited us to stay at their house while we looked for an apartment, but we didn’t get their letter with the address of their neighbor who would give us the key. We knocked on the door of the house across the street to ask if perhaps they were the designated keepers of the key. They weren’t, but they insisted that we stay with them, and for a week we had a bedroom, breakfast and dinner with that generous family.

We found a place to live–a furnished third-floor apartment and took care of business at the medical school and the American School of Guadalajara, where I had been hired to teach sixth grade. The apartment was cool and comfortable, but it was too pricey for our budget, so we moved down the street to more affordable old-fashioned suites. Bathroom and kitchen were decorated with beautiful blue tiles, and the yard had full-grown banana trees.

In February, we heard there was a vacancy in an apartment building on Morelos Street.  The apartment was unfurnished, so it was less expensive than ours, just 600 pesos or 48 US dollars, and it was bigger, with three bedrooms, an open patio for washing and hanging clothes, and a maid’s room with its own tiny bathroom.  We moved in with a formica table, plastic-covered chairs, and a bed, gradually acquiring other pieces of furniture as we were able to pay for them. We found a woman to come clean the apartment once a week. When our first son was born, she came to work for us full time. Esperanza stayed with us through four more houses and fifteen years.

Teaching sixth-graders at the American School of Guadalajara was a challenge.  I had to master the science and math lessons just ahead of the students, since I was prepared to teach English and journalism.  The students spent half a day in an all-English self-contained classroom and the other half in all-Spanish.  I had two groups of all-English.

The school was a two-story cinderblock building around a large open courtyard with open-air hallways facing the courtyard.  Behind the buildings was an open yard with a soccer field, a volleyball court, and basketball hoops.  The office and library were near the entrance.  A teacher’s lounge, bookstore, and snack bar were located in the classroom building.

The students wore uniforms–dark blue pants and pinstriped shirts for the boys, pinstriped shirtwaist dresses for the girls, navy cardigans for all.  They were well-behaved.  Monday mornings students, teachers, and staff gathered in the courtyard to salute the U.S. and Mexican flags, carried proudly by as they were paraded by a color guard, chosen for their good grades and excellent citizenship..  They stood up when teachers entered the classroom, and they said “Thank you, Miss!” when they were dismissed. There was a break between the English-Spanish switch, and “lonches” (sandwiches made with a bolillo (French bread) split in half and filled with ham, lettuce, and jalapeno chiles) were available at the snack bar, along with other treats.  There was no formal lunch hour, since the students were out in time to go home for traditional mid-day meal around three o’clock.

Edna Mardus was the librarian. She was usually surrounded by kids, whom she knew well enough to make tailor-made recommendations of books she thought they would like.  My school librarians had always seemed to be in charge of protecting the books from our grubby hands!  In the teacher’s lounge, Edna had book recommendations for teachers too, and she always had interesting stories of her own to tell. So did her husband, Fred, who taught math, physics, and chemistry. Fred and his identical mirror-image twin were born in South America on February 28, 1904, to Hungarian parents.  He loved to tell what the one-in-a-bazillion odds were of someone like him and his twin brother being born.  In 1968, the whole school celebrated Fred Mardus’s 16th (64th) birthday.  The well-traveled Marduses were gifted storytellers.

They were the first of many people with amazing stories that I met during my years in Guadalajara.

Guadalajara, Guadalajara (song)

Different styles, one song–a tribute to the fragrance of Guadalajara’s rain-soaked earth and early morning roses, to the nearby places–Lake Chapala, Tlaquepaque, and Zapopan, where we couldn’t go sometimes because of the rain from the hills, to potters and mariachis and beautiful women wrapping their shawls around themselves. Guadalajara, the most Mexican of places.

Composed by Pepe Guizar in 1937

Guadalajara, Guadalajara,
Guadalajara, Guadalajara…

Tienes el alma de provinciana
hueles a limpia rosa temprana,
a verde jara fresca del rio,
son mil palomas tu caserio,

Guadalajara, Guadalajara
hueles a pura tierra mojada.

Ay ay ay ay! Colomito Lejano…
Ay! Ojitos de agua hermanos,

Ay! Colomitos inolvidables,
inolvidables como las tardes
en que la lluvia desde la loma
no nos dejaba ir a Zapopan.

Ay ay ay ay! Tlaquepaque Pueblito…

Tus olorosos jarritos
hacen mas fresco el dulce tepache
junto a la birria con el mariachi
que en los parianes y alfarerias
suena con triste melancolia.

Ay ay ay ay! Laguna de Chapala…

Tienes de un cuento la magia,
Cuento de ocasos y de alborada
s de enamoradas noches lunadas,
quieta, Chapala, es tu laguna,
novia romántica como ninguna.

Ay ay ay ay! Zapopitan del alma,
nunca escuché otras campanas
como las graves de tu convento,
donde se alivian mis sufrimientos

Triste Zapopan,
misal abierto donde son frailes mis sentimientos.

Ay ay ay ay! Guadalajara Hermosa…
Quiero decirte una cosa:

Tu que conservas agua del pozo
y en tus mujeres el fiel rebozo,

Guadalajara, Guadalajara
tienes el alma mas mexicana..

Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay! Ay ay ay!

Guadalajara… Guadalajara.

Progenitors of La Raza

The conquest and fall of Mesoamerican civilizations, celebrated by some, lamented by many, gave rise to a new race, la raza, the mestizo. The patriarch of this new race is Spaniard Don Hernán Cortés Monroy Pizarro Altamirano. The mother is a Nahua slave, first called Malinalli, later baptized Marina by the Spanish when they received her among a group of twenty female slaves. She had first been given to Alonso Hernández Portocarrero, but when he was called to return to Spain, Hernán Cortés took her as his slave, Nahuátl-Mayan interpreter, and lover. Their son, Martín Cortés, considered one of the first mestizos, was born in 1522. In addition to interpreter and lover, Malinalli eventually became war councilor, diplomat, and spy for Cortés .

Malinalli is known in history as Malintzín, Malinche, or Doña Marina. She was still a child when her life took an unfortunate turn as her father, a cacique of some influence, died, and her mother remarried and soon gave birth to a son. In order to establish that son as ruler, her mother sold Malinalli as a slave, and she eventually came to be owned by a Mayan ruler in the Tabasco region, where she learned the Mayan language. Her native language was Nahuátl. The concession of the twenty slave girls was made when the Spaniards defeated the Tabascans at the Battle of Centla.

Malinalli eventually learned Spanish, but she began her work as Cortés´s interpreter even before she had mastered his language, with the help of a shipwrecked Spaniard, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had been held in captivity by Mayans and was rescued by Cortés in Cozumel. Malinalli translated from Nahuátl to Mayan, and de Aguilar translated from Mayan to Spanish. There is considerable evidence that Malinalli was much more than a simple translator and concubine for Cortés. The soldier and historian Bernal Diaz del Castillo called her a great woman. Indigenous drawings of the time seldom show Hernán Cortés without Doña Marina by his side, and she is even portrayed alone, directing events without him.

While much appreciated by the Spaniards, she has been maligned as a traitor to her own people, and even today, a person who reveres foreign cultures, goods, and people, is called in derision a “Malinchista.”Whether a hero, a traitor, or simply a victim of circumstances, this Mother of the Mestizo Race was surely a very intelligent woman whose strength and independent spirit were far ahead of her time and circumstances.


(PHOTOS: Malinche, Hernán Cortés Monroy Pizarro Altamirano, Martin Cortes, their son, the first known mestizo.)

Beyond Burritos and Margaritas: Mexican Foods You May Not Have Met Yet

Tortillas, beans, rice, and chiles are staples in Mexican households and Mexican restaurants all over the world, including Mexico, but Mexicans enjoy many exotic foods that you may not have heard about. Here are a few of them.

Pitaya

A deliciously sour-sweet watery and nutritious cactus fruit.

Guanabana

Smells like pineapple, tastes like strawberries and apple with a touch of citrus, with a creamy texture, like coconut or banana, and generous amounts of Vitamins B and C.

Huitlacoche

A delicious and nutritious edible “disease,” huitlacoche, the fungus known in English as corn smut, can bring a higher price than the corn on which it grows. Raw or roasted, it makes delicious tacos, quesadallas, enhiladas, and other delicacies.

Flor de Calabaza

This beautiful flower can be cooked or eaten raw, made into poppers, or used as an ingredient in vegetarian pozole.

Nopal y Tuna

It may look like something to avoid, but this is a feast in the desert. The tunas (cactus pears) taste as sweet as jam when they are ripe, and they can be found in an explosion of different bright colors. The leaves, known as nopales in the mercado, are a rich source of protein an fiber. They can be scraped, chopped, seasoned, sauteed, and enjoyed in a variety of dishes.

Curanderos, Shamans, and Plant-Based Remedies

Maybe everyone grows up with a narrow framework for deciding what is normal, what is exotic, and what is abnormal. I certainly did. When I moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in my early twenties, there were many things about life there that seemed exotic to me. Some things, like mangoes and papayas, became normal to my expanding Texan mind, but wherever I look, even after many years, there are sights to see, foods to try, experiences to have, and ideas to explore that still amaze me.

Back in North Texas, sweet iced tea was the only tea I knew anything about, and home remedies were limited to merthiolate and mentholatum. We went to the doctor for just about anything that couldn’t be treated with those smelly substances. The doctor would prescribe dreaded shots, pills, or terrible-tasting liquids in mysterious-looking bottes. If all else failed, he (the doctor was always a “he” when I was a child) would put you in the hospital, cut some part of you open, do some sort of magic, and then sew you back up.

In Mexico, even though my husband was a medical student in a conventional medical school, I learned about a surprising number of alternative remedies that didn’t involve a health professional. In addition to Vicks Vaporub in Mamá’s ropero, there was manzanilla (chamomile) tea in the kitchen to relieve tummy aches and te de tila (linden flower tea) to calm down an overwrought family member. A savila (aloe vera cactus) plant in the patio was snipped as needed for healing gel to treat burns from the sun, the kitchen, or naughty kids playing with matches. American cough syrup reeks of eucalyptus oil, but in Mexico you can buy dried eucalyptus leaves in the mercado and make a potion to drink or gargle as needed. Common cooking ingredients like vinegar, cinnamon, and onions, do double duty as home remedies for all kinds of ailments. Agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower water) has medicinal uses, like lowering blood pressure, but it is more commonly just cooled, sweetened, and served as a beverage.

There is renewed worldwide interest in ancient healing practices, as chemically distilled herbs and other substances, what we call medicines, start to let us down. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria and drugs with side effects worse than the diseases they purport to remedy make headlines and cause professionals and laypeople alike to wonder if we maybe threw out a lot of proverbial babies with the proverbial bathwater of old-fashioned remedies. Modern surgical techniques indeed work miracles, but at their very finest, they are alarmingly crude and risky and always leave a scar, no matter how imperceptible.

With renewed interest in healing foods and herbs comes a revival of interest in ancient healers throughout Latin America and wherever remnants of ancient cultures are kept alive. This revival has created a burgeoning industry of shaman-seeking tourism, and with it flourishing business opportunities for neoshamans and faux shamans. Nevertheless, among Mexicans, many city people and most rural residents know where to find at least one authentic curandero. I was shocked to learn that my educated cosmopolitan Mexican friends and family members, whom I saw as perfectly normal and modern by my small-town Texas standards, thought nothing of scheduling a limpia (cleansing) before moving into a new house or after a run of bad luck, and they knew exactly which shaman, or curandero, of their acquaintance could do it.

Armando Gonzalez-Stuart, a researcher at The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) has published a beautiful, informative, and useful book with the title Plants Used in Mexican Traditional Medicine. It has a brief history of traditional medicine in Mexico, an alphabetical list of plants used for healing, with their scientific names, some of their common names, and photographs of most of them.

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