I am afraid of the darkness outside. I close my curtains every night  and open them to the earliest light. These are the end and the beginning of my daily routines.

At home or away, sick or well, troubled or at peace, routines are comforting. They create spaces in time and place for delight in the joyful unexpected and for coping with its dreaded counterpart.

Breaking with routine on occasion is comforting too: a holiday, a vacation, a spontaneous moment of presence:  watching the cat chase a butterfly or listening to a toddler learn to use language to bring order to the chaos of new sensations.

On holy days like Christmas, alternate routines are dusted off and elevated to the status of rituals, and they temporarily take the place of mundane habits.

There are people who are not around every day. There is food that is not part of the daily fare, and we give thanks to whatever we believe in for sunlight and darkness and curtains to let them in or close them out, for health and the sickness that makes health a blessing, for peace and joy and the trouble and sadness that make them real, for daily routines and holiday rituals, for food and coffee, cats and dogs, butterflies, Christmas trees, toddlers, and words. 


New blogs will be posted throughout the month

Christmas Joy in Cigar Boxes: Recipe for a Christmas Memory (posted December 2, 2019)

December 12, Guadalupe Day (posted December 1, 2019)

Gallery of Nativity Displays (posted December 1, 2019)





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Dia de los Muertos en Mexico

All Saints’ Day (November 1), All Souls’ Day (November 2) and the Celtic prequel of All Saints’ (Hallows’) Day, Hallowe’en (October 31) celebrate the dead and usher in the harvest throughout Christendom. All Souls’ Day, or Dia de los Muertos, has enjoyed an astonishing surge of popularity in Mexico since 2000.

There is much speculation and many a theory about the indigenous roots of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. One popular idea is that it can be traced to Aztec worship rituals for Mictecacihuatl, “Lady of the Dead,” Queen of Mictlan. According to Aztec legend, Mictecacihuatl was sacrificed as an infant and married to Miclantecuhtl, king of the underworld, which she was allowed to leave once a year to return to the world of the living. The Aztecs celebrated Mictecacihuatl’s return with death festivals and traditional dances, to honor her for her protection of the bones that created life and to seek protection for those who died.

Extravagant all-night graveyard celebrations and watches take place in many parts of Mexico, such as Patzcuaro and Oaxaca. Many families take the opportunity to remember deceased loved ones by taking flowers to their graves. Home altars or ofrendas were set up in homes where fervent Catholic faith encouraged the belief that souls might materialize to eat the Bread of the Dead and drink their favorite tequila. Nowadays, even non-believers decorate their homes with ofrendas to celebrate the season and remember loved ones. Public altars for celebrities or beloved figures in a business or school are now seen often. They are a way of keeping this tradition alive.

One reason for the surge in popularity of the Dia de los Muertos is UNESCO’s 2008 inclusion of the Mexican Day of the Dead in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” and in part because of the profit potential of transforming traditional practices into pop culture through modern advertising. Flowers for gravesites, food and beverage for dead and living, sugar skulls, and decorative cut paper are sold widely during the season, but there has been a recent proliferation of goods and services: manufactured costumes, professional Catrina face-painters, party venues, and knick-knacks manufactured in China. The 2017 Disney/Pixar film Coco increased international awareness of the festivities, romanticizing them with nostalgic stereotypes of Mexican life and culture.

There is another reason, a more sinister one, for the upsurge in the popularity of the Day of the Dead: a surprising increase since 2001 in the number of adherents to a leaderless cult, the worship of Santa Muerte. La Santa Muerte is a female deity of sorts, evolved from much older images of the Grim Reaper with a touch of various versions of the Virgin Mary. The skeleton image was enhanced by lithographist Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), whose creepily playful late nineteenth and early twentieth-century drawings in turn inspired the elegantly dressed skeleton, known as a “Catrina,” among the crowd in Diego Rivera’s 1946-47 mural, Sunday Afternoon Dream in the Alameda.

Although the faithful in this cult represent a cross-section of Mexican society, it has become especially popular among drug dealers and other delinquents, who, with a mix of Catholic ritual and magic formula, request her blessing in life’s trials and tribulations as well as in their dubious enterprises. Many cultists consider themselves devout Christians, but Catholic hierarchy deeply disapproves of the cult.

On the positive side, keeping memories alive and reconciling the natural fear of death with acceptance of its inevitability, a celebration of the lives that make every death meaningful, and a touch of humor, music, and partying make life and death more bearable.


Reyes Ruiz, Claudia, Historia y actualidad del culto a la Santa Muerte

José Guadalupe Posada: Skulls, Skeletons and Macabre Mischief

The Aztec Origins of Día de Los Muertos


In the northern hemisphere, November is the time of harvest. During the last days of October and the first days of November, customs, superstitions and beliefs blend together as contemporary religious practices and remnants of rituals from ancient religions invoke the gods’ and ancestors’ blessing on the harvest, their protection from dark spirits breaking through the veil between the realms of the dead and the living, and their intervention to assure that the sun will return after the deep darkness of the winter solstice.

In Christendom, these rituals center around All Hallows’ (Saints’) Day, November 1, ushered in the night before (All Hallows’ Evening, Hallow Eve, Hallowe’en) by an unusual level of Spirit World activity. In Mexico, All Souls’ Day is a time to remember friends and loved ones who didn’t achieve sainthood, but whose memory is cherished nonetheless. This is the world-renowned Mexican Day of the Dad, Dia de los Muertos.

In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is a designated day of feasting and thanksgiving, a time to express gratitude for peace and abundance to the God of the harvest and of all good things.





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I am taking a break this month from Coffee Talk. I will be giving more time to a new blog that is designed to organize and synthesize information for people who are new to plant-based living or who are merely interested in it. Meanwhile, I am looking at Coffee Talk with an eye to improving it in all kinds of ways.

Fruit and Stuff

If you’re giving up meat, you’ll find useful information at Fruit and Stuff. If you’re not, so will you!





If you want to link your business, service or event under BUSINESSES * SERVICES * EVENTS, send a message through CONTACT. Approved listings will be FREE THROUGH DECEMBER 2019 with no obligation.




On September 16, Mexico will commemorate her fight for indepenence from Spain, which started 209 years ago, on September 16, 1810. The struggle would last for eleven years, ending on September 27, 1821, with the victorious march into Mexico City by the insurgent army under Agustin Iturbide. That part of New Spain which we know as Mexico had much more territory in 1821 than it does now. It encompassed a vast part of what are now the southwestern states of the United States, including my home state of Texas. We can’t know what might have happened if Spain had been able to keep her American lands, but we can be sure that our own stories would be quite different.


16 de septiembre

Map of Mexico in 1819

Guadalajara, Guadalajara (song)

Guadalajara, Guadalajara (gallery)

My First Year in Mexico

Progenitors of La Raza

English / Spanish Glossary of Edible Plants

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

HOME COOKING: Café de Olla


Fruit and Stuff

If you’re giving up meat, you’ll find useful information at Fruit and Stuff. If you’re not, so will you!




If you want to link your business, service or event under BUSINESSES * SERVICES * EVENTS, send a message through CONTACT. Approved listings will be FREE THROUGH DECEMBER 2019 with no obligation.

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.

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.)

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.




Vacationing together in Cancún seemed like a splendid idea, so Dad bought the tickets and made hotel reservations for himself, his wife, their daughter and her brand-new husband. After weeks of anticipation, the day arrived and they headed happily to the Mayan Riviera. Their joyful family vacation was cut short, however, when they reached the Immigration station. The daughter’s brand-new husband would not be allowed to leave the airport and would be escorted to the next available flight back to where he came from.

A few years earlier Dad had been in a much less splendid mood when he found out that Daughter, who was still in her teens at the time, and her teenage boyfriend were “together.” A dad from earlier times might have fetched a shotgun, but this twenty-first century father went to the courthouse and charged the boyfriend with statutory rape. The girl was underage, so no matter how loudly she protested that she had eagerly consented to their togetherness, the charges held, the boyfriend was punished, and his name was written down on the Interpol List of Sex Offenders, barred until further notice from international travel. In the intervening years, the boy and girl had grown up and got married, and everybody was happy. Until they arrived at the Immigration station in Cancún. Dad had repented long ago for being such a hothead, and he told his karmic tale with doleful humor to people sitting around as they waited sadly to board their return flight.


Another bride, older but not wiser, was infuriated when her honeymoon plans hit the Immigration wall because her obviously experienced groom had earned a place on The List by togethering with a less-than-willing woman. He had failed to tell his bride about that faux-pas. “You’ve got some ‘splaining to do,” she shouted as they walked the jetway to board their return flight much sooner and less tan than anticipated.


Everyone in the family knew about Grandpa. He had been wild and reckless in his youth, had raped a girl, had done time, and had spent the thirty years since his release building a productive, respectable life and family. His life had been productive enough to bring the whole extended family on a Caribbean vacation. Grandpa had no idea that although he had paid his debt to society for that long-ago crime, his name had not been erased from Interpol’s List. The extended family sadly waved goodbye. Grandpa insisted they should go ahead and enjoy their vacation without him.


There are some injustices and oversights to be dealt with on the home front. No one welcomes predators, but the definition of predator may need refinement, and communication between passport agencies, airports, and airlines should be improved. Sex crimes are not the only crimes that can land you on a list of the Unwelcome, but, as in the case of the hothead father-in-law-to-be, they are more ambiguous than, say, homicide, larceny and money-laundering, and they sometimes keep you on the list much longer than other offenses. Unexpected deportations are inconvenient for families and for airline employees who deal with them and can incur unwarranted expenses for families and for the airlines.

Meanwhile, if you or someone you travel with has ever been accused of a crime, it’s a good idea to check your status before forking out a load of cash or credit for a fun trip to the Mayan Riviera or anywhere else.

This website has some helpful information.

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