Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Favorite Museums in Mexico City

I have mentioned before that Mexico City claims to have more museums than any other city in the world.  There are supposedly around 150 museums there.  I was trying to compile a list of all those which I have visited, and, although I probably missed a few, I came up with forty.  Some, of course, are more interesting than others, but the majority were worth visiting.  On my upcoming trip to Mexico I will probably see a few more. 

Out of the museums that I have visited, here are my five favorites.

1.  The National Museum of Anthropology

The famous Sun Stone is the centerpiece of the Aztec Hall.

My list is in no particular order, but this museum is definitely my number one favorite and is the one museum which no visitor to Mexico City should miss.  It is one of the great museums of the world.  The building, which opened in 1964, is in itself a stunning work of modern architecture.  The ground floor displays the world's largest collection of artifacts from the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico.  The upper floor has ethnographic exhibits dealing with the indigenous peoples of Mexico today.  I have visited this place countless times.  I never tire of it, and I always find something that I had not noticed before.

2. The Museum of the "Templo Mayor"

A life-size clay figure of an Aztec Eagle Warrior

In 1978 a utility crew working under the streets of Mexico City discovered an enormous Aztec carving.  This marked the beginning of a project to excavate the foundations of the "Templo Mayor", the main Aztec temple.  Thousands of artifacts were found, and in 1987 a museum was built to house the discoveries.  Although much smaller than the Anthropology Museum, it has an impressive collection which is dramatically displayed. (The building was designed by the same architect who did the Anthropology Museum.)

3. The Museum of Popular Arts

Paper mache "Judas" figures

This museum opened in 2006, and is located in an Art Deco building which once served as Mexico City's central fire station.  It contains an excellent collection of Mexico's wide variety of handicrafts and folk art from the past and present.  It is just large enough to provide a satisfying visit without inducing "museum fatigue". 

4. Chapultepec Castle

Chapultepec Castle was built in 1775 to serve as a home for the Spanish viceroys.  Throughout its long history it has served as a military academy, an imperial palace, an observatory, and a Presidential home.  It is the only castle in North America to have served as a royal residence (during the ill-fated reign of Emperor Maximillian in the 1860s).  Since 1939 it has served as the National Museum of History.  Although the historical artifacts may not be of great interest to the casual visitor, the museum features numerous mural paintings by some of Mexico's top artists which portray events in the country's history.  There are also rooms with the lavish furnishings of the Emperor Maximillian and his wife Carlota.  The terrace of the castle offers a great view of the city.

5. The National Museum of Art

A visit to this museum is worthwhile if only to see the spectacular building in which it is housed.  It was built in the early 1900s as the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works.  The museum contains Mexican art from the colonial era up to the mid-20th century.   I find the rooms filled with colonial religious art to be rather dreary.  What I love about this museum is that it contains the world's largest collection of paintings by my favorite Mexican artist, José María Velasco.  Velasco was a 19th century painter famous for his beautiful landscapes portraying the Mexican countryside.

As I said, I have enjoyed most of the museums that I have visited in Mexico City.  Which was my least favorite?  Without a doubt, the Jumex Museum.  Jumex (Jugos Mexicanos) is an important company which sells juices and other beverages.  In 2013 they opened a museum to showcase contemporary art.  I admit that I am not a fan of much of what passes for art these days.  There was not that much on display at the museum.  It was all avant-garde stuff, most of which I found laughable.  It is pretty sad when I found the design of the public restroom to be more interesting than what was hanging of the gallery walls!

Sunday, March 26, 2017


During the exceptionally mild February that we had in Ohio, the spring bulbs had all started sprouting early.  The daffodils were tall and forming buds.  Then in March we had a couple cold spells with more snow than we had in the entire previous month.  The clumps of daffodils looked half dead amid the snow.  Now the weather has warmed up again.  The leaves of the daffodils sprang back to life, but there do not seem to be very many flowers.  However, the few blooms that have appeared are a cheerful welcome to spring.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Keeping Within the Limits

I have done most of the packing for my upcoming trip to Mexico.  (Less than two weeks to go!)  Packing light is definitely not the motto for this trip.  Since I will be allowed to keep clothes at my new apartment, I am taking a lot more stuff than usual.  In addition to my abundance of clothes and all the other usual items, I am bringing gifts for Alejandro and his family.  I will be there for Alejandro's birthday and for Easter.  We are going to have an Easter egg hunt for his little nephew, so I bought plastic eggs and several bags of candy.  

I will be flying on United to Chicago, and since I have a credit card through United, there is no charge for a checked piece of luggage weighing up to fifty pounds.  From Chicago to Mexico City I will be on Interjet Airlines.  Interjet allows a checked suitcase weighing up to fifty five pounds free of charge.  However, unlike United, they also weigh the carry-on luggage, and they allow twenty-two pounds.

Today I did a trial run of weighing my suitcases.  My big suitcase weighed forty five pounds.  My carry-on was twenty one pounds.  There is the problem.  I still have to make a batch of fudge for Alejandro's family, and that will go in the carry-on.  It will probably add a couple more pounds.  So I started taking some things out of the carry-on and putting them in the big suitcase.  I weighed them again, and my carry-on came in at 19.6 pounds.   I think I will make it just under the wire! 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Aztec Language Lives

(images from the web)

The Aztecs, the tribe which dominated central Mexico before the arrival of the Spanish, spoke a language called Nahuatl.  Nahuatl is part of the Uto-Aztecan language family, and is thus distantly related to the native languages of numerous tribes in the southwestern United States, such as Hopi and Shoshone.

Nahuatl is by no means a dead language.  Dialects of Nahuatl, many of them quite distinct from the "classical" language of the Aztecs, are spoken by 1.5 million people in Mexico today.  Ten percent of those people speak only their Nahuatl tongue.

Even beyond those native speakers, the presence of Nahuatl is very much alive in Mexico.  The map of the country is strewn with place names of Aztec origen.  Chapultepec, Xochilmilco, Popocatépetl, and Jalisco are among the countless places throughout the country whose names derive from Nahuatl.  Even the name of the country itself comes from "Mexica", the name by which the Aztecs called themselves.

When the Spanish arrived they saw many animals, plants and foods which they had never seen before.  They adapted the Nahuatl words to Spanish.  In some cases those words spread to other languages including English.  "Aguacate" (avocado) comes from "ahuacatl", "guacamole" comes from "ahuacamolli", "coyote" from "coyotl" and  "tomate" from "tomatl".  And we must not forget "chocolate" from "xocolatl".  As you can see, the Spanish just couldn't get the hang of that "TL" sound which is so common at the end of Aztec words.  They usually changed it to a "TE".

In addition to the words which have entered the Spanish language in general, the Mexicans use many words of Nahuatl origen which might not be understood by people from other Spanish-speaking countries.  Here are a few of them...

popote (drinking straw)
petate (a woven sleeping mat)
huipil (a traditional women's garment)
huaraches (sandals)
chamaco (slang for boy)
chamarra (jacket)
tianguis (outdoor market)
papalote (kite)
molcajete (mortar and pestle used for making sauces)
metate (stone for grinding corn)
jacal (shack)
escuincle (child)
chapulín (grasshopper)
mole (sauce)
guajolote (turkey)

So when you head out to the "tianguis" to buy some "aguacates" to make "guacamole", think of the Aztecs!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Happy Birthday, Benito

(image from the web)

Today is a national holiday in Mexico, the birthday of Benito Juárez, the country's most revered President.  (He was actually born on March 21st, but, as in the United States, the observance of holidays is often adjusted to create three-day weekends.)  Juarez is often compared to Abraham Lincoln, who was his contemporary.

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao in the state of Oaxaca.  He was a full-blooded Zapotec Indian.  His parents died when he was three years old, and he was raised by his grandparents and then an uncle.  As a child, he worked as a shepherd, but at the age of twelve, he walked to the city of Oaxaca to seek an education.  A Franciscan layperson who was impressed with Benito's intelligence, arranged for him to attend a seminary school.  Juárez, however, was not interested in becoming a priest, and he went on to study law.  He entered politics and become a city councilman, a judge, and eventually the governor of the state of Oaxaca.  In an era when mixed marriages were rare, he married a socially prominent, white woman, Margarita Maza.

Due to his opposition to the dictator Santa Ana, he was forced into exile and spent a year in New Orleans.  He returned to Mexico when Santa Ana was deposed, and became the Minister of Justice under the new liberal government of President Ignacio Comonfort.  As minister, he drafted what would become known as the "Ley Juárez" (Juárez Law), which restricted the powers of the Catholic Church and the military.  At that time the Church owned one half of the arable land in the country, and the new law expropriated all Church property.  Juárez was then named the President of the Supreme Court, a position which was next in line to the President. 

In 1857 conservatives opposed to the liberal reforms staged a revolt against the government.  President Comonfort resigned, and the conservatives took control of Mexico City.  The liberals recognized Juárez as the constitutional President, but he had to flee the capital and spent the next several years in Veracruz.  In 1861 the liberals recaptured Mexico City.  Elections were held, and Juárez was chosen as President. 

Juárez almost immediately faced a new crisis.  The years of revolt had left the economy in shambles, and the President cancelled interest payments on foreign loans which had been taken out by the conservatives.  Napoleon III of France, eager to expand his country's influence, used this as an excuse to invade Mexico.  Mexican conservatives, still smarting from their defeat, supported the invasion. The French forces were temporarily halted at the Battle of Puebla (the 5th of May of 1862), but by the following year the French had regrouped and captured Mexico City.  Juárez once again had to flee the capital.  He went to El Paso del Norte (present-day Ciudad Juárez) where he headed the government in exile and directed the resistance to the French invasion.  Napoleon had the Austrian prince, Maximillian von Hapsburg crowned as the (puppet) Emperor of Mexico.

The United States did not recognize the government of Maximillian, and considered the French invasion a violation of the Monroe Doctrine.  However, because the country was in the midst of its own Civil War, the Lincoln government was unable to assist Juárez.  By 1867 Napoleon was faced with pressure from the United States and the growing military threat of Prussia and he withdrew his troops from Mexico.  Without the French army, Maximillian's regime quickly crumbled, and the Emperor was defeated, captured and executed.  The Mexican President returned to the capital in triumph.

Juárez won reelection in 1867 and again in 1871.  In 1872 he died of a heart attack.

Today, the image of Juárez is on the twenty peso bill.  Mexico City's international airport is named after him.  There is scarcely a city in the country that does not have a Juárez Avenue or a monument in his honor.

His most famous quotation is:  "Entre los individuos, como entre las naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz."  (Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.)

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Caribbean Flavor

My cousin Gail and her husband Wes wanted to get together with me before we soon take off on our respective trips.  (They are going to Greece and the Balkans; I am headed to Mexico again.)  Gail had read about a little place called "Sabor Miami" in Cleveland's Old Brooklyn neighborhood, so we went there yesterday for lunch.

The owner of the restaurant is from Honduras.  She had taken over the operation of a small diner that was popular for its pancakes, and a year ago she opened her own place nearby.  She kept the pancakes on the menu but added a variety of Caribbean-inspired dishes.

The café is a tiny hole-in-the-wall.  The owner's mother waited on us.  She is a charming lady who was a school teacher in Honduras.  When I said, "Gracias", she asked me if I speak Spanish.  We then started chattering away in Spanish while Gail and Wes looked on.

We all had "café con leche" to drink.  It was so good I had a second cup.

Wes ordered "cinnamon- roll pancakes".

Gail ordered fried plantains covered with black beans and sour cream, as well as an "empanada".

I had a heaping plate of yellow rice with black beans, shredded pork, "pico de gallo" and a curry sauce.

We all enjoyed our meals, and will definitely return to this unique café!

Friday, March 17, 2017

Corned Beef and Cabbage

(Image from the web)

Today is St. Patrick's Day, and here in the United States it is traditional to serve corned beef and cabbage.  I always wondered about that.  As far as I know corned beef is not a typical dish of Ireland.  And what the heck does the word "corned" in corned beef mean?

It did not take much time on the internet to find the answer.   When poor Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, beef brisket was the cheapest cut of meat that they could find, and cabbage was the cheapest vegetable.  In New York City the Irish learned from Eastern European immigrants the process of preserving meat in brine.  "Corned" refers to the chunks of rock salt used to make the brine.

So will I be having corned beef and cabbage today?  Probably not, since my cousin Gail, her husband Wes, and I are going out for lunch at a Caribbean restaurant!