Monday, March 31, 2014

How My Love Affair with Mexico Began

Ever since I was in elementary school I had wanted to be a teacher.  I also loved history, and by the time I reached high school I had decided that I was going to a history teacher.  I was a member of our chapter of the Future Teachers of America. (I was one of the few males in the club.)  As a junior and senior I worked as a teacher's aide for my former 10th grade World History teacher.  Because he knew me and knew my abilities, he allowed me to grade his papers and even write up tests for his classes.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  I took four years of high school Spanish, and did very well, but history was still the major that I wanted to pursue.

When I enrolled for classes for the fall quarter of my freshman year of at nearby Baldwin Wallace College, I was advised that I should have another area of teaching certification besides history.  So I signed up for a Spanish class.  I was placed in a survey course of Spanish literature.  It was not an easy class, and my professor was very good but quite demanding.  After getting straight A's in high school, I was chagrined when I received a C on my first Spanish mid-term.  But I managed to bring it up to an A by the end of the quarter, and I continued to take Spanish.  Later in the year, the Spanish department organized a field trip to see a performance of the "Ballet Folklórico de México" at the Music Hall in downtown Cleveland.  I signed up for the trip.  We had front row seats and I was seated next to the head of the department, a lovely lady who would eventually be my advisor.  I was absolutely enthralled by the performance... the music, the folk dancing and the costumes were all spectacular.  Dr. Dash, the department head, later told me that she would always remember the expression of delight on my face throughout the show.  I think it was that performance that sparked my decision to switch my major from history to Spanish. 

The Ballet Folklórico in performance at the Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City

I still continued with history however.  In fact, in addition to Spanish, I was pursuing a comprehensive social studies certification which entailed a lot of courses.  Toward the end of my sophomore year, I was informed that I had been chosen by the Spanish department for a scholarship to spend my junior year in Spain.  I was very honored, but I had to decline.  There was no way that I could spend an entire year in Spain and manage to fit in all the classes I needed for my social studies certification.

However, I did want to spend some time studying in a Spanish-speaking country.  It was possible for me to spend the winter quarter of my junior year at the Universidad de las Américas in Cholula, Mexico.  So it was that my first experience outside of the United States, in fact my first time away from home by myself,  was in Mexico.

I still remember the day I arrived.  At Mexico City airport I asked someone a question, and the person responded in rapid fire Spanish that I couldn't understand. What an ego deflator!  There was a school bus to take the arriving gringo students to the University.  Cholula is about two hours from Mexico City on the other side of the mountains.  However it seemed to take forever as that old school bus strained to make climb.  It was late at night by the time we reached the small, rural town of Cholula... it seemed rather dark and desolate, a bit scary.  We reached the university a mile from town, and we were assigned our dorm rooms.

Morning arrived.  I looked out my dorm window, and my mouth was probably agape at the sight that I saw.  Under a cloudless, blue sky rose the two snow-covered volcanoes, Popocatéptl and Iztaccíhuatl (Popo and Izta for short). 

The campus of the University of the Americas was then only a few years old.  It was a small school back then, with only a handful of buildings.  There was a classroom building, an auditorium, the library, the student center, the gymnasium, the administration building and the men's and women's dorms.  Although now the university is much larger and is quite a prestigious school, back then I think it was sort of a country club for gringo students who wanted to study Spanish.  The classes were quite easy and many were taught in English.  My Spanish composition class was excellent, however, as was the Mexican history class which was taught by an American lady married to a Mexican.  I also took a class on U.S. government which was a waste, but I got a course that I needed for my certification out of the way.  

The best part of it all was that classes were held only four days a week.  Every weekend was a long weekend, and I took full advantage of it to explore Mexico.  Every Friday morning I would be up early to hop on a bus and go somewhere.  In the two and a half months that I was there, I traveled, with other students or by myself, to Mexico City (three times), Puebla, Taxco, Oaxaca, Acapulco, Jalapa and Veracruz (for Carnaval!) .

I came to love the sleepy town of Cholula.  It had not yet really experienced the boom that the student population was to eventually bring.  It was typical small town Mexico... well, not completely typical.  Just down the road from campus was the Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid in the world.  It was covered with vegetation and looked like a large hill.  A Spanish colonial church stood on top.  Frequently, after classes, I would climb to the top, and, with the view of the volcanoes in front of me, I would sit there in the solitude and do my homework. 
The Pyramid of Cholula
Those weeks that I spent in Mexico were the most exciting in my life up to that time.  It was the beginning of a love affair that continues more than forty years later. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not again!

I apologize for sounding like a broken record, but yesterday it snowed again.

Yesterday afternoon I went to the grocery store, and when I came out of the store there were a few flakes flying.  I went home, put the groceries away and took a nap.  When I woke up an hour later, the ground was covered with several inches of snow.  The temperature was hovering around freezing, so the snow was wet and heavy, clinging to every branch.  It would be considered a pretty "Christmas card" snowfall...  but it's nearly April, and we are all sick of this stuff!!

Friday, March 28, 2014

My experience as an art collector in Mérida

Every weekend in Mérida local artists display their works in the small park next to Peón Contreras Theater.  There was one artist I especially admired... Luis Coral.  His works in colored pencil are almost photographic in their realism.  The subjects are of daily life in the villages of Yucatán.

On a visit to Mérida in 2010, I saw a large, framed picture of his which depicted a Mayan woman in traditional attire, sleeping in a hammock with her daughter (or granddaughter?) nestled in her arms.  It was such a sweet, tender picture...  I wanted it!!!
But how was I going to get it home?  Not only that, but the next day I was going to leave Mérida for several days to visit Campeche and Palenque.  I went back to my hotel, Luz en Yucatán, and talked with Lupita, who was at that time the manager of the hotel.  I asked her if I could store it at the hotel until I returned from my excursion.  She said "Yes, of course."  So I went to the ATM and then back to the park and purchased the picture.  I don't remember the price, but it was very reasonable.
When I returned to Mérida, Lupita and I looked through the phone book for a company that would pack and ship it home to the United States.  We found a business called "Todo en Cartón" that seemed to fit the bill.  It was located on the north side of the city.  I took a taxi there.  The picture barely fit into the taxi!  I made the arrangements for shipping it home.  As I remember, the cost of shipping was nearly as much as the artwork, but it was worth it.
A few days after I was back in Ohio, the package arrived.  The picture was in perfect condition; not even the glass was broken.
On my recent trips to Mérida, I have looked for Luis in the park, but I have not seen him.  Perhaps he has moved on to bigger and better things.  Perhaps he now has his own gallery?  If any readers from Mérida happen to know about Luis Coral, please let me know.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Winter, Winter, Go Away!

Here in Ohio we got more snow yesterday afternoon and again last night.  The temperature this morning is 18 degrees with a wind chill of 6.  It will remain cold today, but tomorrow the temperature will approach 50.  These occasional milder days keep giving us hope that winter is over... but then old man winter keeps coming back refusing to concede defeat.  Will this one be the last snowfall????

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Meeting my new cousin

A while ago I wrote about how my blog led me to make contact with a cousin I didn't know.  I had written posts about my genealogy research and of my trip to Switzerland to visit the town of Othmarsingen where my great grandmother was born.  My new-found cousin, Gail, had stumbled upon my blog when looking for information about her ancestral town... which happened to be Othmarsingen also.  After reading my posts she realized that her great grandfather, Jakob Marti, and my great grandmother, Susanna Marti, were brother and sister.  That makes us third cousins.  We exchanged numerous e-mails, and today we got together to meet face to face. 

Gail lives less than ten minutes away from my house.  We spent over two hours pouring over the genealogical research that we have gathered.  She had a lot of information that I did not have.  For example she had found the records of our great great grandparents' journey across the Atlantic.  They sailed with their six children on a British ship called "The City of Antwerp".  They embarked from the port of Liverpool and arrived in New York on May 20, 1873, less than a month after leaving Othmarsingen.  I can only imagine what a traumatic experience it must have been to leave everything behind and begin a new life in a new country. She also had a lot of information on the descendants of her great grandfather, Jakob.  She did not, however, have any information on my great grandmother Susanna or her descendants, so I was able to provide her with that.

Gail is a lovely person, and it's a great pleasure to connect with a new (albeit distant) family member.

Gail gave me a copy of this photo of Jakob Marti (1856-1918).  He would be my great-great uncle.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Tree of Life

One of the distinctive handicrafts of Mexico are the clay sculptures known as "Arboles de la Vida" (Trees of Life).  These are a relatively recent craft which developed in the twentieth century when artisans began making objects for purely decorative rather than utilitarian purposes.  The Trees of Life were first made in the town of Izucar de Matamoros (in the state of Puebla), but the craft spread to the town of Metepec (in the state of Mexico) where the sculptures are brightly painted.  Originally the Trees of Life represented the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, but now they portray a wide variety of themes.

These pictures are of trees displayed at the National Museum of Popular Arts in downtown Mexico City.

                           This traditional tree shows Adam and Eve and the serpent.

Several trees, large and small
This imaginative sculpture is a tree of "mole poblano", the famous Mexican culinary creation.  It is decorated with the pottery and utensils of a traditional Puebla kitchen and the many ingredients used in the recipe.
This tree is covered with miniature representations of handicrafts from all over Mexico.

This one shows traditional dancers from different regions of the country.
Here is a detail from the above tree.  You can see the "quetzal" dancers from the state of Puebla.

There has been fear that the craft is in danger of extinction because of cheap imitations from Asia.  In 2009 the federal government trademarked the Tree of Life for the artisans of Metepec to preserve the authenticity of these sculptures.

I have always wanted to buy one, but good ones are very expensive, and trying to transport one home would be a nightmare.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Museum of the Interventions

In my previous post, I mentioned the Battle of Churubusco, one of the last battles of the war between Mexico and the United States.  The battle was fought at an old monastery located on the outskirts of Mexico City.  Here the Mexican army unsuccessfully attempted to halt the march of the U.S. army into the capital.

Today the monastery is a museum, "El Museo de las Intervenciones", which chronicles foreign invasions of Mexico throughout the nation's history.  In January of 2013 I visited the museum, and I found it much more interesting than I expected.  Few foreign tourists make it here, which is a shame.  I think it would be a very educational experience, especially for American travelers.  Unfortunately all of the descriptions are written in Spanish, so a knowledge of the language is necessary to get the most out of the exhibits.

The lower floor of the museum showcases the restored Franciscan monastery as it appeared in colonial times.  The full name of the monastery was "Nuestra Señora de los Angeles de Churusbusco" (Our Lady of the Angels of Churubusco).   Churusbusco was in those days a rural village to the south of Mexico City. (Today it is very much within the urban sprawl of the city.)  The monastery was built in 1678 to replace a smaller Franciscan establishment which in turn had been built upon the site of an Aztec temple.  Here you can see the monastery kitchen, the gardens, and the courtyard with its well which was used by both the monks and the villagers. 

The upper floor relates the history of foreign interventions in Mexico by the Spanish, French and Americans. One large hall deals with the 1846-1848 war with the United States.  I must say that the Mexican War was an episode that does not exemplify our country's ideals at their best.  Many Americans, fueled by the principle of Manifest Destiny, were eager to take Mexico's northern territories, and some southerners were hoping to extend slavery farther west.  However, not all Americans were in favor of the war.  Some viewed it as an unjust land-grab.  Among the opponents voting against the war were John Quincy Adams and a young congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln.  The writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau spent time in jail rather than pay taxes to support the war.
Mexico actually had a larger army than the U.S., and with better leadership the outcome of the war might have been different.  But Mexico was led by the despot Antonio López de Santa Ana.  Santa Ana was a vain, unscrupulous, incompetent dictator.  He had delusions of grandeur yet more than once sold out his country to save his own neck.  The Mexican people today, although they view the war as an example of United States imperialism, have very little regard for Santa Ana.


Portrait of Santa Ana in the museum
 A map in the museum showing the campaigns of the Mexican War.
The war ended with the U.S. army landing in the port city of Veracruz and marching inland to Mexico City (following the same route taken by the Spanish conquistador Cortez).  The Americans took control of the capital and the war came to an end.

As a result of the war, Mexico lost one half of its land, and the United States gained the territory that eventually would become the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A historical footnote for St. Patrick's Day

A little known aspect of the war between the United States and Mexico (1846-1848) is the story of the St. Patrick's Battalion.  This group of soldiers, which may have numbered at several hundred, was made up of deserters from the U.S. army, who switched sides and fought with the Mexicans.

The largest portion of the battalion were Irish immigrants, although there were soldiers of other nationalities.  Most of them were Catholic, and very few of them were naturalized United States citizens.  They had been recruited into the U.S. army, but because of the discrimination and hatred toward Irish immigrants, and prejudice against Catholics in general, these soldiers felt more sympathy with the cause of the Catholic nation of Mexico.  The Mexican army offered them higher pay, citizenship, and land grants. 

The "Batallón de San Patricio" fought bravely in numerous battles and suffered heavy losses. Its members won a number of Mexican military medals. Among the battles in which they served were the Battle of Buenavista and the Battle of Churubusco.  The Convent of Churubusco, located at that time on the outskirts of Mexico City, was the site of one of the final battles of the war as the Mexican army tried to halt the advance of the Americans toward the capital.  It is said that the Mexicans had raised a white flag of surrender, but the "San Patricios" tore up the flag, and convinced the Mexican commander, General Anaya, to continue fighting.

By the war's end, a short time later, those "San Patricios" who had been captured by the U.S. army were court martialed.  Those who had defected before the declaration of war against Mexico, were whipped and branded.  Those who had switched after the war commenced, were found guilty of desertion and sentenced to death by hanging.  (It is interesting to note that this was a violation of the army's own articles of war.  Deserters were to be executed before a firing squad; hanging was reserved for spies and those who committed civilian atrocities.)

Fifty "San Patricios" were hung... sixteen at the Plaza de San Jacinto in San Angel (today a neighborhood of Mexico City), four in the village of Mixcoac, and thirty at Chapultepec Castle (see earlier post on Chapultepec Castle's history).  Those executed at Chapultepec were to be hung as the Mexican flag was lowered and the American flag raised.  According to accounts, the "San Patricios", defiant to the end, cheered the Mexican flag.

The soldiers who escaped and survived the war for the most part disappeared from history.  There are a few records of "San Patricios" taking advantage of the promised land grants.

The battalion is today remembered with this plaque on the Plaza de San Jacinto, where some of them were executed.

The inscription reads, "In memory of the Irish soldiers of the heroic Saint Patrick's Battalion, martyrs who gave their lives for the cause of Mexico during the unjust North American invasion of 1847". 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Tepotzotlán - The Museum of the Viceroyalty

An hour's drive to the north of Mexico City is the town of Tepotzotlán (not to be confused with Tepoztlán, located to the south of the capital, and described in an earlier post).  In June of 2012, my friend Alejandro and I visited Tepotzotlán which was designated by the Secretariat of Tourism as a "Magic Town".  It merits that honor principally because it contains one of the most important monuments of colonial Mexico:  the Church and College of San Francisco Javier, which today comprise the National Museum of the Viceroyalty.

The Jesuit Order established three educational institutions here in the 1580s, and the town was one of the most important centers of learning in colonial Mexico.  The largest of the institutions, the College of San Francisco Javier, was a training center for Jesuit priests. The old college today is a museum containing the largest collection of colonial art and artifacts in the country.  Although the museum is very interesting, the star attraction is the former church.  Religious services are no longer held here; it is now a part of the museum as well. 

The church was begun in 1670, but the ornate façade dates from 1760.  It is one of the most outstanding examples of the churrigueresque style that was popular in eighteenth century Mexico. This style of architecture is incredibly ornate; it derives from the European baroque and takes it several steps further. 

The interior of the church is a dazzling display of churrigueresque altarpieces.  They are carved from white cedar and covered with gold leaf.  I have visited many impressive churches in Mexico, South America and Europe, but this is one of the most incredible that I have ever seen.  


                            Don't forget to look up at the lavishly decorated ceilings.

       Even the separate chapel that was used by the Jesuits of the college is amazing.

                     The kitchen is restored to look as it might have in colonial times.

                             One of the picturesque courtyards of the former college

After spending several hours at the museum, it was time to eat.  There are several restaurants facing the town's main plaza.  They cater to the tourist trade, but we found our meal to be very good.

(photo taken by Alejandro)


                         Tepotzotlán - a very worthwhile excursion from Mexico City!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Winter won't let go

After the brutal winter that we had here in Ohio, everyone was hoping that we would have an early spring.  No such luck!  We had a couple mild days in which the snow melted, but yesterday, winter hit us again with snow and single digit temperatures.


Actually it is not at all unusual for us to have a blast of winter in March, often sometime around St. Patrick's Day.  I still remember the first time I went to Mexico, way back in 1973.  I spent the winter quarter studying at the University of the Americas in Cholula, Mexico.  I was scheduled to fly home on St. Patrick's Day, but I only got as far as Atlanta.  Cleveland was snowed in!  Ever since then, I have always said that we aren't out of the woods until after St. Patrick's Day.  Not too many years ago, the home opener baseball game in Cleveland was cancelled due to snow.  That was in April!  I hope winter doesn't last that long!!
Tomorrow the temperature is supposed to go up to near 50 degrees.  (They say that if you don't like Cleveland weather, just wait a bit.  It will change.)  We are all keeping our fingers crossed that this will be the last that we see of the white stuff. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Paintings from past auctions

As you read in my previous post, I just finished a painting that I am donating to the annual charity auction of the local chapter of "Los Amigos de las Américas."

I dug out photos of the paintings that I donated in previous years.

Since the organization sends high school students to do volunteer work in Latin America, all of my paintings for the auction have been landscapes of Mexico.

The first time that I donated a painting was in 2010.  I did this street scene of Guanajuato.

My friend Jane (my former teaching colleague who was with me in Yucatán this winter) accompanied me to the auction.  No one was bidding on my painting, so she put in a bid.  Someone else then bid on it, and Jane thought, "Now we've got the ball rolling!"  She bid again... hoping to raise the price even more... and she was stuck with the painting.  Well, not really stuck, since she liked it, and now has it hanging in her dining room.
This was the painting I donated in 2012.  It's a street scene of the beautiful town of Malinalco.
Another friend had accompanied me to the auction, and he won the bidding on the painting.  He however really was interested in purchasing on of my works.
Last year I donated this view of the ancient ruins of Cantona, in a remote area of the state of Puebla.
              That time the painting was purchased by someone I didn't even know!!


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Ta-Da! The Painting is Finished

Today I finished my painting which is entitled "Valley of Mexico - Tribute to José María Velasco".  I hope that it will bring in a good sum at the charity auction.

I used to participate in several shows each year with a local fine arts club.  But setting up at the outdoor shows was becoming just too much work.  Now I only show my work at the club's indoor "Holiday Show" which is held in a church just around the corner from where I live.  I occasionally sell a painting, but most of my sales are of hand-painted Christmas ornaments.  I have been so busy traveling the last few years that I have only been doing two paintings per year...  my annual Christmas card, and a painting for the charity auction.

Exciting plans

I am going to have a very busy travel schedule this spring and fall.

I decided to return to Mexico City in April.  I will be there for my friend Alejandro's birthday and stay through Easter.  I have never experienced Easter in Mexico.

My sister-in-law Phyllis for some time has been saying that we should take a trip to Spain.  After much discussion we finally set the dates and made the airline reservations.  At the end of May we will fly to Madrid and will spend two weeks in Spain.  We will visit Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona.  In Madrid I will have the chance to see my cousin Werner again. From Madrid we will also take a short excursion to my favorite Spanish city, Segovia.  I have never been to Valencia, so that will be a new experience for me.  Phyllis is a Lladro collector, so she wants to take a tour of the Lladro factory.  But beyond that, I have read that Valencia is a fascinating city that is much underrated.  We will finish our time in Spain in Barcelona, which architecturally is one of the most outstanding cities in Europe. 

From Barcelona we will take the train to Paris.  I have never been to Paris so it will be another new experience.  Unfortunately, I don't speak French except for a few polite phrases.  We have all heard stories of the arrogant, rude Parisians, but I figure that it is simply a stereotype.  A friend who teaches French assures me that it is only the "ugly American" types who are treated badly, and that with a smile and a few French phrases I will be just fine.  And I figure that I can ask "Parlez-vous anglais ou espagnol?" so that at least they will know that I am not a monolingual who expects the world to speak English.

After five days in Paris, Phyllis will return home to Ohio.  I will continue by the train through the "Chunnel" to London.  There I will visit my English cousins.  They live in a suburb of London, so I will find a hotel nearby (less expensive than staying in the center) and take the train into the city.  The last time I was in London, I was only there for a couple days.  I tried to see too much and ended up tired and grumpy.  This time, since I will be there for two weeks, I will pace myself, and just see one major attraction per day. 

This old retired teacher will soon be having more travel adventures!!

Friday, March 7, 2014

The "Magic Town" of Valle del Bravo

In January of 2013, on one of my visits to Mexico City, my friend Alejandro and I took an excursion to the town of Valle del Bravo.  Valle del Bravo is located to the southwest of Mexico City, and it is a two to three hour drive from the capital.

(image from the web)

In 1947 a dam was contructed nearby to supply Mexico City with electricity and water.  The resulting reservoir, Lake Avándaro, flooded a large portion of the valley, and the hillside town of Valle del Bravo suddenly became a lakeside town.  Although you will not see many "gringo" tourists there, it is a very popular resort with Mexican families from Mexico City and Toluca.  Many wealthy Mexicans have built beautiful weekend homes along the shore of the lake.  In 2005 the town was declared a "Pueblo Mágico" (Magic Town) by the secretariat of tourism for its scenic, historic and cultural atmosphere.

The most popular activity for visitors to the town is to take one of the lake cruises that leave from the docks at the lakefront.  It was a pleasant, relaxing cruise, and provided good views of the town, and the lovely weekend homes along the lake.

One would be remiss not to climb the hill and explore the old town of Valle de Bravo.  It is a very picturesque colonial town.


            The pretty plaza is dominated by the parish church of San Francisco de Asís.

We found a wonderful restaurant in the old town called "La Michoacana".  From its terrace in one direction there is a view down toward the lake, and in the other direction you see the spires of the parish church.

The view was spectacular, the food was delicious, and there was a musician playing traditional music.  Ahhhh!  This is Mexico!
(Photo taken by Alejandro)

Valle del Bravo truly is a "magic town"!