A Merry Mexican Christmas Season

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!  I have had a busy holiday season here in Mexico.  Yesterday (Jan. 6) was the Dia de los Reyes, better known to us in the US as Epiphany and with that, we nearly reach the end of the festivities.  The season won’t officially end until Feb. 2nd with Candlemas, but I present you with a few highlights thus far.

1.  Las Posadas

Starting on December 16th and running until December 24th, Joseph and Mary’s quest for lodging is reenacted in towns and villages throughout Mexico.  This certainly was the case for my neighborhood here in Mexico City, where each family in the neighborhood scheduled a night for the posada to be held in their home.  Each home had a nativity scene and the hosts of the posada (Spanish for “inn”) act as the innkeepers.  The neighborhood children carried images of Mary and Joseph from home to home singing and asking for lodging before finally arriving at the house with the scheduled posada.    Once a prayer was said, the party began with tons of great foods, drinks, and several piñatas which were usually star-shaped and filled with candy, fruits, and other fun things for the kids.

The piñatas I walked through every day on my way to the bus stop.

2.  Noche Buena

Noche Buena (Christmas Eve), rather than Christmas Day, is really the highpoint of the season in Mexico.  It usually involves attending Misa de Gallo (rooster’s mass) at midnight before returning home to celebrate with dinner and drinks.  My Mexican host family and I attended church much earlier in the evening and then returned home to eat our Christmas Eve meal (turkey with an adobo sauce, which was pretty amazing.  One of the men in my house is a chef from the state of Oaxaca.)  Christmas Day is then reserved as a day of rest.

3.  Dia de Reyes

January 6th, as said before, is Dia de Reyes (literally Kings’ Day).  This is Epiphany on the church calendar, the 12th day after Christmas, when the Magi arrived bearing gifts for baby Jesus.  This is the day that Mexican children typically receive presents.  Santa is usually seen as an imported custom.  In the days preceding Dia de Reyes, children write letters to the Magi requesting a gift that they would like and then the gifts appear on January 6th.  It is also customary to eat Rosca de Reyes (I had plenty), which is a sweet wreath-shaped bread with candied fruit on top.  Inside this bread is a figure of the baby Jesus.  The person who finds the figurine is then expected to host the party and provide tamales for Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas) which marks the presentation of Jesus at the temple.  Fortunately for me since I have no idea how to make tamales, I was not the one to find the figure.

4.  Christmas Parties Galore!

While this isn’t specifically Mexican, I certainly attended my fair share of non-posada Christmas parties, including our YAGM party, where I received a partly-done book of sudoku, a leftover can of cranberry sauce from Thanksgiving, and two bags of iced tea mix through our white elephant gift exchange.

YAGM Christmas minus Kent. Left to right: Ian, Sarah, Lisa, Kyle, Me, Andrea holding her daughter Olivia, and Kyle.

The other major parties were our DDESER end-of-year party and the party of our parent organization Equidad de Género.  At DDESER, we decorated the office with garland, lights, bouquets of condoms (both male and female), and of course a Christmas tree with inflated condoms for ornaments.  Pretty standard stuff.  We ate plenty of delicious Mexican food and raffled off gifts (I got a thermos) before the dance portion began.

The condom tree

The party at Equidad was slightly more upscale.  This party featured roulette, a live jazz band, a four-course meal served by waiters in tuxedos, complementary wine and other liquors, and more presents.  The gifts included Ipod touches, cameras, laptop computers, vacations, and large flat-screen televisions, among others (and yes those were all meant to be plural).  Recall that I won a thermos.

Coworkers and I at the DDESER End-of-year Party

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you may have noticed that New Years is conspicuously missing.  Clearly, this is not because it didn’t happen, but because I was having a pretty un-Mexican New Years on a beach in Oaxaca.  However, for a run-down of what seems to have been a very fun holiday, check out my friend Lisa’s blog here.

No Mas Violencia!

Friday, November 25, 2011 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and kicks off 16 days of activism.  Unfortunately, this day also happened to be Black Friday and shopping clearly outranks preventing gender-based violence so I didn’t hear much about this from the US.  But here in Mexico, Black Friday isn’t really a thing and violence is one of our major themes, so we here at DDESER took this opportunity to continue our crusade for gender equality by participating in an event held by our parent organization (Equidad de Género:  Ciudadania, Trabajo, y Familia) at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Coworkers and I holding signs about the day.

Celebrated by activists worldwide for more than 30 years, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was officially recognized by the United Nations in 1999.  November 25th was chosen as the date to remember the assassinations of the three Mirabal sisters in the Dominican Republic in 1960.  Millions of women the world over are affected by violence and it is certainly a serious problem in Mexico.  In its various forms (physical, emotional, social, economic, etc.), it affects nearly 50% of the female population in this country and although significant progress has been made in the prevention of gender-based violence, there is still much work to be done at the federal and state levels.

Cardboard caskets representing each death from violence against women. There were 1235 of them, the deaths in one Mexican state in one year.

Official reports of violence remain low compared to the levels of violence revealed by nationwide surveys.  Many factors can combine to prevent women from reporting, including fear of retaliation from their abuser or the social attitudes towards women and women’s role in the family.  Several women in the states of Sonora and Oaxaca told Amnesty International that when they tried to report their cases to officials, they were told that their cases were not serious enough or that the officials did not have time to deal with violence in the family.  Because of this, many women turn to social services, who oftentimes promote arbitration and reconciliation with the abuser even though laws say that this is not a substitute for investigation and prosecution.  Amnesty International also found that many women were made to deliver summonses to their aggressors themselves, resulting in many undelivered letters and a lack of response.  Even when women do make an official complaint, there is no guarantee that evidence will be gathered or that their cases will be presented in courts.

We let attendees leave handprints and messages on fabric. This one simply states "No more violence against women"

In light of this, Mexico is still making progress in defending women’s rights.  Our event at UNAM included informational modules, speeches, games, a concert, and other activities to raise awareness for the state of gender-based violence.  In 2007, Mexico passed the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence and in June 2008, a wholesale reform of the criminal justice system began.  Hopefully, this will lead to strengthened investigation and prosecution of those responsible for violence against women and the barriers that women face in accessing safety, justice and reparations will be removed.

Dia de Muertos

Hello, dear readers!  I realize that I haven’t updated this blog thing in quite some time now.  I decided that it would be a good idea to apply to graduate school while in Mexico and the application process has been taking up a good chunk of my time.  But fear not!  Now that I have a personal statement and am well on my way to being fully applied, I’m back.  So where did we leave off?  Oh yes…

The end of October for us back in the US usually involves dressing up and begging for candy.  Well, Mexicans do Halloween too and it’s not that interesting.  But what is interesting is what comes after Halloween.  Dia de Muertos (or Day of the Dead for you non-Spanish types) is much cooler than our Halloween could ever hope to be.  Dia de Muertos occurs on November 1st and 2nd, coinciding with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).   This holiday is a perfect example of the complex heritage of the Mexican people and easily shows how the beliefs of today’s Mexican are based on the complicated blended cultures of the Aztecs and Maya layered with the Catholicism of Spanish invaders.

Also, there are Catrinas

The origins of the day can be traced back centuries into the histories of both Europe and Mexico.  In the eighth century, the church, hoping to replace the 2000-year tradition of the Celts and their Druid priests who combined harvest festivals and celebrated the new year on November 1, decreed November 1 as All Saints Day.  The Celts believed that the dead had access to the Earth on Samhain, October 31, when the physical and supernatural worlds were closest and would don animal hides and heads to ward off the spirits.  In an attempt to rebuff their attempt at replacing the Celtic celebration with something more Catholic, the church designated November 2 as All Souls’ Day at the end of the first millennium.  In the language of the day, these two days were known as All-Hallowsmas and October 31 was therefore All-Hallows Eve or Hallow’e’en.

Upon their arrival in Mexico, the Spaniards encountered the month-long festival honoring the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl, or the Lady of the Dead, corresponding to the modern Catrina.  It was a ritual that the indigenous had been practicing for thousands of years.  The Aztecs and other Meso-American cultures kept skulls as trophies and would display them during the ritual to symbolize death and rebirth.  The rituals also included fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers, foods, and drinks.  Unlike the Spaniards, who viewed death as the end of life, the natives viewed it as the continuation of life. Instead of fearing death, they embraced it. To them, life was a dream and only in death did they become truly awake.

And they awakened to see this staring down at them.

Being Catholic conquistadors, the Spanish clearly needed to kill this ritual, and in doing so would bring All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day to the Americas.  Luckily, it refused to die.  Rather than being replaced, the festivities blended and the Day of the Dead is still practiced in Mexico and parts of the United States and Central America.

To commemorate the holiday, I went with Andrea (our Mexico country coordinator) and Jessica (another YAGM volunteer) to the pueblo of Ocotepec, which lies just outside of Cuernavaca and still practices the traditional elements of the holiday.  On this night, those who have had a death in the family during the past year open their homes to visitors who wish to pay their respects.  We bought some candles and started exploring the area.   The houses with ofrendas, or offerings, were hard to miss as the crowds were huge, the lines were long, and each had a path of marigold petals serving not only as a guide for the deceased to the ofrenda, but as an invitation to the living to enter the home.

The entrance to the first house

As we entered the first house, we presented a family member with a candle and continued along the marigold path to the altar.  The flowers, symbolizing the brevity of life, are fashioned into garlands, wreaths, and crosses to decorate the ofrenda.  As the spirit approaches the altar, he or she steps on the cross, thus expelling his or her guilt.  The offerings were mounted on a table, which was usually three  levels in a pyramid with a recreated body of the deceased dressed in new clothes, shoes, hats, etc.  This was surrounded by photographs, the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls, flowers, and candles.  Three skulls were placed on the second level, representing the Trinity.   The traditional elements of the offering were all present: bread, which is prepared with products from the earth; water, considered the source of life and serving to quench thirst along the spirit’s journey; fire, which purifies the dead through the altar candles; and the wind, which gives movement to the crepe paper, cheering on the spirit.  This crepe paper, or papel picado, comes from the Aztecs who used paper banners and is cut into intricate designs and strung to flutter around the altar.  After we filed past the ofrenda, the family was waiting to serve us tamales, ponche (a type of warm fruit drink), atole (a masa-based hot drink), bread, and coffee.

The ofrenda in one of the churches in Ocotepec.

Overall, Día de Muertos in Ocotepec was an amazing experience showing that even though Mexico wears its Catholicism on its sleeve, it won’t let go of its indigenous history.  Especially with the level of violence in this country, joining the Mexican people to show our respect to the dead, even to those who passed peacefully, was powerful.  Maybe one day, we too, like the Mexican people, will be able to share in this kind of reverence of death.  As the writer Octavio Paz put it, “The Mexican is familiar with death. (He) jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it.  It is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Teen Pregnancy and Me

It’s a beautiful day in the office.  People are smiling, the choir of parakeets across the street is singing away, and the sun is streaming beautifully through the smog.  We are packing our things to go out for the day.  Flyers?  Check.  Module?  Check.  Condoms?  Dildo? Check and check.  On the agenda today is Bachilleres 18, a local high school, teaching about contraceptive methods, a common day for me at DDESER.

DDESER,(English via Google Translate), is the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Mexico and is my work site for the next year.  We are a network of leaders and activists that work in 12 states of the republic and the Federal District in the defense and promotion of sexual and reproductive rights and health, women’s rights, and gender equality in all spheres, political and social, of the country.  I work here as a promoter.  My primary responsibilities, among what I’m glad to say is an ever-growing list, are to disseminate information, guide, and advise on sexual and reproductive rights and health in the Federal District.

Two of my coworkers giving a demonstration at the school.

This is what brings us to Bachilleres 18 today.  After checking in and finding our spot, we set up our module and begin.  It doesn’t take long before they swarm.  There’s something about a güero with a fake phallus that attracts teenagers.  The condoms don’t hurt either.  Now, we gladly pass out the condoms, but only once the students have either demonstrated or witnessed how to properly use one.  So with the help of our trusty dildo, we either ask for a volunteer or will give a demonstration ourselves, explaining the purpose and benefits of and espousing myths surrounding contraceptives.  The kids usually love our demonstrations and have a good time while learning something useful.

A lucky volunteer demonstrating condom use for us.

Now, this type of education is invaluable and it’s truly surprising to me how many teens either do not know how to or simply choose not to use contraceptives.  The sexual education in this country is severely lacking and there are 3 million young people between the ages of 12 and 17 that don’t attend school and not all schools teach this information well or focus only on the biological and reproductive aspects, leaving millions of teens without the proper education to choose when and how many children they will have.  This, mixed with a variety of social and cultural factors, leaves us with only 50.9% of young men and 22.9% of young women reporting condom use during their first coitus and over half a million young women under the age of 20 giving birth in 2005.

This is why, on nearly a daily basis, I go out into schools, universities, political delegations, and public places armed with condoms and dildos to fight the evils of contraceptive non-use.  And as funny or frustrating as it may be at times, I really like my job and feel like I’m truly making a difference, however small it may be, in a few lives here in Mexico.  It will certainly be an interesting year.

Note that this is only a small part of my job.  Teen pregnancy is only one of fourteen topics that DDESER covers.  The rest will be discussed in future posts.

On being foreign

I am consistently reminded of my foreignness here in Mexico. In the beginning, it was overwhelming, but with even the short amount of time I have spent here, I have begun to blend and become increasingly more comfortable. I’ve become accustomed to stray dogs, ridiculous traffic, limes, tortillas, people who shamelessly stare at me on the metro, and the unbelievable enormity that is Mexico City. More or less, I have accepted these things. Sure, they can be incredibly frustrating, but they’re all part of living in this place and they are part of its charm. I know this. This is not America and I would not want it to be.

This foreignness, these differences, is what draws me to this program and to travel in the first place. Foreignness is intrinsically stimulating. It takes the mundane banalities of each day and transforms them into something exciting. The world becomes a pageant of color, excitement, novelty, surprise, anxiety, relief, powerlessness, frustration, and irresponsibility. I like to think of myself as a responsible traveler, asking questions, exploring and learning about the culture without pushing my own beliefs on others. And yet, for better or for worse, I am American. I grew up viewing the world through a very specific lens.

I am American. And yes, the italics are important. They emphasize the fact that I make a lot of assumptions based on where I come from and how I grew up. I don’t want to be an American, but I don’t know if it is something that is possible to undo. Is this just a means of escape? Most of us don’t grow up dreaming of being a foreigner, but in another country, it is easy to flee categorization and reinvent yourself. You don’t need to be caught up in the mundanities of your former place of residence any more than you want to be. I am trying my best not to be the foreigner that comes out of wealth, opportunity, and boredom.

But am I? In what ways am I guilty of being the foreigner who comes to escape? In what ways am I irresponsible? How do I pick and choose my experiences here to separate myself from both the society here and my society back home? And importantly, how is my experience here taking me further from being the American that I don’t want to be?

I don’t think that I can truly answer these questions at this time. However, as I continue my generally satisfying journey of complete bafflement here in Mexico I will keep playing part-time anthropologist, wondering and smiling at the rituals of my adoptive country. And with enough time walking with the people here, maybe I will one day stop being American and simply be an American living, working, and playing in Mexico.

Mexico’s Cry for Independence

Last week, the 16th of September, was Mexico’s Independence Day, the Grito de Dolores. On this day, Mexicans celebrate the cry that marked the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence and lead to their freedom from the Spanish colonial government. Like any good observer, I packed my things for the day and embarked on the journey to the city center with one of the family to check out the day’s proceedings. My feet soon drug me out of the metro to a sky screaming with scarlet and green. As my face burst into flames with the sun, I began to think about what this shout truly means in this place.

Vendor’s Cart near the zocalo

Undoubtedly, the overwhelming issue affecting Mexico is the violence. When President Felipe Calderón took office in 2006, he roared into action and sent 6,500 federal troops into the state of Michoacán. But governments aren’t the only ones who can roar. Violence, and specifically the number of homicides, increased dramatically as the drug cartels did the same. And though the beginning of the war on drugs was powerful, it appears to have come to a standstill. This stalemate has left thousands dead – over 15,000 homicides in 2010 alone – paralyzed entire cities, spawned a culture of corruption, and left the rest living in a state of fear.

Because of this sad reality, my family here has given me numerous “rules” to live by. “Don’t go here; it’s not safe. Also, avoid here; it’s not safe either. Oh, and over there? That’s really bad.” When I asked about the violence, they simply replied, “It’s in God’s hands. We can’t worry all of the time. We need to enjoy our lives while we can. If we go out and the Lord decides to take us today, then so be it. We live our lives and pray for change. We live with the corruption, the killings, and it feels like all of that is closer and closer to us, yet no one does anything. No one says anything.”

However, the Monday immediately following the Grito, the organization for which Kyle works held an event in the zocalo. The zocalo that only days before was swathed in red and green for independence was transformed into a howling monster. The crowd gathered, roaring, demanding an end to the violence. No more blood. No more death. The movement has started, and with an election year coming, this call for the end of violence will only intensify. The government cannot sit indifferent any longer.

Demanding peace and justice

Let us pray that Mexico will soon herald a new era of peace and justice. An era where the people don’t need to live in fear. An era in which all people can live with the dignity and respect that they deserve.Let us pray that the time is near, that the shouts of the people will not be silenced, that their voices will be heard.

Here We Go!

Pack nothing.  Bring only your determination to serve and your willingness to be free.

So begins the poem by Alla Bozarth-Campbell read to us at the beginning of our first full day of YAGM orientation.   After packing my entire life for the next year into one suitcase and one backpack, I joined 49 other YAGMs as we descended upon Chicago to begin what will surely be one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

As the week passed, we grew closer, each unpacking our fears, expectations, hopes and dreams for the year to come and leaving them behind.  This is not an easy task.  Going into a year such as this without expectations is nearly impossible.  We all have expectations about how the year in front of us will look. Expectations about our work sites, living situation, challenges, and joys.  Even though this may have been difficult, I feel that we did it to the best of our ability.  The week was a whirlwind of workshops, singing and dancing, worship, and group-building that brought us all together so that there were plenty of tears that left us knowing how much we truly cared about one another when the week came to an end.

We arrived in Mexico and were met by the country coordinator, Andrea,  last Wednesday afternoon.  After some cigarette-flavored airport Chinese food, we boarded the bus to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where 6 of the 9 of us will live and work for the next year to begin our in-country orientation for 9 days.  We’ve been staying in a convent while here and getting to know one another on an even deeper level.  We’ve all met our host families, visited all of the work sites, and are generally ready to go.

Tomorrow, we all pack our belongings one more time to move to our home stays for the year.  I have no idea what this next year will bring; all I know is that I’m open to try new things and get lost in the culture around me.