Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sidelined during Holy Week

Except perhaps for the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Roman Catholic Church's grip on Mexico and particularly San Miguel de Allende, is never firmer than during Holy Week.

It actually begins a week before Palm Sunday, when hundreds of chanting pilgrims come to San Miguel carrying a statue of a flagellated Jesus—ghoulishly bloody as Mexicans seem to prefer their religious icons—from a shrine eight miles outside of town. It remains here until three days after Easter when it makes the return trip amid more prayers and rituals.

The Virgin of Guadalupe couldn't be a more important religious symbol to Mexicans: Sometimes her ubiquitousness almost overshadows Jesus Christ himself. But her feast is only a day long and celebrated privately or inside churches.

Holy Week in San Miguel on the other hand goes on for ten days—more if you count Lent when some restaurants offer special menus and churches sponsor prayer vigils—and it seems to consume most of San Miguel's public energy. A tidal wave of loud tourists on Good Friday only magnifies the occasion.

There are donkeys and palm fronds on Palm Sunday; altars to the Virgin of Sorrows; reenactments of the Via Dolorosa and the Crucifixion; street decorations and fireworks. It climaxes with a Good Friday procession of such DeMillean proportions that it preempts practically all other activity in town. I've never been to comparably sized towns in Italy, Spain or other hotbeds of Catholicism during Holy Week but I doubt they can top this spectacle.

Good Friday procession in San Miguel.
Even an auto mechanic near our house plants a six-foot-tall wood cross draped with purple bunting, the color of mourning, in front of his shop. If your car needs a new muffler, it'll have to wait until Monday.

And every Holy Week, as this panoply of Roman Catholic pomp, ritual and tradition swirls around me, I wonder if this will be the year when my faith in the Church is rekindled, the faith that was implanted at baptism deep inside my head, like a computer chip, about sixty-five years ago.

That chip, God knows, has received copious additional programming and updating, at a Marist elementary school, a Dominican high school and a Christian Brothers college. At one point I even considered, briefly, the monastic life.

This Holy Week I took Stew—who was brought up in a Christian denomination in Iowa so light in dogma that to this day he has trouble explaining what it was all about—to the English-language Palm Sunday mass at an old Catholic church in San Miguel.

Since we moved to San Miguel seven years ago we've been making tentative Sunday pilgrimages to various denominations in town looking for a simpatico spiritual community. I thought an old-fashioned Catholic mass might be the answer, particularly one led by a younger priest we had met a New Year's Day brunch.

Hmm, maybe next year.

The mass was old-fashioned alright, with no nuns plucking guitars or dancing around the altar. The priest also had three acolytes on hand wearing starched and ironed vestments; a paten, the gold or silver plate that it put under the chin of congregants receiving communion presumably to prevent any precious communion bread from falling on the floor; a hand bell to announce the long-winded consecration; congregants receiving communion the old-fashioned way by putting out their tongues instead of receiving the communion wafer on their palms; and enough incense to choke air traffic at O'Hare.

There were a few contemporary touches, such as a small but peppy choir with some Mexican singers and musicians, and a participatory reading of the Gospel that involved two lay people, the congregation and the priest who read Jesus' lines. The sermon, brief and workmanlike, didn't scare any horses.

But rather than inspire the service reminded me how little has changed since I gave up any pretense of formal Catholicism, maybe thirty years ago, despite the chip chirping inside my head all along. Indeed it seemed that under John Paul II—the pope who is revered by Mexicans almost as fervently as the Virgin of Guadalupe—the church had come full stop and hit reverse, with any fresh air fanned away as so much doctrinal pollution, after which the Church's windows were shut tightly again.

There was a woman reading Scripture during part of the service, but the priest and team of acolytes was all-male team. A penis is clearly still a requirement for the priesthood, and for that matter any prominence in the Church, despite the grief and expense that wily appendage has wrought priests and church alike in recent years.

And the entire service, conducted from behind an altar that at times loomed like a bulkhead, kept priest and congregation safely apart and left no doubt who was in charge. Likewise, the sermon—in this case a lecture rather than a discussion or conversation—came from behind a lectern to one side of the altar. Any sense of spontaneity or involvement by the congregation was squelched by a strict choreography,  responses and prayers spelled out in a "misalette."

But maybe I was focusing too harshly and cynically on the incidentals of Catholicism as revealed by this mass and this priest.

Except that Catholicism's message to me as a Catholic individual who has lived with another man for almost forty-one years is no less hostile. And for all of the new pope's "I'm one of you guys" humble     style, that hostility is likely to remain in force with regard to me and millions of gays, women, divorced couples and other Catholics expelled into a distant orbit by the Church's unwavering doctrines. I don't sense any changes coming from Rome even if the new leader is an affable Argentine who pays his own hotel bill and wears regular shoes.

Yet the Catholic chip is still in my head. Maybe next year it will receive a more welcoming message. But today I'm not betting on that.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Blustery blast belts bees, blooms

About a month ago I gloated about the early onset of spring at the ranch and extended some watery sympathies to the folks still huddled in their igloos up north, including my hometown of Chicago.

God has smitten me for my callousness and hubris: It feels as if She's turned the clock back two months, to the very end of winter.

Over the past two weeks we've had unseasonably cold temperatures including a couple of below-freezing nights. One morning we woke up to twenty-nine degrees, followed by four consecutive grayish, clammy, depressing days that looked too much like winter's last throes up north.

Over lunch with a friend yesterday we groused about how fed up we were with all the gloomy weather. But then he recalled forty-nine consecutive cloudy days in Rome while he was studying there and Stew and I remembered one year in Chicago when the sun didn't come out during the entire month of February.

Maybe it's not so bad here. The sun came out yesterday and is in full-force today.

The freezing temperatures however did some serious damage to the plants. Buds, green shoots, foliage and flowers, all singing the arrival of spring one day woke up brown the next as if they'd been singed by a glancing blow torch.

The promising crop of about thirty or forty young peaches shriveled and fell on the ground. Three dozen small nursery plants we had put out just two days before got zapped, though there's enough green growth left on them to hope they'll come back. Six tomato seedlings definitely won't come back along with four small chile plants Félix had coddled along as if they were his dearest babies.

We've got more seedlings going, so eventually we'll have tomatoes, chiles, cucumbers, squash and all that, but three or four weeks later than we had hoped.

Also missing are the bees, which had been madly strafing the early bumper crop of huizache and other flowers. In town someone noticed dead bees on floor of his terrace and the alarm went off through the Civil List, the expat internet bulletin board, that something wrong—very, very wrong—was afoot. Not much later, someone posted an announcement blaming cell phones and cell phone towers for the unfolding apian holocaust, not only here but worldwide. Others cursed pesticide use by farmers near San Miguel. Yet another person projected a scenario in which fruits and other crops could be fatally affected forever by the absence of bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

Buzzing in the inside: Actually
the hive has grown to triple
the original size, with the
addition of two extra boxes on top.
The discovery of some dead bees grew into a rolling environmental debacle that could kills us all.

¡Ay Dios mio! I asked Félix if he'd heard anything in beekeeping classes about these dire prospects. No, but he rattled off three or four other horrible pests and calamities that could affect bees. One particular type of plague can only be eradicated by burning the beehive down to the ground—bees, honeycombs and all. Thanks, Félix.

Finally, this morning Stew spoke with Bee Bob, our local fountainhead of credible, if sometimes garbled, information about bees.

Not to worry, he said. It was the sudden cold that knocked off so many bees and the subsequent cloudy days that kept the survivors in the hives, probably buzzing double-time trying to keep warm. The freezing temperatures also had caused widespread damage to leaf crops around San Miguel and the neighboring state of Querétaro.

So there's nothing to do for now except to wait for the bees to poke their antennae out of the hive and resume their rounds around the ranch which now looks considerably more somber and subdued. As for the rest of the landscape that was struck numb by the sudden freeze, that'll take a little longer, but it will come back I'm sure.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is that change we smell in San Miguel?

At noon last Sunday, with balmy temperatures and clear skies, about seventy-five San Miguel residents gathered in the main square to protest the increasing level of crime in the city, most recently highlighted by the murder of a twenty-nine-year-old Mexican woman whose body, wrapped in a tarp secured with duct tape, was dumped by the side of a dirt road outside of town. If the weather was typical San Miguel, this gathering was not.

Nancy Miriam Valenzuela Lara, was young, attractive, deaf-mute and a star basketball player, factors that no doubt contributed to the gusher of public sympathy—and anger—over her death. Two weeks before the grisly murder of Joyous Heart, an American, had similarly shocked the expat community, along with the increase in the number of home invasions, burglaries and kidnappings over the past year.

[My previous posting about Joyous' death can be found at:]

According to her family, Valenzuela went to walk her dog and never returned home. Neighbors found her with a bullet through her head and bruises on her upper body. The reasons for the crime remain unknown.

Two of San Miguel's "disappeared."
The demonstration in the Jardín reflected a conflation of elements that don't often come together in San Miguel—call it a harmonic convergence. It's hardly a prelude to the Age of Aquarius, but some changes in policing might result in our small town.

The crowd included both Mexicans and foreigners, and indeed speakers representing each group addressed the crowd in English and Spanish. During my seven years here I'd never seen Mexicans and expats mixing it up so much, shoulder-to-shoulder, except while in line at the Mega supermarket or attending one of San Miguel's innumerable parades, processions or other public to-dos.

Some Mexican participants brought placards with fuzzy pictures of family members who had been kidnapped or murdered, some many years ago, a sight reminiscent of demonstrations for the "disappeared" elsewhere in Latin America. There was a palpable sense of agitation among the Mexican participants: They were pissed with the perpetual uselessness of local law enforcement.

Also in the crowd was San Miguel's new mayor, Mauricio Trejo, forty years old and good-looking enough to star in his own telenovela. He shook every hand in sight, smiled readily and doused the crowd with many, many words but few specific policy nuggets.

Star power: Our new mayor in action. 
Still, the fact he showed up and spoke, mostly in Spanish but also with a few phrases in English—and recognized that the participants had a legitimate gripe he intended to address—was noteworthy and a departure from his predecessor Lucy Núñez who looked like Margaret Thatcher without the warmth.

The mayor's refrain was, "Si no hay denuncias no hay detenidos," ("If there are no charges filed, there there won't be any detainees," loosely translated.) He was referring to the Mexican rank-and-file's historically sour relations with police officers, whom they regard with a mixture of distrust and contempt. Most crimes are never solved so citizens most often don't bother to call the police or file charges.

All I got was this lousy tee-shirt. 
The telegenic mayor fervently repeated the slogan like a mantra. For added effect, about a dozen dopey-looking young guys stood around wearing tee-shirts bearing the message, I suspect for the benefit of the nearby television cameras.

Trejo also preached that respect of the law begins at home with the parents. Duly noted.

He took credit for lighting a fire under the local and state police departments so that the young woman who killed Joyous Heart and an accomplice were actually caught in the next-door state of Michoacán and arraigned approximately three weeks after the murder. He promised that likewise Valenzuela's murderer(s) will be brought to justice swiftly.

Media-savvy Trejo has opened his own Facebook page since coming to office four months ago and it's filled with comments, pleas, complaints and adulation, and photos of both Mexican and American residents.

His administration has bought 26 bright-red police cars to replace the blue junkers of the previous administration, fluorescent-green jackets and caps for police officers, and launched a massive program—by San Miguel standards—of public works and municipal sprucing-up.

But let's not allow euphoria and imagery get ahead of experience: Trejo is not likely to jolt the deep-seated inertia of San Miguel's bureaucracy anymore than the new pope, even with an assist from the Holy Spirit, is going teach the curates at the Vatican to do the tango.

But one keeps hoping. On the way home from the demonstration we saw a couple of tourists who had had their car plates removed which is San Miguel's way of making sure you pay your parking tickets.

The tourists matter-of-factly tried to solve the problem—they must have read this in an underground tourist guide—by offering the officer a handful of pesos. With a big, almost ostentatious, smile he walked away from this very public offer of a mordida. 

Good show, I say.


Bonus shot: Taken after the demonstration and
having nothing to do with public safety. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

The happiness of the moment

When I was growing up in Cuba and later in the United States, attention deficit disorder was no front-page news. I don't think many people had even heard of it and those who had probably weren't paying much attention to the phenomenon anyway.

Still, I suspect that I had a touch, or maybe a big dollop, of it. As a child I dabbled in practically everything, including endeavors for which I had no knack whatsoever like math and science.

Winnowing realistic pursuits from time-wasters and distractions is a problem that plagues me to this day: I can dart back and forth among items on my to-do list and yet at the end of the day feel like I've accomplished little.  And at age sixty-five, when phrases like "bucket list," "the home stretch" and "life expectancy" burrow into your subconscious, such daily meandering--or lack of mindfulness, as Buddhists would call it--is something else that really bugs me.

When you're a kid time seems unlimited, and indeed you feel immortal, so there's no rush to focus on anything. Maybe that is as it should be. I remember cooking up a hare-brained contraption, which I described as an "invention," that in fact may have been the precursor to today's drones. It consisted of a kite with a small camera dangling from its tail and it was supposed to take aerial pictures.

But how to trip the shutter while the camera was airborne? Or even before that, how to get a kite up in the air with such a heavy load hanging from it? Well, I never kept at it long enough to figure out those crucial details.

I also tried painting with watercolors, taking photos and building countless wooden things that most often didn't hold together long enough to qualify as carpentry.

All these hobbies received my dad's encouragement who provided all requisite supplies, but the only one that actually may have survived my gnat-like lack of perseverance is photography.

Indeed, as college loomed, the major that most often came to my mind was "Duh?"

I finally picked Chemistry, a hasty choice which ambushed me with a blizzard of numbers and equations that almost finished my college career. I bailed out at the end of the freshman year in favor of Political Science, a major that sounds important yet is actually quite nebulous and totally unscientific, but a hell of a lot more intelligent-sounding than "Duh?"

The only thing that has consistently stuck in my head is an enjoyment of words and how they work and sound together, and that interest came from just reading and writing. More generally, I've also enjoyed the visual arts like drawing, landscaping and photography.

But enough peering on the rear-view mirror, a generally a useless endeavor. What-ifs and could've-beens are no good as guides to what to do today.

Xochimilco's gondolas, called "trajineras"
Early this week Stew and I and ten others went on a one-day photo safari of the gardens and canals of Xochimilco, close to the heart of Mexico City. Xochimilco is a small man-made wonder dating back to the time of Aztecs; it has been quite manhandled but still draws tens of thousands of tourists.

Two experiences during our six hours on a gondola-like wooden boat, whose only propulsion was the muscles of a sinewy guy pushing a long pole, reminded me that lack of mindfulness--of concentration and enjoyment of the moment--is what drives the dissatisfaction that often gnaws at me.

One of my travel partners was a seventy-something woman and a good friend. On the way to the gondola that would take us through the maze of canals, without any particular rhyme, reason or prompting, she turned to me and said: "Al, I'm so happy to be here today!"

She lost her husband of fifty-some years about six months ago. She's hardly over the shock and occasionally bursts into tears when some incident or thing reminds her of her loss. Even before her husband's death, she never struck me as the giddy, Kum-ba-yah type, prone to ahhs or praise-the-Lord's every time she spotted a beautiful flower or a cute puppy.

Yet what she said made so much sense: "I am so happy to be here, today."

Without knowing it, she'd gotten to the gist of mindfulness, a key clue toward maximizing the enjoyment of what's in front of us today, while hushing all the voices murmuring about the past or  what might yet occur in our lives.

Retirement should facilitate concentrating on the moment. For starters, there are no bosses to hassle you or forced agendas to follow. But it's not that easy.

I should have been concentrating on the Xochimilco moment which by any measure was a happy one, but instead my mind kept traveling in all directions or worse still, focusing on negatives.

Quiet city: A great white heron glides by, not far
 from the rumble of Mexico's capital. 
The weather was perfect, the companionship enjoyable, and our destination--and island deep in Xochimilco's maze of canals and lagoons where some hermit had collected hundreds of dolls and hung them on the trees over a period of fifty years--creepy and fascinating.

On a Tuesday, when most everyone in the world is working, we were out floating along in a gondola, surrounded by an eerie silence interrupted only by the splashing and squawking of dozens of herons, and all of it right in the middle of one of the world's largest cities. It was almost miraculous. Can't beat it as a pleasant retirement moment.

Our captain Angel, who guided the clumsy barge with
 only a long pole and his own strength. 
During our tour I was hit by another example of mindfulness, this time as I watched Stew shooting photos with my old Canon. He's a good shooter and one of the reasons is that he's totally unburdened by technical preoccupations, photos he's seen, comments by anyone else or any other preconceived notions: Stew sees something he likes, pauses for five or ten seconds to contemplate it, and then shoots. Bingo, vamoose, on to the next shot.

Can't say I didn't enjoy our outing except that rather than fully focusing on the moment my mind kept going forward and backward. For example: The newspaper I worked for had offered me a job in the Mexico City bureau that I turned down. What would that have been like? Was it stupid to turn it down? Who knows, but it was definitely silly thinking about it at the time.

And so on, rather than being mindful of the moment--just that moment, that day--which as my friend said, was quite joyous and beautiful in its own right.