Sunday, December 22, 2013

The gift of a simple Christmas

Right in the middle of reports about disappointing Black Friday sales—will they ever be enough?—and how someone hacked Target's computers and stole credit information on 40 million customers; and did you hear that Beyoncé gave away $37,500 in gift cards to customers at a Massachusetts Walmart during a surprise visit; and Fox News continued its seasonal grousing about the "War on Christmas"; and TV stations hawked their Christmas specials while newscasters prepared their predictable reports of chaos at U.S. airports because of holiday travel—amid all that—last night Stew and I attended our simplest and most moving Christmas celebration ever.

The Mexican tradition of Christmas "posadas" is also observed in parts of the U.S. where sometimes it has been greatly enhanced with choreography that includes donkeys, choirs, candles, piñatas, bands and participants dressed up as Mary, Joseph, shepherds and other characters. For all we know, Radio City Music Hall may be working on its own posada spectacular for next year with the mighty Wurlitzer accompanying the high-kicking Rockettes in a knock-'em-dead closing number about the time when Joseph and the pregnant Mary finally found a place to spend the night.

'Tis a gift to be simple. 
Instead the posada last night, in the dirt-poor town of Sosnavar a couple of miles away from our ranch, was perhaps as faithful to the original Mexican tradition—and indeed to the biblical Nativity story—as one can get. There was no artifice or hoopla animating the celebration except the deep religious faith of the fifty or sixty participants, gently chanting and praying as they walked through the dark streets of this town carrying a small altar, wrapped in plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, housing statues of Mary and Joseph.

The origin of the posada tradition—the word "posada" in Spanish means "shelter" or "inn"—is based on the story of how Joseph and the pregnant Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem so she could give birth to Jesus. The couple supposedly didn't have any place to stay and had to go door to door asking for shelter. Like most religious traditions this one may be a little bit fact and a lot subsequent embellishment.

The posadas take place on nine consecutive nights—to signify the number of months Mary carried Jesus in her womb—and culminate on Christmas eve. Each night the altar is solemnly carried from one participating home to another, there to spend the night and await the next posada.

Looking for shelter. 
Last night was moonless and cool. In Sosnavar, where there are no street lights, the only breaks in the darkness came from an occasional string of Christmas lights in someone's home and a clear sky strewn with stars. The festivities were marked—as is the case with practically any event in Mexico—with the hiss of a few cheap firecrackers ripping through the night and exploding with the sharp pop of a gunshot.

The posada started at seven-thirty sharp, one of the few on-time events we've ever attended in Mexico. People had gathered expectantly in the backyard of a home where a platform of stones and cement blocks was illuminated by a bare light bulb and decorated with two palm fronds tied in the form of an arch and several balloons, most of which already had busted leaving the shreds hanging limply. Atop this simple platform rested a movable altar wrapped in clear plastic and decorated with aluminum flowers, and housing statues of Joseph and Mary.

A woman led the participants through a machine-gun recitation of a rosary, the Hail Marys and Our Fathers flying back and forth so fast between the participants and the leader that the words were practically unintelligible to me. The faithful, though, wrapped in shawls and blankets and some carrying babies, kept up the pace. A few knelt on the bare ground. Carols and other songs broke up the staccato prayers.

After a half-hour of prayers and singing, four women took two lengths of lumber and placed them on their shoulders while two others put the rickety altar on top. Solemnly they marched into the dark streets, amid more singing and praying.

The route to the next house, where the altar would stay overnight, was not only ink-black but treacherous with stones. Sosnavar has but a few streetlights and not one inch of paved streets. The new San Miguel mayor promises to alleviate both deficiencies soon. The only lights guiding the way came from a few flashlights and the glow of cell phones.

After fifteen or twenty minutes of tentative walking we arrived at the new home for the altar. The gate was also decorated with fronds and balloons and we were met by three women who began a chanting back-and-forth with the women carrying the altar.

Joseph and Mary pleaded for shelter with the innkeepers who at first resolutely, almost rudely to my ears, refused them:

Do not be inhuman,
Show some charity,
God in Heaven
Will reward you.

You may go now
and don't bother us anymore
because if I get angry
I will beat you. 

Didn't sound like the makings of a Merry Christmas.

After more pleas, the innkeepers relent:

Tonight is for joy,
For pleasure and rejoicing
For tonight we will give lodging
to the Mother of God, the Son.

The procession went into the yard and gathered around an altar rather similar to the one in the previous home. The one bulb lighting the ceremony went out but after some wiggling and shuffling of extension cords, it came back on and the prayers and chanting resumed.

Let there be light: The altar will rest here until tomorrow. 
In fancier posadas the pilgrims are offered atole, a corn-based drink neither Stew nor I have ever tasted, a piñata filled with candies and small gifts for the kids, and even some food and music.

But Sosnavar, true to its poverty, had nothing to offer except prayers and carols. After the ceremony was over, everyone quietly trudged back home in the dark, to gather again the following evening.

It's just as well that posadas here remain as simple and unadorned, with nothing to get in the way of the religious faith of the participants.

I've always felt sorry for the folks in Sosnavar for the forced simplicity of their lives, including their faith in God. Last night I felt a bit jealous instead.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Miracle on Kilometer Five

Miracles, such as those performed by Jesus Christ, are pivotal beliefs of the Roman Catholic church. After His death the tradition of miracles flourished, even exploded, as the Church began canonizing deceased mortals deemed by the Pope to have entered heaven on account of their piety, good works or overall saintliness.

One of the requirements for admission into that select club is proof that the saint-to-be interceded with God on behalf of an earthly supplicant by performing a miracle. Actually two miracles, one to be beatified or declared "blessed" and another to be finally declared a saint.

A miracle close to home. 
Miracles can be generally defined as events that are inexplicable by any laws of science or logic, most commonly cures of otherwise incurable diseases, after someone prayed to a particular saint for help.

The roster of Catholic saints and their miracles must run into the thousands; I couldn't find a specific tally. The late Pope John Paul II alone canonized four-hundred-and-eighty-two individuals. If you figure two miracles for each that's nearly a thousand just during his papacy.

I don't quite know how the Church classifies saints according to specialty. There is one who looks after beekeepers (St. Ambrose); comforts people with earaches (St. Polycarp) and another who protects gravediggers (St. Anthony the Abbot). No occupation seems too trivial for some saint's attention and the list keeps growing: St. Isidore of Seville is now the patron of the Internet. (For a complete list of Catholic saints and their specific interests see: )

Which brings us to the road to Jalpa, which goes by half a kilometer from our house and may have been the site of a miracle just yesterday—the feast day of the Virgin of Guadalupe—although it's very unlikely this one will ever catch the attention of the Vatican.

About three weeks ago Félix made and installed a sign at the junction of the Jalpa road and the dirt trail that leads to our house. It was an extremely homemade-looking affair, involving a two-by-three-foot piece of plywood painted yellow with "KM 5" highlighted with reflective strips we'd bought at Auto Zone.

So crude is the sign that during the day it's hard to make out what it says, though I never mentioned that to Félix for fear of hurting his artistic sensitivities. He was quite proud of the sign and mounted it on a piece of pipe we liberated from the remains of a chain link fence nearby.

The reason for the sign, in case anyone cares, was to help visitors find our place as in, "Turn left when you see the Km. 5 sign." Or more accurately it turns out, "Turn left at a yellow sign with reflective tape on it even if you can't make out what it says."

Félix warned me the sign probably would be stolen or destroyed. Three days ago it fact the board disappeared, despite various anti-theft measures. Félix had even stapled the reflective tape to the plywood. The only thing that remained was the pole which he had planted in cement.

We both looked nearby, in the culvert and across the road but couldn't find it anywhere. We just wrote it off to vandalism.

Then yesterday Félix went to his in-laws to place a dozen red roses at the foot of a homemade altar honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe—Mexico's most revered religious icon, arguably even more so than Jesus Christ Himself.

And lying near the altar was the missing sign.

Félix' mother-in-law had spotted it the day before while walking on the road to the town of Biznaga next door to our ranch. At first she'd just left it there. On the way back, though, she picked it up and took it home. What she intended to do with it is the one part of the miracle that hasn't been revealed to us yet.

Mind you, neither Félix nor I had prayed to any saint for the return of the sign. Had we been more diligent Catholics we could have asked St. Fiacre for help, him being the patron of drivers. Or St. Anthony of Padua who assists with lost objects, or if everything failed, St. Jude, the patron of hopeless causes.

An hour ago Félix returned from reinstalling the sign with bigger bolts and wire reinforcements.

In case you want to visit the site of this (possibly) miraculous event, the directions are simple. On the highway from San Miguel to Querétaro take a right on the road to Jalpa, drive exactly five kilometers and there you'll see it on your left.

Unless of course one of the local youths has stolen it again.

As religious as I try to be I wouldn't count on a second miracle.



Thursday, December 12, 2013

Blogging about Mexico

I can't remember exactly how I bumped into this blog about Mexico but I find it fascinating. It's written by a man in Salamanca who evidently travels all over the country, visiting and doing research about various places and doing some pretty interesting photography. There's not much personal information in the blog and I've asked him for some details: Is he a historian, photographer, artist, professor?

The blog is in Spanish and the level of his grammar and vocabulary is definitely not entry level, but even if you can't understand it all, his photographs, evidently taken with a small pocket camera, are impressive.

Recently he posted a short essay about circles and then a series of photos about circles, from a rose window in a cathedral to basins and drain holes. Cool stuff:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

When Félix met Felisa

About six months ago Félix reported he had flunked the eye exam for his drivers license because vision in his right eye was badly degraded. An eye doctor then detected the beginning of a detached retina that called for laser surgery as soon as possible, a lousy diagnosis for a guy in his mid twenties.

It turns out Félix had had a bad bump and cut many years ago that was never treated properly. When his brother Esteban gives him a monthly hip-hop buzz haircut I can spot a half a dozen scars on the scalp that Félix attributes to this, that and who knows. I can see the scars because I'm about nine inches taller.

Félix tried to arrange for the emergency surgery at the General Hospital but was told he needed to get a referral from the local clinic near his home, which in turn sent him to another clinic in the La Lejona neighborhood at the other end of town. That bureaucratic round-robin went on for two days with no surgery in sight.

Finally, Stew and I popped for the $5,000 pesos for the operation at the local private hospital. We both have had retinal surgery and know the seriousness of the problem. We also didn't want to end up with a one-eye gardener simply because he couldn't afford the surgery.

Since the surgery Félix seems to have recouped his hawk-like vision. Once again he's able to point out objects a mile away with annoying accuracy while Stew and I stand there like a couple of muttering fogies, as in "What the hell are you looking at?" or "Let me get my glasses."


Last Saturday Félix came back to our house to claim one of his dogs that routinely returns to our ranch after dark, I suspect because the food is better here. The wily Palomita has even dug a hole somewhere under the fence that lets her come and go with impunity.

As Félix turned the corner from the paved to the dirt road that leads to our house, he saw a small bundle of fur barely moving under a thorny huizache tree by the side of the road. He stopped and bingo, found a skeletal puppy with a nasty cut over its right eye. He reported the finding to us and returned to the scene with emergency water and dog food. For a mucho-macho Mexican, Félix is a marshmallow-soft with regard to animals.

We went to check and, whatcha gonna do—Stew immediately blurted—you can't leave a starving puppy under a huizache tree to fend for herself, what kind of a person are you, and she'll probably die, and blah, blah, blah. Maybe we'll find someone to adopt her, Stew said and yea, right, I replied.

You know what comes next: Dog #5.

Like the overwhelming majority of abandoned dogs in Mexico, this is a female and she was apparently tossed from a car and hence the wound. The vet said she's but a few weeks old.

Félix explained the rather sexist Mexican protocol regarding dogs. Female mutts are the least desirable because they're not considered fierce enough to serve as guard dogs or valuable enough to sell. Plus the litters just keep on coming.

Let me show you latest fashion dog breed: Euro Mutt. 
And like the rest of our dogs, the breed of this latest specimen is a mystery. One distinguishing feature is a wandering right eye, just like French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Could this be a new breed? A type of Euro Dog? I doubt it but it's something I can tell our friends when they inevitably ask: Another dog? Are you nuts?

To honor X-Ray Vision Félix for his discovery we've named her Felisa.

I'm not complaining. We're glad to see Félix eyes are working excellently and that Felisa, just in two days is gaining weight and wagging her tail uncontrollably. Except that between the cost of the surgery and his finding yet another dog, Félix' eye care is turning to be an expensive proposition.