Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ghost Story

It’s becoming funny sometimes, as if I really live in Los Angeles or New York or some other city in the United States of America, that people – internet friends that often forget where I live - will invariably ask me what I’m doing for Halloween. Here in Mexico, Halloween is not a relevant holiday. Obviously, what with being so close to the border, there are some children who get taken out in costume and go door to door and beg for candy, but not many. And they are, these children, mostly very young, toddlers sometimes, and their parents often take them to some of the local businesses more than knocking on the doors of neighbors. But here, all of it is the exception rather than the rule.

Yesterday I heard some whacko radio talk show host going on and on about how some Tijuana children are brought over to the United States of America by their parents on Halloween night to do some trick-or-treating, and how awful that is. “They know that here in the U.S. we give out candy bars and good stuff, and down there they only get little things,” he said at one point. I laughed. I wanted to call him up and offer that, perhaps, Mexican families also go up there during Thanksgiving because the turkeys up there are much larger and taste better than the small and scrawny ones from Mexico.

Of course, there is no Thanksgiving holiday in Mexico, and Mexico does not have a Halloween.

Halloween has its roots, obviously, in pagan festivals, perhaps dating to Roman times and certainly celebrated by the ancient Celtics. It is widely considered to have its meaning tied to some sort of an end-of-summer celebration, in that the time of the year where lightness turns to darkness, those on the other side of life have an opportunity to pass through onto the living plane of existence. People were able to welcome their past relatives during that time, while bad spirits were warded off by the wearing of masks. In a nutshell, that and bonfires and cattle slaughtered for winter storage and other activities made up the festival now celebrated as Halloween.

Sometime in the ninth century, the Catholic Church attempted to hijack it, moving All Saints’ Day from May 13th to November 1st, but it didn’t catch on enough to change much of anything. It changed of its own accord. Bonfires became a nuisance, someone invented refrigeration, and when Houdini died on Halloween in 1926 and never managed to come back as promised, everyone pretty much gave up on the notion that our dead relatives could possibly manage a visit. At least, that’s the way it has changed in Europe and in the United States of America and so on.

* * * *

In Mexico, beginning the evening at midnight, Día de los Inocentes or Day of the Innocents begins, followed by Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead on Monday. These celebrations and festivals date back to perhaps 3,000 years ago, observed by the Aztecs and other indigenous civilizations in Mexico. During the Aztec reign, it was celebrated for an entire month! In modern times, these two days are celebrated somewhat differently, depending on region here, but the core elements include candles, breads, fruits, candies, flowers, and skulls. Many people visit the gravesites of their ancestors and leave flowers and decorate the sites in various ways.

Get this: The Aztecs believed that, during the month of August, it’s less complicated for the souls of their ancestors to visit them in life! Where have we heard that before? Oh, and wait, it gets better: Why use masks for the celebration when you can use skulls?! Skulls were often symbolized in Aztec lore to represent birth and rebirth. Having a few skulls around the house was not at all uncommon back then. Fascinating stuff.

Day of the Innocents generally celebrates the spirits of dead children, which has obvious significance for those who have lost a child or a sibling. Day of the Dead is all about those who passed in adulthood. The rituals are the same. My first Day of the Dead was confusing to me, I had never heard of it. While looking oddly at a shrine constructed on Rocio’s mother’s kitchen table, Rocio patiently explained it to me. I ignorantly considered it nice of the Mexicans to borrow from my traditional culture and put their own spin on it. I was like the guy on the radio yesterday who offered the point about Mexicans from the border cities taking their kids across because the candy is better over there.

* * * *

Earlier today, I read an article from a Christian web site that claimed Halloween to be the Devil’s holiday. The author recommended that Christians shouldn’t celebrate it. I felt pretty bad about that at first, but when I thought about it later, I then saw it as some sort of a testament to the fact that some people are truly frightened by that which they do not understand. I reckon that some people are quite horrified at the very idea of speaking with the soul of an ancestor. Not me. For example, I would love to speak with my grandmother again some day.

Sometimes people ask me if I believe in a God and maybe a Jesus, or an afterlife, or whatever. Many of my friends are devout atheists, while others are devout Christians or Mormons or Muslims or Jews. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with any of it, actually. But they ask me, nevertheless, because they want me to align myself perhaps, or maybe they are just curious. My answer is this: I have absolutely no idea. Sometimes, they might express displeasure at that answer. The atheists think it ridiculous to even consider the notion of a creator, and the others seem to pity me for not having any faith.

And then my response to them is even more inflammatory: Not only do I not know, neither do you.

The amazing thing, though, the thing that transcends atheism or religion, is obvious to me. It should be quite obvious to the radio talk show host and to the author of the article advising Christians against Halloween. The very notion that two completely different civilizations happened upon the very same idea and celebrated with almost the same ceremonies is enough to convince me that something is going on. I mean, that’s the real ghost story, isn’t it? You’re telling me that three thousand years ago, the Celts and the Aztecs simultaneously arrived at the same basic ceremony never having heard of one other?

Scary stuff, indeed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ballad Of Rio Balsas

This is the time of the year where Baja shadows begin to crawl noticeably northward, and there are some days that people wear jackets. The dogs in the street aren’t panting anymore, and the ice cream vendors aren’t doing so well as they were a week ago. Yesterday was Columbus Day, and my mother’s birthday. Sunday was my wife’s birthday. We had a large party with pozole and chocolate cake.

Pozole is a soup-like dish made differently in all parts of Mexico. The main ingredient is hominy, or nixtamalized corn kernels. Other ingredients include some sort of meat like pork or chicken, and chiles and onions and other spices. The ancient Mexicans believed that the Gods created humans using cornmeal dough. I have read far more preposterous religious postulates over the years than the simple idea that perhaps our creator made us out of masa. Why not corn flour and water?

Rocio is twenty-nine. She has been twenty-nine for several years now, and I expect her to remain twenty-nine for many more years to come. My mother did not raise a fool. All women are twenty-nine until they tell you they aren’t. If you don’t believe this, then you are on your own where women are concerned, and don’t complain when it doesn’t go well. You did it to yourself.

* * * *

Rio Balsas, a small puebla in the Mexican State of Guerrero near Coyuca de Catalán, and about five miles from the border with Michoacán State, is still there, but approximately half of what once was is now under water. Rocio grew up in that place, with her grandmother, on a small ranchito with no electricity. They had a well, and some chickens, and some goats. There were uncles and aunts and cousins living nearby, and cornfields they all harvested year-round that were reachable by horseback or on foot using a mule to pack the corn. So far as the water from that well, Rocio swears it is the best water she ever tasted.

Rocio was born in Mexico City and quickly taken to Rio Balsas to live with her grandmother. The taker was an aunt, who wound up taking almost all of Rocio’s mother’s children and placing them with various relatives. The aunt then encouraged Rocio’s mother to seek out her fortune in the United States of America. This is how life used to be back then. A lot of good Mexicans were encouraged by their families to go north and make money harvesting crops or cleaning houses or cooking.

Meanwhile Rocio, who never knew her real father, grew up and went to school and came home and tended the ranchito in Rio Balsas with her grandmother. She was never permitted to go to the river, which was a mere hundred yards away. Her grandmother never let her accompany other relatives to go and bring back the corn. There were two times as a young child she was permitted to join relatives for trips to another town in order to attend a carnival that came every year. She never made it either time.

Listen to this: Scorpions prevented Rocio from going on the trip to the carnival both times! What are the odds of that happening? The first time, Rocio’s grandmother told her the night before that she could go if she rose early and did her chores. While reaching into the feed bag to feed the chickens, a scorpion stung her hand. She recovered. The next year, with the same deal in place, Rocio awoke and got out of bed and promptly stepped on another scorpion! I’ve never known anyone who was ever stung by a scorpion once, much less twice.

"There had to be a reason that it happened," Rocio once told me. "There are no accidents. There was a reason that I wasn’t supposed to go to that carnival. I think that my real father would have been there, and that would have brought trouble."

* * * *

The inland of Guerrero State is a lush, green, beautiful region of Mexico where crops can be grown year-round, rivers are abundant, and there is a rainy season. Baja is not so lush, not so green, and not wet by anyone’s standards. Mexico City is another thing entirely, a flat swampland built a mile high, it is practically a country unto itself. Rocio has a brother she has never met, a light-skinned chilango, raised in much more affluent circumstances than was Rocio. Rocio has blamed her aunt, for all of these years, in all such matters while I have pointed out to her on several occasions that her mother is probably more culpable. Rocio does not really listen, and I don’t blame her for ignoring me. I didn’t grow up in Rio Balsas, after all.

This brother of Rocio has recently contacted her, and now they are communicating by email and by telephone. He is coming up here next month. Mexicans never travel alone, so he is bringing three with him. We have one extra room and a sofa bed in the living room. I will make it a point to cook some gringo food for them while they are here. Perhaps Rocio’s mother will whip up another pot of pozole. Pozole is another good Mexican soul food, even in Mexico City, even in Tijuana, and even in Rio Balsas.

I’m not sure what will come of this meeting up; it can’t be a reunion since they’ve never met. Rocio’s pent-up anger directed at her aunt will have to stay in check since her brother holds his aunt in high esteem. I hope they find some common ground. I hope that both of them have great childhood memories to share. Most of all, I hope that this experience for Rocio is a way to release all of that anger. That anger was best left in Rio Balsas.

* * * *

It wasn’t until Rocio was twelve years of age, back in Rio Balsas, that her grandmother – staying at Rocio’s uncle’s house and in very poor medical condition – finally permitted Rocio to accompany her cousins to the cornfields to bring back the corn. Rocio set out, on foot with them, a donkey in tow. It was quite a walk simply to arrive in and pass through town to get to the fields, and as they passed the church, the bells rang. Rocio stopped.

“When the church bells rang, there were different meanings, and we all knew what they were. When the bells ring for morning mass, they ring a certain way. When the bells ring for a Catholic festival, they ring another way. For a wedding, there was a distinct way that the bells sounded. And when I heard the church bells passing through town, I knew that my grandmother had passed. I walked back to my uncle’s house in tears,” she said.

After the funeral, she stayed with her aunt, and apparently was not well treated. To this day, Rocio’s inability to eat onions comes from having them forced on her when she stayed with that aunt. When word finally reached Rocio’s mother, Rocio was eventually brought to Tijuana. Rocio’s mother had never crossed into the United States, and to this day has never stepped foot outside of Mexico. She met a man who, like herself, was sent north in order to cross over but instead found a way to make a living in Baja.

Rocio grew up in Tijuana from age thirteen, avoiding its pitfalls and gimmicks, with a different notion of another part of Mexico. I talked to her about Rio Balsas on her birthday. I talked to her about her grandmother, the scorpions, her aunt, and the brother she had never met. I asked her if she misses her life in Guerrero.

"Rio Balsas is my past," she said. "I’ll never forget it. But once I arrived in Tijuana, I knew that this was my future. Everything that has happened, has happened for a reason."

I reckon that in a few weeks, we’ll see if that brother of hers - the brother she’s never met - has taken that same philosophy from Mexico City that Rocio took from Rio Balsas. It wouldn’t be as rare as someone twice-stung by scorpions, but it would make for one hell of a ballad.