October 20, 2007 – Final Thoughts on Mexican Immersion

Our last full day in Mexico was in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan.   A few of us made a final visit to a market where we found many stalls packed with sweets.


Among those sweets were the sugar skulls.  These were, for me, the most “Mexican” thing we encountered.  Between the stone ruins of women who died in childbirth, the difficulty of an infrastructure the cannot (or will not) provide safe water, which can no doubt affect infant mortality, this is the thing that epitomized the experience.  Dance with death, dance with those that have died, live for the moment for you will join the dead. It was a good lesson.

Finally, a final shot of our Raices participants.  What a great group.  They have big hearts and even bigger dreams about the way the world should be. They made the experience a once in a life time from me.  Gracias.

one year ago…

October 19, 2007 – Visit to Village of Nocutzepo


Making tortillas.  This is a really beautiful kitchen.  Here Odelia’s sister is preparing tortillas for our lunch.  Note the wood burning stove, the tortilla press and her can of corn flour.  I have never had such fresh tortillas.  Later, at lunch, we were given an impromptu cultural lesson by Marisella on how to eat tortillas. She found the way we held them to be amusing, perhaps what I  really ought to say is that she found our tortilla-table manners laughable.  We gave it our best effort to improve!


Marisella, Odelia, and myself.  We are talking after lunch about sustainable farming and I am showing her a photo album of our farm in Iowa.  Marisella is serving as interpreter, she got  good at this (maybe through too much repetition) that she could pretty much tell the story of our farm with out much input from me!  Odelia is an innovator.  In her back yard is amaranth, chard, peaches (which no one thought would grow here) a fish pond, and a bread oven.  She and I share a passion for trying new ways to feed ourselves without depleting the garden.  I really enjoyed this conversation.


Odelia’s back yard.  Here fruit trees included banana, I’m jealous.  She was using the sediment from the fish pond for fertility in the garden.


This is the cemetery at Nocutzepo.  It’s adjacent to the cathedral there.  I don’t know why some graves are surrounded by wrought iron and some are entombed above ground.  I can just imagine the picnics held here for the Day (and night) of the Dead (Nov. 2).


Here a wagon of fresh cut alfalfa is carted in a wagon pulled by a single horse.


We saw plenty of interesting fencing.  This was my favorite.  If you look closely in the center of this wire fencing is a set of rusty bed springs.  Waste not, want not.  Not far from here I saw something I’d been looking for in every village, the three sisters, corn, beans and squash grown together.  The corn provides the trellis on which the beans grow, the beans provide nitrogen to the corn, and the squash serves to reduce weeds by shading them out.  These three also provide a nearly complete meal!

one year ago…

October 18, 2007 – Visit to Village of Arocutian

This is the view of Patzcuaro Lake from Arocutian.  The lake is very visibly receding and quite contaminated by erosion from the deforested hills.  The native fish once famous in Patzcuaro, are now locally extinct.

Thursday was another immersion day.  Lest you think these days were easy or comfortable, they were not.  We were required to venture forth without our guides/interpreters to locate various institutions and people.  This day we were given the names of two women who were willing to talk with us, the possibility of visiting the elementary school and a prearranged lunch & meeting with a family who made their living farming. First, we visited the school.


This is from the first grade classroom.  Oh, how I missed Martin when surrounded by six-year-olds.  They had the requisite missing teeth of 1st graders and unfettered enthusiasm mixed with a complete willingness to be engaged with complete (and no doubt strange) strangers.  They would beg to have you take their photo then rush to your side to view the picture on the camera screen.  Quite frankly, I loved being among them just to take in all their youth and brilliance.  I was really beginning to miss my own family.


I see a confident young woman in this girl’s face.


We spoke with this woman for quite some time about her children and how immigration to the U.S. has impacted her life.  Her husband spent eight years, off and on, in the U.S. during the 70’s and 80’s.  It was just long enough to bring home the money they needed to build their home.  She was grateful for that and he remained in Mexico when their home was complete.  She gave birth to her last child at age 40 (same as myself).  We enjoyed a laugh over the joys and trials of being older mothers of sons.  She was also caring for the wife of one of her sons who is in Chicago.  He left shortly after his wife gave birth to their second child.  He hurt himself going over the border and can now only work intermittently.  He sends money when he can.  She hasn’t seen him in four years and he hasn’t seen his son.  It made her very sad.

Ironically, I was unable to get pictures of the farmer & farm we visited.  I used too much camera memory on the 1st graders!  My “take homes” from this visit was the fact that these farmers were actively working to increase composting, they saved seed from open pollinated corn, planted and harvested by hand, used shared veterinary care, and rarely used tractors due to their expense and then typically this is shared equipment.  The corn was delicious.

one year ago…

October 17, 2007 – Uruapan: Water Everywhere

On Wednesday we took a break between immersion days in the villages to act a bit like tourists.  We were treated to the beautiful and steep (remember little shoulders on the roads) countryside of Michoacan.  Instead of combis we now luxuriated in the comfort of a full-sized bus.


Our first stop was Zirahuen Lake where some of us took a boat ride. Avocado orchards and raspberry farms grace the hillsides around the lake.  On the “it’s a bit strange note,” the restrooms cost 50 pesos for women but were free to men.  I guess it’s the toilet paper?


After the lake we drove on to the city of Uruapan.  It seemed much more urban than Patzcuaro.  In the city is a beautiful park that included a natural spring from which the water was diverted to many different man-made waterfalls.

For a biologist it was a wondrous place as it hosted many butterflies I’d never seen and many different liverworts (a plant), mosses and ferns.  All and all it was very peaceful.

Note the ubiquitous painted flower pots at this restaurant near the lake.


In Uruapan were were treated to a very nice restaurant.  Kathy here enjoys a steak and fries.  She was craving some “American” food.

After our day out we had a much more sober event visiting a family in a small village and discussing immigration with two young men, a 15-year old girl (with her baby) and their relatives.  It was a time for questions and answers.  I learned that one of the young men had been deported recently and now has a pregnant wife in the States to whom he’d like to return.  The other young man would prefer not to return to the U.S.  The girl, to me, was the most tragic case.  She went over the border at age 11 with her parents.  In the U.S., she was raped by another immigrant.  She became pregnant.  She returned to Mexico and family to have her baby.  Her parents remained in the U.S.  She has no power.  The remittance sent home from the U.S. keeps these families in their homes and clearly elevates the standard of living.  What I took away is that nothing about immigration is simple or necessarily what it seems.

one year ago…

October 16, 2007 – Visit to Village of Erongaricuaro

My first excursion into the villages was to Erongaricuaro.  Here we visited the market and two schools.  The trip out was made by Combi.  These are vans converted to act as small public buses that people can ride for a reasonable price.  They run all day, we never waited more than ten minutes to catch a ride.  I have no doubt we served as a curiosity to the villagers.


This was taken from the combi.  Between the line of stacked rocks midway through the picture is a fence for livestock.  These are volcanic stones held together only by gravity.  In the foreground is a road sign indicating the presence of a speed bump.  I swear this is the only thing that would slow drivers down.  We saw a lot of accidents mostly minor, one more serious.  The roads typically lack shoulders and drivers frequently failed to heed “do not pass” signs.


In the village of Erongaricuaro, this photo shows the upper level of a home. Potted flowers and bright paint were common everywhere.  It was beautiful.  It made me feel my own home quite dull!  I also noted how seasons were different.  Not only were poinsettias starting to flower but so were irises, geraniums, and begonias.  There also seemed to be a lot of wild cosmos.


Here is yours truly at the market.  I’m standing next to vendor stall selling dried beans (frijoles).  While prepared very nicely and served in various forms, I was ready to pass on beans by the end of the trip.  We were offered beans for breakfast, beans for lunch and, you guessed it, beans for dinner.  These people are getting their fiber!


These pictures come from the elementary school. Above is a 3rd grade class in their school uniforms. They were very engaged in their studies. Cooperative learning seemed to be very successfully employed. It seems they do particularly well in math. Those that migrate to the U.S. often come here with better math skills than their peers in the U.S.


Recess time – today a tug of war. A bulletin placed on an outside school wall listed the budget for the school.  For one year, the school ran for about $7,500 per year.  Amazing.  The teacher/principal (wears one hat in the morning and the other in the afternoon) talked with us about her students. Like us, she was concerned for students who spent their school years in two different countries.  She was very generous with her time and commitment to her kids was evident.  As we were about to leave she asked to take good care of her kids (students in the U.S.).

one year ago…

October 15, 2007 – Self-Directed Excursion

After a long day listening to a panel on (im)migration to the U.S. and the implications for rural Latino communities we were encouraged to take a self-directed excursion.  A few of us chose to return to downtown Patzcuaro and avail ourselves of cerveza (beer).  This was found in a little outdoor establishment on the plaza.


This is Dan.  He’s our trip evaluator.  He’s evaluating this beer.


Alyson.  She evaluated beer too.  We both prefer beers with nice labels.


Another street scene.  Paving was cobblestones.

one year ago…

October 14, 2007 – Destination: Patzcuaro, Mexico

We spent the bulk of our visit in Patzcuaro which is a town in the state of Michoacan.  Our first assignment was to do a scavenger hunt in town in small groups.  We were asked to purchase items such as a kilo of bananas and find places such as the public restrooms and the the atm machine.  Not knowing Spanish made me nearly useless in the exercise.  I got better as the trip progressed!


In the larger plaza performers were resting after performing the dance of the old men.


This is street in Patzcuaro along with my fellow scavenger hunters, Kathy, Amy and Amy.


Once we completed our search in town we returned to calculate the cost of the items we’d purchased in town and compare those to the cost back in the United States.  We then calculated how long one would have to work in the U.S. and in Mexico, both at minimum wage, to acquire these products.  We were surprised to learn that you would have work over an hour to buy a Pepsi.  Pepsi was less expensive than milk.

one year ago…

October 13, 2007 – Teotihuacan Ruins

Mexico Day Two.  We were treated to a day of Mexican history beginning with the Teotihuac¡n Ruins.  These were founded around 200 B.C.E. and ended around 700 C.E. The history was a way to help us understand the country better.  I think it was effective when looking at the class structure that still exists today between those of indigenous descent and those of Spanish descent.


Here I am at the Temple of the Serpent (I think).  In the background is the Temple of the Sun.  It was very exciting to climb to the top of that temple, especially at this altitude.  The steps are very steep.  My new good friend Alyson took this picture.  Thanks Alyson.


These are a few of my fellow travelers.  They are people of action, dedicated to their communities  as mayors, educators, and just generally people who wanted to help others achieve their potential.  I felt privileged to be counted among them.


A view from the top.


A view from the plaza.


These were figures from the museum of Nacional Athropologia.  I was particularly struck with these because they represent the spirits of woman who had died in childbirth.  Their hands are clenched and faces haunted with unfulfilled promises.  They are said to make the sun set and to haunt the living children as they seek what was lost to them.  Grief is universal.

one year ago…

October 12, 2007 – Mexico City

I was invited to join a group of people from four states on an educational trip to Mexico.  We were sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation and Raices.  I went as a person interested in helping Mexican immigrants gain access to land and the participate in farming in our community.  This was my first day in Mexico city. At 21 million people, only Tokyo is larger.  Not only was I struck with traffic, congestion, and air pollution of a city this size but the degree to which it has maintained its Spanish architecture.

This is one door to the cathedral that borders the ancient Templo de Mayor, the central plaza in the city.  It is built of stones that once formed the temples of the Aztec people.


The city cannot dig for subways without unearthing structures from the Aztecs.  Here are some excavated ruins of  Tenochtitlan Temple the Spanish built over in the colonial era. This is located just 1/4 block from the cathedral.

This is known as the Plaza de Constitucin or El Zcalo,

Around the plaza are scores of vendors selling everything from tortillas to lady’s underwear.


We were treated to a very elegant dinner at a fine restaurant near the plaza.  You’d never know it was there from street level.  The dining room opened out into night and a view of the Cathedral.

one year ago…

October 8, 2007 – Linda’s Gone to Patzcuara, Michoacan

Linda is on her 10-day trip to Mexico (see August 7 entry for more details).  I’m sure she’ll have several days to share her impressions sometime after her return, but in the meantime, here’s some info about the town they will spend most of their time in and around – Patzcuaro, Michoacan.  The following entry comes from the Wikipedia entry about Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro, which means “place of stones” in the Purepecha language, is a city and its surrounding municipality in the central part of the Mexican state of Michoacan. Patzcuaro was founded in 1540. The city was developed as a religious center, and its early inhabitants believed Patzcuaro to be the doorway to heaven where the gods ascended and descended. The Purepecha people first settled in Patzcuaro in 1324, led by Rey Curateme. It has always been of interest to Mexican history buffs because it was central to the careers of two diametrically opposed characters in Mexico’s colonial past. The first was Nuao Guzman de Beltran, the vicious conquistador who plundered the area for gold. He burned alive the local Purepecha Indian chief when that man couldn’t or wouldn’t tell him where Indian gold was hidden. Eventually his crimes against the Indians became so extreme that the Spanish were forced to arrest him. In his place they sent Vasco de Quiroga, a former judge from Mexico City who had become a priest. Vasco de Quiroga helped the Purepecha Indians in the Patzcuaro area by introducing new crops and establishing schools and hospitals.

Patzcuaro is hidden high in the mountains of Michoacan at 2200 m (7130 feet) of elevation. It is veiled from the outside world by a curtain of high pine trees. To the north is Lake Patzcuaro, one of Mexico’s highest lakes. The butterfly fishermen, who dip their nets into the lake in search of whitefish, have become a trademark of Patzcuaro. The town retains its ancient atmosphere. It consists of largely one-story adobe or plaster-over-brick buildings with red tile roofs. The streets are dusty cobblestones traveled by horse and car. Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, known by locals as simply the Plaza Grande, is Patzcuaro’s central square. Grass covers much of the plaza, and a statue of Vasco de Quiroga stands in its center.

On the east side of downtown is the beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Health, the city’s patron, built between 1546 and 1554. The College of Saint Nicolas, south from the basilica, was founded by Don Vasco in 1540 and now houses the Museum of Popular Arts and Archaeology, which has exhibits of carvings, pottery, weaving, and archaeological artifacts. The Cathedral of Michoacan was built by Don Vasco and was opened in 1546. Today it is the temple of the Jesuits. The House of Eleven Patios is the former monastery of Saint Catherine, founded by Dominican nuns in 1747. It is now a center for local artisans, and you can watch them work.

The Dance of the Viejitos (Old Men), one of the best and most widely known native dances of Mexico, is presented twice weekly. The dancers wear wooden masks that depict smiling old men to show that, at least in Mexico, old age is not a time of listless despair, but rather a season to enjoy the fruits of life.

Patzcuaro’s eateries tout the traditional whitefish in a variety of preparations, though not all of it comes from the nearby lake. Another unique, delicious dish is sopa tarasca, a local variation of Mexico’s ubiquitous tortilla soup with large pieces of roasted dried chiles and crumbly fresh cheese.

Many shops line the main plaza, selling all kinds of textiles, tablecloths, clothing, and more. Shops around town carry henequen rugs, lacquered trays, serapes, Indian masks, and wooden boxes. Patzcuaro’s lacquered trays are quite famous; the lacquer is supposedly made from the crushed bodies of purple insects, which provide the deep, rich finish and durability.

After yesterday’s entry about aches and pains, I’m ready to join in the Dance of the Old Men!

one year ago…