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Month: January, 2015

PRICKLY PEAR AND THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE

Bangkok, 23 January, 2015

One of the most far-reaching effects of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the Americas was the so-called Columbian Exchange, the exchange of plants and animals (and bacteria and viruses) between the Americas and the rest of the world. This map shows some of the major crops and livestock which made the journey in either direction between the Americas and Europe.
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We see, for instance, that the tomato crossed to Europe from the Americas, along with the turkey and corn (and possibly syphilis), while the cow, the horse, and the onion, went the other way, along with smallpox, measles, typhus, and a whole series of other diseases (the diseases nearly wiping out the Amerindian populations).

But I want to focus on a plant which normally doesn’t get mentioned in discussions of the Columbian Exchange: the prickly pear, a plant whose history is very much centered on Mexico. Here, we have an exemplar standing guard, as it were, at the site of Teotihuacan.
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In fact, the prickly pear is so centered on Mexico that it graces the Mexican flag as part of the latter’s central emblem (for those with “mature” eyesight like mine, it’s what the eagle is grasping with its talons at the same time as it grasps that snake in its beak).
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Maybe the prickly pear’s low profile in Columbian Exchange discussions is because it’s such a nasty, spiny plant, which really doesn’t endear itself to anyone.
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Or maybe because it’s not much of a commercial crop; the Food and Agricultural Organization, which collects global statistics on some 160 crops, collects no statistics on the prickly pear, for instance.

Whatever the reason, I wish to right this injustice and pay tribute to the prickly pear and its role in the great Columbian Exchange. It may perhaps have played a modest economic role, but it helped to fill many an empty stomach, and it sure as hell has played an important ecological role, sometimes wreaking havoc in the ecosystems into which it was thoughtlessly thrust.

I first met our prickly friend in the country of my birth, Eritrea. Here, you see a specimen in front of the delightful little train which runs from Asmara down to the seaport of Masawa on the Red Sea.
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I have a vivid memory of taking that train to go down to the coast for a holiday on the beach.

It was the Italians who, as colonial masters
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introduced the prickly pear (please note the plant waving at us from behind the colonial troops and their Italian officer). The Italian colonialists brought it from the mother country, of course, where it grows in profusion in the more arid southern regions of the country. We have here an example gracing the ruins of Agrigento in Sicily.
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But southern Italy was just a later stop on the prickly pear’s journey out of Mexico. It must surely have reached Italy from Spain, which was the first port of call for many of the biological journeys out of the Americas. Here we have a Spanish prickly pear, nudging its way into a photo of Sagunto castle in the province of Valencia.
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In truth, I have chosen pictures which show off the prickly pear to advantage, but normally the plant is much more unprepossessing. This photo of a ragged, messy patch of prickly pear in a village of Ethiopia is much more typical of how the plant presents itself
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especially when its population levels begin to explode out of control in some foreign ecosystem which has no natural biological defenses against it. The Global Invasive Species Database lists several countries where the prickly pear is now considered an invasive species. Eritrea is one of them, along with the neighboring countries of Ethiopia and Somalia – the Italians, who colonized all three countries had little idea of the damage they were wreaking. But South Africa also considers it an invasive species (here is a picture of prickly pear invading the Kruger national park).
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And Australia had a catastrophic invasion. The prickly pear was initially introduced as an ornamental plant for gardens. Then some bright spark thought of using the plant as natural fencing (sensibly enough, cattle and other animals desist from pushing through breaks of prickly pear because of the nasty spines, and they don’t eat them for the same reason) and to start a cochineal dye industry (the little beasties from which the dye is extracted munch the prickly pear’s pads). But the prickly pear went crazy. It eventually converted some 260,000 square kilometers of farmland (which for those readers, who like me don’t think in square kilometers, is more or less equivalent to a square 500 km by 500 km) into an impenetrable green jungle. Farmers were driven off their land by this “green hell” and their abandoned homes were crushed under the cactus growth.
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The authorities finally managed to get the plague under control in the 1920s by introducing a South American moth, the Cactoblastis cactorum, whose larvae feast on prickly pear. This led to a crash in prickly pear populations, and while the plant has not been eradicated from Australia it has been brought under control (the Australians were lucky, by the way; there is always a risk in this kind of biological control that the agent will find another native plant much more to its liking and wipe that out instead, or once it’s dealt with the original pest will turn its hungry eye on to something else and become an invasive species in its own right).

Why did some Spaniard ever bring the prickly pear back to Europe in the first place? Because, as far as I can tell, he thought he could brighten up a Spanish garden somewhere. But it cannot have been because of the beauty of the plant itself. More likely it was the flowers, for indeed the web is full of pictures of the flower of the prickly pear. Here are a few of the more pleasing examples.
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At some point, though, people, especially the poor with bellies to fill, began to also focus on the fruit, the “figs” of the prickly pear
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These had been enjoyed by the Mesoamericans for millennia before Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores arrived and have been enjoyed by the Mexicans ever since.
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I add here a close-up of the fruit
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first because it’s a nice photo, but second because the sharp-eyed reader will notice the hair-thin spines which nestle lovingly around the crown of the fruit. Their scientific name is glochids. They are the nastiest little buggers imaginable. They come off easily and lodge under the skin of the unwary picker, where they cause exquisite and unending agony as the said picker tries and tries and tries again to extract them, always in vain. Bloody little bastards … Readers may have gathered from this little burst of ill humour that I have personally experienced this exceedingly painful trial. It was in Eritrea as a matter of fact, where as a young and foolish lad I tried picking the fruit.  I then ran to my Mummy to get the horrible little things out, which she eventually did after much wailing on my part and cross admonitions on her part for me to keep still. I had tried picking the fruit because my mother had earlier bought some, perhaps from a lady like this
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and I had liked them – a little too many seeds perhaps but nicely fresh and sweet.

Personally, while I like the taste, that early brush with glochids has always made me wary of the fruit. The pain in the hands was bad enough but the thought of those things getting stuck in your tongue or gums because the fruit was badly cleaned is dreadful. And the thought of them getting stuck in your throat is simply too horrible to contemplate.

But others around the world consume the fruit without a second thought, especially around the Mediterranean rim. Here, we have some cheerful young lads selling the fruit in Egypt

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While here we have a more solemn Moroccan doing the same
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And here a smiling Sicilian ditto
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As readers can imagine, over the centuries people in the countries where the prickly pear was introduced eventually got around to putting the fruit into alcoholic drinks – at least in those countries where such drinks are tolerated. Thus, we have a prickly pear-flavoured liqueur called “Ficodi” in Sicily, we have a prickly-pear flavored herbal liqueur called “bajtra” in Malta (another country, by the way, where the prickly pear has been declared an invasive species), out in the lonelier reaches of the Atlantic, on the island of St. Helena (where Napoleon Bonaparte was banished), the potent “Tungi Spirit” is produced with the fruit, while prickly pear fruit is the main ingredient of a popular Christmas beverage in the British Virgin Islands called “Miss Blyden”. Looking at how all these various drinks are made, I think I would plump for Miss Blyden: prickly pear steeped in rum and sweetened with sugar. Mmm, sounds good …Yohoho, and a bottle of Miss Blyden, is what I say.

But actually, these drinks are all derivative, if I can put it that way: you just plunk prickly pear fruit in an alcoholic medium; it could actually be any fruit that is plunked. The Mesoamericans, on the other hand, came up millennia ago with colonche, an alcoholic drink using just the juice of the prickly pear fruit, fermenting it over a number of days. I have read that it is a sweet, fizzy, red beverage. Here’s a photo of a glass of colonche, together with the fruit from which it is derived.
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I regret to say that I did not try the drink while I was in Mexico. However, I have asked my son to try it and report back. If the feedback is good, we can discuss about getting into the business of exporting it!

What I will not promote, through export or otherwise, is the eating of the pads (that is to say the fleshy leaves) of the prickly pear. They eat them in Mexico – and in New Mexico too (and perhaps some of the other southwestern States of the US). The original peoples of Mexico were eating them when Cortes burst in on the scene, and it’s still quite popular. I saw them sold in the supermarket around the corner from where we were staying in Mexico City and took a photo, but I prefer this more sympathetic photo of a Mexican lady on the street selling them.
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I mentioned in an earlier post that I had tried the pads, cooked and with melted cheese, in a taco. I also tried them, with cheese but without the taco. It didn’t change the taste much.
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I’m all for trying things once (with the exception of insects). But not necessarily more than once. Pads of the prickly pear fall into the latter category.

But who knows? As the Mediterranean countries slowly go down the economic drain, and more generally as we 99 percenters slowly get poorer, perhaps we will join our Mesoamerican friends and start eating prickly pear pads – as the poor of the Mediterranean lands turned to the fruits of the prickly pear some three hundred years ago to fill their empty stomachs.

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Columbian exchange: http://globerove.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Columbian-Exchange.jpg (in http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/cbgobble/columbian-v-triangle)
Prickly pear in Teotihuacan: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/214/444712763_0a91a8353e.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind/444712763/
Mexican flag: http://www.freepressers.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/mexican-flag-640.jpg (in http://www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2011/k1302_10_21.asp)
Prickly pear: https://seekraz.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/prickly-pear-cacti-in-tucson-desert.jpg (in https://seekraz.wordpress.com/tag/prickly-pear-cactus/)
Prickly pear by Asmara-Masawa railway: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8633/16089064905_44b9e68e48_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/dave-hill/16089064905/)
Italian colonial masters: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/it/6/6c/Ascari_penne_di_falco.jpg (in http://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regio_corpo_truppe_coloniali_d’Eritrea)
Prickly pear in Sicily: https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8299/7826141194_33f0e36a8d_b.jpg (in https://www.flickr.com/photos/mari-mora/7826141194/)
Prickly pear in Spain: https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/dsc_0048.jpg (in https://themostbeautifulplacesineurope.wordpress.com/tag/castle/)
Prickly pear in Ethiopian village: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-YutF1G9Qjbo/Up44cIZUf_I/AAAAAAAAMPA/fydBOTfLCNY/s1600/00041775.jpg (in http://jhodgesagame.blogspot.com)
Prickly pear in Kruger National Park: http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/images/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts_fig1.jpg (in http://academic.sun.ac.za/cib/news/20120611_opuntia_stricta_impacts.htm)
Prickly pear in Australia – the green hell: http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/Images/Local%20History/johnty%20turner’s.jpg (in http://chinchillalibrary.chinchilla.org.au/HTML/HeritagePricklyPear.html)
Prickly pear in flower-1: http://www.fotothing.com/photos/4aa/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea.jpg (in http://www.fotothing.com/AzViper/photo/4aa38f6709881bcb9b0dc2f7bce87dea/)
Prickly pear in flower-2: http://photosbygarth.com/travels/DesertGardens4-23-11/prickly_pear_cactus_flowers_0887.jpg (in http://photosbygarth.com/wordpress/)
Prickly pear in flower-3: http://www.summitpost.org/prickly-pear-cactus-flower/294673
Prickly pear fruit-1: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-_NFH_ZhWJCU/T1kjB-HTOWI/AAAAAAAAA84/rBf30_8f5qg/s1600/5.jpg (in http://docsfitnesstips.blogspot.com/2012/03/prickley-pear.html)
Mexicans selling prickly pear fruit:
http://i.gonoma.net/i/destinations/1106/zacatecas-images/prickly.jpg (in http://gonomad.com/destinations-xxx/3205-zacatecas-mexico-rsquo-s-overlooked-colonial-gem)
Prickly pear fruit-2: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU/s/600/600/PPCA-021548.jpg (in http://rolfnussbaumer.photoshelter.com/image/I0000O2m8f8jI.vU)
Ethiopian lady selling prickly pear: http://jamminglobal.com/2012/05/ethiopia-part-6-historical-axum-and-mountainous-twisties.html
Prickly pear seller Egypt: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/Media/NewsMedia/2013/7/16/2013-635095893366005272-600_resized.jpg (http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/3357/25/The-fruit-beneath-the-thorns.aspx)
Prickly pear seller Morocco: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Prickly_pear_seller.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opuntia_ficus-indica)
Prickly pear seller Italy: http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto/3126/3126-08-20-44-1557.jpg (in http://www.fotografieitalia.it/foto.cfm?idfoto=65383&idfotografo=3126&crono=1)
Colonche: http://173.236.14.43/fotos/nota/2014/9/18/4d68094af571428.jpg (in http://www.am.com.mx/aguascalientes/especiales/espiritus-de-la-republica-144117.html)
Seller of cactus pads: http://holeinthedonut.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Nopal_Cactus_Seller_Mercado_Hidalgo_Guanajuato.jpg (in http://holeinthedonut.com/2010/06/01/mexico-food-nopal-cactus/)

Cactus pad and cheese: http://s3.amazonaws.com/foodspotting-ec2/reviews/846163/thumb_600.jpg?1315336866 (in http://www.foodspotting.com/150802-amandahugnkiss)/)

 

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MEXICO: PAINTED SIGNS

Bangkok, 13 January 2015

It was at Tlaxcala that I began to notice it.

We’d taken a bus from Mexico City to visit this small town, since it was described as a nice example of colonial Mexican architecture and town planning. It certainly was pleasant enough, as were Chiapas de Corzo and San Cristóbal de las Casas, two other colonial-era towns which we visited later. The latter two have been declared “pueblos magicos”, magic towns, a slogan dreamed up by the Mexican tourism authorities (clever branding, although I do feel duty-bound to whisper that the pueblos in Tuscany, for instance, or any number of pueblos which my wife and I have visited in Spain, are more magico than Tlaxcala and the two official pueblos magicos that we visited).

In any event, my point in mentioning the visit to Tlaxcala is another. What I began to notice as we walked around the town was the lack of modern signage on the shops. To understand what I mean, let me insert here a picture of the shopping street in Vienna, the Graben, where we often went for a stroll and coffee when we lived there.
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Notice the abundant use of neon shop signs, tacked onto the shop fronts. For better or for worse (and in my opinion for worse; it drives me crazy in this age of climate change to see all those illuminated shop signs blazing out into the night), this is now the accepted and expected type of design for shop signs.

So it was with great interest that I saw in Tlaxcala that shop signs tended to be of the old-fashioned type, painted by hand
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Alerted to this phenomenon, I made sure to get some close-ups of such signs in San Cristóbal
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I began to notice that advertisements were often painted too. The following style of painted advertisement was definitely my favorite, with this particular example coming from San Lorenzo Zinacantán.
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These types of advertisements, to be found on otherwise bare walls, seem always to be announcing some upcoming event. Notice the large, rounded, friendly, inviting font, but placed at a slight angle denoting future excitement, and with a very pleasing colour scheme which starts with a dark colour and shades off into a lighter one. I throw in here some other signs of this genre that I spotted from buses or trains flashing by.
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It would seem that the honorable profession of sign painter is alive and well in Mexico! (this reminds me of a wonderful novel from India, another country with a great sign painting tradition, “The Painter of Signs”, by R.K. Narayan; great novelist, by the way, I highly recommend him to my readers).

Of course, painting on walls has a long and noble tradition in Mexico. This art form must have reached its apogee with the great Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, José Orozco, and David Siqueiros. Already 35 years ago, when we first visited Mexico, we had reverently visited a number of the murals by these artists. This time around, we visited Rivera’s murals in the Secretaría de Educación Pública, just behind the cathedral on the Zocalo in Mexico City. As was his style, they are very political, very “leftie”; they made me and my wife smile as they brought back memories of the excited discussions of our youth. These two murals, “The Capitalist’s Dinner” and “Death of the Capitalist”, epitomize them all.
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In San Cristobal, up some back streets, I saw what I fear are today’s inheritors of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros
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It’s sad really. All that grand, elevated talk of our youth has degenerated into the childish babble of these cartoons. But the rot doesn’t finish there, for Mexico suffers from the same mindless graffiti which defaces so many of our cities

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“Fuck you. I exist”

What are our civilizations reduced to?

__________________

Mariahilfestrasse 1: http://austriacazare.ro/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/mariahilfer-strasse.jpg (in http://austriacazare.ro/shopping/mariahilferstrasse/#photoGallery%5Bgallery-503%5D/3/)
Calle 20 de noviembre , Tlaxcala: http://www.mexicoenfotos.com/estados/tlaxcala/tlaxcala/MX13379190432534&album=01&province=tlaxcala&city=tlaxcala&pagina=6
Avenida Vicente Guerro, Tlaxcala: http://www.mexicoenfotos.com/estados/tlaxcala/tlaxcala/MX13362760603306&album=01&province=tlaxcala&city=tlaxcala&pagina=6
Shop signs, San Cristobal: my photos
Painted advertisement signs: my photos
Cartoon wall paintings, San Cristobal: my photos
Graffiti, Mexico City: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-hsTD7FnkGKs/UIEueVASNkI/AAAAAAAAAQs/PJ0N-K0omig/s1600/150559_545018925524744_786800387_n.jpg (in http://thevilgang.blogspot.com/2012/10/el-graffiti-de-la-ciudad-de-mexico.html)

MEXICO: MUSEO DE ARTE POPULAR

Bangkok, 10 January, 2015

While in Mexico City over the Christmas break, my wife and I visited two museums, the Palacio de Bellas Artes and the Museo de Arte Popular. The Bellas Artes is the more Worthy of the two, having vast panels by Great Mexican Painters such as Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, José Orozco, and others. When we visited, it also had some Worthy exhibitions, one of these being on modern art from cubism onwards, which mixed global titans like Picasso and Pollock with Mexicans. I have mentioned in a previous post how so much of the world looks the same everywhere nowadays, especially where clothes are concerned: everyone, everywhere, dresses the same, particularly the young. I was struck by the same sensation in this exhibition of modern art. Everyone’s modern art was the same everywhere: Diego Rivera’s cubism looked just like Braque’s, Frida Kahlo’s surrealism was indistinguishable from Magritte’s, Gunther Gerzso’s abstract expressionism is no different from Willem de Kooning’s or Mark Rothko’s. In a word, there was nothing particularly Mexican about any of the art on show from Mexican artists. Another, depressing, effect of globalization.

So you can imagine my relief when we visited the Museo de Arte Popular (which I think we can translate as the Museum of Folk Art) and saw pieces which were quite typically Mexican, pieces I would not find in a museum of folk or other art in Europe or the US or Japan or even Thailand where we currently live. (In truth, I’m sure I would find similar pieces in the other Latin American countries, but that’s OK; these countries do after all share a fair amount of cultural history, Hispanic and pre-Hispanic).

So it is with pleasure that I can share with readers photos of some of the pieces I most liked. I hope I will be excused their generally poor quality. They are all taken with my iPhone, and in many instances through the glass of the exhibition cases which often created irritating problems of reflections.

I start with that typical form of folk art, ceramics. Here are some pots and a plate I particularly fancied:
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with this one being my favorite of the genre
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There was also a lot of woven rattan and similar objects, but I’m not a big fan of this art form. However, I do add here a picture of a container made with a mix of bark and fibres, which had a certain attraction
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Not particularly Mexican all this, you might argue, so let me continue with a subject very close to the average Mexican’s heart, religion. In the museum collection, it was captured for the most part with that typically Mexican (or perhaps Latin American) fondness for little set scenes. So we have a crucifixion
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a last supper – but why are they eating watermelon??
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and a last judgement
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while the Tree of Life was a very popular motif, made into a lovely candelabra in this example
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Then there were several examples of ex-votos, that exceedingly popular genre of folk religious painting (and not just in Mexico; Italian churches are littered with them, as are churches in Austria and probably every other Catholic country). Normally, they record a person being saved from some catastrophe or illness, but in this particular case a certain Mr. Jesus Gomez Reyez was thanking the Good Lord for getting his American passport regularized back in 1962, a touching commentary on so many Mexicans’ yearnings to escape to America
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Religion has much to do with death, and the Mexicans have turned death into a high art, especially that most striking vision of the death which awaits us all, the skeleton. The museum has a particularly rich collection of this art form, of which I show a small selection, starting with this wonderful variation on that insipid form of religious art, the statues of saints in churches
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I must say, despite the grimness of the topic these skeletons are always remarkably cheerful. Here we have a bunch of skeletons thoroughly enjoying a huge meal – echoes of the last supper?
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another happily kicking a football around
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yet another, a child’s skeleton, blowing us a raspberry
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while here we have an earnest swain declaring his undying love to a simpering and blushing maiden
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and finally, a very popular character in the skeleton cast of characters, a “Catrina”, a female skeleton dressed to the nines in a 19th Century style
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We loved these Catrinas so much that we bought a ceramic version and carried it back to Bangkok, where it now stands unpacked on our dressing room table.

Keeping to the broad religious theme, devils are also a popular topic. I include three, one blowing a raspberry, something which I have never particularly associated with devils (but a common theme it would seem; does blowing raspberries have some deeper meaning in Mexico?)
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another showing a bunch of devils taking part in a last-supper type of meal – eating watermelon again! (what’s with this business of watermelon?)
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and a grimmer scene, a devil rapist (I suppose rape is as bad a problem in Mexico as anywhere else)
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The little scenes which seem such a popular subject spill over into normal, day-to-day life. We have here a seller in the market (watermelon-eating again …)

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Fairgrounds seem a popular topic, especially these Ferris wheels

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while here we have a grimmer scene from life, a fire. Many escape from the doors of these towers but one person has had to throw himself off the top.
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This large needlework piece wonderfully captures the myriad activities of daily life
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I add one close-up of the many scenes on this piece
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The final theme is animals, which are a popular subject for folk artists. I feel I should start with a turkey, which was first domesticated in pre-Hispanic Mexico.
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I continue with a cat, because my wife reminded me that when we were last in Mexico 35 years ago we bought a ceramic cat, which currently faithfully sits in storage in Vienna waiting for our return to Europe.
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But I also add a dog, in this case in the form of a teponatzle (a type of musical instrument),
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continue with what appears to be a brightly coloured hedgehog
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and finish with a couple of birds: what looks like a macaw, fashioned as a handle of a jug
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and this truly magnificent peacock
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On the topic of animals, I feel I have to include a picture of this monster
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The Mexicans seem to have a great fondness of such monsters, which we saw in a number of places, on a much larger scale, being used as floats of some sort.

Well, I don’t want to give everything away about this museum. I hope I’ve persuaded some readers to visit it if they happen to be in Mexico City: Calle Revillagigedo 11, Cuauhtémoc, very central; open every day except Monday.

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pictures: all mine

MEXICO: BASHING THE PIÑATA

Mexico City, 4 January, 2015

As my wife and I wandered around Mexico City this last week, we were struck by these strange ornaments which we saw hanging in many places. This particular one, for instance, was hanging in a street somewhere

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while this one, somewhat incongruously, swung over the cars in a gas station.

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Intrigued, I asked our son what they were. Piñata, he told us.

Ah. I had never heard of them.

Undeterred, I rolled up my sleeves and did some research (i.e., browsed the web). I am now ready to report my findings.

What we have here is an example of the strategy used by the Catholic church in the early years of the Spanish conquest of Mexico to christianize the local populations. The church adopted, with the necessary adaptations, those local religious traditions which happened to have similarities with Catholic traditions. The thinking was that this would make Catholicism more familiar, more “user friendly” for the local populations, who would therefore convert more readily (and if necessary, a little gentle pressure from the sharp end of a sword could no doubt be used to help along in the decision-making process).

In the case of the piñata, the local religious tradition in question was part of the Aztec festival for their patron god Huitzilopochtli, sun god, god of war, and god of human sacrifice.
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The whole of the Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli, which ran from 7 to 26 December in today’s calendar, was dedicated to this festival. The people decorated their homes and trees with paper flags, there were ritual races, processions, dances, songs, prayers, and to top it all off there were human sacrifices.

Only one of the festival’s activities is of interest us here. In it, priests would place a clay pot on a pole in front of the statue of the god. The pot was filled with tiny treasures inside and decorated with colorful feathers outside. The pot would be ritually broken with a stick or club, and the treasures would fall to the feet of the statue as an offering.

It so happened that the Spaniards had a very similar custom, the Dance of the Piñata, which took place during Lent. There, too, a decorated clay pot, the piñata, was suspended and during some kind of dance routine got broken with a stick. Quite what the religious significance of this was is unclear to me, nor do I know if there was anything in the pot.

The canny Franciscan monks who were spearheading the conversion efforts in Mexico (along with Dominicans) figured that they could harness this Lenten custom from Old Spain to a new Christmas custom in New Spain and in so doing help to draw away the indigenous people from their old, “pagan”, “idolatrous”, “devil-worshipping”, etc. religion. They also borrowed from a superficially similar Mayan custom. The Mayans had a game rather like blind man’s buff, where a player was blindfolded, perhaps spun around to disorient him, and then left to try and hit and break a suspended clay pot. No doubt his blundering misses made spectators roar with laughter. Again, I don’t know if there was anything in the pot.

The Franciscans used all these threads to weave together a new, fun custom which the indigenous people were encouraged to practice, in the church grounds no doubt, in the run-up to Christmas. A clay pot, filled with sweets and other goodies, and decorated on the outside, was suspended. The “players” were blindfolded, and guided by the onlookers, would try and bash the pot and release the goodies. If successful, everyone would throw themselves on the goodies. But of course the Franciscans gave the whole thing a religious twist, using the new piñata “game” to inculcate in the locals some Christian catechism. Thus, the clay pot represented Satan, with the outer decorations now transmuted into seven colorful cones or horns representing the seven deadly sins (for those of my readers who have momentarily forgotten which these are, we have, in alphabetical order: envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath). The outside was made beautiful to remind the viewer that evil is tempting, and the goodies inside the pot represented the temptations of wealth and earthly pleasures. Once the game started, it became a morality play for demonstrating the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. The blindfolded players represented Blind Faith, groping their way towards salvation. The piñata now represented Hope. The onlookers looking up at the hanging piñata were actually gazing towards Heaven, yearning for the salvation that would come from the smashing the pot and the triumph of Faith over Evil. The sweets and other goodies that showered forth now suddenly became the rewards of maintaining the Faith. But everyone shared in the goodies, thus symbolizing Charity. After this dose of religion, it seems to me only correct to include this statue of a Franciscan monk having a bash at a piñata.

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If any of the players impatiently waiting to have a go at smashing the pot understood any of these theological subtleties I take my hat off to them. If my own youthful experience of catechism is anything to go by, I would guess that they quietly let the priest blather on about whatever he wanted to blather on about and then they got down to the serious business of having some fun. These two photos, which I took in the Museo de Arte Popular (about which more later in a future post), capture nicely the fun aspect of this religious game.

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I’m sure it is the jolliness of smashing something and scrambling around for goodies that makes older Mexicans remember piñata with fondness rather than the catalogue of the seven deadly sins and the triumph of Faith over Evil. In fact, at some point it seems to me that the piñata lost much of its religious connotations and simply became a game to play at parties, and at the same time there was a switch from a ceramic pot to hold the goodies to one made of papier-mâché or cardboard – no doubt fond mothers were worried about having their dear ones and those of their neighbors showered with pottery shards during the children’s parties they organized.
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Indeed, I have this vague memory of a similar game being played at the birthday party of one of my son’s friends years ago in Italy. By the way, for those of you who like me are fond of useless facts, the Spaniards borrowed the piñata from the Italians, where it was called pignatta. And it seems that the ultimate source of the custom was China, although how it got from the Middle Kingdom to Italy is a bit of a mystery to me (my sources suggest Marco Polo, but he gets mentioned whenever no-one has a good idea how things got transmitted from China to Europe).

In any event, it now looks like the piñata is morphing into a simple Christmas decoration. I certainly don’t think that all the piñatas we’ve seen hung up are there to be bashed vigorously with a stick. In this new identity they have become the equivalent of those stars which seem such a popular Christmas street decoration.
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Soon, they will morph once more, becoming tame Christmas tree decorations. Indeed, if this Christmas tree at one of Mexico City’s bus stations is anything to go by, the morphing has started already.
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From reverent offering to the sun god to cheesy decoration on a Christmas tree, the fall has been long and hard.

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Piñata: my photo
Huitzilpochtli: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/cb/Huitzilopochtli_telleriano.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huitzilopochtli)
Franciscan monk hitting piñata: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piñata#/image/File:MonkPiñataAcolman1.JPG (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piñata)

pix from the museo de arte popular: mine

Children hitting a piñata: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Posadas#/image/File:Las_Posadas_Pinata.jpg (in http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Las_Posadas)

Christmas street decorations: http://wallpaperest.com/wallpapers/street-outdoor-christmas-decorations_074228.jpg (in http://toplowridersites.com/iphone-5-38528-christmas-christmas-street-decoration-jpg/)

piñata on Christmas tree: my picture