Veracruz Chronicles

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Mark was invited to join a poety club. He had to write a poem to vanilla...though he had his doubts, I think he did a good job. He will read his poem Saturday night in front of the mural across from the central park.

What should I venture to call you
--I, an Odysseus part-gringo and part-chilango
Never a laborer in your vineyards,
Pen in hand instead of shovel or machete?
What to say to you?

I will venture nontheless, and call you
Aromatic siren of the land of my birth
Yes, a siren,
For having called me here again
--Or, better yet, for having called us here--
My head being silvered a tad by the snows of time
And my children's heads with their Viking hair,
Small pacifist Vikings
Invading your palm-trees and your plazas with Nordic vowels.

And, besides being siren,
I call you furtive fellow-wanderer.
For I believe- if I am not mistaken-
That I've see you in some African port
In the company of French tradesmen,
And among the Indonesian archipelago.

But, when it's all said and done,
You don't belong to the French colonies, nor the Dutch, not to Coca-Cola.
Your aroma was made to mingle
With the music of Cri-Cri
The voice of Negrete, Mexico lindo y querido...
The murmur of the mockingbirds
And the daring of your Voladores.

I know this because I, too, after so much wandering
Have come to find repose
Among the murmur of the singing cricket
The plazas, the palm trees and the mockingbirds.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Todos Santos en Papantla

Day of the Dead is actually a week of preparation for two evenings of celebration in the cemetaries and throughout communities. While some descriptions focus on the ´´morbid´aspect of the tradition, I see it as more comparable with Memorial day in the U.S., perhaps with a bit of Thanksgiving thrown in (not to mention the ocassional mariachi...) The traditions here in Papantla (I got the feeling that the celebration varies greatly by region and locale) were focused on the food preparations (bread, tamales, chocolate) and the construction of altars. There were not sugar skulls in town, this must be more of a Oaxaca tradition.

The weekend before, families started organizing to make the tamales, bread and chocolate. I was invited to make tamales with Edna´s mother and sister.

Pan muerto

The tamales from Papantla are quite a bit different than we are used to. They begin with a masa that is liquid and are steamed in a banana leaf. When they are being made, you really wonder how they will ever set up with all the liquid, but they do, mostly. The end product is much more watery than the firm, spongy masa of more common tamales.
Pan muerto

Making chocolate is another big event here. They begin with the cacao beans, of which there are two qualities (black and red). They toast the beans on a comal to loosen the skins. After removing the skins, they grind the bean with sugar and canela (Mexican cinnamon). The chocolate is then patted into disks or figures to put on the altar. I did not get to do this, as it has to be done on a dry day and we got rained out. But our friend Thelma is going to teach me as soon as we have a dry spell. The disks can be seen in this photo, in a cacerola on the altar.
Naranjas y chocolate

The bread here in Papantla is made in fire fueled mud or brick ovens. I have just begun to discover this and am making a small investigation into this. I am finding that the street venders are selling this type of bread. My friend Bernardo took me to a panaderia (bakery) the other night where they are baking in an oven as big as an igloo (I imagine, never have seen an igloo up close...). They have agreed that I can return for a baking lesson, so more on this at another time.

The altars were fabulous. I don't remember the same emphasis on altars in Chiapas when we were there for Todos Santos. We are thinking this must be the speciality of this area (town?). The school made a collective altar on the playground and in the center of town, various organizations and the secondary schools made altars for public view. It was interesting to walk around and the children were curious about the offerings and decorations. The idea is not so morbid, really a memorial, as you put things on the altar that the person you are honoring enjoyed (they seem to focus on a recent passing).

Municipal altar

Below is the altar in the main church, notice the vanilla vines embroidered on the vestment.
Altar in the main cathedral

The cemetary reminded me of memorial day in the states, but with the pot luck at the cemetary instead of back at home. When we first walked through the gates, I was struck by the smell of burning wax, frying pancakes and wet paint (many families use this day to repaint concrete). We walked through the sites, my companions greeting friends and family. We stopped in front of various plots, placed flowers, said a prayer. At B´s fathers plot, we talked about him, what he enjoyed about life, funny stories. B hired a band to play a ranchero and the children laughed and danced a bit. Willa was happy she went along and Ansel said he thought Mexican cemetaries were a lot of fun, ¨They´re not scary at all, mom. I really like them. Hey, can I have a cotton candy?¨

Asi es la vida...the week after everyone talks about how much weight they've gained from the daily tamales and chocolate and the cemetary is awash with color.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Pictures are better than words

or at least they will have to do at this point, as I am swamped with work and do not have time to write. I did get the Todos Santos photos loaded onto Flickr. Click on a photo below and you will b redirected to our photo album there.

Of note, Willa is going to the regional competition as a pentathalonist! Dec. 3rd in Poza Rica. She won second place in the county was her first time to throw a soft ball or try the high jump. This is a good year for her.

I start traveling with the government extension program tomorrow. I hope to see all 40 farmers groups in the next two months. I promise an accounting of Todos Santos by Thursday.