El Maratón Guadalupe Reyes: Leave Your Running Shoes at Home

IMG_5219Living in San Carlos, Mexico is in many ways like peeling an onion.  I do not mean that I cry a lot.  Quite the opposite, actually.  With each new layer, something I did not know before is revealed.  I was always a big fan of those “aha moments” in my classroom.  How genuinely lucky I am to have them now myself, almost daily.  And while not everything I learn is mind blowing, life changing, or save the world important, this life long learner appreciates each and every opportunity to experience something new about Mexico, its people, and their culture.

For example, last week marked the beginning of El Maratón Guadalupe Reyes.  What?!  Is this a race?  A shopping event?  Another celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe?  It just so happens that it is even better than all of those things.  Guadalupe Reyes marks the time period between the Feast Day de La Virgin de Guadalupe on December 12 and El Día de los Tres Reyes on January 6.  Basically, a month long party of never ending special days!  How did I miss this last year?!  I am so excited to know about it now!

Guadalupe Reyes reminds me of the time period in the U.S.A. between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  More than time spent getting ready for one big celebration on Christmas morning, however, Guadalupe Reyes is about getting together with friends and family for food filled parties, one after another, every day!

Here in Guaymas, the word posada is used to describe any Christmas celebration. IMG_0373
Between December 13-15, my husband attended four Posadas!  Many of his friends made it to even more than that!  El Maratón had officially begun.  Steve enjoyed special Christmas tamales, beans, stews, and sweets at each Posada that he has attended.  A typical Christmas tamal made in Guaymas includes shredded beef, potatoes, onions, chilis, and one green olive.  I may not have attended a Posada, but I am certainly enjoying my share of tamales thanks to all of Steve’s leftovers.  There are many jokes made this time of year about the amount of weight gained during Guadalupe Reyes.  Maybe I am fortunate to have a smaller social circle!

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Further south in Mexico, Posadas will be held nightly from December 16-December 24.  These are more religious in nature.  These nine days of celebration are called the “novena” and signify the nine months that Mary was pregnant with Jesus.  The word posada means “lodging” or “inn”.  The celebrations begin with a procession, led by a couple dressed as Mary and Joseph, through neighborhoods and communities.  Participants carry lighted candles and sing as they weave their way through the streets.  The procession stops at prearranged homes or “posadas”.  A song is sung asking the owner for lodging.  Several times each evening the procession is told “No, there is no room”.   Finally, the group is accepted into a home.  After a prayer around the nativity, a celebration with music, food, sweets, Christmas punch and hot chocolate begins.  There is always a piñata for the children.  The traditional piñata is star-shaped.  The star has seven points, each one representing one of the seven deadly sins.

IMG_0400Piñatas are popular at Christmas time no matter where you live in Mexico.  And truthfully, it does not matter how old you are either.  Steve’s company hosts a Posada for all of its employees each year.  There is always a piñata.  And there are always at least 500+ adults diving onto the floor grabbing candy once it breaks!

Enjoy your special holiday time and traditions with friends and family.  Keep Calm and Guadalupe Reyes, amigos!

Get In My Belly!

thumbnail-5It seemed like no sooner than we returned home from Guaymas for the Christmas Parade, we turned around and went back.  This time we were there for El Festival del Camarón, the Shrimp Festival.  Guaymas is a shrimp fishing port and very well known for the abundance of and the size of shrimp caught in the waters of the Sea of Cortez along its coast.  The season typically begins in September, and its length is determined by the government, so as not to deplete the supply.  Throughout the fall, many men leave their “day jobs” for the opportunity to earn some fast cash.  Fishermen appear in the parking lots of area grocery stores and on street corners selling their shrimp.  The stalls along the main street in Empalme and fish markets in Guaymas are filled with fresh shrimp catches.  This is definitely a good time for a shrimp eater in Sonora!

So, of course, there is a festival to celebrate not only shrimp, but also the fisherman who bring it to us.  The Visitors Center in San Carlos arranged for a shuttle to take hungry, shrimp loving folks like us to the malecón in Guaymas for the hoopla.  Steve and I had never taken a shuttle with the Center before, and I have to admit it was very nice to not have to worry about traffic or parking downtown.  We were able to buy our shrimp tasting tickets on the bus.  This meant no standing in line for them once we arrived.  We jumped off the bus and started sampling immediately!

There were about six local restaurants participating and even a cooking school!  Anything that could be made with shrimp was available for tasting.  We sampled chile rellenos with shrimp, empanadas, machaca, shrimp lasagna, ceviche, and fresh, made right in front of us, corn tortillas overflowing with shrimp, cheese, and vegetables.  (I feel a little bit like Bubba from the Forest Gump movie.)  I discovered a new to me restaurant and found myself in line for their creation more than once.  One restaurant even included rice, salad, and a dinner roll with its offering.  Needless to say, our eyes were bigger then our stomachs, and we passed on some of our extra tickets to a vender, who had just happened to sell us a beautiful handmade basket earlier in the day.

Musicians entertained the crowd from a center stage.  The highlight, however, was the folkloric thumbnail-1dancers.  Wow!  Wearing traditional, brightly colored dresses women were spun across the dance “floor” by their partners.  It was impossible to hold still during the energetic displays.  The audience was caught up in the excitement, clapping, stomping, and trilling.  Even the festival characters dressed in salsa bottle costumes got into the act, dancing with the onlookers.  For a moment I forgot that I was in the middle of a bustling city, imaging myself at a boda del campo, or country wedding, instead.

Venders mingled amongst the crowd selling cotton candy, chamoy apples, churros, elote, and other festival favorites- -just in case you were there for something other than shrimp.  (And yes, I was seriously tempted by the churros but passed this time.)  Children begged parents for balloons and other popular festival toys available.  There were blankets, baskets, embroidered blouses, and other typical handicrafts for sale.  Steve and I visited the Christmas tree and other holiday decorations displayed on the malecón without the overwhelming crowds from the night before.  This also gave us ample opportunity to walk off our lunch!

thumbnailAll too soon it was time to board the bus for our return home.  It is no secret that San Carlos is an expat retirement community.  Therefore, many of its residents are just a wee bit older than the two of us.  We had barely left the parking lot when Steve and I noticed that many of our fellow passengers had nodded off, revealing just one more benefit of taking the shuttle!

Christmas Spirit on Parade

thumbnailI had been bouncing off of the walls all week!  A friend shared with me that there was a Desfile Navideño, a Christmas Parade, happening in Guaymas Friday night.  Unfortunately, she shared this on Tuesday, so I had almost the entire week to wait.  In the meantime, I also learned there would be a Christmas tree lighting on the malecón after the parade.  Suffice to say, come Friday night I was a bundle of energetic glee!  I was ready to burst.  Steve was being a very good sport.

The parade was scheduled to start at 4:30 pm, so Santa hats in tow, I picked Steve up from work about 3:45.  Navigating Guaymas on ordinary days can still be a struggle for us, so we wanted to give ourselves plenty of time to get lost and found if needed.  As the main avenue into El Centro was already closed to traffic coming into Guaymas from our direction, the challenge was definitely on!  The way Steve and I navigated the detour (without the benefit of detour signs) was nothing short of a miracle.  As far as I was concerned, the night was already a success based on this accomplishment alone.

thumbnail-4We found a parking spot and were seated on the curb with time to spare.  It was then I discovered that Steve “forgot” his Santa hat.  Unbeknown to us at the time, we could have easily made it to the truck and back (and eaten dinner and finished our Christmas shopping) before the parade actually began.  Because that 4:30 parade did not start until 7:00!

It seemed there was a leak somewhere in the traffic blockade because the cars kept coming.  And most of the cars were full of costumed children, um parade participants, heading to the starting point long after the scheduled starting time.  The Spanish phrase “ni modo” (oh well) was definitely applicable here.  The wait did not dampen the excitement, as children played with light up toys, chased down balloon venders, and enjoyed churros y Cheetos con chamoy, jamoncillo, banderillas, papas, manzanas, gomas, paletas, and dulce de algodón. It was a pre-Christmas Parade Food Parade!

Finally, it was time!  We were entertained by a marching band, baton twirlers, floats, elves on stilts, and lots of twinkling lights.   Santa appeared for the first time in our section around 7:30.  Literally every single child and his parents ran into the street to get a picture with Santa.  We thought the parade had ended several times because there were these huge lulls in the action.  Only after witnessing the Santa picture frenzy, did we realize that this was the reason for the hold up.  Because it happened every time there was a Santa, and there were a lot of Santas!

Pickup trucks hauling generators for light and music shows preceded the performing school groups. Students wore adorable Christmas themed outfits and danced to hip hop Christmas songs, like “Yes, everybody knows (ra-pa-pum-pum)  We will take off our clothes (ra-pa-pum-pum)  Light you up, put you on top  Let’s fa la la la la, la la la la (let’s go)!”  I am still processing the sweet angels, reindeers, and elves performing to this.  And to be honest, I am still laughing about it too.

Once the parade officially ended, Steve and I headed to the malecón for the tree lighting.  thumbnailOur first stop was a hot dog vender.  The snack we bought to enjoy during the wait, er, parade had long worn off, and we were starving.  We just had time to scarf those down before the countdown began.  I am guessing that even the event organizers were exhausted by this point and wanted to move things along.

After the tree was lit, fireworks exploded over the Sea of Cortez.  It was incredible!  I may have had a little tear in my eye- -either from excitement or the fact that my butt was still numb from sitting so long at the parade.  The last ash had not even touched the ground, and Steve was turning away to head for the truck.  His “ni modo” had got up and gone!

And I heard him exclaim as we drove out of sight, “Please, dear God, I hope she invites a friend to go with her next year.”

Offerings of Love

Who does not love a good festival?  Great food, music, displays, and handicrafts…  They offer a little something for everyone and a lot of opportunity to learn more about local customs and traditions.  And while many towns and cities throughout Mexico are finalizing months worth of plans for community Día de Muertos celebrations, the most important and meaningful of these preparations take place at home.

It is believed that at midnight on October 31, and again, on November 1, the gates of heaven open for a 24 hour period.  At this time, the souls of the departed may return to visit with their loved ones here earth.  There is a belief that the dead provide their families protection, good luck, and wisdom from beyond the grave.  Therefore, souls are welcomed home in grand fashion.  Families erect altars in honor of the deceased.  These altars are not shrines, rather, they are ofrendas, or offerings, designed to lead the spirits home.

There is rich symbolism in each of the items included in the ofrenda.  These vary regionally, depending on the local customs, traditions, and/or the availability of special foods, drinks, and flowers.  Cost even factors in; some families may spend two month’s worth of earnings!

Ofrendas  have two, three, or seven levels, representing earth, heaven, purgatory, and/or the steps necessary to reach

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Ofrenda welcoming the soul of Buz, by his wife, Patty
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The ofrenda displayed in my home

heaven.  Photographs of the deceased are prominently featured.  Flowers, whose strong scents and bright colors are believed to guide the way, are arranged on the ofrendas.  Some people, use petals from the flowers to create pathways from the door to the altar, extra insurance that loved ones do not lose their way.    Baby’s Breath is often used on altars of children; symbolizing innocence and purity.  Cempasuchil, orange marigolds, are another popular choice.   These flowers are native to Mexico and were used by the Aztecs during funeral ceremonies.  Other popular flowers include cockscombs, hoary stock, chrysanthemums, and gladiolas.  Copal incense is burned, providing another sweet fragrance, and candles illuminate the way.

Papel picado, or chiseled paper, is a folk art that originated in the town of Puebla.  Artists used papel de China (tissue paper) to create paper ornaments, lamp shades, and other artworks.  By the 1920’s, artisans were displaying and distributing paper flags they made by “chiseling” designs on the tissue paper.  Papel picado is used for numerous special occasions today, including Día de Muertos.  Ofrendas include papel picado flags decorated with Catrinas, skeletons, and other religious icons.

 

Families often include water (to quench the thirst of the soul after its long journey), salt (it acts as a purifier), personal items of the deceased (tools, books, cigarettes), crosses, statues of La Virgin de Guadalupe and other patron saints, and decorations like incense burners, figurines of skeletons or skulls, and candy skulls made of sugar or chocolate.  These items personalize the altar for the person being remembered and help each soul feel welcomed and calm.

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Ofrenda in honor of Frida Kahlo, designed by students at Secundaria de La Manga

In the early evening hours, preceding the midnight return, foods (served only on very special occasions due to cost) and drinks are added to the offrendas.  Turkey with mole sauce, tamales, tortillas, hot chocolate, tequila, fruits, and pan de muerto, a sweet bread baked as an offering to the dead, are arranged on the altars.  The soul’s journey from heaven is long, and the food and drink provide nourishment upon its arrival.  After the soul has enjoyed the “essence” of the meal, family members share the treats.  Sometimes entire communities come together to share and celebrate together.

November 2 is spent at the cemetery.  The majority in Mexico are public, meaning there are no caretakers to maintain the grounds and keep the areas tidy.  Families gather to clean the gravesite by pulling weeds, planting flowers, and cutting back grasses.  After the hard work is over, they enjoy a picnic style meal together, often to the music of mariachi bands.

Cemeteries and death are not seen as scary, dark, or creepy.  The bright colors, loud music, pleasing smells, and delicious food evoke feelings of happiness, love and togetherness.  Día de Muertos is my very favorite of all Mexican celebrations for this reason.  I can not help but be filled with excitement over the idea of a bonus visit from my grandparents and father-in-law.

And in true “teacher fashion” I have gone on much too long.  Surely, it is time for “recess”.  Or a shot of that tequila sitting on the altar!

The “After” Party

thumbnailIt seems odd to see jack-o-lanterns, spider webs, black cats, and witches’ hats on display in the stores and restaurants throughout Guaymas and San Carlos.  Día de Muertos, is Mexico’s most popular holiday, and I fully expected that it would have more influence in my little town than it seems to.  I have learned, however, that due to Sonora’s proximity to the U.S. border, and greater access to images via television and social media, Halloween has become increasingly popular.  Residents in our state, as well as those in many border states, adopt more American traditions  There are more Halloween costumes and treat bags on sale at the local Walmart than calaveras, Catrinas, and candles.  Día de Muertos is still widely celebrated in the central and southern states of Mexico where there is a greater indigenous presence, and less American influence.

In 2003, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) proclaimed Día de Muertos as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.  Intangible Cultural Heritage refers to traditions that are passed down through the generations via arts, storytelling, performance, and rituals associated with nature and the universe.  I was determined to ignore the Halloween trappings (especially the chocolate) and focus on learning more about and celebrating Día de Muertos.

Hundreds of years ago, the Aztecs celebrated a festival during August in honor of
Mictecacihuatl, a goddess who served as guardian of the dead.  After Spanish colonization and due to the influence of the Catholic Church, ancient religious traditions were combined with Catholic ones.  Today, the festival coincides with All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.  It is believed that at midnight on October 31 (Día de los Angelitos), the gates of heaven open so that the souls of deceased children come down from above and reunite with their families for a 24 hour period.  At midnight on November 1, the souls of deceased adults  rejoin their loved ones.

Día de Muertos is not a sad, scary time.  The tradition is described beautifully by Christina Preiss when she says, “The first death you die is when you stop breathing, the second when you are buried in the earth, the third is when the last person here forgets you. So this traditions ensures you never die the third death and your family member comes back and is always with you.”  Families remember the best of times and the very best of the people they have lost with bright colors, beautiful flowers, candles, incense, music, and favorite foods, drinks, and toys.  Many families spend the equivalent of more than two month of their salaries on preparations for this holiday, decorating altars and planning celebrations at grave sites.

One of the most recognizable figures in Día de Muertos festivities is La Catrina.thumbnail-17.jpeg  Designed by José Guadalupe Posada in 1910, La Calavera Catrina, became the symbol of the Mexican Revolution and “death” of the privileged class.  Today she represents the idea that everyone is equal in death.   Catrina Parades and/or Festivales de las Calacas are held in many cities and towns throughout Mexico.  By dressing up, participants hope to ward off death, tricking her into believing they are already dead.

And fortunately, in spite of all the Halloween excitement, Guaymas is hosting a Festival de la Calaca this coming weekend!  I will continue with this same theme in my next article, sharing information about the elaborate atlars and gravesite visits.  But for now, I need to add the finishing touches to my Catrina costume!

 

A Fairytale Birthday with Wishes for a Happy Ever After

Our son, Caleb, turns 23 this Sunday.  Not the most exciting of ages, for sure.  He will likely spend the day in the law library or with his study group preparing for the busy week ahead. Hopefully there will be cake at some point.  Caleb preferred small, family parties when he was younger, as opposed to big bashes with lots of friends.  We marked some of the most significant birthdays with annoying themes.  When he turned sixteen, everyone brought him a Matchbox car to unwrap.  (I think he is still mad about that one.)  We celebrated his eighteenth with the Stars and Stripes, in honor of his registering with Selective Services and being eligible to vote.  At twenty-one he received shot glasses.  For the most part, these were quiet affairs, celebrated at home, with the people he was closest to.

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Felicidades Presa Family!

So I could not have been more thrilled when our friend, Alfredo, invited us to attend his daughter’s Quinceañera.  This was going to be the party of the century!  A Quinceañera is a special celebration throughout Latin America (and today in the United States) held in honor of a girl’s fifteenth birthday, similar to a Debutante Ball or Sweet Sixteen, something a boy mom does not get to experience.  In Mexico, during Aztec and Mayan times, a young woman was presented to her community for marriage at this age.  Today, a Quinceañera commemorates the transition of a girl from her childhood to young womanhood, combining the traditions of ancient cultures and the Catholic Church, minus the being ready to marry part.  (Which I am certain Alfredo appreciated.)

The church is where most quince celebrations begin.  In a special mass for the young IMG_4361woman, her quince court, parents, padrinos, (godparents), and other family members stand witness as the birthday girl reconfirms her commitment to God and receives a special blessing from the priest.  The young woman may wear a tiara at this time, symbolizing her morality.  She leaves a bouquet of flowers, a token of her purity, at the alter or near the statue of Mexico’s patron saint, la Virgen de Guadalupe.

After the more private church ceremony, friends and family gathered at the Casino Naval in Guaymas, located on a peninsula in the Sea of Cortez   Mind you, this all started about the time I usually get ready to go to bed!  From this venue, guests were afforded stunning views of the city, sea, and mountains.  But not one of those views compared to the beauty of Esther on her day.  She positively glowed in her full length princess dress.

When she was not on the arm of her father, who radiated nothing but pride, she was attended to by her court of damas and chambelanes.  The court is selected by the birthday girl and numbers from as many as 28 male and female attendees to as few as one male attendant.  The most important role the court plays in the Quinceañera is participation in the Baile Sopresa, a surprise dance, that some courts spend up to six months learning and practicing.

Before there was any dancing, we enjoyed numerous Quinceañera traditions.  Esther’s father removed her tennis shoes and replaced them with her first pair of high heels.  Alfredo created new traditions for the two of them as well, giving Esther sentimental gifts that reminded him of different times the two shared as she was growing up.  For example, as a baby and small child, Esther often woke up at night wanting cereal.  This was a bonding time for the two of them, and Alfredo presented Esther with a gift of the same cereal that  the pair snacked on late at night.

And then the dancing!  Alfredo and Esther enjoyed a father-daughter waltz that brought many to tears.  Esther also danced with her mother.  If you were not crying after her dance with dad, you were for sure as she danced with mom!  Surrounded by her friends on the dance floor, Esther tossed a doll into the group.  This tradition symbolizes the moving away from childlike playthings and embracing more grown up pursuits and interests.  After a waltz with her padrinos, other family members, and her court, we were treated to the Baile Sopresa.  As a klutz with absolutely no musical talent, this alone would have caused me to strongly consider skipping the entire quince, even if there was a princess dress involved!  Kudos to the young dancers for their wonderful performance.

At least a hundred tables surrounded a circular dance floor.  Each was decorated in Esther’s “colors”.  Bowls of totopitos, salsas, and nuts were continuously filled.  Treats of vegetables, salchichas, and queso kept us energized as we danced to music provided by Spectrum, a mobile DJ company.  Disco lights, big screens, and smoke added to the festive atmosphere.  A special toast was made in Ester’s honor and partygoers enjoyed delicious cake that looked almost too pretty to eat.

thumbnailToddlers and small children outlasted me!  We made our way home around 1:30 in the morning.  When we left, there was no sign of the party stopping any time soon.  Food and drink continued to flow, dance music pounded from the speakers, friends and family laughed and danced.

It was an honor to have been invited to Esther’s Quinceañera and celebrate with her family and friends.  I had done quite a bit of research before the big day, and I am glad I did.  It was much more meaningful for me knowing the history of this rite of passage.  But the studying in no way prepared me for the magic that unfolded each step of the way.  And I could not help feeling a little guilty about the Matchbox prank, especially after experiencing this!  Wow!  And so many low key birthday parties…  Um, maybe 23 will be a big deal after all!

(Photos courtesy of Spectrum Disco Móvil and the Presa Family)