A dip into the culture of the Mexican people

This was posted by my friend, Brian. It is the sort of cultural exploration I wish I saw more of. Of course we want to teach the high-points of the culture of the TL: the great literature, music, art, philosophy, and so on. But how well can we understand what makes this high art “high” and its sources if we don’t understand the quotidian culture out of which it sprang? It hasn’t been very long that we’ve even used the work culture to refer to what used to be called customs and mores or folkways. This derives, in my understanding of European artistic and intellectual history, from the fact that the aristocracy leaped borders, sharing European high culture to a large degree. The culture of the masses of peasants had little to do with this, or so it seemed.

It was left up to the perspicacious artist like Leo Tolstoy to see the roots of high culture in the culture of the peasants; witness the scene where Natasha “instinctively” responds to Russian folk music out of her Russian “soul”, despite having been raised speaking French and living in the cosmopolitan and Gallicized world of Moscow. Tolstoy was asking us how we can understand Glazunov or Pushkin without understanding the Russian soul.

Here is Brian’s lively description of his most recent trip to Mexico.

Queridos colegas,

I went to Lobatos, Zacatecas, after Christmas to greet the new year with friends there.
I really want to share with you every sunset, every shade of orange of the sunsets, every nuance in the tastes of mole eaten in the market place of Zacatecas, the shy smile of the quinceañera I danced with, every new word, dicho, and joke, and the list goes on an on. But writing is an act of selection, and thus, I will share the following:

Every morning Eliza Bracamontes, age 70 something, puts two or three tomatoes and two or three large chiles on a flat pan over a low flame on the kitchen stove. They will become the salsa for the day’s meals or part of the ingredients for a dish. One way or the other they will be used, so on to the pan and over the flame they go. Later, after their skins have been loosened by the scorching, Mrs. Bracamontes will peel both the tomatoes and the chiles at the kitchen table.

One morning as I enter the kitchen from outside I comment, “Uuu. Huele bien aquí,” (oh, it smells good here) and Mrs. Bracamontes and one of the sons laugh in a surprised way. I think this is because Mexican men, that is, those in this region and social class, do not normally announce their delight in something sensual (with the exception of a passing woman), and I had “broken” this rule.

Now, as Mrs. Bracamontes sips her camomile tea, one of the sons–Carlos, my host, Lano, or Edgar–passes through the kitchen on his way to the corral a couple of blocks away. He will feed two horses, one white and one brown, that are kept within stout stone walls (piled stones) built from the ruins of a former hacienda. The hacienda and its lands had been divided among peasants as the result of the efforts of men like General Emiliano Zapata during Mexico’s revolution between 1910 and 1920.

The Bracamontes’ home and corrals are in Lobatos, Zacatecas, about five hours north of Guadalajara. I’m here because they’ve been inviting me for the last three years. Last year the economy kept Carlos and Lano in Arizona and thus rescinded the invitation. Carlos and Lano are the brothers-in-law of my neighbor Luis Garcia, and the brothers of his wife Chila (Isidra). We’ve gotten to know each other and to hang out together over the past six or seven years.

One of the things Carlos and Lano have wanted me to see is a coleadera. This is a contest in which riders compete to see who can tumble the most bulls. Colear means to tumble a bull by pulling his tail–sort of. It is a multi-skilled performance requiring strength, lots of experience, and great horsemanship. The rider and the horse wait for a steel gate to open, when the bull charges out and they crowd it to the right-hand wall. The rider leans down and grabs the running bull’s tail, then quickly wraps the tail around his right leg, makes his horse speed up faster than the bull and pull to the left. This movement brings the bull’s butt and hind legs forward. If the rider lets go of the tail at the right instant, the bull will fall, sliding on his butt or rolling over in a cloud of dust or spray of mud, depending on the weather. The bull struggles to his feet, then walks, then runs for safety. The rider and horse have come to a clomping halt in front of the grandstand. Here three girls take turns tying bright ribbons over the riders’ right shoulder and under their left armpit and pinning a little bow on the riders’ sleeves. This day Carlos won six ribbons and his friend Miguel won eight–before the girls ran out of ribbons.

On the afternoon of the second coleadera I watched, I was given the job of videotaping. Carlos, Lano, and Lano’s son, Jorge, would be “colear-ing,” tumbling bulls. (Jorge graduated from the high school just down the road from my house and is completely bi-lingual.) I took my place in the grandstand next to the band. The band plays nearly non-stop music during the coleadera. The instruments are two or three trombones, two or three clarinets, two or three trumpets, a bass drum, and two snare drums (la batería). In addition to full songs, the band plays various fanfares when the riders come up to receive their ribbons. The band leader, on trumpet, is Mrs. Bracamontes’ brother, Don Refugio Ramirez. He has taught over sixty of the town’s musicians to play their instrument, including Carlos, my friend and the person who invited me to Lobatos.

There is also an announcer, Mrs. Bracamontes’ brother, Don Eliseo Ramirez. He keeps us posted on who did or did not succeed in tumbling a bull, interspersing these observations with a kind of “folklore” (the Mexican term) like the following: “We want to ask Señor Manuel Pitones to come up and accept a bottle of tequila donated by so-and-so. We also remind him that the bottle is for him and the tequila is for us.” And, “Do you remember last year when Don Rufo García saw his brother carrying a bottle half full of tequila? He told his brother ‘Cuida tu salud, hermano.’ (Take care of your health, brother.) And his brother answered, ‘Salud!’ (Here’s to health.)“

* * * * * *
One day for lunch (the afternoon comida), four of us men went to near-by Valparaiso for tacos. There are about seven taquerías in Valparaiso. Before choosing a taquería, Carlos suggested we drive to the section of town where the taqueros live. There were several relatively expensive homes, stuccoed, brightly painted in green, yellow, or pink, with metal grates on the windows and heavy metal gates on the surrounding walls.

* * * * * *
On December 30, we went to a small town up the mountain for a quinceañera. The Ramirez band–Don Refugio, five of his sons (all very handsome), eight nephews, one person on tuba who is not a family member, and Don Eliseo singing and announcing–were hired to supply the music. There were three quinceañeras, twins and their cousin, in bright ball gowns. The dance area was the dirt back yard. Their house was made of stones and adobe bricks. It was very cold out, and the girls wore jackets over their dress tops. I had heard the band at a wedding in a dance hall and on stage at a festival; here at the quinceañera the sound system worked the best I had heard it. The music of that night was the most beautiful of all the times I heard the band.

The men at the quienceañera dress in basic cowboy clothing, and boots are requisite. A very pointy boot, worn by about one in ten men, really shows off a man’s dancing prowess. Some women also wear them. Most of the women are dressed very elegantly; they would look completely at home in a classy U.S. department store. The contrast between the boot-and-jean clad men and the elegant women is striking.

* * * * *
New Year’s Eve was both the usual party and a birthday observance for Don Eliseo. I found myself, as I do so many times in Mexico, completely underdressed for the occasion. An old master of the piano brought a Yamaha organ to Don Eliseo’s house and Carlos, Don Eliseo, and several others sang old Mexican favorites for all of us. About 11 p.m. we were all served two tamales–one with chicken and a very hot green sauce and one with beef and a tasty red sauce. Then we were served leg of pork, salad, and mashed potatoes. When Don Eliseo’s daughter and daughter-in-law brought in the dessert, we all began to laugh–because no one had room left for dessert. At midnight everyone hugged everyone, and all of us were home and in bed by 1 a.m.

* * * * *
HOW I GOT THERE AND HOW I CAME BACK. I went to Fresnillo, Zacatecas, from Phoenix, AZ, on a very modern bus, leaving Saturday, December 26. The ticket cost $120. There was one thing not working on the otherwise wonderful bus: The heat would not come on and the refrigeration was on low. I seemed to be the only one on the bus who hadn’t got the memo to carry your own blanket. It was coldest in El Paso/Juarez, where snow had fallen the previous two days.

We arrived in Juarez at about 2 a.m., and one of the drivers announced to the passengers that we all needed to pony up $20 a piece to pay the Mexican border inspector–unless we wanted to get out of the bus and stand by our unloaded luggage while it was checked. It took about five minutes for him to collect $560 from the passengers. We were all relieved to move on through the border checkpoint without getting out. Unlike I was promised there would be, there was no place nor chance for me to fill out a form for a Mexican visa.

My return trip, Sunday and Monday, Jan. 3 and 4, was on an even nicer, more modern, bus of the Chihuahuenses line. There were three large TV monitors on which we watched six movies in twenty hours. They were all American films, dubbed in Spanish (the Hulk, In the Land of Women, an Indiana Jones feature, Hancock, and I forget the other two). I had a blanket this time, my old woolen poncho; and it was needed, too, because the refrigeration could not be turned off. Otherwise the bus was really beautiful. See the pictures at http://www.flickr.com/photos/bebarabe. This bus took me from Fresnillo to Nogales. We went through Durango and Chihuahua by night. The flatness of Chihuahua makes small towns look like long strings of bright diamonds–as opposed to clusters of stars like the small towns on hillsides in Michoacán.

The final leg of my trip was a three-hour van trip from Nogales to my front door in Chandler, AZ. This is 160 miles for $30, with eight other passengers. Compare that to the $55 taxi fee I paid from my hotel in Denver to the airport. And for you who like these details, here are some interesting statistics: About 20 or more buses, with at least 50 passengers each, all with papers, travel from Nogales to Phoenix daily. That’s at least 1,000 persons entering the country legally. In addition to those, five or six companies send off a van every forty-five minutes from Nogales to Phoenix. Several others send vans from Agua Prieta to Phoenix. That’s more than 1,250 per day, entering legally, with papers. Now add larger numbers from Juarez and Tijuana, and many other towns along the U.S.-Mexican border, and figure in buses and vans going from American cities to Mexican cities. Then try to factor in hundreds or thousands of private vehicles. You begin to get a picture of the huge ebb and flow of Mexican and Mexican-American citizens back and forth between the cities in the border states.

P.S. I was never asked on either side of the border to show my passport or my nonexistent visa.

Brian Barabe

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