Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reverse Culture Shock!

I must confess. Since returning from Mexico this past weekend, I have been experiencing a moderate case of reverse culture shock, or as my son Maxwell calls it, "counter-culture shock".
Culture shock is the psychological disorientation one experiences when living or working in another culture. Reverse culture shock happens when you come home.

"Reverse culture shock results from being re-exposed to a familiar environment after being away from it for a period of time. For some, the experience is more intense than initial culture shock. Frequently, many experience feelings of frustration at re-adapting to the home environment (Peace Corps Worldwide)."

Max had a particularly stubborn case of reverse culture shock when he returned from a summer study program in Spain several years ago. He was irritable, moody and quite critical of American culture. He told me, "Spanish restaurants charge for bread, but give you a free bottle of wine with dinner! American restaurants should do the same!" (Not a bad idea, I thought--at least for us, but maybe not for the restaurant owner.)

I know. Wasn't I prepared for reverse culture shock? After all, I am an anthropologist. Yes, intellectually, I understand culture shock and reverse culture shock. And, I recall experiencing both when I spent a college summer study program in Ecuador. No one is immune and few are really prepared for what I call "re-entry shock".

According to the Center for Global Education, the stages of reverse culture shock are:

1. Disengagement - This happens before you even leave the foreign country, maybe a week or two before departure. You begin to realize that you must separate and say good-bye to the friends you've made abroad and to the place you briefly called home. It is not uncommon for people to feel intense feelings of sadness. This happened to me a week or two before I left Mexico. As my friend and I were watching a beautiful sunset from a rooftop terrace, my eyes suddenly and quite unexpectedly filled with tears. He understood what was happening to me, but the waiter was confused. Another close friend told me she sobbed for an hour and a half, the entire time it takes to ride from San Miguel to the Leon airport. The van driver was trying to comfort her.

2. Initial Euphoria - This is a feeling of elation and excitement at the idea of going home. I experienced this as a feeling of homesickness for my sons and colleagues and great anticipation for the return to the U.S. The length of this stage varies, but it was brief for me.

3. Irritability and Hostility - This is a difficult phase of reverse culture shock and I started feeling it when people were pushing each other to get off of the plane and talking on their cell phones. How rude, how impersonal they are. Hey, slow down, I'm on Mexican time, I thought. Then, while waiting for a connecting flight in Houston, which was delayed, I became annoyed at the Homeland Security announcement about the terrorist threat level of orange. I recall thinking, Do they really have to announce it every three minutes?! Why not every hour? This stage can also include the feeling of being a stranger at home and longing to return abroad. Yes, I've had both of those symptoms!

4. Re-adjustment and Adaptation-Gradually, one readjusts to being home. Getting back to a familiar routine and spending time with supportive family, friends and colleagues helps tremendously. I haven't fully entered this phase yet, but I am working on it!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Feet in Two Cultures

"Tolerance, intercultural dialogue and respect for diversity are more essential than ever in a world where peoples are becoming more and more closely interconnected."
-- Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations

Saying adios to Mexico, to mis amigos was bittersweet. Reuniting with my colleagues, with my Berkeley "family" today was joyous. However, adjusting to life in New Jersey will take some time. I still feel as if I have one foot in each culture. My body and mind are still on "Mexican time" and the silence here keeps me awake at night. I miss the church bells and the mariachis.

I agree with Kofi Annan that respect for diversity is essential for our survival and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico is a model for tolerance and intercultural dialogue. Of a population of around 80,000 people, at least 10,000 are Americans. It is not an easy task, but Mexicans and gringos (Americans) have had to work together side by side to preserve the city for future generations.
We can learn a great dea1 from the diverse community of San Miguel de Allende and apply it to our own communities right here in the U.S.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said that "Men hate each other because they fear each other, and they fear each other because they don't know each other, and they don't know each other because they are often separated from each other."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Atahualpa Caldera Sosa - Biologist & Watershed Expert

Atahualpa Caldera Sosa .

Atahualpa Caldera Sosa, biologist and watershed management expert, delivered a fascinating lecture to the Rotary Mid-day Club of San Miguel de Allende yesterday. I must admit that Ata has really inspired me to learn more about living sustainably. His family lives around 15 minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende on a property that is a model of sustainable living -- adobe house, solar panels, dry (compost) toilets, a windmill, solar oven, and a water collection system with filtration and a 90,000-liter cistern. Through his non-profit organization,
Grupo de Acción Ambiental Interdisciplinaria A.C., Ata offers tours and workshops on how to construct and maintain some of these alternative energy systems.

Ata received his degree in Biology from the Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Morelos (UAEM) and recently completed his Masters Degree in Watershed Management at the Universidad Autonoma de Queretaro (UAQ). Ata has participated in various workshops and seminars in Mexico and abroad in Germany and Canada. He was Coordinator of Projects concerning Natural Protected Areas, Ecotourism and Compost for Organizacion Accion y Desarrollo Ecologico A.C. He also worked for the Ecology Department in Cuernavaca and the Environmental Management Program at the University of Morelos. In San Miguel he was Coordinator of Environmental Education for Save the Laja.

Ata is also a co-producer of an award-winning documentary directed by Francesco Taboada Tabone called
13 Pueblos: en defensa del agua, el aire y la tierra (defending water, air and land), Winner of Premio Rigoberta Menchu at the Montreal 2008 People's Festival.

"In the future, wars will be fought over water, but in Mexico the war has already begun. This documentary contemplates Mexico’s destiny, telling the story of the struggle of its indigenous people to preserve their natural resources and their cultural identity (Cine Las Americas)."

Click to go to a blog for the film.

13 Pueblos - defending water, air and land

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Mexican Cinema Series

As part of the Mexican Independence celebration, Teatro Santa Ana at the Biblioteca Publica presents three great films this week, two movies representative of the Golden Age and one of the New Age.

"The outburst of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema took place in 1943. The 70 movies filmed that year proved cinema had become a true industry in Mexico. Europe and the US were busy in the war, which had freed Mexican cinema from the European influence and greatly diminished the American one. Mexican directors made their greatest effort that year; (Atencion San Miguel)".

Mexican Film Series

María Candelaria (1943) - Directed by
Emilio “Indio” Fernández
Starring Dolores del Río (of Hollywood fame) and Pedro Armendáriz
"The story of a young flower seller of Xochimilco, who is harassed by the villagers of her community for being the daughter of a prostitute. The film examines both racism against Indians in Mexico and social ostracism in the forties (Atencion San Miguel)."

Thu, Sep 17, 2pm
Fri, Sep 18, 7pm
Spanish with English subtitles

Nosotros los Pobres
(We, the Poor)
Directed in 1947 by Ismael Rodríguez
"It depicts the sorrows and difficulties of humble carpenter Pepe el Toro (Infante) and a vision of the people in the poor neighborhoods of Mexico City during the forties. Two glories of the Mexican stage and screen, Carmen Montejo and Katy Jurado (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress in 1954 for The Broken Lance) accompany Infante in this unforgettable film, seen by generations of Mexicans (Atencion San Miguel)."

Fri, Sep 18, 4pm
Spanish with English subtitles

Voces Inocentes - Directed in 2004 by Luis Mandoki
(Innocent Voices)

Jesus Ibarra of Atencion San Miguel describes this film as a "touching story of Chava, an 11-year-old boy who lives in a small village in the middle of the civil war in El Salvador. During the eighties, the government army in El Salvador recruited 12-year-old boys, taking them out of schools. Chava has only one year left of innocence, one year before he is also enrolled by the army to fight against rebels. The issue of child recruitment is a central subject in the movie. Director Mandoki said, “Nowadays, more than 300,000 kids are recruited by armies all around the world. This is one of the reasons I had for telling this story (Atencion San Miguel).”

Thu, Sep 17, 7pm
Fri, Sep 18, 1pm

Spanish with English subtitles

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Father Miguel Hidalgo - Padre de la Patria

The answer to last week's poll is: Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, Father of Mexican Independence.

Father Hidalgo was born into a middle class family in the city of Guanajuato in 1753. "He attended the Jesuit College of San Francisco Javier, received a bachelor's degree from the University of Mexico in 1774, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1778. He soon earned the enmity of the authorities, however, by openly challenging both church doctrine and aspects of Spanish rule by developing Mexican agriculture and industry" (Library of Congress: American Memory).

In 1803, Hidalgo became the priest of a small parish of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato. Between 1803 and 1810, he focused all of his attention on improving the socioeconomic conditions of the Indian and mestizo population by developing local craft industries. He also joined the Academia Literaria, a literary and political group that organized a plot to free the colony of Mexico from Spanish rule.

In the early hours of September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gathered the congregation --mostly Mestizo and Indian --of his parish church in the pueblo of Dolores and urged them to take up arms and fight for Mexico's independence from Spain. That impassioned speech, known as El Grito de Dolores, or Cry of Dolores, is celebrated and "re-enacted" in Mexico every year on September 16 as Mexican Independence Day (The Library of Congress: American Memory).

In that cry for freedom, he is believed to have said:

My Children, a new dispensation comes to us today…Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once.

El Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), attributed to Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, September 16, 1810.

Father Hidalgo was captured and executed in 1811 and Mexico would not win the war for independence until 1821.

The following video made for the 2010 Bicentenario Mexico (Mexican Bicentennial) tells the story of the 11-year war for Mexican independence.
Library of Congress - American Memory (

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Que Pasa Calendario - This Week in San Miguel!

I have a Friday morning ritual. I walk 3 blocks to the jardin, buy a copy of the bi-lingual weekly newspaper, Atencion San Miguel and sit down at my favorite cafe on the corner of the jardin and El Correo. In my opinion, they serve the best coffee in town, Illy coffee. I order two cups of coffee -- first a cafe con leche (latte), bien caliente (very hot), then an Americano (American coffee), served with a tiny pitcher of warm milk.

Then, I peruse Que Pasa, the newspaper's calendar of arts, lectures, etc. for the coming week and circle the lectures and events that I might like to attend. Since I'm on a budget, I look for free events first. There are several free arts and cultural events and social groups each week and some that cost 60 pesos ($4.60) or less, for example play readings for only 20 pesos, less than $2.

This week's Que Pasa lists all of the events for the Fiestas Patrias, the celebration of Mexican Independence!

On Sunday there is a race to commemorate the Conspiracy for Independence.

Monday, the Conspirators Horse Ride through the streets to the jardin.

Tuesday is a really big day! "El Grito" (the cry for independence) night in the jardin with the Ballet Folklorico at 8 pm.

10:45 pm: The carrying of the Mexican flag to Ignacio Allende's house.

10:55 pm, the arrival of the athletes with a symbolic Liberty Fire at the Plaza Principal

11 pm the mayor leads a ceremony of El Grito! This year the newly elected mayor, Lucy Nunez, the first woman presidenta municipal (mayor) may be the first to shout "El Grito" from the balcony of the Museo Casa de Allende followed by a spectacular display of fireworks.The grito usually acknowledges the heroes of the independence by shouting their names -- Viva Hidalgo! Viva Allende! Viva Aldama! etc. Then, shouting the name of the town, for example, Viva San Miguel de Allende! followed by Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!

My friend wondered why everyone carries a collapsed cardboard box or an umbrella to El Grito. Apparently, people hold them over their heads so they don't get burned by the falling sparks of the fireworks -- now that is a lot of fireworks!

Here's a slide show from last year's celebration. You can see the beautiful Parroquia, the fireworks and all of the umbrellas!

Midnight on: Fiesta!!
Wednesday- Military Parade, Mexican Independence Horse Riding and more fireworks!
Friday - Parade and Fair

Que Pasa
also lists religious and spiritual meetings for the week -- Catholic masses, of course, but also Episcopal, Baptist, Jewish - Shalom SMA, Unitarian (of which I've attended here), and even Quaker, Mormon, Baha'i and Sufi! On Friday 9/18, for example, there is a Rosh Hashana dinner at 6 pm at a local restaurant followed by a service at 7:30 pm. This diversity reflects the thousands of American retirees who call San Miguel de Allende home.

Bridge classes, rubber bridge, backgammon, writers' & readers' forum, guitar workshop, bird walks, yoga, pilates, astrology lecture, art openings & receptions, films, concerts, plays -- something for everyone -- even daily meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, other 12-step meetings and a bereavement support group.

Click here to see the Que Pasa calendar for the coming week!

Fiesta Mexicana Kicks Off La Independencia!

On Monday evening, September 14th, the Biblioteca Publica (public library) will host their annual Fiesta Mexicana to start the week-long celebration of Mexican Independence!

This is how Atencion San Miguel, the local newspaper, describes the fiesta:

"Teatro Santa Ana (Santa Ana Theater) director José Luis Mendoza will MC the event with his natural predisposition for drama and his irreverent but entertaining persona. The fiesta begins with a welcome shot of mescal which will get guests in the mood to join in the fun of one of Mexico’s most loved games—Lotería (Bingo)! The cryptic calls for the bingo cards are a great way to hone your colloquial Spanish skills, and if you are quick on the draw you might earn a prize (Atencion San Miguel)."

The festivities also include the Ballet Folklórico, who will perform indigenous and Mexican dances, the musical group, Estudiantina, and the folklore harp performance of Sergio Basurto.

Traditional Mexican food and drinks include typical botanas (snacks) and national drinks. "All of this can be enjoyed on the cool stone patio of the lovely Biblioteca courtyard as the sun begins to set and the moon begins to rise (Atencion San Miguel)." Of course, you know where I will be on Monday evening!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Galeria Atotonilco - Mexican Folk Art

I recently spent a good part of the afternoon touring Mayer Shacter's spectacular Mexican folk art gallery, Galeria Atotonilco, and home, Casa Renacimiento (Renaissance House), situated about 5 miles north of San Miguel de Allende. In 2001, Mayer and his wife, writer Susan Page, purchased an abandoned rattan furniture factory on eight acres along the Rio Laja. They engaged landscape architect Tim Wachter and celebrated architects Steven and Cathi House, "who transformed the property and buildings into a spectacular home and gallery, which have now been featured in two books and a magazine. The unusual architecture has been variously dubbed "contemporary organic" or "modern baroque." (Galeria Atotonilco) You can take a virtual tour of the gallery by clicking here.

Originally from Berkeley, California, Mayer Shacter had a flourishing career as a ceramic artist for 27 years and also dealt in fine antiques. Since moving to Mexico, he travels throughout the country to find the best artists working today, and then purchases their finest work. He often commissionins pieces, so many of the items in the gallery are unique. His vintage serapes, 19th century retablos, ex-votos, and antique trunks are impressive. And, his collections of papel mache, carved and painted wood figures, ceramics and Huichol yarn paintings are quite beautiful.

Visits to Galeria Atotonilco are by appointment only. Contact information is on their website

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Diego and I -- In Guanajuato!

Greetings from the beautiful colonial city of Guanajuato, birthplace of artist, Diego Rivera!

Move over, Frida Kahlo! I just had to have my photo taken with this statue of Diego Rivera (everyone does!), which is located just around the bend from the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, the home in which Rivera was born on December 8, 1886.

I recommend visiting The Virtual Diego Rivera Web Museum, especially the gallery of his paintings. Click here for the gallery.

Another interesting section contains video clips about his travels in the United States and the controversy about the content of his murals. There is also a home movie of Diego with his wife, artist Frida Kahlo. Click here to view the video clips.

One of my favorite murals is "Sunday Afternoon Dream in Alameda Park", which is on the wall in the Museo Casa Diego Rivera. It is also the first mural presented in the section with Rivera's murals, click here

I love this colorful city! It feels so European and there are far fewer Americans, so it was a welcome change for me. Just about all shopkeepers in San Miguel de Allende speak English, but in Guanajuato, this is not the case. Better for practicing my Spanish!

In addition to the Museo Casa Diego Rivera, I have also visited two other outstanding museums --click on the link to El Museo Iconografico del Quijote (yes, Don Quijote de la Mancha!) and the Museo del Pueblo de Guanajuato (The Museum of the People of Guanajuato). I will be adding a slide show for each museum, but in the meantime here are a few street scenes from this charming city. Hasta luego.

Below is a slide show from the Museo del Pueblo (Museum of the People) with its beautiful murals depicting scenes from Mexican history and 19th century religious art.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Casita Decorated for Mexican Independence Day!

"Fiestas are our sole luxury. They are a substitute for, and perhaps have the advantage over theatre and vacations, Anglo Saxon 'weekends' and cocktail parties, bourgeois receptions and the Mediterranean café ...What is important is to go out, open up a way, get drunk on noise, people, colours. Mexico is in fiesta. And this fiesta, shot through with lightning and delirium, is the brilliant opposite of our silence and apathy, our reticence and gloom..''

Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude

My casita is already decorated for Mexican Independence Day, which will be celebrated next week on the 15th and 16th. I live behind this joyeria, a fabulous jewelry store, Casa Katalina, and this is my second story window -- adorned with the colors of the Mexican flag and an emblem that says "Estados Unidos Mexicanos", United States of Mexico. Last week, the stores started selling decorations, Mexican flags, and red, green and white clothing.

I think the festivities have already started. This morning I woke up around 4:30 a.m. to the sound of firecrackers outside my window, a common occurrence in San Miguel. But, I'm used to all kinds of sounds. I live just a few blocks from the Parroquia and other churches with lovely bells that chime every quarter hour around the clock. I've grown to love those sounds.

Here is a youtube video of the Parroquia bells just around the corner from my casita. Enjoy!!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Day of the Dead - El Dia de Los Muertos

"Our relations with death are intimate, more intimate perhaps than those of any other people. The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death; jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love."
Octavio Paz - The Labyrinth of Solitude

From around October 31st until November 2nd, people throughout Mexico celebrate El Dia de Los Muertos - The Day of the Dead. Someday I would love to be in Mexico at this time of year, so I could participate in this festival. With images of skeletons and skulls in homes, cemeteries and parading through the streets, outsiders might find this festival ghoulish or morbid.

Not so! The Day of the Dead is really about both Life and Death. Once a year, families celebrate the memories of dearly departed relatives and friends by welcoming their spirits to join the living for just 24 hours --to share memories, feasting, music, dancing and all the things they loved in life. By honoring the dead, they celebrate life!

La Ofrenda: The Offering for Day of the Dead

The ofrenda, or offering, is a central component of the ritual of El Dia de Los Muertos. Each family prepares an altar or a kind of tableau to honor someone who has passed away.

My maid Elvira told me that last year she prepared two ofrendas, one to honor her deceased mother and another in memory of her nephew, who at age 11, was killed in an accident.

While there is some regional variation in how ofrendas are presented, in general, they contain photographs of the loved one, their favorite foods and drinks, candles, religious statues, cempasuchiles (yellow marigolds), copal, a type of incense that is used in rituals for purification or sanctification, and papel picado, colored paper hand-cut with symbols unique to the Day of the Dead.

Yellow or orange cempasuchiles, marigolds, are called the "flowers of the dead" because they are believed to attract the souls of the deceased to join the living during the celebration. Sometimes the family will scatter marigold petals to form a path between the house and the cemetery. This flower path is believed to guide souls to the feast and then back to the cemetery.

(Incidentally, during any other time of year, it would be a cultural faux pas to bring marigolds as a gift for the hostess of a dinner party here. So, if you are doing business in Mexico or another country, research the symbolism of gifts, or you may sabotage the business deal!)

Preparation begins months before the festival. Families start early to acquire goods to place on the ofrendas, and a few weeks before early November markets start selling the traditional Day of the Dead goods. This includes sugar candies made in the shape of skulls (sugar skulls), paper mache puppets and other figures of skeletons, such as El Catrin and La Catrina (male and female skeletons) and pan de muerto ("bread of the dead"), a special type of bread traditionally baked by men, but now usually purchased at the bakery.

Another part of the ritual involves cleaning the graves or tombs in the cemetery. Many families bring food to the graves of loved ones and do their feasting and dancing there. One of my friends in San Miguel de Allende told me that some people "camp out" overnight in the cemetery where they can be with the souls of their deceased relatives. While most people do not report "seeing" spirits, they do sense the presence of the souls of their loved ones.

Finally, the ritual has a community-wide component, which reaffirms social relationships. Usually this takes the form of a parade. Here in San Miguel de Allende they even have a contest for the best La Catrina costume. You see, during this one day per year, La Catrina comes to life!
Here is a video of the Day of the Dead celebration in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

La Catrina: Icon of The Day of the Dead

The answer to last week's poll, "Who Is She?" is: La Catrina! Take another look. Haven't you seen her before?

La Calavera de La Catrina (The Skull of La Catrina), with her wide-brimmed, plumed hat is one of the most recognized visual representations of El Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of The Dead, one of the many festivals celebrated throughout Mexico.

La Catrina, a female dandy, was one of many calaveras created by illustrator, engraver and political cartoonist, Jose Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913). While the image of La Catrina did not become the icon of The Day of the Dead until after Posada's death, this and other calaveras appeared in many newspapers and broadsides during the late 19th century. Known as the "the 'penny press', the prensa de un centavo, became, by the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the most important vehicles for social and political satire (Carmichal and Sayer, 1991:58).

The political caricature of La Catrina was meant to lampoon the life of the upper classes during the era of political corruption and social inequality under the regime of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1880 and 1884-1911). The message is this: No matter how rich you are, you cannot escape death.

Or, in Posada's words:

"La muerte es democrática, ya que a fin de cuentas, güera, morena,
rica o pobre, toda la gente acaba siendo calavera".


A rough translation: "Death is democratic. When you come right down to it, fair or dark, rich or poor, everyone becomes a calavera (skull)."

Carmichael, Elizabeth and Sayer Chloe (1991) The Skeleton At the Feast: The Day of the Dead in Mexico. University of Texas Press: Austin, TX