Thursday, September 29, 2011

Independence Week

In America we celebrate the Fourth of July for one day, have a barbecue, watch some fireworks and call it good. I love the Fourth of July...the weather, the activities, the's all great. However, Independence Day in Mexico looks a little different than Independence Day in America.'s completely different. Actually, it's pretty much one giant party from Tuesday through Friday, or whenever the 13-16 of September come around every year. Before I left for Mexico, the people who went on the program last year told me to be excited for the week of Independencia, and they tried to explain why but I just couldn't figure out how a glorified Fourth of July could be so cool. Well, they were right. I was completely underestimating how great the week could be. Here's the rundown from the week. Just as you start to think you're imagining something that would never happen in real life, think crazier and you'll be close to what we experienced that week. 

So the festivities all started on Tuesday afternoon with a parade from one end of the Centro to another. The people who were participating are called Concheros. Basically, they are these people who get together every year to learn a very specific indigenous dance that is said to have come from Pre-hispanic Mexico. On Tuesday, they paraded all through the centro and ended up in the Templo de la Cruz, where the ceremonies officially began. They brought with them incense, alters to indigenous and Christian gods, their children, animals, masks, anything you can imagine that could ever be considered emotionally significant found its way into the parade. Church bells were ringing, fireworks were going off, and drums were echoing through the cobblestone streets for the rest of the week non-stop starting on Tuesday. People brought all sorts of birds, crafts, and food to offer at the beginning of the celebration. At one point, there were hundreds of bird cages in front of the church, and they were being set free as offerings to the church. It was interesting to see the indigenous type of offerings against a very Catholic backdrop. In America, this contrast would cause a concern because people would not feel wholly allegiant to one religion, but the festivities seek to emphasize the hybrid of the two that is very prevalent in Mexico. After the parade, hundreds of vendors filled the plaza, and it was a time of celebration. We left around midnight, and the party had just barely gotten going. The Concheros all went into the church to conduct an all night vigil before they started their dancing the next day. 

On Wednesday morning, the dancing began. The dance and all its elements are a very interesting fusion of indigenous and Catholic tradition. For example, the actual dance moves are said to be ancient, but the dancers dance with their varying troops in a circle around Catholic alters. Also, they are all dressed up in body paint, elaborate headdreses and indigenous type clothing. It's quite the spectacle. The best part of the dance is the incredible unity that can be felt among the dancers. They all wear shells that rattle around their ankles, and there are moments when the shells all start and stop rattling in unison. There are at least 30 different troops consisting of anywhere between 20-50 dancers all around one of the major plazas in the city. The whole Centro is shut down to traffic for a few days because people are dancing anywhere they can find a space (when the plaza fills up they typically opt for the street). Each troop recognizes a different tradition, or has a different interpretation of what the dance means to them. We got to interview a few of the Concheros, and each one of them was dancing for a different reason. Some claimed it was a peaceful way to fight for indigenous rights, others claimed to be participating in a tradition that their family had always been a part of, and still others claimed that it was an important representation of the syncretism that exists in Mexico between the indigenous and European worlds and religions. The reasons for the dancing seemed to come in secondary to the spirit of celebration and unity that was very tangible. The Concheros continued dancing straight through Thursday night. That's more than 48 hours of dancing in the streets. Some of them went home at various points, but the festivities never completely stopped until Thursday evening.

One of my favorite parts of the week was the "Castillo" on Wednesday night. On our way home from a concert in the Plaza, we walked straight into an enormous crowd standing around what looked like a giant scaffolding in the dark. One of the people in our group took one look at it and said, "that would be so much cooler if they lit it on fire and the whole thing just blew up..." Of course, he was totally kidding and we were trying to figure out what the crowd was so excited for. After staring at it for 10 minutes, all the sudden we hear what sounds like a firecracker and the whole thing lights up and starts shooting fireworks into the sky. We were maybe 10 meters from the actual structure...and it wasn't the safest experience of my life, but the spectacle of it all put any fireworks display at Disneyland to shame. They lit each of the four sides on fire over the course of 20 minutes, and different sides would start sparking, spinning, launching into the sky, or shooting rays of fire straight into the crowd. At one point, the very top didn't light how it was supposed to, so some crazy Mexican climbed the ignited scaffolding to light it by hand and ensure that the show must go on. Mexicans certainly do love their fireworks! After that experience, we could understand why. It was super exhilarating to watch because you feel like your life is in danger, but at the same time you don't want to leave because it is so cool. We all went home smelling like fireworks, but it was well worth a dirty sweater. 

On Thursday morning, we made it to the Centro around 11am, and the Concheros were just starting up their dancing again after a long night of vigils and little rest. We got to watch how they start their dance, through a very structured system of prayers, offerings and chants. They essentially re-construct the alter every time they start dancing, or at the start of a new day. The tradition of it all was impressive. After watching the dancing for a little while, we headed home to catch a nap before the evening festivities. Some people do not attend or pay attention to the Concheros because they choose not to acknowledge their indigenous backgrounds (typically the upper class who are very proud to be European and not mestizo), but everyone celebrates on the 15th and 16th because it is the actual Independencia. Technically, Independence Day is the 16th, but everyone parties hard on the 15th, so the actual Independence Day has become more of a recovery day. It's kind of like New Years Eve and New Years Day. 

Thursday night, we met a few of our friends downtown. There were all kinds of street vendors selling traditional Mexican food, sugary treats, and of course, cotton candy. The crowd was all decked out in their red, white, and green (the colors of the flag). Some people were especially festive and wore enormous sombreros and fake mustaches to get the full effect of their patriotism. After eating some tacos and sweets, we had to make our way to the Plaza de Armas to stake out our spot for the Grito. The Grito is the primary event of Mexican Independence Day, and was originally given by Dolores Hidalgo at a church in the town that is now named after him. Grito translates as "shout." When Hidalgo gave the first Grito, it was kind of like a declaration of independence from the European dominance. It started the fight for "Mexico for the Mexicans."At the end of his speech, Hidalgo yelled "¡Viva México!" and a whole bunch of provinces in the country, and the crowd responded "¡Viva!" Basically, the Grito today reenacts this original act of defiance, and is a chance for Mexicans to celebrate their country. The President gives a Grito that is televised in Mexico City, standing on a balcony that overlooks the big plaza in the city. Additionally, each governor gives a similar Grito in their state. The Grito that we attended was a crazy experience. We were all packed into the plaza (fuller than any concert I've ever been to), and just had to wait for a couple of hours. The actual Grito is given at 11pm, but if you want a spot in the plaza, you have to get there early. There was live mariachi music on the stage up front, and the crowd anxiously awaited the emergence of the Governor from his house. The actual Grito lasted about 5 minutes, he rang the bell, and there were fireworks on all sides of us. They shot off all the buildings surrounding the plaza, and again, it was raining ash. It was quite the spectacle to say the least. Oh! And people spray foam everywhere after the Grito. It's just like silly string, only more bubbly. It really was just one giant block party. Mexicans certainly know how to party. 

After the Grito, almost no one goes home. An evening full of festivities was just the beginning. A few of us went to a club with a few Mexican friends. All night long, they were giving out free shots of tequila, people would yell "¡Viva México!" at will, and everyone would take a shot. Even in the club, the camaraderie was impressive that night, and clubs are usually places of great social tension. Of course, there were more sparklers and fireworks all night long inside, and the party was just getting going when we went home around 2:30 in the morning. When I got home, my family (who had refrained from attending the Grito) was sitting around the table chatting it up. I joined them, and an hour later, we all decided it would be a really good idea to paint our faces and take a picture. I don't really know why this sounded like such a great idea at the time, but the picture turned out fantastic! Who knew it was possible to be so patriotic for another country? Oh well...¡viva México!

All in all, I would say Independencia was a success. It was a giant party, but there was definitely meaning behind all the partying. When I sat down to write some reflections from the event, I realized that I learned a ton about how Mexicans see themselves, and how the interesting combination of indigenous and European life construct something that is uniquely Mexican. Before the events, we read a bunch about what it means to be Mexican, but the academic attempts of really smart people didn't do it justice. I have started to gain a very elementary understanding of how Mexican society works, and I'm realizing just how complex culture can be. It's really interesting to see how much I learn on accident, even thought it doesn't feel like I am doing hardly any school work. 

The castillo during the day

the castillo exploding!

typical conchero

the beginnings of an alter of the Concheros. the guitar is called a "concha" and is made from the shell of an armadillo

more concheros

the governor giving the Grito

a photo of the plaza during the grito

they're pretty patriotic...

Monday, September 26, 2011

Daily life is finally pretty normal...but here are some highlights

Hi everyone! Sorry it has taken so long to fill you all in on what I've been up to here in Querétaro. Some crazy things have happened, but the problem is that everything is becoming so normal. Before, I wanted to tell every story and give you a play by play because it was so radically different from what we consider to be normal or acceptable. Now, what happens on a daily basis is pretty typical...which is a really weird experience, especially as I go back and read my journals from the first couple weeks. So...I think I'm just going to to post pictures of some highlights to catch you all up, and tell the story of each photo as they come to mind. It will be less of a play by play, but you'll still get some pretty great laughs out of it all. :)

Another picture of Carmen and I. This just showed up from the first week we were here. 
Yep...that's a dog on the roof. It's the Mexican approach to birth control. When the dog is in heat, they put it on the roof so it doesn't have puppies. We all thought this was hilarious, so we took a picture. There are dogs on the roof almost everywhere we go. 

I stole these pictures from google image search, but they are pictures of the club we went to one night. At one point, the roof opened up and we were dancing under the stars. There were choreographed fire guns inside and out, and the fountains all danced to the music. It was really impressive. When I pictured Mexican clubs, I never pictured something that would fit in alongside any club in Vegas. Granted, this one was the most expensive one in the city (as we later figured out), but the others are still pretty nice. They just don't have the stunning view of the city and the dancing fire. Over the past couple of weeks, we have made several Mexican friends, and they all know someone who can get is un without having to pay a cover, which is nice. We've learned just to follow them because they know how to do things. It's just like the saying "when in Rome, do as the Romans..." truer words have never been spoken. Surprisingly, only 5 or 6 of us have caught on to this, so the rest of the group kind of watches Mexican culture from a distance. We just kind of dive in and it always works out better. Trust me...our stories are way more interesting. 

Contrary to popular belief, I do go to school here too. In this picture, our professor from Westmont (who kind of sucks the fun out of everything) has her face covered by a mask that we made of her face. We all had to use the same material that they make casts out of, put it on our face, and let it dry. For some reason, our art professor thought buying regular masks was insufficient. It was super fun...just a little sticky, and my clothes are still covered in remnants of plaster. After we all made our masks, we got to decorate them using all sorts of beans, dried peppers, and colorful things. I don't really know what we learned from the experience, but it beats sitting in a classroom memorizing dates for Art History...and I'm getting the same credit here for making masks (like a second grader) that i would in Art History at Westmont. Reason number 1001 why I love study abroad. 

These two pictures that look like a palace are actually of the courtyard that is inside the history museum in Querétaro. It is a gorgeous building. Unfortunately...the contents of the museum are a little boring. Ok, they're really boring. Our history professor decided to have class there one day...but it all looked like a bunch of stone figures and boring paragraphs explaining the history to me. So what did I learn from the experience? Not much, but the buildings are all really pretty. This one is right in the Centro, and almost all of the buildings are built with this 16th century Spanish architecture. What we all picture as Mexico, the run down concrete huts and dirt roads, are very common outside of the city. But where we are, it's gorgeous. The streets are all cobblestone (more than 500 years old), and the buildings are colorful and very pretty. 

One day, we went to the house of a former Westmont professor for Comida. Unfortunately, she made paella, which none of us were really keen on. The shrim and shellfish inside still had eyes...and it was super gnarly. Very traditional, and people get really excited about it, but it was awful. Never again will I eat paella. It was a really nice house though. And we made some friends that we go out with a bunch, so that was fun. It was nice to get to meet people who are our age.

Yep...that's a pyramid. And it's only 10 minutes outside of the Centro. We went one day for our art class, and it was super interesting to learn about the history behind it. They actually just realized that there was a pyramid about 30 years ago because the hills had grown over it, and the Spanish built a house on top of it. So it's still in the process of being excavated and restored on the other three sides. It was really interesting to see something so ancient and giant that had just been discovered. I could give you a big history lesson about it all, but basically they think this pyramid was built by the Toltecs, who were here before the Aztecs were in power. Bottom's really old. We all thought it was enormous, but apparently it pales in comparison to the pyramids in the Yucatan (of the Mayas) and they pyramids that we will get to see just outside of Mexico City. If this one is small, I can't wait to see a giant one. 

There are some train tracks by our house, and one day a train was we climbed it and took a picture. Then it started we rode it for about a half a mile. And then we jumped off the ladder on the side...while it was still moving...that hurt a little. But what a great story!'s super interesting because there are Guatemalans on the freight trains hitching rides through Mexico to arrive in the US. Totally illegal...but it's super interesting that they are able to get through that way. They always wave at us when a train passes and we're by the tracks. Mexicans don't like them at all, so it's a really interesting social dynamic. Hopefully, we can get Laura to tell us some more about it in the near future. Thus far, it's only been dropped in conversation. 

Last week, we went to a bullfight. Going into the event, I was kind of morally opposed to the idea of a bullfight because the bull always dies, but it was definitely a cultural experience that would be dumb to pass up while we are here in Mexico. It isn't bullfighting season, but they had this one because it was the week of Independence. It reminded me a lot of ice-skating. The matadors wear sparkly costumes, and there is a very set list of steps that are followed in the process. After each bull (there were 6) the sand is replaced, and the lines are repainted. It was a little bit bloody, but it wasn't just gory for the sake of blood. There was an artistry to it that none of us expected before we arrived. It was also interesting because the people that attend the bullfights are from a very small upper class. They looked like the people you would expect to find at a polo match, or a horse race. We made friends with one guy in front of us and he explained what was going on to us. It was nice because we were able to start to understand the way the scoring system works, and why people cheered only at certain times. 
One of the bars that we like to go to had an open mic session, and Matt (on bass) and Jordan (on drums) made friends with the band, so they let them play for a while. It was a Wednesday night, and we had no intention of going out, but who can turn down an open mic night?

Ok, well that about does it for the catch up. Last week was Independencia, and I have a bunch of quality pictures and stories to share from that. So I'll put it in a separate post. ¡Hasta luego!