Archive for October, 2010


Celebrating Día de los Muertos in Puebla

Monday, October 25th, 2010

A pair of classic Day of the Dead charactersA popular holiday in Mexico, Day of the Dead provides an occasion to honor lost loved ones and pray for their souls. The celebrations, which merge Catholic and indigenous beliefs, typically unfold over the course of a few days, culminating on Nov. 1 (All Saints Day, devoted to children) and Nov. 2 (All Souls Day, dedicated to adults). Traditions vary from region to region, but the sacred tributes almost always involve an altar that’s carefully adorned with gifts for the deceased, such as favorite foods and beverages, personal items related to past passions or hobbies, votive candles and other religious symbols or artifacts, and salt and water to “purify the soul.” These ofrendas vary wildly in style, ranging from humble to extravagant, playful to serious, and historical to innovative. Anyone can be honored, whether it’s a close relative or a beloved celebrity. Most of the altars are located inside private homes and businesses, but people tend to show them off with pride, often welcoming strangers to admire their handiwork.

Puebla isn’t as well-known for its Day of the Dead celebrations as a few other Mexican locales, but visitors who are interested in taking part in — and learning more about — the holiday will find plenty to see and do. Here are a few suggestions.

Downtown Puebla

For a spectacular public Day of the Dead display, head for the Casa de la Cultura (5 Oriente #5, on the other side of the cathedral from the city’s main square). For 40 years now, the cultural center has hosted an annual altar-building contest that offers visitors a chance to see a large, diverse array of ofrendas in one place and even ask their creators questions about them. “The goal is to promote and maintain our traditions of Mexico,” director Margarita Melo Díaz told the local newspaper Sintesis. “Recall that, in 2003, Day of the Dead was recognized as a cultural heritage event by UNESCO, and it is our job as Mexicans to preserve it.” This year, the work of contenders in two categories, traditional and free expression, will be on display from Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Previous exhibitions have featured indigenous altars (adorned with beans, grains, seeds, etc.) and modern tributes to the planet Earth, Frida Kahlo, the wrestler Santo, actor Pedro Infante, and even Pope John Paul II. The exhibit is also a fine place to purchase souvenirs, from sugar skulls to handcrafted figurines. Admission is free.

The Institute of Municipal Art and Culture is also sponsoring an altar-building contest, as well as sculpture and calaverita competitions, all around the theme “Death Is a Dream.” Calaveritas are short, playful poems (epitaphs in rhyming verses) that poke fun at living people as if they were dead. The top entries in all three events will be on display in the zócalo from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. If you happen to be in the main square, peek inside the Palacio Municipal (Portal Hidalgo #14), where the local government usually sets up a grand ofrenda in the foyer on the ground floor.

San Andrés Cholula

The Francisco Peláez R. Ethnobotanical Garden (2 Sur #1700) on Oct. 29 and 30 will host Ofrenda entre flores y rituales, a celebration that seeks to re-create Day of the Dead traditions through the arts and people’s sensory contact with nature. Activities include music, folkloric dance, storytelling, and dinner, plus the creation of a collective altar, for which guests are invited to bring bread, candy, candles, flowers — whatever they’d like to contribute. “The event suggests a connection with the history and traditions without making them dogmas or folklore,” the organizers said. The festivities start at 7 p.m.; admission is MX$80 in advance, MX$100 on the days of the event.


An altar in a private home in Huaquechula, Puebla.This small town in Puebla state, about 45 minutes west of the capital city, celebrates Day of the Dead in a big way. The ofrendas, which sometimes cost tens of thousands of pesos to assemble, are impressive structures that measure up to 10 feet high. The altars themselves are often made of cardboard and covered with white or pastel-colored satin; the shiny fabric gives the multilevel tributes a distinctively Huaquechulan look. The first level represents the underworld and bears a photo of the decreased with incense, flowers, and food, explains, which promotes the Atlixco area. “The second level represents the union of heaven and earth or the human and the divine. The third level represents the sky, or the highest divinity, and this is always represented with a cross.”

From Oct. 28 to Nov. 1 every year, many townspeople open their doors to visitors who’d like to pay their respects to the dead. It is customary to leave a candle or a few coins at the altar and to accept food and drink — such as bread and hot chocolate or a tamale and tequila or hibiscus water — from the host family. Tourist tip: Start your tour mid-afternoon at the cultural center on the town square, which provides a map to homes with ofrendas. Look for the trails of marigold petals leading to altars from the street.

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A Few Notable Women in Puebla’s History

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

With the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of its revolution both happening this fall, the country has been proudly honoring its national heroes, the most prominent of whom happen to be men. This prompted me to wonder about the women who helped shape Mexico throughout the course of history, especially those with particular significance in Puebla. A little research unearthed several heroines (and perhaps one anti-heroine), who made their marks long before Blanca Alcalá became the city’s first female mayor in 2007. In fact, it is here in Puebla that a revolutionary’s bold sister, a stylish slave girl, and a tastemaking group of nuns not only introduced new ways of thinking, but also started trends that ultimately became internationally recognized symbols of Mexico.

Carmen Serdán

It’s nearly impossible to visit Puebla without encountering one of the many landmarks — the airport, the baseball stadium, schools, a major thoroughfare, etc. — named after the hermanos Serdán. The four siblings were native poblanos and early, vocal proponents of the Mexican Revolution. Although each played a role in the uprising, Aquiles and Carmen Serdán get the most credit.

Aquiles worked closely with Francisco Madero and Emiliano Zapata to plot the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz’s government, which closely resembled a dictatorship. Carmen, who went by the male pseudonym Marcos Serrato while engaging in conspiratorial activities, supported the cause by distributing anti-reelectionist propaganda, delivering money to Texas, and helping stockpile weapons in the family’s home in Puebla. When the house was raided by police on November 18, 1910, just two days before the revolution was scheduled to begin, the Serdáns refused to surrender — even though they were outnumbered 500 to 21.

As the bullets flew, Carmen stepped out onto a balcony to harangue the crowds of onlookers.

Carmen was wounded, but unlike Aquiles and their other brother, Máximo, she survived the onslaught and was arrested. After Díaz was ousted, she was released from prison, and her activism continued. “Then came General Huerta’s counterrevolutionary putsch and the overthrow and murder of Madero,” notes Jim Tuck of MexConnect. “In the Villa-Carranza-Obregón campaign against Huerta, Carmen served in field hospitals as a nurse.”

Carmen later returned to Puebla to raise the children of her slain brothers. She also served as a nurse in different blood banks during the Constitutional struggle. She died in 1948. In 1960, the Serdán home was opened to the public as the regional Museum of the Mexican Revolution (6 Oriente #206). Bullet holes from the standoff still scar the building’s facade, and a room inside is devoted to women of the revolution.

La China Poblana

The china poblana is one of the most iconic figures in Mexico. Her unique style started a fashion craze that was adopted (and adapted) by women all over the region. A staple of folkloric dance troupes, the china poblana getup is widely regarded as the traditional attire of women throughout the republic.

Who was she? As legend has it, the china poblana (which means “the Asian woman from Puebla”) was a Mexican immigrant named Mirrha. The young girl, mostly likely from India or the Philippines, was captured by South Seas pirates in the early 17th century and brought to New Spain as a slave. Mirrha had been abducted at the request of a Spanish viceroy, but she was ultimately sold to a local merchant in Puebla. Her new owner baptized her with a Christian name, Catarina de San Juan.

Mirrha was highly regarded for her beauty and generosity, which suggests why her style was widely copied.

Mirrha refused to dress like the local women, preferring a sari-like outfit, which evolved into the china poblana ensemble. The typical pieces include: a short-sleeved white blouse with vibrant silk embroidery; a “castor” skirt decorated with sequins and beads; a white slip with lace trim that dropped below the skirt’s hemline; and a shawl woven from blue and white thread.

“For people all over Mexico and audiences throughout the world, the tradition of La China Poblana is seen on the brightly embroidered ballet folklorico dress style from Puebla, thought to be Chinese in its influence,” writes Mark Lacy of the Houston Institute of Culture’s Traditions of Mexico project.

After her owner passed away, Mirrha either married the Chinese servant of a local priest, or became a nun, or both. She apparently spent her final days in a convent, where she is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus. Mirrha died in 1688. She was briefly honored as a saint, until the Inquisition barred devotion to her. Visitors to Puebla today can visit her tomb inside the sacristy of the Templo de la Compañía de Jesús (Av. Palafox y Mendoza at 4 Sur), an 18th-century Jesuit church located in the city’s historic center.

If you’re driving around town, don’t miss the gorgeous statute dedicated to her at the intersection of Heroes de 5 de Mayo and Defensores de la Republica. The 10-foot likeness, which provides the centerpiece of 200-ton fountain, was created in 1971 by poblano sculptor Jesús Corro Ferrer. Ferrer restored the talavera tiles and stonework in 2007.

Sisters of Santa Rosa

Although few people know them by name, anyone who loves Mexican food is familiar with their work. The sisters of the Santa Rosa convent in Puebla are credited with inventing mole poblano, which today rivals the taco as the national dish of Mexico. According to local legend, the nuns, eager to please a visiting archbishop, threw together some two dozen ingredients — chile peppers, fruits, chocolate, and more — to create the delicious sweet and savory sauce. They then probably served it over pieces of turkey (an indigenous bird in Mexico), much to the monsignor’s delight.

It’s said that the sisters got their recipe from an angel, but they may have borrowed from Aztec chefs.

A dish similar to mole may have been prepared for Hernán Cortés, at Montezuma’s request. “This story probably gained credibility because the word ‘mole’ comes from the Nahuatl word ‘milli,’ which means sauce or ‘concoction,’” says a writer for MexOnline. “Another connection could be that chocolate was widely used in pre-Columbian Mexico, so people jumped to that conclusion.”

No matter where their inspiration came from, the sisters of Santa Rosa undoubtedly contributed to mole poblano’s popularity in modern-day Mexican cooking. Visitors to Puebla can check out the colorful talavera kitchen where it all came together when the convent-turned-museum, currently being restored, reopens next year. The ex-Convent of Santa Rosa is located at 14 Poniente #305 (at 3 Norte).

La Malinche

She was smart, courageous, and — in the eyes of many people nowadays — a traitor of historic proportions. La Malinche is essentially the Mexican equivalent of Benedict Arnold. The Nahua woman, also known as La Malintzin and Doña Marina, was a multilingual translator from the Gulf Coast who helped Cortés communicate with indigenous peoples of Mexico. She is credited with many feats, including giving birth to Cortés’ son Martín, one of the first mestizos.

Her name is now used in Mexico to describe someone who betrays his own people: malinchista.

Although historians disagree, La Malinche’s translating may have contributed to the Cholula massacre in 1519. According to some accounts, a local woman told La Malinche that the Cholulans planned to murder the Spaniards in their sleep — and advised her to escape to save herself. Instead, La Malinche told Cortés, who ordered a merciless counter-attack. With help from the neighboring Tlaxcalans, thousands of Cholulans were slaughtered, and the town was set on fire. “The Spaniards turned the tables on the Cholulans and massacred about ten percent of the city’s population,” notes M.E.X.A. at California State University, Los Angeles.

Today, La Malinche most commonly refers to the inactive volcano that rises 14,600 feet above sea level on the Puebla-Tlaxcala state line. The government established a national park there in 1938; it has since become a popular weekend destination for hikers, climbers, and campers. Some 40 cabins and a camping area (with a diner, soccer fields, basketball courts, and more) are available for recreational use by the Centro Vacacional Malintzi. On lower ground, locals often look to the mountain to predict the weather: When the view of La Malinche is obscured by dark clouds, a downpour is imminent in Cholula and the Puebla capital.

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