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Top 5 Museums for a Rainy Day in Puebla

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Faces of Divinity: Mayan Green Stone Mosaics is on display at Museo Amparo through Aug. 29.You know it’s summer in Puebla when scattered showers and thunderstorms are forecast every day for what seems like an eternity. The good news is that wet weather doesn’t have to rain on anyone’s holiday parade, because the capital city offers plenty of indoor activities for avoiding the storms outside.

For starters, why not explore one of Puebla’s vast array of wonderful museums? We’ve picked five that we think you’ll enjoy even if you don’t read Spanish. These sites won’t break your budget, either, because they’re all are open to the public free of charge at least one day a week. Most also give breaks to students and visitors older than 60 (you may be asked to show a university credential or an INAPAM card). The first two on the list, Museo Amparo and Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana, are participating in the city’s “Museum Nights” program, which means they’re open free during special hours (5 to 10 p.m.) through Aug. 12.

Museo Amparo

One of the finest museums in Mexico, Museo Amparo boasts an impressive collection of Olmec, Aztec, and other pre-Hispanic artifacts, as well as religious works from the Colonial period and contemporary art. Its temporary exhibitions vary wildly in content and scope, from the recent show of tattoos by Oaxaca artist Dr Lakra to the current display of Mayan funerary masks. Much of the museum’s explanatory signage is in English and Spanish. The Amparo is in the midst of a $17 million renovation project, scheduled to be completed by May 2012, that will open up existing areas, expand the on-site library, update the auditorium, and add new rooms for children’s workshops and more.
2 Sur #708, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-6pm; closed Tuesdays. Admission is 35 pesos (free on Mondays).

Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana

An antique mirror damaged by bullets in the Serdán home, now the Museum of the Mexican Revolution.Puebla is often recognized as the site of the Battle of Cinco de Mayo against the French, but fewer people know the capital city as the place where the Mexican Revolution began. Members of the Serdán family, who lived on Sixth Street, were vocal opponents of President Porfirio Díaz—and stockpiled weapons to support their cause. On November 18, 1910, two days before the official revolt was scheduled to begin, police surrounded the Serdán home in an attempt to seize everything, and a face-off ensued. The building (still riddled with bullet holes) now serves as a memorial of their loss—and the Revolution that their cohorts ultimately won.
6 Oriente #206, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

San Pedro Museo de Arte

This former hospital, built in the 16th century, is now a top-notch exhibition space. In addition to a small permanent collection that charts the building’s medical history — including a curious re-creation of its one-time pharmacy — the site accommodates all sorts of temporary shows, from traditional women’s textiles to ultramodern photography. The museum also occasionally hosts symphony concerts by the state orchestra.
4 Norte #203, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

Centro Cultural (Ex-Convento de) Santa Rosa

Closed for renovations until 2013.

Foodies won’t want to miss a trip to the former convent of Santa Rosa de Lima, where sometime during the Colonial period mole poblano was likely invented. (See our previous post, “Holy Mole Poblano!”) Visitors can go inside its stunning traditional kitchen adorned with talavera tile from ceiling to floor and imagine stoking the fire underneath a big ceramic pot filled with thick, bubbling sauce. The rest of the building, which was restored last year, has an interesting history, too, having served not only as a cloister, but also as an insane asylum and tenement housing before evolving into a cultural center in 1973. Today the site showcases diverse arts and crafts, from folk dancing to woodwork, from the seven economic regions around the state.
3 Norte #1203, Centro Histórico. Open 10am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 30 pesos (free on Tuesdays).

Museo Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Mexicanos

Situated on land occupied in different eras by two lines, Ferrocarril Mexicano and Mexicano del Sur, the National Museum of Mexican Railways studies, rescues, and preserves Mexico’s freight and passenger railroad heritage (since 1850) through cultural, recreational, and educational activities. Its current exhibit, “Yo Soy Rielero: Retrato Ferrocarrilero,” features more than two dozen historical photos of railway workers, their tools, and their locomotives — inside a train car, the Express NdeM 12178. The show runs through Sept. 25. Bring an umbrella to tour the tracks and beautiful grounds.
11 Norte #1005, Centro Histórico. Open 9am-5pm; closed Mondays. Admission is 11 pesos (free on Sundays).

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The Palafox Library: A Bishop’s Legacy in Puebla

Monday, May 30th, 2011

Juan de Palafox y MendozaIt’s been a long road to beatification for Juan de Palafox y Mendoza. The Catholic priest, who served as bishop of Puebla from 1640 to 1655, became a candidate for the church’s official blessing shortly after his death some 350 years ago. But due to one roadblock after another — mostly opposition from Jesuits who argued that honoring Palafox would discredit them (because he’d policed misconduct in their ranks) — confirmation stalled for centuries. It will finally happen this Sunday, June 5, at a ceremony in Osma, Spain, the last place that he ministered to the faithful.

Palafox is known for being a prolific writer, a political thinker, a defender of the Mexico’s indigenous people during Colonial times, and a fair yet deeply religious man. “Historians highlight Palafox’s intelligence, integrity, activity, intellectual preparation and will, defining him as ‘one of the most brilliant men of his generation,’” says Jorge Fernández Díaz, third vice president of the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of Spain’s legislature.

“[Palafox is] probably the most interesting and maybe the most important figure in the whole history of 17th century Mexico.”

In Puebla, Palafox made his mark in both church and state affairs. He established the Dominican convent of St. Agnes, the colleges of St. Peter and St. Paul, and the girls school Immaculate Conception. He pushed for administrative reform within the diocese and for the completion of the city’s Cathedral, which was dedicated 1649. He also held several political offices, including that of the viceroy of New Spain in 1642.

“He was a superior man for his century, a classic in our language [Spanish] whose numerous texts were written with an elegant and eloquent style and have resulted in twelve thick volumes,” notes University of Salamanca researcher Águeda Rodríguez Cruz in a 2010 bulletin for the International Institute for Higher Education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Quoting her colleague, professor Antonio Heredia, she adds: “[Palafox] was robust in his work, although of a sensitive condition; a spender, but mean with it; legalistic, while with an ascetic of sensitive piety; an expert and executor in law and politics, while at a mystic at the same time; a man of war and noise, while pacific and fond of silence; active, while contemplative; indebted, while punctual with his duties … a man of great contrasts, like life itself.”

His greatest legacy is a secular one: the Palafox Library in Puebla. Founded in 1646, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana was the first public library established in the Americas. Located inside what was once the seminary of St. John’s College — now home to Puebla’s cultural center — the library preserves 45,058 volumes dating from just before until just after the Colonial era. Many of its works are of global importance. These include original copies of Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), which charts human history according to the Bible in words and more than 2,000 illustrations; Andreas Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body (1555), a seven-volume tome that revolutionized the study of anatomy with detailed diagrams based on actual observation and dissection; and books printed in Mexico before 1600, including Alonso Molina’s Vocabulary in Castilian and Mexican, essentially the earliest New World dictionary.

The bookshelves consist of finely carved cedar, wild sunflower, and white pine.The library is also noteworthy for its sheer beauty. The bookshelves, commissioned by Bishop Francisco Fabián y Fuero in 1773 (and expanded to include a third level in the 1800s), consist of finely carved cedar, wild sunflower, and ayacahuite, a native white pine. A three-story gold altar at the far end of the room features an oil painting of Virgen of Trapani, which is believed to be modeled after the 14th-century sculpture attributed to Italian sculptor Nino Pisano.

In 1981, the Mexican government declared the library a historic monument. In 2005, UNESCO added the Biblioteca Palafoxiana to the Memory of the World list, formally recognizing its international significance. In 2010, after five years of work by 30 specialists, the first digital catalog of the library’s complete contents was released; some 3,000 copies of the interactive disk were distributed to other libraries, universities, and research institutions. At the time, Elvia Carrillo Velázquez, a director for ADABI, the national book-preservation group that helped to create the archive, told El Universal newspaper that the interactive disc “provides access to culture and, above all, makes public knowledge part of the history of the printed word.”

This seems to be exactly what Palafox intended. A sign at the library’s entrance bears his words from 1646: “He who finds himself benefiting without books finds himself in solitude without comfort, on a mountaintop without company, on a path without a walking stick, in the darkness without a guide. This gave me the desire to leave the library of books I’ve collected since I served his majesty the King, which is one of the best I’ve seen in Spain, ancillary to those of the church and in part and in public form, so that it may be used by all professions and people.”

The Biblioteca Palafoxiana is located on the second floor of the Casa de la Cultura, 5 Oriente #5, in the city’s historic center. Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Image credits: Bicentenario México/Wikipedia Commons (portrait) and Agencia Enfoque (library interior)

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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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