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The Mexican Revolution Was Started By a Poblana

Sunday, November 10th, 2013

Bullet holes mark the facade of the Serdán House“Ask your friends if they know where the first shot of the Mexican Revolution was fired,” a docent at the Puebla museum that’s dedicated to this historical event instructs me in Spanish. “Go ahead.”

We’re standing on the central patio of what, on November 18, 1910, was the Serdán family’s home on Calle Santa Clara (6 Oriente). I’d just given Greta and Erin, who were visiting from California last week, a quick tour of the site. The museum is open for free on Sundays, so we’d popped in to see its traditional tile kitchen and the mirror cracked by bullets that hangs in the front room (pictured below). We were kind of in a hurry, because my friends had to check out of their hotel in 30 minutes. But I was intrigued by the docent’s question, so I repeated it in English. We all shrugged.

A large mirror in the front sitting room also bear bullet holes from the shootout..“It was Carmen Serdán,” he explains proudly, gesturing toward the staircase to our right. “She was standing there on the steps when Miguel Cabrera, the chief of police, entered the house through that small wooden door over there. Her brothers, Aquiles and Máximo, were busy distributing guns to their compatriots. Carmen told Cabrera not to take another step — or she’d shoot. But, perhaps because she was a woman, he didn’t take her seriously, and he continued walking to right about where you’re standing. She fired.” He paused for a moment while I translated.

Carmen was carrying a very powerful rifle, which knocked her backward when it went off. She missed the police chief, and it hit here,” he says, pointing to a bullet hole in a supporting column. “Cabrera fired back, but he missed, too, because his bullet hit the railing of the staircase.” Greta quickly spots the massive ding — and notes that it seems to have hit one of the stone steps, too.

“Aquiles rushed out,” the docent continues, “and killed the chief of police.” The Revolution had begun, its first shot fired by a Poblana.

A mural at the Serdán house depicts the siblings defending their beliefs (and where each was shot).Why the Serdán house? The family had been publishing propaganda and stockpiling weapons for reformist Francisco Madero, who planned to stage a rebellion against the newly (and unfairly) re-elected government of President Porfirio Díaz. Two days before the uprising was slated to begin, authorities learned of their arsenal. Some 400 soldiers and 100 police officers surrounded the house and, after Cabrera fell, a shootout ensued.

The maderists in the house, three women and 18 men, were grossly outnumbered, but they put up one heck of a fight. In the end, Aquiles and Máximo became among the first Mexicans to sacrifice their lives for the Revolution, which ultimately ended Díaz’s decades-long “dictatorship” (1877-1880, 1884-1911). Carmen survived the onslaught and was arrested. After serving time in La Merced jail, she worked as a nurse in various hospitals and cared for her nieces and nephews. She died in Puebla in 1948. —Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Museo Regional de la Revolución Mexicana, 6 Oriente #206, is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. General admission is 25 pesos (free on Sundays).

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History Runs Deep in and Around Cuauhtinchán

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

Cuauhtinchán may be the most important indigenous and religious site in Mexico you’ve never heard of.

Granted, the small agrarian town, located about 20 miles southeast of the Puebla capital, isn’t much to look at, particularly at the end of the dry season. Even its most remarkable building, the monolithic Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista, is strikingly staid: The two Tuscan columns that flank the main entrance provide its only notable detail, save for the left bell tower, which upon being hit by lightning some years ago partially collapsed into the courtyard. The resulting pile of rubble still sits where it fell.

Yet the former monastery — built between 1569 and 1593, with guidance from renown Spanish architect Francisco Becerra — offers an enduring and classic example of the sober Renaissance aesthetic brought to Mexico by Franciscan missionaries in the 16th century.

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista from a distance.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista.








The complex’s interior is a sharp contrast to the stark exterior. Its almost-whimsical flourishes provide a glimpse of how the Franciscans worked to convert their predecessors to Christianity. For example, the archways of the central patio feature numerous “notable sayings” in Spanish that convey conventional or moral wisdom as the monks saw it. (The patio now houses the site’s small museum, which not only describes the arrival of Hernán Cortés, but also chronicles Cuauhtinchán’s pre-Hispanic and prehistoric past. A display case contains mastodon bones found in the area.)

The painted walls of the church, which were obscured by a coat of quicklime in the early 1800s and later uncovered, are surprisingly colorful, too. For us, the nave stands out as the real must-see here . . . unless you happen to get lucky, as we did, and get to climb the winding, multistory staircase of the right bell tower with the site’s devoted caretaker. Don Pedro typically rings the bells for Mass and for afternoon visitors, as he did for us at 3 p.m. on a recent Thursday, thanks to our friend Scott, who organized this trip. From the top, the views of the surrounding countryside are breathtaking; the chimes of the enormous bells, one of which bears the scars of Revolutionary bullets, are ear-splitting yet intoxicating.

Bell tower at ex-Convento de San Juan BautistaAAP-Cuauhtinchan6AAP-Cuauhtinchan4








Back down at ground level, the church’s layout and orientation connect “mystical aspects of indigenous and European cultures” and have “cosmic significance,” according to official signage. On the equinox, a ray of sunlight enters the lower choir and illuminates an image of the Immaculate Conception at the center of the massive altarpiece. This masterpiece, made of polychromed and gilded wood, is the oldest in Mexico and one of the best preserved in Latin America. Its imagery depicts many other Biblical scenes — the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Blessed Virgin, the Adoration of the Magi — and provides an “open book to the teaching of the Christian faith.”

AAP-Cuauhtinchan2Detail of restored paint jobAAP-cuautinchan








Christianity mixed with indigenous symbolism, that is, much like elsewhere in Mexico. Cuauhtinchán precedes the Spanish by more than two millennia. The earliest pre-Hispanic settlement here may date as far back as 1200 B.C., when small groups of warriors and farmers formed villages in the area. But an archaeological site on the edge of town, which is said to contain a 52-foot pyramid, other ceremonial structures, and living quarters, remains unexcavated (and largely unrecognizable to the uninitiated) puts the first settlement closer to 8 A.D. The recovery of various indigenous codices and maps of the area have allowed archaeologists and historians to piece together some of its history, which is predominantly Chichimeca.

The Chichimecas spoke Nahuatl. The name Cuauhtinchán — also spelled Cuautinchán and pronounced “kuhwow-teen-CHAN” — means “eagles’ nest.” It’s unclear when the majestic birds must have lived here, but artistic representations of eagles and nests can be found both at the ex-convento and elsewhere around town, such as the fountain in the main square. The same goes for jaguars, which are equally important in local iconography. That works for us. If we have to face down creatures with functional fangs and talons, we’d rather do it at nearby Africam than in the wild.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Ex-Convento de San Juan Bautista is located on Calle Hidalgo (between Gonzalo Bautista and 2 Poniente) in Cuautinchán, Puebla. The best way get there is by car or taxi via the cities of Puebla or Tepeaca. Visitors are welcome most days between 10 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.; try to avoid holidays and Mass, unless you wish to attend. Town officials recommend that you call ahead to schedule a tour: +52 (224) 271-7170.

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An Unexpected Peek at the Patio de los Azulejos

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Patio de los AzulejosSome 482 years into its making, Puebla oozes history. The city’s downtown core is home to more than 2,600 Colonial-era buildings and everything that goes along with them. You can stumble upon intriguing facts, colorful legends, and even unsolved mysteries with minimal effort and a very basic grasp of Spanish. At least, we frequently do. Nearly every trip to the Centro Histórico reveals something new—or old, really, but new to us. It’s one of the reasons I love it here.

Take, for example, a couple of Wednesdays ago, when we were approached by a stranger on Calle 11 Poniente. “Hello!” he shouted at us enthusiastically, running toward us from across the street. “Do you want to see the Patio de los Azulejos?” I shrugged. I had no idea what he was talking about. Neither did my husband, a Poblano. But our friend Antonio, who’d just finished showing us his latest project (some of the city’s first long-term rental suites) nearby, explained that the building was once part of the Nuestra Señora de la Concordia temple. Its patio is a famous example of Puebla Baroque architecture—and it’s gorgeous. OK, I was sold.

We followed our impromptu tour guide through giant wooden doors and down a long, narrow, dimly lit corridor to emerge inside a oddly decorated 17th-century church. It turns out that the once-Catholic nave has been taken over by Freemasons, who’ve pretty much destroyed the interior by painting grotesque pagan imagery on the walls. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry at the sight of their handiwork. (See photos below.) Fortunately, the exquisite central patio of the building remains mostly intact, for now.

Freemasons’ handiworkFreemasons’ handiwork

“The building that houses the most beautiful facade in the historic center today is in ruin due to neglect of state authorities,” complains the local magazine Revista 360. “[The annex] was once part of the retreat house for the Concordia priests of St. Philip Neri. This complex is famous for being the site where the Iguala Plan was printed. It also housed the city’s first newspaper.”

The building’s exterior — at least the part facing the central patio — features a truly spectacular array of inlaid Talavera tiles. It was designed, circa 1676, by architect Carlos García Durango, who was responsible for various religious structures in Puebla. (He finished the north tower of the Cathedral, among other projects.) The Patio de los Azulejos alone is definitely worth a visit; however, it’s unclear whether the site is open to the public or whether we just happened to pass by on a day when the Masons were profiling foreign “tourists” to ask for donations. … We chipped in 70 pesos.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

The Patio de los Azulejos is located at 11 Poniente #111 (between 3 Sur and 16 de Septiembre) in the historic center of Puebla.

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Posadas in Puebla, from Traditional to “Punk Rock”

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Piñata and sparklersLas posadas are a long-running Christmas tradition in Mexico, where they were introduced by Spanish Catholics some 400 years ago. In the strictest sense, the events re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter in the days leading up to the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25. The religious celebrations often involve a procession and the construction of a manger.

“The nine nights of posadas leading up to Christmas are said to represent the nine months that Jesus spent in Mary’s womb, or alternatively, to represent nine days journey to Bethlehem,” notes Suzanne Barbezat of Discover Oaxaca Tours.

Posada literally means “inn” or “shelter” in Spanish. However, in modern-day Puebla, the word is often used as a synonym for “holiday party” featuring carols, piñatas, sparklers, hot beverages like ponche or atole, and the distribution of aguinaldos (“bonuses,” in this case gift bags filled with cookies, candies, nuts, and fruit). We attended a “punk rock posada” last night that involved many of those things but catered to an alternative crowd and thus featured mezcal and indie music. And, although we filled the piñatas with traditional ingredients — sugar cane, mandarin oranges, whole peanuts, tejocotes, guavas, and baby jicamas — one of them was a traditional star and the other was a caricature of the Yo Soy 132 movement.

Interested in attending a posada? The Museo Amparo hosts one tonight at 6, for 80 pesos per person.

—Rebecca Smith Hurd

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Gold Décor Gives Puebla Chapel a Heavenly Glow

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Templo de Sto. DomingoOn April 16, 1690, hundreds of people thronged the flower-strewn streets of downtown Puebla to inaugurate the Capilla del Rosario, or the Chapel of the Rosary. The celebration in and around the chapel lasted a full 10 days. Although the drawn-out festivities may seem somewhat extravagant now, when you consider that the ornate chapel — a shining example of Mexican Baroque architecture — at the time was regarded as the “8th wonder of the world,” the celebration was more than fitting. Today the architectural jewel, resplendent in gilded stucco, is a must-see for any visitor to this UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

The Capilla del Rosario and the larger temple in which it resides, Santo Domingo, were actually built at different times. The construction of the main church began in 1571, and the majority was completed by 1611; the final touches were worked out in 1659. In 1650, friar Juan de Cuenca conceived the chapel to demonstrate the Dominican order’s devotion to the Virgin of the Rosary and to help convert the masses to Catholicism. To achieve this goal, he made sure that the chapel would outshine any other people had seen before. Thus, its use of gold leaf, onyx stone, and talavera tile is, in a word, stunning.

Visitors only need to spend a few moments inside the chapel to realize the master craftsmanship involved in creating it.

Oil paintings also decorate the space. A transplant from Mexico City, José Rodriguez Carnero, painted many of the canvases. His images depict scenes from the birth of Christ, the mysterious joys of the rosary, and the coronation of Mary, in somber tones that neatly contrast the gilded plaster.

The dome of the Capilla del RosarioThe ceiling of the chapel nave features gilded stucco.Artist José Rodriguez Carnero painted many of the canvases in the chapel.The centerpiece of the sanctuary is the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who almost appears to float in midair. The gold canopy surrounding her came from the hands of Lucas Pinto, an Iberian artisan, and the columns were carved of stone from nearby Tecali de Herrera. Multiple saints adorn the walls surrounding the altar: At left are Mary’s husband, St. Joseph, and her cousin St. Elizabeth, who was the mother of St. John the Baptist. At right are her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. On the next tier up, you’ll note 16 virgin martyrs, each holding the instrument of her death.

While surveying the grandeur of this chapel, I’ve often pondered how a society that grappled with poverty could invest so much in a house of worship. Yet donations from rich and poor alike paid for the realization of the Capilla del Rosario: People of lesser economic means gave what they could to garner the protection of Mary, while the rich were promised burials within the chapel. (It is unclear how many, if any, are indeed buried here.) In more recent history, thanks to a donation from the Mary Street Jenkins Foundation, a team of restorers rejuvenated the noblest characteristics of the chapel between 1967 and 1971.

During any visit, be sure to examine the chapel carefully, slowly, from front to back, ceiling to floor. Try to gaze at the walls from every angle, from various directions, to see how many details you notice. The best time to visit is in the late afternoon: When the sun comes down through the windows, the gold leaf shines brighter than usual and fills the space with a heavenly glow. It’s a sight you simply should not miss.

—Laura McKelvie

The Templo de Santo Domingo and Capilla del Rosario are located at the corner of 4 Poniente and Calle 5 de Mayo, a short walk from the city’s main square. Hours: 8 a.m.-1 p.m. (2 p.m. on Sundays) and 4-8:30 p.m. daily.

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Touring Two of Cholula’s Magnificent Churches

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Fans of religious architecture shouldn’t miss a visit to San Andrés Cholula, where two churches — Santa María Tonantzintla and San Francisco Acatepec — provide magnificent examples of local craftsmanship and the region’s blended Spanish-indigenous influence. Each structure is special and important in its own way, with one displaying its splendor on the inside and the other on the outside.

Tonantzintla's relatively plain facade gives visitors no indication of the splendor inside.Santa María Tonantzintla could be one of the most enchanting places of worship ever constructed in Mexico. Located just six miles from downtown Puebla in San Andrés Cholula, the 17th-century church uniquely fuses European and native designs, a style of architecture known today as indigenous baroque. Inspired by the stunning Capilla del Rosario in the nearby city of Puebla, Tonantzintla’s architects tried to give their church a more local, realistic feel. Tonantzintla is adorned mostly with colorful plaster in place of gilded stucco.

The name Tonantzintla, which means “place of our little mother” in Nahuatl, comes from the Aztec goddess Tonantzin, the earth mother who became the equivalent of the Virgin Mary when the Spaniards conquered the pre-Hispanic world. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much: Crude figures of St. Peter, St. Paul, and the Virgin Mary greet visitors from their perch atop an austere facade (see photo, at right above). But its magnificence quickly becomes apparent inside. The walls are completely covered with ornate plaster molds and models, which are colorfully painted or coated with gold. It’s an explosion of shapes, symbols, and meanings. And, although the figures and faces are rough, childlike, and less elegant than those typically found in other Baroque churches in México, they are equally breathtaking.

Tonantzintla's walls are covered with plaster molds and models, either colorfully painted or coated with gold.“The church of Santa María Tonantzintla is a required visit for anyone who wants to enjoy a spiritual atmosphere that’s ‘out of this world,’” notes architect Ignacio Cabral in his book, Religious Architecture in San Andrés Cholula, Puebla. “The fruits, flowers, children, faces, masks, birds, figures of saints and more together form an extraordinary mosaic — a frank ‘horror vacui,’ or fear of empty space — that is so typical of the Baroque style and here is interpreted in an indigenous fashion.”

What merits the most attention, Cabral continues, is Tonantzintla’s dome, which is like no other in Mexico. “It’s a ‘celestial vision’ of the indigenous world as they imagined it and captured it with their own hands … a magnificent example of the union of Mexican and European [cultures] and of the syncretism between Christianity and the indigenous worldview.”

The church operates autonomously from the Archdiocese of Puebla and is supported and promoted by the community. Signs in the church forbid tourists from taking any photographs inside, with or without flash, to preserve the paint’s colors (they make exceptions during weddings, which is how we got our shots). Post cards may be purchased at the entrance; the money collected goes toward maintenance efforts.

San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of the Baroque talavera style in Mexico.Less than a mile from Tonantzintla, San Francisco Acatepec offers one of the finest examples of viceregal architecture and Baroque talavera in Mexico. Upon arrival at Acatepec, the first thing visitors notice is its beautiful facade, which is entirely covered by locally produced ceramic tiles. The handcrafted pieces are so intricately painted that they appear to change colors with the weather: When the sun shines, the reddish hues catch fire; when it’s cloudy, the cobalt blue tones seem to complement the gray sky. The vivid details and ornamentation are characteristic of Puebla’s trademark pottery, a centuries-old traditional art that continues today. “The magnificence of the façade is such that it looks like a porcelain temple, worth being kept under glass,” renowned Colonial art historian Don Manuel Toussaint once noted.

The church — built during the same era Tonantzintla — is named after its original village, Acatepec, which means “hill of reeds” in Nahuatl, and the patron saint of the new church, St. Francis. Sadly, on December 31, 1939, a fire destroyed its original interior, which featured carved cedar altars and gold-covered stucco details.

Some 15 years before the disaster, an engineer named Alberto Pani made a series of books called Churches of Mexico, which depicted 17th- and 18th-century churches to demonstrate the architectural richness of the country. To present them in the best way possible, he worked with one of the nation’s top photographers, Guillermo Kahlo. (If the last name sounds familiar, it’s because he was Frida’s father. Yes, that Frida!) Based on these pictures, the interior of San Francisco Acatepec was largely reconstructed in 1941, and, although it is nowhere as complete as the original, it’s still stunning — and well worth checking out. —Vica Amuchastegui

Both churches are accessible by taxi and bus, including the Cholula Tranvia, which departs from the zócalo of Puebla at 11 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday. (Adult tickets: 100 pesos.) The churches are open to the public every day from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Post updated November 6, 2013.

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A Crown Jewel of the Conquest in Calpan

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

The Franciscan Monastery in Calpan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.San Andrés Calpan isn’t the kind of place that most tourists would stumble upon by accident. Situated on the skirts of the Popocatépetl volcano, about 23 miles west of the Puebla capital, this small farming town is known mostly for producing tejocotes and other fruits, including those celebrated in the patriotic regional dish chiles en nogada. But Calpan wasn’t always off the beaten path: Back in the 16th century, it was a key stop along the Spaniards’ route from Veracruz to Mexico City.

Calpan was founded in pre-Hispanic times by Toltecs and Chichimecas but inhabited by Nahuas, who gave the city its primary name, which means “place with many houses” in Nahautl. Conquistador Hernán Cortés himself later occupied a home here, certified local tour guide Consuelo Jiménez Asomoza told us during a recent visit. After discovering that what the area lacked in gold it made up for in agricultural richness, Cortés issued his first land grants in Calpan, dividing up the acreage (and its native residents) among his senior-ranking officers as a means of paying them for their service, she explains. The site’s pyramid, a tribute to the plumed serpent-god Quezalcóatl, was then dismantled and its stones repurposed in the building of a religious complex—a monastery, church, and four standalone outdoor chapels, or capillas posas—dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle (San Andrés in Spanish). Construction dates from 1548.

If you look closely, you’ll find the recycled indigenous stones—half of ball-court ring here, irregularly sized pyramid blocks there—in the walls of the 16th-century Catholic complex.

The capillas posas feature Christian and indigenous imagery in their detail.The capillas posas feature Christian and indigenous imagery in their detail.Today a UNESCO World Heritage Center, the monastery—still used by monks for prayer services—is open to the public. Its architecture features exquisite craftsmanship that blends European and indigenous symbolism in intricate fashion. “Aside from the elegant, tall façade of the church, the most important elements at Calpan are the extraordinary capillas posas, related in style and period to those at Huejotzingo,” Mexican art expert Joseph Armstrong Baird writes in his 1962 book, The Churches of Mexico: 1530-1810. “Each posa has a different top, and the moldings and ornamental crestings are remarkably varied.” For example, one depicts the Blessed Virgin’s ascent to heaven, surrounded by angels; the wings of the four cherubs nearest to Mary are crossed in an “x,” which is a Nahua symbol for death. On another, clam shells evoke the pilgrimage of St. James the Apostle in northern Spain next to a heart that’s been divided into four chambers; inside, a sacrificial altar features a vessel for the vital organ’s offering.

In 2009, El Universal newspaper referred to Calpan’s outdoor chapels as “the most important in all of Latin America.” The site is certainly worthy of a detour off more modern, well-traveled roads through Puebla.

El Convento Franciscano del Siglo XVI is open daily, 9am-1pm and 4-7pm. Admission is free, but visitors are asked to make a small donation to support current efforts to restore the church’s interior, which in recent years was damaged by an earthquake and a fire. Calpan may be reached from downtown Puebla by private car or public transit (take the R1 bus from the “San Pablito” esplanade on 18 Poniente between 9 and 11 Norte; the hour-long ride takes you through Cholula and Huejotzingo). For more information, contact the city tourism office at (222) 114-0864.

To read about more stories about Puebla on our blog, click here.

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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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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.

Huaquechula

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 EscapeAtlixco.com, 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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Burning Man Meets County Fair in Cholula

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Conquering a continent isn’t easy, especially when its indigenous people do not subscribe to your belief system. Back in the 16th century, the Spaniards decided that the best way to overcome religious dissent in the New World was to dismantle or diminish important indigenous structures. In Cholula, one of the oldest continually occupied sites in the Americas, Cortes and his cohorts built a Catholic church on top of the Great Pyramid and started honoring their own patron saint (in this case, the virgin of the remedies) on the same day that the locals paid homage to their most revered gods.

Fast-forward a few hundred years and ancient and modern beliefs have fused into a single, glorious celebration. The festivities begin a week prior, when Cholutecans from various neighborhoods lead a midnight procession through town, bearing lanterns and images of the virgin. Much to everyone’s relief, we imagine, the practice of sacrificing a local resident to Quetzalcoatl or another pre-Hispanic god on Sept. 8 — now the virgin’s feast day in Cholula — has evolved into an entirely symbolic gesture. After the final Mass celebrated at the church, worshipers today burn a chubby paper-mâché doll with fireworks instead of offing a real person. This human stand-in, called el panzón for its big belly, is stuffed with apples that fall out as the doll goes up in flames.

A vendor sells regional breads at the Cholula street fair.

“The annual fair of Cholula is a sample of the folklore and the way of life of the people from this area,” city officials say.

People from all parts of Puebla and adjacent states travel to Cholula to pay their respects to the virgin and the ancient religious site. The market that centuries ago naturally occurred at the base of the pyramid, as the result of so many merchants and farmers coming to town, in 1950 evolved into an annual regional fair. The 2010 Feria Milenaria runs through Sept. 16 in San Pedro Cholula. The line of street vendors literally stretches from the pyramid, up the main drag, to the zócalo. Visitors can sample all sorts of regional specialties, from pan de nata to pulque, purchase arts & crafts and household wares, and enjoy carnival-style thrill rides. The city’s tourism chief told local press that he expects 100,000 people to attend this year.

Photo credit (El Panzón): Isabel Muñiz Montero, 2007

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