Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Monarch Butterly Reserve in Michoacán

Monarch butterflies from Canada, the Great Lakes and eastern U.S. migrate some 3,000 miles south each fall to mountaintops in Michoacán, central Mexico, to hibernate. It´s considered one of the world´s great animal migrations.

We hiked from the village of El Rosario up to the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, a cool fir and pine forest at about 10,000 feet. Until 1975, scientists who study the butterfly were unaware of this hibernation site. Now it´s supposedly protected, but it´s surrounded by villages of poor folks who are unemployed and need money. Logging is a source of income.

The Wall Street Journal just did an article on the efforts to protect the Reserve. An article in a Michoacán newspaper tells about World Wildlife Fund activities to encourage preservation and recovery of forest illegally harvested in the reserve.

It´s estimated that some 100 million to 200 million monarchs winter here. This photo by Cindy shows how they huddle together on branches for warmth. The day we were there was sunny, so a few were moving around to get water. They live off fat reserves stored up during their migration to tide them over to February, when they become active again, and migrate north to Texas and Oklahoma where they mate and lay eggs.

In a kind of relay, the monarchs produce several generations as they migrate north, reproduce and die off. It is only the generation that hatches in late summer that migrates south and lives for eight or nine months. More information on the migration is here.

This is part of the El Rosario community, which charges admission to the site and maintains the surrounding areas. They operate dozens of little souvenir and food stands along the route up to the reserve.

We stayed in Zitácuaro the night before going up to the reserve. It´s a very busy provincial town, not very attractive, but the hotel, the Maria Fernanda, was excellent and cheap.

Here is another interesting site with lots of information about the how and when of the monarch migration.

My friend from UConn, Steve Kemper, who writes about wildlife and science for a variety of publications, did this piece on animal migration for National Wildlife, which mentions monarchs.

And of course there is an article on Wikipedia.

Tlalpujahua, with mines of silver and gold
After visiting the reserve we stayed in Tlalpujahua, which bills itself as the Magic Pueblo, and it truly is a lovely small place with lots of interesting buildings.

The town´s wealth came from silver and gold mines, which explains how a little place like this could have such a magnificent church.

The town´s cobbled streets and well preserved colonial architecture captured Cindy´s eye.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Pátzcuaro, charming lakeside town

We arrived on Christmas Eve. The town, in the state of Michoacán, was packed with holiday shoppers. Parents were buying their children piñatas. This little girl had two, and put Santa on the donkey.

The colonial architecture has been carefully preserved. Even the Oxxo (a convenience chain) has a discreet sign painted on the wall by its entrance, just like all the other commercial establishments.

Some of the faithful approached the Nativity scene on their knees, to show their devotion.

A street vendor offers a foldup crib made of colorful string. He has a hammock over his shoulder.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas under the Volcano in Michoacán

The volcano of Paricutín, center, emerged from a cornfield in 1943 and rose to a height of about 1,500 feet above the surrounding area.

We went to see the volcano and passed through the nearby Indian village of Angahuan, where they were putting up Christmas decorations at the church. Kids here grow up speaking the native language, called Tarasco, and learn Spanish in school. About 100,000 people speak Tarasco, also called Purépecha.

According to the Mexican census, 6 million Mexicans speak one of some 62 indigenous languages as their first language. Nahautl, the language of the Aztecs, and Maya are the most common. Here are the statistics, by language, from the Mexican government´s own website. Some 720,000 speak only their indigenous language.

The main industry in the town is hosting tourists who want to ride a horse or hike a couple miles to the site of a church that was buried, along with a town of 7,000, by a lava flow, and to the nearby volcano, Paricutín.

All that remains of the town is the church, which dates to 1620. The lava completely filled the nave and reached to the choir level of the church.

No one was killed by the lava flow because it was the blocky, slow-moving type -- faster than a glacier, but slower than a river. It took about a year for the lava to reach the church, several miles from the cone. I remember reading about Paricutín in a comic book when I was a kid. The image of this volcano popping up out of a cornfield stuck with me. Here is a geologist´s description of a visit to the site.

The villagers have about 200 horses that they use to take tourists over the rough ground to the volcano. Kids as young as 6 or 7 lead the horses.

In the national park in Uruapan, we took in the waterfalls, a group of strolling musicians and snapped a few photos of family groups snapping photos. More photos of the park here.

Not far from Uruapan, in Tingambato, we saw the ruins of a ball court, pyramid and other ceremonial buildings built about 1500 years ago and then abandoned.

The Museum of the Dead in Aguascalientes celebrates the figure of Death in Mexican mythology. Death is part of life, a continuation of the cycle. Death makes life possible. This is Death in the garb of a bishop.
The Pope probably wouldn´t approve of the Mexican worship of Death, but it is part of the Catholic culture here, a syncretic mixture of faiths. The Mayans and Aztecs both practiced human sacrifice as a way to ensure that life would continue -- that the sun would stay in the sky, that the rains would come, that the harvest would be bountiful. The deaths of the victims were meant to thank the gods for life.
I liked this museum more than Cindy did. She liked this cemetery in Angahuan. Somehow it seems more festive than the cemeteries we´re used to.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

El Zapatazo, or the Big Shoe Thing with Bush

In Latin America the recent shoe-throwing incident involving President Bush is called the Zapatazo, literally The Big Shoe incident.

My favorite comic strip, Tales of Cops and Robbers, starts every day with a seedy looking crook pulling out a gun and saying, “This is a holdup.”

But the day after the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq, the robber shows up demanding money and the teller says, "Well you don't have a gun, I'll have to speak to the manager."  The manager says, "Our policy is not to hand over money unless the person has a gun."

Whereupon a shoe flies at the manager's head, then another.

They hand over the money, and the robber is back home with his buddy, who asks, "Where are your shoes?" To which he replies, "Let's just call them my weapons of mass destruction."

Trino's weirdly funny official site is here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The death of the newspaper boy

It says in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times that home delivery of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News will be cut back drastically in a cost-cutting move.

Delivering newspapers used to be a lucrative occupation for a kid. In the 1950s and 1960s, the kid who had a Cleveland Plain Dealer route was like the owner of a sports franchise. It was a monopoly -- you bought the rights to a territory, and it was a license to print money. Everyone on the block took the paper, and I took home $12 a week.

Kids don´t deliver newspapers any more, for a variety of reasons. Parents gave too much credence to TV reports of child abductions and wouldn´t let their kids go out in the dark.

Adults take over
Adults wanted the work and could do it in a more businesslike fashion. No more would the kid show up every week at your door asking for 75 cents -- the new way was to pay with a check by mail or a credit card. And an adult with a pickup truck could deliver several hundred papers in a morning compared to maybe 50 by a kid.

The newspaper delivery service by this former newspaper carrier, though, was way better than what any adults provided. Drive-by adult delivery meant your paper ended up on the lawn or the driveway. From my older brothers I had learned to fold and throw a paper so that it ended up just below the door on the side with the doorknob. The customer barely had to open the door to retrieve the paper. On windy days I put it inside the storm door.

Having kids deliver papers turned out to be too troublesome for the newspapers. Now it turns out, it´s too much trouble to deliver the papers at all. That might be a small part of the problem newspapers are having. Not the biggest, but a sign of losing touch with their customers.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The circular pyramids of Guachimontones

Nobody knows for sure who built a series of some dozen circular pyramids in Guachimontones. It´s only in the last 10 years that archeologists have been working this site, which is about an hour northwest of Guadalajara.

Archeologists believe the constructions began about 2,000 years ago and that the site was abandoned after a major fire 400 years later.

Many of the pyramids have not been excavated and are overgrown with bushes and trees. It´s a lovely place to go for an afternoon. There are wildflowers and beautiful countryside spread along a lake far below. You can see why someone would build something sacred here. It has a magic to it.

The day we went there was a youth group dressed in native garb performing dances and invoking ancient gods and goddesses.

Our daughter Bridget was here visiting for a few days and came with us to the pyramids.

I never saw an arcade that I didn´t like. This one is on the town square in Teuchtitlán, near Guachimontones.

Kids dress up for Virgin of Guadalupe

Dec. 12 is the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Sanctuary named for her in Guadalajara is the site of a festival every year. The children don native dress to honor Juan Diego, the Nahuatl to whom Mary, the mother of God, appeared in 1531. The dark-skinned Virgin told him in his native tongue that a church should be built on the site, which is near Mexico City. In order to help Juan Diego convince a reluctant bishop, she made her image appear on his tunic, considered a miracle.

Thousands of people come to this sanctuary all day long to hear mass and to leave flowers at the shrine of the Virgin. The streets are lined with vendors, and there are carnival rides in the square outside the church.
We came in the morning, and there was a steady flow of people into the church. We were told that in the afternoon and evening, even more people come and all the streets around the church are blocked off.
The Virgin of Guadalupe is known locally as the Virgen Morena, or dark-skinned virgin, and is associated with the Aztec Goddess Tonantzin. Mixing of cultures and traditions is common in Mexico. It´s only confusing if you try to find a logical explanation. Ideas merge and morph according to the times and the needs of the people who invent them.

If you want to see what professional photographers can do with a photo opportunity like this, check out the work in Publico and Informador. Informador has some great shots inside the church.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Top women journalists blast Mexican media

(Carmen Aristegui left, Lydia Cacho and Sanjuana Martínez at the International Journalism Conference in Guadalajara, photo by José María Martínez Burgos)

Three impressive women journalists unloaded on the Mexican media at a journalists´ conference in Guadalajara.

I had heard a lot about Carmen Aristegui, CNN correspondent for Latin America, and I had seen her on TV. I was even more impressed with her in person as she dissected the monopoly practices in Mexican television.

Lydia Cacho has gained fame worldwide for exposing pederasty rings, including one involving a prominent businessman who was protected by the complaisant governor of the state of Puebla.

And Sanjuana Martínez is the investigative journalist from the magazine Proceso who lost her job for pressing an investigation into the sexual predations of Catholic priests on young people.

The Televisa Law
Aristegui pointed out that the Televisa and Azteca networks, whose dominance of the airwaves was strengthened by a 2006 law passed under questionable circumstances, has robbed Mexicans of alternative sources and interpretations of the news.

These two networks own a 90 percent share of the Mexican TV audience and 90 percent of TV revenues. The law that protects this duopoly was rushed through the Mexican Congress with little scrutiny.

You can read her remarks in Spanish in La Jornada de Jalisco:

The elegance of self-censorship

Self-censorship is much more efficient and much more elegant than censorship, she said. Censorship is crude. Media bosses prefer to create an environment where self-censorship is the rule.

It´s convenient for journalists to censor themselves to avoid confronting the medium´s owner or the owner´s friends, or to avoid ruffling feathers.

The newspaper Informador also covered the event. It quoted Sanjuana Martínez as saying that self-censorship is a daily occurrence in Mexican newsrooms to avoid making various powers that be uncomfortable.

“Journalists have to ask the questions that the public wants answered, since those who don´t live up to their commitment to society are betraying the public´s right to be informed.“

The three journalists agreed that Mexican media have an unwritten code of not criticizing each other, which makes it easier for media owners to kill relevant stories and not worry about negative consequences.