Why be a pilgrim?

So why do people walk the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain? There are as many reasons as there are pilgrims, but they can be organized in several logical categories.

Like pilgrims from the Middle Ages to the present, the largest category would be religious/spiritual.  Originally this would have been a primarily Catholic endeavor, as Catholics were encouraged to go on pilgrimage to various shrines, including Santiago, where the bones of St James were allegedly discovered. Now there is an equal number of “spiritual, not religious” types who go on pilgrimage to re-center their minds, disconnect from the electronic chatter of modern life, or strip life to the bare essentials and engage more honestly with other people. This last point is a common refrain from peregrinos (pilgrims): on the camino, you have only what you need, so you eliminate the artifice of modern society and have more meaningful relationships with your fellow pilgrims.

Another large group is seeking simple self-improvement. They want to lose weight, quit smoking or kick some other bad habit, get in shape, or simplify one’s life. There are some similarities here to the first group, but without any specific spiritual content. Smaller sets of pilgrims are on vacation, after a personal accomplishment, or do it just because it is there.

For whatever reasons pilgrims have, the numbers have been consistently increasing. Last year over 300,000 walked the Camino Frances, with the frequency diagram displaying a familiar normal distribution (I promised no math, but this is statistics) centered on the Summer months.

The trend continued to >300,000 in 2017
This counts “completions” with most taking 30-45 days

To receive the official completion certificate, or Compostela, you need only complete the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Frances. When you arrive in Santiago, they ask whether you walked for religious/spiritual reasons or for other reasons.  If the former, you receive a Latin script Compostela attesting to your accomplishment; if the latter, your certificado is in Spanish. If you wish, for a few Euros you can also receive a certificate of distance which attests to the actual time and distance hiked.

Whatever one’s motivation, one theme among peregrinos is consistent: how well pilgrims treat one another, and how well pilgrims are treated by their Spanish hosts. Out on the camino, people share with and care for each other. The small towns, some of which only survive by association with the camino, provide a warm welcome. Stories abound of services provided or help rendered by anonymous pilgrims to those in need.  Likewise, there are numerous tales of pilgrims finding “no room at the inn” and being taken to stay in local’s homes. There are exceptions, but crime or simple boorish behavior stand out mostly as exceptions to the rule of good behavior.

This is the magic of the camino, and what really brings many pilgrims to come back and walk the camino over and over.

As for me, I am walking in thanksgiving. From early on when my wife Judy and I considered walking the camino, I saw it as a way of saying “thank you” to God for good health, a great family, a satisfying career, and all the other blessings I have received. We’ll spend time every day giving thanks, looking to help others (or maybe accepting help from others–that’s a blessing too) and praying. If you have a prayer request, let me know!

Why not be an expat?

As I pass the first anniversary of life as an expat, I am tempted to review the good and bad aspects of it. If you read my blog, you already know I find the balance tilted to the positive side. However, I have noted several times that expat life is not for everyone. So what are the reasons that would make expat life–especially expat life in Mexico–disagreeable for the average American?

The top reason on my list would be healthcare. It is at the top not because one cannot find quality doctors and hospitals: in Mexico, you can. Rather, it tops the list because healthcare is so critically important to one’s physical and financial well-being that if you have any doubt about your situation in either case (financial- or health-wise), you must question whether you’re expat material. If you don’t have portable health insurance, won’t qualify for another nation’s healthcare, don’t have money to buy insurance locally or in reserve to cover health emergencies, expat life may not be for you.

Likewise, if you have serious health problems, you want to think twice about expat life. Medical culture, like all culture, varies in every country. Figuring out what your doctor really means, regardless of whatever he or she says (and in what language), is difficult enough when you are familiar with the culture. Levels of care vary, not because one system is more or less caring, but because different systems have different views on what is appropriate. Any friction in healthcare is major friction, because it is literally a matter of life or death. Failing health (coupled with an inability to cover escalating costs) is the leading reason expats return home.

Second on the list is family matters. How close and frequent are your relationships with your immediate or extended family? If you live in the same town as your extended family, and you get together several times a week and are always available to one another, you may find expat life to be too disconnecting. One must be very honest about this issue. If I was still working (which would have been necessary were I not an expat), I would be limited in the time I could spend with my grandchildren. Expat life freed up my time, which enables more and better time with them. However, my family has always been all over the map (literally), and even my closest grandchild was a solid hour away from my last home near DC. Here in Mexico, I am a four hour plane ride away from them, but my calendar is clear, so I can drop by pretty easily (like we did over the MLK holiday this year). In the meantime, we skype on a regular basis. I am blessed that my immediate family has few (almost none, really) health or personal issues. If you need that close daily family interaction, or have family members who need your personal attention, expat life may be a bridge too far.

Next would be your flexibility. There are a few hardy souls who thrive in the absence of any routine; you usually see them on adventure TV shows. Most of us need some level of routine, or certainty, to be comfortable.  As an expat, you are inherently out of your comfort zone. Can you adapt to it? It comes in all shapes and sizes: when I go the local Walmart (familiar), they may be no potato chip brands or flavors I recognize.  A left turn signal can mean almost anything. Russet potatoes are difficult to find. You should say “buenos dias” to people you pass on the street, and that changes to “buenos tardes” at noon and “buenas noches” after dark. Shrimp cocktail is a form of cold, spicy soup. Asking for directions is asking for trouble. Butter contains no salt, and there is no caramel. Mañana means sometime.

None of these points is important, but collectively they represent a lot of turbulence. As an expat, there are times when you start to think you are building a routine, and then you’re hit with several changes all at once.  If you aren’t flexible enough to change with such challenges, you may find expat life unsettling.

Someone’s villa grande is just around the bend

How do you feel when you are confronted with abject poverty? Poverty exists side-by-side with wealth in Mexico. Begging is not considered a sign of poor character: some people are just worse off, and they beg to make ends meet. If you go out where there are groups of people (like the market, a shopping center, a soccer match) you will run into people begging, children selling fruit or junk or trinkets, or perhaps a handicapped person offering to wash your car. If you say no, they leave you alone. No one gets angry about their entreaties. If you give them some money, they will be very grateful; around the corner will be more of the same. You have to pick and choose where you drop your coins, and saying no is never fun. If this scene pulls too hard on your heartstrings, maybe you’re not an expat.

Closely related to the poverty issue is, surprisingly, pets (especially in Mexico). I have heard more than one expat lament the way dogs are treated here: some folks become so upset they return home.  Dogs are just a useful appliance here; they are not pets in the North American concept (I rarely even see cats here). One sees roof-dogs which live out in the hot tropical sun with the sole purpose of alerting owners if anyone approaches the property. Street dogs are common, lazing alongside the roads, many limping from a close encounter of the vehicular kind.  Seeing a dog’s body in the road is not at all unusual. As long as a dog performs a useful task, they are given some minimal shelter and food; if they dont, they are set loose. Local governments wait until they get complaints about dog packs, then they set out poison to eliminate the problem. As a lifelong dog owner, it is heartbreaking, but I also realize many Mexicans do not have the resources to spend on pets as luxury items. If sad dog stories are too much for you, you’ll need to toughen up to be an expat.

These are the top five facets of expat life which make it something not everyone can embrace (in my opinion). As an expat, I can attest to the fact that many confront these situations and negotiate them successfully to become expats. Some expats choose to be snowbirds, spending colder months down here and warmer months back home.  This helps address the expat challenges I mentioned, but also adds the cost of maintaining two residences.

As I said at the beginning, I think the positives outweigh the negatives. With more and more baby boomers retiring every day, we are seeing a significant increase in new arrivals lakeside. I hope they are considering the challenges I have discussed above; if not they face more than a little disappointment.

Getting Registered

Over the past few weeks, I had the opportunity to complete some of those little administrative tasks with which we are all familiar, and which are just as important for an expat.

First, I had to renew my car’s registration. This proved fairly easy and cost only $500 MXP ($ 25 USD) since I got a 10% discount for paying right away. Such discounts are common in Mexico, including on things like speeding tickets and property taxes. One small complication with the process was that the Mexican government now demands you provide an RFC # when registering/renewing your car. RFC stands for Registro Federal de Contribuyentes.  It is a way for the government to better track people for tax purposes; you need an RFC for most major transactions (buying/selling cars, houses, etc.).  This is especially important in Mexico, where so much business is done “off the books” to avoid taxes. You can get an RFC number online through a fairly easy process; once you have it, it stays with you as long as you are a resident. I have one last administrative requirement for my automobile: sometime before April, I’ll need to take the car in for an emissions inspection.

Finally, I completed the transition from Residente Temporal to Residente Permanente.  I paid a fee and filled out the documents attesting to my resident address and my retirement income. The last step was to get fingerprinted (again), and now I too (along with my dear wife) have an official green card issued by the Mexican government.  What does it mean? I  never have to update or renew my status–hence the term permanente.  I use the “Mexicanos” lines when entering or leaving the country instead of using the “foreigners” lines. What else? I must pay taxes if I make any income in Mexico (which was always the case, but I won’t be making any income, so whatever). I am eligible for Mexican health care (Seguro Popular or IMSS), and I can apply for a Mexican capital gains tax exemption if I ever sell my casa. I can’t vote here, and I can no longer own a foreign-plated vehicle in Mexico. That’s the deal.

The biggest advantage with Resident Permanente is not having to renew your status or pay anything ever again.  While the Mexican federal government sometimes changes the rules and charges for tourists and temporary residents, it leaves permanentes alone.  Some expats go all the way to getting Mexican citizenship, but as far as I can see that only lets you vote. I’m sick enough of politics in my home country to not want to engage in it here!


Anybody who has known me for even a short time knows I don’t like surprises. In fact, I really don’t like surprises. There is a reason I have never had a surprise party, and why I spent so much of my career doing strategic planning or scenarios exercises, all to eliminate or mitigate the effects of surprise.

Our LR mini-split sits serenely

So the past few weeks have been a lesson in patience as I deal with some surprises. The first came when we contracted to have two mini-split style air conditioning units installed in our casa: one in the living room, one in the bedroom. As I previously posted, the a/c is only necessary  for a few weeks in May and June, but we figured why endure even that if it’s not necessary? The vendor came from Guadalajara; he told us it would take a little more than a day to complete. Today we are on day three, stretching over the weekend, because they ran out of cable on Friday, but that is no longer surprising after a year in Mexico. What was a surprise was late on day one, when I heard the vendor yelling “Señor, señor! El Agua!” I ran outside, where they were installing the condenser unit on top of my bodega. There was the youngest member of the team, valiantly sitting on top of the ledge and pushing with all his strength on a power drill, while water gushed straight up at him from the water pipe he had just drilled through.

Picture a young man kneeling on that ledge…
The blue pipe was agua

Did I mention it was a power drill? As in an electrical device, still plugged in? Surrounded by gushing water?  Visions of lawsuits danced in my head, but then I remembered this is Mexico, and a lawyer is not the first resort in every case. We got the young man and the drill out of harm’s way, then went to turn off the water. Now I had been told that the water shutoff was built into the carport floor, clearly marked agua. But when we opened it, (surprise!) there was a customized handle which we did not have the right key to turn off the water. It seems this is a municipal shut-off, not my home water shut-off. The water kept pouring out, luckily only in my carport and down the drain. We went searching for someone who might know where the shut-off was, and finally found the community groundskeeper, who calmly walked up to my exterior wall hedge, reached in, and turned off the water. Of course!

Not this one!
This one!






I never would have imagined a water line in the roof of my bodega (or a shut-off valve in my hedge), but it turns out that was where the builders ran the line to get water to my rooftop mirador. When all your utility lines are built into a stucco and brick structure, you can’t just tap on the wall or use a stud finder to see what’s underneath. So the vendor just drilled and hoped for the best; it worked well on the other three holes they drilled. We had a plumber come out and cap the line (for the moment). As I was typing this, the vendor just came to tell me my fuze box is configured differently than he expected, so now we have an electrician coming to address that. I am betting on day four.

Meanwhile, we are preparing for a possible visit back to the States to see our kids and grandkids.  I say possible because while I have airline tickets, I don’t yet have authorization from the Mexican government to leave. See I was on a one year temporary visa, set to expire February 1st, but I wanted to apply for a permanent resident visa (same as my dear wife already has). I knew we were planning a January visit, so I started the paperwork early in September: thus I would have my Permanente all done well beforehand. When we hit early December with no final status, I knew I was in trouble: Mexico goes on holiday from early December through January 6th, and I was flying January 11th!

Luckily, the Mexican government faces this issue all the time, so they have a procedure set up for gringos to apply for a special exception which lets us leave the country (and return) while we are still in process for our visa. I started my paper work the second week of December, and it usually take a week to complete, but I ran into the same holiday problem: no one at work to process my exception. Now, someone in my situation can always just get up and go and ignore the paperwork; no one is keeping me here. But if I leave without a visa or an exception, my status upon returning to Mexico is Tourist and I get to start the process all over again!

Final Update: sorry to those who saw this post earlier this week, before I finished it. I thought I was previewing it for editing, and I hit the publish button instead. So, the air conditioning team did finish on day three, despite my prediction. And today I got my special exception permit, so I can legally leave and return. I said many prayers this past week for patience, trusting it would all work out, and it did.  I still have a lot of room to grow in terms of patience, but then again, can you ever have too much?


Closing out the series on utilities, let’s talk television, telephone, and internet.

First, you have to understand that every country has rules and regulations (i.e., laws) on who can broadcast what within their borders. These rules go back to the dawn of the broadcast radio era, then were broadened and reinforced when television was invented. Cable television was a challenge to these rules, but could be accomodated. Satellite and streaming blow the national rules apart. So while it may be illegal for a US firm to broadcast its signals into Mexico, it is not your fault if you receive them. And if someone else receives a signal and resells it to you, they may be liable, but you probably are not. Perfectly clear? No, of course not, but this is useful background to understand the details I will cover now.

In Mexico, you can sign up for Mexican cable and satellite services as well as receive signals over-the-air. What you will get are channels in packages designed for the Mexican mass market, with some English language channels thrown in. If that does not satisfy your needs, you can buy a satellite dish from a US or Canadian provider and install it in Mexico; there are experts here waiting to assist you. The service provider is not supposed to provide service in Mexico, but they cannot control where you pick up their signal. If you let them know you are in Mexico, they will cancel your service, but if you don’t, you just pay them as you would if your home was in Toronto or Tampa. Sometimes the geography can pose complications. I hear that Shaw (a major Canadian satellite provider) is switching to a new satellite which is difficult to target from Mexico. Likewise, some packages available in the States may not be available in Mexico (I still don’t know exactly why). You can get a basic channel package for less than $100 dollars a month, which gets you the major networks, sports, and entertainment channels.

If you have a decent internet connection, you can watch television with devices such as Roku, Amazon Firestick, or Kodi, etc. These are vehicles to access content on the internet, which may require additional costs for the actual service provider (think Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, etc.). In some cases you just buy these services, but in some cases those pesky national laws interfere and you need a IP masker which fools the internet into thinking you are in whatever country you choose. Some enterprising individuals will also sell unlimited pay services which they are accessing and retransmitting. These deals are usually “too good to be true” in that they are violations of the copy- and broadcast-rights of the original service provider.  Service providers and access devices makers work together to shut down such pirate resellers, resulting in spotty service. Costs for streaming are very a la carte, meaning prices are all over the map and depend on what level of quality and access you desire.

Speaking of the interwebs, rural Mexico is where the US was 10 years ago. The main provider is TelMex, the phone system, in competition with Mexican cable providers like IZZI and Telecable. Most access is shared, meaning high-usage periods result in slow service, which is generally neither particularly high-speed nor consistent. We have 10 MBs download with about .5 MB upload via TelMex, sufficient to watch TV/streaming. There is a high-speed, fiber-optic cable system considering running direct service to our area this year, which would be a significant leap forward (say 50-75 MBs in a basic package). Some satellite internet service is available, but very expensive.  Despite this, many expats who work on the internet find ways to obtain sufficient bandwidth to work from lakeside.

The phone system in Mexico was only deregulated recently, so change is underway. Previously Telmex was a subsidiary (and a near monopoly) under América Móvil, which belongs to Carlos Slim; depending on his holdings and the value of the Peso, he is either the richest or one of the richest people on the planet on any given day. A basic landline or simple cell plan is very cheap, and often includes free calls to the US. Some expats keep their US cell plans, although if you use all your data continuously outside the States, they might cancel on you. Many expats use free or low-cost VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) systems such as Vonage or MagicJack. Different from the States, many Mexicans use WhatsApp, an asynchronous messaging application which permits voice, text, photo or video sharing either over cell data or wifi.

Phew! That is a lot to digest, and more importantly, it is changing all the time, so consider this a snapshot at best. The short version is: like most things, basic communications service in Mexico is inexpensive. As an expat, you can access most anything communications-wise you want to in Mexico, but it may not be easy or cheap.

But they still don’t have “any stinkin’ badges!”

Utility is a relative concept

I previously covered the ins and outs of electric power in Mexico. What about the other utilities? I’ll leave television, the internet, and phones for another day. Here are the other mainstays.

Let’s start with the postal system, or Correos de México. Getting mail directly from NOB to your home address is entirely a crap-shoot. It may disappear or it may show up months late. Based on some magazine subscriptions I transfered down as a test, you can anticipate a 3-4 month lag. However, there is a work-around: many expats sign up for local PO boxes in Texas and mail transfer services which (in effect) hand carry your snail mail down to lakeside. So if you have to have regular mail delivery, there is a way to get it. As to local mail, all I get are electric and telephone bills which always come on time. Regular mail is delivered to our development whenever the mailman has access to his bicycle. Package delivery varies: Amazon Mexico is pretty fast and consistent; some stateside ordering (including Amazon USA) can get hung up either because they don’t use international shipping services (think DHL for Mexico) or if there are customs issues with your order.

Roof top tinaco

Water varies in quality and type of service based on where you live.  Most municipal and well water is not potable, so folks have bottled water delivered in bulk for drinking and cooking. Most Mexican homes have a aljibe or cistern which gradually fills up from a low pressure municipal feed.  A pump moves the water from the cistern to a tinaco or water tank on the roof which provides a store of water under pressure, which is also heated by the sun (but that is as hot as it gets for those houses). Some expats add pumps and heaters to address the pressure and heat limitations. If you live in a more modern development, especially one built with expats in mind, you will probably have a community water system which is filtered and pressurized. We also have an infrared water purification filter for our house so whatever comes out of the faucet is as good as anywhere NOB. We have a propane water heater which provides ample hot water. Since the local water is very hard, we must use a water softener. Water costs us about $15 USD monthly, including our fountain and landscaping needs.

That mention of propane in the last paragraph was not a typo: propane is the fuel of choice in Mexico. We have a sizable propane tank in a bodega in front of our house, which a gas truck comes and tops off whenever we run low. We use propane for cooking, grilling, heating water and a single fireplace. A gas refill runs about $70 USD and lasts around five to six weeks. Gas trucks cruise the neighborhoods, playing unique company jingles over loudspeakers and always ready to refill a tank.

One of the smaller trash trucks

The trash team comes by on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. They ride a huge truck with giant trash bags hanging off the sides. They leap off the truck, grab whatever they find in or near the trash can, and toss it to the top where the other team members sort/throw it into the appropriate bag, and away they go. Trash fees are built into our homeowners association, which is approximately $90 a month (covers outside maintenance, security, etc).

Sewage is also covered by the HOA fee, and just disappears down to drain (as it should be). However, our situation is unique as again we live in a development built for expats and Tapatios (the nickname for people from Guadalajara). In most of Mexico outside the big cities, tourist and expat zones, the waste system is not designed for paper products. You’ll see signs in Spanish and English reminding you to throw all toilet paper in the trash can in the bathroom. This is a hard habit for many visitors and expats to adopt; the alternative is a clogged toilet. You must determine, before you buy/rent/visit, what type of waste system is in the casa you are considering.

Sorry for all the nitty-gritty details, but that’s a part of expat life!

We need more POWER

Actually, we don’t need more power, but we’re getting some anyway. We just had solar panels installed, which led me to reconsider one aspect of expat life in general: utilities.

Utilities are something you take for granted NOB. The water works and is potable, the electricity is always on and the voltage constant, mail is delivered whether “sleet or snow” and sewage just goes away. This is not always the case lakeside. Of course you pay for the luxury of not thinking about your utilities NOB, while here in Mexico we might pay less, with less certainty.

For example, consider electrical power. The line voltage can wax or wane, so you may need to purchase a voltage regulator, or use local appliances designed to operate in such conditions.  Power is generally stable here, although we do get occasional outages during especially powerful storms in the rainy season. Given we endured several such outages in our last apartment in Arlington, Virginia, I can hardly complain. My dear wife tells me our electric bills NOB for a small apartment averaged $105 monthly; I wouldn’t know, as I never paid a utility bill in my life (thanks, dear!). Like typical Americans, we had a TV running constantly, air conditioned/heated to 70 degrees year-round, and had all manner of computers and appliances plugged in continuously.

Electric power in Mexico is heavily subsidized by the federal government.  There are varying rates for electric use, with the smallest use being very cheap. Once you cross over into high use (called by the acronym DAC) your rates triple. This is meant to deter energy waste, but it is still cheap by NOB standards. The DAC measurement is based on a running 12 month average, so it is not a one-time trip wire, but once you go into DAC you stay at the triple rate until your average goes completely below the limit.

I was really focussed on NOT being an ugly American energy waster when we moved down, so I was a fanatic the first month at turning off lights, unplugging small appliances, etc. Then my first bill came.

Now that bi-montly bill only totaled about $27 USD per month. But as you can see, the usage arrow is way over in the red, the dreaded DAC. ¡A poco!  Our bills hovered in the same area the rest of the year. Meanwhile, we sweated through a particularly hot end of the dry season in May and June, which forced us to reconsider the standard no-heat-and-no-air conditioning mantra of lakeside.  But if we went with mini-split air conditioners, we would bust DAC permanently.

All of which led us to consider installing solar panels. The purchase and complete installation of four panels with microinverters and a monitoring system ran us approximately $3000 USD, which is still cheap. And yes, I know that even considering the permanent DAC costs, this was not a great move in terms of return on investment. It was more about peace of mind while not worrying about our comfort. We’ll soon follow-up with two mini-split air conditioners.  Even after that, our electrical usage should be back down into the low or very low range.

Our array

More about the other utilities in future posts!

La Guadalupana

From our collection

Yesterday was the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which you might have missed. You can’t travel in Mexico, or even a Mexican barrio in the States, and not notice the Mexican people’s overwhelming attraction to the Virgin Mary. You will see murals, paintings, sculptures, and even tattoos with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, “La Guadalupana.”

Typical street shrine

You might think this is a Catholic thing, but it goes way beyond that. Even secular Mexicans and the growing “Nones” still show an uncanny respect for La Guadalupana.  She has transcended religion and become something special–and this in a country where almost anything can be a source of humor!

Most people are familiar with the story: the Virgin Mary appeared to a local Méxica man named Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin during December, 1531. She told him to ask the Bishop build a church on Tepeyac hill. Juan Diego asked but was rebuffed by the skeptical cleric, who asked for a sign. Our Lady directed Juan Diego to gather roses which had (surprisingly) bloomed on the hill; he carried them to the Bishop in his cloak (tilma). When he spilled the roses at the Bishop’s feet, his tilma revealed a spectacular and unique image of Our Lady. The tilma remains intact and on display in the resulting Basilica in Tepeyac.

The tilma image

Regardless of how you feel about miracles in general or this one in particular, what may be the most amazing part is what happened next.

Recall from my earlier post that the Méxica empire had collapsed in 1521 under the twin pressures of Hernán Cortés and diseases brought by the Spanish soldiers. Ten years on, the Catholic missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors had made little headway. While the Méxica people were shocked by the collapse of their proud civilization, nothing that happened undermined their faith. While some locals near the coast thought Cortés and his men might be the return of the god Quetzalcoatl, the Méxica leaders pretty quickly figured out the Spaniards were not gods. The Méxica religion included stories of impending catastrophe which their leaders sometimes invoked to reinforce their position of power (“Look, I prevented the end of the world!”). One story Moctezuma used was a prophecy about the fall of Tenochtitlan caused by two-headed warriors. The metal-clad conquistadors on horseback certainly fit the bill as two-headed bearers of the apocalypse! The Méxica people were demoralized, but what happened fit the precepts of their faith, and they found the sacrificial Savior of the friars to be either confusing or ridiculous. Proselytization went slowly as  result, until the tilma came to light.

While documentary evidence for the apparition only dates to 1648/49 (Spanish and Nahuatl accounts, respectively) and is therefore historically suspect, there is a 1568 account by an English prisoner which describes the tilma image as an object of veneration. The image on the tilma is an exotic mix of Catholic and Méxica traditions, which the Méxica people quickly embraced. Whatever happened on that hill (now) in Mexico City, the heretofore resistant Méxica people became overwhelmingly and persistently Catholic as a result.  That alone qualifies as a miracle.

One final image, again from nuestra casa

Everything you know is wrong (II)

Moctezuma, flashy dresser

Another installment of this occasional series, this one on the Aztecs. You recall the Aztecs, no doubt, the sprawling Mesoamerican empire under Montezuma, who confronted and was later destroyed by the Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortes.

Let’s start by correcting a few simple translation differences: Hernando Cortes is Hernán Cortés in the original Spanish, while Montezuma is the more popular–but less correct–transliteration of the Aztec leader’s name: the more correct version is Moctezuma.  I doubt the US Marine Corps will be correcting their hymn anytime soon (“from the halls of Montezuma”, and it is a nuanced pronunciation change, so “As you were, Marines!”). Neither of these points matter much, and are easily explained by the difficulties in translating between vastly different language groups.

The more important change goes back to that term Aztecs. See, there were no Aztecs. From what we know of the empire around Tenochtitlan at that time, the people called themselves Méxica, which represented a new name denoting an alliance of powerful city states (primarily Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco), and the language they spoke was Nahuatl. When you run into many difficult tl phonemes in Mexican place names, blame it on Nahuatl. If you read the Spanish accounts of the conquest, there is no mention of the Aztecs; the Spaniards referred only to the Méxica. (As an aside, if you want to read an amazing adventure story, there is an English language translation of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s eye-witness account of the conquest, which is gripping!).

So whence Aztecs? The Méxica people’s origin story was that they descended from a tribe who lived in a legendary place called Aztlan, and were thus “from Aztlan” or “Aztecas” in Nahuatl. It was an important term of ancestral relationship, much like my family claiming to be Irish, when we have more German ancestors than any other ethnic group, and we’re all Americans, anyway.

This interesting historical and linguistic fact (the Méxica, not the Neary’s) was irrelevant until the 19th century, when a German explorer conducted an expedition into Mexico and wrote about the Méxica origin story, calling them Aztecs. His work was cited by William Prescott, a famous American historian who wrote History of the Conquest of Mexico in 1843, long considered the seminal work on the subject. Prescott used the appellation Aztecs for the Méxica, and it stuck.

It makes much more sense that a country named México was inhabited by a people named the Méxica; less so the Aztecs. While the Méxica origin story is important, it was probably a mistake to re-name their culture for it. Imagine a historian of the future noting that in the 21st century, there were people living around a lake in Mexico, and their origin story was they were Expats, so they must have been from a heretofore undiscovered place called Expatia. In some sense it would be technically correct, but not in any sense right. The next time you here a reference to the Aztecs, stick up for the Méxica!

When Worlds Collide

No, not the 1951 science fiction classic (and you’re dating yourself if you even remember that movie), I’m thinking of the line from the opening song to the Rocky Horror Picture Show (“Science Fiction/Double Feature”). As in “But when worlds collide, said George Pal to his bride, I’m gonna give you some terrible thrills.”

Actually, there is nothing so dramatic to report here. The title just occurred to me as I considered what it is like to live in another culture during a holiday season.

One sample menu. Price in pesos equals ~$10 USD

It really hit home a week ago Wednesday, when Judy and I were hiking. As we were nearing our casa, I said, “that was a great hike. I think tomorrow will be pretty quiet; do we have anything planned?” Judy said “Just Thanksgiving.” Yes, I had completely forgotten the most American of all holidays. Oh, we had plans, including a traditional dinner with friends at a local restaurant. Because of the large expat population, many local restaurants serve up a traditional Thanksgiving feast. I even had a little warning, as Canadian Thanksgiving falls on the second Monday of October, and was dutifully celebrated by Canadian expats and local restaurants lakeside.

Thanksgiving week here coincided with the start of the Mexican fiesta season.  The third Monday in November (November 20th this year) commemorates the 1910 Revolution (Día de la Revolución) which overthrew the dictator Porfirio Díaz. The weekend leading up Día de la Revolución has been adopted by Mexican commercial interests as Buen Fin (Good End, as in “buen fin de semana” or “good weekend”, which is the Mexican equivalent of Black Friday). Interesting to note that the stores did not try to purloin a religious holy day, but instead chose a secular holiday.

The very next day was the start of the patronal feast for San Andrés (St. Andrew).  Each town has a patron saint, and celebrates a novena (nine day fiesta) in their honor. This includes bands playing at dawn, fireworks until midnight, parades sponsored by different groups, singing, dancing, rides and beer/food stalls and items for sale on the closed streets around the plaza…each night! San Andrés feast is November 30th, but for some reason (Mexicans don’t require much reason for this) the fiesta is extended this year all the way to December 3rd.

That date is muy importante, as the next day begins the novena (yes, another nine days of national fiesta) for Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast is December 12th. Mexicans of all ages hold Mary in special regard and this is a very special time for them. But you can see where this is going, because on December 16th, the novena before Christmas begins with posadas (nightly street processions recalling the Holy Family’s search for an inn in  Bethlehem, but these processions end with house parties). New Year’s eve is much the same as NOB, but is followed by Día de Reyes (Three Kings Day) on January 6th, which is the traditional day for giving children gifts in Mexico.

Basically, from November 20th until January 6th, not much gets done lakeside (or in Mexico, for that matter), and there is always some reason to celebrate.

And for those still wondering why I began this post with a clip from Rocky Horror: well, last Thanksgiving, I posted (on FaceBook) a link to the classic song “Alice’s Restaurant.” I thought I would show a little range with my musical selection this year…after all, “its just a jump to the left!”