The Best Place to Go in México for a Unique Day of the Dead Experience

Being in Mexico for Día de Muertos is an incredible experience. It’s as magical as Coco makes it seem with the vivid colors of cempasuchil and papel picado everywhere you look and the aroma of pan de muerto drifting out of panaderias. Inside Mexican households, the altars mix nostalgia, love and mysticism all in one. Ofrendas (offerings) have pictures of deceased relatives along with their favorite foods and drinks, some salt and water, candles, papel picado, pan de muerto, sugar skulls and flowers. The idea is that during the night of November 1 the souls of dead relatives will come to the ofrenda and will enjoy the food and drink left for them. Obviously the souls are unable to actually eat the food but people say that if you try some of the food left out after the 1st the flavor is gone and the texture is hard. Throughout Mexico families create ofrendas for their loved ones and there are some cities that make public ofrendas for important figures (like the Frida and Diego ofrenda at the Dolores Olmedo Museum in Mexico City) or have parades and celebrations. But there is one place in Mexico that celebrates Day of the Dead unlike any other: the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca.

The Sierra Mazateca is far away from Oaxaca City or the beach in Oaxaca that are more well-known by tourists and Mexicans. Its capital is Huautla de Jimenez and it is a beautiful yet isolated mountain range permanently blanketed in fog. The frequent rain means it is always green and plants are abundant in the mountains and towns alike.

The indigenous language of mazateco is spoken by almost everyone and they even have a language made up entirely of whistles to communicate across the mountains (seriously, watch this video after you read this, so cool). Probably its only claim to fame is its healer María Sabina, famous for using and promoting shrooms to achieve a deeper spiritual and emotional understanding of the world. Huautla is a Pueblo Mágico for this reason and many tourists still come to the area to try out the magic mushrooms.

the Pueblo Mágico designation for Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca for its magic mushrooms

However, as Dia de Muertos approaches, another unique phenomena begins in the Sierra. On October 27, the inhabitants of the city walk down to the cemetery at dusk, some dressed in their normal clothes and some in groups wearing ponchos, oddly-shaped straw hats and masks of the faces of old men. These groups carry instruments and laugh and speak in mazateco amongst themselves. Once everyone is gathered, older women light candles and then the singing begins.

In this song, they are calling on the spirits of the dead to rise from their graves and walk amongst them until November 2. The candles of the women guide the spirits and the people with masks and hats, called huehuetones, offer their bodies as temporary homes for the spirits during this time. In this moment the life-death barrier is broken and the huehuentones cease being who they are beneath the masks, but rather the people whose souls float up from the graves.

Once the ceremony has finished, the women slowly process out of the cemetery, leading the way with their candles lit in front of them. Suddenly, music begins from the groups of huehuentones and they begin to follow the women leaving the cemetery in groups. The music is rhythmic, repetitive and somehow eerily joyful.

As each group leaves the cemetery they form a procession leading up the streets going to the city center. Rather than playing the same song, each group walks together and plays their own songs one after another, with another group following them a bit behind playing their own.

The procession of huehuentones winds uphill through the city, finally ending at the central square where the groups disperse, some attending a mass and some staying in the square while others disappear down dark foggy streets, their music trailing behind them.

The ceremony at the cemetery and the procession to the city center mark the beginning of this special time when the huehuentones will go in their groups from house to house every night, playing music in exchange for food and drink. It is a real-life version of the ofrendas, the dead come to your house in the form of masked people with ponchos and hats and you offer alcohol or treats to them as thanks for their music. While the procession was not necessarily a solemn affair, the gatherings on the streets can become a little raucous, with licor de maracuya, mezcal and beer being passed around.

Being an outsider during this ceremony and procession is a strange and incredible experience. While the huehuentones wear masks, you are visible for who you are, though you may as well be hiding under one as this event is for them, not a show for you. Some huehuentones without instruments may ask you to dance if you are following  around their group or they may even let you borrow your hat but this is not at all a tourist attraction. If no one was there taking pictures or videos they would be behaving exactly the same.

The music they play reminded me a bit of bluegrass, especially when the fiddle is featured. I love the haunting sound of a fiddle so I really enjoyed the huehuenton music.

Each group of huehuentones has a name and an identity and they begin composing and practicing their music months before Día de Muertos. They even record their music and you can buy CDs in Huautla with a mix of songs from different groups. While obviously each group has their own songs, they all fit within the same style and can sometimes begin to bleed together when they get stuck in your head in the days afterward.

The dancing is very simple, there are no salsa spins or bachata grinds here, just a basic step/hop back and forth from one foot to another. There are no limits on participation, huehuentones range in age from young children to those old enough to not necessarily need a mask.

The huehuentones make their way playing music and dancing through the streets of Huautla every night from October 27th to November 2nd. If you come to Huautla for Dia de Muertos you will find yourself with plenty of time during the day before the huehuentones start up again in the evening. Huautla as a city does not really have tourist attractions, there is always shopping at souvenir stands that may be set up in the center but the beauty here is not found in town but rather in the surrounding mountains.

I wouldn’t recommend, however, striking into the woods without a guide or an idea of where you’re going. If you’re able to find someone who knows their way around the area (and who you trust going with into the woods) or detailed directions, then there are lots of hikes in the area that take you up to the highest peaks nearby or to the many waterfalls in the area. While I was here for Day of the Dead I went on a hike to a couple of waterfalls that took me out of the city, past humble houses in the woods and valleys and finally out to Puente de Fierro.

Even if you were unable to get someone to take you to Puente de Fierro, it is a short trip from Huautla in taxi or micro and there is plenty of exploring that you could do once there. There is one waterfall at the curve in the road at the bridge and another further past the curve on the side of the road where there is a house that looks like once was open for tourists. Both waterfalls are beautiful, although the one on the side of the road is more impressive.

The waterfall at Puente de Fierro

If you’d rather go below ground, Huautla also has some impressive caves nearby. Whatever you end up doing during the day, it is a wonderful place to breathe in the crisp clean mountain air, especially if you’re coming from Mexico City.

Getting There

From Mexico City you can take an AU bus from the TAPO bus terminal which will get you to Huautla in about 9 hours. It costs around $350 pesos and it’s honestly a much better idea to go on the overnight bus. Going during the day will take more time and although you will get to enjoy the views the bus does not have a bathroom so you will likely spend some time squirming in your seat waiting for the bathroom stop. If you go during the night you can just take some melatonin (or something stronger) and bring a travel pillow and you’ll be out for most of the trip.

Another option is to take a bus to Tehuacán in Puebla, a micro to Teotitlán las Flores and then the transporte mixto up the windy mountain roads to Huautla. Although this option cuts off some time, it is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Transporte mixto means mixed transport and it is a pickup truck that carries people as well as cargo in the enclosed area of the truck as well as the semi-enclosed bed. I have never gotten one of the coveted inside seats and you get thrown around in the back as they tear around the curves. They also frequently stop along the road to pick up people as this is the most local transit in the area so be prepared to ride with campesinos with machetes and groups of school children who will make you want to scold them for dangling off the bed only holding on with one hand.

What to Wear

The Sierra Mazateca gets a lot of rain and when it rains it pours so be prepared with rain boots, a jacket, and an umbrella. Once your clothes get wet they will probably not dry during your trip so bringing a few pairs of pants is not a bad idea. It also can get pretty chilly in the evenings or indoors in Huautla so wear layers and bring a heavy sweater and jacket as well as hat and gloves.

Lodging

Finding a place to stay in Huautla can also be somewhat tricky, especially for Día de Muertos. There is exactly one Airbnb (which is more like a hostel so there are multiple rooms and listings) which seems very pleasant. The few hotels don’t have listings online but you can call them to make a reservation before you arrive. Don’t expect luxury at the hotels here, there will be a bed and a bathroom but it’s better to keep your expectations low besides that.

Food

Although the Sierra Mazateca is in Oaxaca, the food is not completely what you would find elsewhere in Oaxaca. There are always the Mexican classics that you can find anywhere but otherwise the food is very centered on meat. Poverty levels are quite high in this area so when people go out to a restaurant they expect meat, vegetables are what is served at home when there is not enough money for meat. If you are a vegetarian or someone who appreciates vegetables and fruit you may have to stock up on snacks at the market or stop by to get ezquites every day to at least get some veggies in 😉

 

As has probably become evident in this post, Huautla is not a luxury tourist destination and can be challenging to stay for long, especially as a vegetarian. However, if you’re looking for an authentic and unique Day of the Dead experience in Mexico that will be amaze you as well as anyone you tell the story to, then Huautla de Jimenez is the place to go. Celebrating the dead by dancing with the huehuentones amidst the smoke and fog will remind you that the distance between us isn’t really that far.

 

 

 

P.S. Have you watched the whistle language video yet? I’ll just leave it right here in case you haven’t, it’s honestly amazing.

 

A Foodie’s Perfect Day in Oaxaca

Every time I’m in Oaxaca I feel more and more like it really represents the soul of México. It’s the birthplace of mezcal, indigenous cultures and languages are still very present and there are amazing mountains, beautiful beaches and pre-hispanic ruins to explore. In the capital of Oaxaca City, there are so many activities to keep you busy and not to mention amazing art and shopping but one thing really stands out for me: the delicious food. If you appreciate good food and drink and find yourself in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, try out these recommendations to create a perfect foodie day.

Breakfast at Boulenc

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If you’re not staying at a B&B that has breakfast and are looking for a lighter option to pace yourself through your foodie day, then Boulenc Pan Artesano is the perfect option for you. This hipster bakery specializes in sourdough bread, served as sandwiches or with eggs for breakfast. Their menu also includes pizza if you come here later in the day (or if you enjoy pizza for breakfast, who am I to judge?). Their coffee is also on point, I always appreciate a place that serves a good cold brew. They’ve done a great job with the atmosphere, it gives off a warm, homey vibe (though way cooler than any home I’ve lived in). When I was there a live band was playing and the brass instruments really completed the hip throwback vibe.

After breakfast you may crave some intellectually stimulation after the gastronomic experience so head over to the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca to learn about the original indigenous cultures in the state. It’s right next to the Jardín Etnobotánico so if you stayed too long at breakfast enjoying the live music and missed the tour of the gardens (the only way to enter), there’s a wonderful view from the back of the museum. While you’re there, pop into the church of Santo Domingo and marvel at the impressive gold plating.

Mid-Morning Refreshments at Oaxaca en una Taza

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Oaxaca en una Taza means Oaxaca in a mug, and that really is the best description for this little cafe. There is coffee and some assorted breads and small pies but the reason you come here is for the chocolate. Not bars of chocolate but refreshing chocolate drinks made the traditional way. You can get them hot or cold and with milk or water. I prefer the cold chocolate made with water, especially if you need a pick me up after strolling around in the sun. You can get it plain or with other spices mixed in and for an extra charge you can choose the cacao percentage you would prefer. It’s definitely a unique drink, and something you don’t even see that much elsewhere in Mexico. Be sure to give it a try!

In the center of Oaxaca, there is an art gallery practically on every corner so you can continue your cultural experience admiring local art. There is also plenty of places to shop for Mexican artesanía, especially the Oaxacan specialties of black pottery, wool rugs and embroidered tops and dresses. Lunch in Mexico isn’t until 2 or 3 so feel free to work up your appetite as your browse for souvenirs.

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Lunch at Casa Oaxaca

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http://www.casaoaxacaelrestaurante.com/php/spa/index.php

If you’re feeling a little fancy get a reservation ahead of time for this popular (and a little pricey) restaurant. Casa Oaxaca is noticeable for its bright blue exterior and the simple, sophisticated while still a bit traditional vibe continues inside. There are a few interior dining areas and a beautiful roof area overlooking Santo Domingo. The food is elevated traditional Oaxacan and you will not lack for options. It’s really a mind-body experience dining here, where you can feel like you enjoyed a delightful meal and took a deep dive into Oaxacan culture at the same time.

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If you’re impressed by the mole or Oaxacan cheese at lunch and would like to take some home with you, head to the mercado to get a feel for the local hustle and bustle and where you can also buy mole paste, crickets, local cheese, or almost anything else from Oaxaca. The paste will stay good for months even without refrigeration and only needs to be heated up with some chicken or vegetable broth to serve. It’s a great way to impress your friends back home with how much you learned about Mexican culture.

Pre-Dinner Cocktails at Praga Coffee Bar

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Praga Coffee Bar has one of the best views in Oaxaca, directly facing the church of Santa Domingo. Once the sun starts going down, the lights illuminating the church come on and the rooftop terrace becomes the perfect spot to enjoy the golden color of the church at night. With delicious mezcal cocktails, lots of wine and beer options and a selection of tapas and appetizers to whet your appetite, it’s a great spot to start off your night in style.

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If you haven’t walked through the Zocalo yet, you can stroll down the pedestrian road lined with galleries and cafes to get to the main square, where there are always crowds of people selling things and enjoying time with their families. If you didn’t have an appetizer at Praga, you can line up at one of the street carts for ezquites or elotes, my personal favorite street food. They’re corn off or on the cob served with mayo, cheese, chili and lime, which I agree sounds gross but just believe me, they’re amazing. But don’t eat too much, there’s still one more meal to enjoy in this beautiful city!

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Dinner at Zandunga

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Zandunga specializes in food from Istmo, a region on the coast of Oaxaca. The vibe is colorful and friendly and I’m always impressed with the wait staff’s knowledge and demeanor. It has your typical Oaxacan classics but with a bit of a twist. There’s understandably more seafood than you would find in a typical Oaxacan restaurant but even for non-seafood lovers like me there are plenty of options. Their homemade salsas are quite spicy and are served with freshly baked tortillas, I would also start out with their perfectly tangy guac. If you’re here for dinner then you could split a tlayuda or stick with something lighter, like one of their tamales. They also make delicious mezcal cocktails and have a good craft beer selection. Overall, I’ve really enjoyed myself every time I’ve come here, it seems to inspire great conversation and embodies the Oaxacan spirit that I love so much.

If you’re here with the whole family, then you may be ready for bed after dinner, as dinner is usually around 9pm. But if you’re still wanting to sample some of the local drinks to wash down all of the delicious food, there are plenty of options for drinking mezcal, the local craft spirit. Or, if beer is more up your alley, Oaxaca is starting to catch on to the micro brewery movement and there are some delicious craft beers local to the city.

Local Craft Beer at La Santísima Flor de Lupulo

La Santísima Flor de Lúpulo means “The very sacred hop flower” and there is even a hop spirit creature on the wall in the same sort of display that virgins and saints are normally displayed on in Mexico. They are a nano-brewery so there are only a few of their own beers on tap but they have lots of other Mexican and international options as well. And it’s one of the few breweries in Mexico that I’ve seen that has their own Saison! It wasn’t the best Saison I’ve ever tasted but I give them a lot of points for just having one in a country where craft brewing is still very much in the early stages.

Mezcal at La Mezcalerita

If you’re more interested in trying some mezcal, then head over to La Mezcalerita, a comfortable and quirky bar with plenty of options to get your mezcal fix. There’s also craft beer and other drinks if you want to mix it up but the idea is to order a shot of mezcal and a Mexican beer and to switch off sipping between the two. There are some different areas indoors and a giant roof terrace with tables and couches. If you’re there later at night and it starts to get chilly they even let you borrow a nice thick blanket to keep you warm and toasty.

If you’re full of energy and want to keep exploring the nightlife in Oaxaca, you can stroll back down past Santo Domingo until you hear thumping music coming out into the street. Otherwise, it may be time to call it a night so that you can get up tomorrow and continue enjoying all that Oaxaca has to offer you.

Guide to Mexican Food: Tacos

There is nothing more Mexican than tacos, REAL tacos that is. If your idea of a taco is a crispy taco shell filled with ground beef flavored with taco seasoning and topped with lettuce, shredded cheese and sour cream, I’ve got news for you: that is not a taco. Authentic Mexican tacos are simple, with one one or two ingredients and a few toppings to choose from. However, when you go out to get tacos there is a wealth of options for what goes inside.

Every taco starts with a tortilla, usually made fresh from corn masa. This humble tortilla (or two) is then loaded up with whatever type of meat or veggie you would like, cheese optional. Obviously the place you go to will determine what your options are, but below I’ve presented some common options for both sit-down taco places and stand-around-a-tall-table-on-the-sidewalk-stuffing-your-face places.

Meat Options:

Bistek: One of the most common tacos, they’re very thinly sliced steak cut up into bite sized pieces

Costilla: This means rib and it is indeed the rib bone and all the surrounding flavorful meat.

Chuleta: Pork chops.

Suadero: This is beef rib meat as well but braised until super tender, served without the bone.

Chorizo: Not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, Mexican chorizo is pork sausage that crumbles when it’s cooked and has a red color due to the spices inside. It’s pretty fatty but (I think) delicious.

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Lengua: This means tongue and it is literally a cow’s tongue. Sometimes it is cut up and sometimes presented in its entire glory atop your tortilla.

Cabeza: The head. I tend not to eat meat that is a recognizable body part so I’m not sure how this tastes or where exactly on the head of a cow this comes from but that is the general area.

Ojo: Continuing with abnormal (for Americans) cow body parts, we have the eye! It’s cut up and I cannot attest to the taste.

Cachete: This means cheek. This makes me narrow down cabeza to not include the cheek but again, I cannot attest to the taste.

Tripa: And to round out the section of things Americans think are gross to eat, we have tripe. Yup, that’s the intestine of a cow, yummmmm.

Campechanos: So this generally means a little bit of everything. It’s usually bistek and chorizo though sometimes it’ll mean suadero and chorizo.

Cochinada: When all the various meats are being cooked up on the grill and scooped into your taco, a little bit of meat invariably gets left behind. Once lots and lots of tacos have been made the left behind meat adds up and has gotten quite crunchy. Instead of throwing away these crunchy bits of bistek or suadero (or both) they put them in their own special taco.

Arrachera: Steak that has been aggressively tenderized and marinated to form a tender and flavorful piece of beef.

Carnitas: Pork that has been braised and simmered until it gets to a sort of melt in your mouth level of tender.

Barbacoa: Generally sheep’s meat that is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground filled with coal and covered in banana leaves and then with dirt to slow cook for hours and hours. The category of barbacoa has a lot of different options when you go to order according to the body type. You won’t find these tacos when you go out to a taco joint because they are breakfast tacos! They’re super popular to get as you’re leaving the city for the weekend and there are a plethora of places or tents that line the highways leaving Mexico City.

Al Pastor: This should almost be its own category as taco places can easily be distinguished between those that don’t serve al pastor and those that proudly display their trompo on the sidewalk or entrance. This type of preparation was influenced by the Lebanese population in Mexico and it’s basically pork sliced up and marinated in a very involved mixture of spices, chiles, and sometimes even a touch of citrus. The marinated pieces of meat are then pierced onto a metal spike to form the trompo, topped with a pineapple. The trompo gets spun around to cook evenly beside the (preferable) coal fire on one side. As people order tacos al pastor someone slices downwards on the trompo to get the meat for their taco.

You’ll see the trompo changing its shape as the day/night goes on, getting skinnier as more and more is cut off. I consider myself an almost vegetarian but I make an exception for al pastor, it is so delicious.

Veg Options:

Real vegetarians don’t despair, there are pretty much always vegetarian taco options wherever you go, though admittedly much less variety.

Nopales: A type of cactus that is widely eaten in Mexico, it is cut into strips and either sautéed or grilled.

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Hongos: Mushrooms cooked up until they’re nice and juicy. If you get it with cheese they might call it a Quesongo.

Rajas: Poblano peppers cooked with crema (Mexican sour cream but lighter) or cheese. They can occasionally be spicy so if you don’t tolerate any spiciness this may not be the greatest option for you.

Other Options:

Quesadillas: Mexico is divided between those who believe a quesadilla needs to contain cheese (pretty much all of Mexico) and those who believe the cheese in a quesadilla is optional (Mexico City residents). The argument of the chilangos is that quesadilla doesn’t come from the word queso but rather a náhuatl word which means folded. So if you go somewhere in Mexico City and order a quesadilla they may ask you if you want it with cheese (I was so confused the first time this happened to me). However, most taco places tend to assume that when you order a quesadilla there you want cheese. You can get a quesadilla with just cheese but also with meat or veg inside as well. So what still confuses me is what the difference is between say a mushroom taco with cheese and a mushroom quesadilla (besides the quesadilla being served folded and the taco open). Is it just the folded part? Anyone have any knowledge/ideas they want to share?

Volcanoes: This means volcano and it is an open tortilla that they’ve crunched up a bit on the grill and then top with cheese so it’s all melted and overflowing, hence the volcano. You can get this with some sort of meat on top as well.

Gringas: So this is basically a taco al pastor with cheese but is made with two flour tortillas laid out flat with all the cheesy al pastorness in between (I’m assuming the name comes from the use of a flour tortilla and maybe even the style being similar to how we make quesadillas in the U.S.). It is definitely delicious and having two larger tortillas makes it more food than a regular taco.

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Alambres: This is potentially my favorite thing to order when getting tacos. It’s a mixture of meat (usually al pastor) and sautéed onions and peppers held together by gooey cheese. You get this mixture on a plate and then get tortillas on the side so you can make your own tacos.

On the side at a sit down place you can get such items as guacamole, chicharón de queso (cheese cooked on the grill until made into a thin crispy sheet), queso fundido (melted cheese with other things thrown in sometimes served with tortillas), cebollitas (green onions cooked in soy sauce), or frijoles charros (pinto beans served at almost the consistency of a soup with bacon or some similar meat and onions and such). A lot of places will also give you chips and the salsas for your tacos are available on the table for dipping.

To Drink:

Pretty much anywhere you go for food in Mexico has aguas frescas: water flavored with fruit, flowers or rice with a fair amount of sugar. Taco places are no different and you can almost always find the agua fresca staples: agua de jamaica (hibiscus water) and horchata (like rice milk but made with water. Fun fact: horchata was originally and sometimes still is made from melon seeds). You’ll probably also be able to find a limonada (limeade) pretty much anywhere and of course there will probably be chelas (the very Mexican word for cerveza which is beer).

How to Order:

Like I mentioned at the beginning, do not expect your taco to come with lettuce, cheddar cheese and sour cream. You will get the meat or veggie you have requested and the normal toppings are diced onions and cilantro. If you get one of the al pastor options, your taco or gringa will also come with chopped pineapple. So if they ask you if you want IMG_6743your taco “con todo,” they are referring to those two or three things. If you would prefer to not have one of those toppings just let them know. Salsas are at your table for you to choose which one you’d like and how much but be careful, salsas can be really spicy! Fun story, when my Mom visited Mexico I took her to a taco place and she loaded up a chip with a salsa that has some avocado in it so it looks sort of like guac but is really quite spicy and she was almost unable to eat the rest of her meal. It was quite funny for everyone else but I’ve never seen her eyes get that big! I always sample tiny drops first to see if the spice level is appropriate for my taste before loading up my tacos. And of course you can’t forget to squeeze some lime juice on top, the fresh acidity really brings out the rest of the flavors.

Whatever you decide to order, make sure to enjoy every last finger lick.

¡Provecho!

 

P.S. If you found this article interesting, go check out Ugly Delicious on Netflix. Episode 2 is an entire hour devoted to discussing and eating tacos in Mexico and the U.S. You’ll thank me later.

The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo (No, it’s not Mexican Independence Day)

In the U.S. we tend to get very enthusiastic about holidays, especially when we’re celebrating other countries’ holidays. St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland and Cinco de Mayo is hardly celebrated in México. So what exactly is Cinco de Mayo celebrating if not Mexican independence and why is it such a big deal in the U.S.?

Cinco de Mayo actually celebrates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, during which the much smaller Mexican army claimed victory over the French army who had invaded due to  debts that México had stopped paying to France. Although the underdog victory slowed down the French, they did end up defeating the Mexicans and instated the Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire. Only five years later, the Emperor Maximilian was executed and Benito Juárez returned as president of Mexico.

In Mexico, this day is really only celebrated in Puebla, it’s not even an official national holiday. Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th, which is when Mexico gained independence from the Spanish in 1821. So why then, does gringolandia celebrate Cinco de Mayo with such enthusiasm?

There’s really three answers to that question.  One is that the U.S. supported the Mexican government throughout the French occupation and actually pressured the French to remove their troops from Mexico. Having relatively recently disposed of our European rulers, the U.S. was pushing for a North America free of European intervention (to promote freedom and independence or to be the major political player in North America, depending on your levels of idealism).

Really the main reasons though are the same reasons St. Patrick’s Day is so popular: immigrants’ nostalgia and alcohol. Many Mexican immigrants in the U.S. come from the state of Puebla and their special holiday became a celebration of Mexican culture adopted by many Chicanos. It was a way to keep their culture alive, even as their children grew up speaking English and integrating into American culture. However, it was still mainly celebrated in California and in areas with large Mexican populations up until the ’80s when beer companies realized they could promote this holiday to sell more beer. So in true capitalist spirit, beer companies started creating spanish-language ads and marketed like crazy until the holiday was adopted by Chicanos and gringos alike.

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If this last bit sounds crazy, that’s consumerism for you. But if you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a bit more authentically and with less cultural appropriation this year, maybe just try to balance your focus to include all the other great aspects of Mexican culture, not just Corona. That being said, I’m experiencing a weird sort of expat nostalgia for our Americanized celebration of this holiday so I’ll be drinking a margarita or two in celebration. ¡Salud!

10 Culture Shock Realizations I’ve Had in México

When I decided to move to México I thought I was very prepared for what it would be like. I speak fluent Spanish and had visited Mexico before and travelled throughout Latin America. But despite having interacted with the culture extensively there were still some things that surprised me.

1. You never need to be prepared

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I am a perpetually over-prepared person. I think it stems partly from my mom always being prepared and partly from spending long amounts of time in backcountry settings but anywhere I go I always have a liter of water, some snacks, sunglasses, tissues, gum, chapstick, a brush and any number of other odds and ends. Before road trips I tend to make muffins for to-go snacks but in Mexico there is absolutely no need for any such preparation. ANYWHERE you go there will be someone selling something. Getting off the metro in the morning there are at least five people selling breakfast; at a red light people walk up and down the road selling candy, drinks or, hey, do you need your windshield washed?? there’s someone offering that too. Someone boards every bus leaving the stations offering sandwiches and snacks for the ride but don’t worry, if you don’t buy something from them and are hungry later there are people walking along the lines at tolls selling sandwiches and snacks as well. I’ve literally been in the middle of a forest and found a vendor selling coffee and snacks.

2. There is excessive PDA

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Mexican couples have no shame in this regard. I’ve sat next to a couple two feet away from me at a restaurant engaged in the longest kiss I’ve ever seen and yesterday on the metro I was standing next to a couple who were pressed against each other so close you could barely distinguish one from the other. And it’s not just teenagers, middle-aged people engage in excessive pda just the same. Even being in a park surrounded by playing children does not dissuade couples from full out makeout sessions on benches.

3. Ahorita does not mean ahorita

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The Mexican word “ahorita” is definitely confusing at first. Ahora means now and Mexicans always like to add the diminutive “ito” or “ita” to almost everything (how do you feel? cansadita, enfermita, etc.). In theory, ahorita should mean right now but in practice it means maybe sometime in the distant future or even never. Mexicans hate to tell people no so ahorita is one of the ways they can feel better about saying yes while really meaning no. So don’t wait around for someone to do something that they said would happen ahorita, you may be waiting forever.

4. It feels like lunchtime will never come

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In the U.S. and even in other Latin American countries, breakfast is first thing in the morning, lunch happens around noon, and then dinner is the biggest meal of the day around 6. Mexicans are more similar to the Spanish way of waiting until 2 or 3 to eat lunch which is the biggest meal. You get four courses when you go out: a soup, “dry soup” (pasta or rice), the main course and then dessert. Dinner is a light meal eaten around 9 or 10pm. Of course there are various snack times between all of these meals where you can stop by a street vendor making tacos or quesadillas but in an office setting it is haaard to wait to eat lunch until 3pm.

5. There are (almost) no thrift shops

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When I first got here and Germán and I moved into an empty apartment (apartments btw don’t come with fridges and sometimes not even with stoves), I thought we would take a trip to a second-hand store to get some furniture to fill up the place. But alas, Mexico does not really have thrift stores. People here repair their 30-year-old washing machines instead of throwing them out or donating them so by the time things are discarded they have long surpassed their useful life. Luckily, you can find people wheeling around wooden furniture (tables, bed frames, chairs, etc.) on most corners which is cheaper than department stores but new is really your only option.

6. Everyone has a cleaning person

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Being from the U.S. I grew up helping my parents clean our house (it was really more like being forced to help). At one point we had a cleaning lady once a month since our house was on the larger side but if I were living in the U.S. now I would never think of hiring someone to come clean my house. In Mexico, labor is quite cheap which means that pretty much every middle-class person hires someone to come clean at least once a week. Families with younger children frequently have live-in help and well-off people who don’t even have children may have someone come daily to clean, cook and wash clothes. American culture is one that prides self-sufficiency so it was really strange for me to accept this, though a lot of people here feel like they are providing a social service by providing jobs which are desperately needed.

7. Chivalry is alive and well

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Chivalry is not dead in Mexico. I’ve had to get used to men holding open doors for me or letting me enter first if we walk in somewhere together. And this is not just limited to my boyfriend or people I know, men on the metro will offer open seats to the women nearby before sitting themselves or will step off the sidewalk to let you pass. Due to my feminist mindset and the fact that it definitely has something to do with the machismo culture, I was more annoyed than grateful at first but I’ve come to accept and maybe even like it a teensy tiny bit (but only if men will accept my opening doors for them as well).

8. The streets are noisy

It’s impossible for a day to go by without hearing about 3 different songs from vendors selling tamales, buying your old refrigerators, and selling more tamales. When the trash collectors come they ring a bell, of course the ice cream vendors play music, sweet potato vendors make an eery screech and fruit vendors blast out from loudspeakers what fruit they’re selling off the back of their truck. Literally as I’m writing this there is someone biking by playing the tamale recording.

9. Physical characteristics become your nickname

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People tend to refer to each other by their physical characteristics which is definitely a shock coming from a very politically correct place. When walking through a market vendors will yell out “moreno” (dark-skinned guy) to passersby and husbands will affectionately call their wives “gordita” (chubby) as a nickname. I’ve started answering to “güerita” which means light-skinned/haired girl because so many people call me that. People also tend to perceive slight differences in skin tone that I don’t even notice.

10. Everyone is so polite

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When you go out to eat here, strangers exiting the restaurant will make it a point to say “provecho” (which means enjoy) to every table they pass. Most people say it back to them to be polite even though they have already enjoyed their meal. The same goes for saying “salud” (bless you) when you sneeze. We say it in the U.S. too but here it is practically a race by everyone around you to say it first. Of course there’s also the abundant use of the formal you (usted) but maybe the most confusing polite saying is that people will literally say “your house” when referring to their house. Mi casa es su casa.

La Cineteca Nacional: A Hidden Gem in CDMX

Every year when the Oscar nominations come out I say to myself that I’ll watch the movies nominated for Best Picture. Then every year I end up not watching any. I’m not a person who goes to the movie theater very often and I don’t know how to safely (or remotely legally) download movies online. But this year has been different because of the Cineteca. It’s located in Coyoacán, the same neighborhood I live in so I’ve been going pretty frequently in the last month or so to finally fulfill my Oscars resolution. But even when I’m not trying to see Oscar nominations I love going to the Cineteca for a lot of reasons.

First is the unique architecture which stands out even as you pass by on the street. It really feels more like a park than a movie theater, with grassy areas, open air walkways connecting the buildings and a space for outdoor movies. It’s a great space to go wander around and catch up with friends, even if you’re not seeing a movie.

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Second is the movie selection which combines indy international films, high-quality mainstream movies and traditional Mexican cine. The two Oscar nominated films I’ve seen here are Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water. This week I also saw Bosque de Niebla, a documentary about Las Cañadas, a cooperative in Veracruz who collectively manage their land in the cloud forest using permaculture principles. Next on my list is Call Me by Your Name which it seems like they brought to Cineteca after its Oscar nomination. Darkest Hour is also showing but I’m not as interested in that (the one movie I wish was playing there but isn’t is Lady Bird, I’ve heard such good things). Cineteca obviously skews towards cultural movies rather than action-packed blockbusters but it’s also not so high-brow as to inaccesible to the average movie goer.

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Third is the ridiculously low prices! Even for mexican prices it is cheap to see a movie here. As you may be able to tell from the name, la Cineteca Nacional is government sponsored so they don’t charge as much for tickets or even for popcorn (plus they combine butter with caramel popcorn to make the most delicious sweet and salty mix). For example, this week I paid 30 pesos (about $1.50 USD) to see Bosque de Niebla and spent 40 pesos (about $2 USD) for a medium popcorn. In a country where the salaries are low but the cost of entertainment is comparatively high, it’s nice to have a place where even the most broke friend can join you for a night out.

Finally, whether you’ve come to Cineteca for a movie or just to enjoy the peaceful oasis in a busy city, there are fun little shops and restaurants lining the open air area to complete your experience. This week my friend and I who went to the documentary met up with some more friends afterwards at Señorito, an informal restaurant that serves cerveza artesanal (craft beer) as well as mini pizzas, sandwiches, charcuterie, etc. The microbrew scene in Mexico is still pretty micro so I always relish going to a place that serves IPAs (I tried the Piedra Lisa from Cervecería de Colima which is probably one of my new favorite mexican IPAs). The vibe at all of these places really compliments the laid back hipster feeling at the Cineteca.

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Basically, the Cineteca is a great place to go, even if you’re just visiting Mexico City. And if you prefer to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home, there’s also a permanent setup of pirated movies right in front of the entrance because #thisismexico (also ezquites, yumm). But in all seriousness, this is one of my favorite places here that I feel really represents Mexico City in all its cultural diversity, check it out.