Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Historic Research

While waiting for things to get started on the house, I began doing a chain of title. The people at the records office looked at me like I was nuts when I kept going back and back for more records. One actually refused to get me more information, claiming it had been lost. She apparently did not think what I was doing was appropriate behavior. I finally got the document from another employee. The Notary Public when we bought the house only went back to the late 1940s, one of the reasons I wanted to do a real chain of title.

In 3 or 4 hours, I was able to get it back to the 1940s in the current property records; and then had to get a special permit to work in the historic archives. This meant a copy of my passport and two passport-like photos and meeting with the head archivist. Fortunately, we had some photos left over from our visa registration in June.

Working in the historic archives was a different process. Not only did I have to buy and use a face mask and surgical gloves (for my protection presumably), but rather than looking things up by date and time (you find the date and time of the previous sale in the record of the current sale), you need to know the name of the Notary Public who oversaw the transaction. All the historic records are organized by Notary Public. These are the actual records that the Notary Public maintained and that have now been donated to the archives. They are written in longhand in large ledgers with tax stamps and annotations as the property later changed hands. They are not all complete or indexed, so it is a challenge. I now have our house back to 1919, with a reference to a purchase in 1899. Problem is that in 1919 various properties were transferred in an inheritance, and the normal rule of following the Notary Public may not apply as there is no reference to a Notary Public for our house, although there is for another property in the inheritance.

Little things creep out in the property transactions including the fact that women often had men sign for them since they could not write (and it is apparent that some of the signatures in the records are from people who did not often sign their names), that people were selling property to their tenants and family members, that the then current addresses of the purchaser and seller were usually listed, that the property in the 1930s starts being referred to as a farm which probably means they used the back of the property where the kitchen and back garden were to grow stuff for sale, and that the price of the house often stayed the same from one purchaser to another for a decade running, or that it even lowered in price.

The neighbors are, with one exception, the same now as they were in 1919, and that exception was the sister of one of the other owners. This is, of course, patently impossible unless we have three people in our neighborhood who must be aged 110+, and I know the neighbor to the south has only owned it for about 10 years. There are usually references to people’s nationality (always Mexican), age, marital status, and sometimes occupation. One of my favorite occupations was “dedicada a las labores proprias de su sexo”, the woman was “dedicated to the labors proper to her sex”, i.e. a housewife, and that was in 1945. Sounds like south Georgia of the 1970s. Neither the husband nor the wife could write and “signed” the papers with their fingerprints.

If I can get past the 1919 transfer, I hope to get the chain back to the time the house was first built so I can figure out who might have had the fresco painted and when.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in Querétaro

Plaza de Armas at Night

It would be impossible to explain what happens in Querétaro at Christmas in anything less than a book. Every night since December 12, Virgin of Guadalupe Day, the city has organized an event at Zenea Garden. This can be a chamber music ensemble, a choir, a pastorela from a school or club, an estudiantina, or whatever. Zenea has been decorated with Christmas scenes, including a vision of hell complete with flames and demons with pitchforks, a traditional indigenous Christmas, a nativity scene, the three wise men’s encampment complete with elephant, camel and horse (different bible, I guess) among other things. Here are some pictures of Zenea Garden. All the other gardens and plazas also had something almost every night.

Part of an image of hell at Jardin Zenea.

I missed the horse and elephant, but here's the Three Wise Men's camel.

In addition, every school, club, church, or group has a posada or pastorela or party or public display. We have been to Mozart’s Requiem with the Querétaro symphony, to a chamber music concert with the symphony, and to a piano and soprano recital at the Teatro Nacional. One of the best was a mariachi concert of Mariachi Vargas, the “original” mariachi band in Mexico, with the symphony playing back-up. The auditorium was packed with people who knew most of the words to the songs, and we even knew the words to a couple. There were plenty of otras, encores. There have been weddings, sometimes several a day, at the more popular wedding churches, everywhere people are carrying loaded piñatas headed to parties, the peddlers are selling everything under the sun in the streets, and the streets are periodically closed and turned into outdoor restaurants with no prior notice.

Last night, we went to the Christmas parade which had commemorative floats celebrating the year of the anniversaries. 2006 was the year of the 475th anniversary of the founding of Querétaro, the 375th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Pueblito (the “queen and protector of Querétaro”), the 350th anniversary of the naming of Querétaro as the “most loyal and noble city of Querétaro de Santiago” by the king of Spain, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the parish of Santa Ana, the 180th anniversary of the biblical parade of Querétaro which will be held tonight and which was the precursor of parades with floats in the city, and the 100th anniversary of the library of Sagrado Corazon and the Eiffel Kiosk in Zenea Garden (yep, that Eiffel). After we have dinner with Sophie and Pierre and their kids, who are here for Christmas, we will go to the parade of biblical floats. And of course, I expect to get a phone call from Mamita wanting to be picked up at the bus station from the airport. Another full day.

Oh yeah, a pastorela is a typically Mexican play based on the Christmas story but which now includes devils, in addition to the angels and shepherds, and which is laced with political comment, double entendres, and some weird turns such as Zorro (our Spanish teacher, Alberto) leading the shepherds back to their wives who have headed on to Bethelem without them. An estudiantina is a group of young people, students, who dress in medieval university outfits, and wander around playing mandolins and guitars and singing traditional songs and ballads. A piñata is a container, originally a clay pot and still is sometimes, filled with candy and goodies for kids made to look like the President, or a star, or a donkey, or whatever, that is especially popular at Christmas. The kids break the piñata with a stick to get the goodies.

Breaking a piñata at Jardin Zenea.

And a posada is a ceremony that involves people in a neighborhood or street who go from house to house singing a traditional song to be allowed in “as there is no room in the inn”. This happens every night for the nine nights before Christmas. People inside the houses, sing back to them that there is no room and they should keep moving. Finally at the last house, they are allowed in and there is a party which is preceded by reciting Hail Mary a few times in the more traditional areas. The next night, it is someone else’s turn to host the party. We helped Bob and Maria who are padrinos (godparents) of the posada group in their neighborhood and who hosted the final posada party at their house a couple of days ago. Bob’s piñata , a big black spider, was especially popular with the 15 or so kids in the group. The next day I visited our “new” house, and found out that there had been a posada in our street the same night, and people had wanted to use our house’s electricity to help with the neighborhood decorations, but they could not since we weren’t there. Next year, I guess we will have our own posada to help out with. Ours will be organized by La Cruz church, while Bob and Mary’s was organized by the people in her street. There is a lot more that I won’t write down here, enough, in fact, to fill a book.

Christiane and a "student" at Niños y Niñas at the school posada. (Taken with my phone camera.)

Niños y Niñas' posada. (Taken with my phone camera.)

House Update

We started work on the house Wednesday before last. We still do not have permission from INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) who has to approve any changes to houses in the historic district. There were numerous little hurdles to jump over, such as proof that our house’s address is really its address, which takes a few weeks to get; a building permit from the city approving our plans; powers of attorney to allow our architect to get the permits; etc. So we started with things like demolition of non-historic structures, patching non-historic holes in the walls, etc. We have now torn down the shed in the back garden, the shower and laundry tub in the old bathroom area, the stairs to the 1950s service room over the bathroom, the blocked off door from the old dining room into the back garden that had been closed when the stairs were built, and the kitchen counter that turned out to be pretty recent, despite my earlier thoughts to the contrary.

Here are some before and after shots.

Shed in back patio BEFORE

Back shed area AFTER. The waste pile has since been removed.

Kitchen window area BEFORE.

Kitchen window area AFTER with stairs removed and old doorway reopened.

Stairs to upper guest room (actually the maid's room, but we won't have a maid) BEFORE.

Stairs to upper guest room AFTER.

Kitchen looking towards window BEFORE

Kitchen looking towards window in process of demolition DURING. Demolition has now been completed and the wall has been patched getting ready for finishing. Note the modern brick in the wall behind the counter that I initially thought was so old. Oh well.

Kitchen looking the other way BEFORE.

Kitchen looking the other way AFTER.

Looking down on the shed and back patio BEFORE.

Looking down on the shed and back patio DURING and before the stairs were removed.

The plan has been slightly changed from the last iteration, with two French doors to the patio from our bedroom instead of a window and a door, and a single large arched glass door from the new dining/living room to the patio. We also added a window to the storage room to allow some light and air.

I have been picking (can’t keep my hands off it) at the paint covering the fresco in the entrance. The entrance will be left alone to give me time to find an art historian which so far has been hard to do. I hope to get a lead from the local preservation group after Christmas, but they rarely answer the phone or even come to their office. Turns out the current governor is not a preservation kind of guy, and cut their grant this year. This is an NGO (NON-Governmental Organization), and yet they expect and get money from the government and apparently cannot function without it. This goes along with my previous post about waiting for the government to do everything for you.


After 3 or 4 months of dealing with a buyer who never fulfilled a promise until the last one, we finally sold our house in Atlanta. After our wasted visit to Atlanta in October to close on the house, when the buyer never showed and apparently had not even applied for a loan or do any of the other things a buyer is supposed to do, and after dealing with an agent who never learned the meaning of the term "time is of the essence", I had given up much hope of actually selling the house to them.

About a month ago, the buyers' father asked to replace his daughter in the contract. We said OK since it was the father with the good credit rating anyway. But two or three other deadlines to close came and went, and we finally put the house back on the market. Most recently, they said they wanted to close last Friday. When Thurs evening came, and we had heard nothing from our agent, I figured we would not close until next year, if ever. Mamita, who had power of attorney, was coming to visit us in Mexico on Sunday and Friday was our last chance to sign anything for this year. But that evening, hours after work hours, she called saying that the closing was on for the next morning.

And it almost did not happen then. One of the buyers still had not sent his power of attorney to sign the papers by the next morning. What with bad weather and Christmas traffic, I was getting ready for another abort, but after 3 and a half hours in the lawyers office, we finally had it sold. Of course, it was so late in the day, that the money could not be transferred to our account. But we have been assured by all involved (I would not believe the buyers or their agent) that it will be transferred after Christmas.

We celebrated by having a little party at Harry's cajun restaurant at Plaza de la Constitucíon. It is still hard to believe. These two sales were the hardest I have ever been through. It is bad when you cannot trust the people you are dealing with, but thanks to our agent and Mamita, we pulled off a great Christmas present.

Back to the Blog

Wow! We have been too busy to take the time to write down what we have been doing. I often write a paragraph in my mind, but by the time I get back to the computer, I have forgotten it. The problem is that many of the little things I would like to report and remember are ephemeral and I only remember them later in relation to something else, so that I am building up a corpus of experiences that together inform my views on living in Mexico, but that separately are hard to pin down as isolated events. Things like the Indian ladies who sell things they have made (baskets, embroidery, dolls) or bought (little plastic toys or gadgets) either by sitting on the sidewalk or wandering from café to café and who then sleep with their kids in a doorway. Giving one of them $10 MN (they usually only get a peso or two) makes them just stare; and it is heart breaking not to be able to do anything really lasting or worthwhile for them and their kids. The kids we work with at Niños y Niñas are also street kids, but their mothers are a little more urbanized than the ladies with the Indian clothing selling handicrafts; and I often wonder if working with our kids will have a lasting effect anyway.

The little Indian ladies may be beyond help in this generation, especially the ones who are over 50 and apparently have no family, and who are reduced to begging on the sidewalks. With Christmas, the number of people begging has increased exponentially. The solution to this problem is beyond what a government can do; and will involve a complete change in attitude on the part of all the citizens of Mexico, not just the indigenous population.

There has to be a change from the paternalistic, top-down, approach to social problems, that have always been pushed by the church and state (conservative or liberal), to one where people begin to believe they can change their lives, and then take responsibility for doing so. The problem is that the church and state have never done anything to help people believe they actually can do anything on their own to improve their lives and the lives of the next generation. The whole idea that the next generation will and should be better off than the current generation is restricted to a very small and educated portion of the middle class. The upper-class wants to keep things as they are, which they see as to their benefit, incorrectly in my view.

Probably 70% of the population believes and accepts that this is the way life is, the way it has always been and the way it will always be. In Mexico, religion is not much help and is truly the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, all parts of the political spectrum feel that more and more government is the answer; while in fact, the answer is for people to be able to do things on their own, including being effectively involved in the political process.

The other day there was a story in the paper about a group of clowns in Mexico City who were having a campaign to make people more tolerant while being caught in traffic jams. This sounds innocuous enough, but their signs said that since you cannot do anything to change the traffic, you may as well sit back and take it easy. Even the clowns did not think that there was anything people can do to effect change in government, and that people should just accept it and relax. It is this attitude, which permeates society here, that is the basic underlying problem and the reason Mexico has not, and probably will not, meet its potential economically and socially. ‘Nuf soap box.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Thanksgiving and no central heat. Didn't think we would need it. Didn't need it 30 years ago. Didn't need it last year, when there were only two cold weeks in January. But this year, the cold has started in November, and we don't have central heat. Brrr. But it is sunny, and it is a dry cold (the usual excuse).

This is Mozart season. The other evening we went to what we thought was another free concert at the Teatro de la Republica, and it turned out to cost $110 MN, not US, each. We reluctantly forked over $220 and went in. It turns out that rather than a little chamber orchestra as we had thought, it was the Querétaro symphony orchestra playing Mozart's Jupiter and his piano concierto #21, and some forgettable Shostakovich. Wow! It was worth a lot more than $220. At intermission, we bought tickets for their Requiem concert in a couple of weeks. We even bought tickets for Maria and Bob (tomorrow is Maria's birthday at Chucho El Roto restaurant where she teaches English to the waiters for free dinners.) When you feel depressed or need a pick-me-up, just walk around Querétaro and there is bound to be something going on to raise your spirits, even if it is COLD. Last night we went to San Antonio (the church, not the city) for a youth orchestra concert of chamber music. Pretty good, especially the encore, Albinoni's concierto for cello/guitar that was so popular years ago.

Imelda just arrived for her Thursday clean-up. She has the cold that C and I had for 10+ days, sore throat, slight fever, cough, phlegm. And she says that it is abnormally COLD for this time of year, and that this kind of weather usually lasts for two weeks in January. (Yeah, right.) Must be W's fault, i.e., "it'll be a cold day in hell when we lose both the house and the senate."

Lee, the ex-Peace Corps volunteer, Francis the guy from Canada and I have been making excursions to draw and paint. It is not exactly like Monet and friends heading to Normandy to paint the sea, but you gotta start somewhere. However, this week it is too COLD to go out. Lee has had some health problems, but it looks like he will be going to Guatemala, where his wife is living, with the Peace Corps' Crisis Corps for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. It is reportedly not much warmer in Guatemala.

This afternoon, we are having an early Thanksgiving meal (turkey tacos, I think; maybe enchiladas) with Pierre, Sophie and Antoine at 3 PM. This evening, we are going to a book signing and lecture that Edgardo is giving on his new book on the history of the theater in Querétaro, all 450 years of it. We may go to his house for a party afterwards, which leads me into my picture below, as I hope there will be an art historian at his party who can help me out.

I mentioned previously that there is a fresco under the paint on the walls of the entranceway. Here is a picture of some of what I have uncovered so far.

You can see a horizontal band of a reddish color along with a vertical band near the door on the right. This is a fresco in the stucco which has been covered by many layers of paint, most recently by blue and green in the late 20th c. Just above the horizontal band are what appear to be roots running horizontally in the same reddish brown. These lead to something on the left, but exactly what is still unknown. I am wondering if the roots lead to a vine or a tree or something. There are also two areas of very faint color midway along the roots, two little spots of paint, one blue and one yellow. Are these fruit, some kind of decoration, or are they unrelated to what seem to be roots? I need someone with some knowledge of how houses were painted 150-200 years ago and what I should expect before I start removing much more of the overlying paint, essentially destroying what might be contained therein. Even vertical archaeology is a destructive process.

This past month, the cactus have been growing by leaps and bounds. I thought they were all dead a couple of months ago, but now they are sprouting new leaves and branches. The tall one in the foreground (below) did not have the shiny new branches/leaves before, and they seem to grow larger every day. The shorter one in the foreground did not have any of the ball-like appendages that are so evident now. And the ones in the pot in the background have new little branches coming up from the bottom. We have always had trouble with cactus and never thought you could actually keep them alive, much less watch them grow. It is fascinating, especially if you have a magnifying glass to see the little thorns and appendages.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Final House Plan

To follow up on my last post, Franklin Garrett was Mr. Atlanta History. He knew everything there was to know about Atlanta history and was the unofficial city historian at the Atlanta History Center for decades. He died a few years ago at the age of 80 something, and so far no one has come close to replacing him.

Here are the final plans for the house. We met with Miguel today, and even though the final estimate is somewhat more than the original off-the-cuff estimate, it is still under $65,000 US. Miguel's main changes were that he relocated the doors between the original living room (now a guest bedroom) and bedroom (now the master bedroom), and between that room and the second bedroom (now a dining/living room).

This allowed a rearrangement of the new bathrooms for the guest and master bedrooms and a better use of space in the guest bedroom and the dining/living rooms. There will be a series of cupula skylights over these bathrooms and over the kitchen to allow for more light and for venting. We will remove the kitchen counter which was not original anyway and which is so deep that it would be nearly impossible to reach any cabinets on that wall.

The bathroom in the studio at the back has been made a little smaller and moved to the left wall, opening up the windows looking onto the back garden. The washing machine will be in the corner of the kitchen and there will be a closet along the front wall of the family room/breakfast room area for the vacuum cleaner and kitchen stuff, etc. The stairs along the back wall of the garden will have a metal railing to copy the one that will be along the balcony to the upstairs guest room, and the balcony will be supported by a large wood beam. My bike and outdoor stuff will be stored beneath the stairs. The steps to the roof from the upstairs guest room will be taken in part from the wall so that they will not intrude so much into the bedroom; and there will be a pergola (not shown) on the roof just outside the upstairs bedroom. This will make that room so inviting, it may become our master bedroom.

Miguel did not plan for a fuente (fountain) for the back garden since he feels that for a house of this modest type, one fountain is enough, and we will turn the pila (water basin) in the main patio into a water feature. We can add a fountain later if we really want to. Right now we are trying to save a little $$, too.

The next step is to get the info ready to present to INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) which must review any historic building projects in the historic district. Miguel is confident that we will not have any problems, and that we should have a preliminary go-ahead within a couple of weeks. Assuming another week to get organized, we are hoping to start work in about four weeks or mid December. Of course then Christmas, New Years and Three Kings Day kick in, and we will lose a month. But at least we have a plan.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Franklin Garrett of Querétaro

We had a great time last night with Edgardo and his wife Alma. Edgardo is the author of the book on 500 years of history of the barrios of Querétaro. I was afraid that my Spanish would not hold out for an entire evening, but it did, with help from Christiane and some good wine. Having Edgardo in the house is like having Franklin Garrett over for dinner in Atlanta. He knows the history of Querétaro inside out, and especially the daily life of the inhabitants. Anything you want to know, just ask. He has written a dozen or more books on history and culture, and is fascinating to talk to.

It turns out that there were trenches in the streets near our new house during the siege of Querétaro in 1867 (after which Emperor Maximilian was captured and executed), and there could be cannonballs and what-not in our garden. He has another book coming out in a week or so on the history of the theater in Querétaro. There will be a shindig at the art museum, and we are invited.

He gave us some copies of a history review he helps publish and in which he has an article on the history of commerce in Querétaro. It starts about 600 years ago with the Aztecs, Otomi, and Purepecha and then moves on to the 16th to 19th centuries. The first Spanish market in the 16th c. was just down to street from where we live now. Pretty amazing. We are looking forward to a rewarding friendship.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Break from the Rain

This is November and the rainy season should have been over in September or October. It only rained all day once this summer, but we were all tired of the "constant" rain. There is still a line of storms running from the Pacific right through the middle of Mexico. And we are in store for more this week.

It started raining on Friday when we were at the Regional Museum (old San Franscisco monastery) for a harpsicord (clavecin) and flute concert with Pierre, Sophie and Antoine, and it did not let up until Saturday afternoon, and then it drizzled until night. It was, in a word, intolerable. (Amazing how fast you get over the humidity and rain in Atlanta.) This morning, Sunday, it was partly cloudy, and after a long day of rain yesterday I was getting cabin fever so we collected Shelly and Lee and headed to San Juan del Rio.

We pass SJR on our bus trips into Mexico City, and it always looks a little too industrial from the toll road, but we had heard it was nice so we gave it a try. It was really very, very nice ( Not something for the average American tourist or San Miguelito, but the architectural detail is better and more numerous than in Querétaro, there are wide streets (must have been laid out in the nineteenth century), plazas, parks and churches. In ways, it looks more like a city than Querétaro. Like Querétaro, it is also very clean and well taken care of. We are beginning to think that being clean and well taken care of is not just something for the city of Querétaro, but may be for the entire state. Guanajuato and San Luis Potosi states are pretty run down and do not appear to be well managed in comparison.

Did we make a mistake getting a house in Querétaro? I don't think so, but in 20 years when Qro. is jammed full of people and struggling with the infrastructure and water supply, it might be time to move, and San Juan del Rio might be the place.

At the main church in town, Saint John the Baptist, a lady was selling molcajetes, the three-legged mortars and pestles used to make Mexican sauces. Mole is from Nahuatl for sauce and cajete is Spanish for bowl. I bought a used one recently, but it was too small to make enough sauce, so I had been looking for a larger one. These were larger and in the shape of pigs (the newest fad in molcajetes, apparently). They are fine grained stone, and somewhat soft, for a stone. The lady had brought them all the way from Toluca, about a half day's bus ride. The price was considerably lower than in Querétaro, $130 MX, so I bought one and put it and a mano in my backpack. Must have weighed a ton. Later, at home, I broke it in by grinding rice in it, and to my delight it was easier to break in than the mano I had bought for the little molcajete. I can now become a sauce expert, maybe. I will try out the recipe we got when we went to the restaurant in Cadareyta a month or two ago with Faye when she visited with her daughter, Melissa.

After having lunch and walking around, we headed to Amealco about 30 km away. I cannot remember why Amealco sticks in my mind from 30 years ago, but since we have been back I have felt we should visit it. On our way, we happened on the Cañon del Galindo(?) in an otherwise flat upland terrain. It is not the grand canyon, but it is about 150 meters deep, impressive and very green with all the RAIN we have been having (

Amealco gives you the feeling of an old, traditional, indigenous town. It would not be out of place in upland Peru or Venezuela. It too is clean and well-maintained and worth a longer visit someday.

We then decided to take the back road via Huimilpan to Querétaro. Huimilpan, too, is neat and clean. Small, but worth a longer visit. Between Amealco and Huimilpan are some tree-lined streams with potential picnic areas, plus some nice scenery to sketch and paint. Yeah, I am getting back into watercolor mode, which I left in the early 70s after we left Puerto Rico.

The whole part of the state south of the Querétaro-Mexico City toll road is really very scenic with more trees than the center of the state and north into San Luis Potosi combined. We will be back.

This week is the big one. We should close on the sale of our house in Atlanta, get a final plan and estimate from Miguel, and make a few changes to the Niños y Niñas website; and we will be having Edgardo and his wife to our house for dinner tomorrow. He is the author of the book on the history of the barrios of Querétaro, plus another couple dozen other books on history, anthropology, etc. He teaches Christiane's culture classes on archaeology, history, anthropolgy, etc. Am I a little intimidated about discussing such weighty topics in my limited Spanish? You bet!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New Plans

We visited Miguel, our architect, on Tuesday. He lives in El Pueblito in a house he designed and built 10 years ago, when he was just getting started. The walls are hay bails (covered with stucco, of course) like they have been working on the southwest for the past few decades, and it is a mix of rooms and patios and gardens. It is gorgeous.

He had about 30 different plans printed out. We rapidly discarded a bunch, and narrowed it down to two or three, and with some changes in the computer, we came up with our nearly final plan shown here. We turned the living room into a guest room, will have two full baths, a study, and two new doors to the back garden (from the kitchen and the family room). We will remove the current stairs to the upstairs room and put new ones on the back wall of the garden and have a balcony to connect them to the upstairs room. My original plan had a corridor along the back wall from the living room to the kitchen, but it was a real space waster. After Bob suggested making the living room into a guest room, which really does not need an interior path to the kitchen, everything fell into place. This plan above is still not finished and shows the washing machine in two different places. We may end up putting it in the front guest bedroom's bath room, which itself needs a door!

As I was waiting for the locksmith to change the keys on Monday, and the previous owner frantically removed the last of his stuff, I picked at the paint in the entranceway with my pocket knife. There appears to be a fresco mural under all the paint, and we will need to obtain some free advice from an art historian and restorer. If at all possible, I would like to preserve it or at least reproduce it.

On Wed. we showed the house to Shelley, and she is sure that the kitchen counter is not ceramic tile, but stone tile. At first, I did not believe it since the tiles are a very deep red, but the more I thought about it the more I thought it might be pipestone or something. If it is stone, then we might be able to refinish it, which would be spectacular. Even if it is a well-fired ceramic tile we may be able to refinish it. After I cleaned it off with cleanser, I realized how bad the surface is and that it is not the original stove, despite having the firebox holes in the front; as there are no holes in the top for pots to be set to cook. So for now we don't really know how old it is, only that it is over 50 years old.

Now, I really have to learn patience, as it will take weeks to get the permits and get started working; and then even more weeks/months to get it all done.

I've added a few more pix to the "before" pictures at

Dia de Muertos

This week has been dedicated to Dia de Muertos, from the 30th of Oct to the 2nd of November. I have uploaded some photos to our Flickr page. They are sort of divided up by the altar competition that the city put on for high schools at Jardin Guerrero; the stalls around the edges of Jardin Guerrero that sell candies made especially for this celebration, including candy and chocolate skulls, skeletons, special traditional candies, masks, etc.; the doings at Plaza de Armas where the state has set up a chapel in the main state office building with an Otomi altar inside; and the municipal cemetery where people came to say prayers, serenade their loved ones with their favorite songs, put out their favorite food and drink, clean up the tombs, and decorate them with flowers. The cemetery was jammed. It was an odd mix of sadness for the loss and happiness remembering family members. We bought some flowers and placed them on a child’s grave who died in 1941, but had no flowers.

We took a taxi there and walked back afterward. It was a long walk.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Existing Plan

Here is the existing floor plan of the house we bought. It is not to scale but gives a fairly accurate idea of the layout. The service room is upstairs over the bathroom area. I have also added a few pictures taken from the roof to the ones I have on Flickr.

The old owners are having trouble letting go. On Monday, I will have the door keys changed, but until then we are letting them come and go in hopes they will get rid of the trash. They even have trouble tossing out stacks of old newspapers. On Wednesday, the sister from L.A. will be returning home, and that should put an end to things. Alberto and his family and inlaws still live in the neighborhood, and we don’t want to get them too crosswise.

On Tuesday, we meet our architect, Miguel, who took measurements a few weeks ago and has entered them into his computer. From other of his clients we hear that he will give us a 3-D walk-through of what he has in mind with little figures representing C and me. Once we come to agreement on what to do, we can get started.

Friday, October 27, 2006

House Update

We finally closed on the house in Queretaro. The seller went with me this morning to get the cashier's checks for the closing, and wanted two checks, one for his sister and one for him. No problem. He also wanted a big bunch of cash. Don't know why and didn't ask. When I got three large packets of bills from the cashier the seller wanted to count it all (300+ bills) right in front of the entire bank. I objected, and the bank officer gave us a room where we confirmed the correct total. Later at the closing, he counted the bills again. I guess he thought I might have stolen a few in the meantime. He is really a nice guy, but is clueless. He had two weeks to get his stuff (i.e. junk) out of the house, but had done nothing while we were gone. I have given him until Monday, when I will change the locks and call a trash hauling company.

The sale of the house in Atlanta is moving again. Turns out that the buyers had not made any moves to get a loan. When we threatened to get our earnest money, and then to sue them for the contracted sales price based on their not following their contract obligations, things began to move. Turns out they are rap music producers who want to move to Atlanta where the action is. They are just spacey artists, I guess (besides being damned Yankees!!!). Anyway, we should be able to close in the next few weeks.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Didn't Sell One, Not Sure About the Other

We drove three days to Atlanta, packed up the last of our stuff from the apartment over the garage, and then got the news that the buyers had not provided the lender the proper information, and that closing was put off at least a week. Since we may close this week in Mexico on the house we want to buy here, we had to come back (three more days of driving), and left Mamita with a power of attorney to sign papers for us. We are, to say the least, upset. I guess you really can't trust Yankees (the "buyers" are from New York).

Things appear to be progressing here, but you never know.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Selling One and Buying Another

Finally, we have sold our house in Atlanta (closing on October 20), and have finally got the owners of the house we really wanted to actually sign a contract to sell us the house in Querétaro (closing around October 25). The Atlanta house has been on the market since May, and we have wanted to buy the one in Querétaro since late June. My patience was running thin. The stories are too long and boring to recount here, but needless to say we are immensely relieved. We expect to be back in Atlanta around the 15th, pack up our last remaining items, close on the 20th and head back to Mexico on the 21st for the other closing.

For an idea of what we have bought, visit this site: It will require about 6 months of work, around $50,000, and a good architect who really loves old Querétano houses (Miguel) to bring it back to life and make it livable. We hope to have a patio and a garden at the back with a fountain. And we should be ready for our first guests in the new house sometime toward the end of the dry season (spring). Can't wait. In the meantime we still have room for visitors in our current abode.

And last, but not least, Mamita passed her orals at Emory and just needs to get her disseration done to graduate.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Santa Cruz de los Milagros

Night of September 12, Santa Cruz de los Milagros, Rooster heads up the serenade.

This has been a very busy week. Starting last Saturday, Bob and Maria took us to Mineral de Pozos, a mostly abandoned gold and silver mining town. Around the turn of the century it was one of the richest cities in Mexico with somewhere around 1,500 mines operating. By the 1940s its population had shrunk from over 70,000 to 400. In the 1990s, it began growing again, and is now 4,000, due in part to increasing tourism. The artsy crowd in San Miguel de Allende is touting it as the next artists’ colony. Mining started here before Cortes, was taken over by the Jesuits with enslaved indians, and after Spain kicked the Jesuits out of Mexico in the 1780s, private enterprise took over. Somewhere in there, the forests were destroyed, the ecology was raped, and a bunch of foreigners who owned and ran the mines got very, very rich. We visited two industrial haciendas, San Rafael which has an underground mine shaft, and Santa Brigida, which has a large surface mine and some interesting buildings. Both have incredible and extensive ruins, industrial and workers dwellings. It is a historical archaeologist’s dream. For some pictures, visit my Flickr site at

The remainder of the week revolved around our barrio’s annual celebration of Santa Cruz de los Milagros (September 12-15) and Mexican Independence Day September 15 and 16. The Santa Cruz celebration is in remembrance of the taking of Sangremal Hill (where we live) by the Spanish in 1531 after Santiago appeared in the sky, and of the miracles wrought by the cross that gives the barrio its name. The wooden cross that was first used in the 1530s was later replaced by one of cantera (stone), and is now a venerated icon for the indigenous people who originally lived in the barrio and who still live in the other barrio on Sangremal called San Francisquito. This is the biggest celebration of the year for concheros (Aztec style dancers who use conch shells in their dances) and Apache/Soldado dancers from Querétaro and across the Republic.

The festivities start on the 12th and include a nearly all night serenade in the barrio. We started the festivities in the afternoon by following the sound of a band as it passed near our house, going in the direction of La Cruz church. At the tail end of the procession was a pick-up truck with offerings from the people at the La Cruz market. Later, this group was followed by people from the market carrying dozens of offerings of flowers, and by as many bird cages with all kinds and colors of birds, also from the market. The flowers were offered to the church for the weeks festivities, but I think the birds were just taken to church to be blessed. We ran into Sophie and her son Antoine as we came out of the church. They and Pierre are staying in Querétaro for a year while he is on sabbatical. They are friends of Byrone and Neils from Boston, and know and enjoy Mexico.

The serenade starts at 9 PM from La Cruz church and is led by a big paper maché rooster and smaller paper maché roosters all carried on long poles, followed by a 8-10 piece band, and 100-200 people to begin with. We went along Felipe Luna and stopped at a house about halfway up the block following the same route as most every other procession from the church. At the house, the band struck up Las Mañanitas (traditional Mexican birthday morning song and thus the roosters to greet the morning), and the priest and some Franciscans (who were all remarkably well-fed, jolly, and young) went inside to bless the altar set up by the owner while the rest of us stayed outdoors. This and the subsequent houses we went to were the houses of captains of the indigenous dance groups throughout the barrio. Every year the captains prepare altars or even turned their living rooms into small chapels with flowers, pictures, statues, an altar, etc. While the altar is being blessed inside, the band is playing, the cohete (rocket) guys are setting off big bottle rockets at the edge of the crowd (OSHA would definitely not approve), and the roosters are cavorting. At most of the houses, the crowd is offered something to drink or eat. The lively and animated crowd consists mostly of people from the barrio, with no foreigners (except us) or tourists from out of town, and very few people from other parts of Querétaro. Even our American and Canadian friends who live in the barrio did not come. There is a definite sense that the people know each other and feel a strong bond.

After the altar was blessed, the coheteros headed off to the next house shooting off rockets to lead the way. When they arrived at the next house they would send off half a dozen or more rockets at the same time. This invariably set off car alarms which added to the general noise and chaos. It was really rather amusing.

The only indication or information about the serenade was a short note posted at La Cruz church giving the time. There was also an explanation in the new book Christiane got from her teacher about the barrios of Querétaro which turned out to be a reliable guide on what was happening this week, why it was happening, and its history. Other than that there was no information available on the biggest celebration in the barrio. The folks in the barrio just knew what was going to happen next, since it has been going on, pretty much unchanged, for 300+ years.

Christiane went home as the crowd grew and headed off towards San Francisquito. I followed the crowd since we had heard the next house was giving out free tequila! By this time the rooster had lost a leg, the other one was hanging by a thread, one of the smaller roosters had popped off its carrying stick, and someone was passing around tequila surreptitiously, as people (well, guys) were getting a little tipsy. We crossed all six lanes of Avenida de Zaragoza stopping traffic in downtown Querétaro for 10 minutes. On the other side was San Francisquito, and a crowd waiting for us. There were now around 400 people.

The narrow, winding streets of San Francisquito made it hard to get around, and when I got to the street for the next altar it became apparent that I would never get in to get my tequila. So I said goodnight to the couple who had been telling us what was going to happen next and headed home at around midnight. We heard the multiple rockets exploding as the crowd arrived at a house until sometime between 3 and 5 AM.

The next day was the parade of dancers that started on Zaragosa and headed downtown passing through the main squares, then in front of the old San Francisco monastery (now the regional museum) where every group paid its respects and did a special dance. The parade then continued up Independencia to La Cruz Church. There were coheteros interspersed along the way setting off car alarms to the accompaniment of each dance group’s big drums that never stopped and which made a deafening noise. The featherwork was truly incredible (see, and the sense of movement almost made you seasick.

As evening drew near, my pictures began to get fuzzy, especially with the quick dance movements. The Aztec dancers have been around for over 100 years, but the Apache and Soldier dancers are 15 to 20 years old, I think. There are few if any Apaches in Mexico, and the soldiers are all French, even the ones with US Calvary uniforms. Since the French (under Maximilian) never fought the Apache, the whole meaning of this is beyond me. Do the Apache represent Mexicans, and the French represent the US or the Spanish? Why do the French always win?

The clowns in this parade are all either devils or skeletons, who are sometimes chased around by a little kid dressed as an Indian and holding a machete sword.

After three hours of this we were glad to see and hear the end of it.

On Thursday, there was dancing in all the streets around La Cruz from around 8 in the morning until at least 11 at night. After dancing for three hours in the parade the day before, everyone must have been exhausted and only kept going by the hypnotic effect of the drums. That evening we went to mass and happened to catch the bishop coming up the street (as foretold in C’s book) escorted from the cathedral across town by the best Aztec dancers and a coterie of well-fed, jolly, and young Franciscan monks. As mass was going on inside the church, the dancing went on outside. Without loudspeakers turned up full blast, no one would have been able to hear mass. At one point, I think I heard church bells amidst all the noise, and once I heard very faint, whoosh, whoosh, whooshes, followed several seconds latter by a dozen very loud explosions right over the church.

By this time we were worn out and went home to dinner. Later, we heard the sounds of real fireworks, not just the rockets, but were too tired to go watch. Maybe next year.

The barrio celebration ended Friday morning, and that evening was the Grito which memorializes the “cry” of Father Hidalgo in 1810. This is celebrated throughout the country, but the main celebration is the Zocalo in Mexico City. This year, there was a lot of speculation about what would happen with AMLO’s tent city dwellers who had been camped out there for 47 days. President Fox decided to avoid a confrontation (someone had to act like an adult) and visited Dolores Hidalgo and gave the Grito on the same steps Hidalgo did 196 years ago. By this time we were safely ensconced with our Irish coffees at David and Zoe’s B&B watching TV along with a bunch of other ex-pats like Bob and Maria, Joe, Lee, Barry, and some current Peace Corps Volunteers. We had a great view of the fireworks in Plaza de Armas from their roof, despite the rain which did not dampen the celebration too much.

Today, Saturday, there is a military parade in the Zocalo which AMLO kindly vacated for the occasion. Traffic is back to normal in Mexico City, and there is something going on in Querétaro, but I am too tired to find out what.

A footnote on AMLO and his movement. One gets the impression that a deal was struck between his group and the federal government to help him save face by being able to say he had “won” the Zocalo and defeated the “traitor” Fox. In return, he moved his folks out of the Zocalo. All the papers trumpeted how he had “won” and Fox had “lost”. But Fox also got what he wanted, by playing the martyr to the messianic, anti-democratic AMLO, by giving the Grito in Dolores Hidalgo (where it probably ought to be anyway), and by clearing out the Zocalo and Avenida Reforma of protestors without any need for police brutality. 84% in a national poll said they are glad AMLO and friends are leaving (every time AMLO does something his poll numbers go down and the PAN’s poll numbers go up, so the PAN was happy to let AMLO do his worst.) 77% said they don’t want him to come back; but significantly, 60% said they thought there should be a vocal opposition to the PAN and the federal bureaucracy. Also significantly, the PRD (AMLO’s party) are questioning whether they want to be a thorn in the side of the PAN or whether they want to get some laws passed for their constituents by working cooperatively in the legislature. And perhaps most significantly, the PRD and many of their sympathizers are now again referring to themselves as perredistas (PRD party members) and not as lopezobradoristas (followers of AMLO). Common sense seems to be prevailing.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Shadow Government?

The following is taken from a post to my brothers in response to a question about what is going on in Mexico and how the "shadow" government will work.

No one seems to know what a shadow government would entail. No one is even asking how they would raise taxes, rent offices, much less make laws. Only one columnist has recently raised the question of whether this whole business of setting up another government is treason. AMLO has been maintaining that because the constitution says that the power of the government is derived from the people, the people (him) can do whatever they want, up to and including setting up a different government and a constitutional convention. The most recent idea from the AMLO camp seems to be to hold meetings of the "leaders" every six months where they would make important decisions which they could not enforce, of course. AMLO would be the one to pick the "leaders" and set up the "rules" and his most ardent supporters (the ones who are still in the Zocalo) would gladly do whatever he asked. The ones who think are beginning to see him for what he is, a throw back to the early and mid 20th century, and are slinking quietly away. Just to put this in perspective, the great 19th century reformer, Mexico's Lincoln, Benito Juarez would not have succeeded if the US had not recognized his government early on, had not supplied money and advice, etc. I don't think they will do the same for AMLO, nor will anyone else. The guy is now seen by the majority here and abroad as a crackpot.

What I really see happening is that the other main figures of the left are deserting him in the past week or two, the mayor of the DF from his own party is asking him to take down the tent city in the Zocalo before the Independence Day celebration this Sat, and he is becoming increasingly marginalized. The people in the "camps" are dwindling and some of the other allied parties have deserted him. He will be a minor irritant this time next year, but it will take a while. Mexicans tend not to be confrontational, and they are unfailingly polite with folks like AMLO even if he is trying to undermine everything they have spent the last 10 years setting up. And people are worried because they know that democracy is young here, and they are not sure how strong it really is and whether it can stand up to this echo from the past.

Attached is an editorial in the NYT written by a Mexican intellectual (a separate and distinct class in Mexico). When I started reading it, I thought someone had been reading my blog since it is the first editorial by anyone I have seen, Mexican or US, that tries to put this into historical perspective, but then I realized the writer had really done his homework, well beyond anything in my blog. Turns out the author is Enrique Krause. We were present at an award ceremony a few months ago that was held in the Teatro de la Republica in Querétaro, a few blocks from our house. We were invited because of C's culture classes, and were the only gringos there, and I was one of only 6 who were not wearing dark suits! Krause, a noted historian and intellectual, was given a national literary award for a book on Mexican history. Even the left has a grudging respect for him. Anyway, he seems to have a real understanding of what is at stake for Mexico; what democracy, rule of law and transparency, etc. are; and a good handle on the facts and issues of the current situation in the Zocalo and Reforma Ave.

Few editorial writers of any stripe now support AMLO, but that does not mean they are letting up on President Fox and his myriad of mistakes (he is like the Mexican Bush) or supporting a leftist agenda of helping the poor. Even right wing writers
(including Calderon) all admit that Calderon's main task will be helping the poor and developing jobs.

Since the link to Krause's article will expire, if it has not done so already, I have copied it here:

Mexico: Democracy Under Threat

By Enrique Krauze
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; Page A19, Washington Post

To get a sense of the danger hovering over Mexican democracy, consider these numbers: In the 681 years between the founding of the Aztec empire in 1325 and the present day, Mexico has lived for 196 years under an indigenous theocracy, 289 years under the absolute monarchy of Spain, 106 years under personal or party dictatorships, 68 years embroiled in civil wars or revolutions, and only 22 years in democracy.

This modest democratic 3 percent of Mexico's history is divided over three periods, far separated in time: 11 years in the second half of the 19th century, 11 months at the beginning of the 20th century, and the past 10 years. In the first two instances, the constitutional order was overturned by military coups

Scarcely 50 years ago, armed groups of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (known as the PRI, its initials in Spanish) attacked polling stations with pistols and submachine guns, gunning down suspect voters and stealing ballot boxes. Scarcely 20 years ago, the PRI -- which had refined its methods -- prided itself on being a nearly infallible machine. The government and the PRI (symbiotic entities) controlled every step of the elections, from the preparation of voting rolls and the discretionary issuing of voter registration cards to the counting of votes. Many bureaucrats and members of worker and peasant organizations were carted to polling stations where they were instructed to vote in mass for the official candidate chosen by the outgoing president. The voters were given sandwiches and gifts; their leaders were given government posts, sinecures and money. Many times the ballots were marked in advance and stuffed days before the election into "pregnant" ballot boxes; the establishment of secret polling places was common, and some people were registered many times over.

This shameful situation ended in 1996 when President Ernesto Zedillo set in motion a deep democratic reform. Elections at all levels were no longer controlled by the government, becoming the jurisdiction of an independent Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), subject to a Federal Electoral Tribunal. At great cost, detailed voter rolls were drawn up with a registration and voter ID system that made it possible to correlate physical presence, identity and registration at the polling places. The IFE very soon gained remarkable credibility. All over the country, citizens began to vote freely in fair and transparent elections. Few were surprised when in 1997 the PRI lost the majority in the Chamber of Deputies for the first time and the leftist candidate, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, attained the extremely important post of mayor of Mexico City. Three years later, the PRI lost the jewel in the crown, and the crown itself: Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) won the presidency.

On July 2 this same independent electoral organization, made up of 909,575 citizens (not government employees), oversaw an orderly, peaceful election in which more than 41 million people voted. It's important to note that almost a million representatives from all parties participated, as well as nearly 25,000 national observers and 639 international observers. At the end of the day, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) presidential candidate came away with more votes than any other leftist candidate in Mexican history; in fact, he fell just 240,000 votes short of winning the presidency.

What happened next has left Mexico on the verge of social upheaval. What would an American think if, after a campaign as heated as the Kerry-Bush race, the losing candidate had declared himself the winner the night of the election, claimed "massive fraud" a few days later and orchestrated a sit-in of his followers (many of them directly paid by the local PRD government) on the Mall in Washington, blocking access to the neighboring streets and affecting businesses and government offices? That is exactly what Andrés Manuel López Obrador has done.

In articles and interviews published in the international press (written in a misleading tone of civility, far from that of his incendiary speeches), López Obrador has seriously damaged Mexico's young democracy by trying to sustain the unsustainable: that Mexico today is the same as Mexico in the days of PRI rule. He fails to mention that:

· He spent more on television advertising than any other candidate.

· In the same election he calls "a filthy mess" his leftist coalition managed to become the second-most-powerful force in the legislature, considerably increasing its presence in both chambers, while the coalition's candidate for mayor of Mexico City won with 47 percent of the vote.

· The polling places where the Federal Electoral Tribunal ordered a recount (9 percent of the total) weren't a random sampling, which would have been more than sufficient to determine whether there was generalized fraud. They were instead a selection weighted in López Obrador's favor because he chose the polling places where he hoped to show that there had been fraud -- unsuccessfully, since the resulting difference has been minimal, according to the tribunal's ruling.

· He has said that even if there were a recount in 100 percent of the polling places, he wouldn't accept the results if they were not in his favor.

Today, many citizens who voted for López Obrador are not only disappointed but fearful. According to recent polls, the majority of the country disapproves of his actions and supports the Federal Electoral Tribunal's performance. If the presidential elections were held today, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party would win with 54 percent to López Obrador's 30 percent.

López Obrador has complained about his opponents' fear-mongering, but he's the one stirring up real fear, by declaring that "Mexico needs a revolution" and comparing the situation to the circumstances that led to the Revolution of 1910. The historical comparison is completely wrong: López Obrador isn't the heir of liberal democrats Benito Juárez and Francisco I. Madero, but of Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta, the coup leaders who smothered Mexico's two initial attempts at democracy.

What comes next? If, as is likely, the final ruling of the Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary confirms Calderón's victory, López Obrador will do as he has warned: On Sept. 16, Mexico's Independence Day, he'll gather tens of thousands of people in the central square of Mexico's capital to declare him "president" by acclaim. He may even try to control "his territory" in the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Guerrero, and the capital itself. His aim for the near future will be to lay siege to the institutions he despises ("let them go to hell," he said recently) and force Calderón to resign.

It is crystal-clear that López Obrador is not a democrat. He's a revolutionary with a totalitarian mentality and messianic aspirations who is using the rhetoric of democracy to try to destroy this third historic attempt at democracy in Mexico. Eighty-six years ago, Mexico brought an end to a revolution that cost a million lives. Since then it has lived in peace. It's a country still plagued with injustice and poverty, but it has made significant progress in its economic transformation, social programs and political life. It would be a sad thing for it all to end in dictatorship or revolution: the 97 percent of our history. Mexico isn't just another democracy: it's the neighbor and partner of Canada and the United States and the counterweight on the scale tipping Latin America toward the example of Brazil and Chile and not Cuba and Venezuela. It's more important than ever that the democracy we've achieved has the support and understanding of international opinion.

Enrique Krauze is the author of "Mexico: Biography of Power" and editor of the magazine Letras Libres. This article was translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mita's Here

Xochitecatl archaeological site with Ixtacihuatl in the background as viewed from the Cacaxtla archaeological site.

Mamita has been here for a little over a week. She arrived on the 19th and will leave on Saturday, September 2, just as the TRIFE announces its decision on who won the presidential election. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the airport will be closed down, but there are rumors that Lopez Obrador’s (AMLO’s)supporters will attempt to disrupt things.

Mamita has visited San Miguel de Allende, la Peña de Bernal, Cadareyta, and of course Querétaro. Last weekend we drove to Cholula to visit Lupe and for Mamita to visit Lety and Jaime and the Capitan’s house, which she had not seen in 30 years. We were surprised by the presence of Omar, the Capitans’ son whom we had only met once, and whom we could not locate when we went to Guadalajara a couple of years ago. He was in Cholula to settle his mother’s papers. It was good to talk to him about his parents whom we all loved.

Mamita, Jaime and Lety at Jaime's kindergarten graduation, circa 1973.

Lety and Mamita with Jaime's kids at Cacaxtla, 2006.

Mita got to visit her old school, the Capitan’s house and garden, and Lety and Jaime. From the roof of the Capitan’s house we could see the volcanoes Popocatepetl, Ixtacihuatl, La Malinche, and the clouds over Orizaba, as well as the pyramid of Cholula, which looks more like a hill with a church on it than a pyramid. And because it was the rainy season, everything looked green and clean and fresh. On Sunday, we visited the archaeological site at Cacaxtla with Lety and Jaime’s kids before we headed back to Querétaro.

All of this was made easier and a lot more fun by the fact that Mamita’s Spanish was coming back and she understood most everything. She was even speaking at the end. I could tell that she would quickly speak better than me if she stayed here. Maybe I should take lessons.

The TRIFE made its announcement about Lopez Obrador’s demand that there be a total recount. By law the TRIFE can only recount in precincts where there was some evidence of errors or fraud, and so it had only recounted 9% of the vote. The result was that some 200,000 or so votes were thrown out because of problems at some polling stations. At the end, the totals did not change much for either party, and there was no evidence of a conspiracy or fraud. Thus, the TRIFE is expected to approve a final vote tally by September 2, and it is expected that Calderon will win.

Now AMLO says he will not accept the results and will form another government (the details are murky needless to say), because he says he will not accept a “coup d’etat” by the PAN and the presumably corrupt TRIFE. He also says that he and his followers will disrupt the government for the next 6 years if he is not given the presidency. He always disclaims any violence, but it has the ring of “he doth protest too much”, and he never denounces his followers when they threaten violence.

One of the federal judges put it correctly when he said that the election was fair and that now people who voted can be assured that their vote counted and will not usurped by a minority. Until this point AMLO has been implying that only his voters’ votes counted, so it is interesting to see someone point out the other side of the issue, i.e. the majority actually voted against him and their votes are as good as anyone else’s. Some speakers on TV are saying that AMLO just wants to go back to the old days of one-man rule, and that Mexico has come too far to give it all up for a government of 20 years ago.

Many AMLO voters have now turned against him and wish he would just go away or take his agenda to the legislature and deal with his issues in a democratic way. It seems that if the election were held today, he would lose by a much larger margin. There is some talk about AMLO and his party, the PRD, going their separate ways and for AMLO to have his own party.

At any rate, the peso has gathered strength on the TRIFE’s announcement, and our dollars are worth less everyday.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Some News, A Short One

We did not feel, and Christiane did not know about, the earthquake until folks called from the US to see how we were doing. We felt nothing at all, and it was not even in the local papers. Mexico City felt it in part because it is sitting on a bowl of jello (the clay bottom of Lake Texcoco that they have been draining away for the past 500 years). But there was no damage or injuries, even there.

When I went to get the Sunday paper this morning there were two pieces of news on the front page of El Universal that caught my eye. The PRD, who talked about keeping up the road blocks on Reforma in the DF until they got a 100% recount, are thinking about letting traffic through some of the intersections. They and the city government are feeling the pressure, and reason may be raising its ugly head. This may be the first crack in the protest. We shall see.

The other bit of news is that the Oaxaca teachers have asked President Fox to intervene in their dispute with the governor of the state. Why would the president get involved in such a local issue, you might ask? Because he is president of the republic and this has traditionally been part of his role. And if Fox goes along, this is the perfect example of the strongman over rule of law. This same thing happened when I was about ready to finish my masters in 1976. The teachers all went on strike, and after many months of closing down the university, the issue was finally decided by the president of the republic. Everyone else was afraid to make a decision and possibly take the blame for a bad one. For rule of law to flourish and real democracy to take root, this attitude had to change, and to some extent it has. But this is not simply a question of the ruling classes setting up a strong man type system that only helps them. In this case, the teachers (pretty low on the power totem pole) who are mostly “leftist” PRD supporters are asking for the president to intervene. In the short term, this may give them the results they want, but in the long term it merely perpetuates the system they claim to abhore.

Oh well, it does not look like things have changed all that much, and we probably won’t have a revolution, so we are still looking for a house to buy.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Once More into the Breach, The Mexican Election

Let me preface this by saying that it was intended to be included in an online forum responding to an editorial in the San Francisco (California) Chronicle about the presidential vote recount in Mexico. It is a little too sarcastic and long for them to publish so I am putting it here. Most of the Americans I know here think there should be a recount of all the votes to "calm things down." I think there is more here than whether the ideological left or right won the election, and something fundamentally more important. Christiane disagrees with me and thinks there should be a complete recount too, so this should not be taken as reflecting her views.

I guess it should not surprise me that your editorial only takes a superficial view of the situation in Mexico. Or that folks on the left and right in this forum are taking their ideological stands and speaking without thinking. It’s the American way after all.

Mexico has only had democracy for a few short years. One might say that it began in the early 1990s when the federal election institute (IFE) and a separate election court (TRIFE) were established. Mexico had been under one party, strongman rule for nearly 70 years by that time, which carried on a tradition that began before Cortes, was abused by the Spanish for 300 years and later by folks like Iturbide, Santa Ana and Porfiro Diaz in the nineteenth century, and by Carranza and the PRI in the twentieth. What is strongman rule? Most Americans don’t really know, despite their (and my) dislike of folks like W., and paying lip service to democracy (or at least semi-democracy) in the U.S.

From my personal experience living in Mexico for 5 years 30 years ago, from the past six months living in Mexico, and from several years living in other third world countries where rule of law was unknown, strongman rule, even benevolent strongman rule as we had in Mexico, means that the strongman is the final arbiter of even the smallest decisions. I know, as I personally felt the results of this in the 1970s. People and businesses are afraid to make decisions on their own, and one cannot trust the institutions that are supposedly set up to protect one’s rights, as the strongman and his henchmen (in this case the PRI) break the law whenever he or they feel like it or whenever the proper palms are greased. The law says one thing, but that only holds as long at the strongman goes along. This breeds distrust in governmental institutions, contempt for authority, and a general attitude that you can do whatever you can get away with as long as you have the right friends, enough money, or don’t get caught. This is not a healthy state of affairs in a democracy.

The extra legal maneuvers by the strongman might be for the good of the country, but they are paternalistic and beyond the law. This may have been the only way to govern in Mexico after the last revolution, but it was not democracy, and it certainly was not rule of law. The president picked his successor so he would not be held accountable for actions taken while he was president, the local warlords (caciques) were paid off one way or another, and everything worked pretty well until 1968 when cracks began showing in the system. From then until the late 1980s, people began asking for more accountability, transparency, distribution of power, checks and balances, public input, etc., the things we kind of take for granted in the US until the chads hit the fan in Florida, that is.

In the early 1990s, Mexico finally set up a system with checks and balances by mutual consent and with public input to govern their elections. This system took into consideration their long experience with fraud and how to commit it, and set up a system that until this year, Mexicans could be justly proud of. It was better by far than the US systems, even in the vaunted state of California. All political parties had input into this set of laws, including the PAN (Calderon) and PRD (Lopez Obrador). It set up an election institute (IFE) that assured fair elections, and even fair campaigns (unheard of in the US). All political parties have members on the IFE that runs elections and on the election court that hears appeals (sometimes called TRIFE). And the judges are “untouchable” in the sense that they are paid nearly $500,000 a year to insulate them from bribery.

During this past election, President Fox was reprimanded by the IFE for even suggesting that PAN and/or the government promote the election, a task left up solely to the IFE, not the parties or the government, unlike in the US where we are a bit looser about such things. The IFE also reprimanded the Catholic church for taking sides and even speaking out on the election. (Mexico has had a long and checkered relationship with the church, but that’s another story.) The IFE did not really get on Lopez Obrador’s case for using Mexico City funds to help his campaign, but they sure tried to keep the federal government from helping Calderon’s campaign and rightly so. Other than that the campaign was pretty tame by US standards, despite some name calling and easily offended sensibilities on one side or the other.

Over the past decade the IFE has run the cleanest election system in Mexico’s history. When a losing candidate has appealed to the TRIFE, an independent organization, they have reversed elections at the local and state level of all major parties. As a result, the PRD and PAN have lost some and won some, and in general everyone, including foreign observers, agree that the system has been fair and even-handed. In fact, the PRI is currently challenging a local election just won by the PRD, and the PRD is refusing a recount. Ironic when you think about it. But the TRIFE will settle it, and all parties will end up going along. In this case, the PRD trusts the TRIFE.

The 2006 federal election is the cleanest, most-transparent, well-run election in Mexico’s history, and perhaps in all of Latin America, with the possible exception of Costa Rica. The past decade had built up people’s confidence in the fact that they could set up a legal system that actually worked, and one that was the bedrock of everything else that happens politically in the country.

The election, despite being clean, undoubtedly had underhanded things happening and human error. But if you saw, as I did, the precinct tally sheets posted all around town with signatures from members of all the major parties, including the PRD; and if you watched the election night returns and listened to the president of IFE saying the election was too close to call, and that they could not call a winner using computer projections (like we do in the US), and thus everyone would have to wait a few days to get an actual count; and if you saw him pleading with the political parties to hold off on claims of victory until the count was in; you could not help but believe that the election was well run and was following the law. The whole business about the IFE hiding 3 million votes until the final vote count was in is hogwash, as the IFE said on election night that there were about 3 million disputed votes that would need to be counted. They were never missing, at least if you watched television on election night.

Now it is crunch time. If the election had not been close, none of this would have mattered much, but it was very, very close. And how well the system Mexico put into place for just such a situation will be tested as never before, and at the presidential level for the first time. The question is not simply whether one party won or another lost. This election and how Mexico handles it is a referendum on rule of law; on people’s faith in an institution that they, not a strongman, set up; on whether they are capable of building their own future or will have to revert back to a strongman system, no matter how benevolent. If they fail, it will set back true democracy in Mexico an additional 70 years, and continue a pattern that is already over 500 years old.

The system is following the course set out by law. By law the IFE cannot reopen ballot boxes to satisfy a disgruntled customer. That is for the TRIFE to decide. The IFE followed its rules, caught blatant cases of error (the 3 million “missing” ballots) and turned everything over to the TRIFE as they were supposed to do. Now they are being castigated by Mexicans who know better, and US editors who don’t. Opening ballot boxes is not for the candidates or their parties to decide either.

From the very beginning, and presumably in the name of democracy, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and the PRD have been asking for something that is straight out of the strongman days. They claimed victory against the wishes of the IFE on election night in hopes of causing enough commotion to scare everyone else off and plant a seed of doubt. This last week AMLO has again declared himself president. That has not worked so far. Sixty percent of the voting public thinks the PAN won and that the elections were essentially clean.

AMLO and the PRD then presented what they considered evidence of massive fraud and conspiracy to the TRIFE as provided by law and demanded a complete recount. This was despite the fact that around a million common citizens were involved in the vote and vote count and acted as observers with foreign observers who also said the vote was clean. The level of bribery would have had to have been beyond anything seen anywhere, and keeping it quiet would be even more unbelievable. Appealing on the basis of possible vote fraud is their right and why the TRIFE was set up to begin with, but there has already been a vote by vote count that was signed off on by representatives of the PRD and the other major parties. AMLO now claims that his own people, selected by his party, were paid off by the other parties in a massive conspiracy. There has been no evidence of this, and it shows his lack of trust in even his own people.

Before the results were in from the TRIFE last week, AMLO and the PRD staged massive street protests supported by the Mexico City government (the PRD mayor of Mexico City has publicly offered to accept the political consequences of this activity) claiming fraud, and these have now extended to traffic blockages of the financial and political center of Mexico City. (It was the quietest I had ever seen the Avenida Reforma as my wife and I strolled up to Juarez.) And despite calls for non-violence by AMLO, there has been a general understanding that things will get rough unless there is a complete recount. AMLO has stated in his speeches that they will protest and increase the level of the protests until he is announced the winner. Of course, when he is interviewed by US papers, he modifies that to something along the lines that he just wants a full recount.

The TRIFE, following the Mexican law, not Californian law or US law or even Florida law, are only supposed to order a recount of votes in precincts if there is realistic evidence of a pattern of fraud or other irregularities. They can require a complete recount, but need to have some proof of a massive fraud to do so. Anything less would be succumbing to rule by strongman, not rule by law. They just cannot do it because a vocal minority and some misdirected US newspapers think they should. They can also toss out the entire vote and start over, but again they need some basis for doing so. Doing anything else, such as sitting down with Calderon and AMLO to come to a gentleman’s agreement on a recount, or taking the Catholic church up on its offer to “mediate” the “dispute”, or getting President Fox to promulgate a decree ordering a recount is not rule by law, and represents a reversion to everything the 1990s elections laws were set up to prevent. And it will mean going back to the bad old days of the PRI.

Much more is at stake here than whether the PRD or the PAN won the election. This fledging democracy, that basically had a revolution in the 1990s, needs to develop confidence in itself and its institutions, breaking the law to keep US newspaper editors and a minority of voters happy is too much to pay to prevent street protests.

Is Mexico a society of the very rich and the very poor? Have the poorer Mexicans been given a bad deal for the past 500 years? Should the government do more? The answers are absolutely yes. And Calderon has invited AMLO and the PRD to form a national government to approache these issues to little avail. But rather than changing things through a strongman system, no matter how good the motives, caving in to demands for a full recount outside the TRIFE will perpetuate the very same paternalistic (on a good day) or dictatorial (on a bad day) system that needs to be changed. AMLO is just another politician who wants to do things his way, just like Iturbide, Porfiro Diaz, and all the PRI presidents of the twentieth century. I think Mexico deserves true democracy with leaders who believe in and live by rule of law, transparency, and personal responsibility.

Questioning the system and throwing around words like “fraud” and “traitor”, and threatening undefined activities in order to change how the electoral institutions work is an attempt, whether conscious or not, to undermine their effectiveness and the public’s incipient faith in its ability to manage and maintain true democracy. This is serious stuff and US newspapers editors should start paying attention, and get a little education.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Visitors, Bastille Day, Househunting, etc.

We have been busy, mostly reading editorials about what is happening with the elections. You would think that my Spanish vocabulary would be growing by leaps and bounds with all the newspapers we’ve been reading, but I don’t want to stop reading and check the dictionary, so I just keep going and am not learning as much vocabulary as I should be. But I am learning a lot about the Mexican constitution and Mexican politics.

Last Sunday we went to México City to visit our nephew and his family from France who are taking an intensive 10 day tour of México. They will be seeing in a few short days, what it took us five long years to visit 30 years ago. I do not envy them. It just so happened that Sunday was the day of the big demonstration by Obrador. Traffic was stopped in downtown, and still is five days later with no end in sight, as his followers have decided to “camp out” until the Election Court caves in and recounts all the votes despite what the law says. They have already been counted in the most open and honest election in México’s history or probably any Latin American country’s history for that matter. But he won’t be happy until he wins. It will be an interesting test of wills, rule of law versus the potential of going back to the strongman system that México had for 70 years. Check here for some photos of walking down the Avenida Reforma which is usually jammed with traffic.

Friends in La Quinta Patio (Émerence is in the center)

We had Alain, Carinne and their daughter Émerence for a week or so in July. They had a car and saw a side of Mexico that Marie-Helene and Claire did not! They also got to visit Guanajuato, part of the Sierra Gorda and San Miguel by themselves. We took Émerence to the zoo outside Querétaro when they went to Guanajuato.

Émerence and Christiane at the zoo at Wameru

Christiane feeding the giraffe

Where'd the food go, little girl?

Just after they left, our next door neighbor, Coraline, the last of the French interns from Limoges, was afraid to be alone so she moved in with us for a week. Yesterday, she moved in with Julian and Pauline, and leaves for France tomorrow. I think she is ready to go home, but I hope she will have good memories of Mexico.

We had a July 14 party at our house and about 40 people showed up, American, Canadian, Mexican, and, of course French. As the Americans (except Mike), Canadians and French got tired and went home, the Mexicans were just getting started. Ramon played his guitar, tamborine and harmonica, and sang his Yucatecan call and response song to everyone’s delight. Mike stuck around long enough to dance with Emerance. And Hilario, who was last seen on this site back in March or April at the international guitar festival, played some great classical guitar. His buddy played some old favorites that everyone joined in on. And Christiane gave a nice little speech, in Spanish, about how we have been here such a short time, but already have so many friends and we look forward to getting know them over the years. I, for one, was very impressed, and surprised since she had not mentioned she was going to do this to me.

House update: We thought we had the owner back down to $880,000 (pesos, of course) in my recent post. Whoops! Turns out he had not discussed this with his sister after all, and they now wanted $930,000. We gave him a last, and written, offer of $880,000, and we offered to pay the agents fee, which he did not want to pay. We also gave him two days to think it over. Two days came and went with no response, and frankly, I was a little relieved. Now we could go on, and not be emotionally tied to a house we probably would not be able to buy anyway. Nevertheless, a day or two later the owner came back with an offer of $900,000 that, he said, would only be good for a week (trying to put the pressure on us, I guess.) I said no, and that we were looking elsewhere (Our friend Sylvia is looking for houses for us among friends of her mother-in-law) and would need at least a week and a half to see if we could get a better deal. He excused himself from the phone and talked to his sister in the background. When he came back on the line, he offered $880,000, and we could visit the Notario Publico the next day! Again, I said no, and that we really owed it to ourselves to look around some more. Since we are the only foreigners presently looking for places to fix up in the Centro Historico, I think it is finally dawning on him that what he wants and what the market (us, in this case) will bear are two different things, and he may have lost his chance to sell his house after 6 years.

I may have mentioned that Christiane and I are working with Niños y Niñas de México. It is a non-profit to help street children and their families. Bob got me started by asking me to replace him teaching computer classes to the kids, since Bob is getting a real job at the University of Querétaro. Maria got Christiane to help her baby sit the little ones when their mother’s come to the embroidery co-op on Wednesdays run by Deborah who also teaches an elementary school class. I quickly became the webmaster and Christiane got hooked into teaching kids to read and write, in Spanish of course. Now I go two mornings a week and Christiane goes three. What I really want to do is help with marketing the co-op, and this may yet happen. Anyway, please check out the preliminary Niños y Niños website at Any suggestions or corrections are welcome.