Monday, September 22, 2008


Juana inscribes colorful flowers into her guanengo.

Juana, right, and her daughter-in-law Prudenciana shuck corn.



A tragic incident occurred in Morelia the night of Sept. 15, 2008, during the Mexican Independence Day celebration. Assailants threwtwo grenades into crowds of families celebrating the event, killing eight people and injuring more than 100.

A large section of Avenida Madero through the historical downtown area had been blocked off for the festivities, and the grenades exploded at opposite ends of the celebration. This may have been done to create a stampede, which fortunately didn't happen.

One of the grenades exploded in Plaza Melchor Ocampo on the east side of the Cathedral of Morelia and directly in front of the balcony where Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy gave the grito. "Viva la Independencia!" he shouted. "Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Michoacan!" to which the crowd responded "Viva!" after each phrase. The grenade ripped into the crowd at the very moment the grito took place; another was tossed several blocks away in front of Templo La Merced.

I had planned to stand at the location in front of the balcony for the grito, but I later changed my mind and went about two blocks up the street to Sanborn's where I browsed the book section and became very engrossed in a National Geographic article about the 43,000-year-old remains of some red-headed Neanderthals. The remains were discovered in a Spanish cave where they had been cannibalized; scientists were able to retrieve enough DNA to learn that, not only did they possibly have red hair, they may also have had the capacity for speech. The article captivated me so much I didn't want to put it down, and I finally stepped outside about five minutes before the grito at 11 p.m., which I watched on a screen across the street from Sanborns.

Possibly because of all the revelry and shouting and exploding fireworks I didn't hear anything, and I didn't notice any panic or other disturbance. I did see some ambulances as I was leaving but I didn't think anything of it because ambulances are a common occurrence at events like this as a precautionary measure. I didn't even know there had been an actual attack until the next day. The whole city was furious and deeply saddened. This had never happened before in Morelia, an elegant Spanish colonial city, and she had lost her innocence.

The coffee shops, restaurants, dining tables, and living rooms around the city were rife with rumors and allegations, but many people seemed to feel the narco-traffickers were retaliating against the government for its crackdown. One friend suggested a separate group bent simply on creating disorder. A couple of days later, the U.S.government handed down indictments against several hundred members of a major drug cartel, and news sources suggested the narco-traffickers would retaliate against U.S. for this move.

The gravity of what had happened didn't occur to me right away, and I remained firm in my resolve to continue with my project. However, as I drove alone into western Michoacan the following Thursday to finish up some interviews in the village of Cocucho, I wondered if I was being foolish, if I were heading toward my own death, if I should just pack up and head home. I drove along the rural roads wondering if a cluster of cars would appear from nowhere, cut me off, and take me hostage in retaliation for the US indictments, but I safely arrived in Paracho without incident.

The next morning I drove along more isolated rural roads to Cocucho, again with no problem, and I spent the afternoon with Juana. I had planned to meet with her son David to help me translate an interview with his mother. Although my Spanish had improved during the past few months, people in the rural areas sometimes use speech patterns and pronunciations with which I was as yet unfamiliar.

I had already been to Cocucho a couple of times and had only a few questions I needed answered, and by this time I had become so unnerved by the grenade attacks that I wanted merely to finish the interview and rush back to Morelia. When I arrived in Cocucho, however, I discovered David had left to cut wood for his cook fires and would not return until much later in the afternoon. This change in plans provided me with a wonderful opportunity to spend more time with Juana, a glorious serendipity.

Juana had just fired some of her clay pots when I arrived at her door, and she now sat on a stool outside her cooking area working on some needlepoint. She said when she and her family heard about the attacks in Morelia, they and other residents of Cocucho met at Templo de San Bartolomeo up the street and said prayers for us. I found this solidarity for the Morelianos, the victims, and their families deeply touching. Morelia herself had become very much a part of me, and I felt powerfully moved by Juana's endearments toward us.

After she had worked on her needlepoint for awhile, she and her two daughters-in-law, Gloria and Prudenciana, got in my car and we went out to a corn field collectively owned by the three of them just off the road to Paracho. They bailed out with their burlap bags and went into the field to pick corn. I stayed with my car and absorbed the sunshine; rich purple blossoms, known locally as San Miguel, and more popularly called mirasoles, lined the dirt roads winding through the corn fields. Mesmerizing sunlight poured across the low hills bounding away in every directions, lifting my spirits.

However, I realized as I stood there that I was in the middle of nowhere. I wondered if someone would suddenly appear and kidnap me to make a political statement. As this thought intruded into the sunny afternoon, two trucks full of people ambled down the road. The drivers and passengers gave me a passing glance, then continued down the road before stopping. The occupants climbed out and went into the field to pick corn.

Juana momentarily appeared with three corn stalks for me to chew. These are a very popular local favorite, dreadfully fibrous but refreshingly sweet. On one of the corn plants, she had also found a mushroom-like growth called cuacaduchi that she collected for use in a stew. They are apparently good for lung health and are very tasty.

She returned to the field, and a young man with two smaller boys appeared from their plot of corn a few minutes later with loads of the juicy ears. They moved past me down the road and out of sight. Soon, Juana and her daughters-in-law returned to the car with loads of corn and arm fulls of San Miguel flowers, plus corn leaves for making corundas, a type of tamale.

We returned to Juana's home where she peeled several ears of corn, called tirhiapu in the Purepecha language, and put them in a pot of water to boil over the fogon, the cooking area built into the middle of the concrete floor inside the wooden cooking shelter. She sat down outside and peeled more corn ears, and soon some other relatives brought me a plate of five ears of corn to eat with salsa, salt, and some delicious local cheese. The corn, being freshly picked, was delicious. I tried stopping at the fourth one but Juana insisted on my consuming them all, so I was quite stuffed with her gracious hospitality.

Once she finished peeling the ears of corn, Prudenciana sat with us and they began shucking corn to make huchepos, another type of tamale. I asked if I could try to shuck some corn and they smiled and said of course, and they gave me a few tips to get me started. At the same time I asked for a few more Purepecha words to add to my vocabulary. I learned that the Purepecha word for shucking corn is Piiyuuni (phonetic spelling), and the leaves of the corn are called xarakata.

David finally returned to town about 5 p.m., announcing his presence with several blasts of his horn as he passed his mother's house on the way home. I drove to his house. He was exhausted. After a three-day round of festive drinking in celebration of Mexican Independence Day, he'd spent a whole day cutting wood, and huge blocks sat now in the back of his truck. He pulled one out and reduced it to thin shreds with an ax, then stoked the fire in the cooking area where his wife Lydia prepared beans and eggs and blue corn tortillas. It was a delicious meal, and I would have liked seconds, but I was already stuffed from the corn on the cob I'd devoured at Juana's house.

Rain crashed into the roof as we engaged in small talk and finished the meal, the chilly air warmed by the fire and our own laughter as I turned down some scary-looking chiles, explaining once again that "I still don't have enough callouses on my tongue." The rain slacked off and we went to his mother's house where I finally got the interview I needed.

I asked her where she found the energy and the time to make Cocuchas, do needlepoint, raise fighting roosters, tend her own corn field, make huancipos, prepare meals, Whew! Where does she get it?

"I get it from Jesus," she replied. "Jesus helps me."

Spending the day with Juana and her family reinvigorated my own faith in Michoacan, Morelia, the artisans, and my project. She had indeed performed her own grito, a cry for independence from fear, from alienation, from thedesecration of optimism. The day with Juana reminded me that the violent criminal element in Michoacan is sharply outnumbered by the peaceful citizens of the state. True, the small number of violent criminals can do a great deal of damage, but there was no need to be afraid of every person I met, because the dangerous ones were few and far between. Most people there were busy making clay pots, doing needlepoint, cutting wood, preparing meals, laughing and living and loving their relatives, friends, and strangers. Throwing grenades was the last thing on their minds.