As you see yourself, I once saw myself; as you see me now, you will be seen.
      Mexican Proverb


México is the most populous Spanish-
speaking country in the world. According to the latest statistics, México's total population is over 99 million. Mestizos, of Indian and Spanish blood), make up 60% of the population, followed by indigenous peoples  (30%), whites (9%), and other ethnic minorities  (1%).

Carnaval in Mazatlan

Visitors and locals scream, sing, shout and dance amid confetti and ribbons. Bands of all kinds play the infectious rhythms of the State of Sinaloa. And the food–oh, the food–camarones (shrimp) prepared in every way possible, washed down with ice cold Pacifico beer, for it’s Carnaval Time, Mazatlán’s biggest pachanga (fiesta). 
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March 12, 2006

by C.M Mayo

Today was the Día de Muertos, that tradition — the local pundits claimed — so in need of rescue from "foreign influences." A blend of European folk practice and pre-Hispanic ritual adapted to the Catholic All Souls’, it is celebrated in mainland Mexico as a happy day. 

Families visit the graves of relatives, sweeping and then decorating them with flowers, candles, and offerings of food — tamales, chocolate, beans, and tortillas. In some parts of Mexico an altar with the offering is assembled inside the house, and may include photographs, favorite toys, musical instruments, and even clothing. Until recent years this celebration was an intimate one, the dead honored by those who knew and loved them. Now tourists, both Mexican and foreign, crowd into the mainland Indian towns of Mixquic and Pátzcuaro, jumbling through the narrow rows between the pretty graves, cameras clicking away. "Mexico has sold its cult of death," writes Mexican critic Carlos Monsiváis, "and the tourists smile, anthropologically satiated." Even the urban middle and upper classes — in generations past, at a careful remove from the indigenous — revel in their mexicanidad, assembling altars to no one in particular, loudly colorful constructions for the lobbies of museums, offices, shops and hotels, schools and universities, and town plazas...

On my way back from the airport I stopped in San José's. A hot afternoon. Trees thick with birds. An old man sat nodding on the steps of the church, which was a pretty little building, buff-yellow and cream with twin bell towers flanking its entrance. In front of the ice cream stand, a tourist in a golf hat and cork-soled sandals fanned himself with a folded brochure. At the far side of the plaza, I found one Día de Muertos altar, half assembled in the shade of a lush, feathery palm.

Like all the many others I had seen, it looked impersonally attractive. A riot of color and pottery (from Puebla and Michoacán), it beckoned the camera, its chief purpose to win a competition.

I almost didn't notice that the little paper cutout skull taped above a bowl of apples and bananas read: AMELIA WILKES


At the mention of the name Amelia Wilkes, the town historian, don Fernando Cota, rocked back in his chair. "Ah, la profesora," the schoolteacher. He'd been stroking dog, Solovino, behind the ears; now he laid both hands Buddha-like across his belly and closed his eyes for a moment before he began.

"Amelia Wilkes — Wilkes is a name like Ritchie or Fisher, from a sailor — was born in Cabo San Lucas in 1907 and died in 1989 at the age of eighty-two. She was a teacher and a community leader. She served as president of the electricity supply, she directed the water commission. This was around 1930, a long time before the chubasco. When they named Amelia Wilkes subdelegate for the territory, she became the first female authority in Baja California Sur. She was un personaje, a real character, very respected. They dedicated the plaza of Cabo San Lucas to her in 1976.

"I'll tell you a story that shows you what kind of person she was. She used to collect money from the townspeople in order to buy heating oil for the generator that produced the town's electricity. She would buy the oil and keep it in barrels in her house. Her house was made of wood. This was after the chubasco; it was one of those from the governor. She was also the director of the school, so she had all the savings of the students in her house, along with the barrels of heating oil. One night her sister knocked over a kerosene lamp, and the house caught fire. As fast as they could, so the house wouldn't explode, Amelia and her sister began rolling out the barrels of oil. And then she ran back into the house — the flames were everywhere! — and grabbed the children's savings. That was what she rescued, nothing of her own. She lost everything."

Excerpted from Miraculous Air: Journey of a Thousand Miles through Baja California, the Other Mexico
© C.M.Mayo
, University of Utah Press, 2002

Published by permission of the author. All rights reserved. This excerpt may not be posted elsewhere or reprinted without permission of the author. For more information, visit the author's Web site.


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