The El Paso-Ciudad Juarez borderland was hopping with activity in recent days. In downtown El Paso, lumbering city buses navigated between crowds of shoppers searching for a cheap, potential present made by Chinese or Vietnamese or Pakistani hands. Not far away, the piñata and candy shops on gritty Alameda Avenue were festooned in green, blue, red and white, as a man stood in a median with a sign promoting a bargain buffet of seafood. A pair of Border Patrol agents strolled along the sidewalk.
In the reconverted quarters of an old garment plant now rechristened Mercado Mayapan, La Mujer Obrera (The Woman Worker) staged its annual Christmas posada. El Paso’s Mariachi Gala entertained a crowd that enjoyed a corn and chocolate drink called champurrado and bunuelos, sugary pastries, all for free.
An old tradition, the posada celebrates the wandering carpenter and his wife seeking shelter and sustenance. A group of singing, amateur actors reenacted the ageless saga, asking the celebrants for a helping hand. The attendees were then given a free gift bag, or colacion, which consisted of oranges, nuts and Mexican candy. Adults and children alike took turns swinging at what seemed like an unbreakable piñata, which finally popped after a determined man landed a few furious blows.
“We feel it is symbolic for what Mercado Mayapan is in the community,” said Rubi Orozco, spokesperson for La Mujer Obrera. “It is an alternative space for people to come to. It’s a community refuge.”
Founded by former garment workers who banded together to promote grassroots economic development, Mercado Mayapan is a place where residents and visitors can shop for fair trade-oriented holiday gifts while reaffirming traditional culture. “It’s not about the consumerist aspect,” Orozco said in an interview with Frontera NorteSur. “It’s more about the get-together.”
Although the market recently ran up against serious financial challenges and was forced to drastically cut back its hours, rumors of Mercado Mayapan’s imminent demise are exaggerated, Orozco insisted. While La Mujer Obrera attempts to renegotiate its lease, the market space is available for both community gatherings and private events like quinceneras; food workers are mulling alternatives such as a catering business, she said. In November and December, Mercado Mayapan’s kitchen offers seasonal tamales on order.
Orozco said her group is reviving another tradition that counters the prevailing commercialism of the age. On the morning of the posada, Orozco and several friends did a trial run of a bartering exchange they want to do on a regular basis. For their first barter, the friends traded body care products and natural foods including oatmeal, fresh mint and chiles curtidos, chiles in vinegar.
“We’re trying to create that alternative space so we can support each other, even though we are all struggling,” Orozco said. “Everyone’s feedback is, ‘let’s definitely do this again.’”
Ana Gomez, Mercado Mayapan manager, said the Christmas posada is just one of many festivities that her organization organizes every year. Among the list of celebrations is December 12, Virgin of Guadalupe Day. This year, Gomez and seven other women walked from the market to the Cathedral in downtown Ciudad Juarez in an annual pilgrimage honoring the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The different activities, Gomez added, create “community” and help maintain a Mexican culture that gets diluted on this side of the border. “We are always planning,” said Gomez, who worked in a laundry that washed jeans for Levi Strauss before the company relocated its operations across the border in 1999.
“This has been a learning experience for me,” said Gomez of her involvement in La Mujer Obrera’s cultural and economic projects. “I only attended elementary school. In a factory you only do one thing, but when I got here they told me I was going to learn how to plan events. It’s been an incredible experience for me.”
Hailing from a younger generation than Gomez, Orozco has her own experiences with migration and multicultural holiday celebrations. Born in southern California, Orozco was taken back to Mexico as a baby and grew up speaking Spanish. Later, she moved back to the country of her birth, learned English and attended UC-Berkeley. While living in the Bay Area, the public health specialist participated in the indigenous, alternative Thanksgiving Day ceremony at Alcatraz Island.
Increasingly, Mexican and US holiday traditions are celebrated in both nations. For example, the presence of a large US expatriate and snowbird community in Puerto Vallarta has turned Thanksgiving into a visible celebration in the Mexican port city. Some restaurants advertise Thanksgiving meal specials. A buffet at El Torito restaurant/sports bar featured an all-you-can eat feast of turkey, ham, typical trimmings and, to throw in a Mexican-flavor, tamales. This year’s huge meal drew a mixed crowd of US and Canadian expatriates, tourists and Mexican nationals.
Cross-border influences are wildly evident in the growth of Day of the Dead celebrations in the US as well as the grafting of Halloween traditions onto the same festivities in Mexico. In Aguascalientes, the presence of young people dressed up in scary, Halloween-like costumes during this year’s Day of the Dead festivities was striking.
Guillermo Saucedo, director of Aguascalientes’ Posada Museum, said the fusion of Halloween/Day of the Dead rituals represents “transculturalization with peculiar results.”
According to the cultural scholar, the legendary artist Jose Guadalupe Posada’s skeleton-like La Catrina cartoon character- which is now an icon of the Day of the Dead- has leaped across borders and oceans. Saucedo said he was even surprised to see a German horse festival using a Posada image. Closer to home, the spirit of La Catrina was present in a Mexico City demonstration against violence that was convened via Facebook and Twitter last month.
Next year, two major anniversaries will honor the “new diva of Mexico”, Saucedo said. 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of La Catrina’s appearance in this world, and the 160th birthday of her creator, he said. Unfortunately, there is little state support for either the museum or the upcoming anniversaries, Saucedo grumbled.
A recognized poet and writer from Aguascalientes, Claudia Santa-Ana said the very act of the festival is “integral” to Mexican identity and strongly implanted in a land where nature, animals and death are powerful forces. Santa-Ana contended that mixing Halloween and Day of the Dead symbols is not necessarily a bad thing, but that a need exists to transmit authentic Mexican Day of the Dead traditions to the next generation.
On this note, the municipal government of Aguascalientes sponsors cultural events and educational workshops in working-class neighborhoods and marginal communities. The city’s cultural affairs department has begun publishing a free newspaper, appropriately named La Catrina. Dedicated to the theme of death, November’s issue included comments from women who participated in workshops that produced items for the Day of the Dead celebration.
Partially inspired by Halloween and the Day of the Dead but going beyond the two celebrations, a new movement populated by witches, zombies and ghouls has stirred the imagination of Mexican youth, according to Saucedo.
Within the past year, zombie walks in which participants dress up like monstrous creatures and parade down the street have surged in popularity. A November event in Mexican capital drew 9,806 people and made a world record, according to media reports. In Aguascalientes, a film festival this year dedicated to horrible and bizarre things attracted an estimated 7,000 people who were able to view 49 flicks from 25 countries.
A slogan of the movement is “We are all Zombies.”
“The young people are trying this out in order to avoid a chaotic situation, but it is not irresponsible” Saucedo said. “They are trying to find a way to express themselves in a situation that is hard to change.”
As a backdrop to the zombie craze and the horror film boom, crude realities swirl in a sea of confusion, corruption and chaos. Today’s young live in a world where decapitated, dismembered or burnt bodies sometimes are dumped in public streets, where torture is all but institutionalized, where ugly scandals scar once-esteemed personalities from sports celebrities to priests, and where freakish weather events keep getting freakier all the time.
On both sides of the border, commercialization is a relentless force that invades the holidays. And often, the crass and the tacky are up front and center. Taking a cue from the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales day in the US, Mexico for the first time held its own version of the same discount day, “The Good Weekend,” in November of this year. The big box stores heavily promoted what governmental officials declared a success, and plastic card use was reported up sharply in a country where a crisis ravaged the consumer borrowing sector only a couple of years ago.
“The Good Weekend,” moved up an already-long commercial season, and the hucksters were soon out in force. Across from Aguascalientes’ main plaza, a promoter from Carlos Slim’s Telcel company barked into an sidewalk sound system promising passerby cheaper minutes for calling loved ones in the US. Pawnshops played upbeat music or put subliminally-wrapped Christmas packages on their doorsteps. The hock shops also pledged discounts on interest payments and vowed to beat their competitors’ prices.
In the tackiness category, perhaps Amazon.com and its PriceCheck application won the US prize. A good segment of the business sector was infuriated by Amazon’s public distribution of a device that scans competitors’ product information in return for a $5 discount
“Amazon’s PriceCheck application is the Grinch stealing Christmas from local New Mexico businesses,” charged Allan Oliver, chief executive officer for the New Mexico Green Chamber of Commerce.
“The Holiday season is a critical time for small businesses,” protested Oliver’s group, which claimed more than 1,200 affiliates in Albuquerque, Las Cruces and other towns. “New Mexicans are doing their holiday shopping, and many are doing their best to keep their money local, instead of sending dollars and jobs out of their communities.”
El Paso’s Mercado Mayapan took the occasion of holiday gift-giving to promote fair trade goods produced by artisans in Mexico and other developing nations. In a corner of the market, the Lum Metik Trading Company stood ready to do sell guitars, dolls and other handcrafted goods.
After the posada ended, El Pasoan Lydia Zavala and her 11-year-old great niece Aurora went shopping for jewelry and a CD. Asked why she picked Mercado Mayapan, Zavala said issues of economics and culture entered into the choices for a gift purchase.
“It’s handmade, and we’re supporting these artisans as opposed to supporting corporate America,” Zavala said. “This is the only place in El Paso that celebrates the Mexican traditions well…we need to keep it alive. We need to keep all these traditions alive.”
Kent Paterson edits Frontera NorteSur, a news service of New Mexico State University.