Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Carnival and The Battle of Puebla: March 4, 2014

A Battalion of Indios Serranos

Thanks to advice from Puebla's Tourist Information Office, we caught a bus to Huejotzingo (10 pesos each for a 45-minute trip) to experience Carnival Mexican style. This carnival, the oldest in the country, has been going since 1868.  The day commemorates the May 5, 1862 win at the Battle of Puebla. The Mexicans won this battle with an army 1/3 the size of the French army. This stunning win is the source of the Cinco de Mayo celebration in Puebla and in the US. Although the French won the war in 1863, the victory of the 1862 battle is celebrated still.

Before attending, we read a little about the history of the event that is spread over four days culminating in a reenactment of the Battle of Puebla and a parade.  We knew there would be heavy use of gunpowder and muskets and that there were always injuries.  In 2013 over 100 people were injured mostly from gunpowder burns. We went anyway.

We arrived unfashionably early, paid the entrance fee (35 pesos each) to the viewing stand, and settled into a front row bleacher seat with an unobstructed view.  As time went on more people arrived filling the stands and consuming the standing/sitting spaces in front of us. While we were waiting, vendors worked the crowd squeezing up and down the bleachers to get to customers.  Several vendors were selling earplugs and face masks. Hearing the muskets shots around town, the earplug purchase seemed like a wise move. I bought a pair of earplugs; Dan did not. About two hours later, the parade began with music and a throbbing mass of people in costume throwing candy to the spectators.  About 12,000 people participate in this parade.

The parade included seventeen battalions representing the two sides in the Battle of Puebla. The Battle participants are separated by marching bands. The French imperial army, the losers in this battle, consists of the Zuavos, Turcos and Zapadores. Also represented in this carnival were the Mexicans of African descent who historically fought on the side of the French.
The “Franceses” (French) or “Zuavos” represent a group of elite French troops at the Battle of Puebla, noted for their cruelty. They wear a blue cap decorated with stones, gold ribbons, sequined belts, leather masks, dark glasses and royal blue capes. They carry wooden boxes on their backs underneath which are the flags of France and Mexico. In the box there are soldiers’ provisions such as French bread (Wikipedia).

You might wonder what the Turks have to do with the Mexican-French Battle of Puebla--nothing really, but every plot needs a villain.
The “Turcos” (Turks) are in reference to the Muslims against which the evangelists preached heavily in the early colonial period, although the Muslims in Spain were Moors rather than Turks. They are still considered an “enemy” to Mexico in popular imagination and are in this carnival. They are also considered to represent mercenaries from Egypt brought by Napoleon III . They are dressed with turbans or tall hats, silk clothing, and scimitars and with crescent moons and peacock feathers used as decorative elements. They also have silk capes embroidered with images of Mexican heroes. The Turkish battalions mostly consist of people who live in the four original neighborhoods of Huejotzingo (Wikipedia).
The Turkos costume included athletic shoes with augmented, customized curled toes.

A Fighting Turkos firing his musket loaded with real black gunpowder

Turkos soldier (center) with stuffed animal on his pack

A Young Turk
The “Zapadores” are those who represent those of the elite classes in Mexican society. They are dressed as the imperial guard of Maximilian I and some as the personal guard of Mexico’s first emperor Agustín de Iturbide. Their outfits mix the national colors of both Mexico and France. They wear Spanish colonial style helmets made of black leather with the crest of Agustín de Iturbide, in remembrance of Mexico’s independence. For similar reasons, they also wear ribbons of green, white and red of Mexico’s current flag (Wikipedia). 

And, two groups paraded to represent the Mexicans of African Descent.  One group had a large stuffed black panther that one person would toss into the air while the others threw spears at it.  It was one of the funnier moments in this parade.
And on the winning side, the Mexican army is mostly represented by the Indios Serranos and the Zacapoaxtlas, but "Apaches" dressed as Aztecs also fought with the Mexican Army.
They represent Huejotzingo’s indigenous past but their costumes are a fusion of both indigenous and European influences. Their hats are traditionally made from palm fronds (although many now are made with a kind of plastic strip) which have the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico. They also carry an animal skin, preferably that of a cacomixtle in honor of the indigenous goddess Camaxtli, who was the patron of the region (Wikipedia).

The animal skin custom has morphed into carrying formerly living stuffed animals (even a domestic cat) on the backs of the Indios Serranos. The Nahuatl word, cacomixtle, means "half cat". It has a brownish body with a black and white ringed tail. The ring-tailed animal below might not be a cacomixtle but rather a ring-tailed cat of the raccoon family.  Happily, both the cacomixtle and ring-tailed cat are not endangered species.

 Indio Serrano with a possible cacomixtle

One of the vendors outside of the viewing stand, had a table of formerly living stuffed animals for sale. Maybe these are cacomixtles.  
The Zacapoaxtlas stand out because they have the most elaborate and costly costumes. They dress as charros, with suits heavily decorated in sequins, a wig with the colors of the Mexican flag and a black cape. Representing the troops of General Zaragoza in the Battle of Puebla, they wear green, white and red paper streamers that hang off the back of their hats. Their suits are elaborated embroidered and sequined which has been hand done. These outfits have been valued at about 30,000 and sometimes as high as 50,000 pesos (Wikipedia).

And, the "Apaches" wearing Aztec costumes fighting with the Mexican Army.  The Apaches opened the parade.

Most of the people representing sides of the Battle of Puebla are either carrying muskets, shooting them off, or reloading them for the next barrage. Periodically, parade security were forced to push these wild and crazy musket shooters along so the next battalion could parade past.  

The air was filled with the smell of gunpowder, and if a musket was fired in front of us, we could feel the impact of the shot.  I finally figured out the body language to catch the firing of a musket.  About five tons of gunpowder are used during the four-day period of firing thousands of muskets. 

But Dan got the best shot.  He captured one of the guns going off in flames.  No wonder there are so many injuries from gunpowder burns.

Dan's photo of a musket explosion

With ears ringing after three hours of watching the parade (the participants parade past the viewing stands twice), we moved out of the stands to the central square to look for food.  

The food looked and smelled great.  We settled too quickly on the barbecued lamb.  There were so many other great choices.  

As we left Huejotzingo, muskets were still being fired across streets or at buses, and battalions were partying at nearby restaurants. 

On the bus back to Puebla, Dan realized that he should have used earplugs.  I think he is a little deafer than before--or maybe that's just an excuse. Back to California tomorrow.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Feast for the Eyes, Feast for the Stomach, Puebla, Mexico: February 28-March 3, 2014

It was a very easy 4-hour trip from Queretaro to Puebla aboard an ETN luxury bus with assigned seats, free WiFi, a sack lunch, and wide, reclining seats with leg supports. This is the way to travel.  It was like a moving snooze mobile with the drapes shut and everyone quietly sleeping, reading or watching the video (with headphones).  If only flying could be this comfortable.

Upon arriving in Puebla, we found the transportation booth and paid for our taxi to the hotel.  Taxi fares are charged based on zones.  Once the fare is purchased, the customer returns to the first floor taxi line and presents the driver with the receipt.  The 45-minute taxi ride to our hotel in the center was about 60 pesos ($4.50).

We came to Puebla because we'd never been here. We hoped to see beautiful churches and buildings decorated with Talavera tiles, taste molé, and find out more about the Puebla War 1862 and why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated here.

We toured Uriarte Talavera one of the oldest manufacturers of pottery/tile in Puebla. After conquering the Aztec Empire in Mexico, Spanish Majolica potters were brought to Mexico to produce pottery using the fine, red clays found in and around Puebla. Uriarte, founded in 1824, continues to use the same 16th century process of producing pottery fired with a tin and lead glaze at high temperatures.  Decorations are only in black, cobalt blue, blue, yellow, green, red and sometimes deep rose and the designs are painted by hand.

All over the Pueblo's historic center structures, renovated and not yet renovated, could be found covered with beautiful Talavera tiles.

One day we took a several hour double decker tour bus to the nearby city of Cholula. Our first stop for which we were given only 15 minutes was at Temple of San Francisco Acatepec. The church was founded during the 16th century, but the Mexican Baroque tile-covered facade, finished in 1760, owes its exquisite ornamentation to the golden age of Mexican Baroque and Talavera.  We needed much more than 15 minutes to absorb the intricacies of the colors and patterns.

The interior was also stunning, but photos were forbidden.  I couldn't help taking just one of the faux columns on a side wall.

Our next 15-minute stop was at the Church of Santa Maria in the village of Tonatzintla.  The exterior was plain compared to the Temple of San Francisco Acatepec, but the interior was fabulous, flamboyant, and so beautiful.  Every single inch of the interior was covered with carvings made by local craftsmen of birds, ornament, plants, local people combined with Christian elements.  Sadly, no photos allowed.

Our last stop of the day, three hours long, was at the archaeological ruins of the Great Pyramid of Cholula (the largest pyramid every constructed).  Not much of it remains. A church, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, sits atop the former pyramid.  We had lunch, we walked up, we walked down, we strolled shops, and we still had too much time here.

Molé was created in Puebla, and we had a molé extravaganza.  The molé creation myth that we were told says that "upon hearing that the archbishop was going to visit, the nuns from the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla went into a panic because they were poor and had almost nothing to prepare. The nuns prayed and brought together the little bits of what they did have, including chili peppers, spices, day-old bread, nuts, and a little chocolate. They killed an old turkey, cooked it and put the sauce on top; the archbishop loved it, when the nun was asked the name of the dish, she replied, "I made a Mole". Mole was the ancient word for mix, now this word mostly refers to the dish, and rarely is used to signify other kinds of mix in Spanish" (Wikipedia).

Molé poblana incorporates about 20-25 ingredients (dried chiles, fruits, chocolate, nuts, seeds, and spices), involves a lot of grinding, and takes hours and hours to cook.  Here in Puebla we had several versions of molé poblano.  In some, the chocolate stood out as the main flavor.  These were Dan's favorites.  I preferred the smooth earthy molés in which every flavor was melded together so no one ingredient stood out.

We also tried every other molé that we came across.  Who knew there were so many flavors of molé!

Pipian Verde: a green molé sauce of pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, serrano chiles, and herbs.
Pipian Rojo: a red molé sauce of peanuts, tomatoes, dried guajillo chiles, and herbs.
Adobo: a molé made from guajillo and ancho chiles which create a deep, red color.
Manchamanteles: a pleasant sweet, red molé made with sesame seeds, tropical fruits, and guajillo chiles.

On day four, we had molé for both lunch and dinner.  Our lunch at a traditional foods center, Mercado de Sabores de Puebla, may have been the best deal in town. I stopped at Cocina "La Sopa" where I was mesmerized by large, traditional pots filled with delicious smelling molés and other specialties.

 For less than $5 I had molé three ways: Poblana, Pipian Verde, and Pipian Rojo.

Dan had a cemita from Cemitas "Lupita" which is a sandwich filled with meats and cheeses.  Even though his face doesn't look like it, he was very happy to have a sandwich.

Our last molé tasting event encompassed all five flavors--a molé-tasting smorgasbord with duck at the restaurant, El Mural de los Poblanos.  The waiter welcomed us with a shot of mezcal explaining that mezcal is healthier than tequila as there is no added sugar.  The shot had a smokey flavor because mezcal is distilled from the Maguey Agave plant after it has been roasted in pit ovens.  Not too bad...

The food in Puebla is so delicious that if we were staying in Puebla longer, we would definitely need to join a gym.

While the tiles and food are delightful, so are many other aspects of Puebla.

Puebla's Cathedral built 1562-1650

Everyday and evening something was going on around the zócalo (center square).  There were clown performances and orchestras. On weekends, the streets surrounding the zócalo are closed to traffic for bike riders and children playing.

We saw a rally of Beliebers (Justin Bieber fans)    where even the clowns looked like Justin. Hum...

View toward the Zócalo from inside the Museo Amparo 

We went to the world-class Museo Amparo. The lobby walls were decorated with an imaginary needlepoint with threaded needles showing a work in progress. Curator Alberto Lopez Cuenca's description of textile work struck a chord with me. He states, "Embroidery does not seem to be the best way to tell a different story. However, like the white walls of the museum, it says a lot while seemingly wanting to tell nothing at all. What does its silence tell us? The historical silence of women and the anonymity in their writing is notorious....., the themes and images that are braided in embroidery are public and popular - plant and animal motifs, ordinary scenes. Nothing very heroic: no battle and no victorious soldier from a noble family. Embroidery tells a story without names. ..., a woman sewn into local tradition, becoming a mythical character and, therefore, phantasmagoric: she is present to the extent that she is absent, just like female and domestic work, like embroidery, like the memory of forms and collective dreams...,"

This is why I'm drawn to handmade textiles.

So much about Puebla was interesting and lovely, but this blog entry is already too long.

We stayed at the CasaReyna located about 4 blocks from the center-- a lovely boutique hotel with restaurant.  The hotel and restaurant are decorated with and display Talavera pottery.

In addition to El Mural de los Poblanos, we ate at Hotel Colonial Restaurant (reasonable and my favorite molé), Entree Tierras (contemporary, trendy, excellent duck tacos), and CasaReyna's Restaurant (Dan's favorite molé).  I recommend all of them.

There is an excellent Tourist Information Office (north side of the square) with maps and information about events.

Upon leaving Puebla, we took another comfortable bus directly to Mexico City Airport.  It took about two hours.

For insight on visiting or living in Puebla, go to the "All About Puebla" website at