Tzintzuntzan: One of Mexico’s Most Traditional Holy Week Celebrations

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We love what is unique to a place—that which is different from the ordinary—and the incredibly pious, faith-filled, self-mutilating Holy Week traditions of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán are some of the most remarkable in Mexico.

Tzintzuntzan is a Pueblo Mágico just north of Patzcuaro and south of Quiroga on the lake. Its name means “place of the hummingbirds” in Tarasco and P’urhépecha, and was pronounced “Huitzitzilan” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. It is the ancient capital of the P’urhépecha and the first capital of Michoacán—the heart of Tarasco. We absolutely loved getting to know a bit about these incredible people! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

There is a horrible and also encouraging history of cross-cultural impact here. The Spanish conquistador Nuño de Guzmán burned alive P’urhépecha chieftain Tangaxuan II, and then largely dismantled Tzintzuntzan in order to use the stones for the Fransiscan monastery of Santa Ana, modern-day Templo de San Francisco. Fortunately, Don Vasco de Quiroga followed in 1530, a Spanish bishop wise enough to teach each pueblo around the lake a handicraft—lacquerware, copper smithing, wood and rock carving, pottery, basketry, embroidery, furniture making… The P’urhépecha have kept alive and perfected these crafts, and that handiwork supports them to this day, to the delight of artisan-lovers worldwide. It’s difficult to visit this area and not leave with a car-full of artesanía, as we do; it’s all just so gorgeous.

Ask anyone in a small village in the lake region who are the richest people in town, and they will usually say, “the artisans.” One local man told us a story about a “junior,” a wealthy young man from the DF, who contemptuously called a local woman “India.” He said she stood tall, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Look what you are wearing: mass-produced blue jeans and a shirt. My handmade apron is a piece of art worth 6000 pesos. My skirt is handcrafted and worth 4000. My blouse 2000. My earrings are hand-forged silver worth 5000. These works of art connect me to my ancestors, my heritage and my community.”

Vasco de Quiroga was bishop of the lake region. Frustrated that the P’urhépecha would not come to mass in Tzintzuntzan, he ordered construction of a chapel in each of the town’s twelve barrios. He commissioned artists to make a crucifix or Cristo for each chapel. They are made from pasta de caña, or cane paste. These 16th Century Cristos, all twelve of them, still exist, lovingly cared for by descendants of the same families for generations in each barrio. The Cristos are on display for community members throughout the year, but on Holy Thursday and Good Friday each year they take on a more public role.

Wednesday and Thursday of Holy Week, the espias, or Roman Spies (clad in red hoods), set out looking for Christ, to arrest him. On Thursday find him they do, in twelve different homes around town. At each home, they are given food and drink by barrio members. All but two of the Cristos have been restored, and only one of them has dark skin—the Cristo in the Barrio de Santa Ana.

Holy Thursday is a day of preparation in Tzintzuntzan. Men clean grilletes, or shackles, for the Penitentes to wear the following day. They make and sell disciplinas: knotted lashes or whips covered in nails. They also string lights and put up tents.

Women put out candles and flowers, and cook for all of the others who are helping; this is most definitely a community-wide event. Every time you look around, an altar has appeared or been cleared, a tent has been put up or removed.

The patron saint of the town, El Señor del Santo Entierro, whose extremities are believed to grow, is usually seen in a glass showcase. During Holy Week, however, He lies in a bed, and pilgrims seek His blessing. A crown is held over each pilgrim’s head, in exchange for a small donation.

The normal Lavatoria de los Pies/washing of the feet Mass is said in the old Santa Ana Monastery, now the church in the parroquia complex. Here it is one of the most beautiful that I have witnessed in my 56 years. I noticed several P’urhépecha influences:

  1. A tall man dressed in a white dress and conical hat with peacock feathers, who road to Mass on a horse, processed into the church after the initial opening, and sat there throughout Mass. He is called “El Centinel.” According to the man in charge, he is based on P’urhépecha tradition. He represents the soldier who pierced Jesus’ side with his spear to verify his death, a blind soldier who then regained his sight. In Tzintzuntzan after Mass a man blew a romanesque horn/bugle while the Sentinel processed out, and the Sentinel sat waiting for Jesus throughout the night outside the church.
  2. The incense burner was native-made, and really reminded me of the Aztec purification ceremonies we witness to this day. It was a palpable connection between indigenous history and modern liturgy.

Mass is followed by a reenactment of The Last Supper and Judas’ fateful kiss that led to Jesus’ arrest, a full-blown dramatic stage production with costumes and amplified sound, with the crowd organized by the red and white-clad espias.

Good Friday is the most remarkable in Tzintzuntzan, at least for me. In the morning, about 40 barefooted men in white hoods put on the grilletes (shackles) to shuffle around the Olive Garden, with the help of two Cyrenes each, collecting alms from the pilgrims who are gathered there. The shackles mean these men, called Penitentes, have to jump up and down stairs and stumble over the cobblestones, gaining blisters and bloody scrapes in the process.

In the afternoon, eleven of the twelve 400-year old Cristos (one is too delicate to transport) are relocated—a lengthy and very delicate process—to the “atrium” of the  Templo de San Francisco complex, an open-air park where olive trees planted by Don Vasco de Quiroga grow to this day. The Cristos are lined up from largest to smallest.

There is a reenactment of the Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross, which in Tzintzuntzan is called La Judea.  Once that is finished, El Señor del Santo Entierro is crucified and processed through town with the other Cristos, to later be returned to the Temple for a vigil.

Then, about 9pm, nearly 400 Penitentes begin their own incredible journeys, continuing till Saturday morning. They are each motivated by a manda, a reason for which they commit to being Penitentes for at least three years—perhaps a relative is sick and they pray for a cure, perhaps they are in school or starting a new business or family and want to succeed. After three years, if their manda has been completed, their wish realized, they perform the corrida in reverse—a fourth year of thanks to the Señor del Santo Entierro. These men are so very committed, pious, and serious, it is a blessing to witness them. And so very many!

These evening Penitentes are different than the morning ones in a few respects. First, they are bare-chested. Second, their journeys are much more arduous. Third, they must move on their knees through the church. And fourth, they have a couple of choices to make. Their first choice regards which route will they follow. There are three routes:

  • Around the Olive Garden, which has about 14 stations (maybe half an hour)
  • Around the town, which has about 24 stations (about 50 minutes)
  • To Ojo de Agua, a nearby town, a route that includes about 30 stations (90 minutes to two hours)

The length of time each route takes depends on many factors: how long you pray at each station, whether the crowds let you through, and how fast you can move. Along each route, local families gather to watch, much as they would a parade. They sit in their chairs all night long, till 7:30 am when the Penitentes finish and come out of church to thank the community and God.

The second choice involves how you will make your journey: carrying a cross or wearing shackles. Crosses are very heavy, and cross-carriers are supposed to run at all times. They have one or two Cyrenes, friends to help them on their journey. The Cyrenes may not carry the crosses for the Penitente, but they hold the cross while the Penitente prays at each station, they wield flashlights and guide the hooded Penitente so he stays on track, and they help to part the crowds so the Penitente can get through. They can also clean the glass, rocks and splinters off the Penitente’s feet.

As if carrying the sharp-edged cross while running barefoot with a hood on, or walking hooded while in shackles, weren’t hard enough, each Penitente carries an eight-whipped disciplina full of nails. He is required to whip himself with the nailed lashes at each station, causing prodigious bleeding. Heavier or more muscled, less flexible Penitentes tended to have two bloody spots on their back, as the lashes didn’t reach the center. Teenagers and thinner men tended to have one deeper wound, in the center of their backs. Either way, I would not wish to have a manda and perform this penance anytime soon!

If you stumble or miss a station, or if your Cyrene helps you more than he should, you need to start your journey over from the beginning.

Holy Saturday includes the Easter fire or Fuego Nuevo at night, while Easter of course involves the Mass of the Resurrection.

Tzintzuntzan is about an eight hour journey from Mazatlán. We spent one night in Guadalajara, then a few nights in Uruapan, where on Palm Sunday they hold Latin America’s largest indigenous handicraft tianguis/fair. We stayed in a gorgeous cabin beside the river, and near there (in Parangaricutiro) we also hiked the ruins of a church buried in lava.

From Uruapan it is a three hour journey to Tzintzuntzan. From Tzintzuntzan, any of the villages around the lake are easily reachable, as are the islands in the lake or the state capital of Morelia.

There are cabañas in town, on the lake, or plenty of hotels in nearby Quiroga. Our AirBnB didn’t work out, and we ended up finding a hotel at the last minute. We were invited to stay in at least five different homes, so even if you travel without reservations, you should have no problems.

I like how very informal things are here; I hadn’t brought an Easter dress or shoes, and I fit in at Easter Mass just fine. Makeup isn’t that common, either. We found the people we encountered most welcoming, though perhaps more standoffish/shy at first than in Mazatlán. You definitely need to speak Spanish; many of the locals have trouble even with that, as they speak P’urhépecha natively and Spanish as a second language; English tends to be only spoken by those in Patzcuaro, who work with tourists, or who have lived north of the border. The beauty here is driving into any town and just discovering what it has to offer.

I trust you might visit and, if you do, enjoy your adventure!

Mexican Pompeii

DSC_0171©Today Greg and I visited the incredible ruins of a 17th Century church sticking up out of a lava flow! The sight reminds me of Pompeii, yet it’s just outside Uruapan, in the state of Michoacán, where we are for Semana Santa.

Paricutín Volcano completely destroyed two towns, but amazingly the original tower, altar, front and rear walls of the Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro still stand—with lava right up to them. You can see why villagers call it a miracle. Today, old San Juan Parangaricutiro is a pilgrimage site, and Greg and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know it. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

THE STORY
Construction of Templo San Juan Parangaricutiro began in 1618 under the direction of Friar Sebastián González. It was completed in 1720 but with only one tower; villagers were in the process of completing the second tower when the lava struck two centuries later.

Dionisio Pulido became the first person in history to be present during the formation of a volcano, on 20 February, 1943 when Paricutín erupted. He was working his field when he felt the earth rumble and heard a loud roar. Looking up, he saw plumes of smoke coming out of a crack in the earth and rocks flying through the air.

In the next 24 hours Paricutín would grow seven meters tall, within one week it was 50 meters high, and eventually it became an ash cone 600 meters tall. Its first lava flow began four months after the initial eruption, flowing at 20 meters per minute, and lasted four years.

Parangaricutiro is a Purepecha town six kilometers from Paricutín. The villagers hoped that Captazin Hill would block the lava from entering their town. Lázaro Cárdenas came to warn the villagers to leave, but they refused, saying that the lands they’d relocate to already had owners, and they would not be welcome. To his credit, Cárdenas camped outside Parangaricutiro for one year, ready to help evacuate the villagers, but not pushing them. By May 1944 the lava flow had traveled ten kilometers and made its way around Captazin Hill, entering Parangaricutiro from the other side. The villagers finally made the decision to leave their homes rather than die, and amidst tears and cries they departed on May 10th, led by Cárdenas and the “Señor de los Milagros” cross from their church’s altar. I am currently reading a book about Cárdenas, Tierra Roja, so this historical note was especially interesting.

The “Señor de los Milagros” cross is now in Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro church. Legend says that a traveling religious icon salesman brought three crucifixes to Parangaricutiro in the late 1500s. A villager—Nicolás Moricho—chose his favorite, but the salesman refused to let him pay for it. The visitor wouldn’t share his name, where he came from, or where he was headed, and he didn’t eat or drink anything during his stay. He left the village walking north, and when the villagers went after him he was nowhere to be found. Thus, villagers began to believe that the cross was brought to them by an angelic messenger or divine destiny. An Augustin friar heard the story and blessed the crucifix, proclaiming that it would bring miracles to the town; that is how it came to be known as the “Señor de los Milagros.” I can only imagine the hope those villagers put into that cross as they fled while lava destroyed their homes, and I can understand why they feel it’s a miracle the church survived.

Paricutín Volcano stayed active for nine years, 11 days, and 10 hours: six different lava flows eventually covered 25 square kilometers, and the main ash cone also remains. Fortunately no one was killed. 

HOW TO GET THERE
We conducted extensive research online, but details are very hard to find. I therefore hope the below will help you.

From Uruapan you need to drive to Angahuan. From there you can hire a guide (150-300 pesos, plus horse rental if you want one) or you can drive to the end of the road, following the signs to the volcano. You can park in one of two ecological parks that rent cabins (of course, you could stay there, too), including Centro Turistico de Angahuan. You can also rent horses and hire guides there. From the tourism centers, it is an easy 35 minute walk on a wide dirt road to the site of the church ruins. The walk is gorgeous; you walk amidst pine trees and cactus, and, finally, alongside fields of dried lava. Once you reach the ruins there are a few simple restaurants selling food and drink.

One of the restaurant owners is Jesús “Cachuy” Velázquez Gutiérrez, the son of two survivors of the volcano: Aniceto Velázquez Contreras and Paula Gutiérrez Aguilar. He told us you can access the ruins by car, but you have to drive way out of your way, covering about 24 km; the walk or horseback ride is much easier. He has a Facebook page for the church ruins, so you can also ask him questions before you visit.

From the restaurant area you can easily see the tower of the church amidst the lava. From that point, however, you have to climb over lava in order to get to the ruins. Be sure to take sturdy hiking boots, and wear a hat and sun screen. During our visit quite a few people started out to see the ruins and turned back. Greg and I spent about two hours climbing around the site and had a ball!

The walk back to your car is uphill so it’s much more difficult than the way out. Obviously the road was built for cars, but it is no longer accessible to 4-wheeled vehicles; rock barriers cross the road at various points, and benches have been installed in the center of the road at key intervals as well. We went at sunrise so I could get good photos. By 10:30 am there were busloads of visitors, most of whom entered on horseback, so lots of dust on the trail. Of course, we were here on Monday of Holy Week; normal weekdays probably have far fewer visitors. Early in the morning, even during Holy Week, Greg and I were the only ones there.

Some people continue past the ruins to the top of the volcano. We were told that it’s a 2-3 hour hike each way; we highly recommend a guide if you make this journey. Jesús “Cachuy” Velázquez Gutiérrez, owner of one of the small restaurants at the ruins, offered to take us to the top in his pickup truck. He said it would take one hour and cost 1,200 pesos, and he is willing to take a group up.

If you love adventure tourism, religious tourism, or you are just looking for something out of the ordinary, we definitely recommend this place!

La Nautica: Latin America’s Oldest Merchant Marine Academy

DSC_0319Edited2Mazatlán has been renowned since colonial times as one of Mexico’s premier maritime and shipbuilding centers. It is thus quite natural that we are blessed with the country’s oldest merchant marine academy—La Escuela Nautica Capitán de Altura Antonio Gómez Maqueo, or “La Nautica,” as it is affectionately known. The school also distinguishes Mazatlán as home of the oldest merchant marine academy in Latin America.

Visiting family and I were fortunate to get up close and personal with the highly disciplined young adults parading in their dress whites during the school’s recent 137th anniversary ceremony. Watching hundreds of young people march in crisply choreographed unison during the golden hour at sunset was truly a sight to behold! We were invited to the bugle, drum and flag-filled festivities by Captain Rodolfo Cinco Arenas, who has taught at the academy longer than anyone on the staff—since 1982. Though Captain Cinco was able to retire a few years ago, the school persuaded him to come back as a contract teacher because he is a leading expert on ship stability and GMDSS, the global maritime distress and safety system. Walking around campus with the Captain was so much fun, as all the gorgeous young cadets saluted us as we walked by.

The Nautica is a public school operated under the auspices of the Secretary of Communication and Transportation’s FIDENA (Fideicomiso de formación y capacitación para el personal de la marina mercante nacional). It currently educates 653 students from throughout Mexico and Latin America as officers and engineers for all types of commercial vessels: container ships, ferries, fishing vessels, freighters and tankers. Cadets are nearly evenly divided between deck (mates and captain) and engineering. The school opened to women in 1994 and currently includes more than 50 female cadets. Since its inception it has trained 2500 officers who are able to sail vessels from almost any country around the world, frequently including Algeria, Brazil, Dubai, and Venezuela, though Canadian and US American vessels limit officers to citizens from those respective nations. Tuition is $67,000 pesos/year and includes everything: housing, food, books, classes and simulators. The experience is of course highly subsidized by the federal government.

Despite presidential decrees founding a merchant marine academy in Mazatlán in 1857 (Ignacio Comonfort) and 1880 (Porfirio Diaz), fates dictated that the Nautica’s first classes weren’t held until December 1888, when the Chilean vessel Buque México arrived in Mazatlán from San Francisco. The ship served as home to the school’s first class of 15 students. In 1921 the Nautica moved to 43 Calle del Arsenal, which today is where Venustiano Carranza meets the malecón; a plaque indicates this fact. In September of 1939 classrooms, workshops, dormitories, sports fields, a cafeteria and a small dock were constructed at the school’s current site at 2111 Calzada Gabriel Leyva. During World War II the school was temporarily transferred to the navy (1941-58), and for a few years graduates could opt for a degree as either military or merchant marine officers.

The curved façade of the main building of the Nautica is reminiscent of the bridge of a ship. Classrooms and dormitories form a large central square, where the ceremony was held. Spiral staircases, stone columns, carved wood, antique tile floors, student-painted murals and lush palm trees make for an impressive campus. From 1982 to 2006 the academy had an educational ship named “Nauticas México;” cadets navigated the vessel throughout the Americas and Europe. It was the only merchant marine training vessel in Mexico, but has never been replaced, as the government has decided simulators are cheaper and better for educational purposes. The Nautica today has 45 professors, 25 classrooms, 12 simulators, beautiful lap and diving pools, and Mazatlán’s only planetarium (built in 1986), which sadly is not open to the public.

Nautica cadets are civilians, not military, though education is military style. They reside on campus six days a week, and have strict regulations regarding uniforms (dress whites and blues, international and khaki in short and long sleeves), hair length, lights out, language and behavior both at school and during time off. Privileges include Saturday nights and Sunday mornings off campus, and visits by family and friends on Thursday evenings. Those privileges are easily and frequently lost, however, as we well know from our son’s friends’ experiences.

Entry to the academy is extremely competitive, open to high school graduates and those who pass very challenging entrance exams. Even when accepted, quite a few cadets drop out prior to graduation due to the rigor of the curriculum and lifestyle. Cadets live and study on campus July through December and January to June, with one month break in the summer. Graduates must pass their classes and professional exams, be able to swim, and have English proficiency to complete the four-year program. Once they graduate, they still need to come up with $50k pesos to pay for their professional title (título), something common across most careers in Mexico. Graduating from it, however, pretty much guarantees a lucrative career.

HoliFest Mazatlán 2017

17492362_1914048385496522_7744330507028052607_oYou will remember the “oohs” and “aahs,” the wonderment and joy, and the expressions of “it was so incredible!” from HoliFest Mazatlán last year. Kirana Yoga‘s Karina Barcena has, in three short years, grown Mazatlán as Mexico’s largest and best-attended HoliFest, out of the 19 such festivals held on the same day, at the same time, throughout the country.

HoliFest Mazatlán is a family-friendly cultural festival and a WHOLE lot of fun! It is also free of charge! Participating last year were groups of friends and work colleagues, extended families including grandparents and toddlers, able-bodied and people in wheel chairs; Mazatlecos, nationals from the interior, expats, snowbirds and tourists—all united in hope, love, equality and peace. We celebrated life, spring and our desire to bring a healthy lifestyle and sane values to our community.

Save the date!

Sunday, 23rd April from 4-8:30 pm
On the lawn in front of the giant mosaic
At the Mazatlán International Center (Convention Center)
Free admission

Please wear comfortable clothing so you can move and meditate easily.
Come early to get settled and enable things to start on time.

The tradition of Holi—the Festival of Colors or the Festival of Love—is grounded in Hindu legend, though which legend seems to vary by geography. I had always heard that Holi represents the triumph of good over evil; the story involves Vishnu-workshipping Prahlad’s triumph over his father, the demon-king Hiranyakashyap, and his evil aunt. That story is dark, however, and I much prefer the version Karina shared with us.

She told us how Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha Rani, painted one another in colors so they would look alike. The message of Holi then becomes, “I am you and you are me,” we are all one. Artwork of these two lovers, along with a song, can be seen in the video below.

Today Holi is celebrated worldwide as an expression of love, unity and respect. I am thrilled that Mazatlán is part of this international event, and encouraged that HoliFest is one more way we can build community, health and safety, fighting isolation, depression, anger and anxiety.

The colored powders will be sold at the event site. They are organic, non-toxic, non-irritating and washable; have no fear that they’ll be staining your clothing. Basically, they seem to be colored sugar. But throwing them over one another in a field of nearly 2000 people—that is a most wonderfully exciting, celebratory and love-filled feeling!

This year we can look forward to entertainment by Jazzpango—a world-renowned musical group that fuses huapango with jazz. Martin Zarate from Sadhak Yoga in Monterrey and Daniel Mesino from the Buddhist Center of Mexico City will join event organizer Karina Barcena in a yoga class as well as a group meditation. The event is inclusive of all physical abilities and all levels of practice; don’t worry, you are welcome! Dancers from two local dance schools, Dance World Center (Linda Lydia Chang) and Danzabel (Sergio Burgueño), will also provide entertainment. And there will be surprises! I am told that one of them will be tightrope walking!

2017 HoliFest Mazatlán Schedule

4:00      Welcome (please come early so you can have your space and be settled)

4:30      Jazzpango (music)

5:00      Group meditation

5:30      Yoga sequence

6:30       Countdown to the powder throwing, followed by more music and celebration

8:00 or 8:30 Closure. Please plan to stay and socialize with the community! We have over 10,000 square meters of lawn on which to enjoy ourselves.

The Convention Center lawn will be lined with booths, as it was last year; food and drink will be available for sale or you can bring your own (no alcohol please). You are welcome to bring a yoga mat, blanket or beach towel on which to sit in meditation and practice yoga. This year there will be a photo booth, plus a variety of local enterprises will showcase their offerings. A photo contest will be conducted in conjunction with the event, so look forward to seeing an exhibition of the 25 best photos when you attend.

I encourage you to let schools know about this event; children and their families should definitely attend. Groups of seniors would enjoy this event, as would any groups of athletes, artists or friends. Pass the word and let’s build positivity and connection in Mazatlán!

HoliFest Mazatlán 2017 is still accepting sponsors, so if you are interested in supporting this incredible community effort, please contact Karina at kbarcena@hotmail.com.

Passion for Beautification

DSC_0002SignWe love Mazatlán. It is a breathtakingly gorgeous place, located on the world-renowned Sea of Cortés, a real working city that plays host to millions of tourists from the interior as well as abroad. We are proud to be featured in world-class travel and tourism magazines. We crow about hosting the 2018 Tianguis Turístico. We brag about the number and variety of cruise ships that visit our port every week.

Yet we do so very little to show respect for the natural beauty with which we are blessed. At sunset on the weekend, we see our beaches covered in garbage. Carnavál revelers throw their refuse everywhere you can possibly imagine. Our streets, empty lots and estuaries are frequent dumping grounds for all kinds of unsightly, unhygienic trash that suffocates our marine life.

Tourists get off the cruise ship or leave their hotels to take a city tour, going to the top of Lookout and Icebox Hills for the views. The panoramas, and the snapshots, are amazing—until you look in the foreground. “Aim that camera up higher, John. That trash in the weeds there ruins the photo.” Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

We have a culture here in Mazatlán that condones littering. It holds us back as a city, as a community, and as a tourism destination, and it’s my fervent passion that we can change that culture!

One man giving his all to do just that is Don Nichols. He has led a clean-up and beautification campaign atop Cerro de la Nevería/Icebox Hill for the past three years, and the results are remarkable!

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Don Nichols

Don and his wife Lori live in a gorgeous house with killer views. He was an employment lawyer in Minneapolis/St. Paul for 40+ years, and they bought their home atop the hill eight years ago in preparation for retirement. They love living here seasonally, and like good Midwesterners, they take pride in their neighborhood. It pained Don to see how people would come up to his neighborhood at night to drink in the views and the beer, leaving all their trash behind. Unlike Cerro del Vigía/Lookout Hill, where there is a homeowner’s association, his neighborhood doesn’t have a street sweeper. So the trash just accumulated. And accumulated.

Don went to the city to complain and to ask for some clean-up assistance. When none was forthcoming, he took matters into his own hands—like the independent Midwestern he is. Along with Juan and Martín, an uncle and nephew who work for Don, he started cleaning up and hauling trash out of the area.

Don, Juan and Martín’s efforts could barely keep ahead of those who trashed the area, however. So, they got the brainstorm to impede access to the empty lots where most of the partying went on by installing fences and beautifying them with brightly colored bougainvillea. They surround the bougainvillea plants with a circle of lime-covered rocks, to discourage ants from killing the plants. When he can find the property owners, Don gets permission, but he has beautified a few parcels for which he’s unable to contact the owners.

During their clean-up efforts, they found sidewalks buried under the trash, brush and sediment that washes down the steep hill. So, their efforts grew to include hauling out dirt and brush to reveal sidewalks that haven’t seen the light of day in twenty years! Don figures that in three years time they have hauled 50 dump truck loads of crud off the hill. I so wish Don were my neighbor!

They installed and painted trash cans to encourage neighbors and visitors to help keep the area clean. The cans are bright pink, the same color as most of the bougainvillea. They get filled quickly, and Don is grateful that city crews come Monday, Wednesday and Friday to empty the cans. The cans have to be repainted at least once a year. He, Juan and Martín have painted a few concrete walls the same pink color, creating a vibrant theme in the neighborhood. They’ve painted electrical boxes green and recently even painted a sign on the side of the road—Mazatlán’s Most Beautiful Hill (in Spanish)—with hopes of instilling pride of place in the local community.

The beautification is a never-ending process. Run-off on the steep hill never ends, so dirt and rocks constantly fall down, covering the sidewalks and the road, and bringing trash downhill. If they don’t stay on top of daily litter pickup and frequent dirt and rock removal, the area will all too quickly return to how it looked before.

Don has found that the bougainvillea so far are a great idea. They have thorns, so people don’t want to walk through them. They’re gorgeous, so people usually respect them. Most of the empty lots he beautifies have no flat space on which to plant anything, however—it’s a very steep hill. So, he builds a wall downhill and grades the soil to make a garden bed.

The problem is, however, that the bougainvillea need water in order to take root. They can get by after a rainy season, but at least the first year the plants need fertilizer and regular watering. So, Don bought a motorcycle with an attached flatbed and put a tinaco in it. They fill the tinaco with water and then ride around watering the plants in the neighborhood. It’s a lot of work, but with beautiful results! His efforts have transformed the area.

He and his crew have also painted lime on many of the trees in the neighborhood, again to discourage the ants. He has met with a few setbacks. Bougainvillea he planted on the landings of the stairway were yanked out by someone, he’s not sure who. They are debating whether to replant or not. There is one place where someone has rolled back a fence they installed, in order to be better able to park their trucks, turn on their stereos and party. Don hopes to plant bougainvillea there and repair the fence, in hopes that the second time will be the charm. A third “failure” is a bed of trumpet vines he planted on the uphill side of the road. While they have grown significantly, they have never flowered, probably due to lack of sun.

Quite a few pulmonía, auriga and taxi drivers have thanked Don for his efforts, saying the beautification has improved tourists’ enjoyment of their tours. While he hasn’t gotten many thank-yous from neighbors, another expat chipped in some money to support his effort, and he’s only gotten one criticism. One neighbor complained that Don had removed sand that he’d been saving (the sand had been in a pile at the side of the road for several years). So, Don got him some new sand.

Don’s beautification efforts have helped increase the value of real estate in the neighborhood, I imagine, but he’s helped his neighbors in other ways, too. Frustrated at repeatedly finding human feces on one empty lot, Don learned that a man living next door didn’t have running water or a toilet. Well, for US$350, he had a shower and toilet installed in the man’s house, in exchange for the man’s promise to keep the lot next door clear of brush and trash. Most definitely a win-win!

Don obviously didn’t set out three years ago to make a full-time job for himself; it grew little by little. He very much hopes that his efforts will inspire other property owners in the area to maintain and beautify their properties, so that Icebox Hill can be not only the most beautiful hill in Mazatlán but in all of Sinaloa. He also very much hopes the city will assign a street sweeper to his hill.