Lost Mazatlecan Tradition?

DSC_4630©Mazatlán has a tradition of fishing that dates back probably a thousand years: shrimping with hand nets. The gorgeous way the tarayas spread out and then splash onto the water has always fascinated me; it’s a very tranquil, rhythmic dance. Below are a couple sequences of the net throwing, to give you a better idea.

Riparian shrimp fishermen go out in small pangas in pairs. Reminiscent of the gondoliers of Venice, the non-fisherman sits in the back of the boat and holds a long stick (la palanca, made of mangrove wood) with which he pushes the boat through the shallow lagoon or estuary. The second person stands in the front of the panga and casts the net. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Watching shrimp fishermen work in the estuaries and lagoons of Mazatlán has brought me joy since I first arrived here on La Bala train in 1979. Back then much of the Golden Zone was still covered with waterways (Laguna Gaviotas and Estero El Sábalo), as was the whole of the marina area (Salvador Allende). El Venadillo, Laguna del Camarón and Estero del Yugo were much larger. And there were shrimpers everywhere! We were all in shrimp heaven!

Just as we can hail an oyster diver or a fishermen to buy his catch today, up to a few short years ago we could buy the catch direct from shrimpers easily here in Mazatlán. But now? It’s a gorgeous and delicious tradition awaiting the final nail in its coffin. I posted a couple of photos on Facebook a few days ago of buying shrimp from the shrimpers in Estero de Escopama, and I immediately had about 20 people asking me privately (they don’t want others to know!) the secret to where they could go to buy such shrimp. Now that we’ve cemented over our waterways, we have to travel that much farther to see the beauty of the tarayas.

If Mazatlán were Patzcuaro, we’d be promoting the beauty of our traditional fishing methods as tourist attractions. There, of course, the “butterfly net” fishermen catch tourist tips much more frequently than they catch fish. In Mazatlán, however, we seem to have purposefully worked the past 50 years to kill our centuries-old tradition. At the same time we seek UNESCO certification as a Creative City in Culinary Arts, we lose the tradition for harvesting the shrimp for our famous aguachiles.

I was very fortunate to be welcomed into the last hand net shrimping cooperative in our city, The Veterans of the Mexican Revolution. They most kindly agreed to take me out with them while they fished. The first day I joined them, they caught 135 kg of shrimp that they sold to the owner of a pescadería at the Stone Island Embarcadero. The second day I joined the group they sadly caught far less: maybe 35 kg. They told me that was because it’s the end of the season, and because it was a cloudy day. Cooperative members share equally in their catch. Some may choose to take their daily pay in shrimp, others prefer cash. Either way, it’s equal: you fish, you get paid.

85 year old José Ibarra Rodriguez is the only surviving founder of the cooperative. In the video below he tells me that they started the fishing cooperative in 1967, and their first day of fishing was August 16, 1968. At the time, they purchased a 50 year federal concession to fish. There are currently 24 members in the co-op.

However, due to the government losing documentation, and to the emphasis on tourism and development over the environment, over the years they have lost most of the estuaries that they used to fish, and are currently fighting over the rights to everything between Escopama and Pozole (Dimas).

The estuaries and lagoons of Mazatlán used to be lined with mangroves, filled with shrimp and fish, and home to endemic and migratory birds. Our gorgeous bay, dozens of miles of beaches and the wetlands, with our view of the Sierras to the east, is what attracted the Who’s Who of Hollywood as well as so many renowned writers and artists to our city.

The sad thing to me is that very soon we will have to go even farther to see the beauty of the tarayas. Other fishermen in the group tell me they have lost their concession to fish the Escopamas, and that the Salinitas concession has also expired. Mazatlán’s centuries-long culinary tradition continues to die out at the very time we seek UNESCO accreditation.

I leave you with a few happier shots of the pelicans that gladly clean up the smaller fish that the fishermen fail to throw back in, as well as some cormorants fighting over a fish.

Living and Working with Mexicans

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Many in the VidaMaz community are bilingual and bicultural, and many others aspire to be. Francisco Santana has a new Udemy course entitled, This is Mexico: Living and Working with Mexicans that he has offered to give to VidaMaz readers for free if you click this link in the next 72 hours. Once you register, you can complete the course at your leisure. As payment he requests you to rate the course.

I have just taken the course and believe it is a very worthwhile way to spend an hour or two. It communicates to the learner some of the fundamental concepts of intercultural communication in a simple, clear, affordable and easy way. Francisco covers a lot of territory, summarizing key things to remember concisely. He is careful to say things like, “generally speaking” or “Mexicans have a tendency,” in order to avoid stereotyping and overgeneralizing the huge diversity that is this country.

The course contains some outdated constructs, such as the use of the iceberg as a metaphor for culture—which its creator Bob Kohls himself hated in his later career, and the overly-used and overly-conceptual “dimensions of culture”— which are useful as pieces of knowledge but aren’t especially helpful at improving skill. It’s at this point the course started to feel like a lecture and became quite slow for me.

The “Living with Mexicans” section will be the most helpful to most VidaMaz readers, I believe. There are some very salient points that can go unnoticed if you’re not careful, such as this line, “Mexicans have never been obsessed with planning for the future,” or Francisco’s contention that Mexican friendships tend to be based on mutual need—a very different dynamic than friendship elsewhere in the world. I found it particularly interesting and valuable to look at friendship in a historical context. Francisco’s explanations of Mexican humor, the “mañana” mentality and use of excuses to avoid disappointing people will also be salient and helpful for many; there are many gems in this section, from which we could learn more deeply for hours.

I fully support expats integrating into and participating in the local community as much as we can, and I hope this short course, available to you now for free, might help you. It is well presented and very accurate, in my experience. Here is Francisco’s course description:

By knowing where people’s values and beliefs come from you can learn to expect and predict their behavior, and then, you will be on your way to a successful cultural adjustment. The Mexican culture is rich in customs, traditions and intriguing behavioral patterns; and this one-of-its-kind course offers you the opportunity to dive into the very roots of the Mexican way of life.

The curriculum and practical activities are carefully designed for:

  • Expats (retirees, executives, foreign service employees)
  • Foreign students
  • Foreign investors and import/export professionals
  • Travelers
  • Enthusiasts of the Mexican culture

What you’ll learn

  • The fundamentals of culture
  • Key values and attitudes of the Mexicans
  • The roots of the Mexicans behavioral patterns
  • Mexicans communication patterns
  • Social and business manners in Mexico
  • Management and negotiation style in Mexico

Are there any course requirements or prerequisites?

  • Interest in learning more about Mexico and the Mexicans

Who this course is for:

  • Executives in an international assignment in Mexico
  • Expats retired or considering retiring in Mexico
  • Leisure and business travelers
  • Current or future foreign exchange students
  • Entrepreneurs and business seeking to negotiate with Mexicans
  • Current or future foreign service officers assigned in Mexico

Content is comprised of six sections, each with a video, activity and quiz:

  1. Introduction
  2. Culture and human behavior
  3. Roots of Mexican cultural identity (history of Mexico)
  4. Living with Mexicans: Traditions, values and attitudes (family, friendship, courtesy, helping others, humor, Day of the Dead, concept of mañana, excuses, bribery)
  5. Working with Mexicans: Management and negotiation (leadership and management, perception of time and space, communication patters, negotiation and meetings)
  6. Case analysis (interviews with four young adult expatriates living in Mexico—a Dane, a German, a Finn and a Czech)

Enjoy, and please let me know what you think! Kudos to Francisco for creating this method for helping expats and visitors to better understand and partner with our Mexican hosts!

Giant Alebrije Parade

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I was most fortunate to have to work in Mexico City on Friday October 18th. The reason? Because the following day was the Desfile de Alebrijes Monumentales, a parade of gigantic, whimsical and fantastical wooden folk art pieces made from papier maché.

This year at the commencement of the parade the giant alebrijes were named a Mexican cultural heritage—the only form of folk art unique to the old Federal District. Since they came to life from the imagination of Pedro Linares in the 1930s, a couple of pueblos in Oaxaca have made names for themselves by carving alebrijes out of copal wood. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The parade included more than TWO HUNDRED handmade, monumentally sized alebrijes in fantastical shapes and colors. I was psyched to be able to photograph them in front of the cathedral and with the Palace of Fine Arts as a backdrop. After the several hour parade they “parked” the alebrijes along Reforma Avenue, and thousands more people were able to admire their beauty.

Many of the artists marched in the parade together with their works, as did many of the “hands” that helped build the incredible pieces. They honest to God took my breath away! What a great way to spend a weekend with girlfriends!

On the other side of La Reforma was a huge exhibition of skulls, called “MexiCráneos,” also very cool. The cempasúchil flowers were all out. I was excited to take photos of them with the Angel de la Independencia, but she is covered with scaffolding and under rehabilitation, and the flowers were full of thousands of people. So much for those gorgeous, quiet, no-people photos with the Angel in her glory!

 

 

 

Pajaritos: A Mazatlecan Tradition

DSC_5515-PanoMazatlán has a decades-long tradition of fishing for and enjoying pajaritos; it is a highly anticipated and valued part of our local culture. We are not lucky enough to get them every year, but this May they are running! And big time!! Deliciousness AND a bonus income for the fishermen and resellers—who cannot love this? They’ve arrived with absolutely great timing, as well—just as UNESCO staff are in town to discuss Mazatlán becoming a Creative Gastronomic City.

During the very short season Playa Norte and the embarcadero for Stone Island turn into a madhouse of activity after dark, with hundreds of people showing up to comparison-shop this warm-water delicacy that’s also popular in Japan and Hawaii. People arrive with every kind of container imaginable: wash basins, buckets, bags, Tupperware… and the fishermen are more than happy to fill them up! People purchase bucket-loads of the savory little creatures to prepare for family and friends or to clean and resell. They are usually served pan fried with beans. You can buy some and take them to any palapa, or some restaurants, and they’ll fry them up for you and provide the fixings. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Like most anything in Mazatlán, this is a family affair: grandparents, kids… Smiles and  joking abound; everyone is happy. Entire extended families camp out on the malecón and the beach, watching the activity and enjoying the scene. It reminds me of festival season in Japan, and I love it! It’s a wee bit dangerous getting a nice camera and flash setup in amongst the boats, what with the tide coming in fast at our feet, causing the pangas to move every which way, the huge crowds of people pushing for the best catch and the fishermen grabbing at the bills flying their way.

Pajaritos are ballyhoos, also called flying halfbeaks or spipefish (heporhamphus in the hemiramphidae family), closely related to the needlefish. In Mazatlecan dialect they are called pajaritos because they “fly” at up to 37 mph/60 kph, gliding over the surface of the water for quite a distance! As nearby as Teacapán they are called differently: guaris. They skim the surface of the water, jumping up and out frequently in shallower surf. They have large scales that end up completely covering the fishermen: hair, face, appendages, clothing. Their eyes and nostrils are at the top of the head and their upper jaw is mobile—well adapted to surface dwelling. Sadly, loads of their eggs seem to be scooped up as they are caught, as you can see in the photos.

Pajaritos lay their eggs all over the waters around Cerro de Chivos and other islands in our bay: that pungent smell really carries! They have an elongated, narrow jaw filled with sharp teeth. When young the pajaritos feed on plankton and algae, and as they grow eat smaller fish. They are a migratory fish that run along the Pacific coast from Santa Ana, California to Costa Rica.

The season usually lasts a few days or, if we’re lucky, weeks, so be sure not to miss out. Between 2012 and 2016 there were no pajaritos, attributed to over-fishing and contamination. This year, fortunately, there seems to be a bumper harvest, with between 500 kg and two tons sold each evening here in town! They are caught near the islands in our bay as well as near the coastline—in calm waters, primarily at night. Pajaritos are attracted by light, so it’s easy for us landlubbers to spot the pajarito fishermen out in our bay with their bright lights and hand nets. Some nights I’ve seen as many as 50 pangas surrounding the islands! During the day I’ve seen the fish out in the bay; their jumping makes it look like the ocean is boiling. It’s great work for our local fishermen, as they can fill their boats in just a couple of hours, and last night, as most nights, their haul sells out in a matter of minutes.


Monday night the fish were selling for 40 pesos per kilogram (60-80 fish), though that varies according to the number of boats at the dock with fish and the number of buyers (basic supply and demand). The fishermen charged 200-250 pesos per cubeta, depending on the size of the bucket. Cleaned pajaritos were being sold on the malecón, ready to fry up, for 100 pesos/kg (weight is prior to cleaning), though that also varies depending on the night and the vendor.

This valued local tradition will hopefully continue for many more decades. It will require, however, fishing limits to preserve the species, as well as adequate water treatment. Let’s all work towards that and, in the meantime, be sure to enjoy the spectacle and a great meal!

Cuisine and Culture of Sinaloa

One of the key attractions of Mazatlán, beyond its incredible natural beauty and its amazingly friendly and resourceful people, is its food. We all love our ceviches, aguachiles, shrimp and fish in garlic or chile sauce or barbecued (zarandeado) over an open fire, our pollo a la plaza. Thus, I was eager to attend the presentation Thursday evening April 11th in the Gallery Peralta, “Cuisine and Culture of Sinaloa.” Though mis-named, the talk was quite interesting and focused primarily on the cuisine and culture of Mexico. It was organized by CULTURA Mazatlán as part of the initiative to formally include Mazatlán in UNESCO’s “Creative Cities Network” as a “city creative in gastronomy,” a decision that will be taken during meetings in November.

The main speaker for the evening was Maestro José (Pepe) N. Iturriaga, who was introduced by Maestro Jaime Félix Pico, President of the Gastronomic Conservatory of Sinaloa (Conservatorio Gastronómico de Sinaloa A.C.) as the “foremost professor of gastronomy in Mexico.”  According to Félix Pico, Mazatlán “has met all the conditions to be formally included in the Network of UNESCO Creative Cities.” Our entering the ranks of the 180 cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development, would, indeed, be welcome news.

Iturriaga seemed a bit confused about where to begin his remarks, rambling and repeating himself for the first half hour. He explained that “we are what we eat;” that food is a key part of Mexicans’ national identity—way beyond just a method to gain nutrition; and that what makes Mexican cuisine unique is our triumvirate culinary staple: corn, beans and chile. He told the audience that other Latin countries also eat corn and beans but asserted that chile is unique to Mexico. Together this trilogy, according to Iturriaga, provides a very balanced diet. Beans are legumes with quality protein, very nutritious. Corn is a “cereal with carbs and a bit of unusable protein,” while chile is a fruit with vitamins and minerals but which also contains a substance that makes the nutrients of corn (protein, sugar, starch and fat) absorb better.

Iturriaga has recently written a book that shares the title of this conference, Cocina y Cultura de Sinaloa. He reported that the book is to be published by UAS (Universidad Autónoma de Sinaloa) but has been languishing there unedited. Perhaps the lack of a book was the reason he seemed so lost as he started his presentation. At the conclusion of the evening, Maestro Papik Ramírez, Director of the Sinaloan Institute of Culture (Instituto Sinaloense de Cultura—ISIC), assured Iturriaga that his book would be edited soon by UAS and ISIC.

The most fascinating portion of Iturriaga’s presentation was when he explained to the audience the history of Mexico’s successful process to be named the only “World Heritage Cuisine” by UNESCO in 2010. According to Iturriaga, the effort began in 2000 and took the better part of ten years. He told us that key factors in Mexico’s successful bid to become a World Heritage Cuisine include antigüedad, continuidad and actualidad:

  1. Antigüedad: Mexican culinary tradition is antique. Corn was domesticated 8000 years ago from wild grass over a period of one to two centuries—thousands of years before the pyramids of Egypt were built.
  2. Continuidad: Mexican culinary culture has continuity and is an important part of the lives of people of all socioeconomic levels. It has no “high” and “low” cuisine. Even the richest Mexicans eat chilaquiles or enchiladas for breakfast, celebrate with a good mole, and pozole will be served in the wee hours at the most exclusive of wedding receptions. Mexican food is healthy and built huge empires; it is not a third world food, Iturriaga said, somewhat defensively. It is the food of kings as well as of the people.
  3. Actualidad: Mexican culinary culture is alive and well today, passed on from grandmothers and our mothers. We experience this long tradition in Mexican homes, as well as in fondas, mercados and street carts, within the country and in nearly every country worldwide. Mexican cuisine has great regional diversity, as well as great commonalty and shared tradition. According to Iturriaga, the over 30 million Mexicans residing in the USA typically share three cultural traits from their homeland: Mexican food, Mexican music, and the Virgen de Guadalupe.

According to our speaker, other countries do not have cultural traditions around cuisine, an assertion to which I as an interculturalist take great exception. Iturriaga repeatedly emphasized that the USA, for example, “has no endemic cuisine or regional culinary traditions that are not imported.” While I greatly understand and empathize with his pride in Mexican culinary culture, his habitual effort to put down other world cuisines, including those of France and China, dumbfounded me. Mexico can be rightfully proud without insulting the cultures of others.

He advised those attending that Mazatlán’s proposal to UNESCO should focus on the culture of Sinaloa’s gastronomy, not on the gastronomy per sé. UNESCO is a cultural, not a gastronomic, organization, and they will be interested in history, anthropology, ethnicity and literature surrounding our bid to join the Creative Cities Network.

Iturriaga then shared a few interesting statistics, noting that the beauty of Mexican food culture is a combination of both its ingredients and the cooks. He stated that:

  1. Mexico ranks fourth in the world for its biodiversity, after Brazil, Colombia and Indonesia. My research does not necessarily agree with this ranking, though the main point that Mexico is biologically a “megadiverse” country is very true.
  2. Mexico ranks second in the world for its cultural diversity, behind India and ahead of China. Iturriaga went on to explain that his ranking counts the number of currently spoken, living languages as a measurement. India, according to him, has 65, Mexico 62, and China 55. I love this idea, but again, as an interculturalist I cannot imagine where he got his data from; Ethnologue has very different statistics for living languages by country. I do agree that language is a solid litmus test of cultural diversity, as it’s fragile and very easy to lose, so is a sign of cultural cohesion and dynamism. Iturriaga said that 12% of Mexicans are indigenous, with the rest regional variations of mestizaje, mentioning Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, German and French.

The key point is that there is a huge diversity of cultures within Mexico, particularly regional diversity. When you combine the diversity of its people with the biodiversity of its flora and fauna, Mexican cuisine has a huge natural advantage in this world. Yet another reason for Mexico to become a better steward of its natural resources as well as its people.

Turning finally to the culture and cuisine of Sinaloa, Iturriaga explained that our long coast here in Sinaloa is one of our strengths, as it is in Veracruz. The Tropic of Cancer dissects Sinaloa and is an important climactic marker, adding to our biodiversity. The state has an incredible variation of climactic zones from east to west, mountains to ocean, also. Iturriaga said that 13% of our state is conifer forest, and our estuaries are natural (I would add quickly disappearing) aquariums. Sinaloa’s biodiversity reflects that of the country as a whole.

Sinaloa is Mexico’s biggest producer of corn, tomato and shrimp—33% of the national production of the latter. Sinaloa is also an important producer of chile and beans. Referencing Sinaloa’s cultural diversity, Iturriaga said that in the 16th century there were 38 aboriginal groups in the area that now comprises Sinaloa. He went on to say that the Aztecs migrated from what is now Culiacán to Mexico City, another fact that sounds great but which my research shows as far from agreed-upon among academic experts. Most texts say the origins of the Aztecs are uncertain, though they did originate in northern Mexico. Mezcaltitán, just south of the modern-day Sinaloa state border, also claims to have been the original home of the Aztecs. Iturriaga told us that his upcoming book has a list of 30 fruits that are endemic and unique to Sinaloa, largely unknown outside our state. Very cool!

After this short interlude on the theme of the evening—Sinaloan culinary culture—we returned to Mexican culinary traditions. Iturriaga told the audience that:

  1. “Tomato” comes from Nahautl, the Aztec language—tomatl. Where would world cuisine be without these wonderful, originating-in-Mexico pomodoros?
  2. Guajalotl, or in Spanish guajalote, turkey—what would Thanksgiving look like without this Mexican gift?
  3. Chocolatl, so important to the economies and culinary culture of Switzerland, Belgium and France, among many other countries.
  4. Not just chocolate but vanilla also originated in Mexico—a key ingredient in several national dishes worldwide.
  5. Finally, Iturriaga told us that 95% of the world’s chiles are Mexican. The popular habanero is not; it comes from the Amazon, but even bell peppers, from which Hungary’s famous paprika is ground, originate in Mexico. We wouldn’t have goulash, curry or Szechuan food without Mexico’s culinary contribution!

Iturriaga concluded his formal remarks by talking about pre-Hispanic religious traditions. One of these included making idols of corn. He asserted that Mexicans may also have invented the practice of “communion,” now well-known in Roman Catholic and some other Christian churches, because pre-Hispanic priests would break up the cornmeal idols so that the community could share in the power and energy of the god represented by the idol. Tamales were and still remain a common religious offering. The Tarahumara (they prefer to be called Raramurí) make their beer—tesguino—from corn and then offer it to the four cardinal points. He went on to share with the audience that May 15th is the Day of San Isidro, Farmers’ Day; the cathedral in Culiacán has an altar to this saint and many people from the pueblo mestizo make offerings on that day, also bringing in seeds to bless before planting them. In conclusion, he assured us that gastronomy is cultural as well as religious.

After the talk, CULTURA generously shared with those attending canapés and yellow squash tamales made the traditional way in Palos Blancos, El Rosario municipality. CULTURA stressed that in Sinaloa, from Teacapán to Los Mochis, from tamales barbones (shrimp tamales) to huacavaque (beef stew), we can see the fingerprints of pre-Hispanic Mexico and the mixing of the races, even in modern dishes that rely on technological production methods and a desire for innovation.

All in all, I was glad I went downtown for the early evening. The talk was interesting, and I am happy to support this Creative Cities’ effort. If you are interested in learning to cook Sinaloan food in your home, you might wish to read about Doña Cuca’s cookbooks.