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.

Noche de Luz

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The premier of Noche de Luz was THE event of the season last year, showcasing to many in Mazatlán for the first time ever the inside of the old Observatory, as well as sharing with us a joyful amalgam of international music and talent. This year’s second edition of the outstanding event—put together by Raul Rico’s crew at Vivace Productions—made Christmas for many of us attending.

The view from the Observatory atop Lookout Hill is the whole of Mazatlán: south beyond Stone Island to north beyond Cerritos, including the entire city and port to the east and the best view of the lighthouse and the Pacific to the west. This is precisely why the conquistadores used this location as a lookout for English pirate ships approaching and intending to sack the city, and why the hill is called Cerro del Vigía. To me it’s the premier location in Mazatlán, and an incredibly gorgeously restored and decorated venue. Thus, I am over the moon to  know that it will soon open to the public as a museum! Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Cocktails started on the back patio at 5:00 pm. The wine was free flowing; there were a good variety of canapés. The concert started promptly at 6:00 pm on the front terrace, facing the lighthouse. The weather was perfect—fresh, not cold or warm—and the performers were more relaxed and joy-filled than last year. They seemed to feed off the energy of the sold-out audience. Those of us in attendance thoroughly enjoyed their animated emotions, vamping, and changes of accessories to suit the song. While we were not treated to one of Mazatlán’s signature jaw-dropping sunsets, it was THE best Christmas event one could ask for! My girlfriend and I came home singing and dancing, filled with the spirit of the season (and a bit of the wine).

Principal performers included internationally acclaimed baritone José Adán Pérez, Mazatlecan currently residing in New York City; soprano Marysol Calles, the very talented Tapatía, mazatleca by adoption, who currently resides in Madrid; mezzo soprano Sarah Holcombe, our Mazatlán-born, blue-eyed beauty; and pianist Michiyo Morikawa, Japanese by birth and Mexican by adoption.

The performance was in four parts: Opera, perfect for these three incredible voices; Broadway and Hollywood, a terrific sing-along; Boleros, with much swinging and swaying in the audience; and Christmas songs, which served as the cherry on top of a perfect evening.

The boleros section of the evening was a magnificent tribute to three internationally famous Mexican composers with connections to Mazatlán on the 100th anniversary of their births. The singers delivered outstandingly animated and emotive performances of:

  1. Sabor a Mí (my personal favorite), La Mentira, Luz de Luna by Álvaro Carrillo—composer and singer born 1921 in Oaxaca and died 1969, a good friend of local singer Antonio Pérez Meza.
  2. La Ley del Monte and Échame a Mí la Culpa by Ferrusquilla—José Ángel Espinoza Aragón, composer, singer and actor from the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, born 1919 in  Choix and who lived and died here in Mazatlán in 2015. He has a statue on the malecón—the man with the guitar holding his hat in the air.
  3. El Diccionario, a lovely song by jazz composer, pianist and singer Fernando Teodoro Valadés Lejarza—born in Mazatlán in 1920 and died in Mexico City in 1978. Valadés also has a statue on the malecón—sitting at a piano.

History of the Observatory
Mazatlán was named the first high port of the Pacific by the Court of Cadiz in 1821, and functioned as the largest and busiest Pacific coast port for decades, connecting the Americas with Europe and Asia. 52 years later, in 1873, the observatory was built primarily as a weather station and, until 1892, also operated as a lighthouse. The weather station’s first director was the engineer P. Acosta León. The building was designed by Friaco Quijano and originally had two cupolas—one on each side. In the latest restoration of the observatory, the cupolas have not been rebuilt.

Much of the history of the observatory has, sadly, been lost. I have read that ours was an astronomical observatory as well, the second such facility in Mexico—built just one year after the National Astronomic Observatory in Chapultepec castle. In 1882 astronomic observation around the world gained huge popularity, as Venus passed in front of the sun. Having spoken with Joaquín Hernández, local historian, our guess is that the astronomy aspect may have come in to teach the cadets at the merchant marine academy—also the oldest academy of its kind in Latin America.

The building was destroyed by a hurricane in 1887. In the 1940s state-of-the-art meteorological observation equipment was installed. For most of its functioning history it was staffed by the military. In 1967 the weather station tools were moved to Juan Carrasco, in order to consolidate equipment from various locations. The observatory was abandoned. I remember visiting it as a tourist when it was accessible to the public, but very much in ruin—probably in the 1980s. It was a highly scenic abandoned structure perfect for photo ops! I absolutely loved going in there.

Nearly one hundred years after the observatory was built, Neto Coppel (owner of the Pueblo Bonito chain) bought four or so of the properties atop the hill and combined them, building a huge mansion and sealing off the observatory from public access. You could still get in on a private tour or if you knew someone, but the site was not generally accessible to the public for over a decade.

The old observatory remained private, and Amado and Karla Guzmán (owners of Red Petroil) purchased the entire property from Coppel, spending years fully restoring the antique observatory and planting beautiful gardens from which to enjoy those incredible views. The facility’s original bell, used to announce inclement weather to the surrounding city, still functions at the base of the stairs. The couple have added antique nautical furnishings, historical photos, comfortable dining and seating areas and a full bar; it is absolutely beautifully done and by far the premier location in Mazatlán, if you ask me!

For the past few years, if you knew the family you could arrange to hold an event in this amazing location. This past year the Guzman’s have built a tram or funicular from sea level to the top of the hill, to carry passengers and things more easily than does the winding road. It was used for the first time on Thursday evening and functioned perfectly. It will not quite yet open to the public, however, as there is a bit more construction of the building below to do.

The great news is that the Guzmán’s are planning to open the now-named Observatory 1873 as a museum! Access will be via the new tram. It will include information and items detailing the nautical history of Mazatlán as well as information on the history of the facility itself, as the first observatory and lighthouse in Mazatlán. There is no firm date yet, but we have another exciting new attraction to look forward to!

Must-Read Novel on Mazatlán

51wVr9BRpHLAnyone who loves Mazatlán, history, stories of friendship or iconic buildings infused with spirit should peruse Hotel Belmar: The ghost has the key. It’s a terrific read, a perfect holiday gift, and it’s free with your Kindle Unlimited subscription!

The novel is written by local snowbird resident Sue Carnes, who I first met years ago on an Art Walk when I purchased both a book and a print of one of her paintings—she’s obviously multi-talented! I had the privilege of having her call me years later as she started her research on the Belmar; she asked me for directions to the municipal archives. I took her there, introduced her to the crew as well as to my friend Joaquín, a well-known repository of Mazatlán’s past, and the rest quickly became history.

I sort of forgot about Sue’s efforts until, months later, Joaquín told me how much fun he was having helping with her new volume! He has authored a long list of his own non-fiction books, and helping Susan weave a story of historical fiction seemed to delight his soul.

Hotel Belmar is told in first person by Lori, a foreign resident of Mazatlán who enjoys her morning coffee on the ocean-facing terrace of the 100-year-old Hotel Belmar in Centro Histórico—the beloved yet long-neglected beauty of a hotel filled with hand-painted ceramic tiles imported from Europe and hand carved woods from around the world. If you have not spent an hour or more exploring the Belmar, you owe it to yourself to do so!

Lori becomes intrigued by snippets of stories about Hollywood stars, Carnaval queens, governors, generals and even presidents of the country, all seeming to revolve around the hotel. Then, one day, she senses a spirit in the hotel; could it be one of the ghosts her friends who live in the hotel have told her about? But, she doesn’t believe in ghosts!

I am an avid reader of historical fiction, but it never would have crossed my mind to write a novel about the Belmar that would both entertain and educate the reader about its elegant and storied past. Sue had that vision and executed it very well. My dream would be that this novel would catch on with such popularity that we might see this architectural and historic gem restored to its former glory.

Any resident of Mazatlán will recognize quite a few of the characters in the book: those who call the rooms of the Belmar home, and those who dine and dance on her patios. Local expats will identify with Lori’s life: her friendships with locals as well as other expats, visits of friends from up north, her curiosity and ongoing quest to figure things out. This is a quick and interesting tale, and in the process the reader learns a whole lot about local history, including Mazatlán’s mining heyday, visits from famous people, and mazatlecos’ role in the Mexican Revolution. Inside you’ll find quite a few historic photos and some very cleverly drawn chapter dividers.

Come on, folks. Take time this holiday season to put your feet up and enjoy a good ghost story set right here in Mazatlán. In addition to buying it online, you can purchase the novel locally at the offices of the Pacific Pearl in the Golden Zone, San Francisco Quilt Shop downtown, or at Susan’s house during the monthly downtown Art Walk.

30th Annual Chicken Breakfast!

Cuando es más grande el corazón que la necesidad

Each year for over thirty years Yolanda Medina, her family and friends have fed the neediest of Mazatlán’s families at Christmas time in what is called “The Chicken Breakfast/Desayuno de los Pollos.” A multicultural group of Mazatlecos, Canadians and Americans have fed 2500 families/year, including a whole chicken, pantry items that last about a week, gently used clothing, bedding, coats, shoes and new toys.

THIS SATURDAY December 7th is the annual fundraiser breakfast. Tickets are 250 pesos and include a ticket for the raffle. The breakfast will be held at the Cruise Ship Dock, API, in front of the OXXO on Av. Gabriel Leyva. Start time is 8:30 am and it usually continues till about 11 am. Please join us! For tickets contact me, Jeanette Leraand, or Jorge Medina (speaks English well) on his mobile, (669) 110-0744. You can purchase tickets at the door.

In addition to the breakfast and raffle there is a Christmas Bazaar, bake sale and silent auction. If you are unable to attend, please make a donation! 100% of the money goes DIRECTLY to the needy; we are all volunteers. If you have items to donate for our silent auction or bazaar, please contact me at 118-4114.

The gifting process is labor-intensive, but we want to reach Mazatlán’s neediest, and sometimes that’s not easy to do. We go out to the squatter colonies and visit each and every shack, to verify that the families are living there (some just put a house up in hopes of eventually getting free land) and to be sure we reach the elderly, handicapped and home-bound. Many of these families live in “homes” made of sticks or pallets covered with garbage bags or tarps, as they have no where else to go. Most do not have running water, electric or gas. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

The whole chickens we hand out normally are not roasted for Christmas dinner, as we might imagine, as these people have no ovens. The happy recipients usually boil the chicken in a pot over an open fire, and occasionally rotisserie it over an open flame. We serve elderly people whose children have abandoned them, unwed mothers with babies who’ve been kicked out of their homes, people on crutches, in wheelchairs, the blind and deaf. It is heartbreaking to see how these people live, and it completely makes Christmas to be able to help out a bit.

Please join us, donate bazaar or silent auction items or monetary support (you can donate money here). You can download a gift certificate here.

Also you are MOST welcome to join in early on the morning of December 24th to experience a WONDERFUL Christmas Eve morning by helping us hand out the food and clothing. Prior to Christmas, you can donate gently used clothing, blankets, coats, shoes or new toys. Drop off is at Quince Letras, Jorge Medina’s wrought iron workshop on Francisco Villa just down from the corner of Tampico. Detailed information can be found here.

 

National Ballet Director Invites You

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I’ve told you about this season’s “not-to-be-missed” ballet gala with lead dancers from Mexico’s best dance companies: the National Bellas Artes as well as the Ballet de Monterrey. They will be joined on stage by top students from two of Mexico’s leading ballet schools—in Veracruz and Monterrey—as well as from a local mazatlecan ballet academy.

The International Ballet Gala will take place on Sunday November 17th at 6:00 pm in the Angela Peralta Theater. It is a fundraiser for DIF Mazatlán, which helps families in need. Tickets are available at the Angela Peralta box office or by sending a WhatsApp to Carolina at +52-1-669-941-2550 and paying via PayPal. There is only one performance, so be sure to secure your good seats now.

On Monday I had the distinct pleasure and privilege to host the Director of the National Dance Company, Maestro Cuahutémoc Nájera, in our home. He and his wife make their home here in Mazatlán, and have high hopes for our local cultural and dance scene. He tells me how much he loves the Angela Peralta Theater, and how he performed there as a young dancer, before it was completely remodeled.

I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the maestro. He is very easy to talk to, charming, and down to earth, counter to the stereotype of so many talented artists. Below is the promo video for the event. Get your tickets now, as I’m confident this event will sell out.