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.

I’ve Seen Carnaval Future…

Ironically, change can sometimes be the best way to honor tradition. And holding inspiration and love for tradition in your soul can bring about the most remarkable innovations and creativity. This year, CULTURA Mazatlán’s desire to bring in younger, fresher, more modern and innovative blood has been a surprising and welcome way to honor our community tradition—what the protagonist of this story calls our “religion.”

You will have heard of Ocean Rodriguez, the young mazatleco who left town 14 years ago to make it big in set design in Mexico City and who has come home to be one of three Carnaval float designers this year. The new city administration has been singing his praises so highly since coming into office that my response to meeting him was, honestly, skeptical. Were we about to meet another over-confident ego? Thankfully that was not at all the case. And, after our community disappointment with the monigotes, I know many of you are worried about the quality of the parade this year.

Touring Ocean’s workshop with him took our breath away, and I don’t say that lightly. We saw intricately detailed, lifelike sculptures, painted in vivid colors and finished in the glitter that is a requirement of a mazatlecan Carnaval parade. We saw a bit of Las Vegas, in the way lightbulbs were used to add flare to large letters. We were awed by moving parts and mechanisms, including machines and a whale spouting. A successful set designer, as Ocean told us, is part “architect, sculptor, mechanic, painter and carpenter,” a jack of all trades or a renaissance artist. I am posting photos of details, only, as CULTURA has requested the press not post photos of Carnaval floats before the parade, so that the public can be surprised and delighted. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

 

Talking with Ocean was a delight. He treasures the uniqueness of Carnaval de Mazatlán deep in his soul, in a manner remarkably similar to that of Maestro Rigo—the designer of our parade floats for 54 years. Ocean, in fact, credits Rigo as his earliest professional inspiration—standing on the street in awe, along with the rest of Mazatlán—of those Barroque-style carros alegóricos was one of the huge joys of his childhood. His grandmother, Emilia Zatarraín, would take him and his cousins to the parade. She was “muy carnavalera,” and from December till Mardi Gras would save egg shells to make cascarones filled with confetti and serpentine, giving each of her grandchildren a “Carnaval kit” every day during the maximum fiesta of our port. Ocean is dedicating the eight floats he is building this year to her memory. And, while the city points to the Lewis family’s creations as honoring Maestro Rigo’s legacy, I believe you can add Ocean’s eight floats to that list. In Ocean’s creations we saw the details, complexities and whimsical surprises that we had been fortunate to witness every year in Maestro Rigo’s workshop, but updated, made with modern techniques, feeling familiar and yet very fresh and new. Kudos and thanks to you, Ocean!

Perhaps most surprisingly is that his workshop was relaxed, joyful. There was none of the last-minute panic, the long days and nights of endless work, that we were so used to experiencing in a Carnaval float workshop. It may have been show, but I believe it’s thanks to the wonders of 3-D printing and modern rendering, as opposed to the gorgeous yet time-consuming artistry of papier maché. Most of the pieces of all eight floats appeared to be nearly ready to assemble, calmly and ahead of schedule!

This year is a dream come true for this young mazatleco, whose most fervent desire is to make his birthplace his home. Having raised a son here who shares that most heartfelt of desires, I know how limited the options for making a living in Mazatlán can be, and sincerely hope that Ocean, who is building a house here, will make Mazatlán his base and continue his internationally renowned career from here. Ocean graduated from ICO, is divorced, and has all his family here in town. He’s designed sets for movies, television (Shark Tank Mexico and many others) and musical tours (Yuri, Enrique Iglesias, David Bisbal…), as well as commercials for some of the world’s most major brands (Pepsi, Burger King…) with the company he founded, Artefacto Sets. Below is one of their promotional videos.

 

Touring a Carnaval float workshop evokes emotions similar to what I imagine touring Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory must feel like. We visited Maestro Rigo’s workshop every year and have visited Maestro González Neri’s several times as well. During the tour you feel excitement, delight, surprise, amazement, wonder… There are lathes and saws to cut wood; there are drills and torches to form metal; turbines, elevators and mechanical pieces; there is tons of Styrofoam, paint, and glitter, glitter, everywhere glitter. People talk of men coming home with lipstick on their collars. From what I can tell, in this industry, you come home with glitter in your hair and styrofoam in places you don’t even want to think about.

I so wanted to take photos of the floats to show you. Sadly, I couldn’t. But they are truly incredible! You will be delighted! As Ocean guided us around he’d say things like, “these are the birds’ wings here and they will go onto the crow there, and the crows will then be mounted to fly over the trees here, and the trees go….” Your imagination soars. The other really impressive thing, to me, is how the floats have elevators and telescoping elements. You see, they are assembled in workshops, which are a certain height. They need to drive out, or, rather, be pulled out, through the door or gate. They assemble the floats in order on Aleman street, and that is a second height. Then, the main Avenida del Mar, cleared of all low-hanging wires and street lights, is a third height. So, all the tall elements telescope out in at least three sections, like the giant drum / cake on the Banda el Recodo float: one part fits into another and those fit into a third. The push of a button enables things to move.

 

The theme, “Equinox: Awakening the Senses” was evident in every aspect of Ocean’s floats, albeit in creative ways. We saw:

  • A shaman in the jungle, highlighting the importance of nature and the danger of climate change.
  • The seasons of spring (a marine scene), winter (an epic struggle with an octopus) and fall (leaves, the autumn moon, and a boat).
  • Huge numerals “80” for El Recodo’s 80thanniversary float.
  • Gigantic statue of Prometheus, the Greek god who gave humans fire.

Ocean is doing the section for the King of Carnaval—renamed this year from King of Joy. We saw a delightful boat with a working paddle wheel, made entirely out of wood. Ocean began designing his floats in early October, and began producing the parts later that same month. He hired trailers to transport them here to Mazatlán a month ago, when he arrived with his team to begin work here in town. He tells us, “No one knows Carnaval like a mazatleco. I have 25 years of my life living and breathing Carnaval. It’s been a lifelong dream to design these floats. But no one is a prophet in their hometown. I had to establish myself in Miami, Bogotá, La Havana, before I finally got to come home to do what I do. I don’t regret that it took so long; I’m ready.”

While Maestro Rigo did things artisanally, with handmade papier maché, in Ocean’s workshop we see auto-cat, plotters, 3D printers, unicel, fiberglass molds, resin—a much higher tech way of creating his intricate, realistic yet fantastical designs that are so unique and yet echo the soul of a Lewis Carnaval. The pieces are still finished up artisanally—hand painted, and adding the glitter is a laborious process. He has hopes that we will see real fire spouting from one of the floats, but that will depend on Protección Civil’s permission. “The finishing with this method is finer, like sculpture. We can get details like fingernails, gestures, how the fabric moves…” Ocean didn’t know Maestro Rigo, though he did meet him once, briefly, when he was younger.

 

So what about this religion stuff? Why does Ocean say that Carnaval is the mazatlecan religion? “I had doubts about using glitter on my floats. Didn’t really want to. So I asked a few people. Put the question up on my Facebook page. I couldn’t believe the ferocity of the response!!! People demanded their glitter, said it wouldn’t be Carnaval without it. They had a fit, like I was breaking a religious truth. Every mazatleco is an art curator of Carnaval floats. Everyone born here can distinguish a good float from a bad one, and critique its elements, tell you what’s missing. What do you call it, if not a religion, when people stand in line over 24 hours to get free tickets for the coronations? What do you call it when they put their chairs out three days ahead of the parade, and spend 24 hours per day guarding their space, if not a religion?”

Religion or not. Carnaval de Mazatlán rocks, and the 2019 parade looks to be no exception I trust you’ll join me, dancing in the streets!

This is the first in a series on the 2019 Carnaval de Mazatlán floats. The second, on the Lewis Family taller, is here. The third and final, about Jorge Osuna’s workshop, is here.

THANK YOU, Raul and team!!!!

DSC_9455Those of us living in Mazatlán are incredibly blessed to have had the past seven years straight with our outgoing Cultura (Instituto de Cultura, Turismo y Arte de Mazatlán) team. Tuesday night in the brand-new Sister Cities Park was a very fitting send-off for this enormously talented and dedicated team of world-class professionals. While they thanked Mazatlán, hundreds of mazatlecos attended to give them at least three standing ovations. While I am hopeful the incoming crew will step up and shine, I can honestly say I am in mourning thinking that the people I so value and esteem at Cultura are leaving. Insert a big sob here.

Pasión por la Música was a musical and pyrotechnic extravaganza that included live music from the Camerata Mazatlán, Pércival Álvarez conducting, and the Angela Peralta Chorus, who performed a selection of pop, classical and rock music choreographed to a multimedia show (Karla you are amazing), laser lights (David Olvera) and incredible fireworks (Jorge Márquez, who has done Combate Naval in recent years). Raul Rico, who has led our public arts scene for nearly three decades—as director of Codetur, Cultura, and various other arts and cultural institutions, with a few brief breaks during administration changes—directed festivities from the center of the park, surrounded by those working the sound and light boards. Seated at tables in the background with wait service were the VIPs attending the current international tourism fair, including Governor Quirino.

Carnavál is what it is today because of Raul Rico. He got involved in it in 1975 and has pretty much been in charge of it since 1987 (a few breaks with political shifts). He is Mazatlán’s own maestro de la alegría, master of joy. His goal has always been to grow the public, to bring arts and culture to the schools, to history, to people’s homes and hearts. And that he has done incredibly well. Under his leadership, Cultura events have grown to cover everything from opera and ballet to bandanorteña and folkloric dancing, art shows to book readings. Cultura puts on our annual Day of the Dead as well as Day of the Music festivities, the various cultural festivals, and so much more. Adults and children alike enjoy the performances, which take place in our gorgeous Angela Peralta Theater, Casa Haas, as well as in public parks, plazas, orphanages, libraries, or walking through the streets, downtown and in the farthest, poorest colonia. There is such a wealth of programming offered that no one person could possibly attend everything. Rico promises us he will remain actively involved in the arts and culture scene here in town; he will receive a pension for his over 25 years of service.

Cultura’s final administrative meeting reported that the current team is leaving 7.8 million pesos behind, 5.8 million earmarked for equipment for the Angela Peralta theater, including an LED screen, lighting console, firefighting equipment, interior communication and air conditioning for the galleries, and the rest to cover taxes and Institute operation for the next few months. The report details over 16 million pesos of investment into the theater under Raul’s leadership, and 900,000 pesos in instruments for the camerata. Last year they were responsible for 16 separate activities within the Tianguis Turístico, the national tourism fair, which dazzled the country and our international visitors.

The new city administration takes over November 1st. Incoming mayor is Luis Guillermo Benítez Torres (El Químico), a member of AMLO’s Morena party looking to transform this country. He has named Mazatlán-born movie director Oscar Blancarte as the new Director of Cultura. I very much hope he will bring new life and vision to our arts scene, building on what we already have. Blancarte has publicly said that he wants to make Cultura more inclusive, more participatory, and closer to the artists, building on the work Rico and team have conducted, and that he will take a three-year break from his film career to head the organization here.

Thursday November 1, 6:00 pm in the Plaza República, our new mayor and his cabinet will be presented. Entertainment for the party will be provided by Jesús Monárrez and the Camerata de Mazatlán; my favorite, La Falsa Orquesta Cubana; and the Ballet de Danza de Ángel Rivera.

The callejoneada or parade for Day of the Dead will take place on November 2nd this year, due to the changeover in city administration.

 

Bless You All!

8C_Exposici_n_2_1-203732Many thanks to all of you, the opening of my photo exhibition in the Galería Peralta on Thursday night broke the record for most people attending. It also signaled the opening of the Temporada Primavera, or Cultura Mazatlán’s Spring Season; my exhibit was the first event, a very nice honor!

I was completely overwhelmed with emotion at the outpouring of love and enthusiasm from such a huge crowd. I found it pretty difficult to get a sentence out, I must admit. With nearly 400 people there—a beautiful mix of foreign and local residents—the room got hot and we ran out of both wine and ceviche, and they closed the doors at 8 pm instead of 9 due to the crowd, but I believe most everyone enjoyed themselves. I joked with Greg that had I remembered to ask Padre Juan Jorge to give us a blessing, we would not have run out of wine!

The exhibition runs through 12 April, so please if you get a chance stop by the Angela Peralta theater and visit it on the second floor. Be sure to leave me a story or memory in the guest book if you would! The show is based on José Alfredo Jimenez’ “Corrido de Mazatlán,” our iconic Mazatlecan anthem.

I so appreciate Licenciado Raúl Rico and his staff at Cultura Mazatlán. From the moment Raúl first invited me to do an exhibit right through to the opening, they were nothing but supportive and wonderful, doing their best to realize my vision for the show. Raúl’s words of introduction were very encouraging. He told those in attendance that he felt my photos express a unique view of Mazatlán, capturing the soul of the place and its people, but from a perspective quite different from the normal.

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Most of all I appreciate my beloved partner in life, Greg. I am so incredibly blessed to be married to someone so loving and supportive! He usually is with me when I take photos, and has saved me from many buses, a crocodile, and thieves. On opening night he made a marvelous palm tree to dress up the refreshments table.

I did a lot of media interviews pre-opening, including my first live TV interview in Spanish (yikes!), and there were loads of media present during the opening as well. I really like the article that Héctor Guardado did in the Noroeste newspaper, because they took photos of many of my subjects standing in front of their photos. Noroeste also interviewed those subjects, which I urged everyone attending the opening to do. Please check it out. I post some of the photos from Noroeste and Cultura below; click on any pic to enlarge or view a slideshow.

Mario Martini over at Paralelo23 also wrote a very nice article. I sadly don’t have copies of the television interviews, but here is one from Cultura. Skip that opening thumbnail, please, lol!