Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Morelia!

After five action packed days in San Miguel raising awareness and funds for Sergio Castro, we said goodbye to Casa Luna and Team Sergio and hopped a cab to Celaya, where we'd board a bus to Morelia. And who did we call for the cab? You got it, Pedro the photographer, who informed us that he was a singer in a trio of four. We crooned our way through Sin Ti and Camino de Guanajuato right up to the bus station door.

L to R, Victor (aka: DJ XXX); Mayolo (king of late-night mariachi karaoke on the jardín), me (queen of the same), Jane, Consuelo, John, & Chelo's parents, Gloria and José.

Buses in Mexico are a beautiful thing, comfortable, clean, affordable, and on time. By mid-afternoon Jane and I were at the Hotel Soledad in downtown Morelia. I adore this place. I've been staying there since forever and it has always been a lovely, perfectly located, mid-priced hotel. The location still can't be beat, but now it's a superb and only slightly above mid-priced hotel. The new owner, Leticia, has some seriously good taste and the staff is just the best.
Drinks in the courtyard during a previous tour. Note the moat-like water feature around the fountain and remind me to tell you about the swim I took in it some time.

Jane hadn't spent more than a couple of hours in Morelia, so we set out to see the town. And eat a gaspacho. Yes, that's gaspacho with an S, not a Z. Don't blame me, I'm just telling you what's what, not why. Thing is, first taste and you won't care how it's spelled, your only thought will be "How soon before I can have another one?"

What is it, you ask? It's an only-in-Morelia flavor-saturated miracle of culinary bliss. Chopped pineapple, mango, and jicama piled in a plastic cup, topped with fresh orange and lime juices, grated cheese, and chile. It's sweet, saltly, rich, sour, bitter, hot as well as soft and crunchy all in the same bite. It's to die for. Just writing about it makes my salivary glands go nuts. Here's my recipe for making it at home.
The one in the middle has watermelon as well, but I'm a purist and go for the original. Extra chile, por favor.

Morelia-style Gaspacho
This is the classic version, but there are as many variations of this as there are Morelianos who make it. Some add watermelon, cucumber, I've even seen onion included (horrors!) The most important part of the recipe is that everything be evenly and finely chopped so that you always have a balance of ingredients in every bite.
Ingredients: (2 hefty portions)
1 cup of mango
1 cup of jicama
1 cup pineapple
6 teaspoons grated Cotija cheese
Valentina Sauce to taste
Salt to taste
Red/black chile, ground (Not SW chili powder, but ground chile, like chile de arbol or ancho. Toast and grind it yourself if need be.)
1 orange
1 lime

Chop the pineapple, mango, and jicama into small cubes of the same size and toss them together. Place about a third of the chopped fruit in two large plastic or glass cups. Top each with 1 teaspoon of the cheese, a splash of salsa, a sprinkle of ground chile, and salt. Repeat twice, and on the last layer squeeze the orange and lime over the fruit before you add the cheese, salsa, chile, and salt. Serve Valentina or Tapatio Sauce on the side.
I've heard tell of people pouring a chilled shot of tequila blanca over it., let me know if you try that.

So, back to Morelia...

Our gang of four - John from Connecticut, Susan from California, Jane, and me - finally all came to roost in Morelia late Friday night. On Saturday we piled into the rental car and headed west to Lake Camecuaro, where we would be spending the night tonight in order to be near the village of Patamban early on Sunday morning.

But first, a stop at Horno Los Ortiz, quite possibly the most creative bakery in Mexico. The bakery is wonderful any day of the year, but it really rocks during Day of the Dead, when Judith sets up her ever-growing display of bread figures that inhabit her "pan-teón." (Get it? PANteón?)

Judith and Hugo of Horno Loz Ortiz

Judith's fantastic bread figures in the Pan-teón

The Virgin of Guadalupe rendered in bread

We loaded up on tasty treats, but not before we heard the stories. Judith regaled us with humorous but poignant tales of how and why she created certain pastries: the Rollo de Canela con piquete (cinnamon roll with a splash of tequila) and the Guangoche, a packet of pastry stuffed with apple slices and cheese and tied with twine that looked like a burlap lunch bag. Both these pastries were dedicated to los mojados, wetbacks literally, but used by Judith to describe any Mexican living in the USA now.

The other remarkable artist we met that day was Jenya (short for Eugenia), Judith and Hugo's daughter, a seventeen year-old helper in the bakery who makes incredibly fine papel picado art. She brought out a piece she is currently working on, a Virgen of Guadalupe about 3-feet tall. Stunning!

Jenya with her latest work of art


It was now mid-afternoon and we'd made it exactly 1/2 mile from the hotel. My kind of pace.

Monday, November 7, 2011

On a mission in Mexico, Part 2

On Monday, October 24 (a mere two weeks ago, how can that be?) Jane and I met with John and Consuelo, the filmakers responsible for El Andalón, a documentary film on the work of my hero Sergio Castro, and Mary Murrell and Ivan Schuster, the couple behind the fund raising events for Sergio in San Miguel. Team Sergio was beginning to gel. Over cappuccinos on the jardín, we introduced ourselves to one another and learned more about the plan of events for the next few days.
(Note surprised look on the gal at the table on the left. I think she might have mistaken us for famous people.)

Sergio and his wife would arrive from Chiapas later that day. (What a coup to have them here; Sergio rarely travels away from San Cristóbal, where his many patients need him on a daily basis.) Patricia Ferrer, a physician's assistant from Tucson who travels to Chiapas twice a year for two weeks to work side-by-side with Sergio, would be in San Miguel late that night, along with her physical therapist friend Kathleen and the 200+ pounds of medical supplies they carried with them. They were both en route to Chiapas but had squeezed in two days in San Miguel to help with the fund raising events.
Patricia, arriving in San Miguel

Mary's local helpers Iri and Olivia were busy building forms on which the trajes would be displayed and with preparations of food and drink for over 100 people. More local pals were scheduled to take tickets and otherwise assist at both events. The San Miguel bilingual paper, Atención, had just run the second of Mary's beautifully written articles about Sergio's work and his upcoming visit. Posters were up around town, the buzz was building. Everywhere we went we talked about Don Sergio and El Andalón and people responded enthusiastically; two guests at Casa Luna, our gorgeous home-away-from-home in San Miguel, bought tickets for both events and went about spreading the word to others.

On Tuesday morning a visit to Patronato de Niños, a fabulously successful and venerable non-profit organization in San Miguel that provides free of low-cost medical and dental care to low-income children, was planned.

Tuesday afternoon Mary and Ivan would host a luncheon and planning session for Team Sergio at their home. Tuesday night was the first of the two public events scheduled: the screening of El Andalón at the Angela Peralta Theater. Wednesday the Sala Quetzal at the Biblioteca was reserved for a showing of a portion of Sergio's
traje collection. On Thursday Sergio and Elsa would head back to Chiapas, Patricia and Kathleen would be there to greet them, and they'd be back at work helping and healing by Friday.

Our days were full. I was engaged. Engaged as in a gear that was properly meshed, interlocked and interacting with the other moving parts - in this case, Team Sergio. It felt beyond enlivening.

Tuesday dawned clear and cool. Sergio and Elsa had arrived safely, Patricia and Kathleen and the 200+ pounds of supplies were also in town. We all met up for the Patronato visit, an inspiring time. Pedro, the taxi driver who brought us back to town, became our new best friend and member of Team Sergio and offered to take the group shots at the Mirador, coaching us into the best poses.
L to R, Consuelo, me, Sergio, Elsa, Patricia, Jane, Consuelo's parents Gloria and José, and Kathleen.
Photo by Pedro the taxi driver.

The luncheon was just lovely, Mary and Ivan's beautiful home a marvelous backdrop for our first gathering as Team Sergio.

All of us, in emails leading up to this meeting, had expressed our awareness that no matter what our own personal goals for Sergio were - a brick and mortar clinic, a proper museum on the main street in San Cris, establishing nonprofit status for organization, Yok Chij, etc.- our only real goal was to find out what he wanted and make a plan to get that for him.
Elsa and Sergio with their Welcome Cake

Once the dessert plates were cleared we slowly segued into meeting mode. We asked Sergio what we wanted and needed. It wasn't easy for him; he talked about how hard it was to predict the future, to see past the immediate needs of each day - shelter and food for his family, medical supplies for his patients, and transportation for him to reach them. I was aware of how difficult this conversation must have been for him, a humble guy just trying to do his work because, as he says, "What else would you do?" sitting at a table with eight eager friends who really want to help. I, for one, can be pretty intense in a situation I am passionate about, and I was most definitely passionate about this. I attempted to lower my energy level so as to not overwhelm.

Eventually Sergio found a safe spot and began to share. What emerged was the crystal clear need: financial security, both immediate and long term. We compiled a laundry list of very specific items needed and their monetary value. Into focus came the amount of $72,000 pesos needed to get things up to speed. We then looked at Sergio and Elsa's monthly expenses - rent, utilities, food, medicines, transportation to the villages six days a week - and settled on the amount of $4000 USD per month needed to keep things running for the long term.

Miss Pep Club that I am, I encouraged us to rally around the $72,ooo peso (about $5500 USD) figure as a goal for our time together in San Miguel. "Si, se puede!" I called out, and the gang joined in.

The screening was wonderful. Eighty-one people were in attendance and all eighty-one clearly felt the love. During the Q&A after the film the questions focused on "What more can we do to help?" We raised $15,000 pesos that night in ticket sales, DVD sales, and a spontaneous passing of the hat. The surprise of the evening was Sergio and Elsa's attendance. They came up on stage toward the end and Sergio spoke to the group in impassioned Spanish, explaining his mission to help very clearly:"I trust in God, he entrusts me with a gift to heal, and so I do."

Don Sergio on stage with John, Patricia, Elsa, and Consuelo after the Tuesday night screening.

Wednesday evening found us at the Sala Quetzal, putting together the trajes on the stands that Iri had made. They looked absolutely stunning in the context of the room; they formed a border above which David Leonardo's bold mural floated.
A printed guide of the trajes was available and people walked their way through the exhibit at their own pace. In the courtyard, Sergio and Elsa greeted people, and the crowd grew. Olivia's team served a gorgeous selection of botanas and an excellent sangria. We raised $5,400 pesos in ticket and DVD sales, and donations of $1,200 USD were received, with the promise of more to come. An exciting night.

And now, the good news.

The results of our fund raising events in San Miguel are as follows:

October 25 screening of El Andalón: $15,000 pesos
October 26 reception and traje exhibit: $5,400 pesos
Other donations ($2700 USD donations made at and after the events) $35,910 pesos
IF Foundation ($990 USD from event by Food in the Hood in Santa Cruz, CA) $13,167 pesos
My Mexico Tours' peeps donations $2000 pesos
Patricia's friends' donation $1330 pesos
Total $72,807 pesos

¡SI, PUDIMOS! We did it. We met and topped the $72,000 peso goal.

Aside from the joy of hitting the mark, I am touched beyond words at the contributions that came from so many of you who weren't there in person in San Miguel but were most definitely there in spirit: Tereza and the whole Food In The Hood family; the IF Foundation, which has taken Don Sergio under their wing quite literally, allowing people to now donate through a US-based non-profit organization; Patricia's generous friends in Tuscon (whom it turns out I met years ago at the B&B), and the many friends of My Mexico Tours who allowed me to be there and sent money directly to Sergio as well. Bravo and mil gracias to each and every one of you.

Tereza's darling daughters, who cooked, served, and cleaned up at the June Food in the Hood event in Santa Cruz.

The monthly $4000 USD is a bit more complicated and will take some work. Monthly pledges from supporters might be the way to go. Allowing people to "join" Team Sergio, now known as Amigos del Andalón, via his web page would raise funds little by little while building a community of like-minded supporters of his work. A grass roots movement to show the film and raise money among friends and colleagues seems a likely path to take. And without a doubt, a grant or the backing of a foundation would help immensely.

Aside from the concrete achievements produced during of our time in San Miguel, many important seeds were sown that will likely produce fruit down the road. Several people from within the Rotary Club were in attendance and expressed their desire to help Sergio through the Rotary, possibly with a car or other concrete items. A well-known professional photographer (NY Times, National Geographic) is planning a trip to San Cristobal to spend time with Sergio in January, giving us a good chance of wide coverage for Sergio. Contacts were made with at least two large foundations who expressed interest in sharing Don Sergios' work with their boards. At least two people I spoke to have offered to go to Chiapas in the coming year and provide hands-on help. These are just the results I'm aware of, I'm certain there are more wheels turning out there that we have yet to discover.

A few of the Amigos del Andalón, celebrating after the screening.

Our work is cut out for us. And we're ready. We met for the first time as a team just two short weeks ago, and we left as partners, Amigos del Andalón. We each have something unique to bring to the table and we worked together brilliantly. We share a vision that is bigger than ourselves yet completely achieveable, and we're committed to sharing that vision so that everyone may participate in helping Don Sergio to continue with his work.

It's a rare and beautiful thing to be able to help such a purely good cause. Please visit any time you'd like a hit of the joy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On a mission in Mexico, Part 1

I'm in San Miguel de Allende today, on a mission to support a fundraising event for a man I admire greatly. I'm here with Jane, my dear friend and former art teacher who first introduced me to Mexico in 1994, and my film maker friends from Veremos Productions, John Speyer and Consuelo Alba-Speyer. I plan to share the day-to-day excitement of this visit, but first, some background...

Many of you have met my hero in Chiapas, Sergio Castro. The excuse to meet Sergio is his private museum, filled with an extraordinary collection of trajes (costumes or outfits) from many Maya villages of Chiapas. The reason to meet Sergio is to know that hope, love, and compassion are alive and well and sporting a cowboy hat and boots.
LinkSergio Castro Martinez, photo by Veremos Productions

I met Sergio in about '98, on my first visit to Chiapas. My pal Jane, a voracious reader of guide books, found mention of him in a piece about San Cristóbal, where we were headed. Intrigued with the idea of seeing so much indigenous art under one roof, we called the number listed. And called again. And again. It seemed that Sergio Castro was never at home; he was clearly a very busy man. On day three we were told he would be in town at 7pm that night and we could meet him then to see the collection.

We knocked on the green door on Guadalupe Victoria promptly at 7pm and were greeted by Sergio himself. Ushered into the room of trajes and a group of 12 other tourists, he explained to us in English that he would be giving the tour that evening in French. (We later learned that he also speaks Italian, English, his native Spanish, and several of the many Mayan languages of Chiapas.)

The outfits were remarkable; colorful, intricate, varied, hand crafted, all extraordinarily well made. He walked us through the exhibit, explaining the significance of the colors, the patterns, the accessories (an armadillo purse, a black stick, a beribboned straw hat). It was fascinating and enlightening, an anthropological look at the people of Chiapas through their clothing that would have taken us a lifetime to learn on our own. Sergio was passionate, knowledgeable, and a brilliant communicator. As it turns out, we had only just begun to know this remarkable man.

After viewing the trajes Sergio led us into a makeshift theater in a back room, offered us a box of store-bought cookies, asked someone to turn off the lights, and flipped the switch on the projector. The film flickered to life. Only then did we learn of his work, his passion, his mission: providing the poor of Chiapas with health care, clean water, and schools. For free. Funded with pesos from his own pocket and those he could crib together from donations made by tourists like us who came to see the trajes. We were blown away. We wiped the tears from our eyes, waited for the goosebumps to abate, and happily stuffed the donation box with our pesos. We were card carrying members of Team Sergio from that moment on.

When I started My Mexico Tours in 2003 my mission was to share my Mexico - the art, food, places, and people I had come to know and love - with others. Sergio, and his collection and his work, were high on the list of things to share. The Chiapas tour groups have enjoyed seeing the textiles and learning about the various indigenous groups in Chiapas and they adore meeting my charismatic, humble, maverick friend Sergio. Then they see his film and learn about his work. There's not a dry eye in the room as the lights come back on, and without exception they all turn to me and say "How can we help?" I point to the donation box and they generously join Team Sergio. Some have helped with the actual day-to-day work of visiting the rural villages, carrying Sergio's bags, assisting as we dresses wounds, or maybe just holding a patient's hand. Others have sent medical supplies. Many continue to fund his work with financial contributions to his foundation, Yok Chij.

John Speyer and Consuelo Alba, two travelers who visited Chiapas with me in 2009, have taken the message of Don Sergio's good work and made a movie. A really good movie. A movie that captures the soul of this remarkable man and puts it out there for all to see, allowing more and more people everywhere to know about and contribute to Don Sergio's work.

El Andalón, by Veremos Productions, will be shown tonight here in San Miguel and that's what brings Team Sergio together with a mission in Mexico. I am honored and thrilled to be here to help this purest of causes. Details to follow...