Mar 31, 2008

Catemaco toilet training

Anyone familiar with the provinces of Mexico may have noticed the pervasive stench of feces and urine in many locales off the tourist track or even along it.

Public sanitation is not one of the priorities in Mexico. Touristic communities depend on private providers to collect their daily bread from tourists spreading their cheeks. Since many of those in-country tourists barely afforded the bus fare, the frequent choice is ablution in public places.

But it is not only the tourists. Communities stage mega events, inviting 100's or thousands of people without providing sanitary facilities.

Beautiful downtown Catemaco, Veracruz is no different. Sewage problems dating back 10 or more years are ignored, and sponsored municipal and private events oblige vistors to use the waters or beaches of Laguna Catemaco.

My attention focused on this absolute necessity when reading an internet survey from Diario del Istmo, a major newspaper in a neighboring city, with several miles of municipal beaches. When asked whether to construct public bathroom facilities, 3000, almost half of the internet respondents, answered "NO".

I think I made my point about Mexico lack of interest in public sanitation.

Mar 29, 2008

Catemaco smoke

Mexico used to be one of the last remnants in the world allowing smokers to blow carcinogenic substances into their neighbor's face.

For that matter, a group of ladies at a local hangout in beautiful downtown Catemaco, chided me as a damn gringo polluting their atmosphere on an open air patio, while two blocks away, shit was rolling down the street from inadequate sewers.

So now, after tolerating 50% increases in my vice, I find out I may actually be generating an increase to the Mexican economy.

Background: The price of cigarettes to consumers in Mexico, and Latin America in general, remains low in comparison with other regions of the world. In Mexico, taxes represented 59% of the total price of cigarettes in 2006, compared to 75% or more in many high-income countries. The feasibility of raising taxes on cigarettes in Mexico—to both discourage consumption and increase revenues—is an important policy question.

Methods: Using household survey data, we undertake a pooled cross-sectional analysis of the demand for cigarettes in Mexico. We use a two-part model to estimate the price elasticity of cigarettes. This model controls for the selection effect that arises from the fact that the impact of price on the decision to smoke or not is estimated using all households in the dataset.

Results: The results indicate that price is a significant factor in household decisions concerning smoking and the number of cigarettes smoked. Holding other factors constant, our simulations show that a 10% increase in the cigarette tax in Mexico—calculated as a percentage of the price—yields a 12.4% increase in the price to the consumer, a 6.4% decrease in consumption of cigarettes and a 15.7% increase in the revenue yielded by the tax.

Conclusion: In Mexico, there are strong arguments for increasing cigarette taxes. Revenue raised could be used to further prevent tobacco consumption and to finance current funding shortages for the treatment of diseases related to smoking.

Mar 28, 2008

Bobbi died in Catemaco

A truck killed him.

200 meters of barbed wire fence, reinforced with sheep wire did not keep him in. He wanted the wilds of biting the tires of trucks passing in front of his terrain.

I miss him, and probably so does my pinche perra, my remaining complacent dog.

Bobbi was with me for almost 3 years. Adopted as a street dog, he was known around Catemaco as a street fighter, loving to take a bath in the laguna, and rolling himself in any dead carcasses he could find.

Although I frequently held my nose on approaching him and tolerated his growls, he was part of my family, and I miss him.

This is my last photo of Bobbi, about 2 weeks ago, doing what he loved.

Catemaco in the New York Times

These northern editors apparently tired of Hillary and Hussein bashing and sent a reporter to beautiful downtown Catemaco, Veracruz.

And he fell for the brujo mystique, raw eggs, holy water, bad vibrations and all. He even stuck in a slideshow.

New York Times: Travelers in Search of Mexico’s Magic Find Town of Witches and Warlocks.
Apparently the article was moved to the registered visitor page or something, so here is the reprint.

Travelers in Search of Mexico’s Magic Find Town of Witches and Warlocks
CATEMACO, Mexico — To kill a man, Alejandro Gallegos García explains, all you need is a black cloth doll, some thread, a human bone and a toad. Oh, and you must ask the devil permission, in person, at a cave in the hills where he is said to appear.
Assuming you have these things, plus the green light from the prince of darkness, you simply lash the doll to the bone, shove it down the unfortunate toad’s throat, sew up its lips and take the whole mess to a graveyard, reciting the proper words.
“The person will die within 30 days,” Mr. Gallegos said matter of factly, as if he were talking of fixing a broken carburetor. (The toad dies too, by the by.)
“There exists good and bad in the world, there exists the devil and God,” he went on, turning a serpent’s fang in his rough fingers. “I work in white magic and in black magic. But there are people who dedicate themselves only to evil.”
Mr. Gallegos, 48, is a traditional warlock, one of dozens who work in this idyllic town, nestled near the Gulf of Mexico by Lake Catemaco in the state of Veracruz. Like most witches here, he melds European and native traditions in his work, a special brew of occultism he learned from his uncle.
His cramped cement workroom holds an image of the Virgin Mary and a large crucifix with a bloodied Jesus. A six-pointed star is painted on the floor, with a horseshoe to one side and a St. Andrew’s cross on the other. Candles dedicated to various saints crowd his table, most with photographs lashed to them. Some are photos of men and women whom the client wants to ensnare in love. Others are of barren women who want children. Others are of people with maladies from asthma to cancer.
Beneath the table Mr. Gallegos keeps ragged boxes full of herbs, bark and roots that have been used in these parts for medicinal purposes since before Hernán Cortés was a gleam in his great-great-grandfather’s eye.
He has dead bats, used in certain love charms, and ground-up rattlesnake, for curing illnesses. He uses oils extracted from lizards and turtles, the dried tongues of certain fish, coyote skin, eggs, chickens, holy water from the church and less-than-holy water from the lake. He knows dozens of local plants and their attributes. And he wields the tooth of a venomous snake.
“This goes back to ancient times,” he said. “There were witches here before the Spanish. Here there is a mix of everything, even of God.”
Catemaco is known throughout Mexico as a center for witchcraft and, to the dismay of some hard-core practitioners, magic has become a big tourist draw. The town holds an International Congress of Witches on the first Friday of every March.
During the event, a black mass is held at the mouth of the cave where the devil supposedly loiters. An oversize six-pointed star — they call it a Star of David — is set alight, to the delight of photographers. Politicians show up to receive amulets for good luck at the polls. Believers flock to the town to have their auras cleansed.
Sandra Lucía Aguilar, a 25-year-old cashier, traveled 22 hours by bus from Cancún for the black mass. A few days later she found herself in the waiting room of a popular witch doctor known as “The Crow,” hoping for a little black magic to force her errant boyfriend to return.
“I lived with him for five years, and then, overnight, he ran off with another woman,” she said. “I want him back. He humiliated me a lot and I want to humiliate him.”
The Crow turns out to be a slick-looking fellow named Héctor Betaza Domínguez, who wears white guayabera shirts and sits in a candlelit room among effigies of La Santa Muerte, a Mexican icon resembling the grim reaper in drag.
Mr. Betaza says people come to see him from all over Mexico and from major cities in the United States with large Mexican communities. Many simply want “una limpia,” or cleansing, to ward off evil spirits. But a majority of the complaints are broken hearts.
Asked where he learned his craft, Mr. Betaza, who calls himself a “master of occult sciences,” becomes evasive, muttering something about his mother having practiced magic. “This you don’t learn,” he said. “It’s something that you carry in the blood.”
Not everyone is convinced. The Rev. Tomás Alonso Martínez has the unenviable job of parish priest in a town best known as a haunt of the devil and witches. “It’s farce,” he said, “a lie, a fraud.”
In his five years in Catemaco, Father Martínez says he has seen so-called witches practice all sorts of confidence schemes, extracting money from gullible and vulnerable people.
One common trick is to tell someone he is hexed and then remove the hex for a fee. Another is to tell people they are sick, then offer them a traditional cure for an outlandish sum.
“They attribute to themselves power they cannot have,” the priest said. “The fundamental problem that exists with these people is that there are people who believe them. Anyone can set themselves up as a witch.”
Even Father Martínez acknowledges, however, that mixed in with the questionable practices are vestiges of a pre-Hispanic past. The use of Catholic saints also bespeaks a syncretism of beliefs, he notes.
In his church, an icon of the Virgin Mary sits in an alcove directly above and behind the altar. Before Mass, many go to the shrine and pass herbs over their bodies to cleanse themselves. Some leave pictures of loved ones, amulets and prayers.
That syncretism also emerged clearly when Mr. Gallegos performed a cleansing ritual on a recent afternoon. The client was a taxi driver named Santos Luna Cruz who wanted protection from envious rivals.
Stripped to the waist, Mr. Luna stood on a worn piece of velvet in the center of a chalk Star of David. Candles burned at each point of the star. A horseshoe was to one side, a St. Andrew’s cross to the other. Two glasses of water, believed to absorb evil spirits, were placed in front of him.
Mr. Gallegos sprinkled holy water, garlic and ammonia over him. Then, chanting the common Catholic prayer to “the father, the son and the Holy Ghost” and invoking a long list of saints, Mr. Gallegos held eggs to the man’s head and rubbed them over his body.
He scratched crosses with his serpent’s tooth on Mr. Luna’s face, arms, chest and abdomen. He took a live chicken and passed it over his client. He blew the holy water from his mouth in a fine spray at the man, and beat him with clusters of herbs.
When it was over, Mr. Luna, 34, grinned and ran his hand through his wet hair. “I felt very stressed out at first, but now I feel lighter, better,” he said. “I feel like he is taking away from my body the bad vibrations.”

Mr. Gallegos pointed to two eggs that broke during the ritual. “When the egg breaks, it is because it has absorbed the pain inside the young man,” he said.

Mar 22, 2008

You have to be nuts to go to Montepio

Montepio is the best known beach in Los Tuxtlas, about an hour from Catemaco, Veracruz.
Balzapote is a beach about 3 miles south from there. And both photos were taken today!

See more of the two beaches: - articles

Mar 19, 2008

Gypsies of Catemaco

Gypsies (gitanos) are called hungaros (Hungarians) in Mexico because the first large group of gypsies arrived in Mexico from Hungary. Gypsies began their westward migration out of India around 1000 AD possibly because of tribal mercenary commitments. Like many other migrant ethnic groups they faced discrimination, including 500 years of slavery in Romania and extermination in Nazi Germany and lately ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

Although the Gypsies call themselves Roma, their commonly used name derives from Egypt, actually Little Egypt, which is what the Spaniards called the Balkan states in the Mediterranean. They usually speak Spanish as well as their tribal dialects, practice Christian religions about as well as Mexican campesinos and their idols, probably hold Mexican Voter registration cards and are stereotyped as fortunetellers and swindlers just like in the USA.
Their nomadism is legendary and commemorated in operas (Carmen), movies, and folktales mothers use to scare their children.

Their first appearance in the Americas began with several Gypsy companions of Columbus, and continued in waves of immigration to countries like Brazil in 1574, the US, (more than 1 million by now) and also Mexico. During the French escapade in Mexico, the allied Austrian emperor exported numerous Gypsies to Mexico to help the French war effort.

In the early 1890´s another large tribe mostly from Hungary arrived intent on settlement. A few years later a second group of gypsies, known as Ludar, arrived intending to cross the US border but apparently preferred the Mexican climate. By 1993 an estimate placed 53,000 hungaros in Mexico mostly in Mexico City and Guadalajara. Zapoapan in Jalisco seems to be their largest community with upward of 50 families living there. In 2001, the Ludar tribe of Gypsies published its memoirs, La lumea de noi. Memoria de los ludar de México.

Hungaros discovered Catemaco, Veracruz in the early 1990's. Other Mexican tourist communities also have influxes of panhandling hungaros (mostly women) and practice the same alarmist counter tactics to evict them as Catemaco has tried various times in the past.

Considering the Catemaco reputation as a haven for brujos (sorcerers), I think it´s kind of nice to see troops of hungaras (women Gypsies) in their long colorful beachwear (or maybe that is traditional costume) accosting tourists on the Malecon to read their palms and peddle chintzy good luck amulets. After all, you never see an identifiable Catemaco brujo walking down the street casting spells.

Update: In early 2010 the "hungaros" left Catemaco, supposedly because of extorsion and kidnapping threats by so called local "zetas".  In late April, a few seem to have returned to challenge their lucrative turf. I wish them luck.

Mar 11, 2008

Women Sold in Southern Veracruz

On your next trip to Catemaco and Los Tuxtlas, bring along some spare change and pick up a nice little souvenir. Of course, it may not fit your baggage.

This recent article from a local newspaper highlights an outrageous practice still common in parts of Mexico. (Excerpted and loosely translated from Spanish).

In the 21st century the sale of women in the state of Veracruz is on the rise, stated the chairman of the State Commission of Human Rights who elaborated that the practice occurs more frequently in southern part of the state, where even parents exchanged their daughters for crops, livestock or money.

On this International Women's Day he claimed that little progress has been made related to human rights for women. This outrageous situation persists and affects females vulnerable to violence in all its forms, and who in some communities still are seen as a mere commodity subject to barter.

The majority of them are minors, whose own family surrender them to strangers to get some economic advantage, no matter what their fate will be, subjecting them to become mere sex objects who are beaten, humiliated, forced to do chores and inappropriate practices.
Source: Diario del Istmo - Spanish

Mar 3, 2008

Official Brujo announcement

Veracruz state and municipal authorities announced that from March 6 to 8 the Congreso de Brujos ( Conference of witches) will take place in the region of Catemaco, Veracruz, Mexico.

In a press conference State Secretary of Tourism, Ivan Hillman Chapoy, explained that during the holidays up to eight thousand tourists are expected to visit who may leave an economic spill of one million pesos.

Among the activities to be undertaken this First Friday of March in one of the most emblematic and mystical parts of the state are included a Black Mass, a very ancient tradition, which will be performed in the foothills of Cerro del Mono Blanco (White Monkey Mountain).

Abdicated former Brujo Mayor (chief witch) Pedro Gueixpal Cobix, explained that the congress will be managed by twelve witches from the area who will conduct personal spiritual cleanings, a mass cleaning in the waters of Laguna Catemaco, numerous ceremonies, dances and lectures by anthropologists.

The Mass will be headed by the current Brujo Mayor Luis Cruz Sipriano "El Indio" and will be in the form of a circle called Steps of Salomón or Star of David. The circle and purification ceremony will be formed by seven acolytes, surrounded by fire fueled with sulfur, along with a black chicken, black cats, a lamb, and giant candles.

Source: Translation of

Mar 1, 2008

Mexican Crackers

Although most Mexicans are aware of the US political states, and probably have a cousin or two working in some of these states, acceptance of a state description, such as el texano, or el rhode islandiano, never made it into the Mexican mainstream.

If it barely speaks Spanish, it's a gringo. And that includes anyone looking or acting non-Mexican, such as French, German or Croatian visitors. Once known, the not-US folks get their own national hooks, like el aleman, el italiano, or etc.

Use of the tem "gringo" is not derogatory in Mexico, except in aggressive conversations usually accompanied by other qualifiers such as "pinche, chingado, or something similar.

The origin of the word "gringo" is hotly debated mostly by other gringos. But no consensus has been reached. Some reach back to Latin and its pejorative of "griego" (used as foreigner) supposedly bastardized to "gringo". Some others claim the term to be related to a popular song during the first US invasion of Mexico "Green grow the lilacs....".

Chauvinism in most cases prohibits the use of "American" for a gringo. After all, supposedly all this continent's people are Americans, although even Amerigo Vespucci in 1547 who is responsable for the name never called anyone that.

Surprisingly though, gringos have been very inventive when addressing Mexicans, usually derogatory, ranging from "beaners" and "spicks" to "wetbacks".

The Mexican chattering classes meanwhile have only made very few functional responses such as "yanki imperialista", but they have never achieved the quality of the black American insults such as "honkey", "white devil" or "cracker".

There seems to be room for the expansion of colloquial Mexican to describe those northern devils.

Catemaco as a second language

Language schools are a flourishing business in Mexico in two versions, teaching English and learning Spanish.

Beautiful downtown Catemaco, Veracruz would be an ideal place for an SASL (Spanish as a second language) location. It is beautiful enough, (some even say magical) and has enough barely used hotel rooms and restaurants, and enough friendly people to victimize with broken Spanish language phrases.

Those seeking to learn Spanish should also be eagerly welcomed by those teaching English in Catemaco. I unfortunately met a "maestra" in charge of teaching English at a local high school, whose command of English was equivalent to my command of Croatian of which I know two words.

As for those wanting to learn Spanish, I know several graduates of two week immersion courses that have been able to say "taco" in Spanish. Now that may be different in some of the more advanced learning centers in Mexico, where degreed students actually learn how to say "enchilada".

The last Spanish language school in Catemaco folded a few years ago, possibly because the Austrian owner's students kept confusing strudels with tortillas.

This should be a wake up call to an enterprising English teacher, wanting to learn Spanish, and looking to spend the rest of his life in one of Mexico's most marvelous locations, contribute to the economy of a third world pueblo, and hopefully earn enough money to occasionally eat giant shrimp (mayacastes) in the foothills of the volcanoes of the Sierra Santa Marta.