Tag Archive: expat blog Mexico

Few contrasts between American and Mexican cultures are more striking than the way in which each views and treats its senior citizens.

Two old acquaintances share a bench on Ajijic's plaza.

Old friends share a bench on Ajijic’s plaza.


America’s seniors are often cloistered in assisted living facilities or nursing homes far from family and friends.


Mexico’s oldest – los ancianos – seem more often vibrant alive and interactive, and are notably present in its public life nowhere more than in its villages.





A ritual gathering of viejos on Chapala's plaza.

A ritual gathering of los viejos on Chapala’s plaza.



It’s hard not to see the paradox in these contrasts.


American has a far superior capacity to maintain its seniors’ quality of life, and has taken great pains to make transportation and public use facilities accessible to its disabled.


It has also segregated its seniors from the social mainstream on a wide scale.



Two old friends await the start of Good Friday's Passion play in Ajijic

Two old friends await the start of Good Friday’s Passion play in Ajijic

The paradox is a reflection of the two nations’ cultural perspectives.


In Mexico, ‘family’ trumps ‘generation gap’.


Mexicans are far more likely to respect and cherish their oldest generation and revere it for its wisdom and life experience.

Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec's malecon

Three generations walk arm in arm along Jocotopec’s malecon


Many among the current crop of los ancianos are the children of those who participated in the century-old Mexican Revolution.


They’ve witnessed and lived history as it’s unfolded through the greatest social transformation in the nation’s history.

Two generations sit in Chapala's plaza

Two generations sit in Chapala’s plaza


American media’s fixation on youth marginalizes its oldest save for the rich, powerful, or otherwise famous.


The result is that America’s aged seem more often perceived by their offspring as an unpleasant reminders that they, too, will in due time grow unfashionably old and less socially relevant.

A vieja labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

An abuelita labors over her craftwork in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán


Particularly in Mexican village life, los ancianos remain connected to lifetime friends and many live within their extended families.



The artisan looks up from her work in satisfaction.

The artisan maestra looks up from her work in satisfaction.


There’s a lot to suggest that this lifelong connectedness affords them greater comfort in their advanced age.

Americans move further and more often from their place of birth than do those living in any other First World nation, with the result that they more often live far from the oldest among their living relatives.

A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

A sister with walker on a sidewalk in San Juan Cosalá

Affordable senior care facilities make it far easier for American families to live separately from their aged relatives.

A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

A vieja waits patiently for a ceremony to begin in Ajijic

Maybe there’s also something also to be said for lifestyle when it comes to keeping Mexico’s ancianos animated and mobile.

A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala

A viejo walks a cobblestone street in Chapala


A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

A viejo walks his bicycle along the street in Chapala

Economic necessity and a thinly stretched social safety net keep many Mexicans working into advanced age, but the work seems to leave many no worse for wear and sometimes even to hold disability at bay.

A lifetime of meals simply and sparingly prepared has left many lean wiry.

A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

A vieja shrouded in shawl crosses the plaza in San Cristóbal Zapotitlán




It’s not unusual to see these ancianos navigate dauntingly high curbs and cobblestone streets to remain a daily village presence on its sidewalks, in its public spaces, and at its public events.

An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter's quinceañera

An abuela eyes a pinata at her grandaughter’s quinceañera


In the end, though, nothing can better capture the special place that Mexico’s ancianos occupy in its social fabric than their images.

She lights up when her granddaughter enters the room

The abuela lights up when her granddaughter enters the room


Home grown arte

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 09

The moment that I walk through the doorway of Colon #15 only a few blocks from San Cristóbal Zapotitlán’s central plaza, I realize that the Ostrich Ranch tour is about to be displaced as the high point of my trip.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 08The house is unassuming, a stucco home not unlike many others on the street.   Only a hand lettered sign next to the front door gives any hint of what’s within:


Palm Baskets & Corn Husk Crafts

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 10

The rooms are typically small, the walls stuccoed and the floors tiled.


The house is sparsely furnished except for a well-worn display cabinet and shelves on which stands a virtual army of intricately fashioned miniature figures, dozens of woven baskets, and vibrantly lifelike artificial flowers.


San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 11


A bride and her entourage stand in immaculate sepia before an unseen altar.



Lambs stand at the side of the manger in a Christmas crèche.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 13

In the next room bundles of palm leaves, sliced into narrow strips as tall as a man, stand drying.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 18

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 19

Another doorway opens onto a softly lit room with a ceremonial feel.  Selections of the handiwork sit on covered table and I move toward them for a closer look.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 16

Just to the side of the door behind me an ancient woman seated on a low stool is weaving the palm strips into a basket.

Her shoulders are stooped and her head bowed over sturdy fingers.  She wraps the palm tightly and densely to fashion trays, baskets, and vases that are at once pliable and sturdy.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 20

Two women seat themselves on a bench behind the table and a pile of dried and brightly colored corn husk leaves – hojas de maiz – and begin before my eyes to fashion the kinds of miniature figures seen in the front room tableaus.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 21

They work with a quiet intensity, their fingers so automatically folding and twisting and wrapping the leaves that their eyes seem less to guide than to observe.

Three generations of women have built and continue to work this cottage industry artisan enterprise.  Some of their photos hang on the wall of this room.

Back in the entry room Herlinda (I know her from Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market), is joined by a young woman and the two of them quickly begin another demonstration of their craft.
San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 29

The young woman threads small bits of violet corn husk together much as a sportsman might craft a fishing fly.  It turns into a flower, followed by another and another until she has crafted a small bouquet.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 32

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 26

Herlinda, beginning with a lollipop stick bit of palm and folded corn husk, fashions as I watch a tableau of a woman rowing a flower-festooned boat made of woven palm leaf.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 28



It’s clear that each of these women has developed a particular skill, and that the success of this cottage industry rests upon their ability to orchestrate their individual efforts to produce endless combinations of artisan eye candy that delight and inspire.

San Cristóbal Zapotitlán artisans 17

All of this is accomplished with apparent effortlessness, a genuinely collective spirit, and an obvious joy in the work.  It employs only human energy, and uses only natural, sustainable, and readily available raw materials.

Friday Artisans' Market 2012-11-23 17

Once you’ve seen the women and the work behind these artifacts, you’ll see their craftwork through entirely different eyes.

Click here for a map to San Cristobal

Click here for the account of my trip to San Cristobal’s Ostrich Ranch.

Facebook users can see more photos and get more details by clicking on these links:

San Cristobal Zapotitlan

Friday Artisan’s Market Ajijic, where you can meet some of these artisans and purchase their work weekly.

Sandra Luz, Friday Artisans Market Ajijic

Sandra Luz at Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market

I first meet Sandra Luz at in her market stall in Ajijic’s Friday Artisans’ Market surrounded by a seemingly eclectic combination of brightly colored feathers, candles and planters made of something too perfectly shaped to be gourds, and vials of something that looked like they came straight from a cosmetics counter.

She speaks even less English than I do Spanish. No surprise, then, that it takes conversation strung across a couple of market days before I fully understand that the brightly colored feathers are hand-dyed ostrich plumes,  that the curiously shaped candles and planters are emptied ostrich eggs sliced neatly in half, and that the vials contain a healing skin serum are made of essential oils rendered from – you guessed it – ostriches… las avestruces.

Then the story gets even more interesting.  It turns out that Sandra Luz and her husband Francisco raise the ostriches just outside the village of San Cristóbal Zapotitlán on the opposite side of Lake Chapala, and I soon find myself invited to visit the “Rancho de las Avestruces”.  I confess that for a moment an improbable image of sombreroed vaqueros herding a legion of Big Birds flashes through my head.

On the appointed day I stop in nearby San Juan Cosalá to pick up Martín, another Friday Artisan Market merchant who’s fluent in both English and Spanish, and soon we round the end of the lake and turn off the highway at a spot I’ve passed before without note.  In minutes the village of San Cristobal Zapotitlán appears, hugging the coastline unseen from the highway.

The town is neatly laid out around a plaza at one end of which omnipresent street vendors sell clothing, CD’s, and DVD’s.  At the opposite end a mother and child browse a florist’s stand  awash in Mexico’s native poinsettias, las flores de Nochebuena… the Christmas Eve flower.


Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Florist on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Weaving a fishing net on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán


Next to a canopy that covers an open-air foosball parlor made up of vintage tables, a man painstakingly weaves a fishing net from a spool of nylon line as deftly as if he was making a rug.

Another man sitting next to him watches, but hardly a word is spoken and I get the sense that they have long ago talked each other out during uncounted hours spent here together.

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Open air foosball parlor on the plaza, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The worn and weathered mechanical gaming tables are a nostalgic anachronism in an era of video games, and they remind me of my mis-spent college days.

Campanario of the parrish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Campanario of the parish church, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Towering above this entire scene is the campanario –the bell tower of the parish church – tiled in a distinctive checked pattern of blue and white.

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz's workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Dyed ostrich feathers, Sandra Luz’s workshop,San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

We stop by Sandra Luz and Francisco’s modest home, where she shows us the workshop corner in which she crafts her ostrich feather art and ostrich egg arrangements.

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostrich egg incubator, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

In an adjacent room, ostrich eggs the size of footballs sit in an incubator.  They weigh a hefty kilo or so. Francisco tells us that one of them is equal to 18 chicken eggs and makes an omelet which can feed an entire family.  He holds one of the eggs up to a light so bright that it shines through the shell to reveal if it’s to become an ostrich or an omelet.

Three-day-old ostrrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Three-day-old ostrich chick, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I’m still peering into the incubator when he suddenly appears holding an ostrich chick only three days old and already as big as a small chicken.  My curiosity whetted, I’m ready to see ostriches grazing on the open range… or whatever it is that ostriches do.

Back on the main highway we travel only a short distance before turning toward the mountain on a dirt road that even in this dry season is so rutted that my SUV creeps along behind their pickup truck.  Gates are unlocked and relocked as we pass through, ascending almost continuously for 20 minutes before the big birds suddenly appear, corralled in fenced pens that cover a space the size of a basketball court.

We step out of the car into a bracing breeze, and Francisco tells us that we are now 1,700 meters above the mile-high lake. There are more than a dozen of the birds, their long necks already craning in our direction as we approach.

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

The ostrich ranch, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Macho ostrich, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

One particularly large specimen quickly sets us straight on who rules the roost, dropping to his knees and swaying back and forth as he spreads his wings in a macho display.  The birds will peck harmlessly at a stranger who ventures too close to the fence, but Francisco tells us that it’s the kick from their 25-pound-drumstick legs that can easily injure an inattentive human. He also tells us that the rancho is self-sufficient; the family grows the corn and beans that feed the winged herd.

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ostich pen, San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

I slip around to the back side of the corral for a better photo and that’s when I see behind the feathered herd the lake beautifully spread out below from its western end to its vanishing point on the eastern horizon.

Ajijic, from mountainside above  San Cristóbal Zapotitlán

Ajijic, from mountainside above San Cristóbal Zapotitlán




Ajijic and the other villages across the lake appear as specs along the shoreline, villas climbing the mountainside behind them until the steep grade gives way to the wild.

Here at the rancho the mating season is just beginning.  Each female may lay up to 40 eggs in a year, burying them in the earth.  If December days are cool at this altitude, December nights can be bone-chilling; the eggs are exhumed and placed in an incubator.  The family breeds the ostriches for sale to other would-be ostrich ranchers and it also sells ostrich meat, which Francisco tells me is very lean.  Each bird can yield up to 35 kilos of meat… none of it white meat… and grow to full height within a year.

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Firing up the comal at the ostrich ranch

Sandra Luz has already lit a wood fire on a brick grill.  We dip glasses of Jamaica-flavored beverage out of a barrel-sized jar as she lays out frijoles, white corn tortillas, and a bowl of salsa.  In a few moments the aroma of meat grilling on a comal drifts over us and we’re soon eagerly dropping the seared beef onto tortillas and scooping up frijoles in the open ends.

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

Sandra Luz enjoys the view behind me

As the visit draws to a close and we head back down the mountain, I reflect on the unconditional hospitality that has again marked my Mexican experience.  The mountainside picnic alone was worth the trip, but it also crosses my mind that upon my return I need to try my first ostrich steak.

Ostrich art, though, is only part of the story of the artisans’ cooperative of San Cristobal.  Follow me on my next post to an artisan workshop back in the village where local women craft elaborate art from nothing but simple corn husks and palm fronds.

Click here for a map to San Cristobal

Facebook users can see more photos and get more details by clicking on these links:

San Cristobal Zapotitlan

Friday Artisan’s Market Ajijic

Santa Teresita parish church, Guadalajara

Santa Teresita parish church, Guadalajara

What happens when the village street bazaar goes urban?  In Guadalajara the answer is ‘the Santa Teresita street market’… a tianguis.

There’s certainly no lack of ‘big box’ grocers in Guadalajara, and permanent market bazaars like the city’s Mercado Libertad serve up a homogenized version of weekly street markets throughout the week… but there’s nothing like the real deal!

Mother & child, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Mother & child, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara


Located on the city’s near north side at the intersection of Pedro Buzeta y Ramos Millán (about halfway between the Avenidas Del Federalismo and De Las Americas), the market takes its name from the parish church of the same name that sits at its center like a grand dame surrounded by her court.

The scope of this place is staggering.  Streets are blocked off and merchants pitch tents, set up tables, or spread merchandise on blankets curbside for something like 20 square blocks.  Market stalls crowd the church so closely that they seemed poised to climb its steps.

Young couple, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Young couple, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

As I stand here on a Sunday morning it almost defies belief to realize that cars plied these streets on Friday afternoon, and will again come Monday morning; this entire market is a moveable feast.

This is a working class neighborhood market, short on art and crafts and long on staples from fresh produce and kitchen utensils to baby diapers and DVD’s.

This market affords a great opportunity to see a cross-section of urban Mexico in its own element; tourists are rare within the throngs threading their way along the narrowed streets.

Bicycle bakery, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Bicycle bakery, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

There’s an energy level here that’s harder to find in the country markets.  Porters carry merchandise on their shoulders through the crowds or wheel them about on hand trucks and other makeshift contraptions.

A giant tray of pastries edges past me waist-high, propelled by a man on a three-wheeled bicycle.

Clothes on wheels, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Clothes on wheels, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

A woman pushes a cart full of hangered clothing down the lane toward her stall, and for a moment the same image from long ago in Manhattan’s garment district comes to mind.

A vendor fishes a freshly fried churro from sizzling hot oil. When eaten fresh out of the fryer these are so good that you can skip the dusting of sugar or cinnamon!

Hot churros, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Hot churros, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

A tejuino vendor of blends a thick mixture of boiled masa, water and piloncillo sugar with freshly squeezed jugo de limón, salt, water, ice, and adds a big scoop of lemon sherbet. The refreshing drink is as native to Jalisco as its famous birria goat stew.

Tejuino vendor, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

Tejuino vendor, Santa Teresita market, Guadalajara

For me this market is far more about urban culture than shopping, so I extend the experience by arriving and leaving on foot, making my way through city neighborhoods on this mellow Sunday afternoon.

Santa Teresita may be a destination in its own right, but it fits well into a larger Guadalajara Sunday afternoon itinerary.

If you’re not shopped out by Santa Teresita, drop in on Guadalajara’s nearby Sunday antique street market for a totally different street shopping experience.

The Santa Teresita market is also healthy walk or short taxi ride from the Centro Historico, or to the Avenida Vallarta’s Sunday promenade, which is as worthwhile a sidewalk cafe sight as an urban walk.

Ferris wheel looms over the municipal Delegación building

The Tuesday sun is not long risen and there’s a slight chill in the air as I walk into the village over cobblestone streets.

On other weekdays I would be passing workers headed to their jobs and schoolchildren on their way to class, but this day is different.

Carnival ride awaits the start of Fiesta

Here in Ajijic it’s the day before the beginning of the fiesta patronale – the patron saint Fiesta de San Andres, and as I turn toward the plaza the street is already blocked by waiting carnival rides.

Band member rush to meet the parade

It’s also the 112th anniversary of the start of the Mexican Revolution… the Dia de la Revolución.

A trio of bass band musicians passes me hastily, rushing toward the Revolution Day parade assembly point, which stretches for several blocks at the eastern end of the village.

I follow them through the plaza past a mural that celebrates the Revolution.

Wall mural of Revolutionary heroes just off the Plaza

Costumed children awaiting the start of the parade

Milling about the parade’s starting point are hundreds of children in costumes ranging from drum-and-bugle corps to heroes of the Revolution, and parents everywhere are making last minute adjustments to fidgeting ninos.

A mother makes last minute costume adjustments

The scene gives me pause for reflection.  American independence, the American Revolution, and the framing of the U.S. constitution unfolded as a virtually unified event spanning only 13 years.  In Mexico these events occurred separately over more than a century, the outcome of each many times cast into doubt.

Two costumed boys pass time before the parade

There’s a case to be made that the Mexican Revolution is still a work in progress.  Its memory is still fresh; the parents of the children in today’s parade grew up at the feet of grandparents who survived it.

Sweeping the street on the parade route

Sweeping the street on the parade route


Today education and information technology are giving their children the tools to better practice democracy and hold their government more accountable for the promises made by the Revolution.


The parade participants have begun to queue up in marching order. Along the route women are sweeping the cobblestones.

Waiting for the parade to pass

Families are collecting in windows and doorways in anticipation.


The last census pegged Ajijic’s population at around 10,000 persons.  At least 1,500 are children participating in today’s procession and easily twice that number line the streets to watch them.

Little drummer girl

'Franciso Madero' pauses along the parade route

‘Franciso Madero’ pauses along the parade route


Bands and drum corps keep the procession moving as teams of gymnasts pause at every block to build human pyramids.

Other teams wave bandannas, hoops, or batons in synchronized drills.

It has the look of small town patriotic parades all across North America except for the setting… and children in traditional Mexican costume dressed as miniatures of the heroes of the Revolution.

Youngsters perform a traditional folk dance

Madero.  Zapata.  Villa.  The youngest ride in the ever-present pickup truck float, arranged in tableaus that recall historical events.


Costumed children create an historical tableau

A charro-in-training astride her mount

And because Ajijic is undeniably Jalisciense, the parade would not be complete without the charros, whose horses amazingly dance across the cobblestones to the sound of traditional Mexican tunes.

A charro puts his dancing horse through its routines

In the morning 10 days of fiesta begins, and there will be no need for an alarm clock, because the boom of fireworks, clanging church bells, and blaring brass bands will do the job before sunup!

The artisan as art

Mexico’s folk art is at risk of becoming an endangered species! Industrialization and urbanization – not to mention cheap Chinese knock-offs – are driving local artists to leave their villages and forsake their craft for work in the cities.

All natural fabric dyes are made from plants and insects

The good news is that there is a strong antidote in Ajijic’s Feria Maestros Del Arte, which this weekend celebrates its eleventh year.


A ceramic octopus in fanciful colors

Painstakingly painted detail

The Feria is a standout among area venues for artists and artisans not only for the quality, breadth, and originality of its work, but for its single inspired purpose of protecting and preserving Mexico’s community of indigent artists and their artistic traditions.


Artisans in bright traditional garb

Artisans in bright traditional garb

A potter stands chest-high in his work


The Feria is also philanthropic capitalism that showcases this art and these artists to the expat community and to visiting art merchants.

The outcome is an opportunity for these distinctive works to fetch the fair price that promotes their economic sustainability.


Clay iIguana at perpetual rest

Clay iIguana at perpetual rest


The philanthropy, though, goes well beyond simply bringing sellers and buyers together.

The merchants – more than 60 of them – are charged no fees for exhibit space.





The Feria is the brainchild of locally resident gringa Marianne Carlson, who each year travels the length and breadth of Mexico seeking out new talent.

There’s a message in the tiny symbols on this piece

Adding finishing touches to a corn husk blossom

Adding finishing touches to a corn husk blossom




An extensive network of volunteers and significant donations – the Feria is registered as a non-profit in both Mexico and the U.S. – assure that every dime of every sale goes to the merchant artists.


Lady mariachis waiting to go on stage


Many receive transportation assistance or are housed and fed gratis in the homes of locally resident expats.


The Feria is also nothing if not authentic.


All of the exhibited goods are handmade by native artists using materials native to Mexico, and much of this remarkable work has rarely been exhibited outside of the often remote villages in which it is created.




Lady mariachis' wall of sound

Lady mariachis’ wall of sound



Many of the artisans are but the latest in generations of family artists.

Shoppers can watch many of the artisans continue to create as they tend their market stalls while patiently explaining the symbolism of the images in their work and the process by which it is produced.





This is my first year to experience this event, and I have the good luck to do so from a front-row seat in more ways than one.

Jurassic metal sculptures

Jurassic metal sculptures

It’s located within easy walking distance of my place, which is a real bonus since the patrons’ parked cars have not only lined the curbs of surrounding neighborhood streets, but spilled out along the Carretera for a quarter mile in both directions.






Location, however, is only the beginning of the good luck because my place is also a room-and-board site for Feria artist Martín Ibarra and his family.

A leap of ceramic leopards

A leap of ceramic leopards




The son of a noted clay artist, Martin has been widely recognized for his painted clay sculptures of the Virgin and his intricately decorated eggs and spheres.





A threatening wooden image in playful colors

A threatening wooden image in playful colors





This year each room-and-board sponsor is taking a turn at a dinner held in their home for the artists and their fellow sponsors, and these gatherings add yet another dimension to the experience.






Hand-painted detail on wood and gourd containers

Hand-painted detail on wood and gourd containers

Artisans drawn from across Mexico from Chihuahua in the north to Oaxaca and Chiapas in the south, and when they come together each evening over food and drink the feeling is almost one of reunion.

Talk quickly turns from art to life and there’s lots of laughter here.

It’s a rare opportunity for expats to gain a glimpse into the traditions and lives of these master craftsmen, and for them to see their American and Canadian hosts up close and personally.

It’s also a great demonstration of what happens when people put national identities and politics aside and come together as individuals in a common pursuit.



Even for casual students of world cultures the Feria is not to be missed.


If you’re looking for items not to be found even in the abundance of artist communities in Guadalajara’s nearby Tonala and Tlaquepaque neighborhoods, this is the place to be.

A live face in a wall of masks


Fitting beadwork into a design

This 5th-generation weaver may need 2 months to produce a single work.


If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the spirit of social activism that marked the youth of many retirees you’ll find it alive and well in the spirit of Ajijic’s Feria.

Make your own contribution by buying something… and spreading the word.

For more information check out the Feria’s web site here.

Dias de los muertos

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

It’s about this time each year that I lament the creeping encroachment of America’s shallowly commercial Halloween tradition upon Mexico’s deeply spiritual Dia de Los Muertos observance.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

In the States, trick-or-treat decorations may have been replaced by Christmas decorations and candy now relegated to discount bins, but a month-long event in Guadalajara’s Centro Historico proves that Dia de los Muertos is not only alive and well, but ably adapting to fit itself into the twenty-first century.

Peace catrinas, Guadalajara, Mexico

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico




For the third consecutive year, Guadalajara’s secondary school students have built upon the traditional image of the catrina – the elaborately decorated skeletons that are the holiday’s trademark – to make a timely plea for peace.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

Around 100 of these larger-than-life-sized installations can be seen on the plazas that mark each of the primary compass points around Guadalajara’s signature downtown Catedral.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

The work is remarkable not only because it ably links Mexico’s past with its present and because the artisanship is of such high quality, but because it demonstrates these young artists’ surprisingly mature grasp of how violence begins and spreads through a culture.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

For Mexicans, peace is not an abstract ideal or a wished-for outcome in some far-off country, but a heartfelt hope for change in their everyday existence.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

In this fifth year of the government’s war on narcotics traffic and narco-terrorism, fatalities have now passed the 50,000 mark. While the violence is largely confined to combatants and limited to a small part of the country, only a few degrees of separation lie between the casualties and an increasing number of civilians.

The theme of peace in the face of such violence necessarily lends a somber note to many of these works, but most of them still manage to deliver their weighty message with the same wry fatalism that has always marked the catrina tradition.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

Photos don’t do these catrinas justice.  Almost all of the standing figures tower over the spectator by a foot or two, and many others lean lifelike against poles and fences or sit on park benches as city pedestrians and traffic stream past.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

There are several Gandhi catrinas and one of the Dalai Lama, but it’s the more traditional images which are often the most compelling.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

While catrinas are an expression of pre-Colombian concepts of the relationship between life and death, the catrina image itself is barely a century old, the invention of a Mexico City newspaper’s political cartoonist.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

The catrina was nearly relegated to history until rescued by the resurgence of pride in Mexican heritage following the Mexican Revolution.

Peace catrina, Guadalajara, Mexico

Like Argentina’s tango, it began as a working-class tradition and grew in less than a generation to become a symbol inextricably woven into the national identity.

It’s possible to walk all 100 or so of Guadalajara’s Catrinas de la Paz in less than an hour, but you may – like me – become caught up in reflection upon one or another that particularly speaks to you and linger longer.

Whether you browse this exhibit quickly or deliberately, don’t pass it up!

Ajijic’s guitar art

Artist: Teodor Lopez

Perhaps nowhere else in the Spanish-speaking world has the guitar become such an inseparable part of the culture as in Mexico.

Inside the Galeria del Lago

Here the instrument appears the varying shapes, sizes, and sounds which can be most often seen in the instrumentation of Jalisco’s celebrated mariachi bands.


At Ajijic’s Galeria de Lago on the very edge of Lake Chapala the instrument appears in yet a new incarnation:  Guitar Art.

Artist: V. Manuel G. Santillan


It all began when local artist Kim Tolleson made a pilgrimage to the town of Paracho in Michoacan.  The town has long been famous as the center of guitar-making in Mexico, but in the past generation it has produced world class maestro craftsmen and instruments sought by aficionados everywhere.


There are more guitar shops in Paracho than chocolatiers in Switzerland and each August the town hosts a festival that features and honors both musicians and luthiers.


Kim had the idea that these instruments would make an interesting painter’s palette, but soon came to the conclusion that the 30 guitars that he brought back from Paracho was ambition enough for more than a single painter.

Artist: Kathy Seaboyer


He enlisted the aid of local artists and aspirants, and soon much of the space he’d first envisioned as no more than a studio became a guitar art gallery.

Artist: Sergio Xoñu



Kim’s decision to open entries to virtually all comers made the gallery unique not only for its use of guitars as painters’ palettes, but for its diversity of styles.




The artists range from local professionals including Efren Gonzalez to some very talented amateurs.

The inclusiveness is refreshing and the artist community has clearly embraced the concept.

Artist: Judy Dykstra Brown

The images range from scenes of colonial Mexico to rock music tributes. Most are painted, but one of the more striking pieces is installed as a sculpture standing on human legs.

Artists: Daniel Palma & Sergio Xoñu

Artists: Hugo & Carlos Villalabos

Part of the Galeria remains a working studio.

On the day I was there Emily Allen had set up her easel there to catch the light flooding in from off the lake, and I stood for a while with my face pressed against the window watching her work.

Artists: Hugo & Carlos Villalabos


Even though the regular gallery hours are Saturday/Sunday, 1-6PM, visitors can browse on many weekdays when the artists are in residence, and the work is readily viewed through big picture windows at any time of the day.

Artist: Jesus Lopez Vega


Galeria del Lago is located right on the lakefront between the Old Posada and Yves Restaurant, within eyesight of the Ajijic Pier.


No surprise, then, that the subject of many currently featured paintings is the white donkey that seems perennially tethered just a few yards away on the beach.


Galeria del Lago

Galeria del Lago



Photos don’t do the work justice, so drop by and see the real deal. It’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your lips!

You can also see photos of work no longer on display when I visited on the gallery’s Facebook page               


Read more about Paracho, Mexico’s guitar capital, here.                              

For more on Ajijic’s unique character see my related posts:

Guadalajara’s antique market

Antique markets afford a window into the lives of each treasure’s original owner, and Guadalajara’s antique flea market is loaded with artifacts that look like they once graced the drawing rooms of the gentrified west side neighborhoods built around the turn of the 20th century.

Guadalajara’s antique market






Held on Sundays from 9AM-5PM at the intersection of the Avenida Mexico and Chapultepec Norte in front of the Bodega Aurrera, this outdoor market unwinds over several blocks and the scope of the collection is mind-boggling.

Guadalajara’s antique market





The stalls are chock full of collectibles from statuary to silver and crystal, furniture, and books and records.

Guadalajara’s antique market

There are also plenty of personal items and memorabilia that often leave the shopper with the sense that the aura of their original owners is somehow still present among them.

If you’re expecting a flea market that requires you to sort through a ton of junk to find a few gems, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by this place.

Guadalajara’s antique market

Much of the merchandise appears to be in museum piece condition, and it’s clear that the vendors know their artifacts intimately and take great pride in their displays.

Guadalajara’s antique market

Here you’re stopped by an item caught out of the corner of an eye and find yourself still browsing the same stall half an hour later, unraveling threads into the past.

Guadalajara’s antique market

This market, though, is not just a window into Guadalajara’s past, but also a snapshot of its present.

Guadalajara’s antique market

The vendors are of all ages, and it’s clear that these folks have come to know each other well over years of Sundays spent here together.

Guadalajara’s antique market





The shoppers are also diverse, but the crowd includes a healthy mix of young urban professionals that the visitor is unlikely to encounter at the city’s more classic tourist sites.

Guadalajara’s antique market

You don’t have to be a collector to appreciate this place, and you don’t have to buy a thing to have an enjoyable day here.

Avenida Chaputepec

Afterwards take a walk down Chapultepec and join the Sunday promenade always in progress on a traffic-free Avenida Vallarta.

See my related posts:

Ajijic’s mural art

Mexican art is blessed by the rich muralist tradition of Rivera, Orozco, and Siqueiros, and even today murals remain a prominent feature of Mexican public art.


Murals are so commonplace in Ajijic as to be taken for granted, but they’re as much a signature part of the village’s character as spring blossoms or street vendors or views from the malecon.



It’s hard for anyone on the Ribera not to pass at least one daily, and each image indelibly anchors the memory of everything that happens beneath it to a single spot.


Murals made perfect sense as a way to present ideas and to perpetuate sense of history throughout Mexico’s illiterate past, but the art form is as fresh today as ever.


As similar as some murals may seem at first glance, their form is far from formulaic.


The topics may be patriotic or otherwise political, and they’re often historical.


Sometimes, though, the primary object seems to be only to create pleasant diversion for the eyes and to adorn an otherwise unmemorable spot.


Their forms are remarkably diverse, ranging from dayglo-bright ribbons to simple black-and-white images.

Ajijic mural art 05

Ajijic mural art 06







Some borrow their style from Europe and others are purely indigenous.


Some are painted and some in relief.


Some have a commercial agenda.









Many – but not all – are outdoors. The one below adorns the interior stairwell of the Cultural Center.












They all, however, have a couple of things in common.


One is that each is an original work of art.  Some are permanent – or at least as permanent as paint on stucco can be in the Mexican sun – and others only long-lived enough to commemorate a passing event.


Another is that they all tell stories.  Some are short and simple.  Others are like scrolls unrolled, so panoramic that each new look uncovers some detail earlier unseen, like the three panels of the mural below reading left to right.


There was a time when billboard painting was an art north of the border. These days billboards are created in Photoshop, digitally printed by the dozens onto vinyl, and stretched over the frames of boards that were once signpainters’ canvasses.


One thing’s for sure.  It’s impossible to visualize Ajijic without picturing its public murals! For more about Ajijic’s unique character see my related posts: