NO SURPRISES IN THE OFF-YEAR ELECTION:

As predicted, the national elections held on July 6 were marked by slight gains for the PRI in the House of Deputies, as well as a few governorships that were in play, almost all having been taken from the PAN. The one small surprise was the margins by which the PRD took Mexico City, where almost all the delegations (districts) went heavily for the party of mayor Lopez Obrador.

Lopez, barring unforeseen circumstances (and this is Mexico, and there is still three years to go), will certainly be the PRD candidate for president. With his party badly split between those loyal to perrenial party candidateCuauhtemoc Cárdenas, represented by Rosario Robles, who preceded him as mayor, and his own reformist wing, he has much to do between now and then to reunite and refocus the Party.

IT’S NOT YOUR FATHER’S ALEBRIJE:

Last week we attended the fourth annual Rural Tourism Fair, held as usual at Amigos del Sol language school and organized by Ron Mader of Planeta.com. It was rather less well attended than last year, which was a shame because, among other things, the providers were more diverse. For the first time, there were folks there with stuff to sell: artisans from Teotitlán and Santa Ana del Valle, and San Martín Tilcajete, among others.

My eye was caught by the “new” carved wooden animals from San Martín. The craft has clearly evolved. Much of what is being produced is larger, with more intricate designs and – a result of more materials, more time – a higher price tag. We first saw some new mega-pieces at Casa Coloniál, a b&b owned by friends who are avid collectors, and recently got a chance to inspect some fine examples in Berkeley, as they came out of the box at the home of friend, importer and reseller Carol Coyote, whose offerings can be seen on eBay.

The two pieces featured here are from the workshops of Jacobo Angeles and his sister Roberta, respectively. The polar bear, about 18 inches high, goes for $400 dollars. The cat, about 8 inches at the ears, which we couldn’t resist, cost Diana $50 after some hard bargaining.

As the market has become flooded with the traditional small alebrijes, and many local carvers have been forced to look elsewhere for a living, the Ojedas and other innovators are surviving.

GENUINE MEZCAL MAY BE HARD TO FIND:

Some 25,000 families in the State of Oaxaca depend, as they have for generations, on the cultivation, manufacture, and sales of Mezcál. According to a recent article in “Noticias”, a daily newspaper published in Oaxaca City, that way of life has become endangered by bootleg hooch and the increasing demand for Tequila.

Tequila, like Mezcál, is made from the blue agave plant. Aside from certain distilling practices, and the difference in soil, which account for the more aromatic characteristics of Mezcál, they are pretty much the same product, with the big difference being the label: the generic name of Tequila is owned by the Mexican government, which receives a cut on every bottle exported from the only area licensed to use the name, the Tequila area of the state of Jalisco. In the last few years, a shortage of harvestable plants (they take 7 to 10 years to mature) up north has resulted in a bidding war for raw product between the tequileros in the north and the mezcaleros here at home, and as a result the plants have become enormously more expensive: so expensive, in fact (150 pesos and more for a liter of legitimate Mezcál), that other distilled alcohols (from corn and cane), mostly from Morelos and Mexico states, are being sold as Mezcál under “phantom labels”.

The result has been a reduction in palenques (the places where the agave is fermented and distilled) by some 80% (from 400 just five years ago), with most of the survivors working only two or three days a week. Hardest hit is the town of Matitlán, just the other side of Mitla, long considered to be the center of Mezcál production. Government intervention in the form of some sort of enforceable law mandating minimum standards for use of the word “mezcál” would, according to some of the mezcaleros leaders, be useful. The sad truth is that even if such a law were passed, enforcement of similar laws in the areas of electronic media has at best been spotty and pretty much ineffective.

Presumably, stringent U.S. import rules will insure that what is consumed in el Norte is more or less as advertised. Such products tend to be pricey. Don Amato, for example, is a brand of pure agave Mezcál available in the California market, for a “mere” $35 dollars a bottle.

MONTE ALBAN IN THE SUMMER IS A NEW EXPERIENCE:

We have lots of pictures of Monte Albán. Every one of them shows it as a sere beige plateau with beige grass, and beige buildings. I really thought that it was an inhospitable, burnt out place, until – ye gads, almost ten years into my sojourn – I happened to see some pictures taken recently by friend Pat Kelley. Pat, who likes to take lots of pictures with his digital camera, invited me to accompany him on Monday for a return visit, and I discovered how green it can be. Imagine, I saw groundskeepers with power lawn mowers and weed whackers; flowering trees and bushes; and more.

There is handicapped access, complete with an elevator to take one from the entry level to the top-of-the-ball-court level; and from there, there are ramps going down to the main plaza. I’m sure for many of you, more devoted to things archeological, this is not news, but it is for me. The ramps are done tastefully in found stones, and blend with the project as a whole.

The road from the bus parking lot to the museum building is being fitted with concrete ditches for runoff, and judging from the number of buses present yesterday morning, the lot itself will soon need to be expanded. Monte Albán is such a vast place that it will be some time before crowds become a problem in the vista, however. One thing I noted was the increased number of vendors hawking phony pre-Columbian tchatchkes.

Also, the coffee shop is very pleasant, with a great outdoor terrace view of the valley and yummy – if expensive – food.

Monte Albán goes back to the top of my list, right after Yagúl.

HIERVE DEL AGUA REOPENS:

The popular tourist site of Hierve del Agua (literally, boiling water, a misnomer since the spring is not hot; in this case, it means bubbling) was closed for a couple of months due to a dispute between villages as to who should profit from the tourist traffic, and how much.

It has now reopened, although it is not clear whether the dispute has been completely settled.

Hierve del Agua is a limestone-laden spring which, over time, has formed natural pools and a “frozen water fall” as the extremely slow runoff has coagulated on the cliff face. The only other tourist site in the world of a similar nature is the much larger and grander Pammulke in Turkey.

About an hour and a half out of Oaxaca, Hierve features a very spectacular vista and has small cabins for overnight stays and food stands offering simple meals.

FOX BROTHERS NAMED AS PART OF ELECTION SWINDLE:

Last week, the PGR released documents which seem to say that part of the allegedly illegal foreign money that fuelled Amigos de Fox, the election money machine in 2000, was diverted to pay off debts for non-electoral activities accumulated by various businesses owned by the candidate’s brothers. All together, the alleged rake-off didn’t amount to 2% of the millions raised, and the skim wasn’t illegal, since the Amigos were a private organization and allowed to spend – or give away – the proceeds however they chose.

There is some question as to whether or not individual brothers or associates may have been guilty of breaking the laws aimed at preventing money laundering, but even the PGR said it is unlikely that any prosecutions will result from this branch of their investigation. However, it does smell, and Fox already has enough stink on him. This newest revelation is at least embarrassing and at worst will further erode his popularity, which had been falling slowly but steadily for months, and just took a body blow when the PAN lost a couple of stronghold governorships in the election earlier this month.

The Cathedral is getting a cleaning. It should be ready by spring of 2004.

PAY ATTENTION TO THIS MAN:

Guillermo Gomez Peña, performance artist, cross-border rabble rouser, writer and educator, is among the handful of public figures that I find heroic and impressive. After seeing him perform in the then-new Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco a few years ago – he spent two hours interviewing himself — we bought his book “The New World Border” (available through our website’s “books and cd’s” page). In it, among other things, he conjures up a world of the future, in which small enclaves of purely white citizens live amidst a mezcla of races in which the vast majority are classified in the census as “other” (Samoan / Chilean and Thai / Esquimo parents, for instance); talks about the divisions between Latinos, Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Chicanos; and describes what the continent might look like if Anglos from the impoverished north had to sneak into Mexico for better economic conditions. Throughout his writings and his performances one encounters a sort of free form poetry / polemic that reveals his love of language and fascination with meaning.

Gomez performs occasionally at The Lab in San Francisco and I urge all of you who live in that area to go and see him for yourself. To get a flavor of who he is and how he thinks, read his interview on the web. Particularly, pay attention to his description of the new culture his son lives in.