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Some News for the New Year in Mexico

Taking out the garbage this morning—January 2, 2017—was a clear reminder that it’s the first Monday of the new year in Mexico. The party’s over; my neighbors and I slowly dragged our plastic garbage cans to the idling garbage truck, which overflowed with crumpled wrapping paper, broken piñatas, fireworks shells, pizza boxes, and bags of empty liquor and champagne bottles. Now they’re all gone, taken away like so many hopes, dreams, mistakes and memories.

Yes, 2017 is finally here, and life goes on. As always here in Mexico, it’s a life full of surprises and interesting news stories. I thought I’d share three with you.

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Gasolinazo

The big news for the start of the new year is the country-wide rise in gasoline prices. No one with Mexican friends on Facebook could miss the calls to protest, even revolution. The increase went into effect today, so not all the results and reactions have yet come to light, but here’s what we know.

The oil industry was nationalized in Mexico back in 1938. So there’s only one company that extracts oil, Pemex, and only one type of gas station in the country, also called Pemex.

A major issue for the past few years has been the proposal to privatize Pemex, which would bring modernization to the inefficient government monopoly and allow competing companies into the country. This privatization issue, like all privatization issues, is quite complex and ideological, so rather than go into its pros and cons I’ll summarize the government’s latest move: a hike in gasoline prices.

As of today, the price of gasoline will go up between 20 and 24 percent across Mexico. The prices won’t be uniform nationwide, but different in different states. And more increases are planned for the coming months.

For example, the prices in parts of Mexico City are now 16.33 pesos for regular gas (called Magna) and 18.2 for premium. In U.S. dollars, this would be 79 cents a liter (or about $3 USD a gallon) for regular, and 88 cents a liter (or about $3.33 USD a gallon) for premium.

Besides the added expense for commuters and all the people who drive for a living, these prices are especially frustrating to Mexicans because Mexico is an oil producing country, in which gas prices are usually low, often ridiculously low.

But another major reason for these high prices compared to U.S. prices is the fact that the peso has lost a lot of value against the U.S. dollar in the past two years. When I moved here in 2010, it was about 12 pesos to one U.S. dollar, and that price held steady until May of 2013 when it gradually began to change. Then in 2014 it started a rapid loss of value, finally breaking the 20 peso mark in the middle of 2016, and shooting up even higher the day after Trump was elected. Today it’s at 20.60 pesos for one U.S. dollar, which means big consequences for Mexico, much more than on gas prices. (Of course, this is great for U.S. tourists traveling here—instant discounts on everything.)

But back to today’s gas hike. In response, starting yesterday and continuing today, people all over the country have been blocking highways and gas stations (even threatening to set them on fire) to protest this. There is a large march going on in Mexico City (among other places), and the highways between major cities Querétaro and Mexico City, Toluca and Mexico City, and more have been blocked since yesterday or this morning. There will certainly be more actions like these, hopefully with minimal violence.

The entire issue has been called Gasolinazo, which translates to “big gasoline”—obviously in reference to the increase. We’ll see how this story develops and if it will be covered on international news outlets. There have been reports on Facebook and Twitter of gas stations set on fire, but as of now not on any major news sources.

Fireworks Market Explosion

Here’s a story that did make international news: On December 20, a fireworks market exploded in Tultepec, in the State of Mexico north of Mexico City. Watch the incredible video here.

Current reports state that 36 people have died and at least 86 were injured. It’s not known how it started, but probably either someone testing out some fireworks or walking around with a cigarette.

Besides the tragic deaths and injuries, the other incredible part of this story is that the market had already blown up in 2005 and 2006. Unspecified safety measures were put in place since then, but not enough to prevent this tragedy.

Loud fireworks are popular in Mexico for holidays, especially religious holidays like the birthdays of saints. Every town or big-city neighborhood has a patron saint, and on that saint’s birthday people set off fireworks on the street or from the local church, starting early in the morning and sometimes lasting all day and night. An interesting contrast: In the U.S. in Canada it’s usually the drunks setting off fireworks, but in Mexico it’s the devout (or of course the drunk and devout).

As for holidays, yes there are fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but more often it’s the locals  launching them, rather than an organized city-wide display. But, in general, people are much more enthusiastic for fireworks on religious holidays, such as the beloved Virgin de Guadalupe’s birthday on December 12.

Anyway, the parties are fun, but please remind me to never visit a fireworks market in Mexico.

Rubi’s Fifteenth Birthday

And finally, in lighter but still-bizarre news, Rubi finally had her big fifteenth birthday party on December 27. Let me explain.

In Mexico (and many other countries), a girl’s 15th birthday is occasion for a humongous party. She gets dressed up and dances the night away with all her friends and relatives.

(Contrary to popular belief, the girl is the Quinciañera, not the party, which is simply called a quince años.)

Well, when the father of Rubi Ibarra, an otherwise normal girl from the state of San Luis Potosi, announced on YouTube that “everyone was invited” to the party, 1.3 million people accepted the invitation, for sure making it a little more humungous than he’d planned.

It was a big story and the source of a lot of jokes, with speculation about which celebrities would show up and how the father would pay for it all. In sum, it was the definition of something accidentally and unexpectedly going viral.

She finally had her party, and you can see some photos here. Millions didn’t attend, but thousands did, and despite one unfortunate death during a horse race, it seems like it was a hell of a good time.

Thanks for reading, and a prospero año y felicidad to all.

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The Day of the Dead in Mexico: What’s it all about?

In Mexico, a country full of color, tradition and flavor, the Day of the Dead stands out as especially colorful, traditional and flavorful. Rooted in Pre-Hispanic practice and caught up in the trick-or-treat influence of Halloween, the holiday is a chance to honor deceased relatives with an altar in the home, dress up as an elegant skeleton, and sample the best of Mexico’s artesanal candy.

The Day of the Dead takes place on November 2, but it’s celebrated several days or even several weeks before, especially when there’s a long weekend like this year. While it’s one of the most public holidays in Mexico, in many ways it’s also the most personal. Besides costumes and outdoor events (more on those below), perhaps the most interesting part of the holiday is that people visit the cemetery where their loved ones are buried.

They clean it up, adorn it with flowers, and even may spend the night there, eating, drinking, playing music, and remembering their loved ones.

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“We don’t cry. It’s a celebration,” says Pedro, a guitarist and music teacher. His family decorates their relatives’ graves with candles, photographs, and orange flowers. They sing songs, tell stories, and inform their dead relatives of all that’s new in their lives.

The Ofrenda (Altar)

Another more personal manifestation of the Day of the Dead is an altar that families set up in their homes. Called an ofrenda, in it they place photographs of deceased relatives and some of their favorite foods, including cigarettes and alcohol if the person liked them. It’s as if the relative will come back for a visit and the family wants them to feel welcome again.

Not only families do this, but places all over Mexico. Here’s an ofrenda from the university where I work:

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Day of the Dead Parade

In Spectre, the most recent James Bond movie from 2015, they give a highly stylized view of the Day of the Dead. In the first scenes of the movie, you see a big parade with lots of noise and action and people running around in colorful dresses and skull makeup. Apparently the Mexican government spent a huge amount of money to get the scene included in the movie, and the skeleton character even made it onto the cover:

In an example of life following art (or art following art?), the first Day of the Dead parade, called the Paseo de las Animas, went down the same city streets on Saturday, October 29 in Mexico City. Along with floats of skulls and big colorful monsters called alebrijes, it included 1,000 actors in skeleton costumes and makeup. (The skeleton, called catrina for women and catrin for men, is the iconic figure wearing a suit or a flowing gown).

A big catrin figure in Toluca, State of Mexico:

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Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca

The Mexico City parade might be new, but displays, events and markets selling Day of the Dead specialities occur all over the country leading up to the holiday.

The Feria del Alfeñique in Toluca, the central Mexican city where I live, is a great place to sample all the flavors and soak up the atmosphere. (Alfeñique is a type of sugar candy).

In the Portales, an outdoor mall of arches in the center of town, hundreds of vendors sell all kinds of candies, decorations, and skeleton figures for the Day of the Dead, either to try right there or put in your family altar.

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No altar would be complete without calaveritas, the colorful candy skulls. They represent the dead relative, whose name you can have drawn on the forehead in sugar.

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You can get candied everything, including all kinds of vegetables and fruit, like limes, pumpkin, and nopales (cactus leaves). Here are some tempting bananas:

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I especially enjoy the oficios, little skeletons doing their various jobs.

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Outside the fair, people in elaborate costumes accept money to pose with you for photographs.

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So if you want to experience the Day of the Dead but without the enormous crowds of a parade or the late night in a cemetery, come to Toluca for the Feria del Alfeñique. It’s an easy bus ride from the Observatorio metro stop/bus station in the west of Mexico City. Once you get to the Toluca bus station, take a “safe taxi” (taxi seguro) to centro, downtown.

And look out for this guy:

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Guide to Markets in Mexico

Friends, followers, internet searchers: Thank you for visiting my blog.

Markets are some of my favorite places to visit in Mexico. Every city has at least one, from enormous labyrinths in Mexico City to warehouse-size local hangouts in small towns. Markets are perhaps the best place to immerse yourself in the colors, tastes, and cultures of Mexico—and of course to buy delicious tropical fruit.

I have the great honor of being published regularly in Transitions Abroad, the best website for travel stories and information on living outside of your home country. They recently published my story How to Make the Most of Markets in Mexico. Please click the link to read the story.

And here are a few more of my favorite photos from markets in Mexico:

13 valladolid market 15 valladolid market yucca

14b san simon candles copy 14a candy 14 medicine 13 medicine 3 12 medicine 2 11c papayas 11b fruit smaller size

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