Don’t Mess With Mexico

Following the now-official proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border — and to force Mexico to pay for it — Foreign Policy reminds us not to undervalue our relationship with our southern neighbor.

Among other considerations, Mexico’s economy is the 11th or 15th largest in the world, depending on the metric. It is our third largest trading partner, accounting for 6 million U.S. jobs and $1.5 billion worth of commerce daily, and anywhere between 2-4 percent of U.S. GDP. More American citizens live in Mexico than anywhere else in the world, and it is the most popular tourist destination.

Perhaps most importantly, Mexico contributes 80 percent of avocados consumed in the U.S. (I am being facetious of course, although the fruit’s popularity here is no joke.)

To save some time, I’ll also reiterate my own post from 2015 about Mexico’s probable was a major economic power in its own right:

Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base) … [It] is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

Mexico does of course have its problems, and its power dynamic with the U.S. makes it by far the junior partner in this bilateral relationship. But contrary to popular perception (at least among Americans) Mexico is far from a failed state. In spite of all its struggles, it has managed to become one of the world’s most robust economies, and has the potential to be a significant player in international affairs.

While the U.S. can still do a lot of damage to the country (far more than the other way around, to be sure) it is still insensible — not to mention immoral — to disrupt our relations with one of only two neighbors, a country whose interests and people are deeply intertwined with our own. As it is, the proposed 20 percent tax on Mexican imports to fund the border wall (since Mexico stands firmly opposed to funding it) will only end up transferring the costs onto American consumers — to the tune of $15 billion.

 

Mexico — Rising Global Power?

In honor of Mexican Independence Day, a hard-fought achievement that absolutely did not happen on Cinco de Mayo, I present some facts to counter the country’s warped and narrow image in the United States (most resoundingly apparent in the cycle of hysteria around illegal immigration).

For starters, overall immigration from south of the border has, as of 2013, declined by 80 percent since 2007, the lowest at any point since 1991. Not only does the number of Mexicans returning home outnumber those leaving the country, but more Americans have left for Mexico than the other way around, an underreported trend that has surged since 2005. (Subsequently, our southern neighbor hosts over one million U.S. citizens, the most of any country in the world.)

Moreover, this trend is likely to be permanent, since Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize, despite its many pressing social and political problems. Following the recession, the Mexican economy has grown twice as fast as America’s, and was among the fastest growing in the world in some years (albeit from a much lower base). Depending on the metric used, Mexico has the 11th to 15th largest economy in the world, and is predicted by groups like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank to become the fifth to seventh largest economy by 2050 – around the level that France, Germany, and the U.K. are at today.

A few analysts have gone even further by suggesting that Mexico could become an influential global power in its own right. This is not as far fetched as it may initially sound: in many areas, such as infrastructure and business climate, the country is at least comparable, if superior, to Brazil, China, India, Russia, and other identified emerging powers; it has even earned coveted classification as one of several economic powerhouses to look out for — see the MINT group or the Next Eleven.

These accolades are well deserved. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have joined a rapidly growing middle-class, warranting the county’s official classification as a newly industrialized nation (NIC), a distinction only a handful of developing countries have achieved. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a violent crime rate equal to or even less than that of many U.S. states.

To be sure, Mexico is still enduring many problems, namely one of the worst rates of violence and income inequality in the world. Its political system, while free and robust by developing-world standards, is nonetheless rife with corruption and venality. Many intractable challenges face the country, but it is not the dystopia that popular culture and news media make it out to be, and it certainly has a lot of potential.

So Mexicans have a lot to be proud of this independence day. Despite the grim present circumstances, their long and rich history demonstrates a seemingly boundless capacity for perseverance, resourcefulness, and hope. Here is hoping that our good neighbor to the south continues steadily along the path to progress.

Photo courtesy of Lavidavalle.com and RaquelParaiso.blogspot.com.

Three Big Historical Anniversaries Today

In 1943, the Soviet Red Army won the Battle of Stalingrad, turning the tide of the Second World War. One of history’s bloodiest and most decisive battles, the five-month siege involved over 1 million troops on each side. The Axis suffered a total 850,000 casualties (wounded, killed, captured) and the Soviets over 1.1 million, of which over 478,000 were killed.

To understand the scale of the battle, the U.S. and U.K. suffered a total of 405,399 and 383,800 combat deaths respectively in the entire war. (Ultimately, by the end of the war, Soviet Russia lost 20-28 million people, of whom 7-12 million were civilians; nearly a quarter of its population had been killed, wounded, or directly affected by the conflict in some way).

Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943. 

You can read a quick rundown of the battle here.

In 1848, the Mexican–American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico was forced to give up 530,000 square miles of territory to the United States for $15 million. Along with the prior cession of Texas, this amounted to 55 percent of Mexico’s pre-war territory and today comprises about 15 percent of U.S. territory.

Cession includes all of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, large chunks of Colorado and New Mexico, and some of Wyoming.

In 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk declared the official end of apartheid, a system of intense segregation and racial oppression, following mounting domestic and international opposition, which culminated in negotiations between the government and resistance groups (namely the African National Congress, from which Nelson Mandela emerged as the nation’s first freely-elected leader).

De Klerk and Mandela at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 1992; the latter would be elected president two years later.

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

Santa Muetre

Close-up view of a Santa Muerte south of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. (Source: Wikimedia)

Translating roughly to “Holy Death” or “Saint Death”, Santa Muerte is a syncretic sacred figure that is widely venerated in Mexico, mostly by the downtrodden and ostracized segments of society: prostitutes, criminals, substance abusers, the sick, the poor and other lower-class groups.

Saint Death combines Catholic and indigenous Mesoamerican beliefs, therefore embodying two distinct but complementary views of death: the Christian use of skeletons to remind people of their finite lives, and the Mesoamerican reverence towards the power of death.

The Cult of Santa Muerte is very complex, seen as either a part of Mexican Catholicism or a distinct religion altogether – the Church in Mexico condemns it, while individual believers have different views. The exact origins of Saint Death are unknown, although Mexico has long retained a syncretic combination of its European and Mesoamerican traditions, such as through the Day of the Dead.

The cult was said to have surged in lower-class neighborhoods of Mexico City during the 1940s, while other sources suggest it emerged in the 1960s in the state of Hidalgo. Either way, it’s only been recently that this controversial belief system has become more popular and public, with at least two million followers, if not more. As Mexico endures widespread death and violence from its current drug war, and as its political and economic climate faces renewed trouble, reverence of Holy Death seems to be increasing.

Indeed, her popularity is directly tied to individual or national incidences of hardship, to the extent that anthropologists identify her belief system as a “Cult of Crisis,” someone people turn to in desperation.

Iconography and Symbolism
Santa Muerte is referred to by a number of other names, Señora de las Sombras (“Lady of the Shadows”), Señora Blanca (“White Lady”), Señora Negra (“Black Lady”), Niña Santa (“Holy Girl”), and La Flaca (“The Skinny One”). No two images of Santa Muerte are exactly alike, as it often varies from person to person. Her icons range from small images or figurines that can be held in one hand, to statues or full-blown shrines; some people even have the image tattooed on their bodies.

Despite the variances, there are some near-universal motifs, including a similarity to another Catholic-Mesoamerican combination, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Like Mexico’s Virgin Mary, Lady Death is usually dressed either in long robes or long dresses, covered from head to feet with only the face and hands showing. However, this has deeper symbolizing, as it is meant to represent two things: how people hide their true selves from the rest of the world, and how flesh covers the bones of the living. Both these facades are temporary and eventually fall away in death (note that the Aztecs used to portray figures as having half their flesh removed, in order to get a similar point across).

Santa Muerte generally holds two objects: a scythe in the right hand and globe in the left.  The scythe symbolizes many things, depending on the individual: the cutting of negative energies or influence, a harvesting tool for collecting hope and prosperity, or the moment of death, when a scythe is said to cut a silver thread representing our lives. The scythe has a long handle, indicating that it – like death itself – can reach anywhere. The globe represents Death’s dominion and presence over the entire world, and can be seen as a kind of a tomb to which we all return; the fact that she even holds a globe is an indication of her vast power (it should be noted that in European iconography, royalty would be depicted holding globes for similar reasons – sure enough, Medieval societies would portray skeletons doing the same, especially during famines or plagues, when death ruled supreme, even claiming nobility.

Other objects that can appear with an image of Santa Muerte include scales, an hourglass, an owl, and an oil lamp. The scales allude to equity, justice and impartiality, as well as divine will: death makes no judgments, as it claims everyone, good or bad. The hourglass indicates many things: the limited time of life on earth, but also the belief that death is the beginning of something new, as the hourglass can be turned to start over. It also denotes Santa Muerte’s patience, as all living things are visited by death eventually. An owl symbolizes her ability to navigate the darkness and her wisdom and is also said to act as a messenger, while a lamp symbolizes the intelligence and spirit needed to light the way through the darkness of ignorance and doubt.

It may seem strange that such a morbid figure could have such positive connotations. But that in itself is a symbol of death’s neutrality: it is not a purely good or bad thing, and it could have elements of both depending on the person. The duality of death, as both a positive and negative force, is prevalent across human cultures. This individualistic and personal nature of this faith – the fact that Lady Death means different things to different people – is largely what makes the faith so popular.

Rituals, Customs, and Beliefs
According to popular belief, Santa Muerte is very powerful and is reputed to grant many favors. Reflecting her nebulous and individualistic nature, the abilities attributed to Holy Death vary widely, and both the methods of worship, and the reasons she is sought after, differ from person to person.

Rites dedicated to Santa Muerte are similar to the processions and prayers seeking help from Catholic saints. Many believers in Santa Muerte identify as Catholics and will invoke the name of God, Christ, and the Virgin in their petitions to Santa Muerte. Often times, she stands near statues of Catholic images of Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Peter, or St. Lazarus. In the north of Mexico, Santa Muerte is venerated alongside Jesús Malverde, another pseudo-saint and folk figure popular among drug traffickers. However, some adherents warn that Santa Muerte is very jealous and that her image should not be placed next to Catholic saints, as it could result in consequences.

In any case, Santa Muerte will be subject to altars that are usually surrounded by any or all of the following: cigarettes, flowers, fruit, incense, alcoholic beverages, coins, candies and candles. As with Catholic saints, Lady Death’s icons are treated as real persons who can give favors in return for the faith of the believer, including miracles.

But unlike her traditional Christian counterparts, Santa Muerte is said to grant favors that no other saint can, such as making someone fall in love with you, damaging property, or even harming or killing someone – albeit only for just reasons.

As Señora de la Noche (“Lady of the Night”), she is often invoked by those exposed to the dangers of working at night, such as taxi drivers, bar owners, police officers, soldiers, and prostitutes. Indeed, she is generally used to protect against assaults, accidents, gun violence and all types of violent death.

Her image is often dressed differently depending on the request: for example, she may be dressed as a bride for those seeking a husband, or as a nun for those requesting hope or faith.

The color of the robe can indicate the nature of the petition as well: white is the most popular, symbolizing loyalty, purity or the cleansing of negative influences. Red is for love and passion with one’s partner, friends, or family, and also signals emotional stability. Blue garb indicates wisdom (popular for students), brown robes are used to invoke spirits or the dearly departed, and purple robes indicate the need to open some kind of pathway or opportunity (such as for a career). Gold indicates economic power, success, money and prosperity, while green signals justice or unity with loved ones. Amber or dark yellow indicates a search for health and/or money, and Lady Death figures can be seen wearing this color in areas frequented by alcoholics, drug addicts, or ill people. When dressed in black, the image is said to provide total protection against black magic or sorcery (though conversely, she may be dressed this way in pursuit of negative magic or power).

There is also a version of the image in a rainbow-colored robe, known as the Santa Muerte of the Seven Powers. The colors of this robe are gold, silver, copper, blue, purple, red and green. Gold is for wealth, red for love and passion, purple for the changing of negative to positive, silver for luck and success, green for justice, copper for lifting negative spirits, and blue for spirituality.

In additional to these variances, each worshiper adorns his or her own icon in their own way, using dollar bills, gold coins, jewelry, flowers, a paper with a request, and so on.

Santa Muerte also has her own “Saint’s Day,” which is celebrated on either November 1 or August 15, depending on the adherent. She’s often dressed in a bridal outfit during the occasion, and is subject to public gatherings and festivities.

Veneration
Despite its growing popularity, the controversy of the faith means that it remains secretive: most worshiping is done in homes of devotees or in shops tending to spirituality and the supernatural (tarot readers, curanderos, herbal healers, etc) However, more shrines and public festivities devoted to her are appearing in public; some time ago, a believer by the name of Enriqueta Romero Romero decided to take a life-sized image of Santa Muerte out of her home and build a shrine for it, visible from the street. Though it doesn’t hold Catholic or occult rituals, thousands of people continue pray and leave offerings. Several public shrines have been set up elsewhere in the country in response.

Raising of Santa Muerte images during a service in the deity’s honor on Alfareria Street Tepito Mexico City. (Source: Wikimedia).

Furthermore, a group called Iglesia Católica Tradicional México-Estados Unidos (Mexican-US Traditional Catholic Church) built the first temple dedicated to Santa Muerte in Mexico City, with plans to develop devotional material to be sold or disseminated across the country.

Popularity and Demographics
As I noted before, Santa Muerte is especially popular among the lower-classes of Mexican society. For decades she had a following in Mexico’s poorest neighborhoods. The phenomenon stems from scarce resources, desperation, exclusion from the educational and economic systems, and socioeconomic oppression – as such, it is based primarily in t inner cities and the very rural areas. It should be noted that most new religious beliefs start with the lower classes for this very reason.

She’s also gained many adherents who have become disillusioned with the dominant Catholic Church and the inability of established Catholic saints to deliver them from poverty. Indeed, some of the more blighted communities are said to revere Lady Death more than Jesus.

Though most upper-class people look down on the cult as an unsettling or foolish superstition, there have been some accounts of Lady Death making inroads among the wealthy and successful. Whether or not this is due to perceived trendiness is unknown, as the practice is even more secretive among the well-off than the poor.

Some of her most devoted followers are prostitutes, pickpockets, petty thieves and drug traffickers, especially those who turn to crime out of survival. Still, the cult is most strongly associated with the drug cartels that are wreaking havoc on Mexico, a connection that has only heightened the taboo-status of the belief. Mexican authorities regularly linked the worship of Santa Muerte to prostitution, drug trafficking, kidnapping, smuggling and homicides. Indeed, criminals are among her most fervent believers, praying to for a successful operation, or for escaping the police. She is considered to be the “Virgin of the Incarcerated,” such that a large number of convicts will convert to the faith after several months. Many prisons cells have been seen bearing the images of Santa Muerte.

In the north of Mexico, a major center of drug trafficking, she is venerated along with Jesús Malverde, the “Saint of Drug Traffickers”; altars with images of Santa Muerte have been found in many drug houses in both Mexico and the United States.

Interestingly, it has been reported the law enforcement and military personnel conducting the current drug war have asked Lady Death to bless their weapons and keep the same – an interesting twist considering that the criminals they fight do the exact same thing.

Figurines of Santa Muerte for sale in Sonora Market, Mexico City. (Source: Maurice Marcellin).

Santa Muerte and the Catholic Church
Mexico’s Catholic Church considers the worship of Santa Muerte to be equivalent to Satanism or black magic, claiming the she is used to mislead desperate people (many protestant denominations make the same warning). Priests have tried to inform people that death is a phase of life, rather than a figure to be worshiped; they also warn against idol worship, which is a defining element of death cult but officially discouraged by the Church.

Furthermore, the cult is seen as competing with the Catholic Church, since many followers end up leaving to become exclusive Santa Muerte devotees. Nonetheless, the majority of devotees to Santa Muerte do not worry about any contradiction between the church and the worship of Santa Muerte.

Santa Muerte in the United States
Devotion of Santa Muerte has been on the rise in the United States, mostly following the millions of poor Mexicans who have immigrated to the country. Her presence can be found almost anywhere that has a large Mexican community, including New York City, Houston, Tucson and Los Angeles, which alone has 15 registered temples and organizations devoted to her. It should be noted that many of these “adherents” bear icons or symbols mostly for cultural reasons.

The cult has gained some non-Mexican followers as well, most notably in Northern California’s Santisima Muerte Chapel of Perpetual Pilgrimage, which was founded by a white woman. Though it’s doubtful that will spread outside the Mexican working-class, the possibility can’t be ruled out. So far, America’s Catholic Church has not issued any official statements on the matter (though local churches are said to be addressing it).

The Origins of Cinco de Mayo

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Cinco de Mayo. 

Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day — that’s September 16, and it’s the country’s most important national holiday. Rather, it’s a commemoration of Mexico’s unlikely and surprising defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, under the leadership of General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín.

France had invaded and occupied Mexico partly in response to the latter’s refusal to pay interest on its foreign debt, but largely to fulfill the imperial ambitions of French Emperor Napoleon III (the nephew and heir of Napoleon Bonaparte). France was one of the preeminent powers of the time – and at one point had the backing of the United Kingdom, Austria, and Spain – so the fact that Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory became a cause for celebration. Mexican forces had been under-equipped and numbered only half of their French opponents (about 4,000 versus 8,000).

In any case, the French ultimately won the war and occupied Mexico until around 1867, when Maximilian I – who had been installed by the French as Emperor of the Second Mexican Empire – was overthrown and executed by Mexican revolutionaries. So despite losing the larger battle, Mexicans remained proud that they were able to hold their own and eventually win their freedom.

Interestingly, Cinco de Mayo is not a big holiday in Mexico except in the Puebla region where the battle was fought. In fact, it is far more popular in the United States, where it originated among Mexican-American communities in the 1860s, particularly in California. It eventually expanded across the country as a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture — and an opportunity to drink and party — not unlike the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated.

Cinco de Mayo has also caught on globally, with celebrations occurring in Australia, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Japan, and other countries. As a reflection of the holiday’s largely American roots, most foreign celebrations often invoke American culture and/or other Latin American heritages.

Mexico’s Unknown African Heritage

The first known successful and self-governing black community in the Americas was the town of San Lorenzo de los Negros de Cerralvo, which was established in Mexico in the 17th century by Gaspar Yanga, a leader of a slave rebellion. A former member of the royal family of Gabon, he successfully led a band of revolting slaves near Veracruz around 1570, fleeing to the difficult terrain of the highlands, where they built a small colony. The community grew for more than 30 years as a haven for other fugitive slaves, surviving off the land and by raiding caravans.

In 1609, the Spanish colonial government tried to retake the territory, but despite its superior numbers and weapons, failed in the face of the maroons’ effective guerrilla tactics and superior knowledge of the area. After seven years of stalemate, the Spanish agreed to Yanga’s terms: the community would remain part of the empire but be subject to self-rule, just as any other municipality. An independent community of blacks — let alone one of former slaves — was virtually unheard of at the time. This unique town was fully established by 1630, and remains to this day under the name of its founder, Yanga.

This wouldn’t be the last time that blacks played a prominent role in Mexican history. Several of the country’s revolutionary leaders and founding fathers, such as José María Morelos, were of African (and for that matter indigenous) descent. One of them, Vicente Guerrero, would actually serve as one of Mexico’s earliest presidents, and one of the Western Hemisphere’s first black heads of state. Though his term was brief, he managed to rebuff Spain’s efforts to reconquer Mexico, and issued a proclamation abolishing slavery on September 16, 1829.

To learn more about Mexico’s unique black heritage (and for that matter Peru’s), check out the following excellent documentary series from PBS:

Mexico: Land of Opportunity?

There’s a widespread misconception — bolstered by news media and political rhetoric — that the U.S. is enduring a flood of migrants from Mexico. On the contrary, both legal and illegal immigration from south of the border has declined by 80 percent since 2007, the lowest at any point since 1991. The number of Mexicans returning home outnumbered those leaving the country — in fact, more Americans have left for Mexico than the other way around, with the number surging since 2005. Subsequently, our southern neighbor hosts over one million U.S. citizens, more than any other country in the world. 

Furthermore, this trend is likely to be permanent, because Mexico is actually doing far better than most people realize. Since the recession, it’s economy has grown twice as fast as America’s (albeit from a much lower base). Depending on how you measure it, Mexico has the 11th to 14th largest economy in the world, with some sources predicting that it will grow to become the fifth or seventh largest by 2050 (around the level that France, the UK, and Germany are today). A few scholars even believe that Mexico could become an influential global power, which isn’t far fetched when you consider that in some areas, it’s comparable or superior to China, India, Russia, and other emerging powers. 

Since the mid-1990s, the majority of Mexicans have become part of the rapidly growing middle-class, with the country recently being classified as a newly-industrialized nation. Mexico’s average life expectancy and poverty rate is comparable to the U.S. (thanks in part to its universal healthcare system), while one-third of Mexican states have a crime rate equal to or less than America’s. While the country is still enduring many problems — including one of the worst rates of violence and income inequality in the world — it’s not the dystopia that popular culture and news media make it out to be.

Labor Movement

Whenever I see people passing by, whether as motorists or pedestrians, I sometimes wonder: who are the occupants of those vehicles? Where are they going? What are they like? We’re so accustomed to seeing a lot of strangers in our everyday lives, that we scarcely acknowledge them as fellow human beings, with their own stories, personalities, and histories.

It’s hard to remember that we share this planet with seven billion people just like us, with their own fears, dreams, experiences, and beliefs. People who are living out their narratives at this very moment; some of their stories ending, others just beginning.

This reflection was brought upon by the work of one enterprising and creative photographer, who decided to stand on a bridge and take pictures of the various migrant workers passing underneath in their iconic pick-up trucks. Here’s just a sample:

These are the people that are often behind the scenes, raising our children, caring for our elderly and infirm, and picking our produce. They have stories of their own, mostly of tragedy, hardship, and perseverance. I wonder what they’re all like in person. What kind of perspectives would they give me?

 

The Angels of Ciudad Juarez

Mexico has become a byword for violence and dysfunction ever since its government began a bloody crackdown on the country’s brutal drug cartels several years ago (comparisons to Colombia during the criminal reign of Pablo Escobar abound). This is unfortunate, given that much of the population is still untouched by gang violence, and the country is far more prosperous than it once was, with economic growth last year being among the fastest in the world. Like many other third world countries, I fear its overall reputation will be tarnished by the negative headlines that dominate any mention of it in the media.

At any rate, Mexicans have become understandably fed up with the state of their country. As part of the recent worldwide trend in political demonstrations,  thousands of people took to the streets, protesting against the violence of the drug war, in addition to the widely perceived incompetence of their public officials. Like their neighbors to the north, most the Mexican population believes their country is heading in the wrong direction. Sure enough, they too have a contentious presidential election ahead of them.

But some brave citizens are speaking out in more creative ways, choosing to defy the gangsters on their own turf within the violence capital of Mexico, Ciudad Juarez – by dressing up as angels.

Angels are not a common sight here in Mexico’s most violent border city, where the public cemetery is putrid and overflowing, and where a handful of churches worship the skeletal saint of death, Santa Muerte.

But at crime scenes and busy corners recently, more than a dozen angels have appeared — 10 feet tall, with white robes and wide feathered wings. The fact that these angels are mostly teenagers from a tiny evangelical church on a dirt road makes their presence no less striking: they carry signs to murder scenes that say “murderers repent.”

Many residents of this blighted community have become emboldened in the face of a relentless crime wave that has claimed journalists, police officers, city officials, and innocent bystanders. Some grim findings include a mass grave of women believed to have been migrants heading for the U.S. Rather than flee or remain silent in the face of such brutality, the people of Juarez have remained insolent, no longer hiding their names in public reports, and leading public cries for law and order. Even by such remarkably bold standards, the angels – most of whom are young teens – are incredibly audacious.

They got started last year, after intense conversations at a Christian church on the city’s outskirts, Psalm 100. Carlos Mayorga, 33, a leader of the group, said the church’s young people had become frustrated with the relentless violence and wanted to do something hard to miss. So they persuaded city officials to donate old curtains that became angelic robes. They raised money for makeup and collected feathers for wings that jut above their heads.

Then they wrote up signs that by and large speak directly to criminals and corrupted officials. “We wanted to prick the consciences of the people who have caused this city so much pain,” Mr. Mayorga said.

Early on, the angels focused on busy intersections. They stood on folding metal chairs for extra height, their robes reaching over the chairs and down to the ground. Israel Santillan, 15, one angel, recalled that there were always a lot of people honking in support and asking if they were being paid.

Later, to make sure they reached their target audience, they started going to crime scenes, where their angelic messages were often greeted with odd stares, and occasionally tears.

The last thing most people would have the gumption to do is visit a recent crime scene, or draw attention to themselves by calling out the very perpetrators of said crimes. Yet that is precisely what these kids are doing by their own volition. How many of us would dare speak truth to power in such a daring way? These gangs have allies throughout the city, including among police, and have shown few scruples in targeting children. What these brave kids are doing is putting them in real danger (though thankfully, last I checked, none of them have yet been targeted).

Thankfully, the beauty and audacity of these actions has inspired people elsewhere in to stand-up to the forces that had once gripped them in fear.

Generally, though, the Messenger Angel idea seems to be catching on. The group has been traveling lately to other dangerous cities — Matamoros, Torreón — where they join with other young Christians dressed as angels. The messages there tend to be just as confrontational.

Mayorga said he hopes that somehow, eventually, they will help bring peace. “The idea is to keep going,” he said. “We have to.”

Indeed, the human capacity for endless perseverance is a remarkable thing. With enough resolve, daring, and patience, few determined human beings can ever be stopped in their efforts. Even the most seemingly harmless demonstrations of raw will can speak volumes in the long run, just its very nature of defiance. I hope Mexico will soon be free of this underserved horror.

 

The Brief Origins of Cinco De Mayo

I thought I’d take a break from politics, social issues, and other haughty topics and go for something a little more fun – and still educational!

Cinco De Mayo is actually a very important celebration, beyond essentially serving as a Mexican version of St. Patrick’s Day! 😛 It commemortates Mexico’s unlikely and surprising defeat of invading French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.

Yes, France actually invaded Mexico, and even occupied it for a few years. This was partly in response to the Mexican President’s refusal to pay interest to it’s foreign debt, and partly to fulfill the imperial ambitions of Napoleon III. In any case, France had been one of the premiment powers of the time, and the fact that a country as poor as Mexico was able to mount such a resounding victory at Puebla became cause for celebration, even to this day. Mexican forces had been underequiped and numbered only half of their French opponents (about 4,000 versus 8,000).

In any case, the French did actually go on to win the war, and occupied Mexico until around 1867, when Maximillian I, who had been installed by the French as a monarch, was overthrown and executed by Mexican revolutionaries. So despite losing the bigger battle, Mexico remained proud that it was able to hold it’s own and eventually win it’s freedom.

Interestingly, Cinco De Mayo is not a big holiday in Mexico itself (except in the Puebla region where the battle was fought) and is actually more popular in the US, where is is often mistaken as Mexico’s independence day (which, by the way, is actually on September 16th). Apparently, the holiday began in California during the course of the French invasion as a form of protest. From then on, it seems to have clearly caught on, evolving into a celebration of Mexican heritage and culture (again, Mexico’s version of St. Patrick’s Day :P).

In any case, hope you all have a happy – AND SAFE! – Cinco De Mayo.