Category Archives: Culture and News for Linguaphiles

Mexican tradition ¡FELIZ DIA DE LOS MUERTOS!

The release this fall, just before Halloween, of Guillermo del Toro’s new animated film THE BOOK OF LIFE, based on the Mexican tradition of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is yet another sign of the ever-increasing cultural cross-fertilization between Mexico and the United States.

Mexican Tradition – Día de Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition - Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Ofrenda Dia De Muertos

Indeed, Día de Los Muertos and Halloween have quite a bit in common, but there are important differences as well. Halloween, as practiced today in the U.S., is mostly about dressing in costume and collecting enormous quantities of candy. Symbols of death and otherworldly images are used as decorations, but mainly in a sanitized, non-threatening way. In contrast, Day of the Dead, a holiday that spans two days in Mexico, is a time for families to remember departed loved ones, and to feel their presence in the lives of the living. In the United States, we tend to regard death as something final, foreign, something to be feared. In the Mexican tradition, Día de Los Muertos festivities reflect a recognition and acceptance of death as an integral part of the human experience, and a belief that dying does not remove a person from family and community. Death is still scary, but it’s confronted with humor, irony, and a touch of fatalism.

In preparation for Día de Los Muertos, much time and care is devoted to cleaning and decorating graves. Elaborate altars, called ofrendas (“offerings”), are constructed in honor of dead loved ones, both in homes and in cemeteries; photographs of the departed are surrounded by candles, Mexican marigolds (cempasúchil), sugar skulls (calaveritas), written messages, religious items, and food, drink, or belongings that were dear to the departed in life. All of this effort is to invite the souls of the departed to come back for a visit, to know that they are still a part of the lives of those who love them. There is sadness, of course, but there’s also celebration, with eating, drinking, music and laughter as people share humorous stories of the departed. Like a New Orleans funeral, it’s as much about celebrating life as it is about mourning.

History of Día de Los Muertos

Like many religious traditions in Latin America, Day of the Dead is a mixture of ancient native practices and Catholic beliefs. The Aztec festival commemorating the dead occupied a full month in the 16-month calendar. It was presided over by the goddess Mictecacíhuatl, the “lady of death,” wife of Mictlantecuhtli, lord of the Land of the Dead. The figure of the goddess of death has come to be associated with La Catrina, a character created by the artist José Guadalupe Posada, a very elegant skeleton dressed in the European style of an upper-class 19th-century Mexican woman.

Mexican Tradition - Dia De Los Muertos

Mexican Tradition – Dia De Los Muertos

In the modern Mexican tradition, Día de Muertos festivities coincide with the Catholic holy days of All Saints’ Day, November 1, and All Souls’ Day, November 2. The 1st of November is Día de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) or Día de los Angelitos (Day of the Little Angels), dedicated to the memory of children who have died, while the 2nd of Nov. is Día de Los Muertos, when departed adults are honored. It is believed that the souls of the departed come back to visit loved ones on their respective days.

It’s no wonder that Día de Los Muertos is being celebrated in a growing number of U.S. cities and towns. Brought here by immigrants, the color, beauty, and spiritual depth of this Mexican tradition is resonating with more and more Americans.  Along with the ofrendas, festivities, and pan de muerto (a Mexican sweet bread baked specially for the occasion), Dia de Los Muertos offers a chance to celebrate the lives of those who are no longer with us.

Set Yourself Apart When You Travel to Mexico: 10 Things You May Not Know About Mexico

With all the bad news coming from Mexico these days, it’s easy to forget that if you choose your destinations with a bit of care, it’s still a beautiful and welcoming place to travel.

Travel to Mexico : Oaxaca Church

Oaxaca Church

When you travel to Mexico you can find spectacular scenery, mind-blowing pre-Colombian ruins, and beautiful colonial cities and towns. Mexico has 32 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List scattered throughout the country. It’s a country full of warm, friendly people who love to laugh, and there’s lots of great food to be had. And of course, there’s tequila. For those who would like to travel to Mexico armed with some knowledge that will set them apart from other turistas (knowing a little of the Spanish language goes a long way too), I’ve compiled a list, in no particular order, of facts and places of interest.

Get ready to travel to Mexico!

  1. We’re not the only United States. Mexico’s official name is Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United Mexican States). The country has 32 States. Unfortunately, 16 of them are currently under U.S. State Department travel advisories, but that still leaves many options for safe travel to Mexico. The list of states that our government recommends avoiding can be found here.
  2. Mexico formally abolished slavery in 1820, 53 years before the U.S.
  3. You can see the oldest olive trees in the Western Hemisphere. The town of Tzintzuntzan, in the state of Michoacán, in addition to having a really cool name, is home to the monastery of San Francisco, where you’ll find olive trees said to have been planted by Vasco de Quiroga in the 1500’s. There’s also a glass coffin housing a wax figure of Christ whose arms and legs, according to the locals, are continually growing – an extension was added to the coffin to accommodate them.
  4. View a volcano that ate two towns (slowly). On February 20, 1943, a farmer and his wife in Michoacán saw ash and stones erupting from a fissure in their field. The eruptions soon grew into a full-blown volcano, which slowly engulfed the villages of Paricutín and San Juan Parangaricutiro.
    Travel to Mexico: Paricutín volcano

    Paricutín volcano

    The residents of the two villages safely relocated to land nearby. The Paricutín volcano continued to erupt until 1952; it was the first time the entire life cycle of a volcano was witnessed by scientists. Today, when you travel to Mexico, you can hike to San Juan Parangaricutiro to see the remains of the town, including the church bell tower and altar, which were left exposed.

  5. There’s no worm in tequila, though sometimes you’ll find one in mezcal, which is made from a different variety of agave. “Tequila” is a controlled appellation: in order to bear that name, the spirit has to be produced in the state of Jalisco or in certain areas of 4 other states: Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas, the area surrounding the town of – that’s right: Tequila! Travelers in Mexico interested in learning about tequila’s production and history can take a trip on the José Cuervo Express, a train from Guadalajara to Tequila that allows visitors to tour distilleries, sample and purchase tequilas and other spirits, and return to Guadalajara without having to drive.
  6. Travel through Canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. The Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) is a group of canyons in the Sierra Madre Occidental in southwestern Chihuahua. The more remote areas are home to the Rarámuri, or Tarahumara, Indians, renowned for their endurance running. A popular train takes visitors from the city of Chihuahua through the canyons to the West Coast at Los Mochis.
  7. See amazing murals. From the 1920s to the 70s, a large number of murals were painted on public buildings in several cities. The most famous muralists of the era, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siquieros, painted many masterpieces filled with social and political messages, which can be seen at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, the Hospicio Cabañas and the Jalisco Governmental Palace, both in Guadalajara, as well as many other sites.
  8. Great reefs for snorkeling & scuba diving can be found on both coasts, including areas in Veracruz and Quintana Roo on the Gulf Coast and Baja California Sur on the West Coast.
  9. Visit beautiful colonial cities. Visitors who find Mexico City a bit overwhelming can enjoy a number of charming smaller cities. San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Mérida, and San Cristóbal de las Casas are a few fine examples.
  10. Indulge in the food, from simple to sophisticated. One of the perks when you travel to Mexico is that you can find great meals for all budgets, from small tacos made with double tortillas to hold their bulging contents, to complex and picturesque dishes such as chiles en nogada and an infinite variety of moles. The adventurous can also try different types of larvae, crickets, and other crawly things! Like many things in Mexico, there’s something for all tastes.

Top 10 Literary Travel Destinations for When you Travel to Russia

If you are planning to travel to Russia and are interested in literary history, the places on this list deserve a spot on your itinerary.  Russians are very proud of their rich literary heritage, and this is reflected in their well-curated and oft-frequented museums, houses, and estates dedicated to Russian authors.

Top 10 Literary Destinations When you Travel to Russia:

Yasnaya Polyana - Travel to RussiaTula – Yasnaya Polyana
Situated outside the city of Tula, about 120 miles south of Moscow, this bucolic estate is where Leo Tolstoy was born and spent most of his life. It features a main house, a school founded by Tolstoy for the peasant children on the estate, and beautiful grounds. The house and school are now a museum, with many of Tolstoy’s books and possessions on display exactly as he left them. Opt for a guided tour, available in Russian, English, French, and German, or just wander the four thousand acres of forests, fields, ponds, and gardens by yourself to take in the atmosphere that inspired War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Moscow – Bulgakov House, Master and Margarita tour
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is one of the most widely-loved novels of the Soviet era. It is set mainly in Moscow, and the Bulgakov museum has created a walking tour of the important places in the story. Travel to Russia and enter Bulgakov’s world and see the locations that inspired him, from his own apartment that became the devil’s hideout to the ritzy Patriarch’s Ponds area where the novel opens. On the night tours you may even encounter some of Bulgakov’s characters in the flesh! The museum is easily accessible by metro, and also holds theatrical productions, art exhibits, a café, and more.

Moscow – Novodevichy cemetery
Any travel to Russia is not complete without a visit to Novodevichy cemetery. Russia has produced an incredible number of titans in the arts and sciences, and here is the final resting place of almost 27,000 statesmen, artists, composers, writers, scientists, and cosmonauts, many of whom made significant contributions to their fields and left a lasting legacy. The cemetery is full of beautiful, serene and picturesque sculpted monuments, and feels more like a park than a cemetery. It is also gigantic; a map and basic knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet is recommended. Bulgakov, Chekhov, and Gogol are among the writers buried here.

Yalta—Chekhov’s white dacha
In the seacoast town of Yalta on the Crimean peninsula is a beautiful dacha, or country house, built by Anton Chekhov. He relocated to Yalta because of his tuberculosis (which would eventually kill him, despite the therapeutic sea air) and had this house custom built for him. It was here that he wrote some of his most famous works, including The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. The house is pure white (hence the name) and features expansive gardens. The museum collection includes letters, photos, books, and heirlooms of the Chekhov family.

St. Petersburg – Nabokov house-museum
Vladimir Nabokov is most well-known for his novel Lolita. He was also a renowned butterfly collector, who curated Harvard University’s collection of specimens. While he spent most of his life in exile outside of Russia because of political turmoil, the house he was born in in St. Petersburg has been turned into a museum. There you can see his manuscripts as well as his butterfly collection, drawings, and other personal effects. There are also beautiful stained glass windows that Nabokov used as inspiration in many of his works.

St. Petersburg – Dostoevsky house-museum
The apartment in St. Petersburg where Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov holds a huge collection of art, photographs, manuscripts, and other memorabilia of the great author’s life and work. The rooms are restored to how they were when Dostoevsky lived here at the end of his life. It is easily accessible by metro, only one block from Vladimirskaya station. The surrounding Vladimirsky neighborhood was his inspiration for the setting of many of his works, and visiting this museum is like stepping into Dostoevsky’s mind. The guided tours insight into the items on display and the stories behind them.

Pushkin Hills/Mikhailovskoye estate
Alexander Pushkin - Travel to RussiaAlexander Pushkin is considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Almost any Russian can quote from his novel in verse Eugene Onegin. Any travel to Russia simply must include some Pushkin! Mikhailovskoye estate, part of the area now called Pushkin Hills in the Pskov region (north-west of Moscow), is where Pushkin spent two years after being exiled from St. Petersburg for his critical remarks about the government. He produced a lot of his work here, thanks to the beautiful natural surroundings and idle pace of provincial life. He was in close contact with the estate’s serfs, from whom he collected folklore. The village of the estate now has a living history museum, with open-air exhibits featuring authentic 19th-century farming installations. You can try on period costumes and thresh corn as a peasant would have. The guest houses in the village prepare meals using traditional methods. The estate house itself is also a museum, featuring Pushkin’s writing room and effects. Every summer there is a major celebration for Pushkin’s birthday on June 6. Nearby, still within the Pushkin Hills area, is Sviatogorsky Monastery where Pushkin is buried.

Boldino—Pushkin State Memorial Museum and Natural Preserve
In 1830, Pushkin left Moscow for a short trip to his estate Boldino, outside of Nizhny Novgorod, but ended up staying there quarantined through the autumn months because of a cholera outbreak in the capital. This time became known as the “Boldino Autumn,” the most productive time in Pushkin’s writing career. It is easy to see why—the estate is gorgeous, providing poetic inspiration. Now it is a state museum, open to the public and attracting devoted travelers each year. The main building has a restoration of Pushkin’s study, copied from a sketch he did of it, and the log outbuildings have been restored exactly as they were in the 19th century. While the estate is a bit hard to get to, the cultural significance is immense and it is a wonderful trip when you travel to Russia.

Abramtsevo
If you are looking for a day trip from Moscow, you can travel north-east to Abramtsevo. In a beautiful natural setting, tucked away in the forest (about half a mile through the woods from the nearest train station), this historical artistic and cultural preserve is a lovely estate that became an artistic colony in 1870. The first Russian nesting doll was carved here, and some of Russia’s most well-known painters and sculptors worked here. But before it was inhabited by visual artists, it was owned by writer Sergei Aksakov. Frequent guests of his included Nikolai Gogol, who wrote most of his novel Dead Souls at Abramtsevo, and Ivan Turgenev. These authors all shared the view that European influences should be rejected in favor of a uniquely Russian style. Abramtsevo continued to embody this idea through the years as it became a center of Russian folk art, crafts, and architecture.

Peredelkino
A suburb of Moscow tucked away in a pine forest, Peredelkino became a writer’s colony in 1932. It was a rustic haven far removed from the unrest and fear of the time, inhabited by Soviet writers, poets, and bards. The most noted residents were Boris Pasternak and Kornei Chukovsky, whose houses have been turned into museums. Chukovsky was Russia’s most famous children’s author, and his house-museum features a whimsical tree decorated with shoes. Even though modern capitalist society is slowly taking over, with wealthy bankers moving in and highways springing up nearby, Peredelkino is still an interesting look at mid-Soviet literary life and worth the short train ride from Moscow.