A Travellerspoint blog

Silent statues and colourful beasts in the Zócalo

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Mexico City's Zócalo, the enormous public square in the heart of its Centro Histórico, is rarely empty. When it isn't the venue for celebrations, political rallies, protest marches or other events, it's showcasing sculptures or hosting fairs. And at Christmas it turns into a huge winter sports arena with the world's largest ice-skating rink, among other things.

Lately, over the past two weeks, it has housed a series of sculptures called Nuestros Silencios ("Our Silences"), by the Mexican sculptor Rivelino, which have circled the globe over the last two years, visiting cities such as London, Madrid, Brussels, Paris, Shanghai, Moscow.... The exhibition consists of 10 giant figures cast in bronze and a Tactile Box specially for the blind which contains four smaller replicas inside which can be felt by putting your hands through two small holes. These giant sculptures were installed in the centre of the Zócalo on the 26th October and will be standing there in silence until the 18th November.

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The exhibition "Nuestros Silencios" is installed in a circle around the flagpole in the centre of the Zócalo

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People visiting the exhibition

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Each of the 10 giant figures is cast in bronze and has tactile decorations on it

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A side view

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People queueing to experience the Tactile Box

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One of the big figures

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Looking towards the Palacio Nacional

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The day I went, there was a group of schoolchildren performing Aztec dances in the square

For a week or so, these giant figures were joined by the alebrije creatures who were moved from Paseo de la Reforma to make room for the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. The creatures clearly enjoyed having more space to move around in and the visitors were able to observe them from every angle. Here's a bird's eye view and a worm's view of them!

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Looking down on the Zócalo

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Latin America's largest cathedral, la Catedral Metropolitana, stands on one side of the square

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The group of 10 bronze figures making up the exhibition, Nuestros Silencios, seen from above

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The enormous square with the colourful alebrijes dotted around it

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Looking down on one of the alebrijes

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One of the creatures threatening the Cathedral

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Looking the Cathedral square in the eye

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Looks like this alebrije is drinking through a straw!

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Detail of mermaids... one has been eating a bit more than the other?

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Is it a slide?

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A swooping bird

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A dragon-like creature with the Palacio Nacional in the background

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A brightly coloured feline creature with a snake in its mouth

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Looking down towards the Torre Latino

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A defiant prehistoric monster?

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Lots of tongues

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Three-headed creature

Posted by margaretm 13:34 Archived in Mexico Tagged sculptures down mexico_city zocalo looking alebrijes Comments (0)

Trying to understand Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Part 2)

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This year, I felt more relaxed about Día de Muertos. Those unnerving grinning skeleton figures or calacas didn't seem so ghoulsome. I was obviously getting a bit more used to seeing them around. Since they were springing up all around the city, in all places, from shopping centres, shops, museums, even restaurants, there was no way I was going to be able to avoid them.

At the end of October, I was wandering around the Centro Histórico when I was beckoned by one of these laughing calacas to enter through an enormous doorway. Curiosity got the best of me and I summoned up courage, having just seen a family with small kids go in. I mean, it couldn't be too horrific if they were taking their tiny offspring in there, could it? I crossed the threshold and found myself in the innards of an old colonial building where I stumbled on a Tianguis de Día de Muertos, a kind of craft fair selling all kinds of items related to the Day of the Dead. The smell of incense clogged the air and colourful tissue-paper decorations fluttered overhead between the stands where skulls (calaveras or calaveritas), joss sticks, catrina figures, candles, papel picado decorations, skeletons and sweets were being made by craftsmen and on sale. All around me were families with young children picking out their calaveritas and other things for the festival. The scene seemed a bit surreal. The stands looked like something you would find in a Mexican Camden Town but the family atmosphere didn't quite fit. On stage in the central courtyard, were three actors and musicians giving a show about life and death. As I emerged into the bright sunlight again, a small tot was bawling out her eyes as her parents were trying to persuade her to touch the skeleton at the door. I was glad to see I wasn't the only one who was reluctant to do so.

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A not-so-spooky welcome to the Tianguis de Día de Muertos

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Stands at the craft fair

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Comical mariachi band and skulls for sale

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An outing for all the family

A little further down the road, in a street where the church leans disturbingly sideways, visibly sinking down into the soft ground of the former lakebed, I came across an ofrenda set up in honour of "Cantinflas", Mexico's most famous comedian who was born 100 years ago. With heaps of orangey-gold marigold decorations, candles and comical skeletons, it was proving most fascinating to the two small boys holding their mum's hands. My mind boggled at the sheer number of craniums and calacas staring at me from the ofrenda and placed on each step of a nearby staircase. Counting them would have been an impossible task for the short time I was there. I began to wonder who would want to take their kids into a place like that but was beginning to see that most Mexicans are brought up from a young age to view this as normal. Death is not hidden away but rather is part of life. At this time of the year, it is brought out into the open and assumed. I was thinking about this on my way back to the car when I passed the same cake shop with the small figures I'd seen the previous year. The front window was crowded by a group of teenagers giggling about the funeral scene. That seemed to be the mood of the day.

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Decorated street

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Ofrenda in honour of Cantinflas

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Teenagers at the cake shop

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Miniature funeral figures

The Day of the Dead was approaching and I was stuck in the traffic, listening to the radio, as daylight was fast disappearing on November 1st. I was amused to see an army of miniature pumpkins, catrinas, and other small children in fancy dress costumes, escorted by their parents, making their way up Virreyes, a street lined by exclusive properties with guardias to answer the bell. The older kids knocked at the doors and tiny hands clutched plastic pumpkin or skull bowls to collect sweets and chocolates. Halloween is gaining ground too here in Mexico. On the radio programme, the presenters were extolling the virtues of the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos over American Halloween. "Es que Halloween no es nuestro, no es tradición en nuestro país," one of the speakers was reiterating. Halloween isn't a Mexican tradition, it doesn't belong to the Mexicans, he was saying. Until one of the ladies on the programme pointed out that Día de Muertos is also a mixture of European All Saints' Day brought over by the Spanish Catholic Church. "And we took it on, we blended it in with our pre-Hispanic traditions. Who knows if the same is happening with Halloween?" she said. True, though at the moment Mexicans regard Halloween as a bit of fun for the children whereas their Day of the Dead is the more serious fiesta, celebrated by everyone. They continued with the programme, asking people to ring in from all over Mexico and share how they celebrate this day in their region. The account given by a listener in Campeche made my hair stand on end. "When people have been dead for more than three years, we dig their skeletons up and give their bones a good clean. If they still have any hair, we brush that and make them look nice before putting them in a box called an osario. After the all-night vigil and celebration on Día de Muertos, we bury them again in the box." Even the presenters were taken back. Left speechless for a few seconds. Then came a comment. "Not sure if I could dig up la Abuelita and do that to her!" Obviously traditions differ a lot from one place to another and some are quite alien to others.

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Halloween is also celebrated

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A tiny pumpkin tot

So what do Mexicans do on the actual Día de Muertos, 2nd November, when they aren't visiting the cemetry, or having a family reunion attended by live and dead members, I wondered? Graves, tumbas, cemetries, camposantos... I really didn't want to go along there. So I decided to tag along with some friends on the the Newcomers' trip which was going to visit three museums to see the altars set up there. Lynda Martinez del Campo, an expert on most things Mexican, would be delighting us with her knowledgeable explanations. First we went to the Museo Dolores Olmeda in Xochimilco, followed by the Museo de Anahuacalli created by Diego Rivera to house his collection of pre-Hispanic pieces, ending up finally at the Blue House, or Casa Azul as it is known here, which was Frida Kahlo's home in Coyoacán. It was an eye-opening excursion, to say the least. They all not only had riotously coloured altars on display but a whole host of other activities... a play, a children's workshop for decorating their own calaveritas (skulls), craft and food stands and, of course, the museums themselves. And they were teeming with families, young people, older couples. In the midst of the jovial atmosphere, I had to keep pinching myself to remember that this was Day of the Dead and not some summer festival. Although the holiday was associated with "death", there was decidedly more life and colour and festive excitement than I have seen in most places.

MUSEO DOLORES OLMEDA - A museum in an old hacienda in Xochimilco

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Part of the old house

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Mariachi band

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A skeletal Hernán Cortés and his horse

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Grotto-like ofrenda in honour of Dolores Olmeda

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Actor in the play

MUSEO DE ANAHUACALLI - Set up by Diego Rivera in Coyoacán

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The museum building made of black volcanic stone

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Altar to Diego Rivera

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A typical hanging altar for people who have drowned

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White is the colour for those children "in limbo"

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Kids decorating their own calaveritas

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One of the finished works of art

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Lady selling gorditas

MUSEO DE FRIDA KAHLO - Also known as the Blue House, in Coyoacán

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La Casa Azul

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Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera lived in the Blue House or Casa Azul

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The bright colours of Frida's altar

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Frida's portrait

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Food items making up the ofrenda

COYOACÁN - The festive atmosphere in the town centre

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The church in Coyoacán's main square

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People everywhere in the square

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Eating tostadas

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Seen on the front porch of a private house

As a European, I have to admit it takes time to comprehend this festival, to understand how Mexicans seem to feel comfortable with reminders of death around them, how natural it is for them to look at "death" in the eye and make fun of it. We, on the other hand, try to hide it, pretend it isn't there, that it isn't part of life. Maybe Judy King sums it up well in her description:

"The Mexican flatters and woos death, he sings to her, dances with her, lifts his glass to her, he laughs at her. Finally, he challenges her, and in the challenging, death loses her power to intimidate him. Once he knows death intimately, death is no longer wrapped in a cloak of mystery or causes him to fear the darkness. Once the fear of death has been defeated, the clutch she has on the hearts and minds of the living is lessened once and for all. Death's morbid side is buried under music and remembrances, while skeletons laugh and dance and sing as Mexico celebrates life in its embrace of death."

Let's see what I'll be bold enough to do next year. Maybe eat a sugar calaverita with my name on its forehead? Still not sure about that.

Posted by margaretm 13:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged museums colours traditions mexico_city frida_kahlo offerings day-of-the-dead diego_rivera dolores_olmeda Comments (0)

Trying to understand Mexico's Dia de Muertos (Part 1)

Day of the Dead

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Our excursion was rather surprising. Better than I thought it would be. Wednesday, 2nd November, was Dia de Muertos , the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, and I was determined to find out what exactly was behind it. It's taken some time to digest. This is my third Day of the Dead.

The first one took me unawares. We hadn't been in Mexico for very long and suddenly skulls and skeletons and candles and offerings appeared all over the place. Marc came home from school, announcing that he had to write about the symbolism of the calavera or skull in the celebration of the Dia de Muertos. I looked at him to see if he was joking but, no, he wasn't. I suggested he looked it up on the Internet. Next day he came home saying that he was supposed to take candles to school for their altar or ofrenda. I drew the line at the candles as I didn't think it was appropriate for us. He looked relieved. Then Cristina arrived, talking about pan de muerto which translates into English as "bread of the dead". My imagination ran a bit wild as I wondered what on earth they used for flour. But it turned out to be a pleasant sweet bread bun that looks like it has knobbly bones on top. I still felt a bit spooked by all those skeletons dressed up in shop windows laughing at me but that year, I had more than enough on my plate. Like trying to work out how to drive the automatic car, decipher the rules of the road in Mexico City, find out where on earth you could buy epazote or even what it was, or how to find my way back to that supermarket tucked totally out of my internal GPS' range among the winding roads which followed the deep ravines behind our house. So Dia de Muertos came and went that year and in the end I managed to keep away from it.

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Coloured tissue-paper banners

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Altar set up in a shopping centre

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An organ-grinder with a sense of humour

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Candy skulls waiting to be given to children

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Pan de muerto or bread of the dead

Last year was different. I knew it was coming. Right after Halloween, and the Halloween junk had been up in the shops since September. More or less the day after the Independence Holiday was over. So I summoned up a bit of courage and decided to look the skulls and skeletons straight in the eye socket and try and understand what this day was all about. That's when I discovered that Dia de Muertos is a syncretic celebration mixing pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholicism, creating a unique Mexican tradition. Most definitely not Christian. Very broadly speaking, many Mexicans believe that on one day a year, specifically November 2, the souls of people who have died can return to the world of the living for 24 hours as spirits to visit their family and friends. So families prepare altars at home or around their graves, with their loved-ones' photos or portraits and place their favourite food and drink there to welcome them back on this special night. Candles and copal incense are used to guide the souls to the right place, as is the scent of golden marigolds or cempasúchil o zempoazxochitl, the flowers which are typically used to decorate the altar and graves. Then November 2nd is spent in the company of the souls of deceased family members or friends with the celebration of fiestas and picnics. It is a festive occasion when they talk about the dead as if they were alive, a time of remembering, re-living and enjoying. There is also a widespread belief that the soul of angelitos, children or babies who have died, arrive first on November 1st and in some areas, all-night candlelight vigils are held by the graves of the family members.

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An altar with food and drink

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An ofrenda set out complete with chairs around it

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Typical dishes which the deceased person liked

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The scent of marigolds is believed to attract the souls to the altar

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A Day of the Dead altar prepared by a family

Armed with that background information, I went along to the Zócalo last November to see what they called the mega-ofrenda or mega-offering. Towering up over the Panteón del Zocalo was a huge, rather strange, papier-mâché figure called the Árbol de La Muerte Florida, the Flowering Death Tree. Death was represented on one side and life on the other. The mega-offering was actually a joint affair by many of DF's associations and organisations and altars representing the different states of Mexico and consisted of lots of stands, each with skeletons in the guise of firemen, wrestlers, teachers and even passengers on a bus and train. I was surprised to see that many of the altars were full of humorous scenes, with grinning skulls, dancing esqueletos and even mariachi bands of skeleton musicians clutching instruments and wearing Mexican hats, basically having fun. This was definitely not my idea of a sombre, rather solemn All Saints' Day like we have back in Europe.

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Panteón del Zócalo in Mexico City

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Bright colours and flowers are used in the decoration

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Huge Árbol de la Muerte Florida sculpture in the Zocalo

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Skeleton wrestlers

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A man preparing the coloured base for the altar

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Dancing skeletons

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Train with spooky passengers

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Children posing for a photo in front of a skeleton-decorated bus

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Humour plays a big part in the fiesta

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The Fire Department's stand

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Even a skull with a punk hairdo!

Hundreds of families were flocking around the stands, pointing out the funny things, nodding approvingly at the colourful and highly creative scenes and posing for photos in front of them. That's when I began to understand that Dia de Muertos, far from being a time of mourning, was actually full of life, colour, excitement and food. It was a way of recognizing the cycle of life and death that is human existence. And it certainly had nothing to do with the horror and gore of Halloween. Even so, I was still rather taken aback to see people wandering around the streets dressed up as catrinas (high-society female skeleton figures popularised by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada) who passers-by would pose next to for photos. Peering in the shop window of a cake shop, I could make out scores of small figures, all skeletons, enacting out a funeral and I struggled to imagine a similar scene in Spain or England. All around were candy and chocolate calaveras or skulls to be given to children, much like our chocolate Easter Eggs, I supposed. The sugar represented the sweetness of life, the skull the sadness of death. It was all a bit overwhelming but at least I was starting to unravel the meaning behind Mexico's most important festival, el Dia de Muertos

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Passers-by having their photos taken with a Catrina in the street

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A Catrina figure in a jewellery shop

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Small skeleton figures in a cake shop window

This year, I got bolder and took another step.

(To be continued in Part 2)

Posted by margaretm 10:26 Archived in Mexico Tagged colours traditions mexico_city zocalo day-of-the-dead Comments (0)

The Pink Walk

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Walking for a good cause

If you happened to be near the Ángel de la Independencia on Sunday morning, you would have seen that Paseo de la Reforma had turned pink with thousands of runners and walkers taking part in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. Balloons, roses, medals, T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps, trainers, signs and cute doggy jumpers all matched perfectly in a whole range of shades of pink.

The 10-km race and 5-km walk both began at the Glorieta de la Diana Cazadora at 8.30 am as thousands of pink balloons were released into the crisp cool morning air. Fifteen thousand women, girls and some men (and a few dogs) completed the course to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness in Mexico... and it was a real fiesta de color rosa. What better way to spend an early Sunday morning than raising money for a worthy cause in the company of a crowd of walking compañeros and in honour of all those we know who are or have been fighting breast cancer.

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Pink balloons waiting to be released into the air

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A common colour and a common cause

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Some babies came along too, suitably dressed

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Raring to go

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Thousands of balloons soar upward

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Furry, four-legged friends joined us too

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Off on our way down towards the Auditorio Nacional

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Some energetic ballarinas in front of us

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Runners and walkers on both sides of Reforma

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Some had a quick stop to take their photos at the Wings

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Running with music

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A beautiful black dog accompanying her owner

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One of the signs being carried

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Some people were on their way back while others were still going

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Beautiful flower beds along Reforma

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On the way back towards the Ángel de la Independencia

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Pink below, green above

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The runners coming out of Chapultepec Park, nearing the end

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Crowd arriving back at the Glorieta a la Diana

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A wayside cheerer

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Arriving at the finish

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Participants with the Torre Mayor behind

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Giving medals to all who took part

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Looking down towards the Ángel

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A pink crowd around the Monument

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It was a beautiful day for the walk/run

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Walkers having some well-earned breakfast

Posted by margaretm 04:52 Archived in Mexico Tagged walk pink events mexico_city avon paseo_de_la_reforma Comments (0)

Alebrije monsters invade Mexico City

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Every year, towards the end of October, Mexico City is invaded by hundreds of strange-looking gigantic monsters. They come out of hiding to gather together in the Zócalo and then march down to Paseo de la Reforma. You can find them camped out between the Fuente a la Diana Cazadora and El Ángel de la Independencia, a mass of brightly-coloured beasts rubbing shoulders with each other and sparking off flashes (camera flashes, of course). These creatures can only be described as a wild mix of imagination, creativity and fluorescent colours, and seem to have been inspired by equal doses of fantasy-filled dreams and terrifying nightmares. Some may look pretty fearsome and spooky, especially to the smallest members of the public gazing at them. Thank goodness, they are all just made of papier mâché, cardboard, kilos of paint and weeks of hard work.

This year's 5th Monumental Alebrije Parade, organised by the MAP (Museo de Arte Popular), took place last Saturday. After weeks and months of trabajo duro, artists from all around the city, including professional craftsmen, schools, associations and families, put the finishing touches to their alebrijes and they were transported to the Zócalo. I saw them being taken on large trucks and being parked there on my early morning bike ride. Later that day, a long parade of eye-catching creatures snaked their way around the centre, ending up in Paseo de la Reforma where they have been left on show for thousands of people to see and marvel at over the next few days.

Alebrijes originated in Mexico City in 1936 when a Mexican artisan called Pedro Linares began making the strange, wild-looking creatures he'd seen in a feverish dream while sick. He re-created them, using cardboard and papier mâché, and painted them in bright colours and designs. The name alebrijes comes from the word he kept hearing in his hallucinations. Gradually the craft spread to other parts of Mexico, in particular Oaxaca, where they started carving and painting small, fantasy-inspired animal figures in wood. Nowadays, you can buy small examples of this popular Mexican craft in shops everywhere.

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Small alebrijes for sale in a craft shop

No two of the tiny alebrijes are the same. Neither are the gigantic Alebrijes being exhibited in Reforma, which this year number around 200. Each one has a unique design and has been painstakingly painted and decorated at the whim of the artist or artists. Creatures with wings, scales, claws, spikes, fangs, spots, suckers, feathers, horns, tongues, tails, and all kinds of appendages have once again come together at their annual parade. An amazing display of imagination-run-wild, creativity and talent..... and true works of art, Mexican-style.

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Ozzy admires the alebrijes from the car

Don't forget your camera...

P.S. The Monumental Alebrijes have now been moved to the Zócalo until the 6th November

Posted by margaretm 03:49 Archived in Mexico Tagged art events colours traditions mexico_city crafts alebrijes Comments (0)

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