Friday, March 9, 2007

What is a Chichimeca?

Some of you have been wondering what exactly is a Chichimeca, other than one of those strange, long Mesoamerican words that pop out every now and then. Those of you who aren't interested in my archaeologist/professorial side may want to skip this entry...

Chichimec is a word used by Mesoamerican people to describe the foreigners who lived to the north of their civilization. Some archaeologists have named the general region that these peoples came from the "Gran Chichimeca". In modern geographical terms this area begins roughly around Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and continues north through Zacatecas, Durango, Chihuahua and Sonora. It then jumps the modern political border, running through Arizona and New Mexico and ending somewhere in southern Colorado. The puebloan people of of the US Southwest, such as the Anasazi would have been considered "Chichimecs" by the Aztecs, Toltecs, Tarascans and Maya. In northern and northwest Mexico, the many historic groups encountered by European explorers (Guachichiles, Tarahumara, Huichol, Zacatecos, Opata, Pames, Seris, Yaquis, etc) would have been considered Chichimecs too.

What you have to bear in mind is that while these groups had contact with Mesoamerican cultures, through trade and probably some exploration on both sides, shared a similar diet, and had certain ideas and religious principles in common, they weren't Mesoamerican. According to 16th century Spanish accounts that record the views of indigenous people from the highlands of Central Mexico, these groups were considered mostly uncultured foreigners who could often be violent and dangerous. They had a reputation for being nomads who roamed a barren desert that only the truly tough of spirit could survive. Interestingly, despite this view that almost borders on contempt, the historical chronicles of the Aztec and Tarascan cultures (the two great empires that had held power in Mesoamerica for about 200 years when the Spanish arrived in 1519) insist that their kingdoms were founded by members of these groups who arrived in Central Mexico after a long and mythic pilgrimage/migration from the northern deserts. The rulers of both groups were descended from these Chichimecs. Basically, the uncouth country bumpkins made good in the big city, write very large.

I'm not going to get into all of the particulars that this idea entails, but suffice it to say that the word "Chichimec" was an over generalization by Mesoamericans to refer to all of the diverse groups that lived throughout northern Mexico and the southwestern US. It's sort of like saying "Mexican" to refer to all Latin American people from Mexico down to Chile and Argetina. Some "Chichimecs" lived in small groups that hunted and gathered and moved around quite a bit. Some did this but also raised some crops on the side. Others settled down for years at a time in adobe houses and farmed for a living. Some archaeologists further complicate this picture by pointing out evidence that some of the people being called Chichimecs may have actually been Mesoamericans who reasons that are not completely understood moved north and mingled with the foreign population. This point is that these groups covered an enormous range of territory, were culturally and linguistically diverse, and shouldn't be considered a single culture.

All this being said, there's something about the iconic image from the Mesoamerican perspective of the Chichimec as an uncouth, uncultured foreigner from the north with a bit of a temper that speaks to the imagination. Outsiders that are rough around the edges, yet who made their way south to the "civilized" world, threw themselves into learning the ins and outs of the political and economic systems, and eventually successfully worked their way from the bottom (mercenaries for hire that were forced to live on the worst land) to the top (emperors) based on their unflagging ambition. Kind of a Machiavellian spin on the "American Dream". And being that I myself am an (occasionally) uncouth foreigner from the north who has chosen to "invade" a new country, studying the archaeology of the Gran Chichimeca based out of a university located IN the Gran Chichimeca, I do fit the profile of a Chichimec pretty well. So why not go with the flow and use the screen name? Who knows, maybe a little of the Chichimec good fortune will rub off on me too...

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


I just turned in a draft of my dissertation to my committee of professors who must approve it prior to being able to graduate. It's a big step and means I'm almost done with my PhD!

Now I have to wait for probably a month for their comments. I'm hoping they'll say it's ready to defend, but it's pretty uncommon to have that happen the first draft out. I'll most likely have to do a set of revisions first. So that adds another month of waiting. Well, at least it's almost over!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Weekend Happenings

We spent most of the weekend just wandering around the neighborhood and visiting with some friends, but here's a picture from one of the many temporary art installations that are strewn around the neighborhood for the next week or so. This exhibition is called "Habitantes Incomodos" (Uncomfortable Inhabitants) and involves many different artists. It seems like some are trying a little too hard to be clever, but the idea is nice.

This one is called something like "No todo lo que es verde brilla" (Not everything green shines). The artist put the tops of the ubiquitous VW Bug taxis in the fountain in the Plaza Citlatepetl and filled the rest of the fountain with iris plants. Both are apparently green plagues in the city (the "Bochos" taxis are always green and the aquatic plants are invading the waterways of many historic neighborhoods that maintain portions of the original Aztec canal/chinampa agriculture systems. I guess now they'll be a problem in the Condesa too?).

Anyway, for your consideration:

Contact Sports

So how does one spend the weekend in Mexico City? Well, at least for me, Friday begins with a visit to the weekly street market on Campeche street. Early in the morning a cluster of stalls pop up that sell everything from fruits and vegetables, meats, cheeses, toys, underwear, kitchen utensils, hair accessories, clothes, plants, potting soil, CDs and DVDs, fresh squeezed fruit juice, soups, tacos, huaraches. The vendors stick around till about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, depending on business.

Of course, those of you who have been to Mexico before or who have seen the glossy magazine photos or travel documentaries on PBS are expecting that I am now going to append a series of beautiful colorful photos of this very traditional part of Mexican daily life. Well, I am going to have to disappoint you. The answer is no. Why you ask? Well, I'll let you in on a secret: marketing is a contact sport and you need both hands free to stand the faintest chance of getting everything on your list. A big shoulder-slung marketing bag that can handle a lot of weight helps too. Luckily M. X was willing to go with me and help show me the ropes.

Although there is a grocery store one block from the apartment, the Friday market is our one chance in this neighborhood to get our hands on the best and freshest fruits, vegetables, and cheeses to be gotten. The hard part is that the rest of the neighborhood is also in on this vital piece of information and are there to compete! The toughest cookies are the 4 foot tall, elderly women who let no one and nothing stand in their way of getting the ripest, biggest avocados and the juiciest papayas. Throwing a few bony elbow jabs is part of the game as they scoop their booty into plastic bags. Mere seconds after handing their bag over to be weighed and the price tallied they are already halfway done with their next bag. The stall owners have to be sharp as they are often attending 3 or 4 of these tough customers at once, keeping track of everyone's tab on pieces of notebook paper. The other stalls tend to be a bit more relaxed, which makes for a nice break.

After dodging the abuelitas and the odd fully coiffed giant poodle (our neighborhood is overrun by yuppies with pure bred dogs, but that's for another entry) we secured our mangos, papaya, squash, tomatoes, oranges, eggplant, Oaxaca cheese, live basil, parsley, and cilantro, potting soil (of course), a cutting board, vegetable peeler, and squeegee (M. X is a demon for window washing) We then rewarded ourselves by stopping by one of the market's numerous taco stands for a big bowl of consome and tacos de barbacoa (both made with mutton). We next washed down our late breakfast with a giant, fresh-squeezed orange juice purchased from another stand that would later be selling Oaxaca-style homemade ice creams. Can't wait for next week!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

How the heck did I get here?

Ok, so I realize to date the blog has not been very informative about the whole expat experience. I could go on with pretty pictures and informational tidbits that you could get on your own by thumbing through a Lonely Planet guide. But some of you having been bugging me to know how am American living in the States managed to meet up with a French guy living in Paris, and THEN how the two of them decided not only to move in together, but in MEXICO???

Not at all planned and completely outside of all expectations for both of us.

Not a satisfying answer, eh? Especially for those of you who may be in a similar situation, but still trying to decided whether to take the plunge or not. Sorry, you'll have to bear with me.

The meeting up isn't so odd. We both work in the same field and a colleague introduced us several years ago. We hit it off, but only in the professional sense and never did any socializing apart from a couple of conferences and some research based email exchanges. However, I had an extended stay in Mexico for a dissertation writing grant, where we both do our archaeological research, and we had time to get to know each other outside of the professional setting. It was one of those things where we just knew right away. We ended up dating in Mexico until my grant was up and then I spent some time in France (thanks to another writing grant). I returned to my university in the US after for a semester, but by then we had decided that M. X would request to be transferred to Mexico for a couple of years so that we could live together. I don't speak much French and don't really have many contacts over there yet. He doesn't speak a lot of English and has a mortgage that he is still paying in France so him quitting his (dream) job in Paris with the hope that I might find a job in the US that could support the both of us seemed equally ridiculous (in my field the average minimum length for job searches is 3 years). So, Mexico seemed like a good option for us both. He would have a job that pays enough for us to live, and I would at least have opportunities to find work after finishing my PhD (and this will hopefully happen in a couple of months). The only big hanging question is what happens in two years when his job will require him to back to Paris. Do we stay here, meaning he would have to change jobs? Do we go to France, meaning I would have to start all over again professionally (assuming I find something here to begin with)?

This wasn't an easy decision to make and that's no thanks to a lot of naysayers who either fall into the camp of 1) why would you want to live in the "Wasteland" (i.e., outside of the United States)? or 2) So, you've given up on having a career then, eh?

The first group is sort of easy to ignore, I just tell them: get out a bit more! The US has its good and bad points, but so does everywhere else. It's just matter of personal choice. If living abroad isn't for you, cool. But don't assume that that holds for everyone (and I can always come back to visit).

The second group is a little trickier to deal with. I think in part its because, in my case, this perspective subtly incorporates a bit of the first group's philosophy, albeit sometimes at a level that is subconscious even to that person themself. I say this because it is only Americans who have mentioned this concern to me (and let me be clear that not all of the Americans I have talked to about this feel this way). People in Mexico (Mexicans and French expats) and France (French and Latin American expats) have been either enthusiastically supportive or at minimum at least didn't do a double take when I mentioned the plan. Probably because many of them have made similar choices in their lives. I should also mention the Latin American and European expats I've talked to in the States have also been encouraging. So maybe one's position on the "the giving up of the career" argument is in part influenced by personal experience.

This is not to say that it is not an issue I think about/worry about. I had to weigh my options carefully when I decided whether to make the move to Mexico and to be with M. X . But the fact is I am very happy with him, we want to be together, and each of us has decided to do whatever is within their ability that will help us as a couple. For the moment our best options are Mexico and then France. I agree to move. He agrees to help me make contacts and be supportive of the fact it is not an easy process for me. We both agree to remember why we are making this choice.

To me the real issue here is deciding on the balance I want between my personal and professional lives, and the issue of changing countries is really secondary. Of course this dilemma is a common one today, it is a highly personal, and I don't think anyone should feel pressured by the choices others have made. I think both are important to my happiness. However, I also personally do not believe that I can "have it all". I can't be a perfect researcher, perfect wife, perfect mother, perfect fulfilled individual wholeheartedly pursuing my personal interests. I can do some of these things, maybe a bit of each them, but not all. That would require me to be at least 400% of a person. And I can't be with M. X if we each live on separate continents.

I am a sharp person, and enjoy my research, but do not want my career to be the main driver of my life. Not everyone will feel the same way. That's ok, I don't live their life and they don't live mine. Also, the reality of the academic job search is hard. There are a lot of us who want to get paid for doing interesting but, in a practical sense, not highly useful research that is not in demand. I also want to have a family with M. X, but also don't want my life to revolve around him and our children. I want to pursue interests like photography and writing that don't earn me a dime, but simply make me happy. Yet I want the comfort of loving family and know that to get that I have to give as well. So it's really more like juggling aspects of your persona. At times, some will be more important than others. And at times some will require more of your time and effort than others. And I think that's ok. That's reality. I should admit I am a person who has always preferred that the future be open and (at least a little bit murky). I like change and I believe people have facets, not all of which are visible at the same time.

To conclude, someone once told me to think of your life as a sailboat crossing the sea. You can't control the currents or winds. What you can do is change your tack to navigate those obstacles as best you can in more or less the direction you want to go. You can only travel in a straight line that way, so to get long-distance from point A to point B you may have to change your tack, zigging and zagging back and forth many times depending on those outside forces. This means there are an infinite number of possible courses to reach the same destination. Each time you change, you're headed in a slightly different direction with new choices that may not have been apparent or available before. These may lead you to new discoveries on the way. However, if you truly know where you ultimately want to end up, and are willing to be flexible and patient, you'll get there one day. Or maybe not, but at least you'll have an interesting (and hopefully enjoyable) voyage.

(If you've made it this far, thanks for bearing with me. I realize this rant was pretty abstract. I'll try to keep things more focused in the future, but I had a few things to get off my chest)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


While we were waiting for the apartment to be ready, one of M. X's friends very kindly offered to lend us the keys to her family's vacation house in Tepoztlan for the weekend. Many families have a house in one of the small towns outside of Mexico City to escape to on the weekends (the city is exciting but can be draining and it's nice to be able to get away to recharge your batteries). Tepoztlan is about 50 miles south of the city, in the state of Morelos. The town is inhabited by about 15,000 people and is set in a valley ringed by beautiful, high cliffs. On one of these cliffs the Aztec built a temple called the Tepozteco. It was apparently a monument to commemorate the death of the ruler, Ahuizotl, in 1502. Let me warn you that the hike up there is very steep, the path crowded, and not for the faint of heart (literally. Although a little lower than Mexico City, the elevation is still over 5,500 feet above sea level). But the view is definitely worth it. And be sure to look for the very cute troupe of coatimundis (sort of like a Latin American raccoons) that live at the top and pester the tourists for potato chips. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera, so you'll either have to take my word for it, or make the trek yourself.

(These are the very sweet dogs who "took care" of us while we stayed at their house)

Ya Estamos Aqui!!!!

So it's been awhile and a lot has happened. The highlights are that M. X and I now have an apartment as of exactly a week ago. We were worried because after signing the contract and paying the deposit we were told that there were still renovations to do and we had to wait a few more days before moving in. The renovations included installing everything in the kitchen. This was to take place over a weekend and we were doubtful this would happen. But we had a kind invitation from a friend to stay in her family's vacation home in Tepotzlan (a very pretty small town to the south of the city that is famous for an Aztec temple. Pictures to be posted soon) over that weekend so we resolved not to worry about it. The weekend was great, and lo and behold, the apartment was ready when we got back!

The last week has been a blur of borrowing trucks, running back and forth across the city moving and buying furniture, major appliances, and plants, and (most importantly) getting our wireless internet set up. We're still going poco a poco but it's now starting to feel and look like home.

As I write this entry from the eighth floor of our building, I can see the peak of the volcano Popocatepetl silhouetted on the horizon, with a tiny plume of smoke. It will be gone with the smog once the sun fully rises, but is a nice accompaniment to breakfast.

The apartment and view from our balcony (I know, the curtains HAVE to go!):

Friday, February 2, 2007


So the packing in Arizona is well under way, but I'm ready to be off. I cleaned off my desk in my graduate student office, sent a farewell (for now) message to my disseration committee, promised them a revised draft in two weeks, and am now officially one of those doctoral candidates who aren't "around". Last night I packed up the things in my apartment that I can't/don't want to take to Mexico and arranged to have them picked up by a charity group's truck. It was a little surreal. The two guys who arrived managed to haul everything off in about 5 minutes, all the while aggresively debating each other's intellectual capacity. Unpleasant and fast! It was a little like seeing the last 10-15 years erased in a few minutes. I felt strange walking back into an almost empty apartment. My plans to stay the weekend and work on my disseration were immediately reevaluated. I think I'll take advantage of SuperBowl Sunday to beat the traffic and head early to California.

You have to breathe out the old air to let in the new...

Thursday, February 1, 2007

I'm coming back!!!

So I am coming back, both to Mexico City and to Blogger. The Chichimeca is going for round two with one of the world's most incredible cities. And returning to Blogger to keep you in the loop. I had a moment of wackiness where I signed up for a MySpace account, thinking this would be an awesome way to stay in touch. Yes, I did it, despite all of the horror stories of it being a medium of revisionist history for those who want to relive their high school feuds, hook-up with people who also enjoy gang-piercing stray cats, and stalk/snoop on your ex. And about 20 minutes into trying to figure out how to make the thing look halfway decent, change the default settings that insist I'm a swinging circus clown who never wants children, and delete "Tom" from my "Friends" list (he's automatically added to "help"you. That is, give you technical support, but also not make you look like a loser because you have no friends on your list. Although, of course, EVERYONE on MySpace knows that "Tom" isn't REALLY your friend), I gave up. I did check in once again long enough to see I had a request from "Anais" to be added as a friend, but apparently she is some French singer/rocker who then uses your page to promote her albums. Sheesh! I then realized the error of my ways, came back to Blogger to start this blog and now feel in my place.

To get you up to speed, I am packing up the Arizona apartment and will be migrating temporarily to California. But come Feb 10, I'll be back in the DF. Stay tuned for updates.