The Recendez family left Mexico not long ago. Originally from Zacatecas, Miguel, Lucy, and Edy Recendez spent a few years in Aguascalientes before their move to Knoxville. They won first place in HoLa's first AltarContest with an elaborate three-dimensional display, including a makeshift tomb. A decorated trellis with towering corn stalks, fashions a tall tombstone announcing that there lies General Emiliano Zapata. A sign read 1879-1919. Next to the trellis, a skeleton is fashioned wearing a hat, thick black moustache, cowboy boots, and two guns!
Edy Recendez is a 16-year old high school student who is eager to show his technological knowledge alongside his Mexican roots. He has prepared a presentation about Emiliano Zapata on a touch-screen computer, included as part of the altar, with a video about his life.33 He explains that the altar is a Mexican tradition, including things the person liked to do, eat or drink when alive. “Tradition is that the spirit of the dead person will come at night and enjoy his favorite things.”
This altar is ready for a feast. Arranged around the "grave" are potted flowers, baskets and clay containers with food. Rice and mole (a sauce made with chile peppers and chocolate), ears of corn, yams, apples, tangerines, bananas, a basket of pan de muerto (Mexican sweet Day of the Dead bread), and tuna, the red edible fruit of the nopal cactus. A half empty bottle of mescal (fermented drink made of maguey), and an empty bottle of tequila. Another Mexican tradition! Edy jokes that Mexicans celebrate liberally with alcoholic drinks in every occasion they have!
Everyone comments on the artistically displayed elements, which include a long string of hanging skeleton decorations dressed in paper costumes. They could represent family members, or could be other souls invited so they will not be alone. Why Zapata?, everyone wonders.
“Sometimes people make altares for those they admire,” said Lucy Recendez, Edy’s mom. “Emiliano Zapata was a symbol; he fought for the land and people’s freedom… He is one of our greatest Mexican heroes.” Emiliano Zapata was a village leader, farmer and horseman who was instrumental in bringing down the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship in 1911. His motto was Land and Freedom.34 He was idealistic and his insistence on land reform became one of the pillars of the Mexican Revolution. He was to southern Mexico what Pancho Villa was to the north. They both were assassinated, but their legendary characters have been immortalized by popular song, story, and poetry.
“We wanted to make an altar to Zapata, because Mexico is going through harsh times right now. We thought Mexico needs people to love their country, and people who try to make things better, just like he did,” Lucy explained. And she wrote a poem for this event:35
Fue Emiliano Zapata,
Tu gente te recuerda,
después de un centenario.
Emiliano siempre decía:
sin maíz no hay país
y sin tierra
no hay maíz.
El amaba su gente
con todo el corazón,
y todos lo apoyaban
porque tenía la razón.
Un pedazo de tierra
para todo mexicano,
voz y voto,
Tierra y libertad,
pedía nuestro hermano.
¡Vuela, vuela palomita!
Ve y dile a Emiliano,
que nuestro país
lo está necesitando.
A brave revolutionary
You were, Emiliano Zapata.
A hundred years later,
You are still remembered.
Emiliano used to say:
Without corn there is no country
And without land
There is no corn.
He loved his people,
With all his heart,
And everyone supported him
Because he was right.
A piece of land,
A voice, and a vote,
Each Mexican had.
Land and freedom,
Our brother would claim.
Fly, fly, little dove!
Go find Emiliano.
Tell him our country
Urgently needs him.
Calaveritas is a popular literary tradition practiced during Day of the Dead.36 They are funny verses or witty short poems, usually about someone living. Children and adults write verses to tell one another for fun. They often incorporate the figure of Death (under various names such as Calaca, Catrina, Pelona) as a prankster on the subject of the poem, or describe some trick played on Death.
Lucy points to several antique items in the altar were used in Zapata’s time. These include an oil lamp, a mill for nixtamal (boiled corn for tortillas), a tortilla press wooden box. Those were modern tools in the 20th century, before that tortillas were made by hand! A large stone pestle called molcajete is a must-have in every Mexican home. It is used to make salsas, out of roasted peppers and tomatoes, green or red. Edy explains cooking traditional food seems to be another custom that every Mexican family keeps. Ingredients are found at Mexican stores, but at hugely inflated prices.
Mexican food means different things in different states. Monterrey is famous for cabrito (goat meat) dishes, Puebla for its mole poblano, and Zacatecas for barbacoa (meat cooked with various chile peppers and spices) and birria (a sauce cooked to serve over boiled chicken or meat.) And desserts? Dulce de leche, made the traditional way. In Mexico whole unpasteurized milk is sold out of traveling vans. It is cooked slowly with piloncillo (hard sugar cone.) Listening to them talk with pride of their traditional preparation of food, ratifies UNESCO's decision to include Mexican cuisine and traditional food preparation techniques in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.37
Lucy is also proud to show her mother's folk art of 3-point cross stitching. She has many cross stitched napkins, placemats, for everyday use. Towels, pillow covers, decorated sheets, even large tablecloths. Beautiful pink or purple flowers and delicate hand crocheted lace edges decorate the pieces. When turned over the work is almost as neat as the front, as an expert cross-stitcher would do!
Lucy's mom, Teresa Luna, who lives in Mexico, learned her craft from her own mother, at age 10. Even now that her eyesight is worse, she still keeps her hands busy. It is a good past time, she explains. Family women or friends often meet to sew or crochet together, they admire and copy each other's designs… and chat!
Lucy shows a beautiful Our Lady cross stitched image her mom gave her. She has made guardian angels, and even crocheted a red dress with a wide skirt Lucy used as a girl! Most items are given away as gifts, but Lucy's mom has also sold some items at fairs. Lucy is also very crafty herself, she uses a loom to knit. "I bought this loom here, the ones in Mexico are wooden and have nails for pegs," she explained.
Lucy's father used to run an itinerant movie theater that would take movies to Mexican villages. "People paid to watch the film projected on a large screen, probably a sheet," she said. And now his grandson Edy is a budding filmmaker! Edy has a photo and video-editing business called Edycion. Edy is the photographer and his dad Miguel records video. But it is the quality of Edy's video editing what is astounding, especially given his age. They have a home photo studio, including a green backdrop for effects. Lucy has good dancing and acting skills! She misses her folk dancing lessons in Aguacalientes. Miguel is very creative with costume and decorations. On the weekends, the extended family and friends have fun in front and behind the camera! They invent plots, write screen scripts, act, film, and edit home movies for fun. Many incorporate their Mexican roots and traditions.
"Mexican culture is so rich and varied," Lucy nostalgically said after we talked for hours and hours. And the reason for that is great talent, strong family values, and deeply engrained traditions practiced each day by Mexican people. We are lucky to have the Recendez here!
Watch Video 86: Lucy Recendez recites poem written by her in honor of Emiliano Zapata, to whom her family's altar entry in HoLa's contest was dedicated, 2012. Music at violin by Juan Carlos Martin Trejo. Video by Rafael Casco, edited by Edy Recendez
Photo 80: Lucy Recendez (left) receiving first prize from HoLa's Altar Contest, November 2011. Photo by Edy Recendez.
Photo 81: Detail of Recendez' altar, skeleton with moustache, hat, boots, and guns, representation of Emiliano Zapata, 2011. Photo by Coral Getino.
Photo 82: Detail of Recendez' altar, basket of tortillas over a handmade cross-stitched napkin with crocheted edges, 2011. Photo by Coral Getino.
Photo 83: Handmade cross-stitched Our Lady of Guadalupe image, made by Lucy Recendez's mother. Photo by Edy Recendez.
Photo 84: Handmade 3-point cross-stitched placemats for everyday use, made by Lucy Recendez' mother. Main photo shows reverse of the placemat, skillful crafted, without thread crossing in diagonal. Detail on lower right corner shows front flower design and hand crocheted edge. Photo by Coral Getino.
Photo 85: Lucy Recendez using a loom to knit a scarf, 2012. Photo by Edy Recendez.
35 Translated by Coral Getino.
37 Traditional Mexican cuisine - ancestral, ongoing community culture, the Michoacán paradigm. http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/index.php?lg=en&pg=00011&RL=00400