By Deborah Charnes Vallejo
PUEBLA -- Mexico has long been a magnet for tourists from Canada and the United States. The coastal resorts seem to always be flooded with the vacationers, even in slow seasons. Over the years there has been an increase in direct flights and charters to the Mexican Riviera, and these beaches are among my favorite stops.
However, 2010 is a special year for Mexico, and tourists should make the effort to take in a bit of history and culture that will be sure to stay with them long after the suntan has faded.
"Dieciseis," or September 16, marks the independence of Mexico from Spain in 1810, and it's always been a special day in Mexico. During the 2009 celebration, flags, papel picado and green, red and white ribbons and posters were displayed prominently on businesses, storefronts, government buildings, and residences in most cities and towns.
One vendor of regional crafts told me each year he spends several weeks in September on the road, but he's always home for Dieciseis.
Many museums underwent renovations and upgrades in 2009, in preparation for the special year of 2010. Posters and bus wraps announce the year which marks the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence and the 100th anniversary of the start of the Mexican revolution. Signposts throughout Mexico indicate the path to the historic sites.
Puebla, located not far from Mexico City, is a great place to focus for 2010. Since the 1500s, Puebla was an important location. In 1532, Isabel la Catolica granted the city the title of Puebla de los Angeles. The Spaniards settled here because it was a densely populated Indian territory, it was a convenient location between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz and it was an industrious region, center of the ceramics industry from 1540-1560.
North of the Rio Grande, most people equate Cinco de Mayo or Dieciseis de Septiembre with specially priced beer or margaritas, and maybe a few street fairs or parades. But little attention is given the meaning behind these two historic dates, and many gringos are unaware of the importance that France had in the history of Mexico.
Mexico won its freedom from Spain in 1810. Yet, there was foreign debt that led to attacks against Mexico from France, England and Spain. In 1862, Napoleon III sent in 30,000 troops. By March 12, they had advanced to TehuacÃ¡n. On May 5, 1862, a very small untrained and poorly armed Mexican battalion won the Battle of Puebla against a large heavily armed French army.
What the Mexicans lacked in arms, they overcompensated with passion and pride. General Ignacio Zaragoza said in his pep talk to the troops that they needed to be heroes and fight for something sacred - their country, "soldados: os habeis portado como hÃ©roes combatiendo por la Reforma. Hoy vais a pelear por un objeto sagrado. Vais a pelear por la patria."
An interesting footnote, General Zaragoza visited the wounded French soldiers in the hospital and while he died of typhoid fever just a few months later, his legacy lived on, as Puebla de los Angeles was renamed Puebla de Zaragoza by Benito Juarez in September of 1862.
On June 5, 1864, Maximilian and Carlota arrived in Puebla de los Angeles. In October of the following year, Maximilian issued an order that all Mexicans that defended their homeland should be killed.
One of the French invaders, Lorencez said, "soy dueÃ±o de MÃ©xico," (I am the owner of Mexico). By 1867, Maximilian, would be shot to death.
In 1962, 100 years after the historic battle, the Mexican government inaugurated a superhighway between Mexico City and Puebla. A May 5 Cultural Center was opened in Puebla surrounding the forts, and there was a march from Goliad, Texas to Puebla.
In 1987, it was declared a UNESCO historic center with 2,700 historic buildings. The fortresses, today, are well maintained and provide a good primer to the background of the struggle against the French.
While in Puebla, be sure to visit the Barrio del Artista and the PariÃ¡n market, just across the street, which has been the central marketplace since 1801. One of the city's finest and newest museums is the Amparo, which houses 2,700 pieces in two connecting 17-18th century mansions (open Wednesdays-Mondays 10-6p, www.museoamparo.com).
Next to the Tourism Office is the Palafox Library, or Ex-colegio de San Juan, that houses 6,000 books donated by the Bishop Juan de Palafox to the seminary.
Puebla also has beautiful churches at almost every corner. One that should not be missed is the Rosario Chapel in the Trinity Cathedral which was dedicated in 1690 and has 16 female saints on the cupola. This chapel is said to be unique for its abundance of gold. There are 21-carat gold laminas affixed to the stucco walls with honey, while the altar is 23-carats, giving it a slightly different cast.
A stunning shopping center has been built next to the convention center atop ruins that have been well preserved and creates a park like atmosphere surrounding the stores and fast food offerings.
The wide promenade called the "boulevard" at one time was a river that geographically separated the rich from the poor. The river was encapsulated to create the thoroughfare. 14th Street was the Camino Real between Veracruz and Mexico City.
The Santa Rosa ex-Convent is the site where mole was invented by cloistered nuns. It also houses an interesting museum that highlights the different cultures in the area. Free tour guides make history come alive with anecdotes about how the nuns washed themselves without taking off their clothes, dried their clothes in mesquite trunks, through the few windows were told "god is watching you," and poked small holes into a metal wall next to the chapel to hear mass (and still remain unseen and silent).
General Tourist Information: www.visitmexico.com, www.visitpuebla.travel
Cholula: The Underground Pyramids
More than 25 years ago I visited Cholula and never forgot it. It had the most unusual ruins I'd ever seen. As an anthropology major I'd seen many excavation sites and visited most all the prominent ancient zones in Mexico. But Cholula was very unique. Cholula was a pyramid hidden under ground. Or, was it an underground pyramid?
Today, there is almost no separation between Puebla and Cholula as urban sprawl connects the two towns. The archaeological park is even more spectacular, as additional routes have been uncovered within the pyramid, although only a few routes are open to the public.
Built in 200 A.D. by the Cholula Culture, this "pyramid" is actually a series of pyramids that sit not unlike a set of Russian dolls, each one nested inside the next. . Built of adobe, vegetation grows atop it so that from the outside it appears to be a small mountain. In fact it is a "cerro hecho a mano," or hand crafted hill that was "discovered" just 200 years ago by the German, Von Humbolt, who had visited the Egyptian pyramids and suspected there was something underneath all the growth. In fact, the Cholula remains are twice as large as the pyramids of Egypt.
There are nine "floors," eight kilometers of tunnels and three water canals that remain hidden from several views. Of course the architects did this on purpose. The natives didn't want Hernan Cortes to find them and destroy their civilization as he'd done elsewhere. Ironically, natural forces would be the Achilles heel. When Popocatepetl erupted, ashes covered everything converting this area into a near ghost town. Yet in excavations, no skeletal remains were found.
Today, what most visitors notice from afar is the church at the top of the peak. Since the Spaniards traditionally placed their places of worship in high places, in 1594, a church was built atop the pyramid. Right next to the archaeological park is a mental institution, which is why some refer to Cholula as the "ciudad de los locos."
While it's only a ten minute drive from Puebla to Cholula, if you're not in a hurry, it's worth it to take the long way around to get there. Some of the most beautiful and unique churches are in the small towns with tongue twister names: Acatepec, Tlaxcalancingo and Tonantzintla. Frequent and inexpensive bus service connects all these towns.
Learn more about Deborah
From the Windy City via Miami, Mexico and South America. Some people collect antiques. Deborah Charnes collects PR awards. She earned her first Silver Anvil from the Public Relations Society of America nearly 25 years ago for a national Hispanic outreach program conducted for McDonald's Corporation.
Under her direction, since 1988 when she first joined Bromley Communications, the PR department has won too many awards to keep track. Beyond her dedication to award-winning client work, Debby keeps up with the industry and gives back.
She is a contributing author of two university public relations textbooks, and has been a judge of the International Public Relations Association's Golden World Awards for six consecutive years and in 2008, she was elected to the University of Florida's Department of Public Relations' Advisory Council to serve a three-year term.
Because of her work, Debby gets to travel internationally. When she does, she likes to share her impressions of the world as seen through this Latina's eyes.