Mexican Independence: Power to the, uh, people who already have power!

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

I’ve been reading in my Encyclopaedia Britannica about Mexico’s decade-long struggle for independence, and have learned some surprising things. The original revolutionaries, led by parish priests Miguel Hidalgo y Castilla and José María Morelos y Pavón, called for reforms like social equality and land redistribution, as you might expect. They came to a sticky end, alas, but in Spain similar reforms were getting a foothold. With the king in exile and Napoleon Bonaparte failing to install his brother as king, the Spanish brought back a traditional form of civil government and in 1812 proclaimed a new constitution with universal suffrage and representative government. This alarmed the social and clerical elites in Mexico, who didn’t want that sort of thing to catch on in New Spain and rob them of their power and wealth. Things seemed to return to “normal” in 1814 when King Ferdinand returned to Spain and abolished the constitution, but you can’t get that kind of toothpaste back in the tube, and in 1820 Spanish rebels forced the king to reinstate the constitution and its reforms. This caused panic stations back in Mexico City, and in a dramatic turn of events, the supposedly loyalist troops, instead of fighting the republican rebels, joined forces with them and forced the king’s representative to sign a treaty granting Mexico independence but preserving the privileges of the elites and the church. Mexican conservatives had succeeded in avoiding Spanish liberal reforms and maintained their exclusive position in Mexican society. How often have you heard of a colony fighting for freedom from equality, democracy, and justice?

I haven’t gotten much further in the story, but I gather that after the dust settled the conservatives and republicans got back to fighting each other and had their final showdown in the revolution of 1910. Stay tuned…

For those who are interested in watching the grand celebration of Mexico’s independence on Wednesday night, it will be webcast live on the Mexico 2010 website. I saw some video on the preparations and it looks like it will be quite spectacular, with a massive parade, dancing, music, light shows, and fireworks (it’s not a fiesta without fireworks!). I’m especially looking forward to the field of dancing cactus… Don’t miss it!


Mexico 2010: Bicentennial week is here!

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

This week Mexico celebrates the bicentennial of its independence from Spain. Two hundred years ago, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo called for the Mexican people to revolt against their Spanish rulers. His impassioned midnight cry, the Grito de Dolores, is considered the beginning of Mexico’s independence. Every year on the night of September 15th, the President of Mexico declaims El Grito from the balcony of the national palace before the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Mexico City’s main square, the Zócalo. This year’s fiesta promises to be spectacular, a sight not to be missed. For my friends to the south, it’ll be on Univision from 10pm-1am (Eastern time) on Wednesday night. I’m hoping I’ll be able to watch it online, though I haven’t figured out where yet.

In the mean time, check out the amazing Mexico 2010 website [English]. It is a multimedia extravaganza of information about Mexico’s history and heritage. There is even more material available in Spanish, of course, including an extensive digital library, which has already seen over 800,000 book downloads. That should keep everyone busy for the next 200 years!

Sor Juana: The Sheer Love of Learning

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

I went on with the studious pursuit (in which I found relaxation during all the free time remaining from my obligations) of reading and more reading, study and more study, with no other teacher than books themselves. On can readily imagine how hard it is to study from those lifeless letters, lacking a teacher’s live voice and explanations. Still I happily put up with all those drawbacks, for the sheer love of learning. Oh, if it had only been for the love of God, which would have been the sound way, what merit would have been mine! I will say that I tried to uplift my study as much as I could and direct it to serving Him, since the goal I aspired to was the study of theology, it seeming to me a mean sort of ineptitude for a Catholic not to know all that can be found out in this life trough natural means concerning divine mysteries. I also felt that being a nun and not a lay person, I should, because of my ecclesiastical status, make a profession of letters—and furthermore that, as a daughter of Saint Jerome and Saint Paula, it would be a great disservice for the daughter of such learned parents to be a fool. This is what I took upon myself, and it seemed right to do so, unless of course—and this is probably the case—it was simply a way of flattering and applauding my own natural tendency, proposing its own pleasure to it as an obligation.

In this way I went on, continually directing the course of my study, as I have said, toward the eminence of sacred theology. To reach this goal, I considered it necessary to ascend the steps of the human arts and sciences, for how can one who has not mastered the style of the ancillary branches of learning hope to understand the general and specific methodologies of which Holy Scripture is composed? How, without rhetoric, could I understand its figures, tropes, and locutions How, without physics, all the natural questions concerning the nature of sacrificial animals, which symbolize so many things already explicated, and so many others? How, whether Saul’s being cured by the sound of David’s harp came about by virtue of the natural power of music, or through supernatural powers which God was pleased to bestow on David? How, lacking arithmetic, could one understand such mysterious computations of years, days, months, hours, weeks, as those of Daniel and others, for the intelligence of which one needs to know the natures, concordances, and properties of numbers? How, without geometry, could one measure the sacred ark of the covenant and the holy city of Jerusalem, whose mysterious measurements form a cube in all its dimensions, and the marvellous proportional distribution of all its parts? How, without a knowledge of architecture, is one to understand Solomon’s great temple, of which God Himself was the artificer who provided the arrangement and layout, the wise king being only the overseer who carried it out? In it, no column’s base was without its mystery, no column without its symbolic sense, no cornice without allusiveness, and so on with all its parts, not even the most miniscule fillet serving solely to support or complement to the design of the whole, but rather itself symbolizing greater things. How will one understand the historical books without a full knowledge of the principles and divisions of which history consists? Those recapitulations in the narrative which postpone what actually occurred first? How will one understand the legal books without a complete acquaintance with both codes of law? How without a great deal of erudition, all the matters of secular history mentioned in Holy Writ, all the customs of the gentiles, the rites, the ways of speaking? How, without many rules and much reading of the Church Fathers, will one be able to understand the prophets’ obscure forms of expression? And how, unless one is thoroughly versed in music, will one understand those musical proportions, with all their finer points, found in so many passages, especially in Abraham’s petitions to God for the cities, asking whether He would forgive them, providing there were fifty righteous men, from which the number went down to forty-five, which is the sesquioctave and as from re to mi; thence to thirty, which is the sesquitierce, or the proportion of the diatessaron; thence to twenty, which is the sesquialter, or that of the diapente; thence to ten, which is the duple, or diapason—and went no further, there being no other harmonic proportions. Now, how is this to be understood without music?

—Sor Juan Inés de la Cruz, In Reply to Sor Philothea

My own justification for spending most of my time in pursuit of knowledge sounds similar to this, but I’m not sure I believe it any more than I believe the sassy Sor Juana. These paragraphs are part of long, sarcastic, allusion-encrusted letter to “Sor Philothea,” a Bishop who publicly admonished her for writing poetry and studying, improper activities for a female, in “her” opinion. Sor Juana’s own sense of the relevance of gender in intellectual matters is stated pretty clearly in her poem to a gentleman of Peru who suggested she should become a man if she wants to write:

with one thought I came to this spot:
to be rid of those who’d inquire
whether I am a woman or not.

In Latin it’s just of the married
that uxor, or woman, is said.
A virgin has no sex at all—
or indeed she has both, being unwed.

So the man who looks upon me
as a woman, shows want of respect,
since one embracing my state
is foreclosed to the other sex.

Of one thing I’m sure: that my body
disinclined to this man or that,
serves only to house the soul—
you might call it neuter or abstract.

You go… um… person!

“Caramelo” by Sandra Cisneros

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Caramelo, or Puro Cuento
Sandra Cisneros
464 pp.

Caramelo is the story of a Celaya Reyes, a Mexican-American girl trying to make sense of the web of stories around her. National stories, family stories and her own memories are woven together with a few “healthy lies” knotted in to keep the stories going. The title refers to the famed caramelo rebozo, a particularly fine long striped silk shawl with elaborately knotted ends. Celaya’s “awful” grandmother comes from a family of weavers, and her unfinished rebozo becomes a metaphor for both connectedness and the unfinished business of life.

The book starts with childhood memories of Mexico, which was quite a trip down memory lane for me too. There is something about the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of one’s early life that leaves a profound impression, and Cisneros taps into this powerfully. But these memories are, of course, just stories. As she writes at the end of the book, she is homesick for a country that doesn’t exist, that never existed. You can’t go home again.

Celaya’s family memories are amusingly woven into the histories of Mexico and the US, including military service in both countries and unlikely brushes with fame (her father spends a night in jail with Señor Wences, for example).  As Celaya grows up her tone and voice acquire teenage frustration and vocabulary, and in due course she follows her ancestors down the rocky road of love.

This book was especially enjoyable because I listened to the audio version narrated by the author herself. The book is semi-autobiographical so Cisneros reads it with authority, and great deal of character. Hearing these stories somehow seems more appropriate than reading them.

It’s hard for me to be objective about this book—so many parts of it intersect with my own story—but the glowing reviews on Amazon and in print suggest to me that anyone would enjoy this book.

Caramelo: Por Un Amor

Pouring out from the windows, “Por Un Amor” from the hi-fi, the version from Lola Beltran, that queen of Mexican Country, with tears in the throat and a group of mariachis cooing, “But don’t cry, Lolita!” and Lola replying, “I’m not crying; it’s just that I remember…”

—Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo

I love a book with a soundtrack. Here’s the song:

Note the pizzicato when she sings about crying drops of blood from her heart. Love it.

Monarchs of Mexico

I expected there to be some overlap between the International Year of Biodiversity and the Mexico 2010 celebrations, and here is the first example. I was reading about monarch butterflies in Mexico, and how their winter habitat was hit by two unusual storms at the end of January. Heavy rains, wind, hail and snow hit the mountains of Michoacán resulting in floods and landslides which claimed several human lives and have devastated the butterfly colonies. Scientists are still working to assess the ecological damage, which has been made worse by illegal logging in the reserves.

Interestingly, it was a poet who was instrumental in the creation of the butterfly reserves. Homero Aridjis grew up with the monarchs, and was inspired to write poetry by them and all the other creatures of the forest. He later went on to create the Grupo de los Cien (Group of a Hundred), an association of Mexican artists and intellectuals who speak out on environmental issues. But perhaps his most eloquent pleas for nature come through his poetry. Here is one example:

A una mariposa monarca

Tu que vas por el dia
como un tigre alado
quemándote en tu vuelo
dime què vida sobrenatural
está pintada en tus alas
para que despuès de esta vida
pueda verte en mi noche

To a Monarch Butterfly

You who go through the day
like a winged tiger
burning as you fly
tell me what supernatural life
is painted on your wings
so that after this life
I may see you in my night

From Construir la muerte/The building of Death (1982)
Translated from Spanish by: George McWhirter

You can read a selection of Aridjis’ poetry here, and there’s more about the butterflies at the most delicious blog I know, Mexico Cooks.

Monarch butterflies, Michoacán, Mexico

Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge

Mexico 2010

Mexico is the land of my birth, and a country with incredibly rich cultural and literary traditions. I’ve been meaning to read more Mexican literature for a while, and now is the time to get started. This year is the bicentenary of Mexico’s independence from Spain and the centenary of its revolution. What better way to celebrate two bloodbaths than with a nice reading challenge?

In honour of the tricolor, the flag of Mexico, the challenge is to read three books of Mexican literature, history, or art. Of course you can read more, and I certainly intend to. There is also a crossover with the Biodiversity Reading Challenge—Mexico is considered a “megadiverse” country and is home to 10% of Earth’s species. Books on on Mexican biodiversity will count for both challenges!

Below is my own list of books I want to read, as well as some resources (in English) about Mexican literature. At the bottom, as usual, I have posted badges for this challenge. I hope some of you still have some room in your reading calendar for this challenge. There is a lot more to Mexico than sun and sand, and I hope this challenge will do a little to show that Mexico has much to offer to readers.

Web pages on Mexican Literature:

Wikipedia: Mexican Literature

Words Without Borders: The Online Magazine for International Literature: Mexico

Nobel Prize: Octavio Paz

Mexican literature at the crossroads of three cultures

20th Century Mexican Literature

Books on Mexican Literature:

Mexican Literature: A History

Mexico: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Preface)

Mexican Writers on Writing

Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction

The Mexico Reader: History, Culture, Politics

My List:

A Sor Juana Anthology
Alan Trueblood (Trans.)

17th century poet, nun, feminist.

The Underdogs
Mariano Arzuela

Most famous novel of the revolution.

The Mangy Parrot: The Life And Times Of Periquillo Sarniento Written By Himself For His Children
Jose Joaquin Fernandez De Lizardi

The Don Quixote of Latin America.

The Labyrinth of Solitude
Octavio Paz (Nobel Prize, Cervantes Prize)

Quintissential work on the Mexican national character.

Where the Air Is Clear
Carlos Fuentes (Cervantes Prize)

On the character of Mexico City.

Massacre in Mexico
Elena Poniatowska (Xavier Villaurrutia Prize)

One of the darkest chapters in Mexico’s recent history.

El arte de la fuga
Sergio Pitol (Cervantes Prize)

Selected Poems of Pacheco
Jose Emilio Pacheco (Cervantes Prize)

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances, and Home Remedies
Laura Esquivel

Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo
Hayden Herrera

On Mexico’s most famous artist.

Malinche: A Novel
Laura Esquivel

Re-imagining the “Eve” of the conquest era.

…plus any winners of the Sor Juana Prize I can find in English.


Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge
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150 pixel version
Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge
200 pixel version
150 pixel version
Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge
200 pixel version
150 pixel version
Mexico 2010 Reading Challenge
200 pixel version
150 pixel version

Compañeros y compañeras:

Lynda at Lynda’s Book Blog

Eva at A Striped Armchair

Iliana at Bookgirl’s Nightstand

Danielle at A Work in Progress

Lourdes at Pisti Totol

Poncho at Elogios

Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos : El Testigo

Andromeda at Letras en tinta

Taryn at bookwanderer

International Year of Biodiversity Reading Challenge

International Year of Biodiversity 2010

Welcome to the International Year of Biodiversity! This year is dedicated to celebrating the world’s biodiversity and making progress on the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which was established at the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit.” The Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been signed by almost every country in the world (*cough* USA *cough*), has three main goals:

  1. To conserve biological diversity
  2. The use biological diversity in a sustainable fashion
  3. To share the benefits of biological diversity fairly and equitably

The parties to the Convention decided to make 2010 their deadline for achieving a “significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss,” and so this year was declared the International Year of Biodiversity.

As a biologist, I naturally couldn’t let this international year go by without putting together a reading challenge for it! By learning more about biodiversity we can better appreciate its value and do more to ensure its protection at home and around the world. To that end I’ve put together a selection of reading challenges for this year:

Basic: 3 books on any biodiversity topic.

Biomes: 3 books about major world ecosystems: open ocean; coral reefs; lakes and rivers; arctic tundra; boreal forests; temperate forests; tropical forests; savannah; grassland/steppe/ deserts.

Branches: 3 books on different life forms: plants; fungi; invertebrates (including insects); reptiles and amphibians; birds; mammals.

Bye-bye: 2 books about endangered or extinct species or about extinction or conservation.

Back yard: Buy 2 or more field guides to your local flora & fauna and get to know your neighbours.

Biodiversity Bonanza: One of each of the above!

I’ve also devised some “field trips” to get you closer to your subject:

Level 1—Indoorsy: Visit a natural history museum or watch a documentary series on biodiversity (e.g. Planet Earth)

Level 2—Outdoorsy: Take a guided walk or hike in a local park. Check park system websites for schedules.

Level 3—Full Granola: Design your own field trip to go birding, botanizing, field-journaling, or whatever you like. Alternatively, join a local natural history club, or take a course in natural history online or at a college or community centre.

To make all this easier I’ve gathered together some helpful resources here, and will be adding to them throughout the year as I make more discoveries. Just below are a number of web resources on the International Year of Biodiversity and biodiversity in general. Further down I’ve posted a collection of suggested books for the reading challenges. I haven’t read them all myself but I tried to pick out titles that come highly recommended. Suggestions are welcome!

If you’d like to participate in this challenge, I have created a badge for your blog, available in various sizes at the bottom of this post. Leave a comment if you intend to participate so I can follow your bio-adventures. I do hope you’ll join me on this very special and important challenge!


Global Initiatives:

International Year of Biodiversity

Convention on Biological Diversity

Countdown 2010

International Day for Biological Diversity —May 22

Biodiversity Indicators Partnership

International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

United Nations Environment Program: Biodiversity

Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

Biodiversity Information:

Tree of Life web project

NatureServe (US & Canada)

Canadian Biodiversity Information Network

Viva Natura (Mexico)

InfoNatura (Latin America & Caribbean)

European Nature Information System

European Centre for Nature Conservation

ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity

African Biodiversity Network

For Young People:

Biodiversity 911

Natural History

Kamana Naturalist Training Program

Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010 Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010

Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010 Biodiversity Reading Challenge 2010


Stefanie at So Many Books


Kristen at BookNAround

Eva at A Striped Armchair

Lynda at Lynda’s Book Blog

Heather at The Library Ladder


Christy at A Good Stopping Point

Gavin at Page247

Andi at Andi lit

Kristine at Wild Oak Academy

chicory cottage

Caroline at Uh, Yeah, I Have A Blog (love that blog title!)

Jenn at Once Upon A Time…


International Year of Astronomy Wrap-up

International Year of Astronomy 2009 For us poor creatures stuck in Newtonian reality, time marches steadfastly in one direction only, and that means the International Year of Astronomy must end. For me this global event has been an unqualified success and a complete delight. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about our Universe in the past year and had a great time doing it. The worldwide community of astronomers really rose to the occasion and developed a wide variety of innovative public programs. One of my favourites was Around the World in 80 Telescopes, a 24-hour live webcast from observatories all around the world during which astronomers showed what they’re working on right now. If you missed it you can click on the link and watch the segments on demand.

Another project of the IYA was to develop an inexpensive, quality telescope to make astronomy accessible to all. The Galileoscope was modelled after Galileo’s own invention, but has improved optics and is light and portable. Through their give-one-get-one program people could donate a discounted Galileoscope to an underprivileged school somewhere in the world while ordering one for themselves. The program has been so successful that they have had trouble keeping up with orders, but they plan to continue the program through 2010 and beyond so it’s not too late to get or give a Galileoscope.

The grass roots nature of the IYA really came out in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. A call was put out for astronomers to put together podcasts for the series and the result has been outstanding and incredibly diverse. Professional astronomers, amateur enthusiasts, students, writers, and artists of all ages presented informative and entertaining podcasts on every imaginable astronomical topic. I listen to the podcast almost every day and it has been great for reinforcing things I have learned elsewhere, and it rarely fails to make me laugh. Astronomers have a great sense of humour, which is evident from the podcast’s theme song (click on one of the podcasts to hear it). I was thrilled to find out that they plan to continue the podcast in 2010, so I can look forward to many more fascinating voyages through the Universe.

My other daily dose of astronomy came from the Astronomical Picture of the Day (APOD) website, which has been around for years but obviously has special significance this year. The night sky has no shortage of beautiful sights and that is the focus of The World at Night project. I could (and have) spent many happy hours browsing their spectacular photography of our shared sky. Alas, many of those sights are invisible in areas where there is a lot of wasteful outdoor lighting. That was the focus of the Dark Skies Awareness project, which ran education programs on proper outdoor lighting design to minimize light pollution and preserve night vision. Ironically, by destroying our night vision and obliterating the stars, outdoor lighting actually makes the night seem darker rather than lighter.

Astronomy isn’t just about sights, though, there are sounds too. There is a historical connection between astronomy in music, thanks to the ancient Greek theory that celestial bodies are arranged in much the same way that notes are arranged in a scale. Since then musicians, including Galileo himself, have been inspired by the heavens. This year in various countries concerts were presented on astronomical themes, with telescopes made available for stargazing during intermission. Canada’s own Tafelmusik put together a program of music and imagery called The Galileo Project: Music of the Spheres, which can be heard on the CBC Concerts on Demand website. For a more scientific astronomical soundscape, check out the sound of the Big Bang. Yes, we know what the Big Bang sounded like, and it wasn’t a bang.

My own humble contribution to the IYA was the International Year of Astronomy Reading Challenge. How did everyone do? I read three densely-packed “Very Short Introductions,” The History of Astronomy, Galaxies, and Cosmology, as well as Benford & Brin’s Heart of the Comet for my dose of sci-fi. For my EVAs I went to an open-house at my local astronomical observatory, and spent some evenings trying out my Galileoscope with the help of Stellarium, an excellent, free planetarium program for navigating the night sky.

The International Year of Astronomy may be coming to an end, but that certainly won’t be the end of my astronomical adventures. I’ve just started listening to the audio version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in advance of watching 2010: The Year We Make Contact on New Year’s Day. I also want to read more about Galileo, and have just received the very daunting The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, which should take me at least all of 2010 to finish! There seems to be a mathematical equation on nearly every one of its 1100 pages, but it’s supposedly a book for the general public so I will give it a try. There are so many other great astronomy books I’d like to read too, so it looks like the astronomy year is going to turn into an astronomy decade! Well done, IYA!

Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree (NGC 2264)

Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree (NGC 2264). Source: APOD.