Monday, September 30, 2013

Economic Growth and Corruption: The Conjoined Twins

Recently, Huffington Post Live did a segment entitled "Mexico Quickly Becoming the New Migrant Destination" relating to an article the New York Times published about new immigration to Mexico that you can read here. I was invited to comment on the segment and afterwards I was left with the need to say a little more about some of the topics we discussed.  

Economic Growth and Corruption: The Conjoined Twins 

From my perspective, there has been an upturn in economic growth in Mexico which would make immigrating to Mexico attractive for many people from around the world. I was asked about finding employment in the segment. At the moment, of my twenty and thirty something Mexican relatives (who aren't still studying), everyone is employed. However, and sadly to say, I can't say the same for my relatives in the USA.  When I first moved to Mexico I had work as an English as a Second Language teacher. Later, I worked as a translator, academic advisor, a silver jewellery salesperson, a higher education administrative assistant, I started my own business and worked for an NGO on a fair trade retail project. Finding a job hasn't always been easy but I have found work. Having a university degree, in my opinion, has made all the difference and being bilingual makes me a more attractive candidate. 
Yet poverty and socio-economic inequality exist in Mexico. A lot of that inequality has to do with corruption. Corruption is in fact everywhere in the world. But in Mexico, it is just more institutionalized and people speak about it openly. From the illegal quotas that parents are asked to pay in public schools (which in fact did happen to me when my son was in a public school), to the desperately obvious unjust enrichment of Elba Esther Gordillo, Mexico's teacher's union president (who has lifelong permanence as the syndicate's president), to Wal Mart paying bribes to get more stores built around the country, corruption is, in my opinion, the number one factor that is and always has, held Mexico back from a more even, across the board, economic growth. 

At the risk of sounding näive, I firmly believe that corruption can be reduced drastically, if several policies and reforms would be put into place. Primarily regarding how elected officials are paid and what rights they have while they hold office. My belief is that, if elected officials in Mexico, beginning with federally elected officials, received the same benefits and minimum wage pay as the working class Mexican, things would start changing fast. To begin with, the bureaucratic monster known as IMSS (Mexican social security) would be reformed over night. If elected officials had to use IMSS instead of the private health insurance that Mexican tax pesos pay right now, millions of Mexicans would be better off. At the moment, IMSS is riddled with inept processes and personnel.  Daily, millions of Mexicans stand in lines for hours on end awaiting all to often sub-par medical attention and medicine. IMSS is not paid for exclusively by the government; workers who have IMSS through their employers pay for these services every time they get a paycheck since a percentage is deducted from their wages. 

Secondly, elected officials must be treated as any other citizen. The infamous fuero or priviledge that elected officials have to immunize themselves against any kind of legal procedings while they are in office must be revoked retroactively. There are several well known cases of illicit dealings among elected officials that have not been prosecuted because of this privilege. It is time for these and other Mexican politicians to pay the proverbial piper. For those elected officials who have not committed any crimes, knowing that if they will be prosecuted immediately, might just be what they need to behave like decent citizens. 

Finally, in order for these two aforementioned societal problems of gargantuan proportions to be reduced in size, policies that directly impact how business is done in Mexico need to be implemented. I believe that Tim Padgett puts it best in an article he wrote for Time back in March of this year. 

So forgive some of us if, almost 20 years later, we’re a bit reluctant to declare another fast-track Mexican Miracle and set aside our concerns about Mexico’s lingering dysfunction. Not just the mafia bloodletting, but the nagging failure to modernize a corrupt and incompetent judicial system. Not just the social inequality, which is still too vast, but the shameless business monopolies that exacerbate it by choking off competition and inflating prices.
However, I don't agree with everything he writes in the article. I do think that there should be hype about Mexico's economic boom. We need to hear that there is growth; news shouldn't be just the bad or doom and gloom. The Mexicans I interact with, those I know and love, are hard workers and persistent people who have a strong work ethic. Why shouldn't the media talk about how our economy is recovering? Padgett points out that Mexicans aren't convinced of the economic growth themselves and cites polls from Andres Oppenheimer´s article in the Miami Herald. But this negative view of the economic growth makes me think that, sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees. After hearing about corruption and knowing that nothing is being done about it, Mexicans hearing good news about Mexico are bound to be take it with scepticism.  I personally know Mexicans who openly say they despise their country and are convinced they live in the worst country in the world. While I respect their opinions, I whole heartily disagree. The worst countries in the world are places where your opportunities are limited to such a degree where can't do things like visit your family that live in other countries, which is the case in North Korea or drive a car because you don't have male genitals,  like in Saudi Arabia. 

None the less,  Padgett has a point when he talks about shameless business monopolies. Two of the biggest monopolies that come to mind are in fact media monopolies known as Televisa and TV Azteca. They are the biggest television companies in the country and have far too much control over the masses in my opinion. And Televisa, from what I saw during the last election, was the reason why President Peña Nieto was elected. We have yet to have something like the Huffington Post Live in Mexico that isn't tied to a monopoly that has ruled the airwaves for decades. 

So, in the mean time, I will leave it up to you, reader, to decide. Can Mexico, or any country for that matter, have real economic growth when there is rampant corruption at every level of society? Which makes me think of something my uncle said to me the day he dropped me off at Museo Soumaya, "now it turns out that only the wealthy can change a country." Power, money, corruption. All a part of the human condition and all a part of life in my Mexico. 

As you can see from the image bellow, taken from Maria Amparo Casar's article Los Dineros del Congreso (The Monies in Congress), Mexican congress members earned in 2011 over $12,310 USD a month. The minimum wage in Mexico for 2013 is just under $6.00 USD a day. That means that the elected officials, whose salary is paid with taxes, earned in 2011 is over $500.00 USD a day. Ask any worker how much he or she wants to earn, let them set their wage, and this is what happens. 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Victoria Ryan and Casa Encantada: The Wild Child Comes Home

by Alma Maria Rinasz

Victoria Ryan and Paloma, Photo Credit: Todd McIntosh
“I was a wild child,” Victoria Ryan tells me as we sit in La Compañia, a restaurant in Portal Oriente de Matamoros on a stormy Patzcuaro August afternoon. I laugh. “No really, I was certified by the State of California as incorrigible.”  Victoria Ryan hotelier, painter, sculptor, self-declared hippie and naturalized Mexican, uses a cognate to describe herself. Using a word that means the same thing in two languages, provides some foreshadowing on this, our first meeting. The owner and operator of Hotel Casa Encantada, Ryan has named her hotel using a word that has two meanings in Spanish: enchanted and haunted.  She later explains this duality turned out to be a lot more significant than wordplay. 

Born in Australia and raised on Three Rivers Ranch in New Mexico, she moved with her mother to California after her parents divorced. Later, she lived in New York City where she went to the Brooklyn Museum Art School and in 1992, began her love affair with the picturesque Purepechan city of Patzcuaro. Ryan says that Patzcuaro is much like Santa Fe in the 1930s and 40s. “Patzcuaro is alive and vibrant [and similar to] Santa Fe, a place where people felt they could get away from commercialism and live a purer life.” Writers and artists flocked to Santa Fe searching for this purity and Patzcuaro has offered this same environment to Ryan.  The arts are closely linked to her love affair with Patzcuaro.  A painter and sculptor, her hotel is full of her and other artists artwork  Ryan is in good company as an artist and sculptor. Other artists have come to the area seeking that unadulterated atmosphere that is a part of Patzcuaro’s personality.  Most notably, Judith Deim, who arrived in Central Mexico as a part of a painting expedition funded by John Steinbeck.  An avid art collector, Ryan is proud of the pieces she has from Judith Deim and Tom Hamil.  Both influenced Ryan as a collector and artist.  Ryan and Deim became friends, and she describes Deim as a true gypsy and a “horse trader, wheeler-dealer artist”.  On one occasion, Deim’s had agreed to sell Ryan a painting and then asked her to leave it to be “cleaned up”.  Ryan never ended up with that particular picture as it turned out Deim had promised it to her daughter.  Ryan laughs as she tells the story. “I hung up on her when she told me the painting was for her daughter.”  Later, the two made amends and Ryan recalls Deim with affection and respect.

Front view of Ex-Colegio, Patzcuaro.

Patzcuaro Museum of Artes y Oficios.
Photo Ariel da Silva
Patzcuaro, Portal Matamoros

Patzcucaro vibrancy comes out in lights for the September Independence Holidays

Destiny Calls: Casa Encantada

Casa Encantada, built in 1784, is a colonial mansion that Ryan has painstakingly remodeled into a comfortable B&B boasting some of the only heated rooms in Patzcuaro.  At 7020 feet, this quaint town in the heart of Mexico can get very chilly. With gas fireplaces in every room, goose down comforters, heated king sized mattresses and fluffy flannel sheets, La Casa Encantada delivers on its name: it will wrap you up in warmth and keep you enchanted.

Hotel Casa Encantada, Main Patio.
But Ryan’s home was always so encantada.  There was a time when her home had some unwanted guests.  Ryan had initially intended her Patzcuaro home to be an artist’s retreat.  As she set about remodeling and redecorating, she found herself painting and repainting a particular room.  After complaining to a friend about not getting the color right, her friend told her she should consult a curandera.  “I just couldn’t get the color I wanted. And that was when my friend suggested I seek the help of a curandera.”  A traditional medicine practitioner or healer, curanderas are often referred to as brujas; witches, psychics or mediums.  Their services are retained so they can, through different rituals, clean out spaces (hacer limpias)  and remove bad spirits or energies from people. In the case of Victoria Ryan’s home, the curandera found several spirits.  La Casa Encantada turned out to be somewhat haunted.  “She said there was a starving man, a lonely child, a cook….” Ryan smiles as she recalls the limpia.  All these spirits were then set free with by the curandera’s rituals.  Then, after liberating the home of these spirits, the curandera told Ryan something else about her house.  She told her that her house, La Casa Encantada, was her destiny.  The wild child, it seems, has finally come home.

Victoria Ryan paints

A Prologue to the Prophecy

It is a chilly Patzcuaro evening and Ryan has invited me to visit her in her on-premise apartment.  Earlier that day, as I walk towards Hotel Casa Encantada, the aromas of linseed oil, damp earth and burning ocote greet me.  This evening, as I sit opposite Victoria Ryan, on an over-stuffed sofa, those same smells greet me once again.  Patzcuaro has a particular scent and feel to it and Victoria has not only become an expert at Patzcuaro life, she has become a Patzcuarense herself.  Ryan’s father, Thomas F . Ryan III, was born in Chihuahua. Thanks to the constitutional reform in 1998, children of Mexicans born outside of the country were granted the right to citizenship.  And fortunately for her, being the child of a natural born Mexican gave her the possibility to make Patzcuaro her permanent home.  The secluded nature of Patzcuaro had a real pull on Ryan.  When she first arrived to Patzcuaro she didn’t have a phone “you’d be on the waiting list for years and when I finally got a phone I wasn’t sure if I even wanted it. I ended up disconnecting it and locking it in a closet. That way if I wanted to use it, it would be when I wanted to communicate with someone, not the other way around.”  

Victoria tells me her story with genuine emotion.  Sipping red wine, she holds Paloma in her lap.  Paloma, Ryan’s faithful companion, is a mild-mannered long haired Chihuahua.  Paloma’s personality reflects that of her owner: she is serene and friendly.  Ryan is a mature woman who has all the confidence and tranquility that comes with age.  However, she insists she hasn’t always been so composed. At sixty-seven years old, Ryan has had her fair share of up and downs.  In her wild child days, she would often run away from home.  At sixteen, she gave birth to her first daughter and gave her up for adoption.  As a young woman in New York City she lived a “bohemian lifestyle”, studying art and marrying a writer.  After having her second child in 1972, Victoria adopted her nephew, Thomas Ryan V, after his mother died.  Then, after her divorce, she moved to California,  where she frequently visited Esalen and lived “the hippy life in a tepee.”  She tells me that she hasn’t always been clear on what direction her life was taking yet “my entire life I have had the feeling that I was being led.”  Maybe this feeling of being led is a little of that enchanted-ness that she has been able to recreate in her B& B combined with her own family history. 
Hotel Casa Encantada, second floor view

The Ryan family history reads like something between Taylor Caldwell’s A Prologue to Love and F.Scott Fitzgerald’s TheGreat Gatsby.(Ryan's greatgrandfather was Thomas F. Ryan,)   Drama, excesses, twists and turns, Ryan is quite open about her past and the Ryan family.  “My father was very wealthy and he was an alcoholic. He would go on these binges and find himself married to someone new. He was married, something like, eight times.”  Undoubtedly those experiences left their mark on Ryan.  Raised a Catholic, she now calls one of the world’s most Catholic countries home. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Ryan felt so comfortable in Patzcuaro.  Her Catholic upbringing was a part of Ryan family tradition.  Her great grandmother, Ida Barry Ryan, was a Countess of the Catholic Church, being the only person, a part from the dowager Queen of Spain, Maria Cristina, to have a private railcar chapel.
Casa Encantada Kitchen.
Patamban Pottery complete with original stove.

Her hotel, as it turns out, is suitably named since the town in which it is located is without a doubt enchanting.  Its colonial architecture, shuttered windows, indoor patios, authentic Mexican kitchen complete with Patamban pottery, set the stage for a real Mexican experience.  Ryan’s home feels, smells and is totally Mexican.  Patzcuaro has a particular scent and feel to it and Ryan enjoys telling me all about it.  “There are months’ worth of things to do and see in Patzcuaro”  she raves.  “The ex-colegio is doing a better job than ever at marketing and using all the rooms to showcase art, something they had never done before.” She continues to explain that in the Patzcuaro area, “there is art and artisans, history and archeology and people would be surprised to know how lush Patzcuaro is.”  Yet, she warns that “to live in Patzcuaro you need to be able to entertain yourself.  If someone needs external stimulation you’re not going to find it in Patzcuaro.” 

Photo Ariel Da Silva
Hotel Casa Encantada, is one of the top 25 hotels for service, number one for hotels in Patzcuaro and Traveler’s Choice for 2013 on Trip  It is a true haven and as Ryan puts it, one of the most beautiful colonial towns in Mexico.  It is a destination for anyone who wants to get to know what Mexico is really like.  It is in the heart of the country and Patzcuaro, a town that has been thriving for centuries, is the ideal location to be enchanted.  For more information, please visit 

Monday, September 9, 2013

One Saturday Morning: Museo Soumaya, Plaza Carso

            by Alma Maria Rinasz

If you are planning on visiting Mexico City and have a free morning, why not give Museo Soumaya, Plaza Carso a try?

On Saturday, August 24th, after a short ride from the art deco inspired Colonia Condesa, (to read an architect's take on art deco in La Condesa, read Jim Johnston's blog here) I stood for the first time in front of Museo Soumaya, Plaza Carso in the heart of Polanco.  Among the noise, traffic and movement so typical of Mexico City, this windowless, silver building looks out of place.  Shopping centers and office buildings flank the museum, a building that makes me think of an educational toy used to learn about geometry.  Walking up the steep steps, it is hard to look up at the architecture without tipping over and crashing down the stairs.  I pause at the top of the steps and see a revolving door bearing the name of the museum in cursive letters.  It is still early and there aren't many people entering the building. I take one last look around at the skyline; a Saks Fifth Avenue sits next to the museum, followed by a Cinepolis VIP.  This is a museum with some swanky neighbors. 
Museo Soumaya,Plaza Carso, exterior

Walking through the revolving doors there is a coat check area off to the left and a security check directly ahead.  The day is cool and so is the museum.  As I walk through security I see a familiar sculpture.  It looks like TheThinker by Rodin.  It turns out to be one of the more than two dozen castings of the original sculpture.  If I had known that one of its siblings had just sold for more than 15.3million USD I might have snapped a close up but I took this picture instead. 
La Gúare and The Thinker
Visitors to the Soumaya can take all the photographs they want, along as they don’t use flash on their cameras.

I first walk through the ground floor.  There are restrooms, information booths, an empty cafeteria, a Telmex sponsored computer lab and a gift shop. The gift shop is full of merchandise from Sanborns; one of Carlos Slim’s many businesses.   The Carlos Slim Foundation is responsible for both museums, Plaza Loreto in the southern colonia of San Angel and Plaza Loreto, in Polanco.  The gift shop has what you’d expect to see in a gift shop: memorabilia and souvenirs that say Museo Soumaya and some elegant examples of artisanal work; lacquered boxe and ceramic tiles. There are also impressive looking chelophane wrapped books on different periods in art history.

Heading up the ramp towards the upper floors, I look over booklet I picked up at the information booth.  The museum is divided into six rooms or salas.  I begin in Sala 1, Oro y Plata, Marfil y Madera (gold and silver, ivory and wood). 
Ivory sculpture, Museo Soumaya, Plaza Carso
It is not until I am in Sala 3 that I come across Abdul Bornio, dressed in dark beige suit, explaining the how religious art was used by the Spanish to conquer the hearts and minds of the aborigonal people in the Americas.
Guide Abdul Bornio explaining works of art
I stop to listen and realized that this young man is most likely one of the guides mentioned in the booklet: "free guided tours Saturdays and Sundays at 11 am 1:30pm and 5pm" the pamphlet reads. I ask if I can join in the tour and Mr. Bornio welcomes me with a smile.  We continue walking among paintings by old Europe and Novohispano masters.  I am particularly impressed with the painting by Pieter Brueghel, the younger and upon arriving home find his father, The Older, in an art book featuring work from El Prado.  Our guide begins to explain some of the sayings that are still used today.  These are Flemish proverbs. Mexico, being a Spanish colony, inherited these European sayings as a part of colonization. This cultural context is 
Flemish Proverbs by Pieter Brueghel The Younger
 one of the benefits of having a guide and I highly recommend taking one of the guided tours.  Mr. Bornio explains, as we continue on to Sala 2 where the temporary exhibition of Asia in Ivory is housed, that the best way to see the museum is to begin at the top (in Sala 6) and work your way down.  Our tour finishes in Sala 1, (gold and silver, ivory and wood) in front of a silver sculpture by Bvlgari.  Mr. Bornio explains that it was a gift from the Italian jewlery design house to the Slim Foundation.  He points out some of  differences from the actual building and the sculpture.   
Bvlgari silver reproduction of Museo Soumaya, Plaza Carso

I finish my visit to the museum on my own.  However, Mr. Bornio explains that the reason why there are six rooms is because Carlos Slim and his late wife, Soumaya Domit, had six children and each one of these rooms reflects the personality and likes of each one of these children. Sala 6 is the only one with the names Julian y Linda Slim.  Julian Slim,  I later discover is not one of Slim’s children, but his late brother and Linda, Julian’s wife.  This room boasts the only source of natural light from a large skylight.  The pieces of art here are sculptures by Rodin and Dali.

What impresses me the most about this museum is that it has an notable collection of art from all over the world and it is completely open to the public and free of charge to visit.  Mexicans can interact with works of art that perhaps they might not otherwise be able to see in person. There is a lot of criticism about Slim and his fortune here. However, while I was at the Soumaya Museum I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed and in awe of so much diversity in artistic experssion. There is even free internet and the bathrooms are impeccably clean and beautifully designed.  (These bathrooms are just phenomenal: wall to ceiling mirrors, a long marble sink with over a dozen faucets, .most public restrooms are never this nice).  Some of the artwork has small digital stamps next to their information cards that are recognized by Android devices and will give you more information about the art.  This is a great thing to do on a Saturday morning in Mexico City.  You can get coffee or hot chocolate in the waiting area on the ground floor.  After visiting Soumaya Museum, Polanco has a lot to offer as well with restaurants and shopping centers close by. 
Points to remember when visiting Soumaya Museum, Plaza Carso:
  •  Dress accordingly. Bring a sweater, it is chilly!
  • Know where to begin. Start at the top in Sala 6 and work your way down.
  • The more you know, the more you’ll enjoy it. Try and join one of the guided tours, it is worth it.
  •  Get inside information before visiting! Make sure to like the museum on Facebook or follow on Twitter.
  • Avoid stress and meltdowns if you are planning on taking children. As a mom, I recommend ages 10 years old and up. This museum is not suitable for younger children and they will get bored very quickly.  
Museo Soumaya Plaza Carso is located on Blvd. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 303 Col. Amplicacion Granada Mexico DF and it is open every day from 10:30am to 6:30pm.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

La Romeria-The Yucatan but in Morelia

          By Alma Maria Rinasz
Chef Freddy Martinez and La Güare. 
Relocating to another country different from the one you were born is a real adventure but there are times when you might not want so much adventure and chose to stick close to home. And just because you live in Mexico doesn’t always mean you get a chance to travel around the country. I’ve found that one of the best ways to “travel” on a budget is to go to specialized restaurants.  La Romeria (Facebook page), is a small restaurant featuring Yucatan cuisine. Chef Freddy Martinez began La Romeria in Santa Maria de Guido (My Mexican Kitchen review) but recently moved the restaurant downtown to the picturesque but often forgotten Jardin Artilleros (map). 
Photo Source:

Comfortable, lightweight chairs and square tables for four are clustered together on the cobblestoned street that has been closed off from traffic.  The menu is simple but seems to give a good basis in Yucatan food.  Sopa de lima, cochinta pibil, frijol con puerco, pan de camaron are featured on the menu. When we ask about my dining companion's sopa de lima, Chef Martinez explained “this isn’t a traditional sopa de lima, it has a base of turkey broth and it’s made with a tomato reduction”.  It is one of most soothing, soul foods I have tried. The next time I have a cold or another hurricane blows through Michoacan (Tormenta Tropical Fernand) I am getting this soup. For dessert, I shared a slice of chocolate heaven, with my mother who joined me at La Romeria. Otherwise known as Pastel Limatour, this edible piece of paradise is from the delectable, local chocolatier Gerardo Torres's pastery shop, De la Calle Real.

Limatour from De la Calle Real Photo:A.M. Rinasz
Chef Martinez doesn’t limit his offerings to just Yucateca food. I ordered chile en nogada, a typical dish from Puebla. A roasted poblano chile, sweated out and seeds removed, is stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, raisins, chopped nuts and seasoning. It’s the smothered in a rich, thick cream that has been mixed with walnuts and topped off with ruby red pomegranate seeds.  Whether in Michoacan, Yucatan or New York, a chile en nogada is hands down one my favorite Mexican dishes. ¡Buen provecho!
Chile en nogada  Photo: A.M.Rinasz

La Romeria is located in Morelia, Michoacan on Bartolome de las Casas #565, Centro Historico (443) 233-7000 (right in front of Jardin Artilleros).