Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not My Michoacán

I opened up my ever-thinner San Francisco Chronicle yesterday morning and there was yet another warning for Americans to "avoid unnecessary travel" to Michoacán, Mexico. It has been a week since we said goodbye to Michoacan, and I have been so busy unpacking our treasures and doing mundane chores like laundry and paying bills, that I had forgotten how scary it must have been for us to be there---NOT! Even the Chicano customs agent at the New Mexico border crossing (who works every day at the border about 40 miles west of Ciudad Juarez) raised an eyebrow and commented that we were "very brave". Oh really? Has he ever been to Michoacán? No, he hasn't, nor have most of the people who report on or freely offer their opinions on the danger. Yes, it is different now. The first day we woke up in Mexico on our drive down this year, we turned on our hotel's TV for a bit of news and were shocked to hear about about a nation-wide attack that took place the night before in several cities, including Morelia where we were headed. We knew the targets of the narcos' very organized attack were federal police-- not us-- but still we were a bit freaked. After discussing our options for a few moments, we decided to continue on with caution.
What we found when we arrived was a different scene from the very familiar Avenida Madero we were used to walking: dozens of military personnel carriers with young guys holding M16s driving down the street. Did it make us pause? Absolutely. But other than that, there was no time when we felt concerned about our safety, or for the safety of our tourists for whom we were responsible.
We all had a wonderful time exploring Morelia, Patzcuaro and surrounding villages, such as Cuanajo where we all had a great time with our favorite weaver, Natividad and her family. (see right)
This post is not intended to be a comprehensive report on the Mexican drug wars, its causes and the solutions, but merely a perspective to counteract the exaggerations we are seeing in the U.S. media around the dangers of traveling in Mexico. If someone were to ask me if it is safe to travel in California, I would have to say that depends...where and when? Same goes for traveling in Mexico. One must always be aware, exercise caution, and use common sense. Does it look like the folks below are in danger? Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour group #1 had a great time this July cooking up a meal of chiles en nogada in the beautiful kitchen at the Meson de San Antonio in Patzcuaro. Sharry Hickey (seated below on the right--check out her cooking blog) was head chef and Doug and Holly Barrett (current elem. art teacher and former culinary student) were her sous chefs.

The artisans are hurting as a result of the reports, because tourism is definitely down. We felt good about being there, doing what we can to let people know that we are with them, and feel solidarity with the overwhelmingly good people of Mexico who are living with uncertainty about what the recent events (including the swine flu outbreak) will do to their future ability to make a living. We bought beautiful art from talented indigenous artisans who are greatful for the opportunity to sell it to anyone who comes by. Unfortunately, they are not coming by. Except for a few "brave" souls like the intrepid, Daulton Bush who came on our second tour this summer. Here's what she had to say:

"At age 67, I have traveled extensively on numerous trips throughout the United States, Europe and Mexico. I feel more safe strolling the streets of Mexico, day or night, than I do in the US and Europe. NOT ONCE on my recent Mexico By Hand tour to Michoacan did I experience even the slightest tinge of fear. Several days were spent in Morelia, a fairly large city, and I found, without exception, the people I met to be warm, friendly and accommodating. I was equally "at home" in Patzcuaro, a charismatic village with a charming populace. I think fear can be our worst enemy, and if one allows it to overtake the desire to experience other cultures, then there is a great loss of adventure and sharing with humanity. Life is what we make it!!!"

If you'd like to read more of Daulton's comments on the Mexico By Hand Art and Culture Tour, go to our website: and see her testimonial. And if you would like to help Michoacán's artisans and their families and enrich your own life at the same time, you can purchase their art by going to our e-store at: