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            April 2004


National Geographic publishes around the world, so who better to point you to the most unusual, unique, and sometimes irreverent cultural traditions in their countries than the editors of our international editions? Each month a real insider reveals five favorites in this series.
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Who runs the show:  Luis Albores, Chief Editor
 
Name of the game:  National Geographic Latin America
 
When it all started:  November 1997
 
Where it all happens:  Mexico City, Mexico
 
Who makes it happen: Two text editors, two layout designers, one coordinator, plus the chief editor 
 
What goes out: About 100,000 copies a month
 
Upcoming GeoHappenings: 100 Best Pictures Unpublished Collector's Edition launches in April—in Spanish. About 120,000 contestants have signed up for the 2004 Mexican Geo Olympiad, similar to National Geographic's Geography Bee. Finals will be held in July.
 
What keeps everyone going: "We drink quite a lot of coffee and Coke, so we're pretty hyper—particularly during the last two weeks of production. Once the stress of deadline is behind us, the hyperactivity goes down. But we still drink the same amount of coffee and Coke."
 
Best office perk: "A lot of us smoke, but we're not allowed to do it inside the building. So once a day we hold a pretend staff meeting outside."
 
Favorite end-of-the-workweek activity: "After a week of eating sandwiches, we enjoy going out together for a nice lunch and some beers. Our normal hours on Friday are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., so we look forward to leaving the office at 3. And when I'm done with the week, I have a martini."
 
What's great about Mexicans: "We're very open to meeting people from other countries. Anyone who comes to Mexico will feel welcome. Mexicans are also very creative. I believe our country has survived so well because we've learned to cope with our reality. And that's achieved only through creativity."
 
What's great about Mexico: "The food. Mexico is one of the richest countries for the variety and flavors of its cuisine. When it comes to food, we're foreigner-friendly. And everywhere you go you'll find different dishes that are particular to the region. In the north we have very good meat; cabrito (grilled baby goat) is a specialty of Monterrey. Venison is a delicacy to the south in Yucatán. Fish and shellfish are very good in Veracruz. And in central Mexico we use the same ingredients as those that flavor traditional indigenous dishes. In Mexico, you eat history."

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Cultural Bests
Mexico's spice doesn't end with its food. It's served up generously in Albores's choices of favorite cultural traditions.

1. El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead)
"On the eve of November 2, Mexicans head to local cemeteries to celebrate our dead. Such an occasion can be sad, but it tends to be more of a celebration than a time of mourning. It's lively and joyful. Family members light candles at altars erected at the graves of their deceased loved ones; offer prayers; bring gifts and their dead relatives' favorite food and drink; play the kind of music they loved in life; and lay out yellow marigolds, the traditional flower of the dead, called flor de zempasúchil in Nahuatl. The same kind of celebration also takes place in homes, where altars include candy skulls made of sugar or chocolate and thin paper cutouts called papel de china. The candles and flowers are said to light the way for the dead to return home. The concept of celebrating death can be difficult for some people to grasp if they're not familiar with the tradition, but it's a reminder of who we are and where we come from. One of the best places to witness the celebration is Pátzcuaro in the state of Michoacán. People in candlelit fishing boats cross Lake Janitzio, then ascend the steep island of the same name in procession."

2. Carnival in Veracruz
"Several coastal cities host their own carnival, but the one in the city of Veracruz is among the liveliest. It's a very long tradition. Everyone in the city gets involved. It's not as big as the one in Rio de Janeiro, but it's held at the same time every February. Everyone dresses up, and there's lots of eating and drinking. Bands perform traditional salsa and music with African rhythms, but we also enjoy the typical music of Veracruz: el son jarocho, a blend of styles from around the world played by string musicians, and danzón, which made its way to Mexico from Cuba. The people of Veracruz are so tropical; you can feel the spirit of carnival among them."

3. Spring Equinox at Chichén Itzá
"Every March during the spring equinox at the ancient Maya ruins of Chichén Itzá, the plumed serpent god Kukulcán takes shape from light and shadow and descends the side of the great pyramid El Castillo. People come from all over the world to witness this event, which marks the renewal of the cycle of life on what many archaeologists believe is the Maya calendar constructed in stone. It also serves as a reminder of a great culture."

4. Semana Santa (Holy Week)
"All of Mexico celebrates the week leading up to Easter. From small towns to big cities, people reenact the Via Cruces, the Way of the Cross, on Good Friday. They have their Christ, the Roman soldiers, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. When I was little, I was very impressed to see this man carrying the cross and all these people weeping as they followed him through the streets. One of the most realistic reenactments is in the Mexico City district of Iztapalapa, believed to have been putting on these performances uninterrupted for almost 200 years. They have a waiting list of men who want to play the role of Christ. He has to grow a natural beard and be able to carry a heavy cross. He actually goes through the suffering and is tied to the cross at the end. The whole country knows about this particular celebration because of its realistic expression. The people participate because they strongly believe they're doing something to gain their place in heaven."

5. El Día del Grito (Independence Day)
"We celebrate Mexico's independence on the eve of September 15. People crowd the main plazas all over the country and wait to respond to El Grito, the cry of ¡Viva México! shouted by the president, governors, and mayors of even the smallest districts. The celebration represents a reenactment of the morning in 1810 when Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla issued his cry for revolution to the townspeople of Dolores. Thousands and thousands of people pack Mexico City's main square. We can be experiencing the deepest economic problems, but on that night it doesn't matter. Everyone shouts together."

—Cassandra Franklin Barbajosa

Photographs by Michele Westmorland, CORBIS (left), M.L. Sinibaldi, CORBIS (right),  and David Alan Harvey (right)
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