Saint John of the Rabbits

Paricutín erupting, by Dr. Atl

by Philip Hall

I married into a large and regionally important Mexican family, and so got to know some parts of Mexico quite well. I lived there, first as a student at the university of Vera Cruz in the early eighties, later in Mexico City as a teacher, and finally as a married man with three small children throughout the ’90s to 2002. 

Mexico is astonishingly different from everywhere else I have been to. It is extraordinarily, deceptively complex. The differences between Mexican culture and European culture roil under the surface in an enormous collision of continents; the greatest power in the 16th century in Europe, Spain, collided with the greatest power in the Americas, the Aztecs, to create a new planet: planet Mexico.

We have both a vulcanologist and a small volcano in the family. The vulcanologist is a lecturer and researcher who works in the department of vulcanology at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM). The volcano is called Paricutín. Paricutin used to be a town. Paricutín is the Omphalos of the municipality of Uruapan. Mexico has a whole wrap of volcanoes around its middle.

If you drive from Mexico city, Guadalajara, or Morelia to Uruapan then you know when you are near because the weather is cooler. The landscape starts to smile and dimple and the hills and mountains look soft and round, furred with pine, or made bald by deforestation.

In 1943 the people of the municipality felt earth tremors. Uruapenses heard a rumbling for many days. When the volcano finally erupted, they saw a thick black cloud of ash rising up, and a red glow in the sky. At night, there were orange plumes of lava, and hot boulders shot up into air in a fountain of sparks. In the morning grey ash covered the streets, the rooftops and the cars and pick up trucks. It was nine years before Paricutín stopped erupting.

Consider this when you drive through the municipality of Uruapan. Every single one of those hills and mountains was once a volcano.

In the district of Parangaricutiro, near the town of Paricutin, Dionisio Pulido, a farmer and goat herder, remarked to the pulque and mescal drinking customers in a local cantina in the town, that the soles of his sandaled feet burned when he walked across over the field on his farm, they laughed at him.

Later, the townspeople could hear and see the evidence for themselves. Then they listened to Dionisio without laughing. Dionisio described how a crack had opened up in his field. He said it smelled infernal and that it whistled like a train and hissed. It spouted ash and smoke.

Dionisio also told his story to the local authorities, who wrote it down. It is one of a series of eyewitness testimonies the municipality collected for publication. It should be noted that Dionisio is the only person in recorded history who has ever witnessed the birth of a volcano from the ground. I have translated some of his testimony for you:

Dionisio Pullido

At four O’clock I left my wife next to the fire we had made from forest wood and then I noticed that in one of the corals of my farm a crack had opened up in the earth and I saw that it was the sort of crack that is only half a metre deep. I turned back to light the brazier again, when I felt a thunderclap, the trees shook and I turned around to speak to Paula. That was when I saw that the hole, the earth had swollen and lifted up two or two and a half metres high and a sort of fine powder, grey like ash, began to go upwards from a bit of the crack that I hadn’t seen before.

More smoke went up and immediately a loud whistle started and kept up and I noticed the smell of sulphur. That was when I got really scared and began to go back to help yoke the ox quickly. I was stupefied and I didn’t know what to do and I couldn’t see my wife or my son or my animals nearby.

That was when I came to my senses and remembered Our Sacred Lord of the Miracles. I shouted, ‘Blessed Lord of the Miracles, it was you who brought me into this world.’ And then I looked at the crack where the smoke was coming from and my fear disappeared for the first time.

I rushed to see if I could save my family, my comrades, and my animals, but I couldn’t see them. I thought they must have taken the oxen to the ranch to water. I saw that there was no water on the ranch and thought that it must have gone down the crack. I got really scared and got on my mare and galloped off to Paricutín, where I found my wife and son and friends who were waiting for me, because they thought I was dead and they would never see me again.

Paricutin, drawn by Dr Atl

The eruption grew more and more violent. Soon geologists came from Mexico City and they made the official announcement that a new volcano was being born. After the geologists came the painters and the poets.

Dr Atl (Gerardo Murillo) painted the baby volcano. Jose Revueltas wrote a book about it entitled, Vision of Paricutin. Juan Rulfo wrote about Paricutin. Pablo Neruda gives it a mention.

The Japanese ambassador was from the north of Japan. He visited Angahuan and when he saw what the people who lived there looked like, he was amazed:

‘But these look just like my people. These are my people. They are my brothers and sisters.’

To him, the people of Angahuan looked just like the people from his town on Hokkaido. Tarazcans have dark copper skins and jet black hair. They have large brown eyes which have a little twisted slant. Their faces are quite flat, and their brows slope back attractively. 

You stand out if you are not a Tarazcan in Angahuan. The people will stare at you as they go past, or else they will ignore you. There is little European, or African about them. They are not as mixed as the people of town of Uruapan, the capital of the district. Angahuan smells of wood stoves, horse manure and mud.

To get to Paricutín you have to first go to Angahuan. Some of the people there still live in trojes on the outskirts. Trojes are delicate wooden houses built on stilts. They have gabled roofs. Ordinary Tarazcan people used to live in Trojes before the Spanish invaded. The structures of the rulers of the Tarazcans are much more monumental. Visit the round pyramids of Tzintzuntzan on the shores of lake Patzcuaro.

Photo by Joven_60

In Angahuan, women – and some of the older girls and teenagers – wear the traditional rebozos, or headscarves. Every region has its own style of patterned headscarf. The rebozos of Angauan are striped a deep electric blue and black. Tarazcan men wear plain white clothes and well-made cowboy hats – the mark of a farmer. There are only a few trucks and cars in Angahuan.

Paricutin erupting on 1st August 1943

If you are a tourist, you must hire horses to go to the buried town and to the volcano. The horses pick their practiced way through the bushes and long grass, past the still sharp, frozen edges of black rock. After about half an hour you will reach the side of a wall of rough basalt. To see what is left of Paricutín you have to climb up onto the basalt. This is quite difficult; the ground billows up and down, and if you trip and fall, you will cut yourself badly. Nothing remains of the town except the steeples of the church poking up between the waves, one of which has been cracked in two.

The people of the Paricutín didn’t believe the lava would cover their town. They hoped God would stop the lava. They gathered in the church and prayed for a miracle. Inexorably, the lava advanced. Finally, they understood that the town really would be engulphed. They abandoned it at the last moment at speed and the town was swallowed up. Fifty metres outside the town the rock stopped flowing.

From the buried town, you must re-mount your horses and ride on to the volcano itself. The volcano is a huge, black, sandy hill. You climb to the top. It didn’t take long. A little white steam still rises from the cinders around the rim. You feel the heat on your face when you turn towards the crater. Don’t get too close. The vapours are toxic. They smell of sulphur.

Right at the top of the volcano is a placard stuck into the hot grey powder. It says:

Lord, I thank you for saving us when the volcano Paricutín erupted. You know what you are doing, Lord. But why, oh why, did you take my land?

The Parangaricutiros from Paricutín were relocated to another town. They call it San Juan. But behind their backs, their neighbours from Uruapan make fun of them. They call the new town San Juan de los Conejos instead, Saint John of the Rabbits, because the poor people of Paricutín, holding on until the last moment, had to run from the volcano like rabbits.

Now, the USA must court Mexico and shower it with gifts and apologies

The USA must stop trying to dominate the world and instead form stronger, healthier ties with its southern neighbour

by Phil Hall

After the fall of the perfect dictatorship of the PRI in 2000, a progressive conservative came to power in Mexico called Vicente Fox. His rise to power was closely observed by the then governor of Texas, George Bush. George Bush understood the importance of Mexico to the United States.

Bush was less interested in preserving US global hegemony and in building US bases overseas in places like the Philippines and more interested in a strengthening regional cooperation and in imitating the European Union.

NAFTA heralded an economic union with Mexico and the countries to the south of the USA. George Bush wanted to take it further. He was interested in closer ties and integration and in recognising the contribution Mexico made and makes to life in the USA.

Vicente Fox, former Vice President of Coca Cola Latin America, while extremely proud of his Mexican roots, right down to his cowboy boots, was happy to embrace the good he saw – and many Mexicans still see – in the USA: the bonhomie of its people and its entrepreneurial culture and diversity.  Bush used Fox’s campaign slogan when running for President: Yes, we can! And he also wore cowboy boots in admiring imitation of Vicente Fox.

This was the great opportunity for the USA to consolidate itself in the western hemisphere. To promote regional development throughout the whole of the Americas. In doing so, George Bush would have avoided the rise of the left-wing populist dictators, rancid with anger about the USA’s imperial past. He would have spiked their guns. There would have been no Chavez, no Lula, no Morales. Now Latin America is not so well disposed. 20 years more of oppression, interference and coup attempts mean much of Latin America is no longer willing to let bygones be bygones.

The election of Vicente Fox represented an opportunity for the USA to form closer ties with Mexico

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 marked the end of that dream of hemispheric prosperity, peace and isolationism

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 marked the end of that dream of hemispheric prosperity, peace and isolationism, as George Bush senior, the former director of the CIA and his toxic cabal of globalists reoriented George Bush Junior towards the task of ensuring US economic, political hegemony in the world. We see clearly now that maintaining US hegemony has always been an unlikely and unsustainable long-term objective.

The historical opportunity passed. However, soon the war in the Ukraine will be over and Russia will win. It will impose a new security framework on Europe. Chinese and Russian relations will improve and expand and gradually the whole of the eastern hemisphere of the world, including the Middle East, will recede from the view of the US foreign policy establishment.

The USA will have to pull its head back in or perish in a global thermonuclear war. As Eddie Izzard’s joke goes: What do you want USA? Cake or death? In the case of such a war, the global south will inherit the future. Israel’s days as an exclusively Zionist state are numbered. The bad conscience of Europe will not be enough to protect it from having to negotiate with Palestinians when the USA withdraws.

Time for the USA to reorient its foreign policy strategies towards the western hemisphere again and forget about the rest of the world. Gore Vidal would approve. The USA must start by building up Mexico, by becoming a real friend. Mexico is the most important relationship the USA has with any country in the world. Certainly, the US relationship with Mexico is the most important political, social, economic and cultural relationship for the USA.

Billions of dollars cross the border each day. Mexico is the USA’s top trading partner. Most Mexican migrants to the USA, the ones who work in US factories and on US farms, the ones who clean buildings and do the hard graft and difficult work in many cities and regions of the USA, help build up that country.

the angel of independence in mexico
The Angel on the Reforma in Mexico City, Photo by Fernando Paleta on

Because 50% of Mexican territory was taken from it using a variety of different stratagems, the border with Mexico has been called Amexica. People there follow Mexican traditions; they speak Spanish and they are all experts in authentic Mexican regional cuisines: the cuisines of the border states, and the state’s of Michoacan Guerrero and Jalisco, above all.

The names of the towns are given an Anglo spin, but they are Mexican names, many of them owing more to the autochthonous languages than to Spanish etymology. In fact, the wine industry of California was founded by Mexican families and pockets of Mexican people remained in the United States even after the land was stolen from the United States of Mexico. Remember Bonanza? Much of the cowboy culture of the United States is derived and evolved from the cowboy culture of Mexico.

The Apache and other tribes crossed the border easily. The racial characteristics of the aboriginal people of northern America are shared by the majority of people in Mexico and further afield. If you want to meet a native American in Mexico, go to Mexico City. There is no need to go to a village in Tabasco, Chiapas, Yucatan or Vera Cruz. Your taxi driver is nut brown and from a village in Oaxaca.

While the Europeans, lead by the British empire brought their families, and eventually their slaves over to the USA and they carried out a genocide of the native peoples, murdering them and giving them blankets infected with smallpox, the Spanish mixed with the people of Mexico, as did the French and everyone else who arrived. Together they all created a new race: the mestizo, with its roots firmly in Mexican-American soil, indigenous to the continent, its inheritor.  

In the time of the Great Spain, when Spain was the most glorious European power of all, worlds collided and the Spanish empire smashed into the Aztec empire and into the empires of the Incas and created a new planet. The collision is not over yet. The collision continues to the north.

ornate interior of church
The Churrigueresque interior of a Mexicn church, Photo by Jhovani Morales on

Mexico, Europeans are also now discovering, is a cultural powerhouse on a par with China or India, it is the former centre of a vast and developed set of peoples who created their own unique super civilisation developing plants and foods that have colonised the entire world: maize, beans, squash, chilli, tomato, vanilla, chocolate, sunflowers, avocados – all domesticated in central America. There were many other civilisational achievements.

Detail from the Diego Rivera Mural on the Palacio national

The Mexican cultural powerhouse alone has the power to dissolve and absorb ‘the great white race’

In other words, Mexico is like a cultural blender. The power of its culture takes everything it encounters, all the random bits and pieces of Europe and the rest of the world and it blends them together to make a new mixture. Mexico and the rest of Latin America have the power to do this in the USA too. And they will! The Mexican cultural powerhouse alone has the power to dissolve and absorb ‘the great white race’ and truly make it a part of the continent, no longer an alien parasite, but an American hybrid.

You see it when you speak to US citizens about the shameful past of the genocide of the Native American peoples. Many of them, including Elizabeth Warren, quickly claim native American ancestry. It is a badge of belonging and entitlement.

Mexican culture is enjoyed and even owned by the USA. University department after university department specialise in the history of the Maya and the Aztecs and the Toltec. Articles are purchased and pillaged and looted from Mexican and Central American sites and fill US museums up to the rafters. But often the connection between Mexico itself and Mexican history is not made explicit. The Aztecs and the Mayas and the Toltecs are portrayed as different peoples, separate from the descendants of the Aztecs and Toltecs and Mayas who still live in the central Valley of Mexico and in Chiapas and Yucatan. The technical term for what these universities do is cultural appropriation.

And Mexico was connected strongly not only with Spain, but with old Europe through the Hapsburg Empire when France tried to set up a kingdom in Mexico with Maximillian. Maximillian was shot, but not before he had fashioned Mexico City into a reflection of Paris with its own Champs-Élysées, La Reforma, which leads up to Chapultepec Castle and park.

Mexico won its independence from Spain and much later it had its revolution and entered modernity, in 1910. It swirled with the ideas of communism, fascism and socialism. It became a nexus for progressive causes. Citizens from the United States trekked down there to witness the changes in Mexican society. After the revolution, there was a cultural revolution where the Spanish inheritance was downgraded and the native cultural inheritance upgraded. The socialists from fascist Europe escaped to Mexico. Mexico became a ferment of ideas. Mexico has never been an insular country, at least not at its great metropolitan heart.  

church with majestic volcano in background
The Church built on top of the Pyramid of Cholula with Popocatepetl,
Photo by Felipe Perez on

Leave to one side its 64 different languages and other associated dialects and Mexico’s 20,000 (approx.) archaeological sites and the fact that the biggest pyramid in the world in Cholula was so big (and overgrown) that the Spanish mistook it for a hill and built a small church on top of it.

Leave aside the huge expanse of coastline to the West along the Pacific, and the long coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean and the jungles to the south that contrast with the deserts of the north, and the temperate volcanic lands of the centre and the fringe of coastal vegetation, and huge volcanos like Orizaba, Colima, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl.

Forget for the moment that Mexico is the fourth most biodiverse country in the world, or that the meteorite that hit the word 65 million years ago bit into Yucatan, leaving big tooth marks called cenotes.

Mexican musician on the banks of the Cupatitzio, photo credit Eve Hall

Forget the architecture and the art and the cathedrals and monasteries from the 16th-17th-18th-19th and 20th centuries. Forget the music of Mexico: Son, Huapango, Norteña, Baroque, Ranchero, pop, rock and all the other cultural richness. Forget Mexico’s rich history of cinema, its television, its vast literature, its painters and sculptors. Forget it all and remember this.

Remember that the blending of Mexico and the United States and Canada represents the future, and it will result in the peaceful rescue and redemption of the whole north American continent.

How to celebrate the Day of the Dead

and a calavera for the selfish

By Phil Hall

So you have lived deep and extracted all the sweetness out of life, and you have had your last meal. But, what food and drink would you like people to remember you by? What wafting smell would have the power to conjure you up from the grave, or draw you back down through the portals of heaven; to tempt you back onto this lovely balls-up of a planet?

Were you the Queen of buttered, slightly crisp and salty asparagus? Were you the King of French Cognac? Were you the Polish Prince of English wild forest mushrooms? Were you enslaved to Arabica? Were you an advocate for English cheese? Did you murder for a drink? Were you an innocent victim of chocolate? And, did you see the world in a grain of rice and eternity in a glowing coal of truffle?

On All Hallows, on November 2nd, in an act meant to both evoke and invoke the dead, Mexicans put up altars and lay out the favourite food and drink of those that they loved, respected or just plain put up with.

Traditionally, Mexicans are both comforted and comfortable in the company of their dead.

Altar tradicional de día de muertos en Milpa Alta, México DF.

How to set up an Altar to your Dead

Only two months to go to the day of the Dead. Why not try setting up a homemade British altar of your own; fumigate the demons of Halloween with some Mexican magic. The day of the dead is beautiful, spiritual, and it is also therapeutic.

Push two tables together and cover them with sheets of orange, blue, white or purple crepe, with ribbons cut out into patterns of the same material. Decorate the surfaces with lots of Marigolds and then place photos of your dear ones on the table.

Carefully, lay out the food and drink they liked, together with a few of their possessions: those tortoiseshell glasses, the hand illustrated book of German aphorisms, the teddy bear, a handful of garden flowers.

Then, before you go to bed, scatter a trail of bright yellow petals right up to the window ledge. Leave the window slightly ajar. Light the candles on the altar. Think of your muertito and go to bed. If you are lucky they will come back in the early hours, and keep you company once more.

In the morning, have a nibble or a sip from the food and drink on the altar. You will find, as Mexicans have repeatedly pointed out to me, that the food and drink have lost a little of their flavour. This is the positive proof that the essence of the food has been consumed by visiting relatives and friends.

When I die, on the altar, next to my picture, I want a bowl of cold purple beetroot borsht with sour cream, and a taco or two made with cuitlacoche and melted Oaxaca cheese. Don’t forget the tequila.

Bread of the Dead on sale in Coyoacan, photo by Cristina Zapata Pérez

Bread of the Dead for Masterchef

Another key signifier of the Day of the Dead is a special bread. I made it to try to get onto Masterchef. I remember Bread of the Dead from Xalapa. I was studying at the university of Vera Cruz in 1984. It was a chilly November morning.

Xalapa is the centre of a coffee growing region. It has a view of two volcanos: the Pico de Orizaba, rising in the distance like Kilimanjaro, and the Cofre de Perote, a smaller, broken little thing.

It’s the day before my birthday, the Day of the Dead, and at the university, in the cafeteria they are selling a simple lumpy looking cake-bun sprinkled with sugar. And they are selling cups of hot, chocolate, pineapple and vanilla flavoured atole, serving it from large aluminium pots.

My classmates laugh.

This is Pan de Muerto. they say and point out that it is made in the shape of a corpse.

Is it? I look at it. It tastes better than Panetone, buttery, fragrant and yeasty. The sticky atole warms me in the autumn morning.

I make the Pan de Muerto carefully for Masterchef and it rises three times. Then I make the rompope and they both taste as I imagine they should, and I am sure its good because my Mexican family eats the whole batch. My wife tells her mother:

Yes, he really did make bread of the dead and it tasted just right.

I make another batch. The crust is a little darker this time, better, ready for tomorrow morning.

They have asked me to come at breakfast time. My Pan de Muerto and rompope will go down well.

London is almost deserted. It’s early. I arrive and they take me to a room and a tall young woman with glasses films me and smiles. A more serious and older woman interviews me.

But she doesn’t seem too concerned about the food or what it means.

I take out the green Tequila shot glasses and pour them a taste of the cold yellow Rompope, and then I take out the Pan de Muerto and place it on its large decorated clay plate and they both try a little piece and drink the rompope.

The interviewer says:

Cake. Hmm, nice. But she doesn’t take another piece.

She asks me. Why do you want to come onto Masterchef?

It would be nice. I say. And I smile, relaxed.


Well, I love Mexican food.

I see.

What would you do if you won? she asked.

I’d be really pleased, and…


Well, perhaps a restaurant.

You would be the cook?

Not really. My wife would be in charge. I would help.

Do you cook Sunday lunch?

I help my wife.

Why don’t you ask her to come along?

No, I don’t think she would like that.

There was a silence.

Well, thank you for coming. ‘I’d just like you to know that you reached the final stage of the eliminations. Very few people do that.’

Thank you. I left the building, walking out into a cold, bright empty street, the shutters just opening.

I walked into a smart Italian restaurant and ordered Eggs Benedict by way of consolation.

The Eggs Benedict were very good, with their Hollandaise sauce, and before I left the waiter came back and I told him what had happened. He sounded interested.

I’ll take some to the cook.

It’s like Panetone, I called after him as he went to the back of the restaurant, but with orange water, more butter and a little anise.’  

The chef tried it. He liked it. The waiter smiled at me, ‘He wants to know the recipe.

I noted the recipe down for the chef, contented, and then left.

Calavera for the selfish

Another essential part of the Mexican tradition is the Calavera. You have to write a poem ending in the punchline, Death. In it you make fun of people’s foibles. My calavera is dedicated to the supporters of Adam Smith and the idea that greed is good.

Death came today and gave me some advice.
She said;

‘Good news: I’ve designed a special diet for you.
If you follow my instructions
Two years from now you’ll be as thin as I am.
After all, isn’t your health the most important thing?
And your own happiness must be your prime concern.
If you know what I mean.’

And death winked, knowingly and smiled.

Only when you are happy can you make others happy.
Do you agree?
Only when you are satisfied can you satisfy others.
Only when you have gathered enough money
Do you have money to share.

Forget thinking about what’s wrong before you act.
It’s not your job to put the world to rights.
And all your reading and writing. What’s it for?
It’s intellectual masturbation, and changes nothing.
It won’t change anything.
Stop pretending to be nice.

Human nature is human nature.
Get real, you shlemiel!

The body is where it’s at, not the mind.
Exercise instead: swim, run around, cycle about
Exorcise the ghost of your conscience.
It’s an illusion anyway, a category error.

Enjoy the things you choose to buy!
To live needn’t be to suffer.
Be detached from the poverty and unpleasantness
That very occasionally surrounds you.
You’re not responsible for it.
Think of other people’s misfortune as instructive.
These are not your problems, they are someone else’s.
“Il faut cultiver votre jardin” remember.

Look, my little Arjuna, be all that you can be!
It’s meaningless anyway.
Be consummately free.’

Then death smiled again.

‘But one day, perhaps, even sooner than you guess
When you’re fed up with your, precious Atman, and your self
Meet me in Switzerland, and I’ll put a stop to your life
And crush your wizened little heart, like this.

She closed her fist.

And you’ll get what you deserve.
That heaven of nothingness
You always secretly believed in
Will be your place of rest and
Proof of your

Part of this article was originally published in the Guardian, the Word of Mouth section

Phil Hall is a university lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

My journey to the end of the world

By Phil Hall

For most of the journey I was slap up against a secretary from Mexico City. It was a cramped 36 hour drive.

When we got there Julie and I walked, slowly unfolding, heading towards the cheap hotel in the dark. It was 2 am. We could hear the leaves rustle, but couldn’t see trees.

There was a taco shop on the way. Three wide-awake people inside. The following evening, the secretary phoned me from her hotel room.

“Hello, remember me?”

“Yeah, I remember you.”

That first night they prepared our tacos Merida style with a filling of cochinita pibil.

Cochinita Pibil

First, fatty pork is marinated in achiote and the aciote is dissolved in orange juice. Achiote is a red ochre paste made from a type of berry native to the Yucatan. The pork is then baked slowly in banana leaves . The wrap is placed in a clay pot in the oven or in a pressure cooker. It’s ready in an hour and a half or so. When the pork is cool, practiced fingers shred the meat into its fibres and the fibres soak up the juice and oil. Then the cochinita is spooned onto hot tortillas.

“Some chili sauce, please.”

They look at me. “It’s very hot.”

I know.” They pass me the bowl.

Basic Salsa, Yucatan style

Habanero slices and chopped red onion rings soaking in sour orange – the same orange that grows on the trees along the Merida avenues.

The following morning we took a bus to Chichen Itza for the summer solstice. The journey was much shorter. We see the observatory, the Caracol. We wander around the site, admire the snake heads at the bottom of the flight of steps, climb to the top.

I stand at the top. Look down at the people below. A voice calls out over the loudhailer system.

“It is time. Will everyone please come off the monuments?”

I wait a minute. About fifty unfriendly, pale faces look up at me impatiently from the base of El Castillo. Most of them look like Americans. But, also staring at me, is a Mexican-American – at least I guess he is Mexican-American.

I am the last person on the pyramid, and I go down quickly before the solstice begins.

A few thousand people are at the base. Julie and I meet up and decide to stand at the fringe of the crowd. A hundred gueros start to circle the pyramid ceremoniously, setting up little eddies.

The glossy, steak fed Mexican-American takes off his coat and climbs up the pyramid as the equinox approaches. He is dressed like a Mayan.

He performs an ersatz dance on one of the ledges at the base. Voices in English call out, chanting. The dancing man moans and hums; it sounds rather like a Sioux Indian song.

A murmuring of irritation spreads through the Yucatan crowd and the loudspeaker makes another announcement:

“Will the tourists who are on and near the pyramid kindly show some respect for our culture and stop what they are doing, right now.”

The fraudulent Mayan does another little jig and then we are rid of him. He comes off the monument to the sound of boos from the Mexicans in the crowd.

We watch. The sun, when it arrives at midday, casts the shadow of the steps onto the side of the pyramid in the figure of a serpent. The shadow grows until the body of the serpent joins the Snake heads at the base.

The sun has hushed the crowd.

I watch carefully, and feel no uplift. All I see is stone, light, shade and people.

The next day Julie went on a side trip and I decided to go to on my own to the beach. I went to Progreso, a small fishing town by the sea, not far from Merida.

It was more nothing. The beach was broad. I walked along it. The waves were quite rough, so I decided not to swim. The sand was an oddly depressing grey, and heaped. There were a few battered fishing boats that had been hauled up out of the water and piles of rotting seaweed.

After an hour there I went back to Merida.

Later, in the library of the Anglo Mexican Cultural Institute I looked up Progreso and found that it shared a beach with another town; Chixulub, only a kilometer away. Progreso was the exact site of the K-T extinction. Progreso was the epicentre for the catastrophe that destroyed most of the species on the planet. My intuition had told me nothing about it.

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

British Artists in Mexico

England is, as far as colours go, fairly subdued and uniform. Mexico is the opposite

By Simon Brewster

Although I have lived and worked in Mexico for almost 40 years, my first impressions of the country are still very vivid. After landing in Mexico after a stopover in the Bahamas, as we drove into the city that was to be my home for so many years, I was conscious not just of the size and chaos compared to what I had known anywhere before but the colours.

England is, as far as colours go, fairly subdued and uniform. Mexico is the opposite, I could see from my windows houses painted bright yellow, pink and blue. There seemed to be a happy abandon in the use of colours which I discovered is a part of Mexican culture. The street markets use awnings made of a pinkish red material. Mexican textiles, many of which are handmade, have richly coloured textures. Perhaps it has to do with the huge variety of flowers, fruits and spices that you can find here. Going to a Mexican market exposes you to an almost overwhelming variety of colours, aromas and flavours. Even The Day of the Dead is characterised by the deep yellow and strong, almost sweet, smell of Mexican marigolds which decorate the altars in many homes.

The Day of the Dead is characterised by the deep yellow and strong, almost sweet, smell of Mexican marigolds

Small wonder then that some British artists have found inspiration in Mexico.

A number of British artists were inspired to produce some of their great work in Mexico. One was Daniel Thomas Egerton (1797-1842) who was one of the first travelling painters to arrive in Mexico after independence when the borders were opened to non-Hispanics.

He stayed in the country from 1829 to 1836 depicting agricultural and commercial scenes from the cities of Puebla and Guadalajara as well as the mining town, Zacatecas. On his return to England in 1840 he published Vistas de Mexico which consisted of 12 plates. Egerton returned to Mexico late in 1840 and took up residence in Tacubaya a suburb of Mexico City.  Sadly, his career was cut short as he was murdered with his wife Alice in 1842. Mystery surrounds the murders as the motive was attributed to robbery, but Egerton was carrying large amounts of money, and both he and his wife were wearing jewelry, though none of this was taken.

British diplomatic pressure to solve the crime led to the arrest of three local petty thieves, two of whom were hanged, and one of whom was allowed to escape from prison. Other motives that have been suggested include Egerton’s alleged involvement in fraudulent land sales in Texas, his ties with a Masonic order, or an unknown jealous lover of Alice. There were even rumours that he was a spy working for the British government.

The example of one of his landscapes below sits in the British Embassy Residence in Mexico City and shows the Valley of Mexico with the snow-covered Iztaccihuatl volcano in the background.

Egerton, Daniel Thomas; The Valley of Mexico; Government Art Collection;

Frederick Catherwood (1799 – 1854) was a contemporary of Egerton and was an architect and explorer as well as a talented artist. I first noticed his lithographs as some copies were hanging in the main meeting room of the Anglo Mexican Foundation where I worked. I think they had been donated by someone at some stage in the past. I have to confess that when my mind wandered at certain moments, my eyes were drawn to the lithographs on the wall in front of me. I could picture this lone English artist hacking through the undergrowth in Yucatan led by trusty local guides and coming across Mayan ruins that had been abandoned for centuries and capturing the beauty of their sculptures and buildings on his sketch pad.

Portion of a building, Las Monjas, Yucatan by Frederick Catherwood

Together with travel writer John Lloyd Stephens, in 1839 Catherwood formed an expedition to explore dozens of Mayan ruins resulting in the detailed description of 44 sites. It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization, and thanks to their publications the Maya civilization became known to the Western World.

It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization

The expedition resulted in the publication in 1841 of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucutan. The text was written by Stephens and the engravings were based on the drawings of Catherwood.  In 1843 they returned to Yucatan to make further explorations, publishing Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

In 1844 Catherwood produced Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, with 25 colour lithographs from water colours he made at various ruins. The example below shows you the amount of detail he was able to capture in his paintings of Mayan ruins partly hidden by the encroaching vegetation. 

Three other British artists are also worthy of mention. The first is It can be argued that Stephens and Catherwood are responsible for the rediscovery of the Maya civilization (1907-1984) poet, sculptor and patron of the arts.

The eccentric Edward James inherited a fortune and large estate in England from his father. He was an enthusiastic supporter of surrealism and helped artists such as Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte. He also was a loyal patron of British artist Leonora Carrington.  His great project in Mexico, in which he invested US$5 million, was ‘Las Pozas’ in the village of Xilitla, in the state of San Luis Potosi.

Edward James, Garden Las Pozas, Photo by Jesse,

From the early 1950s he transformed a former coffee plantation into one of the largest and least known artistic monuments of the 20th century. James planted enormous numbers of exotic plants and orchids and created a unique world of sculptures based on his sketches and constructed by a small army of local indigenous groups who must have seem James as a benefactor given the large sums of money he lavished on his pet project.

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), like her patron and friend, Edward James came from a wealthy background but rebelled against this running away to Paris at the age of 20 to live with the much older artist Max Ernst. There she met a number of surrealist painters including Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali and Leonor Fini and began painting herself. After escaping from Nazi occupied France following the internment of Max Ernst she had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to a mental hospital against her will. She managed to escape by a marriage of convenience with a Mexican diplomat, Renato Leduc, and after a year in New York she moved to Mexico City and divorced Leduc in 1942 and stayed there the rest of her life.

Her paintings reflect her surrealist background but also other themes: alchemy, magic and renaissance paintings. I have to confess I do not like her paintings very much but I do admire her technical skill and some of the finer draftsmanship in her paintings can only have been achieved with immense patience and very fine brushes! Of all the painters I have included in this article, she is the one who in my view was the least influenced by Mexico. Her fantasy world of strange ethereal shapes, fantastic animals, symbolism and translucent colours is probably not linked to any culture and existed in her imagination more than anywhere else. You can see the kind of things I am talking about in this painting .


The Old Maids by Leonora Carrington

Irish-born Phil Kelly (1950-2010) is the final artist we will look at. The first time I saw a Phil Kelly painting was in the library of the Foundation. It was a given in in return for an exhibition we had hosted. In common with a lot of his paintings, it was a riot of richly applied oils showing a traffic jam in Mexico City and featuring a green ‘ecological’ VW Beetle taxi, now sadly replaced by a Japanese model.

If you look at the paintings Phil [Kelly] did before he came to Mexico they don’t have the same light and colour his Mexican paintings possess. 

If you look at the paintings Phil did before he came to Mexico they don’t have the same light and colour his Mexican paintings possess. 

This street scene of Mexico City captures so much about the city and country: bright sun; buildings painted in powerful, strong colours; telephone and electricity cables strung out above the streets; the roof of a taxi and a pedestrian crossing which anyone valuing their lives will never cross unless the cars are a long way off and even when a traffic light turns to red, you should always wait before crossing or risk being mown down by cars that will jump the light rather than stop for pedestrians.

Phil Kelly got to know the city by travelling on public transport and walking around while going to teach English classes.  The importance of Mexico City in inspiring his paintings is clear from his own words:

“You can’t be a painter if you’re not curious about your surroundings. What I very consciously try to do is to find something every day. The color of a truck. The way that someone crosses the street. The garbage trucks, two in a row going down the boulevard. Or the steam coming from a vat of tamales.”

Phil Kelly
Amarillo Anahuac by Phil Kelly

I will continue to appreciate the colours that are so much part of Mexico and make every day in some ways a painting to enjoy.

Simon Brewster

Simon Brewster has lived and worked in Mexico for over 40 years. He has taught English and trained teachers in the UK, Italy and Mexico. He originally studied history at the University of Cambridge before training as a teacher and later he took a Master’s in Business Administration. He has written more than 10 textbooks for adults, high school and secondary students. At present, he is Chief Academic Officer of the Anglo Mexican Foundation in Mexico City.  In his spare time he draws and paints, reads, spends time with his Polish wife, Justine, and tries to play tennis. 

The Poetry of Markets

The highest Mexican poetic sentiment, higher than all the others, was the symbol of flowering.

By Phil Hall

One of the greatest pleasures in my grandfather’s life was to visit the market in Cannes, to admire the variety and quality of the produce on offer and to chat to some of the stallholders. Covered markets in Spain are impressive. The food is less expensive, there is less variety and there is less knowledge of the products on display than there is in France, but the quality is fantastic. A market in India has a wide variety of products, many more prepared foods than in France or Spain, but suffers from a lack of hygiene. You get extra in India: gold leaf with your fudge, tamarind on your puffed rice, masala in your tea, hepatitis with your gulab jamun, Delhi belly with your salt lassi, cholera with your Limca nimbu; cockroaches running around your rice, weevils in your bread and beer in your teacup.

In Africa markets are like wells. You go to the well to rest from the fields, to stay in the shade, to sit together and talk and if someone comes along and gives you money for what took you so long to grow, you buy soap for your family, tea and sugar, school uniforms, beer for your man: love is renewed. In famine the chickens are thin and the eggs fit coldly into your palm, in feast the chickens are fat and the eggs are warm and match your fist and you learn the meaning of the word exuberance.

The most impressive markets in Japan are fish markets. All the coastal incursions into other countries’ territories, all the bribery and corruption of other countries’ fishing fleets seem worth it when you see the fleshy harvest, when you watch the speed at which the Japanese market workers labour, in relative silence, and observe how a large fish is dealt with by two knife-wielding fishmongers. The large animal is slashed and slashed into lunchbox sized portions. Chinese markets are deforming and fantastical. All edible protein and plant life is there. Crunchy spiders, a million glazed animals. There is dream-like plasticity of vegetable and meat, a moral to the story. Watch the House of the Spirits, how the parents gobble up the food of ghosts, Oh how many Chinese ghosts, and turn into pigs. The remedies for engorgement are disgorgement and loss.

But the best markets of all are Mexican markets. Let me tell you about Mexican markets. The reason why Mexican markets are the best is simple. The true greatness of Mexican culture wasn’t its vast pyramids and cities; some pyramids so big, like the pyramid of Cholula, that the Spanish built on them, mistaking them for hills. Mexican greatness didn’t simply consist of its highly ordered, disciplined and meritocratic society, not its free schools and public services. It wasn’t demonstrated in calendars or through the windows of observatories. It wasn’t present in the supreme skill of its craftsmanship or even in the glory and gore of its wars and religion.

The greatness of Mexican culture spoke through plants. The arrival of the Spanish in Mexico was not a clash of civilisations, but a destructive collision. The Spanish conquerors burned tens of thousands of Mexican texts. They burned the equivalent of an Alexandrian Library full of Mexican knowledge, much of it agricultural knowledge. Later, they also orphaned Mexico’s agricultural achievements, a crime as black as the black legend. The Spanish appropriated Mexico’s agriculture and sent it parentless into the world. All of our ancestors fall back into the wilderness in times of hunger to look for nourishment. We know this. The crops fail, your herds die and it’s back to the roots and the grasses and the berries and the forest tree fruits. Take maize for example. In the beginning corn was simply a fatly seeded stalk. The Mexicans brought it out of the wild and tamed it and even ended up calling themselves after it. The children of the maize. Long before the buffalo were slaughtered and the prairies turned into corn fields, Mexican farmers had already created many varieties of corn, selected the maize for its colour and shape.

“They may tear off our fruit, They may cut off our branches, They may burn the trunk, But they will never be able to kill our roots.”

So read these names as you would ten thousand books: tomate, jitomate, aguacate, chocolate, chile, maiz, guayaba, papaya, hule, calabaza, frijol, vainilla, cacahuate, algodon, girasol, tuna, ajonjoli, jicama, mamey, chico zapote, cuitlacoche, pitaya, chaya, nopal, changunga, and so on. And there was, among the many million herbal remedies, even the cure for cancer. Lost forever. Precious medical knowledge destroyed by the footloose, ricocheting younger sons of the Christian Spanish empire. But, if you look, you can still buy “Gobernadora” in the market. Quietly, on the packet, it whispers in small letters “Against cancer”. And the power of this Mexican agricultural inheritance continues to bite in and spread: ambassador Poinsett takes a decorative Mexican Christmas plant back to the US with bright red leaves. Mr Hass develops a new, creamier avocado. Mexican Peyote kick starts psychedelia and catalyses a cultural revolution. Lantana and jacaranda colonise whole countries and farmers attempt to eradicate these tenacious Mexican plants as if they were triffids. Mexican Aloe is now used in a hundred cosmetic products and the Koreans and Japanese have even learned to drink it (though they don’t know pulque). I am sure the the thieving drug companies will find many uses for the mysterious toloache.

Diego Rivera when he wanted to paint a mural on the glories of Mexico painted a picture. It was a mural of Tenochtitlan as market. You can go and see it in the Palacio Nacional in the Zocalo. And 600 years ago Nezohualcoyotl, and all the Nahuatl poets, thought of their poems as flowers. The highest Mexican poetic sentiment, higher than all the others, was the symbol of flowering.

From the song of Netzahualcoyotl

On your feet! On your feet, my friends

The princes are now paupers

Yes, I am Nezahualcoyotl

Yes, I am the singer

I’m that parrot with a big head

Go on! Pick up your flowers and your feathered fans

Go on! Dance with them

Because you are my son

You are Yoyontzin

Drink up your chocolate

The flower of the cocoa plant

Now, drink it down and ready

Do it!


This isn’t our home

We shan’t be living here much longer

We must all leave soon.”

And when Netzahualcoyotl calls to his son Yoyontzin, to remember who he is, he tells him to drink chocolate, the flower of the cocoa plant, he knew what it was all worth. He knew what would happen, Yoyontzin, my son.


Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine. He started Ars Notoria in May 2020.

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