The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

The worst writing advice ever. Not kidding.

“But the novel is set in Mexico,” she said. “All the characters are Mexican.”

“That’s right,” I replied. “Lives of the people fighting the drug cartels. And Mexico’s class structure.”

More than 5 years ago, I was speaking on the phone to a well-known American author about potential agents and publishers for  THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. She was enthusiastic about the quality of my writing but we kept circling around an undefined problem.

“New York will never touch it,” she said finally. “And a New York agent is the only kind worth having. New York agents are looking for the next Sex and the City. Glossy. High heels. New York.”

“This is a political thriller,” I countered. “Makes the real Mexico accessible to the American audience the way Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series did for Russia.”

GORKY PARK, RED SQUARE and the other Arkady Renko novels were ground-breaking, taking us inside a crumbling Soviet Union and then a mafia-riddled Russia.

My book took the reader inside the real Mexico. How was it any different?

New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters

The famous author didn’t care. Her sniff was audible.

“New York won’t buy a book with all Mexican characters,” she said.And your main character is a maid. At least couldn’t you make her American?”

I made a gurgling sound.

“You know,” the author blithely went on. “A college girl from Pittsburgh named Susan or Tess who goes to Mexico on a cultural exchange program to work as a maid for a semester. Something like that.”

I could have tossed off a barbed remark about how it would cost an American in Pittsburgh more to get to Mexico than they would earn as a maid in three months, but I was too busy being appalled.

This was a book about Mexico’s drug war, the people fighting it, and their chances of survival. It was also a Cinderella story taking on Mexico’s unspoken caste system. Sue and Tess were not part of that narrative.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2

Was she right?

Most of the New York agents I queried never replied. The few that did were only taking on a few select projects. One agency well known for representing fiction and thrillers said they didn’t take on my specific “genre.”

Ahem, I was pitching a political thriller.

Related post: How to Solve Hollywood’s Lack of Latino Roles

Trend or snub?

The question became unavoidable. Was this the classic snub of a new author by the New York cognoscenti? Or a mainstream publishing industry bias against Hispanic-themed popular fiction?

I don’t have any empirical evidence either way, as I update this in 2018. But in 2014 I wrote:

“If this is a trend, then it is a trend that runs counter to both population demographics and marketing statistics. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics made up 16% of the US population in 2010 and that rate is projected to rise to 29% in 2050. This group has significant buying power.

The Latino buying power will be $1.5 trillion and steadily increasing by 2015, as asserted by The Nielsen Company in its early 2012 report “State of the Hispanic Consumer.” Meanwhile, ever alert to trends, Amazon introduced a bilingual English-Spanish Kindle e-reader.”

To play devil’s advocate, the lack of response to my queries is to be expected for most authors who try to break into traditional publishing. Some time later, an agent told me they couldn’t publish the first Detective Emilia Cruz because “I don’t know anyone who knows you.”

There are many more would-be authors knocking on agent and editor doors than there is interest in offering a contract to an unknown. But I think the message in that author’s suggestion to change the nationality of the main character speaks for itself.

Update

Drug violence on America’s border is constantly in the news and the US national debate over immigration is acute.  Fiction can help to socialize these issues and give them an understanding, a face, and an immediacy that often the news cannot.

Meanwhile, THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, with all of its Mexican characters, is available on Amazon in print and ebook formats. It is rated 4.8 out of 5 stars with comments like:

It’s a perfect blend of action, suspense and romance. The action keeps you turning the pages as the author portrays the gritty reality of the city. Amato captures the complexity of life in one of the world’s largest cities, expertly depicting the sleazy politicians, the drug lords, their violent lieutenants and the common Mexicans who are victimized by them. Her characters are sharply drawn and totally believable.”

Read the book and you will learn something about the drug wars cost and the people who are determined to end the corruption. You’ll learn about the class system that divides the Mexican culture. Amato fills the pages with three-dimensional characters that you care about. You will be thrilled with the way Amato shares the dinner between Eduardo and Luz. I wanted to read that whole scene out loud to my wife.”

And this from the Literary Fiction Review: “The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato is a rivetingly dramatic tale of politics and corruption, and a man and a woman from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love.” 

The most viewed page on this website is the dreamcast of Latino actors who I think should star in any movie adaptation.

My sniff is audible.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Great Madonna Mistake

The Great Madonna Mistake

It took me five years to realize the mistake. The Madonna mistake.

In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Luz de Maria is a maid in Mexico City who returns home to the small town of Soledad de Doblado after losing her job. There she sees a news report that leads her to believe the upper class man with whom she had a brief—but emotionally charged encounter—is dead. Blind with anger over the loss, she destroys the family’s shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. To make amends she paints a Madonna and Child for her family; an unintended self-portrait that becomes a small but pivotal plot element. (Sorry, no spoilers)

Related: The Hidden Light of Mexico City dreamcast and Chapters 1-2

Here’s the description of what she painted:

“Luz had sketched the third Madonna furiously one night after having the dream about Eddo again. The colors were cool grays and blues. El Greco colors, she thought and closed her eyes tiredly. That one was easy to name. La Virgen de las Lágrimas. Madonna of the Tears . . .

“In the painting, Mary wore a sheer rebozo shawl over straight dark hair. Her head was tilted to one side. Under the rebozo, Luz’s face gazed at the child in her arms, looking as if there was no happiness left in the world.”

As I wrote, in my mind’s eye I could see the painting.

The woman. The child. Her expression. Her cloak.

Everything except Mary’s halo.

When I realized that I’d never described the halo of Luz’s painting, I started looking at Madonna pictures. Mary’s halo is variously depicted as a circle of stars, a bright light shining behind Her head, a gold crown, a simple gold circlet, etc, etc.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child portrait hanging in vestibule of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Vienna, VA

Virgin of Guadalupe

The famous Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, always shows Mary with a full body halo that resembles a gold shell.

My favorite Madonna hangs in my dining room. She is dressed as medieval Spanish royalty and wears a hat. Tiny gold flecks on it suggest a halo. The painting is from Peru but I bought it in Mexico.

Carmen Amato's Virgin from Peru

My Madonna from Peru, in Spanish dress

Although omitting mention of a halo might have been oversight, I’d like to think that in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, there is a reason why Luz’s Madonna does not have a halo.

It is a self-portrait of a woman who is simply very human.

Like all of us.

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Lovely Glow of Too Many Irons in the Fire

The Lovely Glow of Too Many Irons in the Fire

I’ve got too many irons in the fire.

I’d like to say that this is a rare event. But juggling multiple projects can be fun, which must be why I tend to overbook my creative energies.

Here’s what is going on:

Bookstore of the Future project

Yesterday I reached out to 55 book bloggers for the second Bookstore of the Future project, asking them the key questions: What will the bookstore of the future look like? How can bookstores innovate in order to stay relevant and solvent in the era of ebooks and ecommerce?

I had an immediate response from author and blogger extraordinaire C. M. Mayo who posted a link to my blog on her Madam Mayo blog. See it here.

Author responses keep trickling in but the crown goes to thriller author Dale Brown (Whaaaat? You haven’t read FLIGHT OF THE OLD DOG? Read it. Immediately.) who was the first to respond, in part, with this comment: “Carmen: Interesting project! I haven’t been in a bookstore to buy a book since I discovered Amazon Books in 1996.” Look for his full response when “What is the Future of the Bookstore? 25 Influential Authors Weigh In” is published in early January.

Finally, I had an interesting exchange with author Jeff Faria who is teaming with Symposia Bookstore in Hoboken, New Jersey on a “bookstore/playspace.” Look for more on this in the third article featuring bookstore owner views.

NaNoWriMo and DIABLO NIGHTS

I didn’t complete a 50k word manuscript in November, thanks to the flu. What I did end up with, however, is the guts of the next Emilia Cruz mystery novel. Familiar elements are there: dirty cops, drug cartels, Emilia’s uncertainty about her relationship with a gringo and grudging partnership with Silvio. But DIABLO NIGHTS also digs into Mexico’s religious history as well as Acapulco’s tourism industry. There’s also the anything-for-a-peso mindset I encountered from time to time in Mexico. This could be the most provocative Emilia Cruz novel yet.

I exchanged ideas for the book’s religious research with author and university professor Andrew Chesnut, whose articles on The Huffington Post are always absorbing. I recommend subscribing to his Huffpost feed.

“The Angler”

This Emilia Cruz short story will draw elements from the real events surrounding the murder of Fr. Richard Junius, who was my pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City, which I wrote about last year.

To my knowledge, Fr. Richard’s  murderer has never been found. Expect a different ending in “The Prayer;” justice via fiction.

Water.org

In 2014 I plan to partner with water.org to raise funds for basic sanitation. I will donate a dollar for every Kindle book I sell on Amazon in 2014. To maximize the effort, I’m considering asking fellow authors to donate a portion of their earnings for a selected month. For their month, I’ll promote them on my blog and on the fundraiser page. They’d get added exposure as well as make a meaningful contribution for a great cause. What do you think?

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Matching Books with Museums in Mexico City

Matching Books with Museums in Mexico City

There you are, strolling through amazing exhibits and you know something’s missing.

Like the backstory.

Wish you’d known more before going? But there wasn’t time. Besides,  research before going to a museum sounds too much like work.

So prep with a little fiction! Have fun and get the backstory before you go by pairing a good book with a counterpart museum. It’s like pairing white wine with fish or a cabernet with a good steak; each tastes better with the other.

Here are some suggestions for pairing fiction books with museums in Mexico City. Just like Corona with carnitas!

Chapultepec Castle and The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire by C.M. Mayo

Chapultepec castle

Chapultepec Castle photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: Perched on top of a hill, with sweeping views over Mexico City’s western sprawl, the fortress-style castle was home to the ill-fated Emperor Maxmillian I and his empress, Carlota, during the Second Mexican Empire from 1864 to 1867. You can walk through the rooms, which are arranged shotgun fashion–each leading into the other–insuring that no one at the court had much privacy. The gilded, delicate French-style furniture is an indication just how out of touch the royal court was from real life in Mexico. Take the trolley from street level up the hill, otherwise you’ll be too exhausted from the climb to appreciate the museum.

The book: The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire is a fictionalized account of the Second Mexican Empire seen mostly through the eyes of the American woman whose son was adopted (or seized depending on your point of view) by the childless Maxmillian and Carlota in the vain attempt to establish an heir to the Mexican throne. The book is a real gem and shows off both amazingly detailed research into the life and times of the Second Mexican Empire and the author’s ability to create wholly believable historical characters. Get it here.

The Palacio Nacional and The Eagle’s Throne by Carlos Fuentes

Palacio Nacional Mexico City

Palacio Nacional photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: This long, stately building rises impressively along one side of Mexico City’s enormous Zócalo central square. It is a working government building but visitors flock there to see the famous murals by Diego Rivera that adorn the main stairwell and the walls of the second floor. Grandly titled “The Epic of the Mexican People,” the murals were painted between 1929 and 1935 and tell Mexico’s story from the Aztecs to the worker of Rivera’s times. Above the building’s central doorway, facing the Zócalo, is the main balcony where just before 11:00 pm every 15 September, the president of Mexico gives el Grito de Dolores, the infamous cry for independence from Spain originally made by national hero Miguel Hidalgo. Hidalgo’s church bell from the church of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, hangs above the balcony.

The book: The murals and the el grito commemoration are integral parts of Mexio’s turbulent and at times visceral political rivalries and history. The Eagle’s Throne, written as a series of letters by a tangled net of political players, is a masterfully crafted inside look at that game. The letters reveal the story bit by tantalizing bit, with allegiances, conflicts, brinkmanship, and manipulation driving the narrative. An amazingly complex and skillful book, there is nothing else that so perfectly takes the reader inside Mexico’s political world. Get it here.

La Casa Azul (Frida Kahlo’s house) and The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Casa Azul

la Casa Azul photo courtesy wikipedia

The museum: This cobalt blue house in the artsy Coyoacán suburb of Mexico City was the family home to iconic painter Frida Kahlo and where muralist Diego Rivera also lived during his stormy marriage to her. Kahlo and Rivera were socialist sympathizers and la Casa Azul was an intermittant refuge for Leon Trotsky 1937-39 when he fled Stalin’s Russia. The house contains numerous Kahlo artifacts and pieces of artwork. An outdoor room built by Rivera and encrusted with shells shows just how unrestricted the two were in their creativity.

The book: The Lacuna traces the life of a troubled young American man who was raised (by a free spirit mother) in Mexico City and becomes assistant, chef, and secretary to Kahlo and Rivera. Rich in imagery, poetic prose, and character development, we see the conflict and intimate life of the two artists through his own troubled eyes. Their commitment to Trotsky and the latter’s exile in Mexico City is the real centerpiece of the book. I didn’t love the end, but the novel is a dense, lavish telling of the story of Kahlo and Rivera—and all that had happened in that house. Get it here.

The Rufino Tamayo Museum and The Hidden Light of Mexico City by Carmen Amato

Tamayo Museum

Tamayo Museum photo courtesy vernissage.tv

The museum: The Tamayo Museum is the queen of contemporary art in Mexico, drawing A-list international artists and fearlessly promoting new ideas and installations in the art world. A huge curved sign occupies prime real estate on Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main drag, advertising the museum’s ever-changing array of exhibits. The building itself is a piece of sculpture, a nice contrast to its neighbor, the more stolid Anthropology Museum. Well curated, it is rarely crowded and always gives fresh perspectives. Also, the small restaurant has very good coffee.

The book: In The Hidden Light of Mexico City, anti-corruption attorney Eddo Cortez Castillo talks to housemaid Luz de Maria Alba Mora in front of the museum and mistakes her for an art teacher. Their tour of the museum brings the reader right along, showing the variety of things one is likely to see in the Tamayo, from video installations, to 3-D objects of startling variety and materials, to classics like actual paint on canvas. Like it does to everybody, the Tamayo startled Eddo and Luz but also hugely entertained, leading to an unforgettable conversation about life, history, and love. Of course more happens after that—Eddo’s hunting a corrupt Minister of Public Security and an elusive cartel leader while Luz’s family implodes—but you’ll have to read the book to see how it all works out. The book takes on Mexico’s rigid social system as well as government corruption. Get it here.

Check out tripfiction.com for more ideas.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

The Day of the Dead Disordered Dictionary

The Day of the Dead Disordered Dictionary

Catrinas photo by Tomas Castelazo

Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions will figure prominently in SUN GOD, the third Emilia Cruz mystery novel. The holiday focuses on gatherings to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died.

People go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed and build private altars commemorating those who have passed away. If the souls return, they will hear the prayers of the living and perhaps offer comfort.

So in no particular order, here’s a guide to celebrating death—and life.

Muertos

These skeleton figurines symbolize the departed and the Day of the Dead but have become part of the mainstream Mexican art world as well. Muertos wear different clothes to represent specific people and occupations. Markets across Mexico sell them, dressed as virtually anything you can think of, from mermaids to aliens and everything in between.

La Catrina

The Catrina, popularized by artist and cartoonist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), is a muerto of a high society woman and one of the most popular figures of the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.

Altar photo by Steve Bridger

Ofrendas

This is the offering left to attract the souls of the dead, notably in the form of altars. There are guidelines as to how the items should be set out and what is to be used such as toys for children, bottles of alcohol, food, candy, etc. They can range from a simple home tabletop to hugely elaborate displays in schools, churches, and shopping malls.

Calavera

Literally, “skull.” Sweets, notably chocolate, in the shape of skulls are sold everywhere for Day of the Dead festivities. In October, the city of Toluca hosts a sugar market that dominates the main plaza with vendors selling every size and shape of candy calavera imaginable. There is actually a website devoted to sugar skulls, with an amazing photo gallery.

Los angelitos

Children who have died and are remembered in a special way with altars decorated with toys and candy. I knew a woman in Mexico City who set out an elaborate altar for a child she’d lost several years previously as a way of coming to terms with the child’s death. She told me that as she placed the last item on the altar she felt the child’s spirit and knew that she shouldn’t mourn any more.

Pan de muerto

Sweet bread made with eggs, usually baked into a round or oval shape and decorated with white sugar icing to symbolize bones. I use the same recipe for basic sweet rolls.

Marigolds photo by Juan Scott

Flor de muerto

Marigolds are most often used to decorate altars, graves, etc. Sometimes masses of marigolds are shaped into skulls for parades and other events. The flower is thought to summon the spirits of the dead.

La Llorona

A legend throughout Latin America of a woman who lost her children. Grief turned her into a banshee and her screaming can be heard at night. The story is a little different in each place but in Mexico is a star-crossed drama of spurned love tangled up with the Spanish conquest.

A 9/11 Story

A 9/11 Story

I was sitting in a small auditorium at the Colegio Americano in Mexico City waiting for the meeting to start. The room was full of women and the occasion was the annual meeting of Mexico’s Secretariat of Education with the school’s parents. I knew I wouldn’t understand most of it; my Spanish listening skills were still feeble although I’d temporarily mastered numbers. But the school administration had sent home shrill notes insisting that parents attend, claiming a correlation between continued accreditation/funding with the number of parents that showed up.

We were new at the school that year. I didn’t see anyone I knew from my vantage point near the rear exit. The murmurs around me were all in Spanish.

As I leafed through my Filofax, a soft exclamation in English sounded from the front row. A blonde women turned to someone behind her as she waved a cell phone. “A plane hit the Twin Towers in New York,” she whispered loud enough for me to hear.

A small plane. A Cessna, I thought. A private pilot must have had a heart attack and veered off course. The plane would have splintered into pieces against the skyscraper. How sad.

With great ceremony, some school officials and a large man in a glen plaid suit mounted the stage and crossed to the podium. There were introductory remarks. The glen plaid suit started speaking on behalf of the Secretariat.

The warm air in the auditorium thickened with a mixture of boredom and expensive perfume. The speaker’s face was moist above the microphone. I had no idea what he was saying.

Whispers again rippled out from the front row in a language I could understand. A second plane had struck the Twin Towers.

No one left. The sweaty Secretariat man droned on for another 30 minutes until finally the school officials thanked him and dismissed the meeting. Maybe he took questions. I don’t remember.

I drove home and turned on the television. It was 11:30 am. At 11:32 I realized the world had fundamentally changed.

And that’s my 9/11 story.

Click here for the 9/11 digital archive. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items, a tally that includes more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.

Click here for the 9/11 memorial website.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

Get it today on Amazon

Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy http://elbazaarsabado.com/mx/#expositores

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9070692

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.

Cuidadela

The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.

Insurgentes

Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.

Coyoacan

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Wicked Culture

A stroll through an outdoor book fair lining Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma boulevard a few months ago gave me the inspiration for the third novel in the Emilia Cruz mystery series. Most of the vendor stalls offered beautiful art books but what caught my eye was a cheaply printed pamphlet adorned with a drawing of a muerte skeleton figure wearing a long robe and holding a set of scales and a globe.

The dark side is alive and well . . .

Mexico’s Santa Muerte

Santa Muerte has become a cult figure in Mexico and is increasingly hailed as the patron saint of drug gangs, cartels, and violence. The saint is always a muerte, or skeleton figure, in a long robe with a hood. Sometimes Santa Muerte has a halo or a crown and carries either scales or a long scythe akin to the Grim Reaper. There are also images that meld Santa Muerte with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Murders associated with the cult of Santa Muerte made headlines last month when three people were killed in a ritual dedicated to the saint in northern Mexico.

The little pamphlet that I found was a collection of prayers to the Saint of Death, including a prayer to bring in money, a curse against jealous people and a prayer to dominate a husband, an invocation for a man not to look at any other woman, and a prayer to make a man forget another woman. In the next book,  Emilia will read the wrong prayer, of course . .

Papua New Guinea’s Sanguma

A spiritualism known as sanguma in this remote Pacific nation is widespread and most homicides in the country are thought to be related to it. 85% of the population lives in rural communities where belief in black magic is especially strong and passed down through generations through storytelling. Illnesses, sudden death by natural causes and other unexpected developments are often thought to be the result of sanguma. As a result, to erase the black magic, villagers often kill someone accused of being a sorcerer. Check out this report from ISP for more.

Haiti’s voodoo

Voodoo was acclaimed as a real religion in Haiti and revolves around in a distant and unknowable creator god, Bondyè. According to Wikipedia, Bondyè doesn’t intercede in human affairs but has a set of lesser dieties called Iwa who direct specific aspects of life.  Adherents to voodoo “cultivate personal relationships” with the lwa through offerings, personal altars and devotional objects, and elaborate ceremonies of music and dance, which are the means for possession by an Iwa. Supposedly being possessed by a diety is something to be desired.

Hmm. Creepy stuff. Time to go to church and light a candle.

Finding my Audience

Who do I write for?

This was a simple question posed to me a couple of months before The Hidden Light of Mexico City was released and it was simple to answer.

Me.

Well, not just a readership of one! But when I started writing, it was for myself and all my girlfriends in Mexico City who watched the dance of Mexico’s social classes and wondered what would happen to the country in which we’d invested so much of ourselves.

We were smart, educated, and capable women from different countries: the US, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Portugal, Australia, etc. Although we had different nationalities, we had one thing in common: we were all from cultures that embraced and practiced gender equality.

All of us found that wasn’t the case in Mexico, although I hope things have improved since then. But at the time, we often found ourselves talking about people and situations we encountered in Mexico City that made us uncomfortable because inequality was so tolerated.

These conversations really inspired me, at first to write a non-fiction book, and then later to change it to a novel that would entertain as it informed.

My readers are

  • Interested in current events
  • Curious about the rest of the world, especially Mexico
  • Appreciative of a good action story
  • Likes a bit of spice, too

Does that describe you?

 

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

The Hidden Light of Mexico City contains a number of references from my own experiences in Mexico City.  I’ve already written about the  class struggle of simply standing in a line but also wanted to share a sadder, more compelling event that helped shape the book’s narrative through the character of Father Santiago.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Father Richard

Father Richard Junius–or Padre Ricardo–was the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City when I lived there.  He was an Oblate Missionary who had been in Mexico for years, ministering mostly to the rural poor.  St. Patrick’s was a sizeable urban parish  in a fairly tough neighborhood. It was the only designated English-speaking church in the city.

Fr Richard Junius

Years ago the church had sold off the school building next door. Funds from the sale  were held in escrow by the diocese for maintenance of the church and attached rectory.  The previous pastor had been removed due to a number of misconducts; when Father Richard arrived we were all cautiously hopeful that the new priest would set things right.

St. Patrick’s sacristy was a place I came to know well; the ladies of the parish cleaned it up for the incoming priest, removing layers of grime and polishing the few silver items the church possessed. My son was an altar server and I remade and cleaned all of the altar server vestments, hanging them in the room’s small closet.  The description of the sacristy of the church of Santa Clara in The Hidden Light of Mexico City is based on St. Patrick’s.

 

Father Richard was old and patient and tireless in his efforts to reach out to the local community and deal with their family issues. He made his new English-speaking congregation aware of prison irregularities in Mexico and didn’t flinch when an armed drug addict, stoned out of his mind, walked through the church and accosted him on the altar during midnight Mass.  He spent nothing on his clothing, wearing threadbare corduroy pants and sweaters that became the fictional Father Santiago’s wardrobe. 

Controversy

Father Richard had spent most of his time in Mexico in rural areas. Now in Mexico City, he seemed naive in the midst of Mexico’s spiraling crime and drug war. 

Twice he was assaulted and robbed while alone in the church counting  the Sunday collection. When parishioners insisted that the funds be handled differently, he disagreed, adamant that church funds were solely his responsibility and that he would not close the church at any time. 

He lent a substantial amount from the maintenance funds to an unscrupulous businessman man who never repaid the loan. Father Richard contracted for the bathroom repair without consulting with the parish council. Again, funds disappeared. The job was left half done and toilets didn’t flush.

Never afraid of controversy, he petitioned the bishop to change the church’s status from English-speaking to multi-lingual. The move angered some of the original congregation, but was welcomed by local families.

Much of the English-speaking congregation moved on, angered by his financial floundering. Several years later I was to learn that he’d been murdered.

A violent death

In August 2007, Father Richard was found stripped, tortured, bound and strangled to death in his bedroom in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City.  His body was found the morning after a fire had broken out in the basement of the church late at night.  Initial Mexican news reports speculated that the death was a result of “sexual misconduct,” and downplayed the fire as well as the theft of several items from the church.  The charges were heatedly denied by Catholic Church officials in Mexico, thousands of faithful, and the  Oblates, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Other reports of his death noted that he’d been in conflict with the owner of  a bar near the church whom Father Richard had publicly called out for serving alcohol to minors. The Oblate website reported that “many believe that the brutal crime was in retaliation for Fr. Ricardo’s efforts to impede the drug traffic and the sale of alcohol to minors in the neighborhood. He had reported to the police that such activities were taking place in a building near the corner of the parish church.”

From the family

Fr. Richard’s cousin got in touch with me in April 2016 as a result of this blog post. In an exchange of emails, she related how she was informed by the Oblate Provincial in Belleville, Illinois that Fr. Richard was murdered:

“After I explained my connection, the Provincial began hesitantly stating, “I don’t even know how to say this.” When I asked what he needed to say, he responded that Father Richard had been murdered between the Saturday night Mass of Anticipation and the early Sunday morning Mass. I later heard that his sister expected his body to be returned to Eagle Pass for burial near the grave of his cousin, my uncle Father Bernard C. Junius, OMI. Sadly, the Mexican authorities buried the body quickly in Mexico City.
 
Prior to his death, Father Richard had written a lengthy letter to my uncle Paul explaining all of the activities he was involved in – a thrift store, a radio show, marrying Spanish and Anglo couples. His passion for service and love of those he served threaded through the letter. His death seemed like the waste of a true servant of the people.”
 

Catching his killer

Father Richard was 79 at the time of his death and only a month away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest.  To my knowledge, his murderer has never been brought to justice and the official record remains death by misadventure.
 
Not content with that, I wrote “The Angler,” a novella based on the murder of Father Richard. In “The Angler,” Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, faces a similar crime. This time, the murder is solved.
 

The Angler by Carmen Amato

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Why Read a Book About Mexico Now

Reading about Mexico now is a mix of highs and lows. Fiction can’t substitute for facts but it can lead us to become interested enough in an issue to find out what is really going on.  That is the impact I hope The Hidden Light of Mexico City can have.

The press release says:

 The classic Cinderella story moves to Mexico against a backdrop of government corruption, drug cartel violence, and pending presidential elections.  The Hidden Light of Mexico City’s raw exposé of Mexico’s rigid class society makes this political thriller a must-read before America’s next debate over immigration.

Why is this important

What’s happening today is Mexico is fairly staggering.  As reported by The New York Times, based on Mexican Government statistics released in January, over 47,000 people have been killed in the country’s crackdown against the cartels.  It’s common knowledge that many are dead as the result of competition between rival cartels. Other dead are those who were transiting cartel territory as they tried to immigrate and were pressed into service to the cartels and then killed.  Stories of the “disappeared” and mass graves remind me of news reports of Cambodia back in the day, of “The Killing Fields” movie.

The killing fields are spilling over onto America’s doorstep. Last September the New York Times published an interactive map showing Mexican drug cartel reach across the border and a map of US drug seizures from Mexican cartel shipments to the US.  Disturbing, hardhitting.

CNN’s  recent series is even more compelling. The reporting takes us from a walk through a cemetary in drug kingpin El Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa, to a cold hard look at the numbers, to the search for those missing amid the violence.

Mexico’s drug war isn’t just about the fight between the cartels and the military, about political will to stamp out evil or even about guns and agents moving across the US-Mexican border. More than anything, it is about a people and a culture under attack.

This is where fiction can help tell a vital story, by imagining the lives of those living through the struggle, making them breathe and love and cry and fight. Fiction can hold attention and provoke emotion in a way that the news might not.

Update 2016

The numbers of those missing or known dead in Mexico continues to rise. The re-arrest of El Chapo kept the various cartels at each others’ throats in the quest to dominate drug routes into the ever-voracious US, and violence continues in many parts of Mexico.

Whatever the US presidential election holds for us, the US-Mexico relationship is back on the agenda after having been eclipsed for quite some time by the Middle East. The southern border, immigration, and undocumented folks are likely to be addressed one way or another. If fiction can help focus attention on improving relations between these critical neighbors, so much the better.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

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A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is a political thriller, with characters based on many people I met in Mexico City.

And a bus.

The setting

Let me set this up for you.

Our house was at the start of the school bus route going home. My children had a 10 minute ride. In the morning; they’d be the last to be picked up for a short ride through Chapultepec Park to the American School. To give you an idea of the student body, one of the other students was the son of a Mexican diputado. His bodyguards rode in an unmarked follow car. We never saw the bodyguards in the afternoon; I presume the chauffeur picked up the child like so many other children who attended that school.

One afternoon, a late model sedan parked near our house. A woman got out of the back seat, wearing a stylish dress, heels and ropes of gold chain. She introduced herself as Marit and said that her children rode the same school bus as my children.

They lived at the end of the bus line, she explained, and while she wanted her son and daughter to have the experience of riding on a school bus, it took too long.  In future her children would get off at our house and be driven home by the chauffeur.

Related: Reads Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

A tenuous friendship

We spoke a number of times after that, me in my jeans on the stoop and she in her designer clothes from the window of the car.  When she learned I was new to Mexico City she took it upon herself to give me a tour of the best shops and restaurants in our neighborhood. The children and I were invited to a midday meal with her husband and children.  The event included lunch at their house–about 15 minutes away–and a stop in the kitchen to view the 5 uniformed staff and present my compliments to the cook in her white jacket.

Related post: Swimming lessons or how he wound up in a thriller

Soon after, Marit came over for coffee before meeting the bus. Our housekeeper, a wonderful young woman whom we did not require to wear a uniform, met us in the living room.  I introduced them as I would any two people, using full names.  To my surprise Marit immediately addressed the housekeeper using a common nickname rather than the housekeeper’s actual name. The grilling about work hours came next. It was an effective and not very subtle message: the housekeeper was getting above herself using her full name, not wearing a uniform, and leaving the kitchen instead of waiting to be assigned her work.

Related post: Itzel’s story or how she came to be in my novel

Marit also called me the next day and took me to task for not making the housekeeper work more hours–a day maid should show up to work at 7:00 am at least. By asking the housekeeper to come at 10:00 I was only encouraging her to become lazy.  I should note here that my husband generally referred to the housekeeper as the “Mexican Tornado” for her amazing work ethic. Marit’s words told me that there’s a caste system in Mexico that bottles up more people than just the Mexican Tornado.  So escape it, people will mule drugs or risk an illegal crossing into the United States.  Or both.

Be careful, I’m a writer

There were no more coffee or lunches after that but the final break came when Marit called to ask if, as an American, I could get her maid a visa. The family wanted to go to Disneyworld and take their maid to look after the children in the evenings.

The visa process took too much time, Marit said.  If the maid had to stand in line at the US Embassy she’d miss work.

I replied that I had no ability to obtain a visa for her maid and I never heard from Marit again. The car no longer stopped in front of my house to pick up her children.

But I had stored up enough from her tone, mannerisms, and home tour to cast Marit as Selena de Vega and transpose her home and servants into the Vega home. There are some differences to be sure, but the social ladder that Marit showed me became the impossible mountain that fictional maid Luz de Maria must climb in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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