El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

El Cid: A literary hero’s literary hero

Everybody has heard of Don Quixote. The image of the fictional tilter-at-windmills is everywhere in Mexico, which has long adopted Spanish literature and legends as its own. But when I went looking for the literary hero for my fictional Mexican hero in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, I needed someone more, ahem, successful than Don Quixote.

El Cid movie posterMovie star

El Cid was a character I’d seen mentioned by Mexican authors. With little more context than the Charleton Heston movie, I assumed he was a fictional creation like Don Quixote.

But I was wrong. It only took a little digging to find El Cantar de Mio Cid, or The Poem of the Cid, the only surviving epic poem from medieval Spain. The poem, similar in form to The Song of Roland, recounts the adventures of the real Spanish warlord and nobleman Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar. He was called El Cid Campeador, a title that reflected the esteem in which he was held by both the Moors and the Spanish. “El cid” was derived from the Moorish al-sidi, meaning sir or lord, while “campeador” means champion in Spanish.

El Cantar de Mio Cid is a dramatic retelling of daring deeds with a heroic figure, facing down enemies with courage and his sword. A continued refrain in the poem is that El Cid, with zest for the fight, was born in a fortunate time.

Historic figure

El Cid had already made a name for himself fighting the Moors for King Ferdinand when the king died. The lands Ferdinand had ruled were divided among his five children. They immediately started fighting each other. Sancho, the son who’d inherited Castile, named El Cid commander of his armies. When Sancho was assassinated, his brother King Alfonso was the chief suspect. El Cid made Alfonso publicly proclaim his innocence. Angered, Alfonso forced El Cid into exile alone, in effect holding his daughters and beloved wife Jimena hostage.

On his warhorse Babieca and brandishing his sword Tizona, El Cid became a mercenary, mainly fighting the Moors but not being too fussy in his choice of employer. Eventually he managed to squeeze Alfonso into relenting on the exile and was reunited with his family. Aligned once again with Alfonso, El Cid conquered Valencia where he and Jimena ruled in Alfonso’s name until El Cid died in 1099. His daughters became queens of Aragon and Navarre. His sword is preserved in Spain’s Museum of the Army.

Role model

El Cantar de Mio Cid is as much about leadership as anything else. Surprising for his time, El Cid often “took counsel,” asked his men for input, and actually listened to their advice. As a result, his men were fiercely loyal to him; 115 knights spurned King Alfonso, went into exile with El Cid, and fought by his side as mercenaries.

This was the perfect role model I’d been looking for as my fiction hero, Eduardo Cortez Castillo, leads a brotherhood of cops sworn to be incorruptible. In THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, “Los Hierros,” the Iron Ones, will take on not just police corruption but a scheme to allow Mexico’s most notorious drug cartel to buy political power through the Mexican presidential elections.

El Cid’s relationship with his beloved wife Jimena gave the role model an extra dimension. Like El Cid, Eduardo falls in love, although with a woman who by the unspoken laws of Mexico’s rigid class structure, cannot stand by his side. Yet Eduardo tells Luz de Maria about his role model and references to El Cid become a secret code between the two lovers.

I hope you check out THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY and find the clues to El Cid.

But most of all, may you, like El Cid, live in a fortunate time.

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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 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

Steal away with mystery author Lynda Lock

Steal away with mystery author Lynda Lock

Canadian mystery author and blogger Lynda L. Lock transports us to the fabled island of Isla Mujeres on Mexico’s Atlantic coast not far from Cancun. First known for her popular blog from Isla Mujeres, Lynda’s new mystery series is a charming slice-of-island-life with a mystery twist featuring authentic island life and an ensemble cast that hangs out at a restaurant called the Loco Lobo.

Lynda and I met through the dynamic Mexico Writers group on Facebook and I can’t wait for her next book!

Carmen Amato: Lynda, thanks so much for stopping by. We’re both members of the incomparable Mexico Writers group on Facebook and you were one of the contributors to The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. I love your blog about life on Mexico’s Isla Mujeres, but you also write mysteries! Tell us how your writing career has evolved.

Lynda Lock: Hi Carmen, and thank you for the invite and for including me in The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. My writing career started with a Christmas story I wrote in grade five. It ended in a complete disaster as I nervously shredded the paper while trying to read what I thought was a hilariously funny story to my stone-faced classmates.

Over the years I wrote hundreds of stories for my own entertainment.  Eventually I was offered a position as a contributing writer for an American magazine, while at the same time I managed our bed and breakfast and worked in our micro-brewery. When my husband and I retired to Mexico I rediscovered the desire to write books. I started with a bilingual book for children and then progressed to novels. The Adventures of Thomas the Cat / Las Aventuras de Tomás el Gato won a silver award at the International Latino Book Awards in LA for Best Picture Book Bilingual in 2016.

CA: Your mysteries, TREASURE ISLA and TROUBLE ISLA, capture life on Isla Mujeres down to the smallest detail, including the impact of its relative remoteness. How does setting influence your mystery plots?

LL: I enjoy the Mexican culture, but living on an island is entertaining, no matter where the island is located. The people who inhabit islands are typically self-sufficient, resilient individuals, with quirky personalities that make great characters for novels. We lived on a similarly sized island in British Columbia Canada for 17 years. One day I intend to write a series of novels based on that experience.

CA: One thing I love about the Isla books is the wonderful cast of continuing characters and the touch of romance. The population of Isla Mujeres is quite a mix–Mexicans, expatriates, vacationers, etc. How did this inspire you?

LL:  I am fascinated by pirates; their history, their stories, and their personalities. A few years ago our well-respected local historian, Fidel Villanueva Madrid, wrote an interesting account about the pirates that had visited and at times inhabited the Isla Mujeres.

Another islander, Ronda Winn Roberts, enjoys translating articles from Spanish to English and posting the translations on her blog to give English speaking newcomers have a sense of the island’s history. That’s how I first discovered the story of the blonde-haired Dutch pirate, Captain Laurens Cornelis Boudewijn de Graaf.

The possibility of the handsome, charming and apparently well-educated de Graaf, nicknamed the Scourge of the West, visiting Isla over 300 years ago was the spark for TREASURE ISLA. He reportedly sailed to Isla Mujerea in 1683 after the siege of Veracruz and buried his plunder here on the island. According to all accounts de Graaf never returned to the island but was killed in another battle. Alright then, let’s go find that treasure.

Another pirate, who is better known to islanders, Captain Fermin Mundaca lived on Isla in the mid-1800s. His empty tomb really is located in the cemetery in Centro, and his hacienda covers a large part of the center of the island.

The second book, TROUBLE ISLA begins with a kidnapping of one of the main characters from Treasure Isla. It seems that the pirate’s horde is just bad luck for everyone. The story is more about the present day characters; their interactions, friendships and love affairs and less about the historical characters of Mundaca and de Graaf.

The third book continue to explore relationships between the characters while they deal with murder, mayhem and a hurricane.

I enjoy researching and writing stories that have a historical basis. Digging out the bits and pieces and trying to reconstruct an era is fascinating. Fortunately for me there are a number of webpages and blogs with interesting tidbits of information about pirates and the items have been found over the years.

The interactions and reactions are a never ending source of material for the novels, too. Everyone has an opinion on how the island should be managed and many discussions start with, “my little Isla …” There is an amusing rivalry between the born-on-the-island locals and foreign residents, between the home owners who live here six months of the year and the visitors who have been vacationing every year for 30 years, but everyone picks on the dreaded day-trippers arriving in hoards from the Cancun hotels.

CA: I wouldn’t call your books cozy mysteries, but neither are they hard-boiled crime fiction. How do you categorize them?

LL: I think they are humorous-adventure-mysteries. Is there a category for that?

CA: What is next for you as a blogger and a mystery writer?

LL: Book #3 TORMENTA ISLA is scheduled to be released in February 2018. The cast of characters still have a few more stories to tell. Meanwhile, the blog is a weekly labor of love and both my husband and I contribute articles. It’s a good vehicle to congratulate volunteers, to introduce old-time islanders to the newbies, to express our quirky humor, and to just generally get to know other people who love Isla Mujeres.

CA: You can invite any author, living or dead, to dinner at your home. What are you serving and what will the conversation be about?

LL:  Oh my, so many choices. I read a novel a day and have many favorite authors, but I will have to say Ken Follett would be my first choice. I am a huge fan of his Kingsbridge Series; Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and the newest one just released A Column of Fire. His attention to historical detail, his characters, and his descriptions are breathtaking.

I have read the first two books three times each and still discover things I missed in the previous readings. As for dinner, we are very basic cooks. We live on the edge of the ocean with sand drifting through our patio doors and the turquoise sea to enjoy. Our meals are basic and easy, giving us more time to soak up the beauty of our view.

Assuming Mr. Follett isn’t a vegetarian, we would probably grill steaks and an assortment of vegetables like peppers, onions, baby carrots and broccoli, then make a crispy salad, and set everything on the table with a couple of bottles of good wine. If we were lucky the grocery store might have a freshly made baguette – not quite but almost as good as the baguettes in France. The fresh bread would go nicely with our stash of imported New Zealand butter. (Good butter is a rare find on the island! When a supply comes in we buy lots and stash it in the freezer.)

CA: Can you leave us with a quote, a place, or a concept from a book that inspired you?

LL: “No regrets. No bad memories.” It’s a favorite saying we picked up from two friends who are slightly older than us and also on second marriages. What it means to me is enjoy life, learn a new skill, be open to new adventures and don’t worry about the past. Life is short, savor your time.

Thank you!

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BLOG: Notes from Paradise, Isla Mujeres

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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

New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO was released this week on Amazon, Nook, Scribid, Playster, Inkterra, and Kobo. It is already #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases list for the Mexico Travel category!

It’s a unique collection of stories, essays, and photographs that you won’t find anywhere else. I was delighted to edit the collection.

The book started life last year as a project of the Mexico Writers group on Facebook. Contributors could print and use it as they liked–hand out in shops, giveaways to readers, etc.

Contributions grew and so did our audience. It was time to publish!

In THE INSIDE’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO, 42 writers, artists, educators, travelers, business owners and others share their experiences. Art, Beaches, History, Literature, Special Places and Experiences are some of the categories. Most of those who contributed stories are expatriates who have found opportunity and inspiration in Mexico.

These insider stories are neither formal guidebook, social commentary, nor a substitute for unbiased news. They are an effort to share a landscape and lifestyle that have found a place in the hearts of so many.

My fiction often dwells in the dark places of Mexico. But like anywhere else, Mexico has both both sunlight and shadow. THE INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST OF MEXICO celebrates the light. Whether you are contemplating your next vacation, retirement, work-related move to Mexico, or are simply an armchair traveler, please enjoy these unique insider stories.

Contributors: Carmen Amato, Ellie Balderrama, Tony Burton, Ellie Cusack, Anne Damon. Joel R. Dennstedt, Kathryn Ferguson, Aileen Friedman, D. Grant Fitter, Kelly Hayes-Raitt , Karen Z. Hendin, Michael Hogan, David & Veronica James, Susan Penelope James, Jim Johnston, William B. Kaliher, Cynthia Katz, Jeanine Kitchel, Michael Landfair, Lindy Laing, Lawrie Lock, Lynda L. Lock, Mely Martinez, Dean & Shari Miller, Mikel Miller, Katie O’Grady, Guillermo Paxton, Kim Peto, Jennifer Silva Redmond, Robert Richter, Susannah Rigg, Fabiola Rodriguez, Dianne Hofner Saphiere, John Scherber, Kristine Scherber, Jinx Schwartz, David Steelman, Sara Sutter, Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, Joseph Toone, Sam Warren, and Kerry Watson.

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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

New Travel Book! The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Fiesta Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexico’s rich culture is a big part of my Detective Emilia Cruz series set in Acapulco and inspired a new project: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. This free guide is a collection of great stories from 36 experts who shared their insider tales of where to eat, play, swim, and stay in Mexico. Here are a few of the fiestas from the free Insider’s Guide, which you can get here.

Merida Weekends

Mexican fiesta in MeridaMérida weekends are all about fun. The Plaza Grande is huge and inviting. Flanked by the oldest cathedral on mainland America, it’s filled with covered stands selling the colorful embroidered clothing of the region, toys, and musical instruments. Food stands ring the edges. The people of this region are the friendliest in all Mexico. Sunday is the day for people to bloom. It begins with everyone headed to church in puffy jackets, since the temperature can plummet overnight to 72º Fahrenheit.

On the Paseo Montejo, a Victorian promenade boulevard, white horse-drawn carriages beckon. When sisal fiber, a product of the agave plant, was developed for rope and clothing in the 1880s, the wealthy planters built their townhouses on this street. France offered design ideas, and the influence of the Second Empire was strong. Here their daughters were introduced into society, and their sons into business. This was the only period of great wealth the Yucatán ever had. When artificial fibers came in, it was over within 75 years.

On Sunday, the Paseo’s outbound direction is closed to traffic. It streams with families on foot and on bicycles. The greatest of these mansions, the Palacio Cantón, is now the Anthropology and History Museum, which houses a stunning collection of artifacts from the surrounding jungle cities.

John Scherber, author of the Paul Zacher mystery series and other books, www.sanmiguelallendebooks.com

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

San Blas Day

San Blas is a centuries-old west coast port town, rich in history and character but always struggling to outgrow its status as a second class tourist town. Still more kin to Bogart’s Casablanca than to contemporary Cancún, the town is too old to put on Riviera airs. Long accustomed to conquistadors, adventurers, and schemers, San Blas has come to comfortable terms with itself, past and present, mellow and wise with endurance, unimpressed with the slick and pretentious; a Mexican port town of hard-working fishermen, shopkeepers, and restauranteurs, not a resort catering to the pampered tourist.

San Blas dayNamed after the martyr St. Blaise, fourth century physician and Bishop of Sebastia, Armenia, San Blas celebrates its namesake Feast Day on February 3 each year with religious processions, a parade of floats and local children in native costume, dances in the plaza, and the old-style firework tower of screaming, smoking, whistling, whirring explosive madness that would cause strokes in State-side mothers and OSHA inspectors.

The fiesta highlight comes with a procession taking the saint’s statue from the church, parading him through town with a brass band, then transporting him on a shrimp boat out the estuary to the Rock of the Virgin with all the local fishermen and their families following in a fleet of decorated boats.

On the open Pacific waters each boat passes under St. Blaise in the shrimp boat bow to receive blessing of sprinkled holy water and a prayer for year’s bounteous catch.

Then there’s fiesta.

Robert Richter, author of the Cotton Waters mystery series, http://www.robertrichterauthor.com/

Related: Why set a Mystery in Mexico

Monumental Alebrije Parade

The story goes that alebrijes, colorful monsters with parts of various animals, were first seen in the nightmares of cartonería (paper maché) artist Pedro Linares in the 1950s, who claimed they whispered their name to him.

Paper float from MexicoTrue or not, this story is part of the lore that the creatures have as both scary and magical at the same time. Their allure in Mexico City and beyond has only grown over the decades and can be credited with saving cartonerìa. In 2007, the Popular Art Museum (Museo de Arte Popular) decided to challenge artisans to create “monster-sized” versions which have over the years exceeded over two meters in height and five meters in length. My husband and I have been fortunate to work with this innovative museum and receive special permission to cover this event and others for Wikipedia and my blog.

The giant creatures are created as a labor of love, to appear only in one parade, taking months to make, not to mention many kilos of paper, paste, wire and more. Each year the alebrijes become more creative, both in design and the materials used, although cartonería is always the base. On the day of the parade in October, these creations are wheeled by their makers and others from the main square of Mexico City to the Angel of Independence monument. The event draws thousands of spectators as well as extensive local media coverage.

Leigh Ann Thelmadatter, Professor in English as a Second/Foreign Language, Tec de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México, Mexico City creativehandsofMexicodotorg.wordpress.com

Ready for the rest? Get the FREE Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico here.

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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

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

As a mystery writer, my Detective Emilia Cruz police procedural series usually explores the dark side of Mexico: cartel violence, police corruption, and missing persons.

But Mexico’s rich culture is as much of a character in the books as Emilia herself. Mexico’s art, food, landscapes, and history create a dramatic setting for a mystery series.

I’m not the only one inspired by Mexico’s cultural riches: 36 experts got together to write The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Read this excerpt about Mexico’s art world then get the FREE Guide here.

The Otomí Embroidery of Hidalgo

The colorful embroidery work of Mexico’s Otomí women has become a popular textile around the world. The cheerful combination of animals (birds, rabbits, deer, dogs, insects) with swirling flowers is frequently seen in many American design magazines and can be used for bedspreads, tablecloths, headboard covers, wall hangings lampshades and other creative craft projects. These large textiles, known as “Tenangos” because of the region they come from in Hidalgo (Tenango de Doria), come in many different colors and a few standard sizes. The textile is not available as a bolt of fabric (as many people request) but in a few standard sizes.

Otomi cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon

Usually Otomi embroideries  are done on an off-white muslin background, occasionally on black or gray cotton. The lore is that they are a more recent development in the traditional arts of Mexico and some say they are based on some cave paintings in Hidalgo state. That’s been hard to verify. Many of the small towns within the Tenango region are home to women’s collectives who make and sell these beautiful works of art.

Each 6′ by 6′ piece is one-of-a-kind and takes a approximately three months to complete. The designs are drawn in water-soluble pencil or marker on off-white 100% cotton muslin and then hand-embroidered. Women often work together on a piece using their embroidery hoops and sitting and chatting.

The Otomí live in various regions of Mexico–Hidalgo, Puebla, Oaxaca, Mexico–and their textiles can be found throughout the country due to a very good distribution system. If you purchase an Otomí piece on a vacation to the coasts of Mexico be careful about the quality, for it can vary widely depending on the skill of the artisan. If you are interested in a high quality piece that has been personally selected, take a look at our current stock!

Anne Damon, Owner of Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

Mural Art in Ajijic

I first visited the small village of Ajijic on Lake Chapala in 1980, looking for art. Ajijic had gained the reputation of being the artistic center of the Chapala Riviera. Over the years the village had attracted many foreign artists, including such famous names as Sylvia Fein and Charles Pollock (brother of Jackson). More recently, art education programs, now managed by the Lake Chapala Society, have helped stimulate a formidable pool of local talent.

Mexican mural

Photo courtesy Tony Burton

Ajijic does have its studios and galleries, but much of the art on view today is public. Colorful murals and artwork provide interesting diversions on any stroll around the village. A large tree stump on the plaza has been given an extraordinary new lease of life by local sculptor Estela Hidalgo. The centerpiece of the Ajijic Cultural Center is a vivid mural by Jesús López Vega telling the story of the lake’s mythological fish-princess Teo-michicihualli. More than a dozen other murals grace this lively artistic village, where the art scene today is even more vibrant and creative than ever before.

Tony Burton, author of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury, and Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales, http://sombrerobooks.com

Emilio Sosa Medina: Scary and Beautiful

Tucked into a small space near the corner of Hidalgo and López Mateos, sits an unassuming little store, Artesanías Glenssy.  The walls are hung with brilliantly colored, very scary creatures.

artisit profile

Photo courtesy Lynda Lock

The artist’s name is Emilio Sosa Medina, and he was born in Yobain Yucatan in 1955. A political activist since he was a teenager, Emilio left his home town in 1974 to move to Isla Mujeres.

In 1986 Emilio took lessons at the local Casa de la Cultura to learn paper maché techniques and he was intrigued by the possibilities. Using up to 40 kilos (87 pounds) of newsprint for some of his larger sculptures Emilio creates supernatural beings from Mayan mythology, plus his own fantastic monsters.

Crafting each intricate piece is a slow process. Layer upon layer of newsprint are carefully formed over a wire frame and left for several days to dry naturally in the warm Caribbean climate. Several coats of vivid acrylics, followed by a final glaze of clear polymer resin, give the paper maché vibrancy and character.

Even though Mexican mask folk art has been in existence for thousands of years, Emilio brings new life to the art form. His one-of-a-kind pieces enhance interior spaces in homes on Isla Mujeres, and around the world. His legacy of scary and beautiful sculptures will live on beyond his time.

Lynda Lock, author and blogger, www.amazon.com/author/lyndalock

Retablos

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. 

–Excerpt, The Hidden Light of Mexico City 

religious retablo inspires a mystey series

Photo courtesy of Carmen Amato

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capture a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.

In one, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from an ox (el buey) in Jalisco. The other depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetery in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey.

Just like you.

Carmen Amato, author of the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series, carmenamato.net

The Collective Muse

As an artist, I have found that I have become a much more enriched artist by travelling to Mexico. In fact, I can directly attribute my journey in expansion of form from writing to painting to photography to my annual trips to Mexico. When you develop a passion for a place and for its people, you develop a way of seeing that culture in a way that you can’t with that which has become familiar. You begin to appreciate differences, rather than sameness and you feel safe in this unfamiliarity. You are more willing to step outside of yourself and there is a natural sensation that is triggered that requires one to have an appetite for more than just the local cuisine. Language, skin color, mannerisms, landscape, design choices and leisure preferences all become intriguing and an inspiration for the development of new works of art. I have travelled the world and I have settled finally in a place with people and customs that I am so happy to collectively call my muse: Guayabitos, Mexico.

Kim Peto, painter and photographer, http://fineartamerica.com/profiles/kim-peto.html

The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico was written by 36 experts who want to share their best Mexican stories with you. Download the free guide today.

You’ll also get the free monthly Mystery Ahead with featuring protips, reviews, book news, and interviews with my fellow mystery and thriller authors. The Emilia Cruz series has already been optioned for film and readers of Mystery Ahead will be the first to hear all the production details. 

 

 

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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

Friends with Books: Leigh Thelmadatter of Creative Hands of Mexico

Friends with Books: Leigh Thelmadatter of Creative Hands of Mexico

As a mystery author of books set in Mexico, I have been lucky enough to build a great network of friends with books. Mystery readers love following along with the Detective Emilia Cruz series and the steamy relationship between Acapulco detective Emilia Cruz and hotel manager Kurt Rucker.

Other readers are drawn by Mexico’s mystique.  I’m in good company when it comes to writing about Mexico. We hang out at the Mexico Writers Facebook group which includes novelists, non-fiction writers, and bloggers.

Friends With Books is a series of conversations with members of the Mexico Writers group. Each conversation has a few surprises about Mexican #culture and #protips about the writing process. Enjoy!

Today’s conversation is with Leigh Thelmadatter, non-fiction writer and blogger at Creative Hands of Mexico. Her blog specializes in long-form posts about amazing artisans across central Mexico.

On Writing

Why do you write?  I want to document ideas, people, etc. which do not get the attention they should.

Is there any book you really don’t enjoy?  I’m not the biggest fan of fiction, which I know is a very strange thing to write. I prefer to stick to the real world … facts, figures …

Tell us about your new book? What’s it about and why did you write it?  Its my first book and it will be on Mexican cartonería… which is not your 2nd grade arts and crafts paper maché. It is used to make a number of items, traditionally in relation to various Mexican celebrations. The best known of these is the piñata. It interests me because it has been undergoing a major change since the mid 20th century, incorporating a lot of modern influences, which attracts young artists and artisans. There is a pretty good selection of books on Mexican handcrafts in general, but relatively few that go into more regional/local traditions in any depth.

Thelmadatter_toroloco_maclovio_3020504665What’s your next project?  After the cartonería book, I want to do one on the La Catrina phenomenon in Mexico.

How did you develop your writing?  Believe it or not, Wikipedia. It began as a hobby, writing articles about what I see in Mexico, in part to force me to read more Spanish but mostly to see beyond the superficial.  Otherwise all the towns look the same… church, main place and municipal hall…

Where do you get your inspiration?  Mexican culture. Before I arrived, all I knew was the Arizona-Sonora border area and images from the beaches. Central Mexico, which is the cultural and economic powerhouse of the country, is vastly different.

What is hardest – getting published, writing or marketing?  As far as Wikipedia and my blog, Creative Hands of Mexico, I don’t have to sell my work. I’m working on my first book on Mexican cartonería (a hard paper maché). The idea of convincing someone to publish it scares me. I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

What else do you do to make money, other than write?  It is rare today for writers to be full time. I am a professor. My writing, including Wikipedia work with students, complements what I do in the classroom.

How do you write – lap top, pen, paper, in bed, at a desk?  Lap top at home desk or at work.

Life beyond writing

What other jobs have you had in your life?  Too many. Soldier, hotel receptionist, burger flipper, stay-at-home mom.

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be?  I would stay in Mexico. I hope to live on or near the beach someday.

Is there anyone you’d like to acknowledge and thank for their support? My husband, Alejandro Linares Garcia … his support has been unwavering and unconditional.

Tell us a bit about your family.   I was born in New York City but grew up in suburban New Jersey. My mother was a single mom in the 1970s, which was extremely hard for her, not only because of social stigma but familial issues. She died in 1983 at age 44. I changed my last name in 2001 to Thelmadatter (daughter of Thelma in Norwegian) in her honor.

If you could have a dinner party and invite anyone dead or alive, who would you ask? My mother.

How do you feel about self-publishing?  Personally, if it gets people reading my work, I’m all for it. In the digital age, especially in the next 10 years or so, the divide between self published and traditional publishing will blur, at the very least. Right now, as a professor, I still kind of need that publisher stamp of approval.

Last book you purchased?  A small, locally published book in Spanish on cartoneria.  There were bits and pieces of good information and research leads, but too short and too vague to be of help in really showing the craft’s cultural value.

Thelmadatter_Kennedy_CookbookWho do you admire?  Anthropologist and handcrafts researcher Marta Turok. I did her Wikipedia article. Second is food researcher Diana Kennedy.

What is your favorite quality about yourself?  Dedication

What is your least favorite quality about yourself?  That it took me 45 years to get dedicated to something. But I’ve always been a late bloomer.

Thank you, Leigh, for chatting and sharing the “toroloco” picture from Creative Hands of Mexico.

Need a little more Mexico? Get the first Detective Emilia Cruz mystery  CLIFF DIVER for just $0.99 for Kindle. Emilia is the first and only female police detective in Acapulco. She can make it in a man’s world. Unless one of them kills her first.

See what happens in CLIFF DIVER when Emilia is put in charge of the investigation into a dirty cop’s murder. When she dives in, will she hit the rocks? Or the water?

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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

Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

If you want to understand Mexican culture, DEVOTED TO DEATH must be in your personal library. It is a detailed examination of Santa Muerte, Mexico’s most famous folk saint. Santa Muerte is regarded as the personification of death; a active deity with amazing powers.

I expected dry and factual content that occasionally strayed into the scary and creepy. But R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies, has a very readable style blending field research, academic rigor, and personal humor. The book is organized into chapters based on the color of candle lit at many a Santa Muerte altar. Each color represents a different petition or characteristic of the folk saint, who is always shown as a female skeleton holding a scythe and a globe. Chesnut explains all of the symbolism related to the folk saint, as well as its origins and profiles of today’s worshippers.

His research took him to the altars made by devotees across Mexico. He also explains the Catholic Church’s opposition to Santa Muerte, the saint’s links to drug cartels, and the relationship in Mexico’s narrative with the Virgin of Guadalupe. A fascinating read and the only book of its kind I have found in English.

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

Thrillers are Tastier on Talavera Pottery

If you read this blog with any regularity you know the following;

  • I am a mystery author
  • I drink too much coffee
  • I love Pinterest and Twitter
  • I find inspiration in unlikely places

Talavera Pottery

The latest thing to jog my imagination is talavera, the beautiful and colorful Mexican pottery. The only authentic talavera comes from Puebla and the surrounding villages “because of the quality of the natural clay found there and the tradition of production which goes back to the 16th century.

talavera

Traditional talavera pieces. The store owner eyed me suspiciously when I took the picture but was less suspicious when ringing up my purchases.

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

Talavera pottery pops against a yellow wall at Alter Eco

You can buy talavera online at La Fuente and Direct from Mexico.

Tasty Writing

Talavera was featured in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY. The main protagonist, Eddo Cortez Castillo, is from Puebla. His family runs one of the oldest and wealthiest talavera companies.

Talavera,” Tomás said. “The Cortez family owns Marca Cortez, half of Puebla, and the land the new Volkswagen factory is on. Eddo is still the family’s legal advisor and sits on the board of directors. Don’t know how he finds the time. It helps that he never sleeps.”

Eddo is rich. Richer than the Vegas, even richer than the Portillos. “Puebla,” Luz said. “The city or the state?”

“Both.”

Phenomenally rich.

Real talavera is relatively expensive, although when I lived in Mexico City it was popular to go to Puebla and order service for 8 of a particular pattern. I knew of one family in Mexico City that refused to let their domestic help eat off of their talavera plates, prompting this intense scene in HIDDEN LIGHT.

Luz blinked at her sister. Lupe’s bottom lip was trembling. “Okay,” Luz said, drawing it out. A tiny white lie could put this awkward conversation to rest and Maria could be told the truth later. Luz took a deep breath as if embarrassed. “I . . . uh . . . broke a dish.”

“Six hundred fifty pesos for a dish?” Tío shouted. Everyone jumped. Someone’s spoon clattered to the floor.

Luz shrugged. “It was talavera.

Tío’s hand hit Luz’s cheekbone with a stinging smack. Her head snapped back, her eyes watered, the room sparkled with vertigo and she tasted blood.

Through a curtain of dizziness, Luz watched Juan Pablo rise up and throw a wide looping punch across the table. He put his weight behind it, his chair spurting out behind him, his feet nearly coming off the floor. Fist connected with jaw and Tío spilled to the floor.

“Don’t you touch my sister!” Juan Pablo yelled furiously.

“She’s a stupid girl,” Tío roared, scrambling to his feet. “Breaking dishes when her family needs the money.”

“So you can drink it?” Juan Pablo was barely in control.

“Lupe is pregnant,” Tío shouted.

“If you’re so worried, why don’t you get a job?”

Tío threw a counterpunch across the table but Juan Pablo was younger and faster and sober. He jerked back to avoid the blow, then lunged forward, and suddenly they were snarling and grappling like two wild dogs, hands locked in each other’s shirts. The table between them rocked wildly as they wrestled over the dishes and the tortillas and the clay cazuela full of rice and seafood, ready to kill each other in the small cramped kitchen with everyone else sitting like shocked statues. Plastic glasses spun crazily and tipped over, flatware clattered to the floor, and Luz’s plate slid onto her lap.

I have a few pieces of talavera and this fishy pitcher is my favorite.

Carmen Amato bookshelf

My talavera pottery fish serves a noble purpose

 

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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

Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

Mexican Retablos: Prayers on Steel

After a few bites of the cake Raul seemed to realize that she was waiting. “He read about the United States and wanted to go. He tried to cross the desert but the Virgin abandoned him because what he was doing was wrong. He got lost and died in the sun.”

“I’m so sorry, Raul,” Luz said.

“His mother had a retablo made for the Virgin to have pity on his soul.”

“I’m sure his soul rests in peace.”

“When his mother died I had the retablo buried with her.” Raul continued to eat.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, Luz’s heart twisting in sadness. Retablos were primitive paintings of a scene of something that happened in a person’s life for which they were giving thanks to the Virgin. But not this time. The son had died trying to get to El Norte and the mother had probably died of a broken heart. (THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY)

I’ve been giving alot of thought to visual inspiration as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th novel in the Acapulco Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series. The quote above isn’t from one of the Emilia Cruz books, but from romantic thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, which drew on many visual cues such as  Mexico’s architecture and food, as well as Mexico’s fine art.

Related: Art Stories from the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico

The Catholic Church is a strong cultural and artistic influence in Mexico, and my books reflect that. Retablos are part of Mexico’s tradition combining art and faith, made all the more interesting to me because they are rustic folk art meant to capure a moment in time for which someone is giving thanks to God.

I bought these two retablos in a small shop in Mexico City’s  Zona Rosa a couple of years ago. They are each about 5×7 inches, and painted on rusted steel. The edges are sharp. My guess they were cut from a barrel and done by the same person.Retablo as visual inspiration

In this retablo, thanks are given to the Virgin of Saint John of the Lakes for saving the school children from the ox (el buey) in Jalisco.religious retablo inspires a mystey series

This retablo depicts the Virgin appearing and saving Jacinto from the black dog which appeared in the cemetary in Oaxaca. I don’t know if this should be taken literally or is a reference to illness or the devil.

I wonder at the journey these retablos took from Perla and Jacinto, who were giving thanks to God some 50 years ago, all the way to that shop in Mexico City. Now they are part of my writing journey. Just like you.

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

“A multilayered novel of love and drama” — Literary Fiction Review

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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

Little Silver Miracles

Little Silver Miracles

I’ve been thinking about visual inspiration lately, as I tackle KING PESO, the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery. Thankfully, Mexico is replete with visual cues to creativity, from large (the Basilica of Guadalupe, Mexico City’s Zocalo, assorted volcanoes) to small (shots of tequila, Chupa Pops, silver milagros).

The word milagro means “miracle.” Milagros are small charms, typically silver or tin, that represent an intention. The Zanzibar art website, which carries folk art from around the world, talks about milagros on its page devoted to Mexico.

The bearer typically is asking a saint to intercede on their behalf. They may be asking for health after an injury or illness, a successful romance, or the survival of their livestock. The charms are in the shape of an item related to the request, such as arms, legs, hearts, animals, etc.

The requestor leaves the milagro at the shrine of the saint that they are asking to intercede on their behalf. Mexico is full of statues and crosses covered with the silver charms, including those pinned to ribbons or threads adorning a statue. In many cases, the milagros are pinned to clothing worn by a statue. A milagro can also be carried for protection and good luck, in the way Detective Emilia Cruz carried her rosary with her in DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd Emilia Cruz mystery.

I used a milagro as visual inspiration in The Angler, a stand-alone short story that takes place before the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

When I left Mexico, I took some milagros with me, in the form of this crucifix and a shape known as a Sacred Heart.silver charms adorn a purple cross

Mexican milagros charms

I’m writing in the room where they hang. KING PESO is coming together, albeit slowly.

Not that I’m praying for an intercession, mind you.

But visual inspiration that turns into faster typing wouldn’t hurt.

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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

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

A Box, a Mystery Series, and Some Lacquer

She came back a moment later with a box decorated in the traditional rayada carved lacquer technique. It was the size of a loaf of bread and the bottom was fitted with a small drawer with a tiny gold knob.

This is a most special and precious item,” Tifani said as she moved the other items aside and spread a velvet cloth over the glass-topped counter. Lupita placed the box reverently on the fabric. “A relic of the most holy martyr Padre Pro.”

Emilia’s breath caught in her throat. “Really? Padre Pro?”

“Who’s that?” Kurt asked.

“Padre Pro,” Emilia said, as her heart thumped. She was glad she was already sitting down. The rayada box was lacquered in blue and black with an etched design of crosses rather than the usual animal motifs. “He was a priest. A martyr of the Cristero War.”  (DIABLO NIGHTS)

As I start work on the 4th Emilia Cruz mystery, KING PESO,  I’ve been collecting (at least mentally) the unique Mexican influences that will underpin the story. Visual inspiration is important to me, as readers of this blog might have guessed by now, and I’ve done the same for all of the books in the Emilia Cruz mystery series.

Related post: Acapulco: Locating the Emilia Cruz Series

The quote above from the first chapter of DIABLO NIGHTS, the 3rd book in the mystery series, narrowed the country’s turbulent religious history down to a riveting moment in a Catholic shop. But my favorite detail was about the box containing a purported relic from Padre Pro, the real-life Catholic martyr.

In DIABLO NIGHTS, the relic is housed in a rayada box. Rayada is the Mexican technique of carving lacquer. Markets in Mexico are never without trays, boxes, and even gourds decorated with this painstaking technique. When we lived in Mexico City, I was picky, always looking for the right shade of red or bypassing pieces that weren’t as finely made.

Related post: How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

I now wish I’d bought more besides the two below. The red box, with its exceptionally detailed lacquer carving, has long contained my desk supplies and directly inspired Padre Pro’s relic box. The small tray functions as a coaster for my coffee mug.red rayada laquer box from mystery serieslacquer box from Emilia Cruz mystery seriesrayada technique tray from mystery series author Carmen Amato

I never knew just how much effort went into these little artistic gems, until I read ta description from worldexperience.com. Possibly as much time as it took me to write DIABLO NIGHTS, if you don’t count the time I spent rearranging sticky notes on the master outline, pretending to be both characters during Emilia-Silvio argument scenes, and drinking coffee.

Diablo Nights by Carmen AmatoSo what happens in DIABLO NIGHTS after the infamous rayada box is opened?

Tifani slid the drawer closed and opened the lid of the box. She took out two pieces of styrofoam and set them aside. She reached back inside the box and drew out a small rectangular display case. Lupita whisked aside the now-empty enamel box and Tifani set the glass case on the velvet pad and turned it so that the front faced Emilia and Kurt.

The sides and top of the display case were made of clear glass. The wooden base was stained a dark mahogany and bore a small brass plaque with an inscription that read A Relic of the Most Holy Martyr Blessed Padre Miguel Pro Juarez, S.J. 1891-1927.

The back was decorated with a color picture of a priest in a bloody cassock lying with arms outstretched at the feet of an officer holding a sword and wearing a garish Napoleon-style uniform.

But it was the object inside the display case that took Emilia’s breath away. A long-lost relic of Padre Pro. Her life had come full circle.

 

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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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