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Mar 292009

Published in the Vail Daily March 22, 2009


The Center for Global Justice-Expatriates Assisting Locals Toward a Sustainable Life Under NAFTA

Center co-founder Cliff DuRand

Center co-founder Cliff DuRand addresses a gathering beneath the incredible mural by David Leonardo in the Biblioteca Publica

It is well nigh impossible to be bored in San Miguel de Allende. Every day upwards of twenty-five offerings from art openings, concerts, and lectures, to classes of all types provide stimulating reasons to get out of bed. 

Of these many cultural and intellectual events we have found ourselves drawn to those of the Center for Global Justice, www.globaljusticecenter.org, another project by expatriates concerned with their adopted community. Several times each week the Center screens interesting, pertinent documentaries. It offers lectures on topics like globalization, immigration and the effects the North American Free Trade Agreement is having on Mexico.

Each Saturday, the Center sponsors trips to small communities outside San Miguel who they are assisting in their efforts to remain self-sufficient and build viable alternatives to traditional lifestyles that are currently under threat.

I have participated in two of these trips. One, to the community of El Moral, where women of the town have joined together to form a sewing cooperative, the other to Peñon de los Baños, where six families in this dairy community are working to establish a cooperative venture growing organic, greenhouse tomatoes.

Exploring the small community of El Moral

Exploring the small community of El Moral with Leo Maldonado of the Global Justice Center

Ben Zion of Solar San Miguel explains some of the issues surrounding su

Ben Zion of Solar San Miguel explains some of the issues surrounding sustainable living in Penon de los Banos.

Prior to NAFTA, Mexico was self-sufficient in their primary staples; beans and corn. It now imports huge quantities of these basic food stuffs from subsidized agriculture in the United States. This has brought prices below where local farmers can compete. At the same time, huge amounts of land formerly belonging to small self-sustaining farming communities called Ejidos, have been bought up by wealthy land owners who export their food to the US. To understand how this happened, it is necessary to know a bit of Mexican history.

A primary cause for the second Mexican revolution in 1910 was that the vast amount of arable land was owned by a few wealthy landowners and the church. The average peasant, working for landowners, barely scraped by. The new constitution brought about a redistribution of land under the “Ejidal” system, a structure of land tenure in which groups of farmers were given land which they farmed individually and cooperatively. Under the constitution, Ejido land could never be sold, protecting the peasants from predatory developers.

Ratification of NAFTA in 1992 required a change to the Mexican constitution so farmers could sell their ejido land. Globalization and pressures from agribusiness have forced many peasants to sell. The result has been an accumulation of land in the hands of wealthy land owners with the previous owners now farming it as low wage laborers. 

One such corporate farmer, not far from San Miguel de Allende, has accumulated about eight square miles of ejido land, producing vegetables for the U.S. market. Adjacent to it lies Peñon de los Baños, which has resisted selling out. 

Inside a greenhouse that’s being prepared for the first planting with one of the co-op members and Leo Maldonado and Yolanda Millan of the Global Justice Center

Lunch prepared by co-op members

Lunch prepared by co-op members is a highlight preceeding the discussion.

Learning directly from the co-op members about the challenges they face in their business and everyday lives.

Learning directly from a few of the co-op members about the challenges they face in their business and everyday lives.

The Center for Global Justice has been assisting the people in contacting other groups who are successfully growing organic tomatoes in greenhouses using drip irrigation. With the center’s help, they have applied for government grants and loans. 

From the contacts facilitated by the center, and with much hard work, they have learned the intricacies of growing and marketing tomatoes. They now have eight greenhouses and are building homes for community members returning from the US to work in this business.

Angelina Sotto Rios

Co-op founder Angelina Sotto Rios shows off one of the school uniforms made by the co-op.

Learning about the operation of the cooperative.

Learning about the operation of the cooperative.

The sewing cooperative in El Moral is spearheaded by the dynamic Angelina Sotto Rios. Faced with the need to either sell land or send community members to El Norte for work, she and members of her community decided that forming a sewing coop to provide work in the town was a far better choice. Her tireless efforts, along with assistance from the center navigating the legal complexities, have resulted in organizing the coop and attaining government grants to buy the land, building materials and sewing machines.

Angelina and her son outside the co-op building.

Angelina and her son outside the co-op building.

She and her fellow coop members are now producing school uniforms for local communities as well as clothing for the tourist market. Sotto Rios hopes to expand into other markets. 

One major hurdle solved through the Center was the difficulty getting their product to market. Carrying large, heavy bundles of finished clothing three miles to the nearest transportation was extremely difficult. The donation of a vehicle by a person how had attended one of the Center’s Saturday trips has helped propel the woman of El Moral toward their goals.

At present, about 150 people from El Moral are working in the U.S.. As in Peñon de los Baños and the ten other communities the Center for Global Justice is working with, the hope is to enable their community members to come home, to return from the U.S. to opportunities within in their own towns and to provide an environment in which their children can flourish.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging



The New York Times recently did a very good article about Mexico under NAFTA. Here’s the link:


Mar 172009

Published in the Vail Daily 3/15/09



The Dancers of the Lord of the Conquest


The drumming resounds throughout the Jardin, reverberating along the narrow cobblestone streets of the historic center of San Miguel de Allende. As Yolanda and I approach, it becomes an elemental force, primordial in it’s insistence, a deafening, all encompassing thunder.


Scores of elaborately costumed dancers, brilliantly resplendent in huge, feathered headdresses, are being driven by this force, a chaotic symphony of color. I count nine different groups, each with their own drummers, each in more extravagant regalia than the last. 



Most groups of danzantes move through a choreography of well practiced steps,  gyrating, twisting and pivoting in unison with every change in cadence. Other groups are more free form, the persistent pounding driving them into a sweating frenzy of self-expression.

This is the Festival of The Lord of the Conquest. Loud explosions rocked the town at 6:30 am, jolting us and everyone else out of a sound sleep. Fusillades continued until 7 am mass.


The dancers gather to celebrate the anniversary of the Chichimecan’s conversion to Christianity almost 500 years ago. The indigenous peoples of the region held agricultural rites at this time. After conversion, the priests likely adopted this festival. Today, it honors San Miguel’s most venerated figure, Our Lord of the Conquest, a life-size crucifix, placed on the Parroquia’s central altar for this occasion. Group after group enter the church in full regalia to pray and recite the Apostle’s Creed before the figure.



Outside, the cacophony goes on unabated into the evening as fireworks explode overhead. Though loosely based on depictions of Aztec dress, the dancer’s costumes and makeup have evolved into the elaborate and fantastic works of art we see today. Skulls, horns, shark’s jaws, bird and alligator heads creatively adorn the brilliant plumage of the headdresses. 




Rattles, conch shell trumpets, walnut shell and seed pod ankle bracelets, as well as small drums, add to the dissonance. Concheros, playing armadillo shell guitars, lead the procession. These local families guard ancient relics and maintain traditions of their Chichimecan ancestors. The fervor, spirit and creativity of the participants is unlike anything we’ve seen. 


We leave after the fireworks, our ears and bodies reverberating with rhythm. Climbing into bed, we still hear the drumming in the distance as the dancing goes on into the night.


Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging


Mar 082009

Published in the Vail Daily March 1, 2009


The Butterflies of Michoacan

Two Monarchs partaking of a mid-day snack.

Two Monarch Butterflies sipping a mid-day snack.

After a whirlwind trip back to Colorado, we’ve returned with our car to San Miguel de Allende for March. It was an intense four day drive from Vail, not without a bit of unease at the border.

After talking with people who had driven here, reading the State Department warnings and watching the horrible news about the drug wars in the border areas, we decided that crossing at Laredo, Texas would be safest. It was also the shortest route through Mexico, entirely on the more secure Cuota highways or toll roads.

Getting the proper permits in Nuevo Laredo was very easy and at 7 am took only  half an hour. The highway was equal to any in the US. Ten hours later we arrived before sunset tired but happy. A calming margarita on the rooftop terrace returned us to the tranquillity of church bells and crowing roosters as the sun set over the island of security that is San Miguel.

Of the many lectures happening on a regular basis, one stuck out; a lecture by Arturo Morales on the migration of the butterflies. I was determined to attend to learn about the incredible 2,500 mile journey the Monarchs make every year. I have known of the Monarch Butterfly’s over-wintering sites in Mexico since they were first written about in National Geographic years ago. I always dreamed of visiting one of the sanctuaries to experience the visual feast as millions of the bright orange and black jewels festoon the forest.

Thousands of butterflies coat the branches of the confirs.

Thousands of butterflies coat the branches of the confirs.

Arturo’s lecture was liberally punctuated with photos from the Sierra Chincua sanctuary high in the mountains of the state of Michoacan, the southerly neighboring state to Guanajuato in which San Miguel de Allende resides.

We learned that this year held the highest population in years and that right now was the peak of the 4-5 day mating season. After they mate, the males die, immediately reducing the population by 50%.  Of course, Arturo owns a tour company that happens to run tours to the sanctuary every Wednesday. For only $80, how could I resist!

Caught in Flagrante Delicto!

Caught in Flagrante Delicto!

I am picked by a minibus in the gathering pre-dawn light out front of our casita. The driver deftly maneuvers through the extremely narrow, steep alleys and streets picking up others before heading south out of town to the mountains of Michoacan.

As we travel through the broad, rich agricultural valleys of the volcanic central highlands, Arturo reiterates parts of his previous lecture. The long migration of the fragile Monarch Butterfly is truly among the most amazing in nature.

When the fertilized female Monarchs migrate north from Mexico in late March, they follow the blossoming the Milkweed plant, their pupae’s only food source. Arriving around the Great Lakes and in Canada in May/June, they begin laying their eggs on the milkweed. When the eggs hatch, the tiny worm immediately begins feeding on the poisonous milkweed. The sap contains a compound that not only makes the caterpillars poisonous but later gives them their bright orange color warning off predators.

They grow in five stages and around the second week of October, after their metamorphosis, the new butterflies emerge from their chrysalis. Somehow sensing the Autumnal Equinox they begin their journey south through the Mississippi basin.

Following thermal currents that switch from north to south at this time, the millions of butterflies make around 25-30 miles a day, flying ninety feet above the ground.  They arrive at their winter sanctuaries in Michoacan around the second and third weeks of November.

There are twelve separate areas in the mountains, all around 10,000’. These provide the nectar, water and protection that will sustain the population for the next four months. The colonies were discovered in the late 1970’s and since have become protected habitats. The indigenous peoples around the over-wintering grounds were slow to realize their value, encroaching on the habitat through cattle grazing and deforestation. With world-wide publicity and the ensuing tourism, they have become fierce defenders of their forests.

Aboard Ol' SloMo and the way to the colony.

Aboard Ol’ Slo Mo on the way to the colony.

After 4 1/2 hours we finally arrive at a tiny village, the trailhead to the sanctuary. Ten additional dollars gets me a small horse with only one speed, slow, for the steep, dusty, forty-five minute descent to the butterflies. Numerous wildflowers fill the forest. At each tiny creek I see more and more Monarchs sipping water and nutrients from the damp earth.

Monarch Butterflies sipping water and nutrients at one of the creeks along the dusty trail.

Monarch Butterflies sipping water and nutrients at one of the creeks along the dusty trail.

After leaving the horses, butterflies become suddenly more numerous until the sky above is dotted with hundreds of orange flecks. Thousands now sit on branches. When we arrive as close as we are allowed to the heart of the colony, we see entire branches weighted down, engulfed by tens of thousands of the ephemeral creatures. The air is filled with the sound of hundreds of thousands of beating wings.

The sky is filled with thousands of butterflies.

The sky is filled with thousands of butterflies.

Mature males have release their pheromones causing a sexual frenzy. Love is literally in the air. Mating couples on the ground force us to watch every step. A slight breeze stirs up a cloud of orange.

Why don't we do it in the road! You have to avoid stepping on the mating couples.

Why don’t we do it in the road!

Even my telephoto lens doesn’t accurately capture the dense masses drenching the trees 75 feet away, my only disappointment. Regretfully, our time with this phenomenon of nature draws to a close. Perhaps sometime again I will come on my own, camping in the town to experience them in the early morning and at my leisure. Perhaps without a group I will be allowed closer.

Even my telephoto lens does not do them justice.

As I sit in our garden writing this the following day, I see that the northerly migration has just begun. There have always been butterflies visiting the garden, small white ones, large yellow ones, several other species, but not until today have I seen Monarchs. One after another passes through, pausing to sip nectar from the flowers or water from the grass.

Arturo told us that come March 26-28, the main wave of the northern migration will pass over, through and around San Miguel de Allende. The first step on their 2,500 mile journey to the Great Lakes, 140 million illegals headed north. If these few now are a foretaste, I can’t wait. Perhaps from dozens in an afternoon their will be hundreds, maybe even thousands and I will to relive, if only through a shadow, the incredible experience of yesterday

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging