[TABLE TALK] Furry (or not) friends play special role in Mexico
We are asking these questions to ambassadors in Seoul for our latest public diplomacy series, “Table Talk.” The book, its author and what they say about the country is discussed over a table full of national dishes. What better way to start an exploration of a new land than through food, good writing and a personal guide dedicated to building bridges between countries — right here in Korea? - Ed.
There’s a four-legged member in the Figueroa family who is as enthusiastic as any of them to greet their friends and visitors at the diplomatic residence of Mexico in Seoul.
She takes you by surprise by sitting on your lap even as you are just getting acquainted.
“She came with us from Mexico,” said Veronica Gonzalez-Laporte, wife of Mexican Ambassador to Korea Bruno Figueroa, as Kahlua, a miniature schnauzer, happily ran to and fro between her family and visitors from the Korea JoongAng Daily on the afternoon of Nov. 11.
In a few months’ time, the Figueroa family may be expanding.
“Just this past weekend, we found her a fiance in Yeoju [Gyeonggi],” Gonzalez said.
Dogs have been a big part of families in Mexico, even dating back to ancient times.
“Xoloitzcuintli [a hairless breed of dog] is a type of dog that is known to have originated in Mexico from ancient times,” said Gonzalez, an anthropologist who also works as a collaborator and translator for the Revista de la Universidad de Mexico. “In mythology and legends in Mexico, it is the dog that guides souls in the afterlife, in the underworld.”
The Figueroas recently commemorated the Day of the Dead, one of the biggest family-centered holidays in Mexico, at the residence with friends and Mexican families living in Korea.
“We all have the same destiny in that we will all die, and in that sense we are trying to remember that and enjoy our life as much as we can,” Gonzalez said. “The day is celebrated widely in Mexico because it means that when we are not here anymore, we will not be forgotten because there will be people, families and friends, who love us and remember us.”
“In Mexican beliefs, the underworld is not portrayed as hell but a place of nine regions to cross,” said Figueroa. “And if one is successful, he or she is able to rest among the gods and goddesses of death.”
Yuri Herrera, a celebrated Mexican author, weaves this system into his novel, “Signs Preceding the End of the World [Senales que precederan al fin del mundo]” (2009), though it may not be evident at first sight.
“It could be a common story about crossing the border between Mexico and the United States and the shock of finding another culture, but in fact it’s presented as an initiatic travel of the heroine of the book, Makina,” said Figueroa. “The titles of each chapter are the guide, as they stand for each of the nine regions in the Aztec underworld.”
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with the Figueroas at their residence on an afternoon in November to speak about crossing borders, whether they are physical ones between countries and people, or perhaps the less visible, but nonetheless real, borders between life and death. The following are edited excerpts of the interview.
Q. How did you come to select this book by Yuri Herrera for the interview?
A. Bruno Figueroa: Mexico has great novelists like Octavio Paz or Carlos Fuentes, but they are some of the most renowned writers of the past and I wanted to present the latest generation of brilliant novelists. This novel by Yuri Herrera was edited just a decade ago, so he represents the newest generation of Mexican writers, along with other award-winning authors like Valeria Luiselli. This book in particular shows the master craft of writing that renews the Spanish language.
What are some hints throughout the novel that the author is indeed running a parallel story about the Aztec underworld?
Figueroa: The novel begins with two words, “I’m dead,” and the scene described immediately is an earthquake that swallows a man and a dog. The dog here is significant because in ancient Mexican beliefs, Xoloitzcuintli is the dog that guides souls across the underworld. And also notice that the places that Makina visits in the novel have no names.
Figueroa: Mexicans who cross the border do so with the idea that they will stay for a short period of time. Your hometown is where you were born and raised, no one leaves their hometown with pleasure. People think that they will go, earn money and come back. But most remain and even those who come back, they come back transformed.
You can also see that the theme of separation of families is big throughout the novel. As a reader you never find out about Makina’s father - he is not mentioned once in the novel. That is the reality for many Mexican migrant families.
In a poem that Makina writes from the perspective of a migrant in the novel, there is a clause, “What else could we do?” As an outsider looking in, there seems to be a feeling of helplessness in the migration situation.
Figueroa: One thing is clear: nobody migrates out of their own will - it is because they face certain strife and difficulties that they decide to cross. So what is most important as a politician is to tackle the causes of migration, not the effect.
So we need safe communities with sound and stable jobs and good public services. You see in the cases of many countries that were once sources of emigration, like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Korea, once they were better off, people stopped moving out of the country as much and they in return started receiving migrants from other parts of the world. In Mexico also, if there is a general rise in income, there will come a point when the rewards of staying will be higher.
One of the characters in the book, Chucho, tells Makina that “they need us,” meaning the migrant-receiving country needs the migrant workers. For some countries like United States and Korea, migrant workers have become or are becoming an increasingly irreplaceable workforce.
Figueroa: The border migration issue is complicated and politically loaded, but we have to face the fact that migrant forces are needed and that is the reality. It is clear that a great part of the strength of the United States comes from migration into the country from all parts of the world. We are talking about talents, pure work force and younger people coming into the country.
In Korea, I have personally traveled to the southern coast and other regions and seen that workers from Russia, Southeast Asia, China and other countries have become a vital part of the regions’ economic units and businesses. Without them, those businesses would face great difficulties.
Speaking of migration, what has become of the first batch of Korean migrants to Mexico, who numbered around 1,000 in 1905?
Figueroa: The third- or fourth-generation Koreans are thriving in cities in Mexico. They are a part of the Yucatan society, with pride. I visited Merida, the capital city of Yucatan State, in July, and there is now an avenue named after Korea, called Avenida Republica de Corea. Artists in Mexico have begun a project to design signs for some streets using their old names, and there is a corner in the city that had a bar said to be frequented by a Korean migrant. The man, whenever he got drunk at the bar, allegedly shouted, “Jemulpo, Jemulpo!” which is the name of the port in Incheon where he took the ship to Mexico. At this corner, Mexican artists have designed a sign after the port’s name. It’s one out of many traces of Koreans lives in Mexico.
The title of the book translates as “signs preceding the end of the world.” What do you think are some signs that could precede the end of the world as we know it today?
Figueroa: I am usually an optimistic person, but we cannot miss the signs of environmental distress that are happening in our world today. Climate change will have very bad consequences to our own civilization. It is hitting us very hard in Mexico with severe droughts, floods and tremendous hurricanes that inflict high economic and social costs.
There’s so much to discuss from just one book by a Mexican author. What other works would you like more Koreans to know Mexico by?
Figueroa: In Mexico we have a very powerful culture and you can see that in literature but also in cinema. We have the unique situation of having three incredible movie directors, the so-called three amigos, who one year after another won the Oscars: Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. We have amazing artists known all over the world such as Gabriel Orozco, who periodically present their new work at the Tate Modern, the Museum of Modern Art and even here in Seoul.
Speaking of Mexican artists and authors, you have a published writer in the family.
Veronica Gonzalez-Laporte: My most recent book “Leyendas coreanas de Xico” (2019) is part of a collection of books on legends from different countries by designer Cristina Pineda. She wanted to use Xoloitzcuintli as the motif for her collection, and she named the character designed after the dog as Xico. This book introduces legends and stories told in Korean folklore in Spanish and English and is a result of collaboration with around 25 Mexican artists who created illustrations for the stories. For them it was a challenge as they were newly learning about Korean traditions through these stories and were interpreting them through works of Mexican art.
I chose stories that were not well known even among Koreans because I wanted to go deeper and find stories that were perhaps told a long time ago but were forgotten since then. And this also meant that I had more freedom in interpreting them. Accounts of legends belong to everyone, but they are written or told as each author wants to write them.
How did you get into the project in the first place?
Gonzalez: To conceive the idea first I fell in love with Korea. It was my first time living in an Asian country and I had my fears before coming here. It was geographically too far from Mexico where my parents and extended family live. But as strange as it is, I adjusted to life here so quickly, that I dare say it may have been easier than my time in France, which is saying something because my mother is French and I lived half of my life in France. People here have opened their arms and welcomed us into their lives. We are so grateful and the book is a small tribute to their kindness.
Tell us about the Mexican dishes we are enjoying today.
Figueroa: The appetizer is made with avocados, which you can find in many dishes in Mexico. It is easy to prepare and healthy and anyone can make it at home. In the main dish, we used nuts - it can be almonds or peanuts - to make the sauce to go with the chicken. The dessert is tequila sorbet with Tortitas de Santa Clara, cookies that originate in Puebla.
Gonzalez: The sauces in Mexico are a result of two worlds coming together, because in Mexico we used to not have other ingredients until Europeans and Asians arrived in the country. That is why our cuisine is so rich. Today there are more than 300 kinds of chilli peppers in Mexico. Some of our dishes are so elaborate that just to create the sauce you will need 30 or so ingredients. But for the dishes prepared today, we made sure to use ingredients that can be easily found in kitchens in Korea.
1. Cut two tomatoes and a quarter of an onion into small pieces.
2. Mix some mayonnaise, half of the tomato and onion, some finely chopped coriander leaves and 200 grams (7 ounces) of pre-cooked shrimp in a bowl. Season with salt and black pepper.
3. In a separate bowl, mix 165 grams of tuna, mayonnaise, the rest of the tomatoes and onion and some finely chopped parsley.
4. Cut 4 avocados in half, remove their pits and brush with olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper.
5. Put the shrimp filling in one half of the avocados and the tuna filling in the other.
6. Garnish the avocados with the tuna filling with parsley and the avocados with the shrimp filling with coriander.
1. Fry 4 chicken breasts until golden brown and season with salt and black pepper.
2. Remove the chicken and add 3 tomatoes, 1 garlic clove, three quarters of an onion and 150 grams of almonds to the pan.
3. Add a half cup of water and grind together to make a sauce with a semi-thick consistency.
4. Put the sauce into a pan with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and heat the pan. Add salt and black pepper and chipotle chili pepper if you like it spicy.
5. When the sauce is ready, add the chicken breasts.
6. Serve hot with rice.
1. Mix 500 milliliters (17 ounces) of water with 100 grams of sugar, until the sugar dissolves. Add the juice of 8 lemons.
2. Add 100 milliliters of tequila, mix and refrigerate.
3. Place the mixture into an ice cream maker. If you don’t have an ice cream machine: put the mixture into the freezer and after one hour mix with a fork. Repeat until you achieve the texture of sorbet.
4. Serve with mint leaves and lemon slices.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [email@example.com]