“With this angel, I realized I could be free in spite of being in jail.”
Tattoos tend to be a part of life behind bars, so much so that some inmates even become talented tattoo artists just to kill time. But, prisoners in Mexico City’s North Prison are actually making a living by tattooing on leather instead of skin.
The intricate designs tattooed on leather become custom handbags sold in five boutiques in Mexico City. Edgar, one of the inmates working on this craft, sees this as more than a paying job or pastime. “With this angel, I realized I could be free in spite of being in jail,” he said. “I can express myself with what I do.”
It also allows for a way to connect with his family. “I don’t have to ask my family for stuff anymore. Instead, I have something to give, even if it’s not much. I’m no longer begging for stuff to be able to survive here,” Edgar said. On a monthly basis he makes about $800 and he splits it between the prison and his family.
This type of program is run by the Prison Art Foundation and it provides jobs for 200 inmates in four different prisons. The handbags have been selling so well, they will start selling them in Tokyo and New York.
Growing up Mexican I looked forward to the Christmas season yes, tbh mostly because of presents but also because it was the time when mom and I got to go way overboard with our Nativity Scene decorations. If you’re Latino, putting up a nacimiento is just as essential a part of Christmas, as putting up a tree. If there’s one cliche that has proven to be true, time and again, it’s that Latino moms tend to be extra AF in everything they do. The representations of Jesus’s birth vary from minimal, to OTT baroque, to hyper-realistic. There’s one element that remains the most important aspect of the nacimiento across the board, in Mexico at least, the moss and other dense green clumps are usually used to adorn the decoration. So, what if we told you that buying and selling moss is actually illegal in Mexico?
Nacimiento, Pesebre, or Belen, are the names that different Latin American countries give to the traditional Nativity Scene representation under the Christmas tree.
The representation of Jesus’s birth, known as nacimiento in Mexico, pesebre in Colombia and other South American countries, or Belenin Spain, is a centuries-old tradition in the Catholic world. All you really need to tell the story are three basic figures: Virgin Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. But why limit yourself?
You could make the case that the three wise men and the star that guided them to the newborn baby are also essential. Jesus was born in a stable because there was no place at the inns in Bethlehem, so naturally, there should be farm animals around, and hay, and moss —and why not a stream made of cellophane, while you’re at it?
Nativity Scenes are usually elaborate, over the top extravaganzas that families work tirelessly on for the holiday season.
In Mexico and many other countries of Latin America, nacimientos can turn into elaborate extravaganzas, populated by all manner of animals and plants that you would never find side by side in the real world. Some scenes display pump-operated rivers with real water, others feature waterfalls and ponds. Some include whole cities built around the manger where Jesus was born. The creative license extends to the characters, which range from unrelated biblical figures such as Adam and Eve to random shepherds, farmers, and the devil. It’s clearly not an exercise in authenticity, but it’s festive and fun.
Part of the fun is the use of moss and other types of grass to add to the ‘look’.
Moss is used to decorate the scene, but it also has a special symbolism. Spanish moss is of particular importance in the catholic representation of baby Jesus’s birth. A little patch of the gray grass is always placed underneath Satan —to highlight his presence and set him apart from the rest of the crowd. According to tradition, Satan should always be present in a nacimiento to remind us that although the birth of Jesus offers love and the possibility of redemption, sin and evil are always present in the world —and moss plays a big part in his representation.
As soon as November starts drawing to an end and December is around the corner, every mercado in Mexico is flooded by vendors who sell the coveted greenery of the season.
Every city and town has a market where, for about a month between the end of November and the first week in January, a large number of vendors offer items, especially for Christmas. Some larger cities, like Mexico City, Guadalajara, Morelia, and others, offer several tianguis navideños (Christmas markets) where literally hundreds of vendors set up shop, to sell the infamous moss.
But as it turns out, selling and/or buying moss is illegal.
This type of grass is essential for the survival of Mexican forests. The species is protected by the country, which makes its trade ilegal —and you might want to think twice before you buy it.
Mosses are actually essential for the health and wellbeing of many ecosystems and all the organisms that inhabit them.
The term moss encompasses any of at least 12,000 species of small land plants. Mosses are distributed throughout the world except in saltwater and are commonly found in moist shady locations. They are best known as those species that carpet woodland and forest floors. Ecologically, mosses capture water and filter it to underground streams, or substrata, releasing nutrients for the use of more complex plants that succeed them. They also aid in soil erosion control by providing surface cover and absorbing water, and they are important in the nutrient and water economy of some vegetation types. Essentially, they are the pulse of forests and ecosystems everywhere.
Protection and conservation are relatively novel concepts in Mexican bryology, the branch of botany that studies mosses.
Mexico is home to more than 900 recorded species of moss —and much of the country’s territory is yet to be explored thoroughly for more flora. However, local mosses face habitat destruction and over-harvesting as their major threat.
In 1993, a diagnostic study of mosses that required protection Mexico was conducted, and supported by the federal government as well as other international agencies. At the time, six species were recognized as ‘rare’ or ‘endangered’ and were placed under official protection.
The Secretariat of Environmental and Natural Resources of Mexico regulates the extraction and trade of moss.
In order to extract moss from its natural habitat, and furthermore, to commercialize it, vendors must follow strict requirements in order to attain a license. According to Mexican Forest Law 001 expedited by SEMARNAT (The Secretariat of Environmental and Natural Resources of Mexico), the extraction of moss is only permitted when the plant is in a mature state and ready for harvest, other conditions require that moss must be extracted in parcels of no more than 2 meters of width and that only 50 percent of each patch of moss may be extracted, etc.
During this time of year, Mexican police are on high alert.
Around the holiday season, police in Mexico double up on their patrolling. Authorities will be on high alert, inspecting those establishments who are authorized to sell moss and searching for those who aren’t. The Secretariat of Environmental and Natural Resources and the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection will be watching —so you might want to tell your mom and tias to avoid shopping for moss in Mexico this year.
A Mexican artist and activist embarked on a project to gather as many firearms as he could from Culiacán, Mexico, the city with the highest death by gun violence rate in Mexico, and transform them into shovels that would instead plant trees. Artist Pedro Reyes, a Mexico City native, has long been using his art to illustrate how evil can be transformed into good, with the right perspective. While the United States has, by far, the highest number of firearms per capita (120.5 per 100 persons), Mexico ranks 60th in the world. Pedro Reyes wanted to do his part in getting the deadly weapons off the street.
Reyes set out in Culiacán, Mexico, to trade civilian’s weapons for coupons for electronics, and residents traded 1,527 weapons.
Pedro Reyes’s project, known as “Palas por Pistolas” publicized the gun exchange on television ads and through local media.
All of this was made possible by the botanical garden of Culiacán, which has been commissioning artists to perform social impact interventions for years. Reyes made a proposal to the garden to organize a city-wide campaign for a voluntary donation of weapons. The commission was able to pay for television advertisements and liaise with local media to promote the project. Soon, the whole city knew that residents were invited to give up their guns in exchange for a coupon. Those coupons were then traded at a local store in exchange for domestic appliances and electronics.
Of the 1,527 weapons collected, 40 percent were automatic weapons, “exclusively” used for the military.
The second phase of the project was put on public display. All 1,527 guns were taken to a military zone and were crushed by a steamroller in a public act. Then, the pieces were taken to a foundry and melted down to its original form. Once again, the same metal that was transformed into guns became a ‘blank page,’ available to transform into absolutely anything. Reyes worked with a major hardware factory to create molds that would create exactly 1,527 shovels.
Since they’ve been repurposed, 1,527 trees have been planted.
The shovels have been on display at a variety of art institutions. Admirers could read an inscription of the shovel’s origin story on the handle. Later, children and adults alike would feel the weight of what was once a gun in their hands as they dug up dirt to plant new life. Trees have been planted at the Vancouver Art Gallery, San Francisco Art Institute, Paris’s Maison Rouge, Lyon Biennial, Marfa, Texas, and Denver, Colorado.
“This ritual has a pedagogical purpose of showing how an agent of death can become an agent of life,” Reyes said of the project.
Like every other Reyes project to date, the gift is a change in perspective. For whoever might have been injured or died at the hands of those 1,527 guns, as many trees have been planted in their honor. Reyes breaks down the concept of a gun to what it is: human intention and scrap metal. With a simple shift in intention, that metal has created lasting memories for children and created oxygen-giving life on this planet.
Since “Palas por Pistolas,” Reyes has also installed “Imagine,” a similar concept that instead turns guns into musical instruments.
In April 2012, Reyes was given the opportunity to transform human intention once again. “I got a call from the government who had learned about Palas por Pistolas,” Reyes said. “They told me a public destruction of weapons was to take place in Ciudad Juarez and asked me if I was interested in keeping the metal, which would otherwise have been buried as usual. I accepted the material but I wanted to do something new this time. 6700 weapons, cut into parts and rendered useless, were given to me and I set out to make them into instruments.”
“A group of 6 musicians worked for 2 weeks shoulder-to-shoulder turning these agents of death into instruments of life.”
Reyes said it was far more challenging than simply turning the metal into shovels. The metal had to create sounds. “It’s difficult to explain but the transformation was more than physical,” Reyes writes. “It’s important to consider that many lives were taken with these weapons; as if a sort of exorcism was taking place the music expelled the demons they held, as well as being a requiem for lives lost.”
“Living in a community free of guns ought to be a human right. Many liberties that we enjoy today were considered utopian, and the first step taken into that direction was to Imagine.” Reyes continues to draw attention not only to where guns are used, but where they are made. It is an industry and one he continues to reclaim for life.