Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sacred Fluids: The Real History of Chia Pets

Chia Pets! They are impossible to miss during the holiday season, and they may be some of the least known cases of cultural appropriation. Widely available at chain drugstores, they are the kind of last minute generic gift you'll give someone out of obligation or... lack of shopping time! It is no surprise that the manufacturers of Chia Pets are San Francisco based Joseph Enterprises, Inc. creators of the "Clapper", the practical, yet impersonal gift that turns your lights on and off when you clap. But the curious pottery animals have an interesting beginning, that takes place (like many other things I blog about) in Mexico.

Whimsical Clay in the Southern Mexican Garden
Mexicans have a long tradition of ornamental gardening, its aesthetics are often shadowed by popular gardening styles of Europe, and by the erroneous belief that Mexico is mostly arid and desert like. The lush terrain of southern Mexico allows for green gardens with a variety of plants. My parents home state of Chiapas has a diverse topography that includes sierras, beaches, lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The lush Lacandon jungle and the heat of the Soconusco region contrasts with the cool highlands of San Cristobal and Union Juarez. The garden styles includes local species of vegetation as well as many local handicrafts.

There are many types of vessels used to propagate seeds and spores in Southern Mexico. My maternal grandmother, a native of the town of Tapachula, used to give me humble gifts of hens made out of peat and bark when I was little. You were supposed to plant ferns in them, once the spores propagated, the hens would have lush green "plumage". Before someone thinks they could make millions with the proper marketing and a catchy jingle they should know that it is hard to make the ferns grow outside of the right climate. In Mexico City my hen pots never reached full vegetable maturity.

Other very popular hanging planters in Chiapas are called pichanchas, they are also used for growing ferns and other plants. The large round clay pots have many little holes in them, and designers have taking a liking for creating light fixtures with them, because of the pretty shadows they cast. Just call it a Chiapas style "disco ball". Thanks to La Camara de Akutzin for the photo of the hanging pichancha and the light fixture on the back.

Other garden ornaments include aerial orchids grown attached to boards, that are often hanged on walls like art, ornate pots shaped like doves in a variety of sizes and many other pots shaped like animals. Animals themselves are part of the garden, usually pet bids like parrots and some times peacocks, and little bids in decorated cages. But why animals in pottery? Zoomorphic vessels abound in the Americas. From birds to dogs, the decoration and shape vary greatly according to region, but clay is a common material used to create these vessels. According to the University of Richmond Museums, animal shaped vessels were often associated with Shamanism in pre-Columbian cultures: "because a shaman was believed to be able to transform into different animals during specific rituals." The image below comes from the book "Frida's Fiestas". It illustrates a clay maceta in the shape of a deer.

But back to chia, as it relates to animal pottery. Salvia hispanica is the Latin name for this plant, but the name "Chia" is a derivative of the Nahuatl words Chi and Atl, meaning something close to, or under water. The Mexica (or "Aztecs" as they are often called) were imperialists. They gave names in their native Nahuatl language to regions they conquered, in this case, the name of the state of Chiapas is probably a derivative of the word Chiapan. It means "Place near the river where chia abounds". Folks in the US are some times surprised to learn that there is an entire Mexican state named after chia! Curiously, in Chiapas, pottery decorated with chia sprouts was not very popular as garden ornamentation. Chia "pets" were originally grown out of religious fervor.

A Virgin's Tears and The Altar of Sorrows
Folks north of the border may also be more familiar with the Day of the Dead holiday and the elaborate altars created for the deceased. There are many traditions in Mexico that involve the creation of altars and Ofrendas, or offerings, for a variety of purposes and holidays. One of them is the Altar of Sorrows, created on the days leading to Good Friday, before Easter. The altar is created in honor of the Mater Dolorosa, or Our Lady of Sorrows. Prominently featured on the altar of sorrows are sprouted seeds, and pottery animals decorated with chia seed sprouts. Altar creators prepare chia, oats and other seeds in containers and sprout them weeks before the altar is created.

So, are these the original Chia Pets? Well, yes and no. Not all pottery with sprouts is a Chia Pet. Sprouts were grown in containers in a variety of shapes, not only animals. However, the idea for "Chia Pets" definitely originated in Mexico. The tradition of the Altar of Sorrows is not exclusive to Chiapas. The folks of Joseph Enterprises had the original "Chia Ram" made by craftsmen in Oaxaca, they were identical to the ones used for the Altar of Sorrows. Now "Chia Pets" are made in China and are considered "American", and have quickly sprouted (yeah, sue me!) a peculiar humorous culture of its own. Websites now have "chia cams", "Improbable Research" proving the evolution of plants into animals, and hoax articles citing ecological disaster due to illegal chia dumping.

Pottery animals are still made in Mexico for the Altar of Dolors, but to this day, some of the reasons for creating the altar are disappearing into obscurity. For example, for some mysterious reasons some pottery figurines used in altars are some times sprouted while grown in the dark, while others are grown outside. This makes some of the sprouts yellow, while others are bright green. I have no idea why this is done, maybe just for the purpose of having different shades of green to beautify the altar, or for symbolic meaning. I knew about some of the symbolic significance via oral traditions I learned from my grandmother, and also did some research about these meanings on my own. Here's some of the items placed on The Altar of Sorrows:

Candles, papel picado (lacy paper cutouts), oranges decorated with little banners, reflective round glass spheres, fruit decorated with gold and silver leaf, carafes full of colorful agua fresca (fruit drinks) and white lilies are some of the items always used in the altar. All of these items allude to Mary's attributes and sorrow: The oranges are bitter, the lilies are white to represent purity and the purple color of the banners represents mourning. Chia is used for practical reasons, it sprouts fast and when soaked, the seeds create a gel-like coating called mucilago. It is this gel-like substance what helps the seeds adhere to the moist pottery and some times even bricks are used to sprout the seeds. There is also symbolic meaning to chia. When added to agua fresca, traditionally lemonade, the little seeds covered in gel are said to resemble the virgin's tears. The shiny glass spheres placed on the altar also allude to Mary's tears. Mexico is a land of syncretism, so these symbolic meanings are very likely to predate Catholic religious zeal.

Sacred Fluids, Ixtel and The Moon Cycle
The devotion for Mary is powerful in Mexico. The Altar of Sorrows is created in the Spring, but the feast of the Lady of Sorrows actually falls on the third Sunday on September. There are many holidays that honor The Virgin Mary in the month of September. This period between Summer and Fall is a time for the completion of the harvest, when the light of the full moon allowed farmers to work at night. Many holidays worldwide have festivals associated with the moon cycle during this time, the moon itself being called "The Harvest Moon". It is a time for completion and reflection, like the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which start after the new moon of September. It is also the time when Ramadan ends - all holidays of atonement and reflection. Curiously, the second week of September, between the full moon and the new moon, has become a time for people in the US for remembrance and sorrow. Holidays during this period for many cultures mark the Autumnal Equinox, the beginning of darkness, often associated with "female" qualities.

The particular fervor for the Lady of Sorrows in Mexico may be guised in the ancient cult of the moon goddess. The mysterious goddess of fertility for the Mayans was named Ix Chel, also known as Ixtel. She was also the goddess of the moon, the rainbow and textiles. Many of her followers used to take perilous journey to her island sanctuaries near Can Cun, today the resort islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women. Offerings for Ix Chel included pottery and atole, a gruel made out of corn and water. According to Maya myth, corn was the basic ingredient for the creation of mankind. The gooeyness of the atole probably had symbolic meanings as well.

To the Mayas, the word "Itz" meant life force. Maya scholars David Friedel and Linda Schele describe the concept of Itz in their book, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. Itz is also a physical gooey or watery matter that appears in nature. Rain, morning dew, the water that drips from stalactites in caves, the underground "cenotes" or pools that were sacred to the Maya were believed to be full of Itz. The Mayas also knew that humans were composed mainly of water, so blood, sweat, mother's milk, sperm and tears were also manifestations of Itz.

To ancient Mexicans, chia may have appeared to be magic. After all, it is one of the few seeds that creates "Itz" when soaked in water. It could be the reason that chia became a prominent component of the altar of sorrows, because in a case of syncretism, the gel-like seeds were not only alluding to Mary's tears, but to ovaries, cells, sperm, fertility, human preservation in a time of sorrow and the primordial cosmic goo of life force itself.

Nutritious, hydrating Chia
Lately there has been a lot of talk about chia and its nutritious properties, mainly its uses as a dietary supplement due to its high content of fiber, nutrients and fatty acids like omega 3's. Chia also has more calcium than milk, and none of the cholesterol. But the most powerful property of chia is its gylycemic factor, in part due to the mucilago it produces. When ingested, chia releases a constant stream of glucose into the bloodstream, and it keeps the body hydrated. What does that mean? A secret well known to Mexica warrios as well as present time jornaleros: If you consume chia you won't feel hungry or thirsty for many hours. Maybe ancient Mexicans knew that the most sacred of fluids are the ones that help us stay alive.

Refreshing Chia Limeade - Limonada de Chia
This drink is some times called Agua Fresca de Chia, and it is made with small Mexican limes. It can also be made with lemons or other citrus fruits. When I make this, I use my aluminum Mexican juicer, it really squeezes the juice out of the limes! You can find similar ones on-line. For each 8 ounces of water, you'll need the following ingredients:

  • Juice of one lime
  • One heaping tablespoon of chia seeds
  • Two tablespoons agave nectar, sugar, or flavored Torani syrup
  • (optional) fresh mint, cucumber slices, or lime slices to garnish

Combine all the ingredients in a glass with the 8 ounces of water and shake well. You can also make several servings in a pitcher or carafe. Let the limeade rest for several hours in the refrigerator, this will make the seeds swell up and absorb the citrus flavors. Serve and garnish if desired. Stir the limeade often with a spoon, since some of the seeds will sink to the bottom of the glass. Enjoy!

I leave you with this image of soaked chia seeds. To me, it resembles a galaxy, and makes me think of bigger issues that go beyond a silly fad.

Altar of Sorrows. Here is a link to Alberto Rosher's photos on flickr. He is a papel picado artist and altar maker, creator of some of the beautiful altars pictured. Another great collection of Altares de Dolores can be found here, courtesy of Casti_go. A global journal for responsible tourism, Planeta explains more about the tradition of Altares de Dolores in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Moon Folkore. Visit Keith's Moon Page, for moon facts photos and folklore related to the moon.
Mexican Gardening. This article talks about the history of ornamental gardening in Mexico, and a botanical garden in Xalapa, Veracruz. It is called Francisco Jardin Botanico Javier Clavijero
Chia. The folks of chia power have an entire blog dedicated to chia. It includes categories like the history of chia, chia in current events and chia humor - including the imfamous "Chia Obama".

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