A Mexican Fiesta for Pope Francis

A woman waves a tri-color Mexican hat as Pope Francis arrives at the Basilica of Our Lady of Gaudalupe. Freeze frame of video by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 13, 2016

A woman waves a tri-color Mexican hat as Pope Francis arrives at the Basilica of Our Lady of Gaudalupe. Freeze frame of video by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 13, 2016

Dear Blog Readers –

I am just back from Pope Francis’ six-day trip to Mexico and have so much material – speeches, photos, videos, and memories–that it will be hard to boil it down into one blog post. So it is going to be a two-part series and it is mostly going to be a photo-essay since many of you have already read about the trip.

As I already explained in my preview post “Reaching the Ragged Edges in Mexico,” this trip was an attempt by Pope Francis to reach out to migrants, indigenous people, the poor, and victims of violence while condemning narco-traffickers, complacent clergy and corrupt officials. These posts will not go into all the details of how he did that, but instead will give you a little behind-the-scenes account of what it was like following Pope Francis around.

I absolutely loved Mexico. I loved the people, the energy, the culture, the diversity, the music, the art, the geography and the food. I found the country so fascinating, stimulating and intriguing that after a few days there I was ready to ask for a job in AP’s Mexico City Bureau. A colleague suggested that perhaps I could change my blog from “Mozzarella Mamma” into “Tequila Mamma.” I think that might be a good idea. Or maybe “Margarita Mamma.”

Pope Francis steps off airplane in Mexico City. February 12, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia (for Mozzarella Mamma)

Pope Francis steps off airplane in Mexico City. February 12, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia (for Mozzarella Mamma)

When one is traveling with the Pope, you are stuck in a bubble. We move around in a Papal Press entourage, on buses and planes, escorted by police with almost no interaction with the locals.   Associated Press is lucky to have a well-staffed Mexico City bureau, so in addition to the four AP staffers flying with the Pope, we were able to have TV producers and camera-persons, photographers, and wire writers on the ground both before the Pope’s arrival and after his departure for interviews and in-depth reporting.   What is written here is just a description of what I witnessed from my Papal bubble.

Rather appropriately, the whole trip began with a great, big Mexican Sombrero. Valentina Alazraki, the correspondent for the Mexican broadcaster Televisa, and the Dean of the Vatican Press Corps, presented the Sombrero to Pope Francis on the Papal plane as we were winging our way from Rome to Latin America.

Valentina Alazraki is a cultivated, poised, eloquent Mexican who has been covering Popes since Paul VI. She has been on over 100 Papal trips while raising three children.   I admire her immensely. With her usual savoir-faire she presented the sombrero to the Pope who promptly tried it on and looked pretty good in it.

Pope Francis tries on a Sombrero given him by Valentina Alazraki, Dean of the Vatican Press Corps as he flies from Rome to Latin America. February 12, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia

Pope Francis tries on a Sombrero given him by Valentina Alazraki, Dean of the Vatican Press Corps as he flies from Rome to Latin America. February 12, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia

After a few words to the press, the Pope went around and was introduced to every one of us. Max Rossi, the photographer on the plane for Reuters, took a selfie with the Pope, a Mexican journalist dropped to the floor in the aisle and gave the Pope a shoeshine, explaining that when he was a boy he had to shine shoes in Mexico to earn enough money to pay for the outfit for his first communion ceremony. When the Pope family got to me, I complimented him on how he looked in the Sombrero and asked him if he was excited about his trip.

AP Television Team of Trisha Thomas and Paolo Santalucia meet Pope Francis on the Papal Plane heading for Mexico. February 12, 2016. Photo by Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service

AP Television Team of Trisha Thomas and Paolo Santalucia meet Pope Francis on the Papal Plane heading for Mexico. February 12, 2016. Photo by Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service

Our first stop was in Havana, Cuba for an historic meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. There is a lot to be said about that meeting but I am going to leave it to others. I will just say that this meeting was another astute move on the part of Pope Francis proving him to be a solid player on the geo-political stage. After three hours in Havana, we got back on the plane for Mexico City.

Finally, roughly 19 hours after we boarded the plane in Rome, we landed in Mexico City. When the Papal plane lands, the Pope’s security team comes rushing to the rear of the plane to get off the back stairs and dash around the front for the Pope’s exit. They are followed by the camerapersons and photographers who shove their way down the aisle with cameras, long lenses, and tripods, followed by the rest of us. I was one of the last, trying to scoop up all my equipment, papers and clothing. I finally managed to shove on my raincoat, put on my backpack, get my computer bagged stuffed with equipment and was just heading down the aisle when a sweet Alitalia hostess stopped me and said, “Signora, you are not going to leave behind the special Italian marmalade gift we have given you, are you?” Outside I could hear the wild cheers for the Pope and a mariachi band playing. I paused for half a second in a jet-lagged, exhausted daze. “Yes, I am leaving the marmalade, I am very sorry,” I replied and turned for the door.

A blue light suffuses the tarmac at the airport in Mexico City as Pope Francis arrives for a six day visit. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 12, 2016

A blue light suffuses the tarmac at the airport in Mexico City as Pope Francis arrives for a six day visit. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 12, 2016

I stepped of out of the plane to find thousands of people suffused in a strange blue light. They were packed into bleachers around the runway, holding up their cell phones adding to the glow. Dozens of Mexican men in black suits with gold trimming and black sombreros danced with women swirling in red and white skirts. The Pope walked around the tarmac with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his former telenovela star wife Angelica Rivera. I felt like I was at a rock concert.

Pope Francis is welcomed by Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera upon his arrival in Mexico City, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia (for Mozzarella Mamma)

Pope Francis is welcomed by Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto and his wife Angelica Rivera upon his arrival in Mexico City, Friday, Feb. 12, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia (for Mozzarella Mamma)

Mexicans put on a great fiesta – full of joy, energy and color. It was my impression that it is not to cover up the widespread problems the country is facing as much as to make the difficulties more tolerable. You don’t even have to scratch the surface to see there are terrible problems. Corruption is rampant, and violence rages out of control in many parts of the country. Transparency International gives Mexico a score of 35 on a scale of 0 – 100 with “0” being “highly corrupt” and 100 being “clean.” President Enrique Peña Nieto is no exception with some messy scandals involving a multi-million dollar home bought by his wife. But it runs through the entire society.

Poverty is widespread with the National Council for Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval) reporting in 2014 that 46 percent of Mexicans were living in poverty, 10-percent in extreme poverty.

The homicide rate is through the roof with 17,013 homicides in 2015 according to federal data. There is also an enormous problem with disappearing women. Women drop out of sight from one day to the next from the suburbs of Mexico City to the border town of Juarez.

The National Citizens Observatory on Femicides reported 3,892 femicides between 2012 and 2013. Roughly only one quarter of them were investigated by authorities.

Young women in Mexico. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia, February 14, 2016

Young women in Mexico. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia, February 14, 2016

The Pope waded straight into this colorful miasma.

On his first morning in Mexico City the Pope delivered two hard-hitting speeches, the first to government leaders in the imposing National Palace, and the second to the country’s bishops across the huge Plaza de la Constitucion at the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary.

To the politicians, the Pope made it crystal clear it is time to clean up their act saying, “each time we seek the path of privileges or benefits for a few…sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, drug trade, exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death, bringing suffering and slowing down development.”

While we waited for the Pope to speak, he was escorted to see the fabulous mural by Diego Rivera showing the history of Mexico. Meanwhile my cameraman was pointing out to me that most of the Mexican women at the event – a gathering of the political, cultural elite – looked like they had come straight out of the TV series “Desperate Housewives.” They were teetering on exaggeratedly high heels, and all seemed to have very long hair rolled into little ringlets with a curling iron. The telenovela actress Prima Dama (First Lady) seemed to set the tone.

The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, Mexico City. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 13, 2016

The Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, Mexico City. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 13, 2016

According to the CIA Factbook for 2016, Mexico is a “major drug-producing and transit nation”. It is the “world’s second largest opium poppy cultivator”, producing tons of heroin, it is a producer of marijuana, and the transit point for 95-percent of the cocaine heading to the US from South America. Drug Cartels produce and distribute ecstasy, are involved in money-laundering, and are the “largest foreign supplier of marijuana and methamphetamine to the US.”

Speaking to the Bishops, the Pope accused them of not doing enough to combat the drug lords and said they were hiding behind “anodyne denunciations” reminding them of “the magnitude of this phenomenon, the complexity of its causes, its immensity and its scope which devours like metastasis..”

The leaders of the Mexican Church have a reputation for being closer to the center of political and financial power rather than the poor. Pope Francis gave them a prodding suggesting that it would require “prophetic courage” and a “pastoral plan”. He told them to embrace “the fringes of human existence in the ravaged areas of our cities” to help the people “finally escape the raging waters that drown so many, either victims of the drug trade or those who stand before God with their hands drenched in blood…with pockets filled with sordid money and their consciences deadened.”

The Pope’s last stop on his day dedicated to Mexico City was the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. (See my description of her and the famed “tilma” in my earlier post “Reaching the Ragged Edges“). On many occasions throughout the trip the Pope mentioned his deep devotion to the “Guadalupana”, his profound belief in the miracle of the “Tilma.”

On the plane heading for Mexico he told us, “My most intimate desire is to stay in front of the Madonna, the Madonna of Guadalupe. That is a mystery that they study, they study, and they study and there are no human explanations. Even the most scientific study says “but this is something of God”.

For many Catholics and non – this complete, utter devotion to an apparition saved in the form of a cloak made of cactus fiber might seem a little absurd. But I was amazed when I stood on a balcony above the new Basilica looking at what officials said were 36,000 people below who gathered to see the Pope visit the “Guadalupana”. Here is my panoramic photo of the crowd.

Panorama shot of 36,000 people outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Gaudalupe waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 13, 2016

Panorama shot of 36,000 people outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Gaudalupe waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 13, 2016

Following the Mass the Pope retired to the “camarín” – a small chamber where he could view the “tilma” and pray before the “Gaudalupana” on his own. With thousands of people looking on through the window, the Pope sat in silence for about half an hour.

Pope Francis in the Camarin with the cloak (tilma) with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 13, 2016

Pope Francis in the Camarin with the cloak (tilma) with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Freeze frame of video shot by AP VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 13, 2016

On our third day in Mexico, we took a bus for the journey to the sprawling slum of Ecatepec where some 1.6 million people live, amidst violence, drugs, murders and corruption, many of them making a daily commute lasting hours into the city center for work.

(A little aside here — every night we were getting between 4-5 hours of sleep.  The Pope’s speeches were given to us at 4am after which we were served an early breakfast.  I realized the only way to survive on so little sleep and think clearly is to eat a lot of huevos revueltos for breakfast.)

I had dinner with an American correspondent who worked and lived in Mexico City with his wife and young children for years. He told me that their nanny who lived in Ecatepec had to take the bus for two hours everyday back and forth from that slum neighborhood on the outskirts of the city. Every once in a while bandits would hold up the bus. Once everyone handed over their cash or jewelry, the bus would go on its way. No one even bothered calling the police because they assume they are in cahoots.

Rosa with her baby Jesus on her back selling Churros to people arriving at Mass in Ecatepec. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Rosa with her baby Jesus on her back selling Churros to people arriving at Mass in Ecatepec. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

But being held up is a lesser concern for women in Mexico, the bigger fear is getting kidnapped or murdered. The area has a huge problem with women disappearing.  It is believed that some are forced into prostitution, or labor in border factories, and others murdered and their organs sold. According to the National Citizen Femicide Observatory 1,554 women have disappeared in Mexico State (the region that includes Mexico City) since 2005.

When we got to the Mass site, there were people as far as my eyes could see. The poverty was visible in their worn faces and their clothing.

Trisha Thomas taking a picture of crowd at Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service. February 14, 2016

Trisha Thomas taking a picture of crowd at Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service. February 14, 2016

I took this photo of a little girl who told me her name is Guadalupe Martinez. She had found a shady spot for herself under a table at the back of the platform set up for the press. I wonder what her future holds and if she will be able to escape the wretched poverty and cruelty that seem the fate of so many women there.

Guadalupe Martinez enjoys a little shade under tables set up near the press platform at the Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico City. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 14, 2016

Guadalupe Martinez enjoys a little shade under tables set up near the press platform at the Papal Mass in Ecatepec, Mexico City. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 14, 2016

Again in Ecatepec the Pope spoke of the drug cartels thundering from the altar, “Let’s get this straight in our heads: You cannot dialogue with the Devil!”

He urged the crowd to be on the frontline in fighting the drug dealers ….but how can they?

He said:

“I invite you once again today to be on the front line, to be first in all the initiatives which help make this blessed land of Mexico a land of opportunities, where there will be no need to emigrate in order to dream, no need to be exploited in order to work, no need to make the despair and poverty of many the opportunism of a few, a land that will not have to mourn men and women, young people and children who are destroyed at the hands of the dealers of death.”

Women on their knees at Mass in Ecatepec with Pope Francis. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Women on their knees at Mass in Ecatepec with Pope Francis. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A final note here on the press corps. The use of social media among the Vatican press corps has multiplied dramatically. I use twitter a lot to publish photos and quotes, my colleagues were using Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope and Facebook to send tid-bits of our coverage out to the world. I was also attempting to use a new system that we have for going Live from a cell phone called Bambuser Iris.  I was particularly impressed with Alan Holdren of Catholic News Agency and EWTN who had a cool new 360 degree camera and was posting incredible videos of moments of the trip. It is hard to keep up with all the instant forms of communications and sometimes I worry that we never take time to step back, analyze and think about the big picture.

Here are a few photos of my colleagues:

AP Mexico Bureau Chief Eduardo Castillo with AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield at the press center in Mexico City. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Mexico Bureau Chief Eduardo Castillo with AP Rome Bureau Chief Nicole Winfield at the press center in Mexico City. February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia with AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia in Ecatepec, Mexico City, February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia with AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia in Ecatepec, Mexico City, February 14, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

A big thank you to AP photographer Gregorio Borgia for letting me use some of his extra photos that were not used by AP in this blog post.  Also a thank you to AP video-journalist Paolo Santalucia from whose video I have made many freeze-frames, and finally thank you to Cindy Wooden, Vatican Bureau Chief for Catholic News Service who took the photo of me with the Pope.

Tomorrow: PART II FROM CHIAPAS TO MORELIA AND CIUDAD JUAREZ WITH POPE FRANCIS

14 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Carina
    2016/02/23

    Curious, were you there when the Pope did the “no mas” thing with the spectators pulling him? That made big news here in Dallas, think it may have happened in Juarez though.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/23

      Hi Carina — I was not there at that moment. As you have probably seen in the video he got irritated with someone for pulling him onto a handicapped person– and said “don’t be selfish” a couple of times. It happened at the end of the meeting with young people in Morelia on the fourth day of the trip. The papal press corps was pulled out of that event just as the Pope began speaking and we were already headed for the airport to get on the plane to fly back to Mexico City. We did not hear about it until our plane landed. Interestingly, after four days into the trip, not only the Pope was getting a little tense and antsy, the press was too. We had a big pillow fight in the back of the plane heading back from Morelia to Mexico City. Sounds immature but it was a fun way to let off steam.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Carina
        2016/02/23

        Interesting. Sounds like it was a tough trip, thanks for the recap!

        Reply
        • Trisha Thomas
          Trisha Thomas
          2016/02/24

          Tough but amazing!

          Reply
  2. Avatar
    Ciao Chow Linda
    2016/02/23

    Trisha – I really enjoyed reading your “behind-the-scenes” post about covering the pope. The marmalade piece is so funny. I can just imagine how you were frantically trying to get out and start your work, while the flight attendant was concerned about your marmalade gift. Everyone has her priorities!! I cannot imagine how you can do what you do on only four to five hours sleep – huevos notwithstanding. You are a superwoman!! Your story brought to mind a friend of mine who lived in Mexico City for a few years and was frequently stopped by bandits and once robbed at gunpoint. She told me she always kept two wallets with her – one that was hidden, with her credentials and credit cards, etc.; the other accessible, with a small amount of money she knew she would give if and whenever she were stopped. And she did.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/23

      Hi Linda, glad you liked the post. Yes, the marmalade moment was pretty silly. Even sillier was on the return flight we flew AeroMexico and they gave each one of us a big box (about the size of a shoe box) with a model of their latest airplane in it. Most of them took them home even though we had no clue what do to with them. It would have been smarter for me to take the marmalade! Interesting, and scary about your friend with the two wallets in Mexico City. As much as I think working in the Mexico City Bureau would be exciting and interesting, I guess there are a few negative aspects as well.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Pauline
    2016/02/23

    I’m so glad you enjoyed Mexico, Trisha! I think it’s such a broken country, but I think it’s very beautiful. The delicious street food certainly helps as well! Not going to lie, I’m jealous the Pope got to sit directly in front of the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was there leading a group pilgrimage and the closest we got was via the moving walkway underneath the tilma. But then again, he is the Pope, so who am I to compare myself? :)

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/24

      Pauline – thanks for your comment. I just loved Mexico, and although you are correct in saying it is “broken” in so many ways, I was so hit by the incredible determination and happiness of the people. They also have such a rich culture and history. As far as the “tilma” is concerned, I am going to be honest — I don’t really get it. It is a mystery to me.

      Reply
  4. Avatar
    Cathy
    2016/02/24

    Hello Trisha! I’m a huge fan of your blog. I noticed that the Pope’s usual security service was in Cuba but not Mexico. It appeared as though the Mexican security service took the lead. Why was that?

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/24

      Hi Cathy — I am glad you like my blog I think I may be getting carried away with all these Mexico posts, but I just feel this urge to write it all down before I forget it. Anyway, to answer your question– all the Pope’s usual security people (men, I should say, since they are all men) were there, led by Domenico Giani, Chief of the Vatican Gendarmes. They always work together with the local security people whether it is in the US or Cuba or wherever, but the Mexicans did have a huge force out. That said, they all seemed pretty relaxed. I don’t know if you saw my 3 photo sequence tweets of the little boy who managed to jump onto the altar and run up to the Pope and give him a hug in Tuxtla — and the security guys didn’t even notice until he was already hugging the Pope. Amazing. However, before the Pope left, his spokesman, Father Lombardi, said they were not worried at all about the security situation in Mexico. Although violence is a huge problem, the gangs and the drug cartels are not interested in attacking the Pope.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Lega Medcalf
    2016/02/25

    I have never been to Mexico but I have learned a lot about its people, history, social issues and culture from reading your fascinating posts and looking at your unique images.
    Thank you for taking me on your trips with Pope Francis.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/25

      Thank you Lega. I am so pleased you find my posts interesting.

      Reply
  6. Avatar
    Christine Vallejo
    2016/02/28

    Great pieces – have been waiting for something from you about this trip. We will be in Rome in two weeks (visiting relatives) and we are looking forward to seeing the Pope at a Wednesday audience. I’m old enough to remember John the 23rd (a youngster at the time, but he made an impression), and this Pope reminds me in ways of him.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/29

      Thank you Christine. I have heard a lot of people say Pope Francis reminds them of Pope John XXIII. It is an interesting comparison. Certainly, Pope John XXIII made a huge impact on the church in his short time as Pope.

      Reply

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