Into the Tierra Caliente with Pope Francis

Performance of traditional dances for Pope Francis at a meeting with young people in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 16, 2016

Performance of traditional dances for Pope Francis at a meeting with young people in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia. February 16, 2016

Dear Blog Readers — You may all be getting terribly bored with my Mexico posts but at this point I am completing them as a diary for myself.  Otherwise I will get involved in other news and forget all the details of this incredible trip.

On his fifth day in Mexico, the Pope traveled to the Tierra Caliente – the hot land, known not just for his hot temperatures but for the extreme levels of narco-trafficking related violence. The area has been plagued by fierce drug cartels who produce methamphetamine and terrorize the population. We flew to the beautiful Spanish colonial city of Morelia where on the surface one would never guess there were any problems.

By this time all of us journalists – getting by on just a few hours of sleep per night—were starting to get silly and stir-crazy. We checked in for the flight for Morelia at 4:15 am in our hotel and then got on the bus for the airport. My colleague Paolo Santalucia somehow got everyone singing “La Paloma” inspired by Spanish correspondent Paloma Garcia Ovejero of Cadena Cope. Encouraged by his success, Paolo got on the microphone at the front of the bus and sang “La Vie in Rose” and “La Bomba” as the Papal Press Corps dissolved in hysterical laughter at 5 in the morning. The Mexican bus driver and security guys probably thought we were completely nuts.

Dancer putting on a fish costume to perform for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Dancer putting on a fish costume to perform for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When we arrived in Morelia dancers in fabulous outfits, including a man wearing a fish costume, were preparing to perform for the Pope, but we could not stay – we were hustled into vans and escorted into the stadium in Morelia for a Mass with priests, nuns and seminarians.

Police escorting our van into Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Max Rossi

Police escorting our van into Morelia. February 16, 2016. Photo by Max Rossi

At the stadium it seemed like the annual FIESTA day. There was a band of priests and seminarians who were winding up the crowd with lively tunes.

Priests, Seminarians and Nuns kick up their heels in lively dancing while waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

Priests, Seminarians and Nuns kick up their heels in lively dancing while waiting for Mass with Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia

Up in the stands I noticed a huge group of nuns with blue and white cheerleader pom-poms. A group of priests and nuns were dancing in a conga-line.

Nuns looking like cheerleaders with pom-poms sing, dance and cheer while waiting for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

Nuns looking like cheerleaders with pom-poms sing, dance and cheer while waiting for Pope Francis in Morelia. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

At one point, I was taking some photos and a nun rushed over and started tickling me all over. I was momentarily taken aback but then realized it was part of the song.

Then all of a sudden the singing stopped and the seminarian-singer told the crowd they were going to count out loud to 43 in honor of the 43 Mexican college students who disappeared in the nearby Guerrero State stopped by the police and then dragged off by thugs from drug cartels, never to be seen again. “Uno, dos, tres…” all the way up to 43 they recited solemnly and then BABOOM, right back to the peppy music. I found that to be typical of Mexico – an ability to recognize the pain, suffering and difficulties but not to let it drag them down. “Alegria” (happiness) was a word I heard often during my day in Morelia.

The Pope did not seem to get caught up in all the “alegria”, instead delivering a stern homily urging them not to let “paralyzing injustice” lead them to “resignation”.

Pope Francis processing into Mass with religious at stadium in Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis processing into Mass with religious at stadium in Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

“What temptation can come to us from places often dominated by violence, corruption, drug trafficking, disregard for human dignity, and indifference in the face of suffering and vulnerability…. Faced with this reality, the devil can overcome us with one of his favorite weapons: resignation.”

He urged them not to let “resignation” “thwart our desires to take risks and to change.”

A security guard and a cook waiting for Pope Francis on a rooftop in the center of Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

A security guard and a cook waiting for Pope Francis on a rooftop in the center of Morelia, Mexico. February 16, 2016. Freeze frame of video shot by AP Television VJ Paolo Santalucia.

After lunch I was lucky to be in the “molto ristretto” pool that got to cover the Pope in the Cathedral of Morelia. The Pope did not do very much in the Cathedral, but it was a great opportunity for us to see the center of the city and in my hour there I could see why Morelia has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Panoramic photo of crowd on street in front of Morelia Cathedral waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas. February 16, 2016

Panoramic photo of crowd on street in front of Morelia Cathedral waiting for Pope Francis. Photo by Trisha Thomas. February 16, 2016

Throughout the day we kept on noticing images of monarch butterflies. Plastic Monarch butterflies on trees, and Monarch Butterflies painted on signs. We finally discovered that Morelia is home to the Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca (Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve) a 200-square mile reserve where millions of Monarch butterflies migrate to every year from North America. During the afternoon the Pope had a meeting with young people where there were a series of fabulous performances, but my favorite was the monarch butterfly dancers.

Girls dressed as monarch butterflies perform as Pope Francis meets with young people at the Jose Maria Morelos Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Feb. 16. The area is host to monarch butterflies who migrate from Canada during the winter. Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma

Girls dressed as monarch butterflies perform as Pope Francis meets with young people at the Jose Maria Morelos Pavon Stadium in Morelia, Mexico, Feb. 16. The area is host to monarch butterflies who migrate from Canada during the winter. Feb. 16, 2016. Photo by Paul Haring of Catholic News Service for Mozzarella Mamma

As we stood in the stadium watching the event, the sun beat down on us. Men came around with plastic buckets with small, transparent plastic bags filled with water. Despite, being warned not to drink any water that was not bottled in Mexico, I bit off a corner of the bags and drank several. Many colleagues did the same.

Again the key word for the event would have been “alegria”, but the Pope was grim telling the crowd, “I understand that often it is difficult feel your value when you are continually exposed to the loss of friends or relatives at the hands of the drug trade, of drugs themselves, or criminal organizations that sow terror.

He concluded:
“Jesus would never ask us to be hitmen…he would never send us out to death…”

We were hustled out of the stadium and back on to our bus for the airport before the Pope delivered his speech and missed the end of the event. It was then that the Pope was apparently pulled by someone in the crowd and toppled onto a handicapped child. The Pope lost his temper and scolded the person saying “don’t be selfish, don’t be selfish”. The few seconds of video had made its way around the globe before we had even gotten back to Mexico City.

Police woman at the airport in Morelia, Michoacan. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Police woman at the airport in Morelia, Michoacan. February 16, 2016. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When we arrived on the plane, we found the overhead compartments packed with unusual gifts given to the Pope. There was a huge basket of avocadoes, a black wooden Jesus on a cross, a giant black sombrero, and a carved silver dove. We were all hoping wondering what would happen to all those avocadoes and were hoping someone might whip up some guacamole to serve to us. I figure the rest of the gifts will probably end up in a closet at the Vatican.

So there we were back on the plane, hot, sweaty, exhausted and getting silly again. During the flight back to Mexico City a frenzied pillow fight broke out in the journalists’ section of the plane. It started among some photographers and spread back with little white pillows with the Pope’s coat-of-arms emblazoned on them flying back and forth. Finally Phill Pullella of Reuters stood up and announced “Didn’t the Pope say we are not supposed to be hitmen??” and then promptly bombarded Father Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit Director of Civilita’ Cattolica with about six pillows. Even the Chief of Vatican Police Domenico Giani got a pillow thrown at him when we landed and he came rushing back.

We all agreed not to post any photos or videos of this on social media, but I think a few slipped through the cracks.

4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Joan Schmelzle
    2016/02/25

    Hi,
    I don’t think your reporting on this trip could ever be boring. I have found it fascinating. I understand your wanting to write it as a record before you forget details. I keep trip journals.
    I had not heard of the Pope being pulled over so it didn’t hit this part of the world’s news, but then I don’t watch TV much either. It didn’t surface in the online National Catholic Reporter stories I read either. But then neither did the singing and pillow fight. The stories I have read are by the NCR Vatican report Joshua Mc (something). I wonder if he was throwing pillows!
    Thanks for interesting reporting/blogging.
    A presto,
    Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/25

      Hey Joan — That would be Josh McElwee from National Catholic Reporter. He is the sweetest guy — young, hardworking and sincere. And no, I don’t think he took part in the pillow fight. (I did though)

      Reply
  2. Avatar
    Ginnie Siena Bivona
    2016/02/25

    How could this be boring?? I am enjoying the hell out of these!! There’s a bazillion reports, serious reporterly and yeah, very boring! You’ve turned it into a human experience. I’m loving it! Keep it up.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2016/02/25

      Thank you Ginnie — that is so sweet of you. I am working on the last post on Mexico tonight. I hope you like it.

      Reply

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