Autodidacts Creating Culture

What do chili peppers, ‘Popo’ & ‘Ixta’ have in common?

For someone who is easily irritated by the objectification of women, why am I so attracted to the image in the (Wikipedia) photo above? It’s probably because we relate the world to what we’ve grown up with. The image above is one that I saw repeatedly as a child in New Mexico. Nobody else in my family seemed to notice or care about it, but I did.

Picture my WASP family in the mid 1970’s:  Dad, dark brown wavy hair, brown eyes, black horned-rim glasses, wearing a maroon short sleeved polo shirt, worn Levi blue jeans and tan ankle-zip boots; my Mom with frosted, teased hair, large, deep blue eyes, long eyelashes, and creamy-white skin.  She’s wearing a navy blue short sleeve polo shirt, slimly cut polyester pants, and Keds sneakers; older brother, by five and a half years, Pablito, with his green eyes hidden under blond bangs feathered towards his left ear.  He’s wearing a navy-blue terry-cloth sleeveless t-shirt with white pin-stripes, shorts and converse tennis shoes; me, Kristin, with blue eyes and long blond hair down to my butt.  My hair was normally straight unless there were leftover waves from being rolled in spiky curlers on Sunday night, while I watched Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom.”  I wear a blue-jean dress, and black patent leather zip boots; my younger sister by four years, Jenny Beth, had straight light-brown hair, green eyes, freckles, dimples.  She’s wearing a red-and-white gingham shirt with capped sleeves, jean shorts, and canvas shoes; and my baby sister (seven years younger), Leeza Pizza, had white thin wisps of hair upon a mostly bald head.  She, blue-eyed, is perfectly calm and swaddled in a white cotton blanket.

In the photo I found of El Charro Cafe on the internet, the business-front looks exactly the same, only the cars are modern.

Dressed in those get-ups, my Dad drove our family in our Pontiac station wagon, tan with a fake wood trim panel in the midsection, to El Charro Restaurant, in Lordsburg, New Mexico.  It was adjacent to the Southern Pacific Railroad, fifty-four miles from our hometown, Deming.  The place was revered by my siblings and I for serving the hottest green and red chili sauce, ever. 


It was in El Charro with our family of six that I first encountered the iconic image of the man and the woman.  While we waited for our Mexican food, we dared each other to eat the hot salsa on a tortilla chip. 

I was terribly curious and wondered:  who were those people?  Where were they?  And what happened to the woman?

With tears in my eyes, watering from the chili I had eaten, I stared at that dramatic image on the wall:  the sexiest dead woman I’d ever seen, draped over the arms of the strongest man in the world. The man was practically naked and he wore an unusual costume of feathers.  

Periodically, in later years, I’d see the couple on a poster or on a calendar in other Mexican restaurants and I pondered, “Why is that man so full of machismo holding that overtly white sexy woman?”

It took thirty-four years until I finally got the scoop.  My intrigue about the story behind those Mexican icons was answered while we were on a vacation exploring the interior region of Mexico.  My husband, kids and I were being driven from Tepoztlan to Puebla, a city about two hours southeast of Mexico City.  Our driver pointed at two statuesque mountains and began to tell us a story about them. 


Note about my photo:  the western side of “Popo” is free of pollution.  Inhabitants of that region enjoy a daily dose of its splendor. “Ixta” is to the right, and north of her lover, Popo.  Notice smoke rising from both mountains in my photo.  They are active volcanoes.

The mountains exemplified the legend of “Popo and Ixta,” two mythical figures I had wondered about for a long time.  Though it may have been something he told every tourist, I felt privileged, since we were still being included in an oral tradition that had been shared for hundreds of years.  His version of the story (there are many) explained how the Gods changed the body of a woman and a man into two volcanoes.  In my opinion, the ending of the story is kind of like Romeo and Juliet, but the legend probably predates Shakespeare’s play. 

Popocatepetl (“Popo”) means “smoking” in Nahuatl, an Aztec language that is still spoken, is the most active volcano in Mexico.  Ixtaccihuatl (“Ixta”) is a snow-capped mountain adjacent to Popo, the form of which looks like the outline of a woman sleeping on her back. 

Here is a recap of the legend:

Many years before Cortes came to Mexico, the Aztecs lived in Tenochitlan, known as Mexico City today. The indigenous people at that time adored their Emperor and Empress, who had no children. Later, the wife had a daughter who was named Ixtaccihuatl, which means “white lady” in Nahuatl.

Ixtaccihuatl grew and her parents prepared her to become the Empress of the Aztecs. She fell in love with Popoca, a warrior. When fighting ensued in the south, Popoca had to leave to fight the enemy. The Emperor demanded that Popoca bring the head of the chief back, in order to marry his daughter.

After many months of fighting, a rival of Popoca sent an untrue story to the Emperor. He was told that the enemy had won the battle and that Popoca had died. When Ixtaccihuatl heard the news, she couldn’t stop crying. She quit eating and drinking until she passed away.

The family prepared a funeral for her while at the same time Popoca returned from his battle victorious. He learned that Ixtaccihuatl had died, and the lie that the Emperor had been told. Popo’s sorrow lead him to carry his true Love’s body away from the town. He carried her for miles, with his warriors following behind him, until he reached mountains. Popo asked his men to build a pyre where he placed Ixta. In his sadness, he bent down and wept and died too.

The photo above was our view of “Popo” from a hotel room in the district of San Angel, Mexico City.  As you can see, from Mexico City, the eastern view of the volcano is obstructed by pollution.  Notice the smoke billowing left from the top of the cone volcano?  An eruption is possible and it would be catastrophic.

Perhaps the legend lives because the volcanoes are active and remind Mexicans about the story.  Its also a tale that tourists like myself enjoyed hearing.  At least I think I know now why the image is plastered in many Mexican restaurants in America: having that poster enables Mexican-Americans to identify with their cultural heritage and keep some folks (like myself) mystified for years.


As a semi-related note:  I was in an antique store in San Anselmo, California when I saw two oil paintings:  one of Popo and one of Ixta. I talked to the owner of the store and he told me that he was from Cholula, which is a town very close to the mountains in Mexico.  He had done some research and thought that the paintings were made separately by two brothers, artists.  The artists were Arturo Vazquez Navarrete and Albento Navarrete.  

I offered the antique dealer a sum of money for the paintings which he did not accept at the time.  I wanted them because they reminded me of our family’s wonderful journey in Mexico.  And they reminded me of when I finally discovered the story behind an image I had seen throughout my life and never fully understood.

Around our twentieth anniversary, I went back to the antique store to see if the paintings were still there, but the owner was in Mexico.  I left him a message explaining that six years earlier I had offered him “X” amount of $ that he had refused.  I asked to buy them again for the same amount of $ and added that I wanted the paintings for an anniversary gift.  I waited for him to call me and figured that if he did or didn’t, it was either meant to be or not to be.  He called.  I am a proud owner of two oil paintings: one of Popo and one of Ixta.

Miscellaneous Details
To learn more about my family’s adventure in Central Mexico read my post: “Discovering Colonial Mexico With your Family.”  I hope to inspire people to experience other cultures with their kids and to travel with them, before their kids grow up and get busy with their own lives.


5 Responses to “What do chili peppers, ‘Popo’ & ‘Ixta’ have in common?”

  1. wewerenothing

    Lovely story and glad to see another traveler who is no mere tourist but rather, a wanderer and wonderer.
    P.S. Sad, about the pollution in Mexico City. Super super sad.

    • Kristin

      Hi Kay,

      I responded to you a few days ago, but for some reason, it’s not here.

      Anyway, yes I love culture, wandering and foreign travel.

      The pollution in Mexico City was the worst in the northern part of the city. I have to add, though, that during a visit to Los Angeles, the air quality was just as bad!

      Thanks for dropping in.

      • wewerenothing

        Aw, sad that L.A. has gotten worse. It wasn’t too bad last time I visited about 8 years ago. We sure are messing up this planet. Mexico City, Chinal, L.A. and who knows where else.

  2. nlharty

    Wow, that is a heartbreaking tale of two lovers. So glad you were able to get the oil paintings and that they are a constant reminder of fun times had with your family.

    • Kristin

      Hi nlharty,

      The paintings are lovely–although they are framed in a kind of tacky 70s style which reminds me of the time I grew up also.


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