Celebrating the Burro in Mexico

The Mexican burro might seem to be an unlikely subject of celebration. But for the past 40 years, tens of thousands of people have gathered to commemorate all things burro in a town just outside of Mexico City.

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In Mexico each year, tens of thousands of people celebrate an unlikely hero, the lowly Mexican burro. For the last 40 years just outside Mexico City in the town of Otumba, they commemorate all things donkey with a donkey parade, donkey polo, donkey races and the crowning of the town's very own Miss Burro. But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, although the burro is one of Mexico's most enduring symbols, all is not well for the hardworking equine.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Mexican President Vicente Fox is being recalcitrant. He stubbornly refuses to move forward. To cheers and gears from the crowd, he is pushed to little avail on his rump to get him going. The annual Otumba festival celebrates the Mexican burro, but the donkeys who've been dressed up for the contest as the former pope, Mexican Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Arure(ph), a Chinese dragon and, of course, Fox don't seem very happy. The winning donkey whose name is Zahevapa(ph) pulls a cardboard train dubbed the Burro carier(ph). Her owner, Claudio Flores, gets the equivalent of $545 for first place with the best-dressed donkey. He says the money isn't why he participated.

Mr. CLAUDIO FLORES: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: `We take part,' he says, `because we are from this place and we are following the tradition of our town.'

(Soundbite of marching band)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Otumba Festival began in 1965. A woman called Lonia Lota(ph) thought it up to draw tourists to this area which lies only 40 miles northeast of Mexico City but is far from prosperous. Aura Uleta Salsaletis(ph) helps organize the yearly event.

Ms. AURA ULETA SALSALETIS: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `They always use the burro here to carry things, so we gave them a party.' Julia Jessica Vinus Mahia(ph) is 22 and she's just been crowned La Senorita Miss Burro because she proved to have the most donkey knowledge.

Ms. JULIA JESSICA VINUS MAHIA: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `I love donkeys, how hard they work.' `I don't know why they say they're dumb. These are very smart animals who really contribute,' she says.

Donkeys were first brought to Mexico by Spanish conquistadors. They flourished and became a symbol of rural life renown for their ability to carry large loads over Mexico's difficult terrain, but there is a dark side to this donkey tale. Donkeys are disappearing in some parts of this country. Aura Uleta Salsaletis says one reason is that farmers are leaving rural life for the big cities. Another is practical.

Ms. SALSALETIS: (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says, `They don't use them as much to carry things anymore. They use tractors and big cars because they hold more. Before everything was the burro, the burro, the burro.'

In the state of Jalisco, rural development officials were so worried about the depletion of donkeys in their area that they decided to do something about it. Francisco Lugo Serrano is from the Jalisco Office of Rural Development.

Mr. FRANCISCO LUGO SERRANO (Jalisco Office of Rural Development): (Spanish spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says, `There are regions where we don't have these animals anymore. In Jalisco and in the center of the country, they have practically disappeared. You can find them in the south but they are in a semi-savage state.' `We wanted to start a program of repopulation with quality stock,' he says.

And they look to what may seem at first like an unlikely place, Kentucky. Lugo says that over the years Mexican donkeys have become genetically inferior. They are now a small breed while the Kentucky donkeys are much larger and more robust. This month, the state of Jalisco imported 11 male and female donkeys from a retired surgeon in Kentucky to begin the program to strengthen Mexican stock.

Dr. Aline Alija is a professor of veterinarian medicine at Mexico City's National University. She heads a program that works with the abused burros and horses. She says she believes the greatest danger burros face is ill treatment. Mexican burros have a much shorter life expectancy than those of, say, Europe. Alija estimates that overall numbers of donkeys have not gone down. She says that there are an estimated three million of them across the country, and while some areas are facing a shortage, she says the Mexican donkey will remain a staple of life here because Mexican agriculture revolves around small landholders.

Dr. ALINE ALIJA (National University, Mexico City): I mean, donkey is the poor man's horse, you know? The donkey really is owned by the very poor people of Mexico, and as long as we have this enormous poverty in the country, we will have donkeys.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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