I would be remiss in my task of introducing my readers to Mexican popular culture without mentioning my friend and mentor Armando Fuentes Aguirre who is otherwise known as Catón. He is a writer and journalist who was born on July 8, 1938 in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. However, he is more than just a Mexican writer and journalist. He is more like the conscience of the “La Republica Mexicana” which he knows and loves so much. Not only is he an expert in Spanish language and History but he is also very fluent in the English language, very knowledgeable in Latin, and is considered an expert in classical music as well. He writes several daily syndicated columns that appear in 156 national and international newspapers. The three principal syndicated pieces are “Mirador” (Observer), “De Política y Cosas Peores” (Of Politics and Worse Things) and “Manganitas” (literally “little shirt sleeves” but it is a fanciful play on words). He has written a number of books including an excellent book on Benito Juárez and Maximilian entitled “La Otra Historia de Mexico - Juarez y Maximiliano: La Roca y el Ensueno” (The Other History of Mexico – Juárez and Maximilian: The Rock and the Dream).
My introduction to Catón was very simple. I had arrived in Mexico in January 1999 to work on a project for a company located in a small town near Monterrey, Nuevo León. I had prepared myself by studying Spanish for about three months before I came but I soon found out that my Spanish was woefully inadequate and most of my daily communication was by grunting and pointing. I resolved to do something about my vocabulary and started to go through the local newspaper every day and pick out what words that I knew and look up others to add to my repertoire. For my fist year I did this a lot, up to several hours a day. In fact, I spent most of my Sunday afternoons with the Monterrey Sunday edition of “El Norte” which I needed to “special order” on Saturday night at the local “farmacia” (drug store). I will write more about this in another post. Not long after I began doing this word search I found my eye always going back to Catón's column “De Política y Cosas Peores” (Of Politics and Worse Things) in the editorial pages. It was very hard to decipher at first but it was also very rewarding because it included dialogs in the form of some very funny jokes. I went through this column every day and used it as the basis for building my vocabulary.
After about a year of study and as I gained more confidence I began to memorize the best of Catón's jokes and when I was with a group of people with whom I felt comfortable I would retell the jokes. I was very clumsy at first and people laughed at me more than they did the jokes but after awhile I got much better at it. This was a real confidence builder and it also helped me learn the patterns and timing of the language. After I had about three years of experience with the language I began giving weekly training sessions in Spanish and I always ended them with a joke which I called “La Historia de la Semana” or “The Story of the Week”. This became very popular with the people whom I was training and it helped me to develop a comfortable relationship with them. About this time I began talking on the telephone regularly in Spanish and that was a new challenge because talking on the telephone in a language that is not your own can be very intimidating. You cannot see the faces of the people that you are talking to and you cannot read their body language. However, the practice that I had with the jokes really helped me to speak with confidence and for all of this I thank my friend Armando Fuentes Aguirre. In fact, I got the chance to thank him in person a few years ago when he came to Irapuato and I must say that he is one of the nicest people that I have ever met. I will always be grateful to him.
If you live in Mexico you will probably find Catón in the editorial section of your local daily newspaper and if you live outside of Mexico you can get online subscriptions to a number of Mexican newspapers at a nominal cost. I suggest that“El Norte” of Monterrey or "Reforma" of Mexico City or "Mural" of Guadalajara, or "Palabra" of Saltillo would all be good choices.
Correction (February 15, 2010):
I was alerted by a kind reader who shares the name Armando with Catón that I made a mistake in this blog post regarding my translation of the word "manganitas". I said that it means "little shirt sleeves" but it turns out that this is incorrect, and now that I understand why I feel quite embarrassed. The "manga" in manganitas does not refer to a "manga" or sleeve. It refers to several events in the Mexican rodeo which is called a "charreada" and which is held in a place called a "lienzo charro". Two of the events that are part of the competitive rounds called "suertes" are the "Manganas a Pie" and "Manganas a Caballo". In both events a "charro" or "cowboy" tries to catch the front legs of a mare by using a lariat and cause it to tumble down. In one event he is on horseback and in the other event he is on foot. A "mangana" therefore is a lasso or lariat the verb "manganear" means to lasso something with a lariat. What Catón apparently means by using the word "manganitas" is a play on words meaning "a little something to trip you up". Let me say that I am sorry to both Armandos. I will try not to let it happen again :)
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