28 January 2008

Eating minnows...

Yesterday my gal Gina and I visited a Mexican town named Moreleon where they manufacture clothing and you can get some pretty good bargains at the factory outlet stores. On our way back to Irapuato in the afternoon we decided to stop in nearby Yuriria to get something to eat. There is a large shallow lake at Yuriria that is called a "laguna". It is ringed with water plants and it is full of little fish called "charales". The fishermen catch the charales with nets and the ladies deep fry them along the shore along with other types of fish and there is no better meal than a shoreside lunch of charales and fillet of mojara or robalo. The first time that I saw people eating charales I thought that they were eating minnows like the type that we used to use for bait in the rivers and lakes of Illinois where I am from. As a kid I always wondered if you could eat minnows. These little fish, however, are not minnows. They are a different species of fish and their English name is "Silversides" of which there are many sub-species all over the world. The species commonly found in central Mexico in the Rio Lerma basin is Chirostoma Aculeatum Barbour although there could be several other species mixed in. In any case they are a slender minnow looking fish about one and a half to two inches long.

Laguna Yuriria, as the lake is called, has an interesting history. It is a "man made" lake and one of the earliest hydraulic engineering feats by settlers in the New World. The town of Yuriria was establish in the
year 1540 and in 1548 there appeared on the scene a very energetic Augustinian friar named , Fray Diego de Chávez y Alvarado. He immediately noticed that there was a large swampy area north of the town that gave rise to foul odors and he thought that the swamp might be detrimental to the health of the people. He gathered together a bunch of native people and dug a twelve mile long canal from the Lerma river to the swamp which promptly filled up with water forming a lake about four miles wide and ten miles long with a maximum depth of twenty-three feet.. It took him and his men two full years to accomplish this. This was not the last of Frey Diego's work either. In 1550 he began work on a monastery church called San Pablo Apóstol. He used three hundred men to gather the limestone rock from a quarry ten miles away and then twenty-one Spaniards and seventeen native stone masons took nine years to build the church. It is an incredible building on a grand scale and all that you can do is marvel at the skill and energy of the people who built it over 450 years ago.

I cannot think
of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It was so peaceful and relaxing sitting in the shade of a thatched roof eating fresh fish, watching the boats out on the lake, and chatting with the local people. For me this is what living in Mexico is all about.

26 January 2008

What we need…

During this campaign season for electing the next U.S. president, like many other people I find myself reflecting upon what I think we really need in a leader. I remember the slogan of Theodore Roosevelt that went “Speak softly but carry a big stick”. That sits pretty well with me and just recently I came across an example of how in the past it was applied by a U.S. Navy captain named Duncan N. Ingraham.

There was a guy named Martin Koszta, of Hungarian birth, who had taken part in the political movement of 1848-49 for freeing Hungary from the dominion of the Emperor of Austria, and who had fled to Turkey upon the failure of that cause. He then emigrated to the United States and in July, 1852, he made a declaration under oath of his intention to become a citizen of the United States. At this time he renounced all allegiance to any foreign power. After residing in the U.S for about two years he took a trip to visit Europe and while sailing up the Mediterranean in June of 1853 the ship stopped at the city of Smyrna in Turkey which was a neutral port. Mr. Koszta went ashore and immediately placed himself under the protection of the United States by the American consul Mr. Offley at Smyrna. Since Smyrna was a neutral port he considered himself quite safe which in fact he actually was under international law. Unfortunately, however, he was recognized by someone in Austrian government who also happened to be there at the time and he was arrested by Austrian naval personnel and taken aboard the Austrian ship “Hussar” where he was placed in chains. No doubt the plan was to take him to Austria or Hungary and have him executed.

U.S. Captain Duncan N. Ingraham heard about the arrest of Koszta and he went alongside the Austrian ship and asked if Martin Koszta was on board. He was told that there was no one by that name on board. Captain Ingraham then went ashore and learned from others that Koszta was definitely on the Hussar and that the ship had been observed since Koszta was taken aboard and he had not left. Ingraham then went back alongside the Austrian ship and asked for Martin Koszta and again the Austrians denied that he was on board. Captain Ingraham returned to shore where he met the Admiral of the Austrian fleet and he said to him “I have been credibly informed that an American citizen by the name of Martin Koszta has been arrested upon these streets and taken aboard your flagship and is now being held as a prisoner. I have been to your ship twice, and twice the commander of your ship has lied to my face and denied that there was any such person aboard.”

Captain Ingraham immediately went aboard the Austrian ship. When Martin Koszta was brought before him in irons, Koszta was asked if he was an American citizen. He said that although he was not a full citizen, he had taken out his first papers after a residence in the United States of two years, and when the prescribed time had expired would take out final papers. He was asked if he demanded the protection of the American government. He said that he did. He was then informed by Ingraham that he should have that protection. Captain Ingraham demanded the immediate release of Koszta but the Austrians refused to comply. Captain Ingraham then gave them twenty-four hours to release Koszta and if he was not released by the end of that time then we would fire his guns upon the Austrian ships. The Austrians thought he was joking because they had three powerful naval ships with many men and guns and Captain Ingraham had only one small ship named the “St. Louis”. When the next day came everyone waited with much curiosity to see what would happen. The governor of Smyrna went to Captain Ingraham and thanked him for his willingness to protect the neutrality of the port but he was afraid that if Captain Ingraham carried out his demands the big Austrian guns would sink his ship. Captain Ingraham told him, “I know my duty and I shall do it. Unless the prisoner is released I will fire my guns upon them at the time specified.”

Captain Ingraham then placed his ship in better position where his guns could fire directly upon the flagship of the Austrians. The signals went up, the commands were given, the guns were loaded, and every man was at his post. Captain Ingraham was on the quarterdeck with his watch in hand waiting to give the order to fire just as soon as the time was up. Just a few minutes before the time expired a boat was let down from the Austrian ship and the prisoner was surrendered. For the first time the monarchs of Europe had learned that the United States was strong enough and brave enough to protect her people everywhere and would do so despite the danger, even though such citizens might be of foreign birth. In short…they learned that an American is an American no matter what!

So what happened after that? Well, I do know that Martin Koszta returned to the United States. He wrote a letter to the New York times thanking the American people which was published on Wednesday, December 14, 1853. After that he seems to have disappeared. Captain Duncan Ingraham on the other hand received the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor on August 4th, 1854 for his actions in the Koszta affair and went on to a long distinguished naval career, first in the U.S. Navy and after the outbreak of the Civil War he joined the Confederate Navy where he played an important role as a commodore. He married Harriet Horry Laurens and together they had 11 children. He died in 1891. He had been born in 1802 in Charleston, South Carolina and entered the U.S. Navy as a midshipman at the tender age of 10. He was navy through and through.

He is pictured below. There have been four U.S. naval ships named after him. The latest USS Ingraham is numbered FFG-61.

To paraphrase old Archie Bunker…“Mister we could use a man (or woman) like Duncan Ingraham again”. He would definitely have my vote.

15 January 2008


There has been quite a bit in the news lately about an interrogation procedure called “waterboarding” and whether it should be considered a form of torture or else “'a legitimate enhanced interrogation technique” as some members of George Bush’s legal team would have us believe. I was interested to learn recently that waterboarding as a form of torture used in the process of interrogation is not something new but its use has been documented for hundreds of years. In fact, it was one of the three or four main types of torture used during the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish certainly weren’t bashful about it. In their manner of thinking they were merely ferreting out heresy and saving souls. For those purposes they carefully documented each case of torture and the methods involved and those records are available to scholars to this very day. In addition, the Spanish Inquisition didn't invent waterboarding as a system of torture. Waterboarding had already been in use in earlier times during the medieval period and was later used by the Inquisition for more than 350 years, from about 1478 to 1834 in both Spain and Mexico. The Inquisition as an institution was finally ended here in Mexico in 1857 during the reform period but where I live in Irapuato, Guanajuato, Mexico the building that housed the administrative offices of the Inquisition still stands and is now the City Museum.

During waterboarding a “victim” is strapped to a board and the board is inclined so that his or her head is lower than their feet. Then they are blindfolded. There are even rumors to the effect that the procedure used by the U.S. Government agents involves using either duct tape as a blindfold or using office supply binder clips to clip the eyelids shut, which in itself is most likely a very painful and incapacitating experience. The victim’s mouth is then forced open and a cloth placed over the face and pushed into the mouth so that it reaches the back of the throat. The Spanish called this cloth a “toca”. Water is then poured into the mouth and nostrils through the cloth and the victim immediately feels the sensation that they are drowning. If this method fails, the interrogation goes to step two. They cover the victims face with a sheet of plastic kitchen wrap and make a small hole in the plastic over the mouth. Then they pour water in the hole over the mouth area. This is extremely painful and scary and often it is fatal or severely damaging to the victim.

The Dutch East India Company is said to have used waterboarding as well as the Japanese Kempeitai and the German Gestapo of World War II. The Cambodian Khmer Rouge (Remember the “killing fields”?) also used it and we all know what kind of people they were. The U.S condemned the practice during the Spanish American War and again during the Vietnam War when harsh sentences were meted out to U.S. forces who attempted to use such procedures. My, my, how times have changed. In 2002 President George Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft signed a presidential finding approving the use of waterboarding. Apparently they have yet to learn what the Spanish learned more than two hundred years ago. Confessions generated by torture were generally discounted or disregarded unless other evidence corroborated them because when a person feels that they are facing imminent death they are likely to say anything…Rambo and Superman included. Even in those times there was debate about whether testimony elicited under duress was credible.

Personally I think waterboarding is definitely torture and various polls show that about seventy percent of the American people think the same way that I do. It is nothing more than hatred and an undignified and futile practice. So why do we do it? Because George Bush says so, that’s why…and George Bush has a vision you know.

04 January 2008

La Cabalgata

The Spanish word “cabalgata” is derived from the verb “cabalgar”, “to ride” as in to ride horseback. A “cabalgata” is a procession on horseback and at this time of the year it usually refers to “La Cabalgata de los Reyes Magos” which is the procession commemorating the Three Magi during the Epiphany when they came bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the Baby Jesus. In much of the Spanish speaking world the Three Magi or “Three Kings of the Orient” who are named Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar (in Spanish) also bring toys and gifts to the children. On the evening of the 5th of January the children put their shoes close to a window and leave little gifts of food for the Magi and hay for their animals. In the morning there will be gifts in the shoes or next to the shoes. Santa Claus is making good headway in Mexico but nothing matches the excitement of the Three Kings. In the City of Irapuato, where I live in Central Mexico, there is a grand cabalgata on the evening of January 5th and it is just about the most popular outdoor event of the year. It began in 1954 and this year there will be forty-two contingencies in the cabalgata represented by six hundred individual participants and it will be watched by about 350, 000 people who line the streets over an eighteen block area. The amount of people who will line the parade route is over half of the population. Just imagine the enthusiasm necessary to bring the people out on one of the coldest nights of the year!

Along the way there will be many vendors of helium filled balloons. Parents buy balloons for their children who attach their wish lists to the balloons and let them soar up to Heaven so that God will be sure to see them. The excitement of the children is really something to see, especially when the Three Kings arrive at the rear of the cabalgata. They are always represented by handsome muscular men who ride magnificent and spirited horses and they are all decked out in regal finery. I am willing to bet that the original Three Kings didn’t look as grand as our Three Kings of Irapuato. The cabalgata starts punctually at 7:30 pm and it ends about 9:pm. That should be a clue right there because hardly anything else is punctual here. Afterwards, all of the people go home and the kids put out their shoes and go to bed dreaming of the gifts that they hope to receive. The next morning they get up early to see what the Three Kings left for them. On January 6th, the Epiphany, the people traditionally eat a cake that is called a “Rosca de Reyes”. It is a cake shaped like an oval ring and it has raisins and candied fruit on it. Inside the cake is baked a small porcelain or white plastic figurine of a child which symbolizes the Baby Jesus being hidden from the eyes of King Herod. Each person in turn is given a knife with which to cut a piece of cake for themselves. The knife symbolizes the danger that the Baby Jesus was in.

On the evening of the 6th there is usually an early light supper called a "Merienda". Many times that is when the rosca cake is served accompanied by atole blanco which is a popular hot drink made from corn meal or the chocolate version which is called “champurrado”. Whoever receives the slice of rosca that contains the figurine has to host a tamale dinner for the rest of the people on February 2nd which is called “Candalaria”. This date marks the end of the formal Christmas season and the figure of the Baby Jesus is taken from the manger and washed and dressed in new clothes and put away for another year. There is a little ceremony that usually includes saying a rosary and at the end of the ceremony everyone receives a traditional piece of candy.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.