23 February 2008

The making of a saint.

There is a saint currently being venerated in Mexico and in Mexican communities in the United States who is fairly new to the American saintly scene. He has come to the attention of the general American public because of late he has been associated with the illegal drug trade. However, many poor people in Mexico have been venerating him for a very long time and consider him to be in the same league with St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless cases. His name is Jesús Malverde. He is sometimes called the Generous One” and some people call him the “Angel of the Poor”. The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize Malverde as a saint but that might be okay with him and with people who venerate him because it fits his “outsider” image. There is a certain beauty to it also because it was the people who decided he was a saint, not the Church, and he represents the belief, the power, and the will of the people. That is quite at odds with the ultra conservative atmosphere of the Catholic Church today but in the end, the people will have their way. They eventually always do. All year long they come to visit his shrine in Culiacan, the capital city of the Pacific Coast state of Sinaloa, to ask for favors.

Who was Jesús Malverde? Well, nobody really knows for sure. In some versions of his story, he is a construction worker, in other versions, a railway worker. Since there is no physical record, his story is more legend than actual fact. There is a consensus of believers that he was born around 1870 and that he died on May 3rd, 1909. How he died is another uncertainty. Some say that he was hung and some say that he was shot but everyone seems to agree that he was executed by the government for banditry. His legend is similar to that of Robin Hood. He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor. The version of the story that I like the best goes like this:

"The rural police shot him in the leg but somehow he escaped. It wasn’t long before the wound started to fester and he began dying of gangrene. He told a friend before he died that his friend should turn in his body and claim the reward. His friend brought him in dead and got the reward. Then the police hung Malverde from a mesquite tree as a warning to the people.”

One of the things needed for sainthood is some miracles. In Malverde’s case there doesn’t seem to be a problem with that. They supposedly began happening shortly after his death and continue to this day. Malverde's shrine is near a railroad track in Culiacán, Mexico. It attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. The shrine features a large mural of Malverde beside the Virgin Mary and Jesús Christ. Statues of Malverde are spread throughout, along with letters, mementos and candles left behind by the many visitors who come to ask for his help and his intercession.

Now, here is a conundrum. If nobody knows much detail about the life of Jesús Malverde and if there is no concrete physical proof that he even actually existed, then how do people know what he looks like? Well, everyone just “knows” that he must look like a traditional Mexican hero. There are three heroes of Mexican stage and screen who emerged in the 1940’s, and 50’s. They are Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, and Javier Solis. The first two, Pedro Infante, and Jorge Negrete, were contemporaries and good friends and appeared together in several movies. Javier Solis came along a bit later. Pedro Infante was born in the year 1917 in Sinaloa, the same state where Jesús Malverde was born. He represented a fun-loving and partying cowboy and a hero of the working class. It was his character that won the love and admiration of the public. He died in a tragic plane crash in 1957 at the age of 40. His longtime friend, Jorge Negrete was born in the state of Guanajuato in the year 1911. He was handsome and had a well trained fascinating voice and he is still a top idol in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America more than 50 years after his death. He died in 1953 at the age of 42 after a nasty bout with hepatitis. Javier Solis was born in Mexico City in 1931. Along with Pedro Infante and Jorge Negrete, he was considered by the public to be an idol of Mexican music and cinema. He died a bit younger than the other two in 1966 from complications of a gall bladder operation. He was only 34 when he died. Note that all three of these men died in the same age range as Malverde would have been when he died. The Mexican people are very fond of this trio and call them “Los Tres Gallos Mexicanos”…”The Three Mexican Roosters”. If you look at their photos below, you will see that all three have a strong resemblance and if you compare them with the picture of Jesús Malverde you will see that Malverde is a composite of all three. There you have it folks. That is how saints are made in Mexico…from legends.

19 February 2008

For the rest of your life!

This year Easter will come on March 23rd which is earlier than usual. Since Easter is tied to the Jewish lunar calendar it falls on a different date of our Gregorian calendar every year. Easter always falls on the first Sunday following the full Moon (the Paschal Full Moon) either on or after the Spring Equinox (March 20 or 21). If the Full Moon falls on a Sunday then Easter is the next Sunday. In Western Christianity, Easter always falls on a Sunday from March 22 to April 25 inclusive. This year is the earliest Easter any of us will ever see for the rest of our lives and only people who are 95 years old have ever seen it this early. The last time it was this early was 1913, so if you're 95 or older you were around for that one. Only five times in the past 300 years has Easter fallen on March 23 -- 1704, 1788, 1845, 1856 and 1913. The next time Easter will be this early (March 23) will be the year 2160 which is 152 years from now. After 2160, the next March 23 observance will be 2228. The next time that it will be on the earliest possible date, March 22, will be in the year 2285 or in other words, 277 years from now. The last time it was on March 22 was 1818. So, no one alive today has or will ever see it any earlier than this year. Easter last fell on the latest possible date, April 25, in 1943 and will next fall on that date in 2038. However, it will fall on April 24, just one day before this latest possible date, in 2011.

Prior to A.D. 325, Easter was variously celebrated on different days of the week, including Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Since Christ, the true Paschal Lamb, had been slain on the very day when the Jews, in celebration of their Passover, killed a lamb, the Jewish Christians in the East followed the Jewish method, and commemorated the death of Christ on the 15th of Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar and His Resurrection on the 17th of Nisan, no matter on what day of the week they fell. For this observance they claimed the authority of Saint John and Saint Philip. However, in the rest of the Roman empire another consideration predominated. Every Sunday of the year was a commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ, which had occurred on a Sunday. Because the Sunday after 14 Nisan was the historical day of the Resurrection, in Rome this Sunday became the Christian feast of Easter. Easter was celebrated in Rome and Alexandria on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, and the Roman Church claimed for this observance the authority of Saints Peter and Paul.

Complicated? The Easter date has always been a controversial subject because of the vagaries of the lunar calendar. Many people take a mini vacation during this period and the changing dates of Easter drives the travel industry nuts. No problem for me. I think people ought to stay home and go to church, especially if they claim to be Christians. Anyway, here is what the Easter schedule looks like for the next ten years:

23 March 2008

12 April 2009

4 April 2010

24 April 2011

8 April 2012

31 March 2013

20 April 2014

5 April 2015

27 March 2016

16 April 2017

1 April 2018

21 April 2019

15 February 2008

Happy Birthday Irapuato!

Today is the 461st anniversary of the founding of the City of Irapuato in the State of Guanajuato, Mexico where I am proud to live. The city is actually a bit older, but it wasn’t until the year 1547 when the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, issued a proclamation on the 15th of February that established Irapuato as an official municipality. The general location was originally inhabited by a tribe of native hunter gatherers who were called “Chichimecas” and who settled the area around the year 1200 A.D. The place was called “Xiriquitzio” or “Iriquitzio” by the natives. By the way, the name “Chichimecas” translates into “perros sarnosos” in Spanish, and in English “perros sarnosos” means “mangy dogs”. If you look at some of the dogs that we have running around the outskirts of town you might think that we still have some “Chichimecas among us. Nevertheless, Irapuato is a very nice place to live and I wish many happy returns of the day for my adopted city. Thank you Irapuato, for everything and…

Happy Birthday!!!

07 February 2008

La Fería de Nopal

Monday, February 4th, was a holiday in Mexico to celebrate Constitution Day. It is officially celebrated on February 5th, but, like everyone else, Mexicans like a three day weekend and so this year we celebrated a day early in order to have what Mexican people call “un puente” which means “a bridge” in Spanish, or in other words, a bridge to the weekend. So, Monday Gina and I visited the Nopal Expo at Valtierrilla, Guanajuato, Mexico, the self proclaimed “Nopal Capital of the World”, and we had a wonderful time. Nopal (noh-PAHL) is what they call the Prickly Pear Cactus here and I am continually amazed at all of the things that can be made from the Prickly Pear Cactus. I even ate red and green Nopal ice cream which was fantastically delicious...so much so that I ate it three times!!! The ice cream is made from the fruits of the cactus which are called “tunas” in Spanish (as opposed to tuna as in “tuna fish” which in Spanish is called “atún”). The sweet nopal tunas come in several colors, most commonly red and green, but there are also tunas of yellow, purple and other shades. One variety is called “Xoconostle” (zoh-coh-NOHST-leh) and it is sour and used mainly in cooking. The fruit of the Nopal Cactus is about the size of a small peach except that it is slightly elongated. You have to peel it and it does have spines like the cactus pads so you have to be careful when peeling it. It is very tasty and supposedly very good for you. It has a lot of black seeds which you can safely eat because they just pass right through you. In the summer time in Mexico they sell plastic, one liter size bags of peeled tunas on the street and you eat them with a toothpick. Very satisfying on a hot day because they are mostly water, like watermelon...and pleasantly sweet.

The young tender pads of the nopal are stripped of spines and are used in everything from salads to main dishes. We discovered a great dish called "Penca Rellena Asada". The "penca" is the the first section of nopal that is attached to the roots. Normally this part is fairly big and "woody" and isn't regularly used for food like the tender pads are except, perhaps, for cattle food. In Valtierrilla, however, they slit open the penca and stuff it with other things like cheese or chorrizo sausage and onions, etcetera. Then they wrap it lightly in aluminum foil and grill it over an mesquite fire. The result is very hearty, tasty, and satisfying. This was the fourth edition of the festival which is also called the “Fería de Nopal” and we went last year also. This year we brought home six jars of “Pico de Gallo” salsa made from xoconostle tunas. It has a fantastic flavor and is far better than the various picante sauces that you find in the typical U.S. supermarket. In fact, if I had any money I would invest it in salsa xoconostle for the export market. Xoconostle is also made into a wonderful tasting marmalade.

While at the fair we had a chance to say hello to Doña Dolores and buy some roasted peanuts from her. She has made her living from selling roasted peanuts for many, many years. She gives her personal blessing with every little five peso paper bag of peanuts that she sells so I line up for peanuts and a blessing like everybody else. She is old and wrinkled and has been a widow since she was forty years old. She had one child whom she has outlived. You can see a picture of her below selling peanuts to Gina. When Gina asked her why she never remarried she said , “Why would anybody ever want to do that again?”. We asked her how old she was and she said that she was eight years old when the priest died. Everything in Valtierrilla is dated from when the priest died. The priest is Padre Jesús Méndez Montoya who was declared a saint by Pope John Paul II on the 21st of May in the year 2000. The story of Padre Méndez is part of the history of Mexico itself. Famous author Graham Greene wrote a powerful novel about this period in Mexican history called ''The Power and the Glory'' and it was made into a movie by the same name in 1961.

In the 1920’s there was a powerful religious movement in Mexico to restore the power of the Catholic Church which had been diminished by the Mexican Revolution and the Constitution of 1917. The rebellion grew and on January 11, 1923 as many as 50,000 people climbed to the 8,400 foot summit of Mount Cubilete in the State of Guanajuato (near Irapuato where I live) and declared Jesus Christ the “King” of Mexico. They watched the apostolic delegate, Monsignor Ernesto Filippi bless the first stone of a shrine to be erected on the summit which just happens to be the geographic center of Mexico. Monsignor Filippi was subsequently expelled from Mexico by the Mexican government who also blew up the first shrine. Then, in 1926, in the midst of a dispute with the Archbishop of Mexico City, the Mexican president Plutarco Elias Calles closed the church's schools and monasteries, prohibited religious processions and deported foreign priests and nuns. In addition, Mexican priests were told they would have to register with the Government before being granted permission to perform their religious duties. The church responded by going on strike, and for the next three years no sacraments were administered in Mexico. But in several states in central Mexico, bands of militant Catholics revolted, attacking Government buildings, burning schools and killing officials in a campaign that came to be known as the Cristero Rebellion. Their battle cry of the Cristeros was “Viva Cristo Rey”…”Long Live Christ the King”.

Enter the picture Bernabé de Jesús Méndez Montoya. He was born in Tarimbaro, Michoacán in 1880. He became a Catholic priest in 1903 and in 1913 he was assigned to the little village of Valtierrilla as the pastor of that parish. He labored long and hard and became very involved by the community. He practiced his Catholicism openly and carried out his duties despite the growing pressure by the government to abandon his religious activities lest he be considered a rebellious “Cristero”. On the 5th of February 1928 government troops entered the town while Padre Méndez was saying mass and knowing that danger was imminent Padre Méndez took the consecrated hosts and hid them in his garments. He tried to escape the church building when the soldiers entered but he was caught and when they found the consecrated hosts in his garments they asked him if he was a priest and he told them that he was. He asked the soldiers if he might have a moment to pray and they relented and after praying he quickly ate the hosts so that they would not be defiled. He then told the soldiers that they could do whatever they wished with him. They obliged by taking him to the edge of town, putting him in front of a firing squad, and shooting him dead. It was only seven o’clock in the morning. It seems fitting therefore that Pope John Paul II first declared Padre Méndez beatified on the Feast of Christ the King on November 22, 1992.

Getting back to Doña Dolores…so how old does that make her? Well, if she was eight years old when Padre Méndez died in 1928, then that would make her 88 years old now. I hope to see her again next year, buy some peanuts, and receive my blessing once again from a kind and lovely old woman who knew a saint.

05 February 2008

Domingo de Carnaval

Each year in the cities of Silao and Guanajuato in the State of Guanajuato and in certain other cities in Mexico on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday there is a custom for people to hit each other with egg shells that have been filled with confetti. It is my understanding that this custom dates from the time of the "Flower Wars" of the pre-Hispanic Aztec Civilization but it may also have its roots in certain festivals in Europe. I found a reference to the custom of cascarones in a book written by Frederick Starr in 1908 called "In Indian Mexico":

“In front of the treed space, were temporary booths erected for the carnival, in which dulces, aguas frescas, and cascarones were offered for sale. Hawkers on the streets were selling cascarones, some of which were quite elaborate. The simplest were egg shells, dyed and stained in brilliant colors, and filled with bits of cut paper; these were broken upon the heads of persons as they passed, setting loose the bits of paper which became entangled in the hair and scattered over the clothing. Some had, pasted over the open ends, little conical caps of colored tissue-paper. Others consisted of a lyre shaped frame, with an eggshell in the center of the open part. Some had white birds, single or in pairs, hovering over the upper end.”

In former times it was a custom for young men and women to circle the town square in opposite directions in a manner of a courting ritual and they would pelt the people whom they liked with confetti filled cacarones during Carnaval. In some cities the cascarones consist of nothing more than egg shells filled with bits of paper or flour but in places like Guanajuato and Silao the egg shells are decorated quite elaborately and fastened to wands. Every year I like to go to Silao which is only a short distance from my house in Irapuato to see the "cascarones" on "Domingo de Carnaval" which is the Sunday just prior to Lent. I usually buy several "cascarones" from the vendors to add to my collection of Mexican Folk art which unfortunately seems to be fading away. The work is priced very reasonably, about two dollars each, and many of the cascarones are made with incredible skill. The same ladies who make them are usually the vendors and it is obvious that they are very proud of their work. I took some pictures which you can see below to get an idea of what I am talking about.

02 February 2008

El Día de la Candelaria

Today in Mexico is “El Día de la Candelaria”, which in English is “Candlemas Day” or in the modern liturgy of the Church, "The Presentation in the Temple". February 2nd also marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox and has long been thought to be a marker or predictor of the weather to come, which is why it is also celebrated as Groundhog Day in the United States. In many places it is traditionally a time to prepare the earth for spring planting. In China, it is celebrated as “Spring Festival” or what people in the West call “Chinese New Year”. In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church it used to be called the "Purification of the Virgin" which commemorated the visit to the temple by the Blessed Virgin 40 days after giving birth for a "purification" rite which was required of women after giving birth by Jewish Law. The same type of custom endured in the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years and was called the “Churching of Women” although the custom has now fallen out of favor, especially since Vatican II.

I was born in 1947 and about 40 days after my birth my mother went to the church and was met by a priest who welcomed her and prayed with her. My mother repeated this with the birth of my sister, Suzanne, who was born 13 months later but my mother did not repeat the custom after the births of my brother Daniel or my sister Kathryn. It seems like the year 1950 was when this custom started to disappear and by the early sixties was all but gone. The ceremony was quite simple and basically went like this: The new mother, kneeling in the vestibule, or within the church, and carrying a lighted candle, awaited the priest, who, vested in surplice and white stole, sprinkled her with holy water in the form of a cross. Having recited Psalm 23, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof", he offered her the left extremity of the stole and lead her into the church, saying: "Enter thou into the temple of God, adore the Son of the Blessed Virgin Mary who has given thee fruitfulness of offspring." She advanced to one of the altars and knelt before it, while the priest, turned towards her, recited a prayer which expressed the object of the blessing, and then, having sprinkled her again with holy water in the form of the cross, dismissed her, saying: "The peace and blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, descend upon thee, and remain forever. Amen.”

About the time of Vatican II the Church got to thinking about it and decided that since Mary is a virgin according to church doctrine then there really was no need for her purification except to comply with Jewish law so they changed the name of the feast to the "Presentation" to commemorate the presentation of the Baby Jesus in the temple. It is also the day when the candles are blessed. In Mexico, it commemorates the final end to the Christmas Season when the manger scene is put away and all the Christmas things are formally put aside for another year. Typically we have a special mass to remove the Baby Jesus from the manger and to dress him and put him away until next year. Before the mass gets started we all bring candles up to the front of the church for the priest to bless and then we light our candles from a special candle on the altar and go back to our pews and recite some prayers together while the candles are still lit. During the proceedings the Baby Jesus is removed from the manger and dressed in fine clothes and is set on a throne for the duration of the mass.

The ceremony of putting away the Baby Jesus is repeated in many homes. We kneel down by the manger near the Christmas tree which is often still in place and are led by the host or hostess in saying the Rosary. While we are saying the rosary someone takes the Baby Jesus out of the manger and anoints Him with perfume and dresses Him in fancy clothes and then set him on a little chair that is often covered with aluminum foil or other decorations to look like a throne. After the rosary, we are all given candles which we light and then we are led us in a litany to the Blessed Virgin. After the litany someone holds the Baby Jesus for everyone to kiss and as each person kisses the infant they are given a piece of candy from a little bowl. After that we sing a song and blow out the candles.

In Mexico El Día de la Candelaria is also a follow-up to the festivities of El Día de Reyes Magos (Three King's Day) on January 6th, when children receive gifts and families and friends break bread together, specifically Rosca de Reyes, the special sweet bread with figurines hidden inside. The person (or people) who received the figurines on El Día de Reyes Magos are supposed to host the party on El Día de la Candelaria. Tamales are the traditional food at this party.

In times past, Candlemas was the last feast in the Christian year that was dated by reference to Christmas; subsequent moveable feasts are calculated with reference to Easter, so prior to the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Candlemas marked the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. In Mexico the Christmas season lasts about six or seven weeks and goes from December 16th when the posadas begin and it doesn’t end until Candalaria. The present Roman Catholic calendar substitutes the Saturday before the Baptism of the Lord as the final day of the Christmas liturgical season. With Christmas officially behind us we now look forward to “Carnival” and the subsequent beginning of Lent, another 40 day period, and the countdown to Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Pascua (Easter).

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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.