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.


Anonymous said...

i would like to till you thank you for making a story of this village my husband was born and raised there we go to vidti ever chance we get. are family has a store on 366 manuel dobludo street . i rally do like the things that you talk about when i heard of that story the first time i though it was nice story to till . my qustion to you is people there say that the prist aparred time to time to help people that dont have anything to eat or money to buy anything people say that he gives to them and tills them that everything is going to be ok . i mean people that dont know that he was there like people from anther towns . lilke my story i was there about 3 weeks ago and some man from elsado where left there by people that where helping them get back home will the man where asking for money so they could get something to eat . will they stoped by the store that are family owns they stop to get something to eat and they ask us if we now how the pastor of the c church was and we saisd yes and the asked us what did he look like so we told them what he looked like and they told us that a pastor from the c church came up tto them and hand them 300 piesos and told them to go on there way that god was going to help them they said that he turned away and disaped is there any way you can can qustions on that maybe some body else has heard storys like that , by the way you should go to store that are family owns its the one that has the coca cola sun protector they are a nice family to meet. thank you for your time
you can email me at any time at lucydelacruz24@yahoo.com

Bob Mrotek said...


Thank you so much for your comment. I answered you at length by e-mail. Strange though it may seem (or maybe not) I received your comment right after I returned from Valtierilla where I was visiting this year's Nopal Festival. I do believe that saints help people and it could very well be that Padre Méndez appears from time to time to help the poor. I will try and find out if there have been any other occurrences such as the one you described.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mr.Mrotek
Thanks for the report that you made from Valtierrilla this is my hometown and I really appreciate
everything that you are saying there.
You make us fell very proud to be a native born from that special place.
Thank You one more time for capture pictures with those very special people.


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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.