28 July 2008

The Next Great Migration

My old Dad (may he rest in peace) had a favorite saying that went, "Too old too soon too smart too late". Whenever he said that my brother and sisters and I would roll our eyes at each other because we knew that we were on the verge of receiving another lecture. I really and truly miss my Dad and I wish that he was still here to lecture me. As I enter my seventh decade on this Earth I am thinking that he may have been on to something and that now I myself am "too old too soon and too smart too late". On the plus side of things I have finally lived long enough to recognize reoccurring patterns and when I see one coming I speak up about it and just like the slapstick clown who is about to get hit on the head for the third time I say, "Hey! Wait a minute!".

Back in the year 1970 I was living and working in Arizona. I lived in a mobile home at the time in a small community called "Apache Junction" that was located a few miles east of the City of Mesa in the Phoenix area on the edge of the Superstition Mountains. In October of 1973 some of the Arab nations initiated the Yom Kippur War against Israel and as a result of the actions taken by the United States in support of Israel the Arab countries shut off the crude oil supply. The U.S. was importing about 35% of its energy needs at the time and there was very little in reserve. Richard Nixon was the president and he took some emergency action but it was not enough to prevent a colossal downturn in the U.S. economy and I remember remarking to myself on Christmas Eve of 1973 that "The lights seem to be going out all over America".

In 1972 the price of crude oil had been about $3.00 per barrel and by the end of 1974 the price of crude had multiplied by a factor of four to $12.00. I remember seeing people moving down to Arizona in droves from the Northern States, especially the Northeast, in rusty cars topped with a couple of mattresses, a backseat full of kids, and towing a U-Haul trailer. The population of the Phoenix area exploded. There were not enough jobs to go around or affordable housing and there was a tremendous strain on social services. The teachers in the local school system could tell if a kid was a recent arrival from the North just by their smell. They smelled like wood smoke. Many new arrivals lived out in the desert in tents during their first winter until they could get properly situated with a job and regular housing which was very difficult in the recession that followed. It was especially hard on the kids.

From 1974 to 1978 the world crude oil prices were relatively flat, ranging from $12.21 to $13.55 per barrel as the economy struggled to recover. Then, just as things were looking up, the crude oil demon struck again and this time in the form of a labor strike by the oil workers of Iran who wanted a bigger share of the pie. The U.S backed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was unable to deal with the situation and he abdicated the Persian Peacock Throne. His political adversary, the Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile in France and the Iranian Revolution began. At about the same time Iran was invaded by Iraq and the combination of events greatly reduced crude oil production. The Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq War caused the price of crude oil to more than double. It increased from about $14.00 in 1978 to $35.00 in 1981. Guess what? There was another recession in the United States and another North to South migration from the "Rust Belt" to the "Bible Belt".

Over the next twenty years or so crude oil prices fluctuated up and down and even sank to $10.00 per barrel for a brief period in 1997 when the OPEC nations were squabbling among themselves. By May 2004, however, crude oil had reached $40.00 and by April 2006 it reached $70.00 per barrel. Since April 2006 it has more than doubled and not only that but our percentage of imported energy has also doubled from the 1973 level of 35 percent to 70 percent today. Okay! Enough is enough. What the politicians and the Wall Street analysts and the oil company executives tell me is one thing but what I know from my own experience is another. I am not about to let them hit me on the head again like a clown. There is going to be a bad recession and there is going to be another migration from the North to the South. How could there not be with so many Americans struggling within the American system to make ends meet and the cost of home heating oil rising from last year's $2.67 per gallon to this year's projected price of $4.68 per gallon...not to mention the other energy prices for propane, natural gas, and electricity rising as well?

There are so many groups of people whom I empathize with. First of all I feel sorry for the kids. They are innocent bystanders and they deserve better. Second, I feel sorry for single parents. What are they going to do when the snow flies? Many of them are already working two jobs. The third group are the old and infirm. I think that they are getting scared and confused and are wondering how they are going to cope. I am generally an optimist but even an optimist can't ignore an obvious reality. As for the politicians and their "guru" buddies the economists, I can only repeat the chorus of a song written by P.F. Sloan in 1965 and popularized by singer Barry McGuire:

"But you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
That you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction."

I just hope that it is not too late for them to get smart!

27 July 2008

Galletas Marías

There is a type of "cookie" in México called the "Maria" or collectively "Galletas Marías" that is almost considered to be a staple in the Mexican diet. The first solid food that Mexican babies eat is often a Galleta María dipped in milk. The Spanish word "galleta" (gah-YAY-tah) means "cookie". This type of cookie is famous in other parts of the world as well but it is little known in the United States…at least I don't remember it from my youth. In Europe it is more aptly to be called a "biscuit" and it is generally known as the "Marie Biscuit". There is a similar word to the English word "biscuit" in Mexican Spanish. The word is "bizcocho" and it could be translated as "biscuit" but it is more likely to refer to a pastry item such as a sweet bread or what we call "pan dulce" (pahn DOOL-say). The word "galleta" is generally meant to be both "cookie" and "biscuit". The Marie biscuit has a very unique and interesting story and its heritage goes way back in history. Let me try to piece it all together for you. Please be patient.

First of all, the word "biscuit" can be traced back to the Romans, who baked a type of dough consisting of rye flour and honey into something like the army biscuit familiar to soldiers and sailors in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, but sweeter. The term used by the Romans was "panis biscoctus" from"panis" meaning bread, the prefix "bis" meaning two or twice, and the suffix "coctus" meaning cooked. In other words, the Romans (and everyone who followed them), cooked the biscuit twice, once to bake it and the second time at a lower heat to dry it out because they discovered that a very hard and dry biscuit would keep for a long period of time without deteriorating. In the ensuing years, seafarers, soldiers, and explorers the world over adopted these biscuits as an essential item because of their keeping ability. The seafaring biscuits were hand made under very primitive conditions from white flour and a minimum of water. The dough was pounded very tight to produce almost white biscuits, so hard they just about required a hammer to break them and they had to be dunked or soaked before being eaten. This type of biscuit was especially necessary to provision the sailing ships that took many months to reach the distant ports of the world. The biscuits were called "ship biscuits", "sea biscuits", "pilot bread", "hard tack" and several other pet names which are unmentionable. They would keep in storage for a long time without becoming rancid and were mostly invulnerable to insects and vermin…unless they got damp. For this reason they became the mainstay of the men in the armed services and the crews of merchant ships up until the end of the First World War.

In 1829 a man named Thomas Grant invented a type of machinery in England for making ship biscuits (not ship's biscuits) and it proved very effective. By the year 1856 the industrialization of biscuit making in England was in full swing through the development of large moving ovens and mixing machinery capable of mass producing biscuits. It wasn't long before biscuit making went from a small cottage industry to big business. A couple of gentlemen named James Peek and George Hender Frean founded the Peek Frean Biscuit Company 1857. Nine years later in 1866 they built a large factory and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 made them wealthy men when ten million biscuits were ordered for the British Army and Navy. About this time, with the steam ship replacing the old sailing ships, the travel period between ports was reduced and thus lessened the need for biscuits with such a long lasting shelf life. This was a challenge to the biscuit manufacturers who found it necessary to produce other, more tasty and nutritious types of biscuits. The new trend made a lot of the earlier biscuit machinery obsolete and engineers began to design and produce machines that could make better tasting biscuits at a faster rate. A talented man named John Carr joined Peek Frean & Co in 1860. In 1861 he produced the Garibaldi biscuit which was named after the world famous hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, the man who is credited with unifying Italy. The Garibaldi biscuit was a filled biscuit consisting of a top and bottom layer with currant jam sandwiched in the middle.

The real success story for John Carr, however, began in 1865 when he produced the famous Pearl biscuit that was the pioneer of the modern biscuit or cookie. This was a great leap forward for biscuit making. The Pearl biscuit was soft, crisp, and crumbly instead of rock hard and he was able to eliminate the "docker holes" which are the uniformly space holes that you see in certain biscuits and crackers like grahm or bran crackers and saltines (and Galletas Marías) even to this day. The docker holes are often necessary in biscuits and crackers that have a low fat content to make sure that they bake evenly and won't crack or even explode in the oven as the water leaves them in the form of steam. I don't know why the new biscuits were called "Pearl" biscuits but I have several theories. One is that they contained "pearl-ash" which was an early form of baking powder and was used at that time for low fat rising biscuits and eliminated the need for docking. The other is that they were sprinkled with "pearl sugar" which is sugar that comes in bigger than normal crystals. Maybe someone who knows for sure will help me out. In any case this is where terminology gets a bit confusing. In the United States the word biscuit usually means something like a sea biscuit or a dog biscuit while anything else that is made from just flour and water and has docker holes is called a "cracker". If docker holes are eliminated and sugar is added we call it a "wafer" and if fat is added we call it a "cookie".

It just so happened that some years later, on 23 January 1874, to be exact, at the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, the Grand Duchess Marie Alexandrovna Romanova, the daughter of Emperor Alexander II of Russia, married His Royal Highness Alfred Ernest Albert Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Duke of Edinburgh, the second son of England's Queen Victoria. Needless to say, it was the wedding of the century and in a flash of marketing genius in 1875 Peek and Frean produced a special biscuit in honor of the Princess Marie and even stamped her name on it. They placed a border running around the edge which was quite a common architectural pattern in Russia and can be seen as borders on many of the tiled floors in old Russian official buildings. The Marie biscuit was a big hit. Its popularity spread throughout Europe. In Spain in particular it became the nation's favorite cookie. Marias were first produced in large quantities in Spain around the turn of the 20th Century, but it was not until the Spanish Civil War that they became an integral part of the nation's culture. The long hard years of the war plunged Spain into poverty and even a simple loaf of bread became a luxury. When the war ended in 1939 the nation's top priority was for every Spaniard to have enough bread. The farmers went to work and the wheat harvest was so bountiful that the bakers turned out huge numbers of Marias with the surplus wheat. There are now almost two dozen brands of Marie biscuits around the world including many in Asia. The appearance varies little and almost always retains the distinctive "Marie" or "Maria" imprint and a border pattern.

In Mexico there are several brands of Marias but the most popular by far is Gamesa. The company was formed by Alberto, Ignacio, and Manuel Santos Gonzalez, three brothers, who acquired the majority of the stocks of the pasta and cookie company "Lara" in 1921. They named the company Galletera Mexicana S.A. de C.V. and later merged with other companies to create "Gamesa" (gah-MEE-sah) which Mexico's largest manufacturer of cookies. I really like their galletas Marías. They taste a lot like the Nabisco Barnum Animal Crackers that I enjoyed as a kid. They both have about the same ingredients except that the animal crackers have a slightly higher fat content and thus about ten percent more calories. It is my understanding that the Barnum Animal Crackers came from England in 1902 and they were based upon an English cookie and I imagine that cookie was the Marie biscuit. I have a Mexican friend whose name is Alejandro. He is a "velador" or gatekeeper for a local company and his wages aren't very high. He and his wife have four grammar school age children and he tells me that on school days each child gets twelve Gamesa María cookies and a glass of milk for breakfast. That is about 330 calories per child. There are 40 cookies in each package and he buys six packages per week which makes 240 individual cookies or twelve per child per school day. They cost 4.5 pesos per package which makes a total of 27 pesos. The milk costs 11.5 pesos per liter and he needs five liters to go with the Marias which makes the milk total 57.5 pesos. The total cost of the Marias and the milk together is 84.5 pesos which for him is pretty expensive but still the most economical way to go when you realize that this is about ten percent of the family's weekly income. What about on the days when the kids don't go to school? What do they eat for breakfast? They get one slice of Bimbo or Wonder white bread and a glass of milk. You see kids, it's better if you go to school!

23 July 2008

The Suicide Index

On the 10th of September last year I made a blog entry entitled "Pobreza" in which I noted that in the first half of 2007 there had been 167 known suicides in the State of Guanajuato, most of them committed by poor and desperate people. The total reported suicides for Guanajuato in the first half of 2008 is 171. The trend is indeed upwards, however, the most alarming thing is that the suicide total for the whole of 2006 was 196 and so the suicide rate looks like it is on the verge of doubling in just two years Why is that?

I think I have a clue. I have discovered for myself that there are two Mexicos, the visible and the invisible. The visible Mexico that many expat bloggers are enamored with consists of around sixty million people who at the very least have access to the basics needed for survival. The people at the top of the heap live like Arab kings and the people at the bottom…well, let's just say that somehow they get by. The invisible Mexico consists of about forty million people who don't "get by" and their plight is worsening every day. As the cost of food, water, fuel, housing, electricity, clothing, medicine, and basic services go up, more and more people leave the visible Mexico for the invisible and when the economy goes down, the suicide index goes up. It is a subject that nobody wants to talk about but that is what is currently happening here in Mexico and in many other parts of the world as well.

There is no place immune. At this particular time in the State of Guanajuato, my City of Irapuato holds first place for the percentage increase in suicides. The City of León is in second place and Celaya is in third. San Miguel de Allende is in fourth place with 24 suicides already this year, almost one per week on average. How could people be so desperate as to be invisible in San Miguel while surrounded by all that expatriate wealth? God only knows. I am reminded of poem titled "A Missionary Cry" that was written in the late 1800's by Albert Benjamin Simpson. The last (and most often quoted) verse goes:

"They're passing, passing fast away,
A hundred thousand souls a day,
In Christless guilt and gloom.
O Church of Christ, what wilt thou say
When in the awful judgment day,
They charge thee with their doom?"

The words, "They charge thee with their doom" are very haunting. Mr. Simpson was talking about "lost" souls in general at the time, however, and not particularly about suicides and the world suicide rate is definitely not as high as the number of poor souls in his poem unless, of course, you count smoking cigarettes and drunk driving and other reckless activities as forms of suicide. The World Health Organization (WHO) talks about a world suicide rate of one person every 40 seconds which would be "only" 2160 suicides per day. The problem with that figure is that it is based upon data that is five to ten years old. I suspect that the current rate is about double that, or more…and growing steadily.

Mr. Simpson wrote his poem in reference to the Bible verse Romans 10:14 (King James Version):

"How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?"

My thought is, "How can you give hope to people when they have an empty stomach and nowhere to turn?" It is interesting to note that the miracle about Jesus feeding the multitude with five loaves and two fishes is one of the few miracles (to my knowledge) that was reported by all four evangelists and so it must have been a really big deal. I think Jesus really liked to feed people. In John 21:15-19, Jesus, the Good Shepherd admonishes his disciples to "Feed my lambs" and "Feed my sheep". Yes, yes, I know, He was probably talking figuratively to his disciples about esoteric spiritual matters but I prefer to take the meaning literally. It grieves my heart to know that somewhere in Guanajuato today it is more than likely that there is some poor desperate soul who is on the verge of committing suicide for want of a full belly and a vision of hope for tomorrow. He or she has perhaps found a bit of plastic "raffia" (cheap binder twine) lying on the side of the road and is about to climb into the lower branches of a mesquite tree at sunset, tie themselves off at the neck, and fall into oblivion. If I could only happen upon them as they were contemplating this move I would gently say, "Come on, let's go get something to eat…I'm buying". But alas…they are invisible.

19 July 2008

Don Concho

I would like to tell you about a very good friend. His name is Concepción Cisneros Rangel (cohn-sep-see-OHN, sees-NEY-rohs, RAHN-hell) but everyone calls him Don Concho (Dohn COHN-choh). The name "Concho" is a hypocoristic or "pet name" for the name Concepción which can be either a man's name or a woman's name in Mexico. A woman by the name of Concepción would be called "Conchita". His parents gave him the name Concepción when he was born on December 8th, 1929 because December 8th is the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Concho is our neighborhood's "velador" or watchman. He could be compared to what they call a "superintendent" or "doorman" in the apartment buildings of New York. He watches over us and our homes from about 9:30 in the morning to about 8:pm, six days a week. When we arrive or depart he opens and closes our gates for us. He takes deliveries for us, waters our flowers for us, shoos away people who don't belong, and keeps us informed as to what is happening in general in our little community. Each of the neighbors share the cost of his salary which amounts to about eighty dollars per week plus lunch and soft drinks. I am really lucky because I live in the middle of the block and I have a nice shade tree at the edge of the property and Don Concho has made that his duty station.

My friend is an amazing fellow. He is seventy-eight years old and as spry as a seventeen year old. He has been at this job for the past thirteen years and has hardly missed a day with the few exceptions that he has been to the doctor. He is so healthy that he doesn't see a doctor very much and more often than not he uses herbal medicine to cure whatever ails him. He comes from a nearby community called Lo de Juárez which is part of the Municipality of Irapuato (State of Guanajuato) and is home to about 3,949 inhabitants. It was formally a large estate or "rancho" that was later turned into an "ejido" or collective farm. Don Concho had a wife named Josefa Villanueva but she died after a long illness about twenty years ago. He has three married daughters who live in Lo de Juárez and they fuss over him just as much if not more than my neighbors and I. His daughters names are Antonia, Fernanda, and Manuela and they each have several children and many of their children have children so Don Concho is the family patriarch. I appreciate this man so much that I just had to write about him. He is my councilor on everything from herbal medicine to weather, religion, food, fiestas, politics, and everything else imaginable. He reads the paper every morning while things are still quiet and he always knows what's going on. Even the little kids sense that he is special and they always greet him with affection and respect. I have never seen him angry and he continually strives to keep peace in his heart. You will always find him at the seven o'clock Sunday morning mass where he takes communion and I am sure that he prays for everyone that he knows and also many others whom he doesn't even know. Who says that angels don't walk among us? I thank God for Don Concho. I hope he lives to be at least one hundred years.

15 July 2008

Green toothpaste anyone?

I have had a number of conversations with people regarding problems with teeth and dental hygiene in general in Mexico. Many people here have very bad teeth and it is not the fault of Mexican dentists who as a group, are in my opinion, excellent. I have had dental care done here with very satisfactory results and at a very reasonable cost. Personally, I think the main problems with teeth are related to poverty, diet, and education. However, there was one particular item that piqued my interest during conversations with several different people. Older folks who come from small villages or "ranchos" as they are known around here talk of a plant that their mothers taught them to identify and chew to help them clean their teeth. It was supposed that the chlorophyll in the plant would aid in preventing tooth decay. They call the plant "Siempreviva" which means "always lives" in Spanish. I checked it out and found that it is a common succulent plant indigenous to Mexico and in English it is called "Green Cockscomb" or "Greater Mexican Stonecrop". Its Latin name is Sedum Praealtum. It has no real medicinal value except that of a mild soothing agent for inflamed areas similar to other succulent plants such as "Aloe Vera". Perhaps it would help sooth a toothache but I have found nothing to indicate that it will prevent tooth decay.

I then wondered about the name "Siempreviva" and where it came from. It turns out that there is another plant whose Latin name is Sempervivum. The Latin word "Sempervivum" means the same as the Spanish word "Siempreviva" (always lives). It is indigenous to Southern Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran. There are various forms of Sempervivum and one variety even grows in the Swiss Alps. Sempervivum Tectorum is a plant that is well known in both Europe and the United States. It's English name is "Common Houseleek" but most people know it by its nickname "Hen and Chicks". The suffix "Tectorum" is taken from the Latin "tectum", meaning roof. Some say that The Romans planted them on their roofs to guard against lightning. Others say that say that The Romans planted them on their roofs to plug leaks. Maybe that is where the name "Houseleek" came from but don't quote me on that. It is just wild speculation on my part. Both Siempreviva (Sedum Praealtum) and Sempervivum (Sempervivum Tectorum) can often be found in the same nursery or even the same back yard as they have both become popular ornamental plants. They also both belong to the same family, Crassulaceae. They both have an astringent quality and contain the same mild healing agent except that Sempervivum contains about twice as much as Siempreviva. They don't look exactly alike but they do have many similar qualities. Apparently, somewhere down the line Siempreviva adopted the Spanish version of the name of its cousin Sempervivum.

Well, you might ask, why do the people chew Siempreviva if it doesn't actually prevent tooth decay? I imagine that the perception of the effectiveness of chewing the plant to prevent cavities was stronger than the reality. However, the people that I talked to told me that the poor country people always seemed to have better teeth than their wealthier city cousins and why would this be if it wasn't because they chewed Siempreviva? Well, I don't know for sure but I have a hunch that it was because of their diet. The poorer country people didn't have things like sugar, carbonated beverages, or white bread in their diet. This could have a lot to do with preventing tooth decay. When I first heard about this "miracle" plant I thought, "Wow! I could gather up this plant and turn it into green toothpaste and sell it over the Internet and make a fortune". I guess now that idea is out the window. Oh, well, back to the drawing board. By the way…don't forget to brush your teeth.

10 July 2008

Climbing Iztaccihuatl

Gary Dennessis a British expatriate living and working in Mexico City and teaching Business English to Mexican students at their place of work. He has been in Mexico since May 2005, and loves the country, the food and the people. He is trying to raise some money for a cause that he believes in called "Wildcoast" which is a US based charity that helps to protect and revitalize coastal areas of the US and Latin America, and the wildlife found there. They have a particularly strong campaign to help sea turtles. Wildcoast protects and preserves coastal ecosystems and wildlife in the Californias and Latin America by building grassroots support, conducting media campaigns and establishing protected areas. To promote the cause and raise some money for them he intends to climb Iztaccihuatl, the third highest mountain peak in Mexico at 17,126 feet. He is looking for someone with experience to make the climb with him. Even if you aren't a climber you may be interested in following his adventures. I am an arm chair mountain climber myself. That is about the only way they are going to get me up a mountain...by carrying me up in my armchair. Here is the link: Climbing Izta 2008

06 July 2008

The coming storm…

There is a legend in Mexico and the southwestern United States about a woman weeping for her children. She is called “La Llorona” (lah yoh-ROH-nah) which means "the crying woman" or “the weeper”. She is the ghost of a woman crying for her dead children that she herself drowned. Her appearances sometimes presage death or disasters involving water. When people here in Mexico, especially the older folks, see the growing dark rain clouds on the horizon that signal a big storm is approaching they will nod their heads toward it in warning and say softly, “Ya viene la Llorona” or “Already the weeper is coming”. Lately I have observed some alarming trends that indicate that there is a large storm brewing not only on the Mexican horizon but also on the world horizon and many people are starting to realize it but mostly all we can do as look at each other and nod toward impending gloom and whisper “Here comes the Weeper”. Perhaps we ought to be saying “Here comes the Reaper” instead.

As almost everyone realizes by now we live in a global economy that runs on oil. An optimist will tell you that peak oil production hasn’t yet arrived and that oil production won’t begin to decline for another ten years or so and by then there will be major investments in new technology to avert an energy crisis. A pessimist will tell you that peak oil production is occurring now and civilization as we know it is on the brink of a precipitous decline. I happen to be neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I tend to think of myself (like many people do) as a pragmatic realist. I believe that we are entering the period when oil production is about to decline and other energy producing technologies are not yet developed or deployed to the degree where they can take up the slack. In short, I believe that we are in for some rough times in the near future. The poor will feel it first and indeed they already feel it. To the wealthy it is currently just an annoyance but by and by they will soon realize that human beings are all in this together and even if they do not experience a decline in their lifestyle in regard to food, clothing, and housing they will definitely experience a decline in the general quality of their lives. It will become harder and harder to enjoy life while more and more people around them are desperate and suffering.

I am one of those people whom God has blessed with opportunity and the ability to take advantage of it. I am neither poor nor wealthy but I live quite comfortably in a nice house and drive a nice car and although my income is modest it is adequate for my modest lifestyle. However, I look around me and see so many people who are not as fortunate as I am and I realize that things that I consider just a nuisance may have very serious consequences for others. On the 6th of October, 2007, I wrote a blog entitled “Tighten your belt” in which I noted that the world grain supply was at the time fifty-seven days. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) currently predicts that this year supplies will plunge to a fifty-three day equivalent…their lowest level in the forty-seven year period for which data exists. That is pretty scary. It suggests that not only will prices become higher but in some areas commodities will become scarce and that will lead to hoarding. Hoarding always leads to even higher prices and further scarcity. For the world’s lower income people this situation does not look good. We can expect to see more starving babies around the world on the nightly news and perhaps even on our local news if things get real bad.

The quality of life issue was brought home to me as I observe more and more people along the highways in Mexico collecting branches and bits of wood that they tie in bundles to the backs of their bicycles. With the price of food rising higher and higher they can not always afford to by sufficient propane gas for cooking. I just had a 30 kilo tank of propane filled last week. It cost me 296.35 pesos which is about $28.67 U.S. for 66 pounds (just under 44 cents per pound). This is not a bad price for propane as long as you have the money to pay for it. If you don’t have the money because of rising food prices what do you do? You either eat food that doesn’t need to be cooked or you get on your bike and go looking for an alternative fuel. One can see that this opens up a whole new spectrum of health and safety issues. Mexico's government is concerned about the impact of soaring food bills. Overall consumer price inflation was 4.95% over the past year, but food price inflation was far higher at 8%. The price for certain items such as cooking oil have risen even higher. About two weeks ago the Mexican government capped prices on foods including cooking oil, beans and other basic food items at least until the end of 2008. It also announced monthly cash payments of 120 pesos ($11.55 U.S.) for the poorest citizens, about 26 million people. This is a start but I’m afraid that it won’t be enough.

What about life in the United States? The people must be facing the same pressures, especially the working poor with families who live paycheck to paycheck and can’t seem to make ends meet. What will happen to them when winter comes? I read somewhere once that the average American is only nine missed meals away from acts of desperation. I hope it doesn’t come to that or else these will be desperate times indeed. As for the rest of the world, what does the crystal ball say? Well, with the world demand for grain growing at 1.2% a year and world grain yield increases growing at only 1.1% a year you really don’t need a crystal ball to make a projection. On top of that the Midwest grain forecasts have been lowered considerable by the recent flooding, we are just entering the hurricane season, and Iran is threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz. To grow more food we need more oil to fuel the tractors and transport vehicles and to make fertilizer. Well…you get the picture. I didn’t want to sound pessimistic but I guess I do. I just hope and pray that the optimists are right this time around. Otherwise Santa Claus is going to be in for some really tough sledding this year.

02 July 2008

The White Umbrella

As I reflect upon my time spent living and working in México I get the feeling that history is once again repeating itself or as Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees baseball team once said, "It's like déjà vu all over again". During the past ten years I have witnessed an acceleration of events, almost as if we are being drawn towards the center of a maelstrom. Change is in the air and change is everywhere and as we approach the Mexican bicentennial celebration there is a lot of “fixing up” and “painting over” going on. I guess this isn’t unusual when you look back to the 1976 bicentennial celebration in the United States and consider how much money was spent in order to tidy things up a bit. I remember 1976 just like it was yesterday. The first commercial Concorde flight took off, Apple Computer Company was formed by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the Viking One Lander successfully landed on Mars, Chairman Mao Zedong of the People's Republic of China died, Jimmy Carter won the U.S. presidential campaign, and the name "Microsoft" was first registered by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. However, since the median age of the population in the U.S. is currently 35 years that means that in 1976 almost half of the people in the U.S weren’t even born yet. On top of that, the median age for the Mexican population is only 25 years so it is probably safe to say that the majority of people here have never witnessed a national event of this magnitude and really have no idea what to expect. Prior to any great national event there seems to be a great urge to “do something” and as the event draws near this feeling is whipped up into a frenzy of activity just like we see now with the upcoming Beijing Olympics. In order to imagine this feeling all you have to do (you older folks that is) is picture the Statue of Liberty completely enclosed in scaffolding. Do you remember the excitement?

I have a modest library of books about Mexican history and from what I glean from them the 1910 Mexican centennial was no exception. One of my favorite books is titled “A White Umbrella in Mexico”. It was written by a very talented and able individual named Francis Hopkinson Smith and “F. Hopkinson Smith”, as he was known professionally, came from a remarkable family. He was named after his great grandfather, Hopkinson Smith, who was a musical composer, writer, politician, and one of the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Although the great grandson Francis Hopkinson Smith came from good stock his father was a scholar not particularly wealthy and Francis could not go to college because of financial difficulties so he rolled up his sleeves and went to work instead for his older brother. Eventually Francis struck out on his own and he and a partner achieved great success in constructing the foundations for light houses, breakwaters, sea walls, and other difficult projects including the foundation for the pedestal upon which rests the aforementioned Statue of Liberty.

Francis took up painting as a hobby and became a very accomplished self taught painter of watercolors. He also discovered a talent for writing and public speaking. As he began to enjoy modest success in his construction engineering career he began to travel to other countries. In 1888 after already having learned to speak Spanish from his travels to Cuba and Spain, he came to Mexico to observe and to paint. One of his many books, “A White Umbrella in Mexico” is a fascinating story of that journey and just like his fabulous watercolors it is like a “snapshot” in time. One of the interesting things that Francis mentions in his book is that he wanted to see Mexico before the man with the brush and the bucket of whitewash arrived. It was during the time during the “porfiriato” leading up to the Mexican centennial and the President/Dictator of Mexico Porfirio Díaz and his band of “Cientificos” and “Wizards of Progress” were trying to convince the industrialized world that Mexico was a good place to invest money. Many old churches, municipal buildings, and other significant places of interest were being gutted, remodeled, and painted over with whitewash.

Whitewash, or “limewash”, as it is also known, is called “lechada de cal” in Spanish. It is nothing more than slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and water. Other ingredients such as chalk, water glass (sodium silicate), glue, tallow, egg white, cement, salt, soap, milk, flour, earth, and pig's blood are sometimes added. It is a very old method for painting structures and it goes back thousands of years. It is cheap, easy to prepare, and easy to apply. For certain types of porous materials such as adobe and hand made brick, it works much better than modern paint. Whitewash breathes and lets moisture out of the adobe and brick while modern paint traps the moisture in. Whitewash is also a natural fungicide and anti bacterial agent and most creepy crawly type insects hate it. In Mexico whitewash was often made with slaked lime and the juice of the Nopal (prickly pear) cactus which is more of a mucilage than a juice. This made the whitewash hard and shiny and water resistant and less likely to wash off in heavy rains. The problem with whitewash is that it hides the natural patina of buildings and destroys the quaint old character that appeals to tourists. William Dean Howells wrote in 1913: “The universal use of limewash (whitewash) gives a uniform tint to the monuments, blunts the lines of the architecture, effaces the ornamentation, and forbids you to read their age…you cannot know the wall of a century ago from the wall of yesterday”. This is exactly what F. Hopkinson Smith was trying to avoid. He wanted to capture the beauty of Mexico before it was covered over with whitewash.

Almost every time I go to the historical cities of Guanajuato, Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel de Allende in the “Cuna de Independencia” (Cradle of Independence) I see evidence that the “man with the bucket of whitewash” has risen from his slumbers and is working his vengeance on anything and everything that looks “old”. Of course, there is a difference of opinion between native Mexican residents and many of the interlopers who come here from other lands. The Mexican people are proud of their heritage and want to show it off in the best possible light and to them that means the clean and shiny look that the paint that is now used instead of whitewash gives their village or town. Sadly enough, the modern paints are going to do more harm than good. The oldest buildings will deteriorate much faster under paint than they would under whitewash and besides, with whitewash there are no V.O.C.’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) to deal with. White wash is a natural product. In any case, I don’t think Mexico will ever be the same again and I am so thankful to have had the chance to see it before the man with the bucket of whitewash returned. I tip my hat to Francis Hopkinson Smith. The likes of him will probably never come again either. I just wish that I could paint and write half as well as he did.

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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.