29 August 2008

Dialog - The Sweater Mom

In México there is a fairly common saying: "Las habas se cuecen en todas partes" or "En todos lados se cuecen habas". The phrase literally means "Broad beans cook the same everywhere" or as we might say in English, "Things are the same all over". Yesterday I overheard the following conversation between my wife's sister and her 10 year old daughter:

"Oye hija, no olvides traer un suéter por si las moscas". ("Listen daughter, don't forget to take a sweater just in case".) [Note: "por si las moscas" is an idiomatic expression that means "just in case" and has nothing to do with flies (moscas)]

"¿Por qué Mamá?". ("Why Mother?")

"Porque ya está siguiendo tarde y después de que se meta el sol va a hacer mucho frío". ("Because it is already getting late and after the sun sets it will get very cold".)

"¡Pero Mamá!. Ninguna de mis compañeras va a traer un suéter". (But Mother, not one of my friends is going to bring a sweater".)

"Ni modo hija. ¡Haz lo que te dice tu Mamá!" ("It doesn't matter Daughter. Do what your Mother tells you!")

"¡Ay! Sí Mamá, lo que tu digas". ("Uhhhh! Okay Mother, whatever you say".)

Well, I had a "Sweater Mom" too. Whenever my Mom felt cold she made me put on a sweater. The thing is that my Mom was usually right and now that she is gone I miss her dearly. Peer pressure is one thing but common sense is another. So when you go out in the evening do what your Mom always told you…don't forget to take a sweater, or a jacket, or an umbrella. You already know what your mother would tell you. Just listen...

26 August 2008


I was thinking today how much I miss Snoopy and Charlie Brown. They were a big part of the lives of my generation, especially in the Sunday comics section. It has been more than eight years now since Charles Schultz died peacefully in his sleep on a Saturday night. It was just one day before the "Peanuts" comic strip stopped running and fifty years after it began. That is the spooky kind of thing that legends are made out of. Charles Schultz had a great sense of timing which I think a lot of people of his generation did. My own mother, whose name is Armella and who died of cancer a couple of years ago at age ninety two, asked to be carried to her kitchen several days before she died and there she supervised the cleaning out of her refrigerator so that when she died she could rest in peace knowing that all of her chores had gotten done. The older generation had a sense of duty and responsibility that we don't seem to relate to much anymore.

Imagine...Mr. Schultz accumulated fifty five million dollars just doodling every day and reminiscing about his childhood. When the strip first began in October of 1950 the critics said that it wouldn´t last because Schultz's drawing ability wasn't good enough and his characters were too crudely drawn. I guess he fooled them. In people years Charlie Brown would be about 58 years old by now. Sometimes I like to think of Charlie Brown and Lucy and Linus as being in heaven. I have only one problem, however. Would this mean that Snoopy is also in heaven with Charlie Brown or does he have to go to Doggie Heaven with his brother Spike? One other thing...whatever happened to the little red headed girl?

It is interesting to note that Schultz's comic strip wasn't called "Peanuts" in Mexico. It was called "Rabanitos" which means "little radishes" probably because in Spanish the word peanut is "cacahuate" and doesn't have the same sense of diminutive as it does in English. Most of the other names were the same, however, except for Charlie Brown who was called "Carlitos" and Peppermint Patty who was called "Piperita Patty". I guess that is because in Spanish the word for "peppermint" is is "menta" if talking about the flavor and if talking about the plant itself is "hierbabuena". I remember reading an article after Schultz's death that speculated on how Charlie Brown and his gang might have turned out if they had actually aged like we do during that period in real life. Charlie Brown would be well into his second marraige after a brief fling with the cute little red headed girl. He finally became the assistant general manager for the Consolidated Kite Company but his kite still keeps getting fouled up in trees during kite competition every year at the company picnics. Even so he has been named "Employee of the Month" at least twice during the last twenty years. Lucy was married and divorced three times before landing a spot as a radio psychologist and is now looking for a sponsor to produce her new TV show "Judge Lucy". Linus turned into a big "X Files" fan and spends his time conjuring up conspiracy theories and in spite of countless hours of psychiatric therapy he still believes in the Great Pumpkin. Pig Pen taught himself to play the guitar, joined the Grateful Dead, and then died of a drug overdose. Patty became a great woman athlete and shot a 76 in the Woman's PGA Golf Tournament. Schroeder is currently playing for the Boston Pops and Snoopy...well, Snoopy would be about 400 years old in the equivalent of dog years by now so you tell me where you think he might be.

25 August 2008

Dancing Waters

Yesterday in the early evening my wife Gina said to me, "Vamos a dar una vuelta al centro" which means "Lets go mess around downtown a bit". That is how I would translate it into English. If you translate all the words literally it would be more like "We go to give a turn to the center". In any case we went and it was very pleasant as it usually is on Sunday evenings because that's when many families go downtown to stroll around the main plaza. We have a new dancing fountain in Irapuato and the waters dance to colored lights and music. It is a very nice show and best of all it is free.

Gina parked me on a bench as she often does and went off to buy an ice cream cone and chat with a friend that she hadn't seen in awhile and, as is my custom, I struck up a conversation with the old timer sitting next to me. He, too, had been parked there by his wife and was waiting for her to return. We had a nice chat about this, that, and the other thing, until a little old lady showed up toting a big bag filled with little boxes. It was his wife and as it turned out she is the local equivalent of the "Avon Lady" and she was selling personal grooming products. I should have seen this coming but I didn't. Anyway, her husband had been really nice to me and she was nice too as she launched into her spiel and I realized that I was not going to get away from them very easily without buying something. She showed me various things and getting a bit desperate I told her "Okay, I'll take this one. How much is it?" Her face lit up with a big smile and said "Only forty five pesos Señor" and I almost fell off the bench. Nevertheless, I paid her the money and she gave me a box with a bottle of men's cologne in it. They said "Thank you" and "Goodbye" and I slipped the box into another bag that I was carrying. Gina came back with an ice cream cone for me and we sat there a little while longer watching the people and the dancing waters and then we went home.

When we got home I went to the bedroom and took the box out of the bag and opened it and took out the bottle of cologne. I opened the bottle and took a wiff and it smelled like an old car seat that dozens of people had been farting in. I thought "Oh, no, what a waste of 45 pesos" and then I figured "What the heck, if the smell keeps the "zancudos" (mosquitoes) away it might be worth it". Then I thought "Hmmm, what if it attracts the little buggers?". That is when I made a fatal mistake. I left it lying out on top of the dresser. When Gina saw it she got very agitated. She asked me what it was and I told her that it was men's cologne. Then she asked me why all of a sudden I needed men's cologne and wanted to know if I was trying to attract "busconas". The verb "buscar" means "to look for" and a "buscona" is a woman who is out looking for a man. One time I made a horrible mistake when Gina asked me where I was going and I replied jokingly "Voy a buscar busconas" which means "I'm going out looking for "busconas". I spent a week in the dog house for that one. No more joking about about busconas for me.

I tried to explain to Gina how I had come to purchase the cologne but words failed me when she asked me how much I paid for it. When I told her, she went ballistic on me and said things that
wives usually say to husbands like "I leave you alone for just fifteen minutes and look what stupid things you go and do". I told her that I was sorry and that I wouldn't do it again and that I would throw the cologne away. She said "You will do no such thing. I will give it to my brother-in-law for Christmas". Now why didn't I think of that? Men and women sure think differently at times. I was reading my favorite columnist in "El Norte" (Catón) and he was telling a story about how men and women differ going all the way back to Adam and Eve. The first words that Adam spoke after God created him are not recorded in the Bible but it is reasonable to assume that it was some form of "Thanks be to God". Neither was it recorded what Eve said when God fashioned her out of one of Adam's ribs but it is fairly agreed upon among eminent scholars that her first words were "Look at me. I have absolutely NOTHING to wear!".

23 August 2008


The other day I was wandering around the shop doing some random quality assurance checks and I came across a worker who was struggling because the space that he was working in was very small. I asked him if he needed anything and he told me that he needed a "pitufo" (pee-TOO-foh). I had never heard that word before and I asked him what a pitufo is and he told me that it is "un tipo de duende" or "a type of dwarf". I jotted the word down in the little notebook that I always carry so that I could check it out before I ever use it myself because the guys think it is great fun to play word games with this poor gringo. In Mexico, and probably just about everywhere else, you really shouldn't use any word that you aren't completely sure about. It could get you in a lot of trouble. One time, not long after arriving in Mexico, I was riding in a Volkswagen with another man and it started to rain. He reached for the dashboard and as soon as he touched it the little knob for the windhield wipers fell off and he groaned and said "Ayyyyy, se cayó la chingadera para las limpiaparabrisas" or "Oh, no, the knob for the windhield wipers fell
off". After we found it and got the windshield wipers working I asked him if the word "chingadera" meant "knob". He told me "No, Señor Bob, una chingadera puede ser cualquier cosa" or "No, Mr. Bob a "chingadera" can be just about anything". "Great", I thought, "I have just learned a another new very useful word". Later that day I was having dinner with the two Catholic priests with whom I was staying and for practice I said, "Padre, ¿me pasas la chingadera para la sal, por favor?" or "Padre, would you pass me the thing for the salt please?". Padre Humberto, the elder of the two priests, got very red in the face and I could see that he was quite agitated. He asked me to call the "thing" for the salt a "salero" and asked me to never use that other word again. He said that it was a word that people in polite society never use. I felt very embarrassed and the next day I felt even more embarrassed when I found out that anything with "ching" in it is very inappropriate in Spanish because of its vulgar association.

From then on I always made sure that I vetted a word thoroughly before I ever attempted to use it. As it turned out it is about 95 percent okay to use "pitufo". In most cases it simply means "Smurf" like those little blue peole in television cartoons. The Smurfs are a fictional group of small sky blue creatures created in 1958 by the Belgian cartoonist Peyo (Pierre Culliford). In French the Smurfs are called "Les Schtroumpfs". Now get this...Peyo said the word came to him when he asked a friend for salt during lunch and, struggling for the word in French, just blurted out, "passe-moi le schtroumpf" or "pass me the schtroumpf." Wow! If he had been eating lunch with my friend Padre Humberto at the time "Les Schtroumpfs" may have never been born. The cartoon series was eventually translated into 30 languages and in some of those languages, "schtroumpf" became "smurf". In Spanish the name "schtroumpf" became "Pitufo". The name derives from "Patufet", a slightly similar looking character of Catalonian folklore. A word of caution...the word "Pitufo" can also be used as a derogatory slang word to refer to a policeman wearing a blue uniform. Just remember not to use it around policemen and I think you will be okay.

21 August 2008

Talk to the Animals

It was a communication day in Irapuato. I think I am developing the ability to communicate with animals. This morning when I came to work the shop dogs all met me as usual but today they were a bit subdued and each one of them tried to put my fingers in their mouth and gently chew on them. Then they would step back and look at me quizzically. I couldn't figure out what they were trying to say so I put on my thinking cap and went through all the "Lassie" episodes in my mind where Timmy says, "What is it Lassie? Tell me girl!" and then Lassie says "Woof! Woof!" and Timmy finally gets the picture. It worked like a charm and I immediately went over to the night watchman who is in charge of feeding the dogs and I said "We're out of dog food aren't we?" He said "That's right but how did you know?". I said, "The dogs told me" and he gave me a very strange look. I then made arrangements for one of our people to buy some dog food after first giving the watchman 16 pesos buy two kilos of corn tortillas to hold them over until the dog food arrived. I then told the dogs that I was sorry for the mix-up and I that would try to see that it doesn't happen again. I asked them why they just don't let me know when they think the food is running low but the Mexican dogs are just like the people. They never seem to think about the future and every little thing seems to end up being a last minute crisis.

Just a few hours later the dogs had eaten and were feeling fine and I would swear that they were smiling at me. I'm glad they are happy. I may need their help sooner than I thought. Have you read anything about a mysterious animal they call a "chupacabra"? There have been reports recently from various places in Central America about some kind of animal that runs around killing chickens and sheep and other farm animals. They call it a "chupacabra" which literally means "goatsucker". Up until now most scientists and people in authority have discounted these reports as the Latino version of "Bigfoot" or the "Abominable Snowman". There has been quite a
buzz about some sightings in the news lately. By the way, this is not a joke...I repeat THIS IS NOT A JOKE! Supposedly a guy in Managua, Nicaragua, who is a sheepherder by trade, killed one of these things with a shotgun. There was a picture of the remains in the local papers of Nicaragua. The thing is about the size of a big dog. It has a head that looks like a calf with long canine teeth but it's legs are very slender. A zoologist that examined the remains said that the skin that was still attached to the skeleton was very smooth and soft like that of a bat and it has some kind of crest that runs along the backbone. The eye cavities are much too big to be those of
a dog. Nobody seems to know if it is a newly discovered species or a scientific experiment gone bad, or something from outer space or maybe even the Devil himself. How would you like to have something like that wander into your backyard to play with the kids. Not only that but I can't even begin to imagine how one would talk to it. I don't thing that "Here kitty, kitty, kitty" will be sufficient.

I have noticed something else that is interesting of late. There is a direct line of communication between the city dogs and the country dogs here. Every morning when I go out to my car the tires are all wet from some city dog peeing on them. When I get to work like I did this morning the dogs all come running out to greet me and get petted (or complain about the food) but after that they go around my car sniffing the tires and more often than not the dominant male lifts his leg and pees a bit on each one of them. This will be repeated by the city dogs tomorrow morning and it goes back and forth like that all week long. If you ask me I think they are planning
something. Maybe there is a "pee and sniff" language among dogs that is yet to be deciphered. I think I'll leave that for someone else to tackle though. Sometimes I have enough trouble with Spanish just as it is.

The Mexican dogs can be basically classified in three categories. The first category contains the "lap" dogs which I call the "yap" dogs because they are spoiled and are always yapping at something. The second category contains your all around general purpose good natured dog that goes about their daily business in a fairly congenial manner and is a friend to all people of good will. The third category contains the dogs that run wild in the country and they usually end up spilling their guts out on the highway. When I lived in the small community of García, Nuevo León I attended mass at a parrish church by the name of "San Juan Bautista". The church had a middle aisle and two side aisles and the main door at the rearthat was in direct line with the main aisle was generally left open because the weather was mostly always warm and pleasant. About midway up the aisle toward the altar there were side doors on either side of the church and these were left open also to catch whatever little breeze was available to cross ventilate the church. It was all very nice and you could hear the birds singing and see and smell the multitude of flowers that surrounded the church. Most of the families walked to church and their dogs came with them. Often the dogs would enter the church and each would curl up under the pew of its respective family. There was one old dog who always came to church by himself and he would lay in the center aisle on the stone floor where the breeze blew across the church from the side doors. This dog was very smart. At the offertory and communion he always got up and moved over so the people could pass by on their way to the altar and then he would return to his spot and lay down again.

One day a zealous new deacon tried to quietly shoo the dog out of the church when the mass got started. The priest, Padre Humberto, turned around and in a loud vice said, "NO, NO, NO! You leave that dog alone. That dog has been coming to mass for years and has never missed a Sunday. That is a lot more than I can say for some of the other parishioners". So, the dog stayed and since he was an old dog at the time and this was several years ago he has probably passed away by now. However, if there is a Doggie Heaven (and I believe there is) he will surely be there...right in the middle aisle.

19 August 2008


A friend of mine named Joe Pastry recently mentioned that he liked "corn dogs" which are "hot dogs" on a stick that are coated in batter and deep fried in oil. In Mexico "corn dogs" are called "banderillas" (bahn-deh-REE-yahz) because they look a bit like the barbed darts that are thrust into the neck of the bull during a bull fight to infuriate him. I usually make banderillas for birthday parties and they are a very popular item with kids and adults alike. They are fairly easy and quick to make and not at all expensive. The best part is that you never have to worry about leftovers because they all get snatched up and eaten. I make my own Mexican version that goes like this.


1 cup milk
2 medium eggs
1/4 cup oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1- 1/2 cups masa harina (corn flour for making tortillas)
3/4 cup all purpose flour
15-18 hot dog weiners
(1/2 cup) all purpose flour flour for dusting the weiners
1 liter of cooking oil for deep frying
15-18 clean wooden skewer sticks (any kind will do...4" to 6" long)

In a large bowl combine the milk, eggs, oil, sugar and salt. Mix it all up really well. Then slowly add in the baking powder, corn flour, and all purpose flour while stirring. Stir it all up to make a fairly thick batter.

Shove the wooden sticks into the hot dogs at least two inches to form the handle. Dry the hot dogs on a paper towel if they are wet. Then dust the hot dogs with all purpose flour, coating them thinly but completely. The cornmeal batter won't stick to the hot dogs unless they are coated first. If they don't have a fine coating of flour dust the batter will just slide right off.

Put the oil in a pan to a depth of about two inches or so. The pan should be longer than it is wide to limit the amount of oil needed. I use an oval shaped cast dutch oven. Of course, if you have an electric fryer unit by all means use that. Heat the oil to about 375°. It should be almost smoking by the time you are ready to add the corn dogs. Put some of the corn dog batter into a tall drinking glass to about 3/4 full. Dip your hot dog into the batter while you hold onto the stick. Swirl the hot dog and dunk it up and down to coat it evenly. Be careful so that the batter doesn't overflow. Raise the hot dog above the cup and let any excess batter drip off. Quickly place the battered dog into the hot oil. The oil will bubble up and cook the outside of the batter, making the corn dogs the exact same shape as the ones you buy at the supermarket or the fair.

Only fry a few corn dogs at a time. If the corn dogs crowd each other they don't fry very well. Fry only two or three at a time for best results. Turn the corn dogs (or roll them over) a few times to make sure that they brown evenly. They only take a minute or two to cook. They will look a mellow, "yellow-brown" when done. Use metal tongs to remove the cooked corn dogs from the hot oil. Let them drain for a minute or two on paper towels. Repeat the process, coating and frying a few at a time, until all of the corn dogs are cooked. Refill the tall glass with batter from time to time as necessary and don't forget to dust with flour first. If you are making these for adults you may want to add about 1-1/2 teaspoons of chili powder to the batter to spice it up a little bit but for kids it is probably better if you don't add the chili. Besides, they taste great with or without the chili. They smell and look so good that they will probably start to disappear while you are cooking them. I usually buy enough hot dogs to make double the amount if necessary because people keep coming back for more. Don't forget to have plenty of catsup and mustard on hand also. Then, like we say here in Mexico:

"Buen Provecho"

18 August 2008

Priest shortage in Mexico

I read a very interesting article in the paper that said that Mexico has one priest on average for every 8,088 parishioners but Italy has one priest for every 500 parishioners. Some places in Mexico have a better ratio than 1 : 8088, especially in wealthy areas, but other places like Garcia, Nuevo León where I once lived have only two priests to cover a parish of 383 square miles and several towns and villages. There the ratio is more like one priest to every 20,000 people. Hey folks, something is wrong here. I think the Pope should call all those Italian priests together and say something like:

"Look here boys, some of you need to stop waiting around to see if someday you too can be the Pope and get off your duffs and go about doing the Lord's work over there in Mexico and give those Mexican padres a hand. Let's see...I tell ya'll what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna grant a special dispensation to each and every one of you who volunteer to go over there and save some souls for El Señor (that's what they call the Lord in Mexico). It won't be such a bad deal either. The language is very similar to bad Italian and the people look about the same as most of ya'll. The food is pretty good but I'd be a little particular about the water if I were you. Ya'll won't need to take much with you. Our Lord said to take nothing with you but a walking staff and to obtain sustenance from those to whom you preach the word. Now, seeing how difficult it is to take a walking staff through airport security these days or fit a walking staff in an air plane overhead compartment we are going to give each of you twenty bucks in addition to your air fare. If you don't blow the twenty on airport hot dogs and things like that you will have plenty of money to buy yourself a good walking staff in Mexico. Don't forget to write us a letter every now and then and especially don't forget about Peter's Pence, eh. The heck with all those the coins in the collection basket. Concentrate on the folding money. It wouldn't be a bad idea to call your mother before you go also and let her know what is going on. I don't want to be flooded with calls from irate Catholic mothers. Just tell them that a little foreign service will look good on your resume when you are considered for canonization later on. I think they'll buy that. Oh, yes, and if any of you should run into Father Guido Banducci tell him to call me collect. We need to talk. For your convenience I have already posted a list of names of those who are expected to volunteer. Are there any questions...? Yes Father Pascuali? You say that Father Banducci might be teaching at a junior high school in some suburb of Chicago, Illinois? Hmmm, let me check the Vatican computer. Nah, that's 'Three Fingers' Banducci the shop teacher. He ain't the same guy. No more questions? Okay boys, let's hit the road. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, before you leave you may want to come up here and kiss my...ring."

Yeah, well, I guess that's why I'd probably never get picked to be the Pope, right?

16 August 2008

"Don't sweat the small stuff"

Over the last ten years I have had the chance to visit with quite a number of Mexican families in their homes and in particular a lot of lower working class families. I have to tell you that many
people in the United States don't realize how good they have it. As you probably know, most of the "modern" houses here are made of either poured concrete and bricks or concrete blocks. At the top of the scale are fantastic homes that are equal to or better than anything you might find in an upscale American neighborhood. A little farther down you find homes that are similar to those of middle class American suburbia and after that, homes like those of the working class neighborhood in Chicago where I grew up. From there you go to houses made of bricks or concrete blocks that are mortared together and have a flat concrete roof with reinforcement bars sticking up in the hopes that someday the inhabitants may have enough money to afford a second floor. Nearer the bottom of the scale are concrete shacks made of blocks stacked up without mortar and covered with corrugated tin. These houses are about the size of the average American two car garage. Many of these houses have openings for windows but do not yet have any window frames or glass. The windows are merely covered with some kind of curtain.The bathroom is usually nothing more than an old toilet in a corner that is sectioned off by a curtain and to flush it they pour in some water scooped out of a five gallon bucket with a little plastic pail. If the homeowners are fortunate they have piped in water. Otherwise they have to fetch water from a communal spigot. The flushed toilet water runs out into a pit or ditch. The floors are made of bare concrete and usually have no covering. The walls are either bare concrete blocks or bricks plastered with concrete. Usually they are painted in bright pastel colors but not always. There is always a shrine in one of the corners and most likely it will be a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are few other wall coverings or decorations other than perhaps a calendar, a picture of Pope John Paul, a picture of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, a family photo, and not surprisingly an occasional picture of John Kennedy. There may also be a guitar hanging from a peg, some folk art knick knacks here and there, and a colorful poster or two. As far as furniture is concerned there isn't much. There is usually a table and very often it is a card table or two card tables put together of the kind that say "Coca Cola" on the top. The chairs around the table will very often be those same cheap, white, stackable plastic chairs that you find in the United States. I hate those chairs. Last but not least there are homes made out of packing crates, carboard, plastic, flattened cans, and whatever can be salvaged from the trash. The people who live in them are often called "paracaidistas" or "parachutists" because their "huts" sometimes spring up overnight like they were dropped in by parachute. These are the saddest homes that I have ever seen...especially in the rainy season.

Some people have small television sets but not everybody. Even if they do have television sets, without a satellite dish or cable you can only get one or two channels and there isn't much to watch except for telanovelas (Mexican soap operas), the news, and soccer games. Even then the quality of the picture is often so poor that everything is viewed through an electronic "snowstorm". Illumination for the interior of the house is usually provided by one or two bare light bulbs and they are usually not more that 60 or 75 watts. Beds are small and usually only single beds and many times they are used in the daytime as places for people to sit. When it is cold in December and January everyone just sits around bundled up in sweat shirts, sweaters, and jackets. Many of the houses were built block by block or brick by brick by the husband and wife of the family who live in them. As time progresses and the family grows a room is added here and there in a helter skelter fashion. For that reason when going from room to room in the average lower class Mexican house you have to be careful to either step up or step down for it is rare that any two adjacent rooms will actually be on the same exact level. It seems that they either lack the necessary surveying skills to make them level or most probably the only tools they have are a shovel and a crude wheelbarrow. An "abañil" or bricklayer can level things with just a hose filled with water but he is a skilled craftsman with a lot of experience.

As folks get more settled and their luck improves they often add a little courtyard to the house with an iron gate and if they are lucky enough to have an old "junker" of a car they keep it behind the iron gate in their courtyard at night. Many people who have such a courtyard can't afford a car. Their courtyard makes a nice place to sit around in the evening though and sometimes they cook their supper on a little grill outside. During the warm sticky weather, however, flies are a real problem and most of the people eat their food with one hand and are constantly "shushing" flies with the other. There aren't much in the way of window screens. Even if there are window screens they are often broken and torn and let the flies in anyway or else the flies bypass the screens entirely and come in through the cracks in the door and window frames or under the door. When people finally get enough money scraped together to put a second story on their homes they often move "upstairs" and turn the first floor into a little "tienda" of some sort and sell clothing or tortillas or whatever. Millions and millions of people in Mexico live in this manner and just living from one day to the next is fraught with peril. I imagine that is why they have such close families and so much dedication to the Blessed Virgin. Without sticking close together they would have no support whatsoever and at least the Blessed Virgin gives them hope.

Getting back to those cheap, white, stackable plastic chairs that I mentioned...they usually say "Coca Cola" on them. I always wondered why Coca-Cola is so big here in Mexico, which is the major consumer of Coka Cola per capita in the world at 527 eight ounce bottles per person per year. This is in contrast to 411 bottles per person in the United States. Mexico is second to the United States in the overall consumption of Coke only because the the U.S. population is much greater. I also wondered about the fact that if so many people are so poor how come they spend their money on Coca-Cola? The answer is fairly simple...but startling. There are millions of people in Mexico who have no running water, sewers, or even electricity. The only water that they have to drink is from the local ditches which is the same source of water that the dogs and farm animals drink from. As a result, many, many people have severe stomach problems and water borne diseases. They know that the water they drink should be boiled first but often they have no fuel with which to boil the water. The only alternative is to buy bottled water which is expensive, especially if you have very little money. As it turns out you can buy Coca-Cola for just about the same price as you would pay for bottled water. You can't live on bottled water because it has no nutritional value but Coca-Cola is loaded with sugar and you get the added benefit of the caloric content. Then too, if you buy seven bottles of Coke and carry them to where people are working and there is no clean water to drink and you sell each of them for one peso more than you paid for them, you will earn the price of one Coke so you get your Coke for free. There is a whole underground economy here based upon Coca-Cola. There is also the addiction factor. These people seem to be hooked on Coke and the Coca-Cola company doesn't let them forget it either. That is why you see the name Coca-Cola everywhere and anywhere, especially on those very cheap plastic chairs. It is sad but true. I imagine that it is the same way in other developing countries. May God bless us all and don't forget about Coca-Cola, right? Is there a lesson in all this for me? I don't know. If there is I imagine that it all boils down to one thing and that is: "Be thankful for what you've got and "don't sweat the small stuff". Life is too difficult as it is without adding worry and frustration to the burden. After all, some of the happiest times that I have spent in Mexico have been in the homes of poor workers that were filled with love, children, prayer, singing, laughter and genuine good will.

13 August 2008

August 13, 1521

On August 13, 1521, (487 years ago today) Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez captured what is now Mexico City from the Aztecs.

Wow! Four hundred eighty seven years is a long time. You would think that things would be a little better organized by now. Some things here are kind of surreal. For instance, there are no points of the compass in Mexico or at least here in these parts. Oh, I suppose there are...there has to be, but nobody ever uses them. If you say to somebody that something is on the north side of the street or on the southwest corner all you will get is a blank stare. They don't use the term "across the street from" either. For example, if I tell people that my house is "a través la calle de Walmart" (across the street from Walmart) or "otro lado de la calle de Wallmart" (other side of the street from Walmart) they may not know what I mean but if I say "frente Walmart" (facing Walmart) they will understand. Instead of saying North, South, East, or West, they say "rumbo de" (ROOM-boh deh - "direction of") as in "rumbo de León" (in the direction of León) or "rumbo de Salamanca" (in the direction of Salamanca). Hey, I wonder if the guy who is in charge of the signs on the U.S Interstate system is a Mexican. The Interstate signs really don't tell you which way you are going either. How many times have you been driving NORTH on an interstate when the signs say "Interstate so and so WEST"? In Irapuato there are street signs only here and there. On top of that, the name of a street can change three or more times in the space of a mile or two. The house numbers sometimes don't make sense either. If you ask where a person lives the answer is likely to be something like "Down that way towards the highway near where the man parks the big dump truck on Saturdays facing the house with the white dog". Most people have lived here all their lives and so have their ancestors so street names are not that important to them. They always know where they are and they know where they are going so what's the big deal with signs?

They don't seem to use rulers here very much either and sometimes that is quite evident. My boss once hired a man to build a guard shack next to the front entrance to the plant where I work. The guy was supposed to have a helper and it was only supposed to take three days. It turned out that he didn't have a helper (or most likely he didn't want to pay for one) and he took fifteen days to complete the job. I checked his work and there was not one ninety degree angle anywhere on the building and one side of the structure was at least six inches shorter than the other. I guess his measuring string must have broken or had a knot in it or something. The funny thing is that nobody seemed to notice or if they did they didn't seem to mind. I think if you made something perfectly straight and square here it would stick out like a sore thumb.

I have finally learned (somewhat) to relax and take things as they come. I think just about every gringo that comes to Mexico thinks the same thing, that with a little help from American ingenuity Mexico will change for the better. However, anyone who has spent more than a year down here will probably tell you that there is a much higher probability that Mexico will change you instead of you changing Mexico. By and by everything gets done but it may be to other people's satisfaction and not particularly to yours. There is nothing that can be done about it so the best thing to do when you are frustrated is either take a siesta or read a good book. There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling and the theme rings familiar but it has to do with the Orient and not Mexico. Nevertheless it is true and it goes something like this:

"At the end of the fight is a tombstone white
With the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: A fool lies here
Who tried to hustle the East."

All you have to do is change the words "the East" to say "Mexico".

Some days there is just too much activity and other days not enough. One just doesn't know what to make of it. Now and then I feel like the poor Mexican pig farmer who got a visit from the health authorities. They asked him what he fed his pigs and he told them table scraps that he collects from restaurants and garbage from the dump and things like that. They told him that was against the law and they gave him a big fine. The next month they came back to check on him and asked him again what he was feeding his pigs. Remembering what had happened the first time, he told them that he was feeding them caviar and smoked turkey and ice cream and things like that. The health inspectors became very angry and told him that he should be very ashamed of himself because there are so many hungry children in Mexico and he was wasting all that good food on pigs so they gave him a big fine for wasting food. The poor guy didn't know what to do but the next time they came he remembered what had gone on before. This time when they asked him what he was feeding his pigs he said, "Every week I give each of them 50 pesos and I let them buy whatever they want"...

11 August 2008


It was a day of experiments in Irapuato. At least this morning it was anyway. A friend of mine is a big believer in natural ingredients as are many other of the people here. The other day I mentioned to him that I needed to go to the barber shop but that it wouldn't be too long before I wouldn't have to go anymore because my hair is falling out more and more all the time. He brought me a gift of "Cacahuananche" soap which is a natural soap made from the pods of the Cacahuananche plant (Gliricidia sepium). The plant looks like a small tree and the pods hang from the the tree. The box that the soap came in has a picture of the plant and it also says "Auxiliar para la prevención de la caspa y caída del cabello" or "Help for the prevention of dandruff and the falling out of hair". The soap looks like a little brown bar of "caca" and I think you know what caca means. If you don't you better look it up. He also gave me a bar of "Jabón de Algas Marinas" or "Marine Algae Soap". It is enclosed in a bag made of coarse string in the form of a fishnet and you are supposed to rub your stomach with it every day and your fat will go away. I think you are also supposed to put up a shrine to the Blessed Virgin and pray for a miracle but I think I'll just try the soap first and see what happens. At the very least I will have an extremely clean belly. Another friend is supposed to get me a bar of "Jabón Verde" or simply "Green Soap" which is not only supposed to help with the hair but actually grow new hair. If I eventually start looking like a skinny rock music star I will know that either the soap came through as advertised or the Blessed Virgin thinks I look much better without the paunch and the"Franciscan" bald spot.

05 August 2008

Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México

The other day I made a blog entry entitled "Silao Train Station". I thought I would expand on that a little bit and provide some interesting information about how the Mexican railroads system began and how important it became under the presidency (actually the dictatorship) of Porfirio Díaz. President Díaz passed through the Silao Station for the last time on the 27th of October, 1903 when he came to Guanajuato to watch the opening performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida in a theatre named "Teatro Juárez" which was named after Benito Juárez, one of the greatest heroes of Mexico and also one of Díaz's biggest former political adversaries. It is an incredible story and it even sheds light on the struggle among nations for the control of petroleum which is still going on today.

There is an old saying that "México is the mother of foreigners and the stepmother of Mexicans". The picture of Porfirio Díaz (shown below) in profile on the stock certificates of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México (FN de M) of the years 1907 thru 1910 is one indication of the struggle among other nations as to who would eventually be the "owner" of México either physically or financially. In the beginning it was Spain, and then France attempted to take over for a while, and afterwards the United States and England battled for their own supremacy in Mexican affairs. Germany and Japan also had strong interests and recently even China has entered the picture.

The first railway in México was a short section that went from the center of Mexico City to the Village of Guadalupe. It was officially opened on July 4th, 1857. The locomotive was built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and shipped in pieces to the port of Veracruz. From there it was transported to Mexico City in wagons. Each wagon carried 12,500 pounds and was pulled by a team of 22 mules. There was a large copper plate on each side of the locomotive upon which was painted a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The little railway of Guadalupe was an instant success. In 1869 President Benito Juárez opened the section of line between Mexico City and Puebla. Four years later, his successor, Lerdo de Tejeda, was able to complete the line from Mexico City all the way to Veracruz. It was, and still is, an engineering miracle.

When Porfirio Díaz came to power in 1877 he opened the investment in railroads to foreign capital and offered a subsidy of 8,000 pesos for each kilometer of rail that was completed plus a substantial yearly subsidy per kilometer for maintenance. Often the routes that were constructed between cities were much longer than necessary and poorly constructed just so that the owners could obtain a bigger subsidy. Also the contractors, many of them who were friends of Díaz, were paid for many kilometers of track that did not even exist. In some areas steel bridges purchased from foreigners remained in pieces hidden in the jungle while foreign owned timber companies kept replacing wooden bridges at a large profit.

In the beginning many of the railroad concessions were granted to favored governors or groups of senators or owners of large haciendas but it wasn't long before most of them fell under American ownership and the largest owner by far was the Standard Oil Company and thus began the American battle with England over Mexican petroleum. As a matter of fact, by the time that the picture of Porfirio Díaz appeared on the FN de M stock certificates, the investment of United States capital in Mexico had grown to a billion dollars and that was greater than all of the capital stock owned by Mexicans themselves.

After the first four-year term of Porfirio Díaz he became the governor of the state of Oaxaca while his good friend from childhood, Manuel Gonzalez, became president of México for one term. It was at this time that Porfirio Díaz undertook the construction of the Tehuantepec Railway. There was an interest in bridging the continent at Tehuantepec ever since Hernán Cortez mentioned it in his fourth letter to the king of Spain in 1525. The first Spanish survey of the isthmus was done in 1774 by Don Augustín Cramer who was the commander of San Juan de Ulua in Veracuz. In 1808 the famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt recommended the possibilities of commercializing the isthmus and in 1850 the "Tehuantepec Railroad Company of New Orleans" was formed for that purpose but the Mexican government put a stop to the operations fearing that it would only lead to more annexations by the United States. In 1848 gold was discovered in California and Napoleon III had an interest in opening up a trade market between France and California. For that reason Maximilian himself explored the isthmus to consider the possibilities of either a canal or a railroad. The Tehuantepec Railway was finally completed by the English company of S. Pearson & Son and it was dedicated on New Year's Day in 1907 at a total cost of $45,000,000 dollars. However, it was an immediate and profitable success and was soon running up to twenty trains a day in each direction.

At this point we must stop and look at the world stage. England and the United States were both in competition to acquire the mineral wealth of México and especially petroleum. England in particular needed oil to modernize her naval fleet and switch over from coal to oil. At that time México was thought to have one of the world's largest petroleum reserves. This was the period leading up to World War I and tensions in Europe and elsewhere were high. Germany and Japan also had their eyes on Mexican petroleum. In addition, many Mexicans were afraid that American interests were growing too powerful and that there needed to be a better balance of power. Because of this, the Díaz regime became very cool towards the United States and enacted tax laws to curb growing American financial power. He then looked to Europe for more investment to counter the Americans and consolidate the railroads.

In order to nationalize the railroads under one system Díaz needed capital. What better marketing tool could he use than his own picture on the stock certificates? The great success of the Tehuantepec Railroad and other enterprises had made Porfirio Díaz himself a hero and a big attraction among investors. He was the man with the golden touch. Not only that but he understood the importance of attracting European investors. For this reason he carefully re-established diplomatic relations with Austria and helped the Hapsburg family construct a memorial chapel in Queretaro over the spot where Emperor Maximilian had been executed by Benito Juárez. This was especially possible because it was well known that Juárez and Díaz had been personal rivals. It was an act of genius on his part because investors in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands bought up to $50,000,000 dollars worth of FN de M stock certificates with his picture on them. To this day most of these certificates carry revenue stamps from those countries.

It is ironic that after the reign of Porfirio Díaz the very railroads that he built were used against the government by the revolutionaries and since most of the rail lines terminated in Mexico City, that is where they carried the revolution. It is also ironic that today, almost 100 years later, the majority of railroad interests in México are once again controlled by the Americans. If you should pass by the graveyards where are scattered the bones of all of the Mexican ferrocarrilleros who built the Mexican railways by their backs and their sweat and their blood you might hear them singing in faintly in chorus when the wind blows softly:

"Mas si osare un extraño enemigo,
profanar con su planta tu suelo,
piensa ¡oh Patria querida! que el cielo

un soldado en cada hijo te dió."
(Himno Nacional de México)

"But if some enemy outlander should dare
to profane your ground with his step,

think, oh beloved country, that heaven

has given you a soldier in every son".
(National Anthem of Mexico)

03 August 2008

Silao Train Station

This morning my wife Gina said to me, "Vamos a pasar por mi Mamá y dar una vuelta" or in other words, "Let's pick up my Mom and go for a ride". This usually means picking up my mother-in-law Carmelita and heading off into the surrounding territory to see what we can scrounge up. Today we headed up to Romita on the way to Silao. Carmelita is from Silao and she likes to buy a special cheese that they make there. We also picked up some sweet corn and other things at little nooks and crannies along the way. When we entered Silao we went past the old train station and I stopped to take some pictures. This old train station is a very interesting place as far as historical sites go.

Silao is located in the geographical center of Mexico at the foot of a mountain called "El Cerro de Cubilete". In Spanish, the word "cubilete" means "tumbler" in the sense of the little cup that people use to throw dice. El Cerro del Cubilete (literally "Tumbler Mountain") is a 2,700m (8,860 feet) tall "hill" atop of which is a temple to Cristo Rey (Christ the King), and a 23m (75 ft) tall statue of Christ the King with outstretched arms. Silao is also the "jumping off point" for the City of Guanajuato. Anyone who wanted to go to Guanajuato by train needed to go to Silao first and change to another train called "La Mula" or "The Mule". This change took place at the station pictured below which was built in the late 1800's. During the time that Porfirio Diaz was in power anybody who was anybody in Mexico would have changed trains at this station including the president himself. It was even used during the Mexican Revolution by revolutionaries like Pancho Villa.

Many of the people who wrote about Mexico during this era mention changing trains at Silao including Francis Hopkinson Smith whom I wrote about in a recent blog entry entitled "White Umbrella". Near the station there are three old hotels that catered to the travelers. They are no longer used as hotels and the most flamboyant, the Hotel Central, is mostly just an abandoned wreck. I took some pictures that you can see below. I only wish that I had the guest registry for this hotel. It would contain the names of just about every important person who visited Mexico from 1888 until about 1925. If only the walls could talk!

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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.