28 February 2009

Border War Zone

I am an avid reader and I love to read books about history. I have always liked to read about American history and for the last few years I have also been soaking up all that I can about history as it pertains to Mexico. I have quite a number of old books that I have collected over time. Some are written by English speaking authors and some are written in Spanish. All of them are quite fascinating. I am currently reading a book by Frank G. Carpenter entitled “MEXICO” which was published by Doubleday in New York in 1925 (a year after Carpenter died). Carpenter was a writer of geography textbooks and lecturer on geography, and wrote a series of books called “Carpenter's World Travels” which were very popular.

I was reading what Mr. Carpenter wrote about the U.S.- Mexico border in the early 1920's and I nearly fell out of my chair. It was almost as though you could have taken the text right from a newspaper of today. He was talking about patrolling the Mexican border when he wrote:

“The duties of the inspectors are difficult and dangerous. When they are after smugglers they often serve as targets for pot shots from over the line, and several have been killed by the rum-runners. American rifles are frequently traded for liquors, and the Mexicans use the guns in case they are in danger from the revenue men.”

(Bob's Note: This was written during the U.S. Prohibition Era not long after the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment)

“The inspectors are mostly “mounted”, which means that they go up and down the border in light motor cars. They usually ride in pairs, armed with revolvers and rifles, and even shoulder machine guns in order to protect themselves in case of attack. Airplanes are sometimes used and the rum pirates detected, as it were, from the skies.”

“Even more profitable than bringing liquor over the boundary is the smuggling of narcotics to be sold at high prices to drug addicts in the States. A few boxes of powders and pills, as many, perhaps, as can be easily carried in a hand-satchel or under the seat of an automobile, may have a value of thousands of dollars on this side of the line.”

“The immigration authorities have almost as much trouble with lawbreakers as have the customs men. In this case it is the people, not packages, that must be kept out. Chinese and Hindoos, who by our exclusion laws are denied admission to the United States, are constantly trying to slip in over the Mexican border. Sometimes they pay five hundred or even one thousand dollars apiece to men who undertake to pass them by the inspectors, and they employ all kinds of tricks and devices.”

“In times of actual disturbance in Mexico our army takes charge and patrols the border. In peace time, however, the troops stay in their barracks and posts, of which there are a dozen or so extending from Brownsville, Texas to Nogales, in Arizona. In order to be prepared for any contingency the War Department keeps about one fourth of all the troops stationed in continental United States, and nearly all of our cavalry, in this territory along the Mexican border.”

(Bob's Note: I think that the percentage of stateside troops not far from the border area may be about the same today.)

Wow! Frank Carpenter was an eyewitness who wrote the above account eighty-five years ago and it seems like nothing has really changed much. Can there ever be something such a s a secure border between Mexico and the U.S. or are we just kidding ourselves?

Mr. Carpenter left us with a clue and it is food for thought:

“The difference in prosperity of the two republics was apparent as soon as I put my feet on Mexican soil. The first man I met on leaving the bridge was a blind beggar who asked me for alms, and I saw more poor people as I came up into the town and went through the narrow, unpaved streets. Laredo, Texas, is a city of the rich. Its people have money to burn, and they are raising gold dollars on the lands lying all around them. The people of Nuevo Laredo seem to be just the reverse, although they are surrounded by a country equally good.”

I pray that the winds of change that Barack Obama will use to blow life into the economy will benefit both the people of the United States of America and also Estados Unidos Mexicanos...the United Mexican States. It would be nice for a change to have a level playing field and a friendly border. The big question that hangs over both countries, however, is what can we do about drugs and guns? Will those problems ever go away? I hope that it doesn't take another eighty-five years.

One other thing? Will there be someone out there reading our old blogs in eighty-five years to see what we had to say? I don't think so. Thank you Frank. I'll be looking forward to shaking your hand when I get to that beautiful shore. Maybe you and I, and Emperor Maximilian can do lunch sometime...uhhhh but not anytime soon. Okay?

Monument at Queretaro

Several years ago on one of my infrequent visits to the nearby town of San Miguel de Allende I wandered into a photo gallery and there I spotted a photo entitled "Monument at Queretaro" by an early California photographer named George P. Thresher. I immediately recognized the significance of this photograph. It is the spot where Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian of the Hapsburg lineage and at the time, the presumed "Emperor of Mexico", was executed. The photograph is fascinating in that the surrounding area has long since been overrun with the trappings of modern humanity and today does not look anything like the terrain in the photo. I inquired about the owner of the photo and was told that it was part of a collection of a prominent California photographer named Malcolm Lubliner. I contacted Mr. Lubliner and during the ensuing discussion I learned how he had acquired the photo as part of a group of glass plate images belonging to Mr. Thresher that had lain dormant and hidden away for many years. When I told him that I recognized the location of the "Monument at Queretaro" he asked me to write an essay about it which I did and you can find on his website at:


Along with the essay you can see various pictures and illustrations of how the the execution site looked then and how it looks now. Be sure to click on the link that says "More Pictures" at the bottom of the essay. As a result of doing research for this essay I became fascinated with the story of Maximilian and I was lured even deeper into the study of Mexican history. The other day my friend Mike Lean from Queensland, Australia sent me the following link from Vistas - Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520 - 1820:


Vistas was created with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia. There you can find many beautiful Spanish American art objects. From this site I followed a link to the Getty Research Institute's exhibit "Mexico: From Empire to Revolution" which is an overview of two Getty exhibitions of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Mexican photography which can be seen at:


From that website I obtained the three photo images shown below. One is the execution site of Maximilian shortly after the event. His is the marker with the cross. Many of the books about Mexico written from the time of 1867 when Maximilian was shot by a firing squad until around 1920 mention that every visitor to Queretaro felt obligated to visit the execution site even if they were reluctant to do so. In the later part of the 19th century the story of Maximilian and Carlotta had captured the imagination of people the world over and visiting this site was on their list of things to do. You will also see below a photo of Maximilian's shirt with bullet holes and a rather grisly image of him in the box in which his body was shipped back home to Austria. His eyes appear very black because they inserted balls of black obsidian glass in his eye sockets where his eyeballs had already shrunken.

I have followed Max's footsteps to quite a few places in Mexico and find him to be a fascinating if tragic figure. When we all get together again in the sweet bye and bye I hope to look him up and have a nice chat. In the meantime, I hope that when you go to Queretaro you take the time to visit Cerro de las Campanas and take advantage of the wonderful visitors center there. Read my essay before you go and you will enjoy the visit even more.

(Ckick on photos to enlarge)

25 February 2009

Sebastián de Aparicio

Today, February 25th is the feast day of Beato Sebastián de Aparicio. He is considered the patron saint of tranport in Mexico only he hasn't quite made it to sainthood yet. Nevertheless he was quite a guy. He was born in Spain in 1502 and he emigrated to the New World at the age of 31. He ended up in the city of Puebla where he worked at various things until he found his “niche” in the market. By this time there was more and more traffic going back and forth from Veracruz to Mexico City and it all had to pass through Puebla. Most of the cargo was carried either on the backs of burros or the backs of poor natives. Because he was born a Spaniard, Sebastián got permission to ride out into the brush and round up wild cattle which he then trained to pull a cart. He was the first Mexican “cowboy” or “charro”. He teamed up with a carpenter and they built some oxcarts and went into the transportation business. He worked at that business for eighteen years and took those carts to a lot of places and where there were no roads to those places he made his own roads. As a matter of fact he ended up making 600 miles of roads.

At about fifty years old Sebastián found himself to be a rich man and he retired. He saw so much misery around him, however, that he became a philanthropist and eventually gave away everything he owned. Finally, he joined the Franciscan order and received his friar's habit at the age of seventy-two in the convent of San Francisco in Mexico City. He was assigned the dreary task of pleading for the daily bread for himself and his fellow Franciscans but he was happy to do it. The last ten years of his life he went around working miracles to the complete amazement of everyone. He became so famous for these miracles that the Bishop of Puebla felt pressured to begin the canonization process for sainthood before Sebastián was even dead. He died in 1600 at age ninety-eight which in those days was pretty a extraordinary thing in itself and he was eventually beatified in 1789. So then why did it take one hundred eighty-nine long years to beatify him and how come he isn't a saint yet? Well, there was this thing about him being married...twice. Supposedly he got married solely for the protection of the women involved but everyone knows how people WILL talk. In Heaven he is probably a saint but down here on earth the powers that be in Rome are probably going to let him cool his heels a bit longer...at least until they are damned sure that he is definitely out of Purgatory.

The thing that I like about Sebastián de Aparicio is that there is enough known about him and written about him to know that he was a real person who did some very remarkable and unselfish things. I think this is the kind of person that Barack Obama would like us all to emulate. Perhaps we are finally getting to the point where people will start asking what they can do for their country like John Kennedy admonished us and not the other way around. I hope so. It is definitely time for a change. I don't think I have it in me to tame wild cattle or build roads but I think I am going to put a picture of Sebastián above my shaving mirror to remind me that at the very least I can be true my old Boy Scout pledge to do a good turn daily. It may not make the world a better place overnight but if nothing else it is as good a place to start as any. Why don't you join me? If anyone asks you why you have become so helpful all of a sudden you can just tell them that you are a friend of Sebastián.

23 February 2009

Carnaval en Silao, Guanajuato 2009

Every year year in the neighboring city of Silao on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday people sell egg shells that have been filled with confetti and made into all types of colorful figurines and then fastened to a stick. There is an old custom for teenage boys and girls to break the confetti filled egg over the head of their chosen boyfriend or girlfriend. It is my understanding that this custom dates from the time of the "Flower Wars" of the pre-Hispanic Aztec Civilization but it may also have its roots in certain festivals in Europe. I wrote more about this last February in a post called “Domingo de Carnaval”.

This year Gina and I once again took the opportunity to enjoy our Sunday afternoon in Silao to appreciate the skill that the people exhibit in the making of each “cascaron” (which means “eggshell” in Spanish). I took some photos with my little digital camera but I didn't do their handy work justice. I am sure that a really talented photographer or artist would have a wonderful time capturing all of the shapes, textures and colors. If you happen to be one of those people, here are some pictures to capture your fancy if nothing else. Mark it on your calendar to be in Silao in the “Jardín” (garden) alongside the Parroquia de Santiago Apóstol on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday 2010. Si Dios quiere (if God be willing) I'll see you there and you can take my picture too!

21 February 2009

Dialog - Adam & Eve

La historia de Adán y Eva.
The story of Adam y Eve.

Como todos sabemos de la costilla de Adán, Dios formo a Eva, para que Adán no estuviera solo en el Paraíso y tuviera una compañera.
Like we all know God made Eve from the rib of Adam so that Adam wouldn't be alone in Paradise and would have a female companion.

Pero...si Eva fuera una Mexicana esto pudiera suceder:
But...if Eve were a Mexican woman this is what could have happened:

Era un día hermoso en el Paraìso Terrenal cuando Adán dijo:
It was a beautiful day in Earthly Paradise when Adam said:

“Eva, voy a dar una vuelta por el Paraíso porque el día esta muy bonito, esta soleado muy lleno de flores y los pajaritos están cantando. Voy y vengo. No me tardo.”
Eve, I am going to take a little walk around Paradise because it is a beautiful day, it is sunny and full of flowers and the birds are singing. I´ll go and come right back. I won't be long.

Eva se quedo en casa, para preparar una rica comida y resulta...¿que? Pasa un ratito y otro ratito y otro ratito y un ratote y Adán no regresa.
Eva stayed in the house to prepare a nice meal and what happens? A little while passes and then another while passes and then a long time passes and Adam doesn't return.

Eva se para en la puerta de su casa y se asoma cada rato para ver si Adán regresa y no pasa nada.
Eva stops in the doorway and looks around every little while to see if Adam is returning and nothing happens.

Después de tres horas aproximadamente Adán regresa y Eva esta muy enojada por la tardanza y él un poco apenado.
After approximately three hours Adam returns and Eve is very upset at his tardiness and he is a bit sheepish.

Adán le dice a Eva, “Cariño disculpa la tardanza, pero me perdí.”
Adam says to Eve, “Excuse my tardiness Dear but I got lost”.

“¿Cómo que te perdiste? ¡A mí no me salgas con tu cuento chino! Dime Adán, ¿donde estuviste todo este tiempo? ¿Crees que soy tonta? Yo aquí preparándote una rica comida con tus verduras preferidas y tú bien gracias... ¡ Jum !”
How could you get lost? Don't give me that phony excuse! Do you think I am a fool? Tell me Adam, where were you all of this time? Here I am cooking a nice meal with your favorite vegetables and you you don't care...¡Ooooo!

"Eva mi amor, te pido perdón."
Eve, my love, I ask you to forgive me.

"Ven acá Adán primero hombre y déjeme contar tus costillas..."
Come here Adam first man and let me count your ribs...

The above story reminds me of a little song my Ma used to sing:

"Young folks, old folks, everybody come.
Come to our Sunday school and teach yourself to hum.

Please park your chewing gum and your pistols at the door,

And we'll teach you Bible stories that you never heard before.

The Earth was built in six days and finished on the seventh,

According to the contract it should have been the eleventh,
But the carpenters struck
and the workmen wouldn't work,
So all they could do was to fill it up with dirt.

Adam was the first man and Eve was his wife.

They lived in the garden and they lived a pleasant life,

But Adam lost his position and they could no longer remain,

So they move out to the suburbs and they started raising Cain.

20 February 2009

It happens every spring...

By the title of this post you may be thinking that I am going to be writing about baseball after the old 1949 movie of the same name starring Ray Milland, Paul Douglas, and Jean Peters. No, what I am talking about is the return of the swallows to Iraputo, Guanajuato where I live. “Wait a minute”, I hear you say, “Aren't the swallows supposed to return to Capistrano?”. Yes, but those are cliff swallows (Hirundo pyrrhonota) and I am talking about barn swallows (Hirundo rustica). Actually both species follow the 48 Degree Isotherm northward in the spring. The 48 Degree Isotherm (9 degrees Centigrade) is a line along which the average night time temperature remains at or above 48 degrees. This is the temperature necessary for flying insects to become active and begin breeding and multiplying and since swallows obtain most of their food on the wing they need a plentiful supply of flying insects in order to flourish. Both species of swallows are called “Golondrinas” in Spanish and there are many references to them in songs and literature.

The night time temperature in Irapuato has been hovering just below 48 degrees for the last few days and I am waiting for my little friends to show up any day now. They are amazing little birds. The same breeding pair will return year after year to the same nest so you can really get to know them. I lived in an apartment for about seven years before I married my wife Gina and there was a flood light on the ceiling of my balcony that the swallows used as an anchor point for their nest of little mud balls year after year. I could never use the light for fear of disturbing them but that was okay because I liked having them around. The only thing that I didn't like was the fact that they usually had three offspring and two of the fledglings would always kick the third one out of the nest so that they could have more food. The one that got kicked out was also the weakest one and I guess this is Nature's way of maintaining a strong gene pool but nevertheless it always upset me.

Now, getting back to those cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano in Orange County, California. They are fascinating in their own right. They arrive at the mission in San Juan, California, on St. Joseph's Day, March 19, to the ringing bells of the old church and a crowd of visitors from all over the world who are in town awaiting their arrival and celebrating with a huge fiesta as well as a parade. Now get this...originally the cliff sparrow was called “Hirundo Repuplican” which means “Republican Swallow”. At first I thought Ronald Reagan must have had something to do with it but then I found out that John James Audubon gave them that name because the groups of their little odd shaped nests looked like little republics. And speaking of republics, the Franciscan Missionary, Padre Junipero Serra built the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in the year 1776. How is that for coincidence? Many people don't know that Junipero Serra first came to Mexico where he built churches in the Sierra Gorda Mountains near Queretaro. He was sent to California to replace the Jesuit missionary Padre Kino (Eusebio Francisco Kino) when the Spanish Crown banished all Jesuits from New Spain in 1767. The Franciscans were sent in to establish missions to keep the Russians from getting any ideas about moving to California. Needless to say Padre Serra and his Franciscans did a great job. As a matter of fact the Serra Chapel at the old mission of Capistrano is the oldest surviving public building in California to this day.

There is one thing that I have been wondering about though. Is global warming going to make conflict in the Church Calendar? March 19th is the Feast Day of Saint Joseph but if the 48 degree isotherm consistently reaches the Capistrano Mission just two days earlier on March 17th, then St. Joseph is likely to lose all the crowds and the parade and St. Patrick will be the beneficiary. Sounds like a bit of trouble brewing. I think I will write to Al Gore and see what he thinks. Maybe he will want to add this information to his Henny Penny “the sky is falling” speech. Ooops, there goes another glacier!

19 February 2009

Dialog – Cristóbal y Filipa

The more things change the more they stay the same. Just imagine a conversation between Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) and his wife, Filipa Moniz Perestrello, in August of 1492. It probably went something like this and she no doubt did most of the talking (with a New Jersey Soprano accent, of course...Right Christofuh?).

Mi amor, ya es tiempo para mi para salir. Ven y dame un beso y tu bendición.
My love, it is already time for me to leave. Come and give me a kiss and your blessing.

¿Y por qué tienes que ir tú?
And why do YOU have to go?

Porque, mi vida, soy El Capitán.
Because, light of my life, I am the Captain.

¿Y por qué no mandan a otro?
And why don't they send somebody else?

Porque entonces el otro va a ser rico y famoso por descubrir el Nuevo Mundo.
Because then somebody else will be rich and famous for discovering the New World.

¡Oye! Con mi familia no quieres ir a ningún lado pero si quieres ir a descubrir el Nuevo Mundo ¿verdad?
Listen! You don't want to go anywhere with my family but you want to go and discover the New World, right?

Cariño, son dos cosas diferentes.
Sweetheart, they are two different things.

¿Y sólo van a viajar hombres? ¿Me crees estúpida? ¿Y por qué no puedo ir yo si, soy la esposa del Capitán y ustedes no van a hacer nada malo?
And only men are going? Do you think I am stupid? And why can't I go if I am the wife of the captain and you guys aren't going to do anything wrong?

Querida Filipa, es un asunto para hombres.
Dearest Phillipa, it is a thing for for men.

¡Canalla, ya no sabes qué inventar para estar fuera de casa! Te advierto, ¡Si cruzas esa puerta yo me voy con mi mamá!
You dog, there is no limit to the excuses you make to be away from home. If you pass through that doorway I am going home to mother.

¡Ya, cálmate mi amor!
Okay, calm down my love.

¿Dices que solo van hombres? ¿Y quién es esa tal María? ¿Que se pinta y que parece una Niña? Explícame Cristóbal.
You say that only men are going? And who is this Maria? That she paints herself and she seems like a young girl? Explain this to me Christopher.

¡Mi amor! Son los nombres de mis tres barcos, La Niña, La Pinta, y La Santa Maria.
Sweetheart! They are the names of my three ships, la Niña, la Pinta, y la Santa Maria.

¡Todo tu lo tenías planeado, maldito! ¿Crees que a mí me vas engañar?
You had everything planned you devil. Do you think you are going to trick ME?

Créeme mujer. No voy a engañar nadie. Voy a descubrir el Nuevo Mundo y nada más. ¡Te Juro!
Believe me woman. I am not going to trick anybody. I am going to discover the New World and nothing else. I swear!

Oh, sí, y me dices que la Reina Isabel va a vender sus joyas para que tu viajes! ¿Me crees imbécil o qué? Díme Cristóbal, ¿qué tienes que ver con esa bruja vieja?
Oh, sure, and you tell me that Queen Isabella is going to sell her jewels in order for you to travel. Do you think I am an imbecile or what? Tell me Christopher, what have you got going with that old witch?

No hay nada entre la Reina Isabel y yo excepto un buen negocio. Si descubro el Nuevo Mundo podré descubrir cosas como chocolate ,vainilla , plata , oro , maíz y jitomates que traeremos a España venderemos y seremos ricos.
There is nothing between Queen Isabella and me except good business. If I discover the New World I can find things like chocolate, vainilla, silver, gold, corn, and tomatoes that we will bring back to Spain and we will sell them and we will be rich.

Avisa a la reina que no permitiré que vayas a ningún lado! ¿Estás loco o eres idiota? No va a pasar nada si tu quedas en la casa conmigo.
Inform the queen that I will not permit you to go anywhere. Are you crazy or are you an idiot? Nothing will happen if you just stay here at home with me.

¡Exactamente mi amor! ¡Por eso me voy! Si todo pasa bien como lo tengo planeado voy a traerte muchos regalos.
That is exactly the point my dear! That's why I am going! If everything turns out okay I have plans to bring you lots of presents.

Hmmm, ¿muchos regalos eh?...ándale pues. Aquí está tu sombrero y tu lonche. Dame un abrazo y besito y vayanse. Cuídate mucho Cristóbal. ¡Adiós!
Hmmm, lots of presents, eh?...Well alrighty then. Here is your hat and your lunch. Give me a hug and a kiss and off you go. Take care of yourself Christopher. Bye-bye.

16 February 2009

Febrero Loco

When I was a kid growing up in Chicago I don't remember much about February other than Valentines Day. The rest of February was kind of a gray blur. Oh, yes, there were always some ice fishing derbies on the Chain-O-Lakes and the ice rinks of the Chicago Park District were still good for some late season hockey before the inevitable thaw, but that's about it. February was a good time to have a cold if you were going to have one because everyone else was feeling kind of “blah” anyway. It was the "slushy" month. March was the month that gave us hope. There was that old saying that “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb”. March was the harbinger of spring. March was Eastertime and the Resurrection. The average date of the last frost in Northern Illinois is April 15th so by the time the income tax was due the leaves had already started to appear on the trees and the dandelions on the lawns. By Mother's Day the lilacs would be in bloom and that is when we would crown the Blessed Virgin our "Queen of the May". After that it was time for baseball, fireflies, and mosquitoes and summer would be in full swing.

Where I live now, in Irapuato, Guanajuato, México, just three degrees of latitude below the Tropic of Cancer, we have to shift things up a notch. The saying here is “Febrero loco, Marzo otro poco”. This means “February is crazy and March is even more so”. The “otro poco” is short for “otro poco más” which means “a little bit more”. The “más” is no doubt left out of the saying for reasons of rhyming. In February you can freeze by night and burn by day and in March you may be blown away. Hey, hey! I'm a poet and I didn't even know it.

By April things will really start warming up here and May is generally uncomfortably warm. In fact, where I live, April and May are the warmest months. Why is this? Well, for one thing, the sun is moving north about 15-1/2 miles a day from where it started on the Tropic of Capricorn on December 21st and it will pass straight over our heads at noon on May 24th on its way to the Tropic of Cancer near the 23rd parallel. It will heat things up quite a bit on its way. Then it will reverse its travel once again on June 21st. It won't heat us up again, however, because in the meantime the Earth is moving farther from the Sun and will be at its Aphelion (farthest point from the Sun) on July 4th. Isn't that interesting? When the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, the Earth was at its farthest point from the Sun. I wonder if the founding fathers planned it that way to symbolize how far they were separated politically from King George.

By the time June 24th comes around we should be into the rainy season. June 24th is the feast day for Saint John the Baptist and in the old days in Mexico many people bathed completely only on that day of the year. Often times this was a ritual bathing because Saint John is the patron saint of water. He is not only the first cousin of Jesus but according to Jesus Himself, St. John was the greatest prophet and he shares the distinction with Jesus and Mary of being the only three individuals whose birthday the Catholic Church celebrates in the liturgical calendar. The date is very close to the Summer Solstice on June 21st and birthday of Saint John marks the halfway point in the year until Christmas. Please don't tell anyone at Walmart about this or they might move the Christmas shopping up a bit more than they already have. If you are in Mexico in June would like to have a nice time, then find a church named San Juan Bautista on June 24th and join the congregation in celebrating their saint's birthday. I guarantee you will have a great time.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, the rainy season. The rainy season here is not as bad as it sounds. It lasts all summer until about October and the weather is actually quite pleasant. I am reminded of the musical “Camelot” where King Arthur sings:

"In Camelot! Camelot!
I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camelot, Camelot
That's how conditions are.

The rain may never fall till after sundown.

By eight, the morning fog must disappear.
In short, there's simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering
Than here
In Camelot."

Insert “Irapuato” in place of Camelot and there you have it folks. The only problem that I have now is getting it to rhyme. By the way, speaking of rhyming. When I was ten years old in 1957 at Our lady of Grace School in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood we used to get a little publication called "Our Little Reader". I remember that the following item appeared in late March of that year. I wonder if you remember seeing it too.

Question: If April showers bring May flowers, what do May flowers bring?

Answer: Pilgrims!

15 February 2009

Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen

The man who watches over our neighborhood, Concepción Cisneros Rangel (“Don Concho”) invited my wife Gina and I to a festival in his home town that is dedicated to "La Virgen del Carmen”. Note that the Spanish "Virgen" is pronounced (VEER-hen). In English we call her “Our Lady of Mount Carmel”. The Mount Carmel being referred to is a place in Israel where the Carmelite Order was founded. The difference between the name “Carmen” and “Carmel” depends on how the name was translated into Spanish or English from either the Hebrew or the Arabic version of the name. The festival took place on February 14th (St. Valentine's Day) in a nearby community called Lo de Juárez which is part of the Municipality of Irapuato (State of Guanajuato) and is home to about 4000 inhabitants. It was formally a large estate or “hacienda” that was later turned into an “ejido” (collective farm). I can already hear you asking, “Why is the festival for “Our Lady of Mount Carmel” held on February 14th when her official saint's day is July 16th?”. Well, as they say, I am glad that you asked that question.

In the year 1792, Mexico was still "New Spain", and the City of Irapuato was called "San Marcos Irapuato" and Lo de Juárez was called "Manzanilla". Most of the men who lived in what is now Lo de Juárez were "caleros". They collected "caliza" (limestone) which they would heat in a fire and turn into "cal" (slaked lime) which could then be sold for use in processing maize into nixtamal for making tortillas or for making hominy and also for mixing with sand to make mortar. The collecting of limestone and the burning to make lime was very crude and laborious work and the people who did this work were very poor, simple and uneducated “campesinos”. One day, on February 14th to be exact, a man named José Maria Galicia" was extracting pieces of limestone from the rocky soil. As he was extracting one rock in particular it got away from him and rolled back into place where it had been. He extracted it again with his iron bar and before he could pick it up it rolled back into place again. This happened a third time and becoming impatient he gave the rock a big whack with his bar and it broke in half. He was amazed to see that the shades of coloration inside the rock bore an amazing resemblance to the figure of La Virgen del Carmen. He showed it to his neighbors and they made a little shrine at the spot where they venerated this image of the Blessed Virgin and years later, when they finally obtained sufficient resources, a chapel was built on the spot in her honor and where she is venerated to this day. A feast is held every February 14th to mark the occasion of the discovery and another feast is held on the official feast day of La Virgen del Carmen on July 16th. However, the February 14th date is the most important of the two for the people of Lo de Juárez.

In the pictures below you can see a photograph that I obtained that shows a close up of the image in the rock. it looks like someone long ago has enhanced the rock with black ink to make the outlines of the Virgin Mary carrying the Christ Child more visible because unaided, you have to look at the rocks from very close up to see the image. Then too, it is not an actual photographic image of the Virgen on the rock faces but it is a remarkable resemblance to a popular contemporary characterization of the La Virgen del Carmen as shown in another photo below. You can see that the Virgen is holding a “scapular” in her free hand in both the rock picture and the picture of the statue. This refers to a promise that the Virgen made to St. Simon Stock at Cambridge, England on Sunday, 16 July, 1251 to the effect that anyone who dedicates their life to her and is wearing the scapular will be under special protection from her. That is why July 16th is her official feast day. Then in 1322, the Virgen appeared to Pope John XXII and told him that she would rescue from purgatory those that wore the scapular and followed a specific discipline of abstinence and prayer called the called the Sabbatine Privilege. Yes, I know, this all sounds pretty complicated and it is. I just wanted to give you some background so please bear with me. In 1726 the promise of the scapular was extended to the entire Latin American Church by Pope Benedict XIII. Since the Carmelites were active in Mexico the story of the scapular and the image of La Virgen del Carmen would have been widely known by the time the rock was discovered and who wouldn't want to have the spiritual equivalent of a "get out of jail free" pass?

The church or La Virgen del Carmen in Lo de Juárez is simple and plain. It does have a small bell tower and also a small dome, however, and the inside is very pretty. The split rock is displayed in two special cases high above the altar for safe keeping. I noticed that the people were very emotionally and spiritually attached to these artifacts and my friend Don Concho had tears running down his cheeks as he prayed. I think that it is not so much that they think the rock halves are a miracle rather than a unique coincidence but that the images are their own private connection to the Blessed Virgin and a special way for them to honor her. I was personally touched buy the love and the good will of these poor people as they shared with me their joy in honoring their “Santa Patrona”. We had a very nice time. There was a girl band called “Las Primas” (The Cousins) from the community of Churipitzeo near Pénjamo. There were young girl “danzas” in costume performing for the La Virgen. There was a “Danza del Torito” and there were Mariachis. There were vendors of various foods and there were Carnival rides of every variety. It made for a very happy outing indeed.

One thing I would like to mention before I go is that the very old people are quite fond of the particular spot where the rock was found and where the church was built over it. When they were young the church was out in an open field and there was nothing around it. My friend Concho who is now eighty years old used to herd cattle there as a boy. Now the small houses of brick, cinder block, and adobe are built right up to the walls that surround the church. Within the walls nothing has changed in many years except for some needed repairs to the church in 1962. There are some very old trees in the atrium that give wonderful shade. These trees have been there longer than anyone can remember. They must be at least one hundred years old if not much older. To me they appeared to be olive trees and I could already see what appeared to be many small green olives on the branches. While I was doing some research I found out that the olive trees that came from Spain in 1769 with the Franciscans were called “Manzanilla” olives. Then I learned that the original name of Lo De Juárez was “Manzanilla”. Suddenly there was a connection! There must have been an olive orchard there at one time. The only trees that I saw of this type though were those in the atrium of the church where they have no doubt been protected all these years. I can't tell you how much I enjoy making little discoveries like this on my own. It is just like a little electric shock of joy goes through me. It's better than sex...or maybe even chocolate.

13 February 2009

El Colado

One of my favorite stories involves a person who in Mexico would be called either a "colado" or a gurrón". Let me tell you the story first and then I will explain these words to those of you may not know them yet.

There was a famous painter in Mexico who received a request from the Vatican in Rome to paint his own version of Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper". This was considered a great honor, of course, and the painting was going to be hung in the Pope's personal private chapel. The Pope felt that there were so many examples of Italian painting at the Vatican that it would be nice to have something done by a Mexican artist. The Vatican offered the artist a very nice sum of money and stipulated that the painting must be finished in three months time. The artist agreed to do the painting and his wife was overjoyed because they really needed the money and she felt sure that after the publicity from this painting there would be more to follow. So, doing what women often do, she started nagging her husband to get started. However, the more she nagged the more he balked and it wasn't long before the first month went by and nothing got done. The artist and his wife began to bicker and the more they did so the less the artist felt like painting and so another month went by and then another few weeks until there was only one week left.

Finally, the artist began to paint and since it was such an important painting he was nervous and made so many mistakes that he had to do the painting over and over again. It didn't help the situation that by now his wife was a nervous wreck and worried sick that he wouldn't get it done in time. Finally, on the very day that they expected the papal representative from Rome to visit them, the painting was finished. The artist and his wife were very happy and they threw their arms around each other and forgave each other for being so silly. As she was hugging her husband the wife looked admiringly at the painting and noticed that something was wrong. It looked like there were too many apostles. She counted them and sure enough there were thirteen apostles instead of the usual twelve. As she was pointing this out to her husband the doorbell rang. It was the papal representative. The couple were horrified. What could they do? Finally the artist told her to go and entertain the papal representative for awhile and he would fix the painting.

The wife answered the door and invited the papal representative into the living room and offered him some tea and cakes which he politely accepted. As time wore on both the wife and the man from Rome started getting a little anxious. Finally the artist appeared with the painting. At first the man was very impressed and pleased but after awhile he noticed that something was wrong. He told the artist that he saw thirteen apostles instead of twelve. The artist told him that there were indeed thirteen figures besides Christ but that one of them had a little sign above him that explained who he was. The sign was very tiny and the man asked for a magnifying glass. When he looked through the glass this is what he saw on the sign:

No soy un apóstol.
No soy nadie yo.
Nada más vine a cenar,
Y me voy a la fregada.

I am not an apostle.
I am nobody really.
I just came to eat supper,
And then get the hell out.

This story is humorous for two reasons. The first is that it uses somewhat typical Mexican logic in that the artist figured as long as he identifies the extra figure "no pasa nada" (no harm done). The second reason is that it is quite common for people to show up uninvited at fiestas in order to eat a good meal especially if they are poor. Nobody wants to turn hungry people away but sometimes it gets out of hand and at weddings and other feasts the doors are often guarded by family members to sort out who really belongs and who doesn't. Those who don't belong but just come for the meal are called either "colados" or "gurrones". The word "colado" comes from the verb "colar" which means to strain or to put something through a sieve or colander. "Colar" can also mean to sneak in or to squeeze by and thus a "colado" is a person who sneaks in or who squeezes past the guard at the door. The word "gurrón" means sponger or moocher meaning someone who always wants others to share with them. The phrase "a la fregada" means "to hell" in the sense of "What the hell?" or "To hell with it!". My favorite example of the word "fregada" is the following:

Un niño, de rodillas y vestido con su mameluco de niño, rezaba con dulce voz sus oraciones de la noche: "Diosito: cuida a mi papá. Cuida a mi mamá. Cuida a mis hermanos. Cuida a mi abuela. Cuida a mi perro. Y cuídate tú también, Diosito, porque supongo que si algo te pasa a ti a todos nos lleva la fregada...

A little boy, on his knees and dressed in child's pajamas, was saying his bedtime prayers in a sweet voice: "Dear God, take care of my papa, take care of my mama, take care of my brothers (and/or sisters). Take care of my grandma. Take care of my dog. And take care of Yourself too, dear God, because I suppose that if something ever happened to you then everything would go to hell...

10 February 2009

El Sombrero Nuevo

Not long ago when I visited the little community of Valtierrilla for the Nopal Festival I saw a man wearing a very nice Texas style sombrero. It was made out of finely woven material and it was obviously hand crafted. I had the following conversation with him:

Buenas tardes señor. Disculpe la molestia. Veo que usted lleva puesto un sombreo muy bueno. ¿Donde compró este sombrero?. Quiero comprar uno igual.
Good afternoon sir. Excuse the bother. I see that you are wearing a very good hat. Where did you buy that hat? I want to buy one just like it.

Sí, este sombreo es muy bueno y me gusta mucho. Fue hecho de mi amigo Señor Olivero González.
Yes, this is a very good hat and I like it very much. It was made by my good friend Mr. Olivero González.

¿Donde se encuentra el Señor González por favor?
Where can Mr. González be found please?

Se encuentra allá en aquel puesto donde él en este momento está vendiendo sombreros.
He can be found over there in that booth where at this very moment he is selling hats.

Ah, ¡Qué bueno! Muchas gracias señor.
Ah, very good! Thank you very much sir.

I then went to the place that the man had pointed out to me and I found Señor Olivero González Ramírez selling his beautiful sombreros. I asked him if he had one for me and he looked at me and studied my head for a moment and said “No!”. I asked him why and he told me that my head is too big. Well, he was right about that. I do have a big head both literally and figuratively. I then asked him if he would make a hat that would fit me. He said he could but that it would take a week or so because he was very busy. I told him that would be fine and I asked him how much the hat would cost and he told me three hundred and twenty pesos and he said he wanted two hundred pesos up front. I reluctantly parted with the two hundred pesos and I gave him a piece of paper and a pen and asked him to write a receipt and also write down where he lives. He said that he never learned to write but he told me he lived at Calle Cinco de Ferbrero Número 136 and that I would just have to trust him if I wanted a sombrero and that I should come back “en ocho dias” or “in eight days” meaning one week. In Mexico you don't say “Regresa en una semana” (Come back in one week) you say “Regresa en ocho dias” (Come back in eight days). The Mexican people always give themselves an extra day. I think it is part of the “mañana” thing.

I waited the appointed “ocho dias” and then I went back to Vatierrilla to look up Señor Gonzalez and see if I would get my sombrero or perhaps forfeit my two hundred pesos. I needn't have worried. I found him without much trouble and he was just finishing up my sombrero and it is a very beautiful sombrero indeed. We began to chat a bit an get acquainted and I must warn you ahead of time that Señor González really likes to chat. We spent well over an hour just chatting. I asked him how he got started making hats and since he started making hats about fifty years ago it took quite a bit of time to bring me up to speed. He told me that his family was dirt poor and that he never went to school. He and his wife got married at fifteen years of age after only one week of engagement because both families needed them to move out on their own and make room for the siblings who followed them. There just wasn't enough food to go around. Señor González became a father at a very early age and was working at hard physical labor from sunup until sundown six days a week for the princely sum of seven pesos a day. Many times he went hungry so that his family could eat.

When he was about twenty he was so desperate that he decided he must do something or die. He had an uncle who had taught him to weave baskets when he was a small boy but there just didn't seem to be a market for baskets because most women wove their own. He did see a potential market for hats, however, and he decided to teach himself how to weave hats because after all a hat is nothing more than a basket turned upside down. As it turned out it just wasn't that easy. Every night after work and on Sundays he put his total effort into trying to make a decent hat. He had plenty of material that he got from the “sauce” (willow) trees that grow along the Lerma River. After much trial and error, many long hours into the night, and about three months of frustration he finally made a decent hat. He began to make hats and sell them in his local community. At first he kept his day job until he was sure that he could make a living making hats. After that life started getting better. His hats got better and better too until he finally became recognized by the governor of the state and not long ago by Presidente Vicente Fox himself.

Señor González can make you any kind of sombrero that you want although he specializes in Texas style which he calls “estilo tejano” (eh-STEE-loh tay-HAHN-oh). The hat that he wears on his own head he calls “estilo alcaponey” after the mobster Al Capone's fedora hat. It takes him about sixteen hours to make a hat out of the willow fibers that he still collects down by the river. At the current exchange rate of around fourteen pesos to the dollar a hat comes to about twenty three U.S dollars which means he makes a bit less than a buck fifty an hour. Not much for sixteen hours of work but it sure beats seven pesos per day. Even so, Señor González still works sunup to sundown six days per week. It has been enough to build a nice house for his family and he doesn't mind doing it. He still can't read and write but he thanks God for making him useful. I asked him if he is teaching any of his children or grandchildren to make hats and he gave me an emphatic “NO!”. He made sure that all of his children went to school and have good careers and he wants his grandchildren to learn how to make computers and space ships but not hats. If they want to get into the hat business he said they can invent a machine that makes hats better and cheaper than he can but he says he is not worried about that. He says that will be awhile yet.

07 February 2009

Las Fiestas de la Candelaria y Feria de la Olla

On Sunday, February 1st, my wife Gina and I paid a visit to Pueblo Nuevo near where the Río Guanajuato joins the Río Lerma. The day before we had visited Valtierrilla, near where the Río Laja joins the Río Lerma. The Río Lerma and its extension, the The Río Grande de Santiago, is the longest river system completely within the borders of Mexico and for that reason it is one of the most important. Many early settlements were established along this river system and although it really isn't considered navigable it is a very important source of water that over the years has been sorely neglected. Valtierrilla and Pueblo Nuevo are legacies of those early settlements.

I wrote about Pueblo Nuevo in September of 2008 in a post entitled “Birria de Cabrito” when we went there for the Mexican Independence celebrations. This time we visited Pueblo Nuevo for the “Fiestas de la Candelaria y Feria de la Olla”. In Mexico February 2nd is “El Día de la Candelaria”, which in English is “Candlemas Day” or in the modern liturgy of the Church, "The Presentation in the Temple". In the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church it used to be called the "Purification of the Virgin" which commemorated the visit to the temple by the Blessed Virgin forty days after giving birth in order to undergo a "purification" rite which was required of women after giving birth under Jewish law. The same type of custom endured in the Catholic Church for almost two thousand years and was called the “Churching of Women” although the custom has now fallen out of favor, especially since Vatican II. In the United States February 2nd is more commonly known as “Groundhog Day”.

“Candelaria” in Mexico, also signals end to the Christmas Season when the manger scene is put away and all the Christmas things are formally put aside for another year. Typically there is special mass to remove the Baby Jesus from the manger and to dress him and put him away until next year. This is called “El Levantamiento” or “The Lifting Up”. Before the mass gets started the people bring candles up to the front of the church for the priest to bless and then they light the candles from a special candle on the altar and go back to their pews and recite some prayers together while the candles are still lit. During the proceedings the Baby Jesus is removed from the manger and dressed in fine clothes and is set on a throne for the duration of the mass.

The ceremony of putting away the Baby Jesus is repeated in many homes. The people kneel down by the manger and are led by the host or hostess in saying the Rosary. While they are saying the Rosary someone takes the Baby Jesus out of the manger and anoints Him with perfume and dresses Him in fancy clothes and then set him on a little chair that is often covered with aluminum foil or other decorations to look like a throne. After the Rosary, everyone is given candles which are lighted and then the hosts lead everyone in the recitation of a litany to the Blessed Virgin. After the litany someone holds the Baby Jesus for everyone to kiss and as each person kisses the infant they are given a piece of candy from a little basket. After that a sweet little song is sung and the candles are blown out.

It so happens that the “Santa Patrona” (Patron Saint) of Pueblo Nuevo is La Virgen de la Candelaria and the last few days of January and the first two days of February are dedicated to celebrations honoring her. My friend Alfredo posted a very nice description of this entitled “La Fiesta de Mi Pueblo” in his blog “Bitácora de Alfredo” (Alfredo's Logbook). The second part of the fiestas, “La Feria dela Olla” takes place on February 3rd. An “olla” is a pot, usually made of clay called “barro” and lightly fired. This “feria” (fair) is like a giant open market clearing house for pots and other types of ceramics and the origins go way back in antiquity. No one seems to remember when it got started. People come from all over to buy and sell pots and pans and kitchen utensils and all sorts of things. Young men and women buy miniature pots and have their sweetie's name inscribed on them and then they give them to each other. There is music and dancing and “castillos de fuego” (firecracker towers) all throughout the Fiestas de Candelaria y Feria de la Olla.

While we enjoyed the celebrations in Pueblo Nuevo we were entertained by a wonderful band called “Banda Laguna Azul” from the Parroquia del Señor de la Misericordia in the nearby village of Tomelopitos. We also delighted in watching the antics of the “mojigangas” which are very tall manikin type figures that are carried on the shoulders of men who are hidden in the lower clothing of the mojigangas. The results looks like giants walking and dancing around. The people love them. There was also just about any type of food that you might want to eat and we took advantage of the opportunity to eat some carnitas. Some people were constructing a “castillo de fuego” which is a wooden tower to which all types of fireworks are tethered. It is usually set ablaze at about 11:pm and provides quite a show. It also looked like they were preparing two large stage platforms, one at each end of the town plaza for a late night battle of the bands.

We left a little after six when the shadows started falling. The night time is best left to the young people at these celebrations and we could already see all the grey heads starting to head home. If I was still seventeen years old on the outside like I still am on the inside I would have stayed but alas, prudence and the urgings of my wife Gina prevailed. All in all it was a very pleasant day, however, and I highly recommend that you put Pueblo Nuevo on your list of places to visit.

03 February 2009

La Feria de Nopal 2009

On Saturday, January 31, Gina and I went once again to the little community of Valtierrilla for the 5th edition of Expo Nopal, the Prickly Pear Cactus Fair. We have gone three years in a row now and each time it is a delight. I wrote a detailed blog post about it in February 2008 entitled La Feria de Nopal. Once again we bought roasted peanuts from Doña Dolores, our favorite peanut lady and filled up on nopal ice cream. In fact I deliberately didn't eat breakfast so I could have more than one ice cream cone without drowning in guilt. The first cone was nopal, of course, but the second one was equally as good and it was called “Beso de Angel” or “Angel Kiss”. It was a light cherry ice cream with bits of cherry and nuts and some vanilla and other subtle flavors. It really lived up to it's name.

While we were there I noticed that the old church of “La Capilla de Santa Cruz” was open. This was the first time that I saw it open because the wooden beam roof had fallen in some years ago and it had been closed for a long time. It was replaced about twenty years ago by a new church, “Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe”, and had been in disuse all this time. Now the roof has been patched up (sort of) and it is being used as some kind of community center where meetings are held. This church is special because it was built way back in 1723 to serve a small community of about 400 people. It was built with local labor and materials and is of simple construction. In 1913 father Bernabé de Jesús Méndez Montoya was assigned to the little village of Valtierrilla as the pastor of this church. He labored long and hard and became very involved by the community. He practiced his Catholicism openly and carried out his duties despite the growing pressure by the government to abandon his religious activities lest he be considered a rebellious “Cristero”.

On the 5th of February 1928 government troops entered the town while Padre Méndez was saying mass and knowing that danger was imminent Padre Méndez took the consecrated hosts and hid them in his garments. He tried to escape the church building when the soldiers entered but he was caught and when they found the consecrated hosts in his garments they asked him if he was a priest and he told them that he was. He asked the soldiers if he might have a moment to pray and they relented and after praying he quickly ate the hosts so that they would not be defiled. He then told the soldiers that they could do whatever they wished with him. They obliged by taking him to the edge of town, putting him in front of a firing squad, and shooting him dead. Pope John Paul II declared Padre Méndez beatified on November 22, 1992.

When I entered the church I could see that the old altar had been removed and on the wall behind where it must have stood there was a large portrait of Padre Méndez. I had the place all to myself and I closed my eyes and imagined how it must have been 81 years ago when Padre Méndez met his test of faith. I enjoyed a moment of reflection and felt a deep sense of peace. Several hours later we arrived back home in Irapuato and I happened to check my e-mail. I had received a letter from a lady named Lucy who had read my post about Valtierrilla from last year and she thanked me for writing it because it was her husband's home town and he still had family there who ran a grocery store. She told me about an experience that his family had not long ago when a poor family was passing through Valtierrilla and because of some misfortune had no money and could not continue their journey. All of a sudden they showed up at the grocery store to buy some food with money that they said the young pastor of the little church had given them. They said that he told them that everything was going to be okay and the priest they described was Padre Méndez. Lucy wanted to know if I had heard of any other people who might have had the same experience.

Now I can imagine what some of you might be thinking. Yes I had those same thoughts too but what a coincidence, eh, that a couple hours after I had been in the church reflecting on Padre Méndez I get this message from Lucy. She invited me to stop at the grocery store in Valtierrilla and visit with her husband's family which I just might do. This thing struck a chord with me because it is not the first time something like this has happened to me. A number of years ago I was in the hospital and in intensive care after a very serious operation to remove a large tumor that was lodged against my heart. I was not sure whether I was going to live or die. My wife, Gina, who at the time was my steady lady friend was at my bedside and suddenly there appeared at the foot of my bed an old priest. We didn't even see him come in. We just looked up and there he was. He put on a priestly stole and said a few prayers and gave me a blessing and he told me that everything was going to be alright and then he turned around abruptly and walked out. I told Gina to run after him and bring him back so that I could thank him but when she went out into the hall there was nobody there except some nurses at the nurses' station. She asked them where the priest went and they said that they hadn't seen anybody. Not long after that I began to recover and thank God I am still here. So then, tell me. Is this all just a series of coincidences, hysteria, and hallucinations? Personally I just don't know but I think that I will follow the biblical counsel of “Test all things” and “Hold fast to that which is good” and I hope to see all of you next year in Valtierrilla for some nopal ice cream. My treat!

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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.