28 October 2009

A terrible tragedy...

A few days ago a wayward hippopotamus met its untimely death in the northern part of the Mexican state of Veracruz. It had been legally residing in a private zoo on a rancho near the town of Álamo in the municipality of Temapache and had been released as a prank by some delinquent youths. For this reason the escape of the hippo wasn't even its own fault. The poor thing then wandered around in the countryside looking for food and a place where it would be left alone. It was finally shot and killed by some well armed and brave local policemen who apparently (or so they say) didn't realized that the hippo had all of the necessary papers and permits and that it is an endangered species. Unfortunately, they preferred not to wait for help from the federal authorities to implement a plan of capture without injury to the animal.

What a sad story this is. If I only would have known about it sooner perhaps I could have done something to save the hippo. For one thing I could have befriended it and lured it back to its pen with some of my potentially world famous "Hippo Helper". My Hippo Helper is easy to make and easy to transport and the taste is, well..."to die for". To have to die so far from home by a barrage of bullets without ever having tasted Hippo Helper is a terrible tragedy indeed. Personally, I think it would be much, much better to die happy from eating too much Hippo Helper. You can judge for yourself. Here is the recipe for all of you fellow hippo lovers out there:

Take two slices of bread. Toast both slices of bread evenly on both sides and cover one face of each slice with a light spread of mayonnaise. Slice an apple and an onion very thin and fry the slices in butter until both the apple slices and the onion slices are soft. Put the onion and apple slices between the bread slices along with some slices of cooked bacon to make a sandwich. That's all there is to it. Good grief! It makes me tremble just to think about it.

¡ Buen Provecho !

26 October 2009

Mora and Mora

Not far to the northeast of the municipality of San Miguel de Allende in the State of Guanajuato there is a smaller municipality named "Doctor Mora". It is the youngest municipality in Guanajuato, having been permanently established as a local seat of government in 1949. Originally it had been part of an hacienda named "Agostadero de Charcas " which translates to "Summer Pasture of Charcas". The origin of the hacienda isn't really clear but just prior to 1860 it was in the hands of a group of Jesuit priests. In 1860 the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico for the second time, "ipso facto", by the "Ley Lerdo" of the Mexican Reforma. They had already been forcefully expelled from all of New Spain in 1767 by King Charles III because they had becomes so influential and politically powerful. They returned to Mexico in 1814 but by the time of the Reforma the church and state were finally separated and church property was confiscated by the state. The hacienda was auctioned off by the Mexican government and it was purchased by a man from Querétaro named Agustín González de Cossío. He developed the property into a small agricultural town.

When the town was permanently made into a municipality it was given the name "Villa Doctor Mora". It was named after José Maria Luís Mora who was an important figure in the formation of Mexico after the fight for independence from Spain and the fiasco caused by the presidencies of Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Ana y Pérez de Lebrón...the man we commonly refer to as just plain "Santa Ana". Interestingly, the Spanish surname "Mora" translates into the English word "mulberry", or in other words, Doctor Mora would be Doctor Mulberry in English. In 1794 José Maria Luis Mora was born in Chamacuero, Guanajuato which the present day town of Comonfort that is located between San Miguel de Allende and Celaya. He was educated in Querétaro and Mexico City and was ordained a priest and later obtained a doctorate in theology which he eventually used to claim the title of "Doctor" when he entered politics and embarked on a more secular course. He was just sixteen years old when Padre Miguel Hidalgo led the uprising that began the fight for Mexican independence from Spain. In the twenty five year period following the attainment of independence he became a spokesman for that portion of the upper classes who were willing to break with the Spanish Crown and the authority of the Catholic Church and apply the principles of freedom in politics, religion, and economics.

Doctor Mora would probably be called a "centrist" today because when forced to choose between far left ideology and order, he chose order. However, he was a strong federalist and he wrote that federalism was a means of preventing radical fringe political elements from capturing control of the state. If he were a member of the U.S. Senate today I think he might be characterized as a "Blue Dog Democrat". He rejected Simon Bolivar's (and now Hugo Chavez's) dream of a united Spanish America and he felt that Mexico would have its own great future as a separate nation with a European flavor. The thing that distinguished him the most is that he perceived that in order to avoid revolutions and social upheaval the governing class must rule democratically and extend the realm of freedom by progressive measures. To paraphrase the words of Archie and Edith Bunker, "Mister we could use another man like Doctor Mora again".

The title of this post is "Mora and Mora" so now I better to say something about the other "Mora". It is the Red Mulberry tree (Morus rubra L.) which is native to North America and at one time flourished in Mexico. No, it is not the Mulberry upon which the silkworm (Bombyx mori) thrives. That is the White Mulberry (Morus alba). The Red Mulberry of which I write is the victim of a great tragedy. During the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, machines were invented that allowed for mass production of cotton cloth which could be tinted using large quantities of dyes of all colors imaginable. At that time there were no artificial dyes, so they used only natural dyes extracted from many plant species such as indigo and some types of insects such as cochineal. Unfortunately for the mulberry tree, during the same period it was discovered that by boiling the mulberry wood in water a substance was produced which made excellent fabric dyes in the shades of brown, yellow, beige or green, depending upon the exact method used. The marketing of this new coloring was so lucrative the world over that countless thousands of mulberry trees were cut down, their trunks and branches chipped into small pieces, and carried on wagons, trains, and ships to the dye makers where it was boiled in big cauldrons to extract the dyes. After the dye was boiled out, wood was dried and used as fuel to heat the dye pots. The principle source for the dye was a member of the Mulberry Family (Moraceae) named Dyer's Mulberry (Maclura tinctoria). The Dyer's Mulberry may have been the main source of dye but all types of Mulberry were used to make dye. The world famous fabric known as khaki, which provided uniforms for generations of soldiers and police, was nothing more than heavy cotton cloth dyed with some sort of mulberry dye.

The Mulberry tree was also valuable for it's wood which is something like wood of the Ash tree or "Fresno" in Spanish. The wood was used for things like furniture, coffins and fence posts. The Red Mulberry grows very tall (about 70 feet) and it branches out in many stems close to the ground and these stems are not much thicker than eight to twelve inches in diameter making the wood easy to cut and split. After the Mexican Revolution the population of Mexico started to grow quite rapidly and many mulberry trees were cut down by "carboneros" to make "carbón" (charcoal) for domestic cooking fires. By the mid 1930's the amount of deforestation in Mexico was becoming alarming and the government began a massive program to plant trees. About the same time they began building roads for easier transport of other fuels and promoting the use of oil stoves to lower the demand upon charcoal for cooking. It was too late for the mulberry trees though. They never really came back. For one thing the male and female flowers are born by separate trees and if the balance of male to female is destroyed there will be no progeny. There are still some mulberry trees in our local park that was once a government tree nursery but other than that they have become quite rare. So there you have it folks, the story of Doctor Mora and the Mora tree, Morus rubra. Two obscure little histories of Mexico.

25 October 2009

Things ya just gotta do.

My wife Gina and I spent some time this afternoon at our local "Feria de Alfeñiques" to gather some things for our annual "Día de los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) ofrenda (altar). The yearly fair has turned into a combination Halloween bazaar and alfeñique sales event. The alfeñiques are little skulls and things that are made out of almond paste and sugar that people use to adorn their altars to welcome their dearly departed souls when they return home visit on the eve of All Souls Day, November 2nd. As I was walking along while Gina, our "ofrenda" engineer, was "oohing and ahhing" over all of the neat little things for sale, I spotted a little boy about ten or twelve years old and he was looking pretty glum. His mother was selling Halloween costumes and she made him dress up like a pumpkin in this little padded pumpkin vest and pumpkin hat.

The poor kid looked miserable. I stopped to talk to him and asked him why he looked so unhappy. He told me that he hated being dressed like a pumpkin and that he was afraid that his classmates from school would see him and he would never be able to live it down. I told him that sometimes you just have to do what your Ma says no matter what. I said that she probably didn't like the way she looked when she was carrying him inside her for nine months and how fat she was. I told him about the time that my Ma decided to make swimming suits for her four kids to save money and that I being the oldest child was about his same age at the time. There was nothing that I could do. I didn't want to hurt my Ma's feelings so I didn't say anything. I also didn't want my friends to laugh at me so that is the year that I didn't go swimming. I also told him that my Ma died three years ago and that if I could bring her back by wearing a pumpkin suit I surely would. That made him smile a bit and I asked him if I could take his picture and he nodded okay. Here it is:

Carmelita's Chile Peppers

My suegra (mother-in-law) Carmelita has a chile plant growing in a pot on her patio that is more like a small bush than a plant. It provides her with a steady supply of little red chiles almost the year around. These chiles are fairly hot but they are so small that you don't have to be afraid of them and they give food a wonderful flavor. As far as I can tell they are a variety of Capsicum frutescens which is the same pepper that is used in making the McIlhenny Company's famous Tobasco Sauce. Another name for the chile is "Cayenne". There is a photo of some of Carmelita's chiles below. Most of the chiles would fit within the diameter of a one peso coin. We hardly ever see this type of chile in the stores but once in awhile we have have seen it in the market at San Miguel de Allende where the "Marías" selling produce are lined up at the entrance. I have also see a handful or two being sold by ancianos (old folks) on the streets of Guanbajuato. If you happen to visit one of those cities or live there I urge you to take advantage of the opportunity and buy a handful when you see them. They will keep for a long time in an open dish on your kitchen counter.

There are many ways that you can use these chiles. One of my favorite ways it to make a "guisado" (ghee-SAHD-oh) which is a stew or a thick chunky sauce using thin pieces of "chicharrón" (pig skin from the carnitas making process), cooked beans, chorrizo, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and salt to taste. To this you add three or four of the small red chiles after chopping them once or twice. Start out with three and then add the fourth or even more if you like. Then you just simmer everything until it all blends together and smells so good that you just can't wait to eat it. This dish can be eaten as it is with some little chunks of queso panela on top to give it balance or else put into a tortilla and served as a taco. It also goes very well with rice. Like my friend Martha always says..."It's a good thing!".

¡Buen Provecho!

22 October 2009

Dulce Madre - Sweet Mother

When I first got to know my wife Gina I noticed that whenever we left Irapuato to go to Guanajuato, San Miguel, some other city, just as soon as we were out on the highway she would become very silent. If her parents were with us they would become silent as well. Thinking that they were all unsure of my driving ability I would keep up a one sided chatter to reassure them. It was very of awkward. After a few minutes they would open up and start talking again. After this happened two or three times it suddenly dawned on me that they might be praying. I asked Gina about this and she confirmed it. Ever since she was a little girl she and her family would go through this little ritual whenever they started out on a trip. They usually did it out loud but they did it silently with me around until they got more comfortable with my presence. Now that they let me in on the secret we all do it together. The little ritual goes like this:

First one makes the Sign of the Cross (Santiguarse).

Then one says this little prayer three times:

Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, Señor del buen camino, llévanos sanos y salvos a nuestro destino.
Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, Señor del buen camino, llévanos sanos y salvos a nuestro destino.
Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, Señor del buen camino, llévanos sanos y salvos a nuestro destino.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Lord of the good highway, carry us safe and sound to our destination.

After that one recites the prayer "Dulce Madre" (Sweet Mother).

Dulce Madre, no te alejes.
Tu vista de mi no apartes.
Ven conmigo a todas partes, y solo(a) nunca me dejes.
Ya que me proteges tanto, como verdadera Madre,
Haz que me bendiga el Padre, el Hijo, y el Espíritu Santo.

Sweet Mother, do not part from me.
Do not lose me from your sight.
Accompany me everywhere and never leave me all alone.
Because you protect me like a true Mother,
Obtain for me the blessing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Then one makes the Sign of the Cross again (Santiguarse)

The phrase " Señor del buen camino" (Lord of the good highway) has a double meaning. In one sense it refers to the highway and for this reason the prayer is a favorite of chauffeurs, bus drivers, and truck drivers. In another sense, however, it refers to the words of Our Lord when he said “Yo soy el Camino, la Verdad y la Vida" (I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life).

The prayer "Dulce Madre" is a favorite prayer of all Mexican Catholics and they learn it at a very early age. Many times Gina and I will linger after the mass until most of the people have left the church and then we recite the Dulce Madre together and we make the Sign of the Cross over each other. This is a very special thing for her and I must tell you that it makes me feel like we are very close. If you have never done this with your spouse I invite you to try it. It will leave you with a magical feeling. Ask your friends and neighbors about how they use the Dulce Madre. That is your homework assignment.

21 October 2009

Tostadas de Cueritos de Carmelita

This post is dedicated to our friends Suzanne and John of the blog "Living in San Miguel" so that they have an alternative to ingesting their weekly ration of cueritos via "Dori-Locos". The following recipe for cueritos (pickled pig skin) comes from my "suegra" (mother-in-law) Carmelita. She never serves cueritas in the form that they come from the store. She takes them a further step and "cures" them in her own special way. The result is a very tasty snack that tastes good with or without hot sauce. I am leaving it in the original Spanish because the recipe is simple enough that even beginners in Spanish should be able to follow it. There may be a few stumbling blocks but for the most part it is pretty straight forward. Just remember that "sal al gusto" means "salt to taste", "chucharada cafetera" means "a regular coffee spoon", "una pizca de sal" is "a pinch of salt, "se rectifica la sal" means "taste it to see if it needs more salt", and "frijol muy bien extendido" means "bean paste well spread out". Note that "duro de harina" is a wheat alternative to corn tostadas.

Tostadas de Cueritos de Carmelita


1 Kilo de cueritos
6 limones
Sal al gusto
2 cucharadas cafeteras de orégano
1 taza de frijol molido
1 col pequeña finamente picada y desinfectada
1 paquete de tostadas

Para la salsa:

4 jitomates
1 cebolla grande
3 chiles de árbol, el picante es al gusto
1 cucharada cafetera de aceite (opcional)
una pizca de sal

Manera de hacerse:

Primero se enjuagan en agua, muy bien los cueritos, se ponen en un recipiente y se agrega, orégano, sal y el jugo de 4 limones. Se mezcla muy bien y se deja reposar varias horas, los cueritos toman el sabor del orégano, la sal y el limón. Están listos para comerse.

Aparte se pica el jitomate, la cebolla y se agrega la sal y el chile picado también, se mezcla muy bien, si se desea con un poco de aceite, se rectifica la sal y listo.

Sobre una tostada se pone un poco de frijol muy bien extendido, un poco de col, cueritos, un poco de salsa y unas gotas de limón.

También se pueden servir los cueritos con la col sobre un duro de harina, que venden en las dulcerías y se agrega también salsa Valentina o salsa San Luis además de la salsa picada, con un poco de limón.

Nota: En esta familia los cueritos siempre se curten o sazonan, antes de comerse, nunca de la tienda a la mesa.

De ahí el éxito de las tostadas.

¡ Buen Provecho!

18 October 2009

Persignarse versus Santiguarse

I have a friend named Tony in Tomball, Texas who asked me the other day about the origin of the Catholic "Sign of the Cross" where one traces the form of the cross either on their head and torso or on their forehead, lips, and heart. This could be a simple matter or a complicated one depending upon ones understanding of history, the place where one lives, and one's religious point of view. I am going to stay on the safe side and say that this is my personal point of view and understanding of the matter as it relates to me here in Mexico.

First of all we need to deal with the mark or the sign itself and where it was first placed. For that I turn to the Bible. There are several passages in the Old Testament that refer to the placing of a mark or sign on a person's forehead. One place in particular is Ezikiel 9:4. The Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible which is the Catholic Bible says "Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem: and mark Thau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh, and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof." The "Thau" that it refers to is the Hebrew letter "Taw" or "Tav" which was the last letter in the ancient Hebrew alphabet and looked kind of like our present letter "X". It makes the sound of our English and Spanish letter "T". In fact, the Greek letter "T" or "Tau" makes the same "T" sound and has the same form as the English and Spanish "T". The Bible was first translated from Hebrew and Aramaic into Greek. In Biblical times, the Taw (Tav) was put on men's foreheads to distinguish those who lamented sin. It was considered a mark of reform or renewal. The Greek "Tau" was adopted by St. Francis of Assisi for just that reason and it is sometimes referred to as the "Tau of St. Francis". When the Jewish sect "The Essenes" (the Dead Sea Scrolls people) received converts into their community, they baptized them and then signed them on their foreheads with a Taw (pronounced Tav or Tof). In all probability Saint John the Baptist did the same thing and his disciples, who were later also also disciples of Christ, most likely followed the same practice. So, from a very early period we have reason to believe that people were at least making an "X" like sign on their foreheads to set them apart as believers.

Why do we trace a cross instead of an "X" (or a "T") when making the sign of the cross? Let's put aside the usual controversy about what was the exact form of the apparatus upon which Jesus was put to death. From ancient times the cross has been a powerful symbol and we have documentation from several historians going back to the second and third centuries that Christians were marking the sign of an actual cross on their foreheads. Tertulian wrote about it around A.D. 200 , Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote about it around A.D. 380, St. Jerome, who died in A.D. 420 wrote that the cross was sometimes made on the lips, and a Christian poet named Prudentius who died in A.D. 405 wrote that the sign was made on the chest. Some people might claim that Emperor Constantine first established the cross as a Christian religious symbol but he was a Johnny come lately. He wanted to consolidate his empire under a sign and he supposedly chose the cross because he said at the Battle of Milvain in A.D. 312, about noon, he saw a cross in the sky with the words “Conquer under this sign”. The only trouble with that story is that he didn’t tell anybody about this at the time or start using the cross himself until about thirteen years later. History tells us that the sign of the cross was well established long before Constantine. What Constantine did do, however, was to end Christian persecutions by formally adopting the sign.

During the fifth and sixth centuries there were various factions of Christianity emerging and one group started making the full head and torso sign of the cross to differentiate from those who made the small sign of the cross on the forehead, lips, and chest only. Thus, after things finally got sorted out we use both forms today. In Spanish they are called by two different names. "Persignarse" is to cross oneself with small crosses on the forehead, lips, and chest and "Santiguarse" is to make a full head and torso sign of the cross. Santiguarse means to bless yourself. Persignarse means to sign yourself. It is done by taking your right hand with thumb and forefinger crossed and the other three fingers held straight out and with the tip of the thumb touching the forehead making the four points of the cross there, and then on the mouth and then on the on the chest. While making the sign on the forehead you say:

Por la señal de la Santa Cruz
By the sign of the Holy Cross

Then, while making the the sign on the lips you say:

de nuestros enemigos
From our enemies

And while making the the sign over your heart you say:

libranos Señor Dios Nuestro.
deliver us Oh Lord God.

Then at this point the full head and torso sign of the cross (santiaguarse) is made saying:

En el nombre del Padre
In the name of the father

y del Hijo
and the Son

y del Espíritu Santo. Amen.
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

This ritual is performed whenever one enters a church to pray or prays before going to bed at night, etcetera. There are some variations on this when people bless each other or bless medicine before they take it. My wife Gina and I bless each other whenever we part by making the sign of the cross in turn over each other's face and then kissing the hand of the person who blessed us just as the sign of the cross is finished. No doubt other families and regions have different customs.

When passing a church or a roadside shrine people usually Santiguarse or "bless themselves". This is normally done by making the full head and torso sign of the cross only. In both cases, however, after saying the final "Amen" the right hand continues to be held with the thumb and forefinger in the shape of a cross and the other three fingers outstretched and is brought up to the lips to be kissed on the the thumb at the place where it crosses the forefinger. Unfortunately the santiaguarse when passing a church is usually done unobtrusively and on the move and if you didn't watch closely it might look like someone shooing away some flies and then kissing their thumb.

Cuando entro la iglesia para asistir a la misa o para rezar me persigno (pronounced pehr-SEE-noh). When I enter the church to attend mass or pray I cross myself (using both types of the sign of the cross).

Cuando paso una iglesia o alguien que conozco fallece o veo un accidente me santiguo. (pronounced sahn-TEE-gwoh) When I pass a church or someone that I know dies or I see an accident I cross myself (with a full head and torso sign of the cross only).

15 October 2009

Having fun with Spanish

Now that you have spent all that time (I hope) studying Spanish vocabulary, verb conjugation, and grammar it is time to put your skills to the test and have a little fun at the same time. Mexican people have a very good sense of humor and are always ready to smile and laugh. There are some simple phrases that you can throw into the mix that never fail to evoke a positive response. Let's begin with one of my favorites:

"¿Conejo Blas adonde vas?"
(Rabbit Blas where are you going ?)

You can use this phrase whenever you see someone walking past at a brisk pace or with an intense purpose to their stride. The origin is a song for children called "La Cacería" (The Hunt) written in 1935 by Francisco Gabilando Soler who is affectionately known by one and all as "Cri-Crí, el grillo cantor (Cri-Crí, the singing cricket). The first verse goes like this:

¿Conejo Blas adonde vas
Con esa escopeta colgándote atrás?
Conejo Blas ven por aquí
Que un favorcito te voy a pedir.

¿Rabbit Blas where are you going
With that shotgun hanging down behind you?
Rabbit Blas come over here
There is a little favor I´m going to ask you.

You can see all of the words to the song and listen to Cri-Crí himself sing them by following this link: http://www.cri-cri.net/Canciones/lacaceria.html

This song was also featured in a movie staring Pedro Infante in 1948 called "Los Tres Huastecos". It is about three brothers who were born triplets but who grew up in separately in San Luis Potosí, Veracrus, and Tamaulipas after their mother died. Pedro Infante plays all three parts and the brothers are seen together through special cinematography. It is a classic old Mexican movie. If you use this phrase"¿Conejo Blas adonde vas?" I know that you will impress your Mexican friends and neighbors and make them smile.

Another favorite of mine is:

"¿Qué te pasa calabaza?"
(What's happening pumpkin?)

It just means "What's happening with you?" and the calabaza is thrown in because it rhymes with "pasa". If someone asks you "¿Qué te pasa calabaza?" you should reply by saying:

"Nada, nada limonada"
(Nothing, nothing lemonade)

How about:

"¿Qué milanesas que no bisteces?"
(What wiener schnitzels and no beefsteaks!)

It is a play on words meaning more or less:

"¡Qué milagro! Hay mucho tiempo que no te había visto".
(What a miracle! It's been such a long time since I've seen you!)

Another phrase meaning "¿Qué pasa?" is "¿Qué Pachuca por Toluca?"

Instead of saying "sí" for yes try saying "simón" pronounced see-MOHN. It is slang for "yes".

Instead of saying "Igualmente" ("Same to you!" or "You too!") when someone says something like "Que tenga un buen día" (Have a nice day) you can say "Iguanas ranas" (ee-GWAN-ahs RAH-nahs) (iguanas-frogs). It is a play on words and means the same as "Igualmente".

When someone comes back from a gathering and you want to hear all the latest "chisme" (CHEEZ-meh) (gossip) you can say "Cuéntamelo" or "Cuéntame todo" (Tell me everything). If the other person hesitates you can always say, "Escupe Lupe" (ehss-KOO-pay LOO-peh) or in other words "Spit it out Lupita". Finally, copy the following sentence on a piece of paper:

¿No es lo mismo decir "Carlos Emetario Saturino Guajardo" que "sacarlo meterlo sacudirlo y guardarlo"?

Give the piece of paper to a friend and tell them that you are having trouble with your Spanish and that you need their help. Get them to explain it to you. This is your homework assignment. I'll bet you a lunch that you get a big laugh!

13 October 2009

Higher and Higher

I thought that some people might be interested in just how high above sea level we live here in the Bajío area of Mexico in the state of Guanajuato compared to other places in the world. However, we should keep in mind that in comparison to other folks in Mexico we really don't live very high here at all. The term "bajío" actually means "lowlands". Here are the elevations above sea level for some of the towns in the Irapuato area where I live.

Irapuato is 1,724 meters (5,656 ft) above the sea level.
Silao is 1,780 meters (5,839 feet).
Bajío Airport (BJX) is 1,815 meters (5,954 feet).
León de Los Aldama is 1,798 meters (5,898 feet).
Guanajuato is 1,996 meters (6,550 feet).
San Miguel de Allende is1,870 meters (6,140 feet).
Dolores Hidalgo is 1,980 meters (6,480 feet).
Celaya is 1,760 meters (5,774 feet).
Querétaro is 1,820 meters (5,971 feet).

Now, contrast those altitudes with the city of Davos in Switzerland which at At 1,560 meters (5,118 feet) it is the highest city in Europe...YES, THAT'S RIGHT, THE HIGHEST CITY IN EUROPE!!! Check it out for yourself. Our own city of Irapuato is 164 meters (538 feet) higher than Davos. The highest village in Europe that is inhabited year around is also located in Switzerland and it is called Juf but it only has a population of 24 people. The elevation of Juf is 2,126 meters (6,975 feet).

Mount Mitchell in North Carolina at 2,037 meters (6,684 feet) is the highest point in the United States east of the Mississippi River but nobody lives on top.

Our own local Mount Cubilete in Silao that you pass on the way to the Bajío airport (BJX) is 2,661 meters (8730 feet) and there are people living in the monastery at the top year around.

There is a city in Mexico called Real del Monte with about 25,000 thousand inhabitants located 70 miles north of Mexico City, which is 2,700 meters ( 8,858 feet) above the sea level.

Toluca is 2,680 meters (8,793 ft) above the sea level.
Zacatecas is 2,496 meters (8,050 ft)
Mexico City is 2,240 meters (7,349 feet).
My friend Constantino's house in Pátzcuaro is 2,432meters (7,982 feet).

I guess in comparison with Real de Monte, Toluca, Zacatecas, Constantino, and Mexico City, the people of the Bajío could be called "flatlanders". Just thinking about all this altitude has given me a nosebleed. I think I'd better go lie down for awhile...

08 October 2009

¡Rico Pozole!

Now that the weather is cooling off you will see more and more signs that say "Rico Pozole". Mexican Pozole (pronounced poh-SOH-lay) is a great favorite in Mexico and there are many variations. I like the version that is made by my suegra (mother-in-law), María del Carmen Hernández Baltazar. The following is her recipe that was handed down from her mother and her grandmother and is well over a hundred years old at least and probably goes back a lot farther. I asked her dozens of questions about her pozole and then followed the recipe myself just to make sure that I got it right. I am sure that you will like it too. There is nothing heartier than a good bowl of pozole.

Main Ingredients:

1 kilo “ maíz blanco” (white corn) or "cacahuazintle" (kah-kah-wah-SEENT-leh). This is a very large-kerneled white corn grown in Mexico. It is commonly known as “maíz pozolero”.

3 tablespoons slaked lime (calcium hydroxide), which is called “cal” (pronounced “kahl”) in Mexico and can be found in a Mexican grocery store or Mexican market. This is for processing the maiz by removing the outer husks in a process called “nixtamalization” (see below). You may also find maíz pozolero already processed and sold in plastic bags. It comes in two forms, one with the pedicels (little dark seed germ heads) intact and one with the pedicels already removed. You can use either form but the maíz with the pedicels removed makes a better pozole. You can also use canned hominy but it won't be as good as the traditional method of making your own hominy from dried corn or buying hominy already prepared by the nixtamalization process.

4 large dried chiles anchos

4 large dried chiles guajillos

1 Medium white onion

1 small head of garlic

1 very large or two medium cloves of garlic

Salt to taste

Note: For very traditional pozole people use the head of a pig for the meat and broth. For the amount of pozole in this recipe a half of a pig's head would do quite nicely. However, pozole made by using a pig's head is a bit thick and gelatinous and some people don't like it that way or else are a bit squeamish about using it. In lieu of a a pig's head you can always substitute the following which is the way many Mexican people make it these days:

2 pork shank bones (called codillo in Spanish). These are the bones that go from the shoulder of the pig to the front knees. Have the butcher cut them in half crosswise to expose the marrow.

1 kilo of pork neck (or spine) bones (called espinazo in Spanish).

1 kilo of pork shank bones with meat on them sliced crosswise in one inch thick slices (called chamorro in Spanish). The reason for using the pork shank bones in this manner is to obtain the meat but also to expose the bone marrow for making a good broth. Good bones make good broth. If you can't get pork shank cut in this way then you can substitute pork shoulder for the meat and add more neck bones.

For garnish:

2 medium white onions chopped.

¼ head of lettuce chopped

1 bunch of radishes sliced

A small quantity of oregano

Several limes cut in half

A fair amount of corn tostadas

Chile hot sauce for more “heat” in the pozole if you like, and your favorite Mexican salsa for the tostadas.

Preparing the hominy or “nixtamal”:

Add 3 quarts of water to a large noncorrosive stainless steel, or well enameled pot. Place the pot over high heat and add the slaked lime (cal) and stir until it is dissolved. Add the corn into the lime water, stirring gently. Use a slotted spoon and remove any kernels that float to the top of the water. Allow the water to boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and allow the corn to soak for about an hour. Wash the corn very thoroughly by putting it into a colander and place it under running water. Rub the corn between your fingers to loosen and remove the outer hulls. Continue washing until the corn is all white (except the tips). It is very important to remove all of the lime (cal) or it won't taste good. Drain the corn well. The cleaned and prepared corn is called "nixtamal" or "nixtamalado". At the tips of the kernels you will see the little brownish black seed germ heads or “pedicels” that are left on the corn. If you want the kernels to open and “flower” similar to “popcorn” then you need to pick off those little germ heads using a small, sharp paring knife. This step is optional and does not affect the flavor of the pozole. It just looks nicer.

Preparing the chiles:

Roast the chiles, a few at a time, on a comal or griddle for about a minute until they soften but be careful not to burn them. Remove the stems, cores and seeds, and submerge chilies in a bowl of hot water. Soak for 20-30 minutes. Drain, place in a blender and add 1/2 cup water, one half of an onion and one very large or two medium cloves of garlic. Blend until smooth. Strain through a medium mesh sieve and put the mixture aside. You can also boil the chilies instead of roasting if you wish and follow the same procedure after removing the stems, cores, and seeds.

Preparing the meat:

Put the stock meat and bones in a big kettle and cover them with water. Then add some salt (about a teaspoon or two but don't overdo it), add half an onion, and add a small head of garlic. Bring the kettle to a boil, and simmer it uncovered for about an hour. At that point, you can remove the kettle from the heat and skim off whatever fat is on the broth.

Finishing the Pozole:

Now add the nixtamal (hominy) and chile puree to the pot with the meat, and simmer the soup, covered (leaving the bones in), for 2 to 3 hours...the longer you cook it, the better. When it is finished cooking, ladle into bowls and don't forget to dig down to the bottom of the pot pushing past the bones and get a little bit of everything into the ladle. Pozole is kind of like a stew with broth. Serve garnished with chopped lettuce, sliced radish, chopped onions and a pinch of oregano. Squeeze in lime juice and add some hot sauce if you like and serve with corn tostadas and salsa. Buen Provecho! (Good eating!)

06 October 2009

A Local Tragedy

Yesterday there was a tremendous fire at the Irapuato Ciudad Industrial (see-yoo-DAHD een-doost-ree-AHL), the industrial park where I work. Fortunately for our company, the shop and the employees were in no imminent danger because we are located at least a thousand meters from the site of the fire. Unfortunately, however, for two other companies and their employees it was a nightmare. The fire started at a company called "La Gloria" that manufactures candles made of paraffin wax. It employs about four hundred and fifty people. The fire apparently started at one of the large kettles that holds the melted paraffin from which the paraffin wax is poured into candle mold machines.

The plant personnel tried to extinguish the fire themselves but were quickly overcome and they called the local fire department. By the time the fire department arrived all of the employees had been evacuated and the fire was an all consuming conflagration. It soon spread to another company named "Procemex" that makes ceramic toilets and employs another three hundred and fifty people. It took the fire departments from Irapuato and eleven neighboring cities and towns about twelve hours at least to extinguish the fire. There were units from León, Silao, Guanajuato, Abasolo, Pénjamo, Salamanca, Cortazar, Celaya, Juventino Rosas, Valle de Santiago, and the PEMEX refinery of Salamanca. There were no fatalities but several firefighters were hospitalized for smoke inhalation and heat exhaustion and one firefighter suffered a leg injury when a wall collapsed.

When we first heard of the fire my boss called all of the management people together and put in place an emergency plan to evacuate our people should that be necessary. Since many of our employees come to work on bicycles we made sure that everyone would have a ride with those of us who have automobiles or motor scooters. In the end we didn't have to implement the emergency plan but my boss closed the shop early as a precaution and sent everyone home. As I was leaving I passed as close to the scene of the fire as I thought prudent and I took several photos that you can see below. This morning when I came to work the ruins were still smoldering and the air smelled like burning candles.

The real tragedy is that at least five hundred people if not more have lost their livelihood. Most of the people from the candle factory live close by in a little village named "San Antonio El Chico" or as we affectionately refer to it, "San Antonito". I am afraid that there will be slim pickings indeed in San Antonito for Christmas this year. The other company, the toilet factory, was only partially destroyed so there is hope that not all of the jobs will be lost. It will be a long, long time, however, until this area gets back on its feet. The candle factory has been a mainstay of the local community for ages.

05 October 2009

The velvet clouds...

I have a favorite song called "Si Nos Dejan" that was written and performed by a famous Guanajuato native named José Alfredo Jiménez. In this song I have a favorite word. The word is "terciopelo" (tehr-see-oh-PAY-loh) which means "velvet". In this song two lovers are seeking to build a love nest close to Heaven and they sing "Hacemos con las nubes terciopelo" or "We'll make it with the velvet clouds". I like singing the word "terciopleo" because it lends itself to great emotion in combination with the music and I can really belt it out. However, I always wondered why the word for velvet in Spanish is so different from the English word "velvet" or the French word "velours". Now I know why and I am going to share it with you.

It is because the word in English and Spanish has a completely different etymology. The English and French "velvet" and "velours" derive from the Old French "veluotte" which in turn comes from the Latin word "villus" which means "tuft or growth of hair". The Spanish word "terciopelo" is a descriptive word relating to the art of weaving. The weaving process for velvet involves weaving two pieces of fabric face to face and then cutting them apart. It is a bit complicated to explain so I won't go into the process in great detail. Nevertheless, in the normal fabric weaving process there is a group of threads called the "warp" that run lengthwise and a group of threads called the "woof" that run crosswise. In the velvet weaving process, two warps and one woof are used. The Spanish word for "woof" is "la trama". It comes from the verb "tramar" meaning "to weave". The trama in weaving terciopelo is called "el primer hilo" or "the first thread". Note that "hilo" is pronounced "EE-loh". The Spanish word for "woof" is "urdimbre" (uhr-DEEM-bray) and for weaving terciopelo it is known as "el hilo segundo" or "the second thread. The third thread which is also a warp thread and forms what we call the "pile" of the velvet in English is called the "tercer pelo" in Spanish or "third fur". The word "pelo" can refer hair on humans or fur on animals but it can also mean the "nap" or "pile" of a fabric or carpet. Finally from "tercer pelo" we get the word "tercioplelo". Amazing, isn't it? I wonder if Bobby Vinton knows that?

04 October 2009

Another Red Letter Day

Today is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi. It is a true "Red Letter Day" in the traditional sense if there ever was one and it is bound to be marked with a rubric on just about every saints' calendar in Christendom. In Mexico there are over two hundred "parroquias" (parish churches) dedicated to St. Francis and countless "Tercer Orden" churches, small chapels, and shrines. The "Tercer Orden" or "Third Order" of St. Francis is an organization originally made up of devout lay people. It was formed in 1221 as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance. The "Second Order" is the "Poor ladies" or "Poor Clares" a contemplative order founded in 1212 by St Clare of Assisi, under the inspiration and guidance of St Francis. The "First Order" of course, is the "Friars Minor" founded 800 years ago this year in 1209 by St. Francis himself and which came to be called the Franciscan Order.

St Francis was a reformer at a time when the Catholic Church was in chaos and besieged on all sides by false prophets, corrupt clergy, and heretics. He was a man on a mission to bring people closer to God and he wasn't even a priest. He began his journey to sainthood as a a good Samaritan, helping people however he could. He had a mystical vision of Jesus Christ in the Church of San Damiano on the outskirts of Assisi in which an icon called the "Cross of San Damiano" came alive and said to him three times, "Francis, Francis, go and repair my house which you can see is falling into ruins". He looked around him and saw that the church was indeed in disrepair and so he sold his belongings and helped the local priest fix the place up. In fact, he restored four more churches until he began to think that he might be on the wrong track and that what Our Lord meant by "His House" was not the buildings but the Church as an organization.

By this time he had attracted a small following of eleven men. Together with his followers he went to Rome and he managed to get a meeting with Pope Innocent 3rd with the help of his local Bishop, Guido of Assisi, who introduced him to Cardinal Giovani de San Paolo who just happened to be the confessor of Innocent the 3rd. You see, even back in those days it was mighty helpful to have political connections, or as we call them here in Mexico, "palancas" (levers). Pope Innocent the 3rd was pretty skeptical about this simple fellow, Francis, and his rag-tag bunch all dressed in brown woolen robes and sandals, but he finally gave in. He made Francis a deacon so that he would at least be able to preach from the altar. This was the beginning of a great religious order whose history it would be impossible to encompass in the limited space of this blog. St. Francis was canonized a saint only two years after his death in 1226 at age forty-five.

I adopted Saint Francis as my personal saintly role model mainly because of his common sense and his solidarity with both Heaven and Earth. He spent his life trying to do the right thing always and that was whatever the Holy Spirit led him to do. There is a legend that says St. Francis was so caring about all living things that when he was on his deathbed he asked that his donkey be brought to his bedside. Just before he died he thanked his donkey for long years of faithful service and asked forgiveness of the animal for being such a burden for all of those years...and the donkey hung his head and wept. That is exactly how I want to go out...thanking my family and friends for caring for me for all these years and asking forgiveness for being such a pain in the ass.

The Prayer of Saint Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; To be understood, as to understand; To be loved, as to love; For it is in giving that we receive, It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

NOTE: For more interesting things about Saint Francis you might like read my blog entries entitled "Sputnik & St. Francis" and "Tau, Tav, Ansata, & Ta".

03 October 2009

SMU Digital Collections

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a very nice lady named Ms. Cindy Boeke who is a Digital Collections Developer for the Norwick Center for Digital Services at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas. She had read some of the historical essays that I wrote for Malcolm Lubliner's "CityVisions" website and invited me to take a look at the digital photograph collection they are building, called “Mexico: Photographs, Manuscripts, and Imprints.”. The Mexico collection is part of a larger collection called the SMU Central University Libraries (CUL) Digital Collections.

I can't tell you how much that I was impressed by this collection. There are photos of Mexico that I have never seen before. One photo in particular I found extremely interesting. It is a rare full figure photo of General Tomás Mejía posing for the camera. General Mejia was executed by firing squad alongside Emperor Maximilian and General Miguel Miramón at Cerro de las Campanas near Querétaro on 19 June 1867. I have always been fascinated by the story of Maximilian and so the photo of General Mejia in the SMU Digital Collection was a great find for me. I am really indebted to Cindy Boeke.

In addition to the photo of General Mejia there are some excellent photos of Mexico City during the revolution and they show what a tragedy the revolution really was. After all, it was more of a civil war among multiple parties than a revolution and it broke out late in the year 1910 almost exactly one hundred years after the fight for Mexican independence from Spain began in Guanajuato. Knowing that the year 2010 will mark the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the fight for independence and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution makes it particularly interesting to look back and reflect on what actually occurred. The release of the digital collection of SMU for public viewing over the Internet is therefore a very helpful and timely event. My sincere thanks to all of the people who made this possible and I encourage anyone who has an interest in Mexican history to take advantage of this opportunity and have a good look. As a bonus, if you go to the main SMU/CUL Digital Collections page you will find many other interesting photo collections. If you like what you see, please send Cindy a thank you note (cboek AT smu DOT edu). Thank you Cindy!

01 October 2009

No crocodiles or rhinocerouses!

Throughout history people from various parts of the world have associated themselves, their clan, or their tribe with a certain animal or "totem" as the American Indians call it. I am of Polish American heritage and it is my understanding that even the ancient Polish clans had a totem pole upon which sat their animal counterpart. Hmmm...maybe that's why they call us "Poles". Anyway, their totem-spirit of the clan was called a "Rodnidze". In Mexico, the "Mexica" (or "Mejica") people, those whom we refer to as "Aztec" today, considered the jaguar to be the totem animal of the powerful deity "Tezcatlipoca" (or "Tepeyollotl"). In fact, the jaguar totem was considered to be so powerful by the indigenous people of Latin America that the jaguar is a national symbol of Brazil. I have had a personal totem ever since I was six years old and even though I run the risk of everyone laughing at me I am going to share it with you. First a little background...

In 1953 a child star from Ponca City, Oklahoma, named Gayla Peevey recorded a song for Columbia records called "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" written by John Rox in 1950. The Oklahoma City Zoo capitalized upon the popularity of the song in 1953 through a fund raising campaign to "buy a hippo for Gayla" in order to bring a hippo to the zoo. The song raised enough money to buy a baby hippo, named Matilda, that was flown to Oklahoma City and presented by Gayla to the zoo. The song was played all over the radio dial at the time and I received a copy of the record for Christmas that year. I used to play the song over and over on our old RCA Victor radio-record player console with the RCA dog "Nipper" looking down and watching over me from the console lid. Anyone fifty-five or older will probably remember this type of radio-record player. They were actually a large piece of wooden furniture. Anyway, that was how I got interested in hippos.

The whole thing seemed to turn out pretty prophetic. I share a lot of characteristics with hippos. For one thing they are large and I am quite large (without exaggerating). They like to swim and I like to swim. They have a thick skin and me too! In fact, just the skin of a full grown hippopotamus can weigh up to a thousand pounds. Hippos are ornery and near sighted and I am ornery and near sighted. Hippos are agile and...okay, so I used to be agile. By the way, a hippo can easily outrun a human. Hippos "break wind" a lot and well...you know what I mean. Hippos have a big mouth and so do I. Hippos live with crocodiles and much of the time I find myself up to my neck in crocodiles so no problem there. As a matter of fact, the mouth of a hippo is two feet wide and it can produce a closing pressure of two thousand pounds. That is enough to crush the body of any crocodile with ease. Hippos are mostly vegetarians and these days I am mostly vegetarian. At least I try to avoid eating red meat as much as possible. When all is said and done, in my other life I was probably a hippo.

So what ever happened to Gayla Peevey and Matilda? Well, Gayla had a short but interesting singing career and then ended up as a married California business woman with her own advertising agency. Matilda was joined by another Hippo named Norman and together they had about a dozen offspring. I think their names were Marcell, Arnell, Burnell, Raynell, W.L., Lynell, Odell, Udell, Claude, Newgene, Clovis, and Tater. Matilda left Oklahoma City at 10:20 a.m. Sunday, March 1st, 1998 by trailer, headed for the Disney Animal Kingdom Theme Park at the Walt Disney World Resort, near Orlando, Florida. She died due to heart failure at the age of 48 en route to her new home. Norman, who was Matilda's 30 year old mate, had been shipped earlier to the theme park on February 12th and arrived on February 14th in good condition.

Oh, don't you know, you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone...

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas
Gayla Peevey, recorded in 1953 (Lyrics and music by John Rox)

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
Don't want a doll, no dinky Tinker Toy
I want a hippopotamus to play with and enjoy

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
I don't think Santa Claus will mind, do you?
He won't have to use our dirty chimney flue
Just bring him through the front door,
that's the easy thing to do

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles, no rhinocerouses
I only like hippopotamuses
And hippopotamuses like me too

(Short Music Interlude)

Mom says the hippo would eat me up, but then
Teacher says a hippo is a vegeterian

(Short Music Interlude)

There's lots of room for him in our two-car garage
I'd feed him there and wash him there and give him his massage

I can see me now on Christmas morning,
creeping down the stairs
Oh what joy and what surprise
when I open up my eyes
to see a hippo hero standing there

I want a hippopotamus for Christmas
Only a hippopotamus will do
No crocodiles or rhinocerouses
I only like hippopotamuseses
And hippopotamuses like me too!

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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.