30 December 2015

A Good Intention

Every year about this time I choose a theme for a New Year's resolution that I can put a one word label on and just concentrate on that one thing for a whole year until it becomes an ingrained habit. I am pleased to report that this system has worked for me very well, especially since I can place this label unobtrusively on many everyday objects as a positive and constant reminder. Here is a partial list from years past:

2011 "Ideate" ("to form an idea of", "think of", "imagine", "conceive of","envision", "visualize")

2012 "Update" ("improve", "correct", "renew", "revise", "upgrade", "amend", "overhaul", "modernize", "contemporize")

2013 "Motivate" ("prompt", "drive", "move", "inspire", "stimulate", "influence", "activate", "impel", "push", "propel"

2014 "Ataraxia" ("Tranquillity", a state of freedom from emotional disturbance and anxiety)

2015 "Contemplate" (Know Thyself, "examine", "inspect", "observe", "survey", "study", "scrutinize")

My theme for 2016 is a bit more complex than the previous themes which are fairly straightforward. My decision was influenced by the fact that 2016 is an election year in the U.S. and the political situation is becoming quite bewildering. This is due in part to worldwide concerns of extremist terrorism, global warming, racial prejudice, human rights, economic hardship, food and water shortages, new diseases, epidemics, etc. It is becoming more clear than ever that the whole world is in the same "boat"  as we are, as it were.

My resolution theme word for 2016 is "Intentionality" and so what do I mean by that? Intentionality is a key word that I borrowed from the realm of Philosophy and in particular the Philosophy of "Phenomenology" which is the study of experience and consciousness. All of the information that comes to us from the outside world from birth onward, we receive through our five senses; sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. However, in actuality there is really only one sense, the sense of touch. Whenever we touch an object with our fingers, in many cases we are acting deliberately and directly on the object. With sound, sight, smell, and taste, however the object is acting indirectly on us through electro-magnetic vibrations. In fact we are constantly being bombarded by electro-magnetic signals from the space that surrounds us. Every signal that we perceive must first pass through the filter of our intellect before we are conscious of it. We call this "experience".

Once we experience an object we use our intellect to process it. There are several tools for this at our disposal such as instinct, memory, intuition, imagination, and logic plus "a priori" metaphysics. I won't go into metaphysics here other than to say that I believe wholeheartedly in the existence of the immortal soul and the Holy Spirit. The "intentionality" is the connection between our conscious mind and the object we are thinking about. It is the quality of our thoughts and beliefs that consists in their being directed toward some object or state of affairs.

Let me give an example. For an object we have a rock sitting on a bare patch of ground. One person is sitting at a distance from the rock and he sees the rock at eye level with the sun behind the rock and he pictures the object as dark grey in color and rectangular. There is another person who is sitting on the opposite side of the rock with the sun behind her. She pictures the object as a pinkish shade of grey and thinks it might be oval. There is another person sitting off to the side up in a tree and he sees the object as light grey but to him it is definitely round in shape and it has a whole in the middle like a donut. Now, the only thing that connects these people so far is the "intentionality" that they are looking at the same object but each has a different perception and conception. It is obvious that in order to form a true consensus about the real nature of the object there needs to be some further investigation and discussion to bring the three perceptions in line to form a conceptual agreement as to its nature. However, this all too often never happens or doesn't happen soon enough.

Intentionality without consensus is like encountering an elephant in the dark. The 13th century Persian Sufi mystic poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi ("Rumi" for short) talks about "An Elephant in the Dark":

Some Hindus have an elephant to show.
No one here has ever seen an elephant.
They bring it at night to a dark room.

One by one we go into the dark and come out
Saying how we experienced the animal.
One happens to touch the trunk.
A water pipe kind of creature.

Another, the ear. A very strong, always moving
Back and forth, fan animal.
Another, the leg.
I find it still, like a column on a temple.

Another touches the curved back.
A leathery throne. Another, the cleverest,
Feels the tusk. A rounded sword made of porcelain.
He is proud of his description.

Each of us touches one place
And understands the whole in that way.
The palm and the fingers feeling in the dark
Are how the senses explore the reality of the elephant.

If each of us held a candle there,
And if we went in together, we could see it.

The people who went in to see the elephant had the same intentionality in that they were all focused on the elephant but in the end their conception of the animal was different for each person. Why? Because they had no way to shine a light on the subject. By the way, if this doesn't remind you of the GOP presidential nominating process, raise your hand.

There are two points to be made about intentionality in regard to discussing things with others. The first is to make sure that at least there is a consensus about the intentionality of the subject and that you are all talking about the same thing. The second thing is to make sure that each party has access to more than one view before they entrench themselves in dogma. Whenever I go to a meeting I intend to carry the stub of a candle with me that I will place on the table in front of me. When someone asks me what it is for (and there will always be someone), I intend to tell them that it is for examining the elephant, because there is an elephant in the room at every meeting.

05 December 2015

Oh we got trouble!

"Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
That rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Pool!"

In Robert Meredith Willson's "The Music Man", "T" meant "Trouble" and "T" rhymes with "P" that stands for "Pool". In my generation "P" stood for "Pinball" and caused the same trouble, "young men (and women) fritterin' away their noontime, suppertime, choretime too! Boo hoo!

This generation has a their own supposedly harmless vice to deal with and it starts with "V" which sill rhymes with "T" and also means trouble. A friend of mine knows a young man, actually several young men who have acquired both the knack and the compulsion to play Video games to the exclusion of some of their responsibilities and their studies and asked me if I had any suggestions. Since my friend had already tried the direct approach I decided that some stealth might work and so I disguised my approach by making a reference and comparison with video games themselves. Here is what I suggest:

Dear young man or young lady,

Let’s play a video game in our head. In this game there is a world full of people and eighty percent of them are Zombies. They function only by the necessities of pure basic instincts and also through habits formed by taking the bait that is offered to them by the Manipulators of the world. These Manipulators of the world consist of another fifteen percent of the world population and their well-being depends upon their ability to enslave the Zombies and use them to gain wealth, power and prestige over each other individually as well as all the other non-Zombies of the world. There remains another five percent of the population who are non-Zombies and non-Manipulators, and although they are not actual enemies of the Manipulators, they are a constant headache because the five percent are humble and patient Christian humanist intellectuals (like Pope Francis) who are clothed in virtue to the extent that even if “sticks and stones break their bones, they will just keep on going and going, slowly teaching the Zombies how to think for themselves.

Oh, the Manipulators aren’t stupid, they can think for themselves, but it is in the form of vice, not virtue, in what we call “street smarts” or negative wit from which comes their manipulative powers. The difference between a Zombie and a non-Zombie is the difference between “0” and “1”, or in other words, a decision.  With instinct and habit (and video games) there is no decision. Everything is pure reflex action and it is strengthened by adding muscle memory through mindless repetition. A decision, however, requires thinking. So then why do people do things only by reflex or habit? They do it for the same reason that they eat potato chips. They just can’t stop! Each time they shoot the other guy or blow up something or chop off the monster’s head they get a little shot of a chemical called L-Dopa (L-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) in their brain’s pleasure center and this is an addictive drug. Believe me, the devil knows all about it.

And so in the end, who do you think is going to win the game? Will the Zombies overwhelm the Manipulators? I doubt it. Will the Manipulators once and for all get rid of the Christian Humanists? I don’t know but I’d be willing to bet that God is not about to abandon His friends. Doing what God would like us to do is the key to a joyous and triumphant eternal life. The question boils down to what a person wants to be in life, a Zombie, a Manipulator, or a child of God who is truly free from anxiety and fear, and does not need material things to keep them “doped up”.

So, where does that leave us? Hopefully it leaves us walking with Jesus on the path to eternal life. Whenever we make a decision to do something virtuous we take a step toward God. Whenever we choose a vice we turn our back on God and go in the opposite direction. Be careful which direction you are headed in when the music stops. You can always choose your direction. That is what free will is all about. God speaks to us though our conscience. We should always make it a a point to decide what we want to do whenever possible and then listen. Do not do anything, either alone or with others, that is opposed to your conscience. Good luck and God bless you!

Sincerely and Amen,

Your friend.

07 October 2015

Notes on Conservatism

Recently I have been reading a selection of notes about Edmund Burke who is considered to be the father of the conservative  movement.  Mr. Burke served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party. The reason for my interest was a desire to pin down the "conservative principles" that many of the current Republican candidates claim to espouse but do not actually enumerate and so I went back to find out what Edmund Burke had to say.

The characteristic passion of Burke's life was his love of order. Liberty should be connected with order and any political movements that undermine either liberty or order should be challenged at all costs. The wisdom accumulated by experience in the past should be venerated and the bounds of liberty should only be enlarged with great caution and even then only gradually. Whatever has served well up to this point must obviously be fit for its purpose and should not be substituted rashly.

Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that is exactly how I feel. As a matter of consideration I submit that the average American  feels the same way. When I look for "conservative principles", however, there seem to be a myriad of them depending upon which newspaper or magazine you read or what talk show host you listen to. So, I decided to skip forward to the beginning of the Republican Party when it was formed in Ripon, Wisconsin in February 1854. It turns out that in general it was formed by both conservatives  and liberals who were united against the injustice of slavery.

Many Republican candidates tout their party as the "Party of Lincoln" since Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. It is interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln would, in my opinion, have had no problem with Edmund Burke and his love of order. James Randall, the noted scholar from the University of Illinois who specialized in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War stated that Lincoln was "conservative in his complete avoidance of that type of so-called 'radicalism' which involved abuse of the South, hatred for the slaveholder, thirst for vengeance, partisan plotting, and ungenerous demands that Southern institutions be transformed overnight by outsiders."

I wonder what Lincoln would have to say about sending eleven million people back to Mexico, building a wall to rival the Great Wall  of China ("only much taller") between the U.S. and Mexico or blaming the proliferation of firearm tragedies on the proliferation of the mentally ill and not the proliferation of unregulated firearms. Or how about some of the "first day in office" projects promised by the current crop of Republican candidates like, cancelling the Affordable Care Act, or defunding Planned Parenthood health care services for millions of women who would otherwise have no access to breast cancer screenings, Pap tests & HPV tests, pelvic exams, and help with urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and vaginitis?

American conservatism is best characterized as a reaction against utopian ideas of progress. That's fine, nobody expects utopia. In Thessalonians 5:21, the Bible tells us to "Test all things; hold fast to that which is good." The phrase is divided by a semicolon. On the left hand side you have the Democrats who are more of a mind to "test all things" and especially those that are new and shiny, and on the other side there are the Republicans who aren't afraid to try something new as long as we proceed with caution. In the middle is where most people are, both Democrat and Republican. It is the people of both parties who are out on the fringes that are not willing to concede  that compromise is a fundamental tenet of Democracy and it is cable news and talk radio who fuel the fire.

It is the privilege of the political parties to serve their country and not the job of the people to serve the political parties in order to win some kind of "break the piñata" free-for-all. My high school history teacher, Jack Annetti (R.I.P.) drummed democracy into our heads quite well; "Demos Kratein, gentlemen, Demos Kratein, the government of the people". Unfortunately, in this day and age, the "vox populi" (voice of the people) is not quite the "vox Dei" (the voice of God)...but it ought to be.

05 August 2015

A Colloquy with God

One of my favorite Christian Humanist Philosophers, Sir Thomas Brown, wrote a book in 1643 called Religio Medici (The Religion  of a Doctor). Sir Thomas was a practicing physician and had a deep curiosity towards the natural world, and he also had wide learning in diverse fields including both science and religion. He wrote in his book that sleep so resembles death that he dare not go to sleep without saying his prayers and bidding the world adieu each night in a colloquy with God and before turning in at the end of  each day he recited this prayer and by the time he reached the end of it he was asleep. Perhaps it will have the same effect on you as it does on me. I call it the long form of "Now I lay me down to sleep." In any case it is charming.

Sir Thomas wrote as a preface: "This is the dormative I take to bedward; I need no other Laudanum than this to make me sleep; after which I close my eyes in security content to take my leave of the sun and sleep unto the resurrection"

"The night is come like to the day
Depart not Thou Great God away.
Let not my sins, black as the night,
Eclipse the luster of Thy light.
Keep still in my horizon, for me,
The sun makes not the day, but Thee.
Thou whose nature cannot sleep,
On my temples sentry keep;
Guard me against those watchful foes,
Whose eyes are open while mine are closed.
Let no dreams my head infest,
But such as Jacob's temples blest.
While I do rest my soul advance,
Make my sleep a holy trance;
That I may, my rest being wrought,
Awake into some happy thought.
And with as active vigor run
My course, as doth the nimble sun.
Sleep is a death, O make me try,
By sleeping what it is to die.
And down as gently lay my head
Upon my grave as now my bed.
However I rest, great God let me
Awake again at last with Thee.
And thus assured, behold I lie
Securely, whether to wake or die.
These are my drowsy days in vain
Now I do wake to sleep again.
O come that hour when I shall never
Sleep this again, but wake forever!"

AMEN !!!

03 June 2015

Fi Fa Fo Fum

For those who do not get the gist of the title of this post you might remember the children’s story of Jack and the Beanstalk where the Giant said:

"Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,
I smell the blood of an Englishman;
Be he alive, or be he dead,
I'll grind his bones to make my bread!" 

In this case however the Giant is the game of Football (or in other words, Fútbol, Soccer, or Balompié) and the Giant smells a rat that symbolizes the executive body of The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), whose goal, as enshrined in its statutes, is the constant improvement of football. I heard one newscaster say that Fútbol is a religion. On the contrary, amigo, Fútbol is not a religion. It is a team sport, and large predatory organizations like FIFA are a symbol of the attempt to supplant religion with their own lust for money and power.

I feel a bit like the Madman in Friedrich Nietzsche's, "The Parable of the Madman" except that I proclaim that God is very much alive and even FIFA cannot kill religion and make everyone worship at the FIFA altar. From religion we get morals as in the Ten Commandments of Moses and the Golden Rule of Jesus Christ to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. These morals are the basis for religions the world over for people who are decent and God fearing. The leadership of FIFA adheres to nothing but the rules of their highly vaulted Ethics Committee of whom all FIFA officials are supposedly subscribers.

Without a belief in the Supreme Being, the Uncaused Cause, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, we are left with nothing more than a tattered and war warn set of rules (or treaties) called ethics that is the cumulative effort of kings, emperors, corporations and other despots including the filthy rich and their legions of lawyers in seeking the greatest advantage in the “Texas Hold ‘em” material game of life. These so-called ethics don’t really serve for much beyond the platitudes bandied about in the hot breath atmosphere of political speeches and debates and do not separate virtue from vice as was the original intention.

In a letter to Pope Pius II entitled “Cribratio Alkorani” in the year 1460 the renowned philosopher, mathematician, and scholar Nicolas of Cusa defined Virtue as moving in a direction toward the Good which is God Himself. He said we recognize that in ourselves there is a certain appetite or “Spirit” which moves us towards the good and indeed we find the majority of people in the world so inclined. However, there are those who have either been led astray by others or have been deliberately chosen the path in the opposite direction from the good and are attracted to the bad. The Good we associate with “Virtue” (notice the resemblance of “Good” and “God”) and the bad we associate with the father of all lies and we call it “Vice”.

One of my favorite poems comes from a work called “The Fable of the Bees” by Bernard Mandeville, an Anglo-Dutch philosopher, political economist and satirist who was born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, in 1670 but who lived most of his life in England. One stanza goes:

"And Virtue, who from Politics
Has learned a thousand cunning tricks,
Was by their happy influence,
Made friends with Vice,
And ever since, the worst of all the multitude
Did something for the common good."

He is talking about how willing virtuous people are to look the other way when the activities of those who wallow in vice also produce a benefit to those who fancy themselves as “good”.

The so called virtuous who benefit indirectly from vice are quick to say, “Well, after all, it really isn’t all that bad and look at the benefits to society that it brings”.  This is a classic case of what George Orwell referred to as “doublethink”.  The term doublethink means to know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancel out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while at the same time laying claim to it. We sometimes call this “turning a blind eye” or “willful ignorance”. Blaise Pascal called it “the fault of voluntary illusion” and Fyodor Dostoyevsky called it “compromise with conscience”. Here in México people say “Hacen de la vista gorda” which means literally, “They give it the fat look” or in other words the "virtuous" look the other way. However, no matter what you call it, the truth is that it is nothing more than a convoluted form of lying

In the case of corrupt FIFA officials they drip-feed aid to small developing countries and youth organizations and then ballyhoo the effort as justification for millions and millions of dollars that slip through their fingers and into their own pockets. After all, isn’t it all too often the real purpose of non-profit organizations in general? Too many of them exist to feather the nests of a selected few insiders in the name (only) of “Virtue”. And so, when Vice and Virtue get cozy together in the name of the public good they always shake hands, pat each other on the back, and smile for the cameras. It is a shame…a crying shame.

The FIFA scandal can be compared to Mexican "Lucha Libre" wrestling. You have the "técnicos", the good guys, versus the "rudos", the bad guys. "Técnico" (TEK-nee-koh) means technician. These are the wrestlers that use their technique and ability to win. "Rudo" (ROO-doh) literally means ruffian or villain. The "rudos" are the wrestlers who cheat in order to win. You have to choose your lot in life by being a técnico or a "rudo". In the FIFA scandal, the corrupt officials at FIFA are the Rudos and the youth and lovers of the game of Fútbol the world over are the Técnicos. The call for justice is always the same, "¡Arriba los técnicos y bajo los rudos!"..."Up with the good guys and down with the bad guys”, and one more thing…¡Viva Fútbol!

07 May 2015

Día de la Madre 2015

Sunday, May 10th, is Mother’s Day in México. It is always on the 10th of May. In the United States, Mother’s Day is always on the second Sunday of May regardless of the date. In 2015 the second Sunday of May falls on May 10th and so this year the people of both Mexico and the United States honor their Mothers on the same day. That won’t happen again until the year 2020. Why does Mexico celebrate Mother’s Day on a fixed date and the United States celebrate Mother’s Day on a variable date but both in the first half of May? It's a rather long story. Originally they celebrated on the same date but things got a bit confused along the way. The important thing is that Mothers everywhere get their due. Let’s take a look at how the whole thing got started.

First of all, celebrating motherhood is nothing new. The practice goes way back in history all over the world. In England it evolved into “Mothering Day” which was a Sunday in Lent when servants were given the day off to return to their ancestral home and visit their mothers and share time with their families. The practice did not fare well in the American colonies at first and it wasn’t until after the bloodshed of the American Civil War and during the Franco Prussian war that an interest in celebrating Mother’s Day was revived. A lady named Julia Ward Howe, who in 1861 wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, made a “Mother’s Day Proclamation” in 1870. She called on mothers the world over to come together and protest the futility of their sons killing the sons of other mothers. Her motive was not so much to revere motherhood as it was to use motherhood as a catalyst for peace. During the ensuing years the celebration of Mother’s Day was disorganized and sporadic but the seed that Julia Ward Howe planted began to grow.

At the same time that Julia Ward Howe was writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” there was a lady in West Virginia named Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis who was organizing women to work for the well-being of their communities by holding “Mother's Work Days”, which were days when groups of women dedicated themselves to campaigns involving better hygiene, sanitation, and medical care in the small communities of rural West Virginia. During the Civil War she helped not only her neighbors but wounded soldiers from both sides as well and through all that she managed to keep peace among the various political factions in her neighborhood. Taking their cue from Julia Ward Howe, a women’s group led by Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis began to celebrate an adaptation of Howe’s idea called “Mother’s Friendship Day” in order to re-unite families and neighbors that had been divided between the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. Her many humanitarian efforts were only cut short by her death on Tuesday, May 9th, 1905.

After Anna Marie Reeves Jarvis died, her daughter Anna M. Jarvis campaigned for the creation of an official Mother’s Day in remembrance of her mother and in honor of peace. The idea for Mother's Day came to Miss Jarvis on May, 9th 1907, the second anniversary of her mother's death, which happened to fall on a Thursday. On May 10, 1908 which was the second Sunday in May, the first official Mother's Day celebration took place at Andrew's Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. From there the idea spread from state to state and foreign countries as well, including Mexico. In 1912 West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize Mother's Day, and in 1914 Woodrow Wilson signed it into national observance, declaring the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. This may be where the fixed date versus variable date separation took place. What had been originally celebrated May 10th had now been officially transferred to the second Sunday.

In Mexico City in 1917 a young man of 28 from the State of Puebla named Rafael Alducin Bedolla founded what was to become an important newspaper called Excelsior. In April of 1922 he invited all interested parties to a convention to propose a nationwide holiday in Mexico dedicated to Mexican motherhood. As a result of this convention the first official Mexican “Día de la Madre” was celebrated on May, 10th, 1922. Guess what…it was a Wednesday! Why they didn’t follow the second Sunday idea we’ll probably never know. If anyone does know, please tell me. Father’s day in Both Mexico and the United States is celebrated on the third Sunday in June. This year Father’s Day in both countries will fall on Sunday, June 21st.

There are various ways that Mexican people celebrate Mother’s Day depending upon their local customs. Here in Irapuato, Guanajuato, where I live, it is the custom to stand outside of the mother’s house after midnight and sing “Mañanitas”, a very old traditional song. It is usually reserved for the Blessed Virgin, Mother’s Day, and Birthday celebrations. If the people are wealthy they may hire Mariachis to do their singing or perhaps a small “Norteño” type band.  Some people, who are not so wealthy, band together and go in turn to the houses of each of their mothers with the men singing one part and the women singing another part. It is very beautiful. The night doesn’t end until everyone’s mother has been serenaded. On the morning of May 10th the mothers usually attend morning mass at their local church and after mass the children treat mother to breakfast. In the afternoon everyone gathers at the home of the oldest mother in the family and the ladies make chicken with mole sauce, jalapeños, corn tortillas, and red rice. If they don’t want to cook they send out for “carnitas” (braised pork) which is another favorite dish and it is served with refried beans, tortillas, and rice. Afterwards there is a desert of either ice cream or cake or both. Oh, yes, I almost forgot…there is generally plenty of tequila too, usually served with the carbonated soft drink “Squirt”. It is a special time that reunites the family with the mother at the center. Here is the Mother’s day version of “Mañanitas:

Estas son las mañanitas, que cantaba el Rey David.
Hoy por ser día de las madres, te las cantamos a ti.
Despierta Mamá despierta mira que ya amaneció.
Ya los pajaritos cantan. La luna ya se metió.

Que linda está la mañana en que vengo a saludarte.
Venimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte.
Ya viene amaneciendo. Y a la luz del día nos dio.
Levántate Madre mía. Mira que ya amaneció.


20 February 2015

Lenten Capirotada Revisited

One of the Lenten traditions that we enjoy here in Mexico is a desert called “capirotada”. It is a bread pudding made with stale bread, brown sugar (called piloncillo), cheese, butter, nuts, and raisins and several other ingredients depending upon who makes it. If you have one hundred people making capirotada you will probably have at least twenty variations depending upon regional and ethnic considerations. I noticed that capirotada is often mentioned in cook books as a Lenten-Passover dish and I wondered about the connection. Why do two religious cultures share a particular traditional dish tradition at the same season? It is quite apparent that Hispanic People and Sephardic Jewish people share a fondness for capirotada but the fact they both eat it as a traditional seasonal food made me curious. I decided to delve into the history of capirotada but I soon found myself aimlessly wandering around the attic of history until I stumbled upon some clues.
First of all, let’s examine the word capirotada itself. In Spanish, the word “capa” can mean various things but they all have a common theme. A “capa” generally means a covering or a layer. It can mean a “cape”, a “coating” or a “layer” of something as in a “coating of paint” or a “layer of chocolate”, or it can be a “cap”. A “capirote” can mean a cow or other livestock that has a head that is a different color that the body. Many bird names in Spanish have the word “capirotada” appended to them if the bird has some type of different colored “cap” of feathers on its head. The word “capirote” also signifies a long pointed hood that medieval penitents wore or the cap worn by prisoners put on display for public humiliation or the traditional penitent’s garb worn by cofradía participants during the silent march on Good Friday in Spain, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries. In the United States it might be referred to as the “dunce cap” that the teachers of years gone by made students wear if they acted badly or didn’t know their lessons. A “capirote” is also the name for the little hood that falconers put on the heads of their birds to keep them quiet. Lastly, a “capirotada” can also be a mix of something like a stew, or a hash, or a mincemeat or a layered casserole. Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.
There is a French word, “capilotade” that lends credence to the idea of a layered casserole. There are a multitude of recipes for French capilotade and some involve poultry, some involve red meat, and some involve fish such as “Capilotade de Morue” which is a dish made from salt cod, capers, and wine. If we go back in time, however, and we go as far back as ancient Rome, we come across several dishes that lend themselves to the idea of “capirotada” or “capilotade”. The most prominent of these Roman cuisines is a dish called “Sala Cattabia”. The Romans used a bread for this casserole dish that was little more than flour, water, and salt. After the bread was baked it was broken up and put in a pot, covered with a layer of goat cheese, and then layers of cucumbers, boiled chicken, onions, and pine nuts. The whole thing was cooked with some kind of dressing that contained vinegar, raisins, honey, pepper, and various herbs.
Okay, now it is time to “fast forward” quite a bit to around the year 1500. It appears to me from my wanderings through time that the various evolving forms of the Roman dish divided into two branches, one with meat or poultry or fish and the other meatless but still utilizing cheese. During this casserole evolution there were all types of breads evolving as well and the bread used could make a distinct difference in the dish. In Spain at that time there was a strong Arab Islamic presence and so no doubt some of the ingredients came from North Africa. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established in by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Until 1492 the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Catholics. However, in 1492 the Jews were banished from Spain and in 1502 the Muslim Moors were also given the boot. The only way that a Jew or Muslim could remain under the jurisdiction and protection of the Spanish Crown was to adopt Catholicism. One of the main tasks of the Inquisition was to make sure that the so called converts or “conversos” had really converted and were not just faking it to avoid being burned at the stake.
I found several garbled references on the Internet that referred to the Inquisition and the year 1640 and Inquisition archives containing recipes for capirotada. Most of the references seemed to be nothing more that people copying each other’s errors which is something that the Internet is famous for. The date 1640 intrigued me though and upon checking further I learned that in 1640 there was a book printed called the Regimento de Inquisitor General that gave detailed instructions on how to search for fake converts from Judaism to Catholicism. By this time the Inquisition had learned how to ferret out the Crypto Jews (as they later came to be called) fairly well. Knowing this, many of the Jewish “conversos” emigrated to New Spain, and in Mexico in particular they tried to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Inquisition by moving to the northern frontier. Being supposedly “good” Catholics they would have been expected to eat traditional Lenten foods such as capirotada prepared in the traditional way.
In Northern Mexico and Southern Texas there is a bread called “pan de semita” which some people call “Jewish bread” because they claim the word “semita” means “semite”. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “semites” along with Arab people because both groups are said to have evolved from Shem, the oldest son of Noah (if one is to give credence to the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis). The exact details are not crystal clear in the Genesis account but Shem being the father of both the Arabs and the Jews was taken by many as historical fact in the days when anthropology was still bound by the Bible. The actual word “semite” didn’t even emerge until the early 1830’s. The linking of “pan de semita” strictly to Jews is probably an error. No doubt “pan de semita” was a flat, course bread linked to both Jewish and Arab cultures. What may have set the pan de semita apart is that it can be baked as a type of nomad’s bread without the use of yeast. Some people speculate that pan de semita was a substitute for the traditional matzo unleavened bread at Passover and it may have been camouflaged by the Catholic capirotada. Another thing, and even more important, most bread made in those days was made using lard. The pan de semita of Northern Mexico is made using vegetable oil instead of lard. In the Inquisition days vegetable oil or olive oil was hard to come by on the frontier and so the inquisitors were no doubt on the lookout for anyone making unleavened pan de semita using oil instead of lard.
I am satisfied that I have a general idea about why capirotada is linked to both Lent and Passover but I reached this point by tugging at little random historical threads and my theory may not be entirely correct. If I find out that I am all wrong I will print a retraction and if I find some new and interesting information I will edit it in. We can never be certain about History because we are only seeing shadows of it. My great grandmother from Poland had a way of dealing with this uncertainty. Whenever she heard someone speaking with great authority about what happened long ago she would say, “And how do you know? Vas you dere Charlie?”. Gina makes capirotada and puts her own personal stamp on it by using English walnuts instead of peanuts or almonds and instead of using raisins she uses dried blueberries. Perhaps one hundred years from now someone will be searching the internet to learn about capirotada and after stumbling upon a remnant of my blog they will infer that the people of Irapuato were unique in the ingredients that they used in capirotada. Good grief! I certainly hope not.
Here is the traditional recipe for Irapuato, Guanajuato style Capirotada a la Gina:
1 kilo piloncillo. These are the little cones of raw brown sugar. One kilo sounds like a lot but believe me it isn’t. There are about twenty little cones to the kilo.
2 cups water
3 sticks of Mexican cinnamon
1 laurel leaf
4 black pepper corns
4 cloves
1 to 2 cups of raisins
1 to 2 cups of unsalted shelled and halved peanuts
1 dozen or more fine dinner rolls. Here they are called “bolillo amasijo”. They are pointed at both ends and about the size of your fist. You can use other kinds of bread but fine dinner rolls with a light crust work the best.
Slice the bolillos on an angle into pieces about one half inch thick. Put the slices on a cookie sheet out in the sun or into a warm oven until they are hard. Fry the slices in hot oil on both sides until golden brown. You can also deep fry them in a fryer in very hot light vegetable oil. Drain the bread slices on a paper towel. Place the piloncillo sugar cones into a pot with two cups of water, the cinnamon sticks, the laurel leaf, the pepper corns, and the cloves. Melt the piloncillos over low heat stirring frequently until you get a nice light semi-thick syrup. Dip each piece of bread into the syrup and put them into a big pot until the bottom of the pot is covered. Then sprinkle in some raisins and some peanuts. Put in another layer of bread slices and then more raisins and peanuts etcetera until the pot is full or you run out of slices. There should be enough for a four quart pot. Pour the remaining syrup over the top layer, put on a lid and cook over very low heat for five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing cool down. You now have some wonderful Capirotada. Serve it in small bowls. Don’t even ask about the calories though. I can’t even count that high.
The above recipe was used by Gina’s mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother going back for many generations. The only difference is that now we use vegetable oil and years ago they used “manteca” which is very fine lard. This dish was served on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent and of course, Good Friday. It was eaten as a desert to compensate for not eating meat on those days. On Saturday mornings, the leftover Capirotada was eaten for breakfast with a cup of “atole blanco” which is a hot drink made from finely ground corn meal. Some people would also eat “platano macho” that was sliced and fried in butter along with the Capirotada. The “platano macho” looks like a large hard banana and is generally referred to in English as “plantain”. Capirotada was a very expensive dish to make in the old days and for that reason it was reserved only for Lent when people ate less regular food and could afford to spend a little more for the ingredients. I only eat it at Lent because if I ate it all the time I would look like the Goodyear Blimp. I can tell you one thing though. It really is delicious!

10 January 2015

What about you, Charlie?

In the last few days I have watched the drama play out in the aftermath of the cartoonist assassinations at the offices of the political satire magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It is interesting to note that Charlie Hebdo was originally called Hara-Kiri Hebdo. The term “Hara-Kiri” refers to “hara-kiri” (腹切り, cutting the belly) which is  a form of Japanese ritual suicide, and “hebdo”, which  is short for “hebdomadaire “ (weekly). Hara-Kiri Hebdo was shut down by the French government in 1970 after making some satirical innuendos regarding the demise of French president Charles de Gaulle. The charge was “Lèse-majesté” which is the crime of “violating majesty”, an offence against the dignity of a reigning sovereign or against a state. Charlie Hebdo rose like the mythical Phoenix from the ashes of Hara-Kiri Hebdo.  The publication describes itself as strongly left-wing and it publishes severely critical articles about the extreme Right, Catholicism, Islam, Judaism, Politics, Culture, etc. Some might question the wisdom of the French government in setting the precedent of claiming “Lèse-majesté” at the slighting of a former French president and ignoring the blatant and vulgar insults of the founder of one of the world’s largest religions not to mention the humiliation of six to eight million of its own citizens who happen to be Muslim. In a manner of speaking aren’t the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in question on par with crying “Fire!” in a crowded theatre?

As it is, French xenophobia is creating a monster backlash against Muslims and Jews. The “Je suis Charlie” solidarity movement  reminds me of the mistrust among the ethnic groups in Austria-Hungary after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, in 1914. It made every ethnic non-Austrian a suspect of nefarious collaboration with foreign entities. The Czech people of Bohemia were particularly humiliated when they were relegated to third place status by the Hungarians and the Austrians after the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. As a result of the death of the Archduke, the Czechs were forced to participate in a conflict that they did not understand on behalf of an empire to which they had no loyalty. One million Austro-Hungarian soldiers died in World War I of whom around 140,000 were Czechs. One of the survivors of this conflict, a man named Jaroslav Hašek, wrote about it in the form of a funny satirical novel called “The Good Soldier Švejk”.

Jaroslav Hašek’s novel  is all about the fateful adventures of the good soldier Švejk during the first world war. It is the most translated novel of Czech literature. Švejk (or “Schweik” in English) has become the Czech national personification. A Czech citizen will proudly declare “Já jsem Švejk”, “I am Schweik”.

Mexican President Benito Juárez once said,  "Entre los individuos, como entre las Naciones, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz" ("Among individuals, as among nations, respect the rights of others is peace"). To that I would add not only “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) but in terms of respect I am also Je suis Catholique (I am Catholic), Je suis Juif (I am Jewish), Je suis Musulman (I am Muslim), Je suis Hindou (I am Hindu),  Je suis Bouddhiste (I am Bhuddist),  Je suis Confucéenne (I am Confucian), and so on, and so on, and so forth.

We live in a tense world of “dogma eat dogma”. We don’t have to. We can withhold judgment, respect the rights and feelings of others, and live in peace. Join me and good soldier Švejk.

Statue of Josef Švejk in Przemyśl, Poland

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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.