23 December 2007

Posada, Piñata, Pastorela

Every year that I live in Mexico I learn more and more about the traditions of the Mexican Christmas or “Navidad”. There are three main themes including the Posada, the Piñata, and the Pastorela that climax on December 24th which is called “Nochebuena” or the “Good Night”. First I will address the “Posada” which means “lodging”. It relates the story of Saint Joseph leading a donkey bearing the very pregnant Virgin Mary from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem where Joseph frantically searched for a place where Mary could give birth to the Baby Jesus. Beginning on December 16th and continuing up to and including December 24th the posadas are held each night in turn by different people of the same neighborhood or family. This is a nine day period called a “novena” and some say that it commemorates the nine months that Mary was pregnant and others say that it commemorates the journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, which supposedly took nine days. In the time of Jesus many societies followed the custom of gathering together for nine days following a burial and in the new testament book “The Acts of the Apostles” (Acts 1:14), we find the apostles, along with some of the close disciples and Mary the mother of Jesus gathered in the upper room and praying for nine consecutive days which culminated in the Pentecost or decent of the Holy Spirit upon them. In any case, nine seems to be a significant number in ancient histories.

How the posadas got started in Mexico is an interesting story. In the year 1587 a priest named Fray Diego de Soria, who was the rector of a monastery called San Augustín de Alcoman (just to the northeast Mexico City), asked permission to celebrate a mass called the “Misa de Aguinaldos” (Mass of Gifts) each day from December 16th to December 24th. In this mass there would be passages related to the story of the nativity and in order to draw the people to the mass the priests would include entertainment in the form of fireworks and songs and little gifts in the form of sweets. Now it just so happens that the people were already accustomed to celebrating during this period of winter solstice which they called “Panquetzaliztli” in their native tongue. It was a time when they celebrated their native war god whom they called “Huitzilopochtli”. The feast of Huitzilpochtli lasted twenty days from the 6th of December until the 26th and it also had an element of pilgrimage in that people would travel long distances to come join the celebration. They would also receive gifts of sweetened seedcakes of amaranth or in Spanish “amaranto” and these sweets are still around today and are called “dulce de alegria” or “candy of joy”. Also note that even to the present day, the little bags of sweets given to children at Navidad are called “aguinaldo” and the same word is used for the end of the year bonus pay that is traditionally given to workers just before Navidad.

The earliest posadas were held in the open courtyards of the monasteries and began with a recitation of the rosary accompanied by songs and stories based upon the biblical account of the birth of Christ. Later on, the posadas were carried over by the people to their own houses and neighborhoods and evolved into what they are today. The posada entails two groups, one representing the innkeepers and the other representing the “peregrinos” or “pilgrims” meaning Joseph and Mary. All of the people in the pilgrim group carry candles and usually four of them carry a litter instead, upon which rest statues of Joseph and Mary and a donkey. Sometimes this is actually substituted by people dressed as Joseph and Mary and Mary is seated on a real donkey! There is generally someone walking in front of the group with a paper lantern lit by a candle. As is the custom they go to three houses and at each they knock on the door and sing their request for lodging. At the first two houses the group who answers the door listens to their request and sings a refusal. At the third house they sing their request to enter and the participants in the house give their acceptance in song and all of the people including the people from the other two houses are let in. Then they recite a rosary and sing a litany to the Virgin Mary and after this the fun begins. One of the things that they do which really surprised me is that everyone lights “sparklers” which in the United States people traditionally light on the 4th of July. The ones that they use in Mexico for the posadas, however, are much smaller. They are called either “Luces de Belén” (Lights of Bethlehem) or “Luces de Bengala” (Lights of India). Even the small children get into the act and I am always worried that one of them will get burned but thank God I haven’t ever seen that happen and I hope I never will.

Now it is time to talk about the Piñata. The origin of the piñata can be traced back to China and it was part of the Chinese Spring Festival or what people in the west call “Chinese New Year”. The custom came to Italy by means of Marco Polo or perhaps some other adventurous soul and in Italy it took on a religious aspect and was called a “pignatta. It was used during the Lenten period and when the custom of breaking piñatas during Lent eventually arrived in Spain the Spanish introduced a feast every first Sunday of Lent called "The Dance of the Piñata." Breaking the piñata at the beginning of Lent symbolized the desire to end the evil in one's life, to convert the heart to return to God and receive an eternal reward. In the early sixteenth century, the piñata tradition was unknown in the New World but in Mexico, the Mayan Indians had a tradition of trying to break a clay pot that was filled with sweets and balanced on a pole. This practice was part of the traditional December “Panquetzaliztli” celebrations in honor of their war god “Huitzilopochtli”. The Spanish missionary priests were always looking for ways to convert the native traditions to Christian traditions and so they gave a religious sense to the game of breaking the pot and so they converted the “pot” into the form of the Spanish/Italian “piñata” and moved it from Lent to Advent. It quickly became a popular compliment to the festivities of the Posadas.

The traditional piñata of Navidad is made from a clay pot called an “olla piñatera” or “cantero” that is covered with bright colored paper and represents the Devil who tempts us with the bright colors. The classic piñata of Navidad is round with seven peaks or spikes, representing the seven cardinal sins: Sloth, Lust, Greed, Envy, Gluttony, Wrath, and Pride. Hitting the piñata while blindfolded represents faith that allows us to believe without seeing. The stick with which to beat the piñata represents the force of the grace of God with which we combat evil. With God's help, we destroy the evil, and then we receive the fruits of God’s reward which are the sweets that are contained in the piñata. The shouts of the people who guide the blindfolded person with the stick represent the faithful of the church who collectively help us combat the Devil and who also share in God’s reward when the Devil is overcome.

The breaking of the piñata is always the highlight of any celebration. There are some very traditional songs that are sung in the process of breaking the piñata and during Navidad there are some extra phrases that are sung back and forth by the participants prior to the actual attempts to break the piñata:

“Ándale Roberto, no te dilates con la canasta de los cacahuates”. (Hurry up Robert, don’t dilly dally with the basket of peanuts.)

“Ándale Gina, sal del rincón con la canasta de colación. (Hurry up Gina, come out of the corner with the basket of sweets.)

“No quiero oro ni quiero plata, yo lo que quiero romper la piñata”. (I don’t want gold nor do I want silver, I just want to break the piñata.)

“En esta posada salimos de apuro porque Luis nos dio solo ponte duro.” (We are leaving this posada early because Luis only gave us ponte duro.) Note: “ponte duro” are hardened little balls of corn flour mixed with unrefined sugar…a poor substitute for candy.

“Ándale José, mueve los pies con los copitas de vino jerez.” (Hurry up Joseph, move your feet, and bring us cups of sherry wine.)

Esta piñata es de muchas mañas, solo contiene naranjas y cañas.” (This piñata is a trick; it only contains oranges and sugar cane.)

“Quiero mi canasta de papel de china, si no me la das me voy a la esquina.” (I want my tissue paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I will go out to the street corner.) Note: the basket referred to is the “aguinaldo” or gift basket of goodies which is given to everyone who attends the posada to make sure that no one is left out. The baskets are commonly made from or lined with either tissue paper, crepe paper, or white butcher paper.

“Quiero mi canasta de papel crepe, si no me la das me voy con José.” (I want my crepe paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going over to José’s house.

“Quiero mi canasta de papel estraza, si me no la das me voy a mi casa.” (I want my butcher paper basket; if you don’t give it to me I am going home.)

“En esta posada nos hemos chasqueado porque Teresita nada nos ha dado.” (We are very upset with this posada because little Teresa didn’t give us anything.)

“Echen confites y canelones a los muchachos que son muy tragones”. (Throw hard candies at the boys who grab for too much.)
Note: “Confites and Canelones” are two types of hard candy.

“Todos los muchachos rezaron con devoción, de chochos y confites les dan ya su ración.” (All of the boys prayed with devotion so let’s give them their share of lupin beans and hard candies.”) Note: “Chochos” or “Lupin Beans” are like salted nuts and in Spain they are called “altramuz”.

“Castaña asada, piña cubierta; ¡Echen a palos a los de la puerta!” (Roasted chestnuts and candied pineapple; poke the people who are blocking our way!)

“Ándale Juan, sal de la hornilla, con la botella de la manzanilla.” (Hurry up Juan from the corner by the oven with the bottle of manzanilla wine.)

“De los cerritos y los cerrotes, saltan y brincan los tejocotes.” ( From the little hills and big hills the tejocotes jump and skip.) Note: “Tejocotes” are a yellow fruit about the size of a plum that grow wild and are used for fruit punch especially at Navidad.

“Ándale niña, sal otra vez, con la botella de vino jerez.” (Hurry up little girl, bring the bottle of sherry wine once again.)

“Esta posada le toca a Carmela, si no da nada le saca una muela.” (This posada is Carmen’s turn, if she doesn’t give anything she forfeits a tooth.)

“Ándale Mari no peles los dientes, yo lo que quiero son ponches calientes.” (Hurry up Mary, don’t give a silly grin, what I want is hot fruit punch.)

“Todaditos muy contentos a rezar la posadita, no es tanta devoción si no por la canasta.” (Everyone is content to participate in the posada, not so much for devotion as for the basket of goodies.)

“Ahora si muchachos ya se puede ir, para que mañana los dejen venir.” ( Okay boys, you can go home now because tomorrow you can come again.)

After the above calls back and forth the children line up stating with the smallest on to the biggest and the first person is given the stick (usually a sawed off broom stick or mop handle). Many times the first person is actually a baby who is held in the arms of his mother and this is the baby’s first ritual introduction to the piñata. The first person who is old enough to act on their own is blind folded and then spun in a circle while the people sing:

“Ya se va el curo Ponciano con su bastón en su mano a ver si vuelta u vuelta se quita lo panzón”. (There goes the priest Ponciano with his stick in his hand to see if by turning and turning around he can lose his belly.)

Then the blindfolded person is left under the piñata to try and find it and hit it with the stick. Some people pull on the rope that supports the piñata to make it jump about and harder to hit. Other people shout directions and encouragement while some of the people sing the following ditty to set a time limit:

“Dale, dale, dale,

No pierdas el tino

Porque si lo pierdes

Pierdes el camino.

Dale, dale, dale

Dale y no le dio

Quítenle la venda

¡Porque sigo yo!

¡Se Acabó!

¡Sigo yo!”

(Hit it, hit it, hit it!

Don't lose your aim

Because if you lose your aim

You will lose the path.

Hit it, hit it, hit it!

He hit it, and it didn't give

Take away his blindfold

Because it's now my turn!

It’s over!

I'm next!)

The people take turns until the piñata is broken and the treats come showering down and everyone scrambles to retrieve what the can. Often as not the piñata is finally broken by some twelve or thirteen year old girl who by now is a veteran of many attempts and knows exactly what strategies are needed to outsmart the jumping target. It is always interesting how exited the people get at the sight of the piñata. You can actually see grown people, especially young women, trembling with excitement as if wishing that they could take a turn. The piñata, however, is mostly reserved for children. After the scramble for goodies is over everyone receives a little bag of treats (aguinaldo) to make sure that no one is left out.

Now we come to the Pastorela or “Shepherd’s Play”. A pastorela is a simple morality play that usually involves shepherds who in some way or another are being tempted or tormented by the Devil. They began in twelfth century Europe and appeared in Mexico in the middle of the sixteenth century. They were used initially for the purpose of the evangelization of the native people but they eventually became part of the tradition of Navidad especially among school children. Many pastorelas are performed in schools or in community cultural centers. Almost every town of any size in Mexico has a “Casa de la Cultura” and putting on a pastorela performance is one of their traditions at Navidad. Pastorelas are homey, involve many children, and are at the same time quite predictable and very often amusing. The cast of characters has parts for everyone including simple shepherds, various Devils, Angels, Archangels, oriental Kings, and the Holy Family. Navidad just wouldn’t be the same without a pastorela. It is part of the fabric of Mexican culture.

One final note: The translations from Spanish to English above are my own. I have done the best that I can to convey the meaning but the translations are by no means literal. Some of the Spanish words are archaic and are not normally used in common speech and many of the phrases are linked to cultural practices which are no longer in use. When I asked some of my Mexican friends to help me with the translations they gave only a vague meaning for some of the words. I had to do bit of research to ferret out the details and even then when translated literally and out of cultural context the words didn’t make much sense in English without much additional explanation. What I provided above is what I consider to be a good compromise. Please forgive me if you don't agree and let me hear from you.

04 December 2007

Hanukkah in Mexico

For all of my friends out there who may happen to be Jewish I wish you a Happy and Blessed Hanukkah season and to all of my friends who aren't Jewish here are some things that you should know about Hanukka:

Hanukkah occurs on 25th day of Kislev, the Jewish month which is based upon the lunar calendar and begins on a different date every year. The Feast of Hanukkah (or Chanukkah), sometimes called the "Feast of Lights", lasts for eight days. This year it starts at sundown tonight, December 4th, and ends at sundown on Dec. 12. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews, the Maccabees, over a much a larger force of Greeks led by King Antiochus over 2000 years ago. The word Hanukkah means dedication. The holiday marks how a small amount of oil lasted eight days during the re-dedication of the temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Greeks. The Jewish people celebrate the holiday by lighting candles in a Hanukkah "menorah" for each of eight nights and eating foods fried in oil. Traditional Hanukkah foods include latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts). Kids often play a game involving a dreidel (a spinning top) and chocolate gelt (money). The menorah used for Hanukkah is called a Chanukiah and is supposed to represent the menorah that stood in the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem more than 2000 years ago. The Chanukiah has nine branches, for eight candles and a helper candle used to light the other candles. The more traditional menorah has seven branches.

In Mexico Hanukkah is written "Januca,". The Jewish Hanukkah customs are very similar to those of Jews elsewhere except that the food may be a little different. Instead of latkes and sufganiot which are common among the Ashkenazic Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe the Sephardic Jews of Mexico tend to favor things like "buñuelos" which are fried fritters drenched in sugar syrup and also balls of corn dough with marmalade inside. Like their Jewish counterparts around the world they play the game of "dreidel" which they call "toma todo" and they call the dreidel top a "pirinola". To make their holiday really special and authentically Mexican the add a Mexican "piñata" in the shape of the dreidel top to the festivities.

There have been Jews in Mexico dating back to as early as 1521, when Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs, accompanied by several Jews who had temporarily "Christianized" in order to avoid the Spanish Inquisition. Many other Jews also eventually fled Spain and settled in Mexico in order to escape the Inquisition. Some of these Spanish or "Sephardic" Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism and were called "Converso" Jews, while other maintained their Jewish religious practices in secret to avoid being persecuted and they are known as "Crypto" Jews.

Few Jews migrated to Mexico after the conquest was complete and Spanish Inquisition became firmly entrenched and rigidly enforced in what was then called New Spain. Then, in the late 1800s, a number of German Jews settled in Mexico as a result of invitations from Maximilian I of Mexico, followed by a huge wave of Ashkenazic Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. A second large wave of immigration occurred as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, leading many Sephardic Jews from Turkey, Morocco, and parts of France to flee. Finally, a wave of immigrants fled the increasing Nazi persecutions in Europe during World War II.

Today, there are about 50,000 Jews living freely in Mexico and openly practicing their ancient religion. I hope they all enjoy their Hanukka festival. Happy Hanukka to everyone!!!

25 November 2007

Winners and Losers

More and more lately I am hearing the phrase “It’s a win-win situation”. That phrase drives me nuts and I will tell you why. It ain’t natural, that’s why. It was something invented in the eighties by the soccer moms and the “Generation X” people. No longer was it necessary to have winner and a loser because everybody is supposedly a winner and everyone goes home with a trophy or a certificate of achievement or at the very least a “certificate” of attendance. I have actually been at a government sponsored conference where everyone who registered received a certificate that stated they had undergone ten hours of training in the identification and proper disposal of hazardous materials. That was in spite of the fact that about sixty percent of the people who registered for the conference never attended the training sessions but were either too hung over from the night before to attend the sessions or were out shopping, touring, or playing golf. The only meetings that were well attended were the hospitality cocktail parties in the evening that were mainly a warm up for bar hopping sessions later on. A “win-win situation” is just another way of saying a “bunch of losers” or at the very least, a “ceasing of hostilities”. The Korean War Armistice was a “ceasing of hostilities” and we all know what happened with that one. We didn’t want to win and so we lost…and are still “lost” more than fifty years later. A “win-win situation” is like a “tie” and a “tie”, according to a quote attributed to Michigan State University head coach Duffy Daugherty, “is like kissing your sister.”

Everything in this life is a struggle to win. The struggle from the lowly amoeba striving to become man floats down to us through history on a river of blood…the survival of the fittest. When was it announced that the lion has finally lain down with the lamb without eating it? As the poet Douglas Malloch once put it “The tree that never had to fight for sun, and sky, and air, and light, never became a forest king but lived and dies a scrubby thing. Whenever I hear that something is “win-win” it makes me shudder because I know that somebody is either losing and won’t admit it or they have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Give me a clear winner and a clear loser every time. I say “All hail to the winner” and “Better luck next time” to the loser.

21 November 2007

I’m over a barrel.

As the price of crude oil is poised to go over one hundred dollars per barrel the news people keep showing pictures of modern 55 gallon drums to represent barrels of oil. This drives me crazy and it also distorts the true picture. Most people, including the news people (apparently), are not aware that a standard barrel of crude oil contains only 42 gallons and it has been that way ever since 1866. At one hundred dollars per barrel, a single gallon of raw crude oil costs $2.38 per gallon. If there were 55 gallons in a standard barrel of crude oil the raw crude would only cost $1.89 per barrel. To make things even worse, out of each barrel of crude oil we only get about 18 gallons of gasoline which is 43% of the total volume. The other 57% is divided among various distillates, residuals, jet fuel, feed stocks, still gas (whatever that is), asphalt, petroleum coke, LPG, kerosene, various lubricants, and some miscellaneous garbage. Even after selling all the byproducts to various customers the actual refinery gets to keep very little of that one hundred dollars.

Now, if you think about all of the energy that it takes to find the crude oil, pump the crude oil out of the ground, transport the crude oil, refine the crude oil, transport the gasoline, and pump it into your car, it is a wonder that there is anything left but fumes. Nobody transports oil in barrels anymore either. It would be better to talk about oil in cubic meters because that is how it is measured and shipped in tankers and pipelines. Once we start matching apples to apples and crude oil to the proper measuring standard we will have a much better picture of how precarious our energy situation really is. The next time you see a news story about oil prices and they show you a stack of 55 gallon drums you will now realize by how much you are being short changed. This is your wake-up call.

20 November 2007

!Viva la Revolución!

Today is Revolution day here in Mexico. We actually celebrated the day yesterday, November 19th, so that we could have a three day weekend but November 20th commemorates the day in 1910 when Francisco I. Madero made the call to arms that would eventually last ten years or more and lead to the deaths of over one million people. That was seven percent of Mexico’s population at the time. It has always been called the “revolution” but it was really more of a series of civil wars and political skirmishes that led to the Mexican Constitution of 1917. The major killing didn’t stop, however, until well into the 1920’s and continued on after that as a series of murders and assassinations. It wasn’t until the years 1934 through 1940 when a man named Lazaro Cardenas finally put a stop to it. President Cardenas also abolished capital punishment which was commonly carried out by firing squad and his control of the country without the need for executions was an indication that the revolutionary period was at its end. In 1940 President Cardenas voluntarily relinquished all power to his successor Manuel Avila Camacho which was an unprecedented event in Mexican history. In 1942, Manuel Avila Camacho and all living former Presidents appeared on a stage in Mexico City in front of the Palacio Nacional to encourage the Mexican people to support the Americans and British in World War II. This demonstration of political solidarity between politically diverse elements effectively signaled the true end of the Revolution. Some say that the revolution never really died, however, and that it is just lying dormant and waiting for a chance to rear its ugly head again. It will be interesting to see what happens in 2010 when we celebrate the 100 year anniversary.

18 November 2007

What Hath God Wrought?

Something happened to me this weekend that made me realize how fast things are changing in the field of communications. A friend of mine introduced me to a computer based voice transmission service called “Skype”. This service is free to people who want to communicate from computer terminal to computer terminal over regular phone lines and there is no cost for the service. If you want to call a regular land line or cellular phone from a computer anywhere in the world there is a small charge of two to three cents per minute. I ended up talking with a friend in Australia for two hours for free and other friends in the United States, Germany, and Italy. The only thing that I needed to do was download and install a free program from Skype and purchase a very cheap microphone for my laptop computer. The program is so simple to use that a child can do it and it operates with ring tones just like a regular phone. It is like magic.

It made me reflect a bit on the history of data collection and transmission. About 4000 B.C. the human race discovered writing and "Read Only Memory" was born. Before that, data could only be transmitted by talking, shouting, whistling, or smoke signals. To permanently store anything you had to carve it into stone and that was the first "hard disk". That's about all we had for the next few thousand years. I guess you could say that we had some floppy discs in the form of animal skins and papyrus but copying files was a very labor intensive process and there were many, many errors. File copying got a little easier around 1500 A.D. with the invention of the printing press and you could store the files in a library where they were fairly easily retrieved. You couldn't transmit them across town very fast, however, and the fastest transmission speed was limited to the speed of the fastest horse.

In the late 1840's a man called Samuel Morse came along and gave us our first electronic data transmission capability. It was still limited by geography and the topography of the earth's surface. In about 1910 it became wireless and data began to fly through the air. In the 1920's our storage capability was improved with the invention of audio and video recording. In the 1940's we began to send pictures through the air and in the seventies we acquired the capability to transmit entire documents at the push of a button.

When I was reading about John Gutenberg and Samuel Morse I was amazed at the amount of effort they put into their inventions. Not only did they invent the process but they also invented the product. Gutenberg was a goldsmith by trade and such a perfectionist that even today his bibles are some of the most beautiful printing ever done. I always had a mental picture of Morse as having had the good fortune to have stumbled upon a use for some odds and ends of wire and stuff that he threw together. Not so! He took great pains to make sure that his invention was a complete system before he introduced it. He used a process that today is called "frequency analysis" by data transmission engineers. When he decided to use an alphabetical system with his new invention he went to a newspaper and studied the type cases. He assigned the shorter dot and dash symbols to the most commonly used characters. He counted the type in one particular newspaper's bins and found 12,000 e's, 9,000 t's, 8,000 each of a, o, m, I, and s. He found 6400 h's and so on and so on. He assigned a single dot to the letter "e" which was the most common letter and a single dash to the letter "t" which was the second most frequently used letter, etcetera.

Morse finally came up with a code in which an English message consisting of 100 letters requires the transmission time of around 940 individual units where the transmission of a dot equals one unit and a dash equals three units and a space equals either one unit or three units depending upon whether it is between words or letters. If the signals had been assigned at random the same 100 character message would have required the transmission of 1160 units instead of 940. Even so, about the fastest that they could transmit information was about 25 words per minute. Consider the fact that that one "byte" equals one character and that there are 8 "bits" in a byte. To that let's add one "start" bit and one "stop" bit for normal data transmission via generic modem. We then have the formula that 10 "bits" equals one character. Therefore 1200 baud is equal to about 120 characters per second. If we assume that each of the "words" in Morse's 25 "words per minute" is equal to eight characters then 25WPM is a little over 3 baud. Even if you only have a dial-up Internet connection of 56,000 baud you can transmit around 40,000 words per minute. Wow!

On May 24th 1844 Mr. Morse inaugurated his telegraph by sending the first message which said “What hath God Wrought”. It is a quote from the King James version of the Holy Bible (Numbers 23: 23). For the next 151 years it was a standard medium of communication in the United States. For 94 years the Coast Guard used Morse Code to send and receive messages via radio on the high seas. But on Apr. 1, 1995, the Coast Guard sent its last Morse Code message from Chesapeake, VA, and the last words were:

“What Hath God Wrought?”.

Yesterday, when I connected with my friend from Australia and the sound was clear as a bell like they were sitting in the same room with me, the words of Samuel F.B. Morse came to my mind like an echo from the past that wouldn’t die. I then realized that the phrase should be change to a new phrase from that same Holy Bible. This time, however, it should come from Jeremiah 33:3:

“Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.

15 November 2007

Year of the Fatherland

It seems like every hundred years Mexico turns a corner and reinvents itself. The year 1810 was the year of the fight for Independence. The year 1910 was the year of the Revolution. The current president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón has declared that the year 2010 will be known as the “Year of the Fatherland” when Mexico commemorates the independence movement that began in 1810 and eventually freed Mexico from Spain. The country will also celebrate one hundred years since the start of the revolution in 1910 that promoted the political, social and civil rights of Mexicans, and culminated in the establishment of the present constitution. How Mexicans will celebrate the 2010 anniversary and how they reconsider their past, their present present, and their hopes for the future remains unclear. I would like to think that the 2010 celebration will be a model of decorum and patriotic celebration but the reality is that it will probable be a tense time. The popular consensus among pundits is that Mexico has just a few short years to get its house in order before the 2012 elections. The 2010 anniversary comes just two years before the elections and it will give every political crackpot imaginable a platform from which to launch a new revolution.

The people of the Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas recently underwent a great tragedy involving a flood of immense proportions and it will take years to rebuild their homes, their infrastructure, and their livelihoods. This geographical area has always been a political hotspot because of ethnic and racial diversity and great poverty in the midst of great wealth. It just so happens that Tabasco in particular is where much of Mexico’s oil and natural gas business is located. Tabasco and Chiapas would just as soon secede from Mexico and go their own merry way. They could do very well for themselves on the revenue they could receive just by selling their natural resources to the United States who would probably be only to happy to oblige by their patronage. Mexico could never afford to let that happen and what happens in Mexico will have far reaching implications for the rest of Latin America. I am afraid that there are some tough times ahead. I only hope that under the leadership of President Calderón the Mexican people can find their way to pull together. I shudder to think about the consequences if the don’t. Let’s hope that future historians don’t refer to 2010 as the “Year of the Disaster”.

!Viva México!

13 November 2007

Black Tuesday

A very dear friend of mine noted that today is Tuesday the 13th and asked me if there wasn’t some significance to Tuesday the 13th being an unlucky day in Mexico. As a matter of fact there is but although it is the 13th day of the month it doesn’t spring from the same source as the traditional unlucky day of Friday the 13th in the U.S. In Mexico and other Spanish speaking countries there is a saying that goes "Martes trece, ni te cases, ni te embarques, ni de tu casa te apartes". Translated it means “On Tuesday the 13th don’t marry or board a ship, or even leave your house”. As a matter of fact, there are also several European countries including Greece where Tuesday the 13th is considered unlucky.


To answer that question we have to go all the way back to the year 1034 when the Eastern and Western branches of the Catholic Church broke apart in a great schism. At that time the Eastern branch was headquartered in Constantinople which is now the modern city of Istanbul, Turkey. Constantinople was gradually weakened as a result and was slowly surrounded by the forces of Islam. Flash forward to the year 1453, just two years after the birth of Christopher Columbus. On Tuesday, May 29, 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. The Turks overwhelmed the city and anyone caught out in the open or in the streets was killed by Muslim swords and the blood ran ankle deep in the streets and emptied into the sea, turning it red. For the people living there at the time it was the end of the world and it will forever be remembered as “Black Tuesday”. That is why the saying goes “Don’t even go out of your house” when Tuesday falls on the 13th because it is a very unlucky day.

The year 1453 witnessed a great upheaval in society and it was a watershed year. In 1453 the so called “Hundred Years war between England and France ended and the reformation actually began. Greek scholars began fleeing the East and going to the West carrying with them many Greek manuscripts including the Greek manuscripts of the Bible. In Rome, the scholars began comparing the Greek manuscripts with the Latin manuscripts and in 1456 Johan Gutenberg produced the Latin Vulgate in printed form and made the Bible relatively affordable to own and available to every scholar with money to buy it. It was the first book printed on the newly invented printing press. With the fall of Constantinople the traditional trade routes to the Far East were closed off and explorers like Prince Henry the Navigator and Christopher Columbus began looking for new routes to the riches of the Orient.

The capture of Constantinople was a wakeup call to the world. Nothing was ever the same afterward. It shook Europe to the very foundations. Spain was particularly affected because of fierce battles against the Moors who were finally driven out of the Iberian Peninsula by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Perhaps we now have a new “Black Tuesday” that future scholars will consider to be a history dividing date. It just so happens that the date September 11, 2001 fell on a Tuesday as well. Kind of ironic that after 548 years the World was again shaken to the foundations by Muslim invaders…only this time, instead of the Ottoman Turks, it was the forces of “al Qaeda”.

Footnote: Perhaps there is a "Black Tuesday" in every generation. On Tuesday Oct. 24, 1929 the United States Wall Street stock market collapsed. Did it divide history or was it, and perhaps 9/11, just a bookmark with the real "Black Tuesday" yet to come? Only time will tell.

10 November 2007

A dog’s life.

There is a saying in Mexico that when you die you must cross a river and so you should always be kind to your dog because he or she will be there to help you get across. A variation of this myth is that depending upon how you treat your dogs (or other animals) in this life they might help you cross the river or they might not. I have always wondered about this crossing of the river and where the idea comes from. I don’t think it is a reference to crossing the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) to get to the United States and it would really have surprised me (and a lot of other people) to find out that this river is the same River Styx of ancient Greek mythology or Dante’s river of boiling blood. At last, however, I think I have come across the answer to wherein lies the origin of this Mexican belief.

The story goes way back in time to Pre-Hispanic Mexico. The peoples of long ago had observed that Nature repeats itself uninterruptedly in a cycle of death and rebirth and they thought that the same cycle is experienced by human beings. Eternity, they believed, like life on Earth, is inextricably linked to the destiny assigned to us from our birth. A warrior who died in battle or who was sacrificed on the altar was converted into a “Companion of the Eagle”, a chosen one of Huitzilopochtli, the sun god, and after four years was reincarnated as a beautiful hummingbird or a butterfly. There was a similar dwelling in the realm of the sun god for mothers who died during childbirth. The poor souls who were drowned, struck by lightning, or died from some disease belonged to the realm of the god Tláloc and enjoyed a joyful and tranquil existence in a garden paradise forever. Anyone who had not been accepted by either Huitzilopochtli or Tláloc went to a place called Mictlán, the place of the dead. In order to get to Mictlán the spirits of the dead had to go through a series of hard ordeals so when people died they were given a dog as a companion to help them through their ordeal and this dog was killed and cremated alongside them. The spirits of the dead, both human and dog, had to wander together for four years in a subterranean underworld and cross a river in order to finally reach Mictlán. There in Mictlán they took their place among the dead who had gone before them and where they encountered eternal rest.

I like dogs and I have always been kind to them, even when they bark at me. When I die I am going to need all the help that I can get to make it to Paradise and if I can get a good recommendation from the dogs it may not help but it surely couldn’t hurt. So please give your dog (or your neighbor’s dog) a pat on the head and a doggie treat and tell them that it is from Mexico Bob. You never know.

07 November 2007

Devout vs. Radical

While watching the news and hearing about so many flare-ups involving various religions both home and abroad I began thinking about how we tend to label people these days. It seems to me that we used to use the words “devout” and “fervent” when describing people who are very serious about their religion but now we are gradually shifting over to the use of the words “radical”, “conservative”, or “right wing” especially if we are describing a religion that we just don’t understand. What used to be a “devout Catholic” or a “fervent Catholic” has become a “conservative Catholic” and a “fervent Baptist” has evolved into “right wing Baptist”. The piety that we currently fear the most, of course, is that of “radical Islam”. I would like to go on thinking that the majority of religious people are just plain old “devout” and “fervent”. It is our own fears that make them seem “radical”. The more we get to know people the less radical they become except for the small percentage of those who really do work for the Devil.

Of course, I sometimes still look with perplexity at people who have different religious beliefs than my own. However, like someone once said, “God sure does have a lot of very strange people who love Him”.

Now ain’t THAT the truth!

04 November 2007

How high the water Mama?

There is a crisis in Mexico in the state of Tabasco. Imagine if you will a state of two million people with an area a little less than the size of the state of Maryland. It is currently seventy percent covered with water that is in many places up to the roof tops. The flooding has made homeless 900,000 people. Of that 900,000 people at least 300,000 have yet to be rescued. There is no clean drinking water and there are fears of an outbreak of Cholera. Fortunately for Mexico the people have a president who cares for them and the Mexican government is doing everything it can as quickly as it can to help the people. This tragedy dwarfs the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and it will take a tremendous effort to overcome the dangers and the difficulties and restore the heath, homes, schools, businesses and livelihoods of so many people.

If anyone would like to make a donation for the relief of these poor people you can do so through one of the following organizations:

American Red Cross International Response Fund. Call 1-800-RED CROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the International Response Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross International Response Fund, P.O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster please do so at the time of your donation.

Operation USA International Relief Agency.
Call 1-800-678-7255 or donate online at www.opus
You can also mail checks to:
Operation USA
3617 Hayden Ave.
Culver City, CA 90232

Fundacion Azteca America

BBVA Bancomer, California, USA,
Account name: Ayuda Tabasco 2007.
Account number: 2280300127 For more information, please visit: http://www.aztecaamerica.com/ and http://www.aztecaamerica.com/corporate

To make a donation to help UNICEF's emergency relief in Mexico please go to: unicefusa.org or call 1-800-4UNICEF.

For people who understand Spanish you can go directly to the website of the state government of Tabasco http://www.tabasco.gob.mx/

On behalf of the Mexican people and especially the people of Tabasco I can only say...

"Thank you!" for your help.

03 November 2007

El Panteón

Yesterday, November 2nd, Gina and I went to the municipal cemetery or “panteón” to clean the graves of her family and leave flowers. We brought yellow “cempazuchtl” or “zempasuchil” (a type of marigold) signifying light, and red “cresta de gallo” (cock’s comb) signifying the blood and resurrection of Christ. There were thousands of other people doing the same thing and the atmosphere was that of a carnival. Later on, we visited the Casa de la Cultura” of the City of Irapuato to view the municipal altar that was set up to honor all of the Irapuatenses who have died since the founding of the city in the year 1547. I took a few pictures to record the day and you will find them below.

01 November 2007

The Great Pumpkin

Last night I had a great time. On my way home from work yesterday I went searching for a pumpkin to carve. I looked high and low but I couldn’t find one of the size and color and type that is usually associated with Halloween. Finally I found one at Walmart…good old Walmart. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted because it was too small. It was the size you would generally associate with making pumpkin pies. That’s okay. It turned out to be fine. I took it home and carved it into a jack-o-lantern, put a candle in it and set it outside on my doorstep. The old caretaker who watches over our street came by and became fascinated with it as did some of the neighbors. They had seen pictures of jack-o-lanterns, and cheap plastic jack-o-lanterns from China, and jack-o-lanterns made out of clay but to see one carved out of a real pumpkin was something new. I received a lot of questions about how I did it. How did I make it hollow? How did I put the light inside? How much time did it take? Everyone was very happy with my pumpkin.

Later in the evening my gal Gina came by with some of her little relatives to go “trick-or treating” which is fairly new to them also. We also had some trick-or-treaters come to the door, especially when they saw the jack-o-lantern. They don’t say “Trick or Treat” like they do in the United States. Instead they say “Queremos Halloween – Dulces, Dinero, o Travesuras!” which means “We Want Halloween – Candy or Money or else Pranks”.

After trick or treating the kids came in and we cooked hot dogs and sang songs and pretty much just goofed off. It was one of the nicest Halloweens that I have had in a long time.

31 October 2007


When I first came to Mexico to live in 1999 I don’t remember seeing any signs at all of Halloween. The focus was entirely upon the Mexican “El Día de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead) observances of November first and second. After Y2K it seemed like Halloween began to enter the consciousness of Mexican people…probably through television first and then through marketing as big chains such as Walmart became securely entrenched. It is no big deal really. The Mexicans hold firm to their El Día de los Muertos celebrations and the kids enjoy the trappings of Halloween as well. It makes for an extended holiday. The orange and black colors of Halloween pretty much go hand in hand with the colors of the Día de los Muertos so there is an easy transition from one to the other and the jack-o-lantern fits in nicely.

This past Sunday, the Catholic priests all over Mexico gave a sermon about the dangers of Halloween and yesterday the Catholic Church of Mexico officially attacked Halloween as a pagan abomination. The Church urged parents not to let their children wear Halloween costumes or go trick-or-treating. They suggested instead that the parents teach them the negative things about Halloween and hold costume parties where children can dress up as Biblical characters and give friends a piece of candy while telling them "God loves you." They also said that celebrating Halloween like inviting Satan into your home. Wow! It sounds to me like they are really serious about not liking Halloween. It does seem a bit strange, however, that they should attack Halloween and not El Día de los Muertos as well. The “Los Muertos” tradition dates back 3,000 years. The Aztec culture celebrated a holiday very similar to the present day Día de los Muertos during the whole month of August. When the Spanish Conquistadors landed in what is now Mexico, they noticed the natives practicing this ritual and the Catholic Church by right of conquest forced a change in the ritual date to November first to coincide with the Catholic holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

I think that the Church can huff and puff all they want but they are not going to stop Halloween. It is starting to become a popular holiday the world over including China. Halloween is called wànshèngjié in China and a pumpkin is called a nánguā. I really think that the Church officials are wasting their time and looking foolish by attacking the inevitable. They should embrace the change and adapt to it. I was raised a Catholic and I do believe as they do and as Saint Paul tells us that “The Devil roams the Earth like a roaring lion seeking those whom he might devour” but I think that it is more likely that he disguises himself as a pedophile priest, a corrupt politician, or a radical conservative religious figure and not as a pumpkin. In any case, Happy Halloween! I guess the worst thing that can happen is that you eat too much candy.

30 October 2007

¡Feliz Cumpleaños!

I am sixty years old today. I really never thought I would make it this far but here I am. When I look in a mirror I am all of sixty years and then some, but deep down in my heart the year is perpetually 1964 and I will always be seventeen. It is certainly no disgrace to get older but after a certain point it is no fun any more. It makes one feel marginalized and out of place in this youth worshipping world. I am not done yet, however, "Si Dios quiere" or "If God wishes it" as they say here in Mexico. The words of Alfred Lord Tennyson come to mind from his poem "Ulysses"…

"Come, my friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows;
For my purpose holds to sail beyond the sunset,
And the baths of all the western stars,
Until I die."

After all, as I am always fond of saying, "Life is a journey and not a destination" and as my loving mother always said to me, "Onward ever, backward NEVER!"

Many happy returns of the day.

29 October 2007

Just humming right along.

I am always thrilled to hear the National Anthem of the United States. It sends thrills up and down my spine and I just have to sing the words while the music plays. The Himno Nacional of Mexico is also a very stirring anthem and whenever it is played the Mexican people love to sing along with the music as well. I was astonished, however, to hear that although Spain has a national anthem it is just music and there are no words. The origins of Spain’s anthem are not clear. Supposedly it was composed by some German guy and given as a gift to King Carlos III in 1770 but some people argue that the composer was French. In any case the music is a bit slow and solemn and it doesn’t have the pizzazz of the U.S. anthem or the rousing spirit of the Himno Nacional of Mexico. Gen. Francisco Franco declared it the official anthem in 1942 but there were never any official lyrics assigned to it. It is my understanding that there is now a quest in Spain to find some suitable words for patriotic Spaniards to sing so that when it is time for the Olympics next year the Spanish people can belt out their anthem with pride and will no longer just have to hum along. If they can’t come up with suitable anthem in time for the Olympics I have a suggestion. All of the people from Spain who attend the Olympics should carry a kazoo. At least they will be heard better over the noise of the crowd.

28 October 2007

On Mexican Time

Today is the last Sunday in October. Traditionally, that is when we adjust our clocks because we go off of Daylight Saving Time. A friend of mine called me this morning to remind me of that and I faithfully went around the house resetting my clocks and installing new batteries. I found out later in the day that what I did was correct for Mexico but that here in Mexico we are now one hour behind the same time zone in the United States. In 2007, the United States changed its Daylight Saving Time observance under something called he Energy Policy Act of 2005 which mandated that in 2007 Daylight Saving Time would end on the first Sunday in November. This year the change date for the U.S. isn’t until November 4. In 2006, the date was the last Sunday in October which is what we still observe down here. I don’t know if anybody ever got around to telling Mexico or if Mexico never got around to changing their law as well. The thing is, why the change? Why disrupt a system for one lousy week? Is it worth all of the problems involved with computers, airline schedules, banking transactions, and communications? I think that the people in charge of keeping time in the United States are wrapped too tight. They need to relax and take a break and get away from it all. They need to come visit Mexico and see how we do it down here. For one thing, we know better than to kick a sleeping dog. That is something the U.S. government seems to be good at.

26 October 2007

A crying shame.

This week I had to drive to Monterrey in the North of Mexico to buy some material for the company that I work for. When I was returning I found myself driving south in a stretch of high desert country and the road ran parallel to and between two mountain ranges for about 75 miles. There was nothing growing there except for some low bushes, a few mesquite trees and some yucca plants. Not far south of the city of San Luis Potosí near a small hamlet named Huizoche I encountered a stretch of road where poor people on both sides of the road were selling dried rattlesnake meat and snake oil. Apparently these people live on whatever they can catch in the desert which is primarily snakes and lizards and they sell some of it along the road to tourists so that they can buy tortillas and other staples. I stopped to look at some of the snakes that were hanging from a pole along with an assortment of old bottles that were half filled with a honey brown fluid that was supposed to be snake oil but look suspiciously like it might be motor oil.

As I looked over the merchandise I was suddenly besieged by a group of women and children in rags who desperately wanted to sell me something to earn a few pesos. I ended up buying a dried snake each from two women with which to show my friends and I passed out some coins to the other people so that at least everyone could buy some tortillas and not have to eat their sales stock. As I was fending off the more aggressive sellers I felt someone tugging at my trousers at about knee level and I looked down and there was a little boy no more than three or four years old. He was scantily clad against the cold for the sun was going down and it was getting chilly. I think it must have been about 45 degrees and I wasn’t wearing a jacket and I was starting to shiver a bit in the blowing wind. The little boy, however, was wearing less than I was and there was snot running from his nose. He looked up at me and into my eyes and he asked me if he could have a coin too. As I bent down to put a few pesos in his little hand I wanted to pick him up and rescue him and take him home with me to a better existence but I knew that I couldn’t.

People shouldn’t have to live like that in North America but there are literally millions of them living like animals in shacks made of sticks and cardboard and eating rodents, road kill, and snakes all over Mexico. People can talk all they want about it being the problem of the Mexican government or how these poor people should lift themselves by their own bootstraps but the fact is that many, many little kids are going to live and die under miserable conditions. None of the people that I talked with had ever used a telephone and none of them have televisions or even electricity or running water and they will never ever enjoy a day at the beach in Cancún. As I got back into my big shiny new company pickup I realized that I must seem like a visitor from outer space to that little boy. His face will haunt me forever and I will pray for him every day. I just don’t know what else to do. Somehow, someday, I think that all of us collectively are going to pay a heavy price for this disgraceful disregard for the fellow human beings in our own part of the World.

23 October 2007

Don Felix

We are going to celebrate “El Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead) here in Mexico on November 2nd so it is time to make preparations by setting up a small altar in the house on which to place photos and remembrances of all of our dead relatives and friends. My gal Gina and I were discussing this yesterday and she told me that we mustn’t forget Don Felix. I don’t think she ever mentioned this person to me before so I asked her to tell me about him.

She said that when she was about six years old they lived down the street from a little store called an "abarrotes" which is like the little “Mom and Pop” grocery stores that used to be so prevalent in the United States.

The man who ran the store was loved by everybody in the neighborhood and his name was Señor Felix Murillo but everybody called him Don Felix. The word "Don" (pronounced Dohn) is like the word "Mister" in English. It is a term of respect. Don Felix and his wife lived in a little apartment above the store and everyday at about 2: pm, as is the custom here, they closed the store and went upstairs to eat lunch. After a long lunch period (as is also the custom here) they would go back downstairs and reopen the store and Don Felix would sit in a chair out by the sidewalk and doze in the shade of the awning until the kids came by from school. One particular day he came down from lunch and he didn't feel so good and he got worse and worse until finally two of his sons put him in his old pickup truck and drove him to the hospital. Like lightening the word went out by the jungle telegraph that Don Felix was sick and had gone to the hospital and everybody in the neighborhood was buzzing about it and worried about Don Felix, especially the kids because he was always so kind and generous with them.

When school let out, Gina, who was in first grade at the time, was walking home and she saw Don Felix's truck go by with one of his sons on either side of him and Don Felix sitting in the middle. Gina ran to the store to see Don Felix and make sure that he was okay. When she got there Don Felix´s sons were taking him out of the truck. He had died about a half hour after getting to the hospital. His sons had quickly found a doctor who was willing to sign a death certificate that said "natural causes" because if they didn't have a death certificate they couldn't take him back out of the hospital without an autopsy and Mexicans don't like autopsies. To them an autopsy is like desecrating the dead. They brought him home quickly so that they could put him in his bed before rigor mortis set in and they sat up with him all night had a mass for him and buried him the next day (as is the law and the custom). When Gina watched them take him out of the truck and put him in his bed she had big tears running down her face and she remembered the words from the song "Mexico Lindo y Querido" which goes:

México lindo y querido,
Si muero lejo de ti
Que digan estoy durmiendo
Y que me trigan aquí..."

"Mexico pretty and beloved,
If I should die far from thee
Oh that they say I am only sleeping
And that they bring me here to you." (paraphrased)

The man who wrote that song was a popular Mexican singer named Jorge Negrete and he died while he was in the United States so they brought him back home to bury him and they sang that song at his funeral. This all happened not long before Don Felix passed away and that is why the song made such an impression with her. She made me promise her right then and there that if she ever died while she was away from Mexico that I would bring her home and I asked her to make the same promise...that I be buried back home in Mexico too.

22 October 2007

No matter what!

It seems like a day doesn't go by without a new crisis unfolding somewhere in the world and depending on if you are a Democrat or Republican, a Liberal or a Conservative, a Christian or a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu or even something else you might be praying for different things. The same thing goes for the president. No matter who is president they have to continually watch out to make sure that they don't pray for the wrong thing and run afoul of the law of unintended consequences. The first impulse may not always be the best. They tell a story here in Mexico about a couple who had two sons. One son was a farmer and the other was a rancher. The father went to see his son the farmer and he asked him how things were going. His son told him that things were great and that it looked like he was going to have a huge crop of wheat unless it rained. If it rained within the next fifteen days the wheat would be ruined so he was praying that it wouldn't rain. Then he went to visit the son who was a rancher and asked him how things were going. His son told him that they weren't going very well at all. He said that it had been too dry lately and that the water holes were drying up and if it didn't rain within the next fifteen days he would probably loose all his cattle so he was praying very hard that it would rain. The man went home feeling very sad and when he got home he hung his hat upon the usual peg and his wife said to him "So, how are the boys?" and he looked at her and what do you think he said? Well I really don't know what he said because I wasn't there but if he loved his wife he probably just looked at her and said "Fine dear, just fine"...and that is what the President of the United States continues to tell his wife and the American people...no matter what!

20 October 2007

Shot in the other foot.

It looks like the Department of Homeland Security and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff are in hot water again. This time it was discovered that they have been constructing a portion of the border fence between the United States and Mexico using steel posts that were made in China and identified as such by prominent lettering on each post that says “CHINA”. This faux pas has angered Republicans and Democrats alike who think it outrageous that the United States is using Chinese steel to build a border fence to protect the U.S. against illegal immigration. Apparently no one has even asked the Mexican government what they think about it. If the United States does not intend to use steel made by American workers in American plants then why don’t they buy the steel from Mexico instead of China. After all, isn’t Mexico a neighbor? The American poet laureate Robert Frost once said “Good fences make good neighbors” but I think he got it wrong. I think it should be “Good neighbors make good neighbors”. We don’t need a Chinese fence. Their Great Wall didn’t work very well at keeping people out and neither will the fence. We only need neighbors who care about each other. Remember what Mr. Rogers always said:

"It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

It's a neighborly day in this beauty wood,
A neighborly day for a beauty.
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?...

I've always wanted to have a neighbor just like you.
I've always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.

So, let's make the most of this beautiful day.
Since we're together we might as well say:
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
Won't you be my neighbor?
Won't you please,
Won't you please?
Please won't you be my neighbor?"

(“Won't you be my neighbor?” by Fred M. Rogers)

18 October 2007

It’s now official!

It’s now official!

Yesterday we learned that the Catholic Church made an announcement that the father of Mexican independence, Miguel Hidalgo, is not excommunicated after all and we can enjoy the 2010 bicentennial without this stain on the national psyche. Apparently the Vatican searched their voluminous records and conveniently found a slip of paper that mentions that a fellow priest heard Miguel Hidalgo’s confession just before he went before the Spanish firing squad to be executed for treason and so all is forgiven. I am sure that Padre Hidalgo was happy to hear that and surely he has been given time off for good behavior for his stay in Hell and is now on his way to Heaven.

José Maria Morelos is another story. Church officials are still investigating Morelos' case, although they suspect he also confessed and they will probably find a note somewhere in the files that attests to that fact. This will be a great relief because for two hundred years it has been considered an insult that these two men were excommunicated and it has always been widely believed that the excommunications were actually in retaliation for having defied the Spanish government. In the end I suspect that the pardon will come and the Devil will fling open Padre Morelos’s cell door as well and he will be on his way to Heaven to join Padre Hidalgo. I just love a good ending to a story don’t you? All’s well that ends well.

16 October 2007

Never say never!

Now that I have been living and working in Mexico almost nine years many people ask me when I am coming back to live in the United States. I tell them that I am very happy living in Mexico and that since I am nearing retirement age I have no plans to return to the U.S. to live. They almost always say something like, “Oh, I could never do that”. Well, maybe not and then maybe so. In the next couple years many of the people born just after World War II are going to start retiring. In about five more years it will be a flood. They will combine their savings and their Social Security and the millions of those who have no other equity or source of income are going to have a hard time. That is when retirement in another country might become an attractive option.

Right now there are retirement homes for the aged being planned in Mexico for elderly Americans and I understand they are also being considered in places like India, Asia and Africa. Where the cost of a decent home for the elderly including nursing care would be prohibitive in the U.S., it could be very affordable in other places. There is nothing to be scared of either. I have personally received in-hospital care after major surgery twice in Mexico and I was cared for equally as well or better than the hospital treatment that I encountered in Chicago. Many Americans don’t understand what is happening and won’t until it is too late.

The time to start planning is now. Living in another country is not as bad as it sounds. It isn’t unpatriotic or shameful either and it can be very rewarding. For one thing, I don’t have to shovel snow. My flowers bloom year around. I live in a city of 465,000 people and yet rush hour lasts all of about 10 minutes if you could even call it “rush hour” because nobody rushes. I live only a few blocks from Walmart, Sam’s Club, a major supermarket called Comercial Mexicana, Homemart, Office depot, and Office Max. Bus service around town is convenient and cheap and first class bus service between cities is inexpensive and luxurious. You can go anywhere in town that you need to go for about two dollars in a taxi and they are everywhere. There is a hospital, a fire station, and a police station close by to where I live. I am 30 minutes from an international airport. There are restaurants everywhere and the food is plentiful and cheap. I have satellite TV with HBO, CNN, and all the rest. We have cinemas with all the major Hollywood films in English with Spanish subtitles.

In short, I think it is time that older people take a look around them and instead of saying “Never” they should start thinking “Maybe”.

14 October 2007

Get out of jail free.

The Catholic Church just announced on Friday it will reopen the cases of at least two heroes who were excommunicated for their actions against Spain during Mexico’s war for independence that began on September 16th, 1810. The two principle figures in question are Padre Miguel Hidalgo, who is considered the “Father of Mexican Independence”, and one of his closest followers and a former student of his, Padre José Maria Morelos. The primary leader, Miguel Hidalgo, was captured in 1811 and executed by the Spaniards. After they killed him they chopped off his head and hung it high up on a wall in the City of Guanajuato, where the fighting of the rebellion began. It hung there until 1821 when Spain finally capitulated and withdrew from Mexico after 300 years of colonial rule. You can still see the iron hook in the wall where his head hung in a wire cage.

It is worthy to note that Spain and the Catholic Church walked hand in glove in those days and whoever became the enemy of one also became the enemy of the other. Now that Mexico is approaching its bicentennial in 2010 the current powers that be want to tidy up a bit. The Church in Mexico was a bit corrupt in the days of Hidalgo (to say the least) and after Mexico won independence the Mexican people never forgot that the Church took the side of Spain. The political struggle between church and state continued for many years until liberals like Benito Juárez and others began to severely limit the church in anything but purely spiritual matters. There was even a war between elements of the church and the state called the “Cristero War” that began in 1926 during which many people died. There is still a struggle between church and state that is seething underneath the surface and I think that this sudden impulse for forgiveness on the part of the Church is an attempt to cool the flames a bit.

This whole affair makes me wonder what Hidalgo and Morelos think about all this. After all, if the church excommunicated them they must be sitting in Hell, right? Then what happens now if the church has a bureaucratic change of heart? Does the Devil suddenly fling open their cell doors and say, “Okay you two, you’re free to go”? How to you go to Heaven after 200 years in Hell? Whatever the case, I’ll bet it will feel great. Personally I think that Miguel Hidalgo was a great guy and you will have to look pretty hard to find a man more dedicated and determined than José Maria Morelos. I have studied the histories of both in detail and to me they are both heroes. I sincerely hope that they do end up in Heaven and that I do too. I would really like to shake hands with them. It shouldn’t be hard to recognize them. They will probably have a “singed” look about them.

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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.