31 December 2010

My Word for MMXI

I have come to the point in my life where I need to decide whether to fall back into the bottomless depths of oblivion or to forge ahead into the raging storm of the future. At the end of this coming year I plan to retire from my present career at sixty-four and I need to decide if I am just going to pull the plug and wait for the "beeping" to stop or if I am going to sally forth and rage against the fading of the light by doing something new and different. New Year's Eve is the time when we traditionally take stock of our lives and and if we listen to our conscience and are honest with ourselves we attempt to make some adjustments. In the last few years I have limited my self to just a few resolutions and I am happy to report that I have been moderately successful in keeping them. This year, however, I have decided to reduce my resolutions even further to just one word that I can keep in front of me as a symbol for what I want to accomplish in 2011.

After careful consideration the English word that I have chosen is "ideate" (pronounced AHY-dee-aet) which is a verb that means "to form an idea of", "to think of", "to imagine" or "to conceive of". It is synonymous with "to dream", "to envision", "to fancy", to "fantasize", "to picture", "to visualize", "to conjure up", or "to see in your mind's eye". When used in the intransitive form (without an object) and in the imperative mood (command) it means:


The thing that I really like about this word "ideate" is that it means the same thing in Spanish when you use the Spanish verb "idear" (ee-day-AHR) as a command although in the imperative it is written "idéate" (pronounced ee-DAY-ah-teh). When thinking about a symbol that would serve as a reminder of this word in both languages I chose the traditional incandescent light bulb because 130 year old invention has had such longevity as a symbol for fresh thinking. Then I had second thoughts about it because the incandescent bulb is no longer politically correct and the "green movement" that is so popular these days might take issue. I thought about using a spiral shaped CFL (Compact Fluorescent Lamp) as a symbol instead until I learned that the CFL isn't as environmentally friendly as it is purported to be. For one thing it contains mercury which eventually builds up in landfills with the potential to contaminate the air and water of millions of people. In fact, the only place where CFL's are presently manufactured is in China where they are made using very cheap labor and the pollution from the mercury is already making the poor workers sick. No...I think I will stick to the incandescent bulb as a symbol for an idea until something better comes down the pike. In the meantime I'll just "ideate" about it.

Happy New Year!

28 December 2010

Butter Fingers

The new year is coming upon us like "dry leaves before the hurricane fly" or like an Olympic speed skater gingerly crisscrossing his long legs through the last curve and tucking gracefully into a glide at the finish. As he crosses the finish line he straightens up, raises his arms over his head in victory, and shouts "Happy New Year" while everyone cheers and the old year fades into memory. Before the old year vanishes completely it always seems apropos to spend some time in reflection to see what one may have learned, if anything, ignoring the advice of Sachel Page, the famous baseball pitcher, who said, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you."

What have I learned over the past year? Not much to write about I'm afraid. I learned that sometimes you're hot and sometimes you're not. I learned that much of what people admire as "success" is none other than the luck of the draw. I learned that gratitude is the least deeply held of human emotions. I learned that democracy is more or less on
e big cat fight. I learned that greed is not enough to maintain a stable economy. I learned that conspicuous consumption is a path to disaster. What I have especially learned by living in Mexico, however, is to live for the moment, neither fretting about the past nor worrying too much about the future. I accept life as an adventurous journey that eventually ends in a death which I will embrace wholeheartedly when the time comes. I look at death as yet another adventure that will be more interesting and more rewarding than this present state of being that we call "life" and I trust that there is a just and merciful God on Heaven to whom I commend my spirit.

When I was a kid life was much simpler. There didn't seem to be as many rules as there are today...rules that are often confusing and conflicting and that no one has the time to study, much less understand. In Chicago where I was born and raised we played sixteen inch softball as they still do there and also in St. Louis. It is a great game because all you need is a bat and a ball and you can play it on small lots and it is "slow pitch" so everybody can play together, boys and girls, young and old. When we would choose up sides for a game we would call out the rules. If there weren't enough players we would call "right field is out" so we wouldn't need a right fielder
(Sorry lefties. Deal with it.) If we were still short a player we would call out "pitchers hands are out" meaning that the runner had to reach first base before the ball got back to the pitcher. Then we made the rules for home runs, automatic doubles, etc. Most of the time the rules were pretty much the same and only needed some minor tweaking. The person who owned the bat and the ball had the final say. We were all umpires collectively and there was no cheating lest the player who owned the ball or the bat would retrieve his or her equipment and go home, thus ending the game. We even had a game called "piggy move up" when there really weren't enough players to field two full teams. Ahhh, life was good.

I remember that we had a term that we used when someone dropped the ball. We would all shout "butterfingers" to the chagrin of the person who dropped it and everybody would smile and laugh. Everyone dropped the ball at some time or other so it was all in good fun. I haven't heard the term "butterfingers" in a long, long time and I wonder why. I
have a book of poetry titled "Be the Best of Whatever You Are" that was written in 1926 by a wonderful man named Douglas Malloch. The book was passed down to me through relatives and the original belonged to the granddaughter of my great aunt Harriet Turalski. The young girl died of cancer at age twelve but everyone who knew her said that she had a wonderful disposition and they all loved her. Her name was Dolores French and this was her favorite book. It just so happened that one of the poems is called "Butter Fingers".

Butter Fingers
by Douglas Malloch

When we played at one old cat,
Or chose up sides, and things like that,
There were days we dropped the ball,
Couldn't make an out at all.
Don't know why, we couldn't tell,
But oh how all the kids would yell,
"Butter fingers."

Other days we captured flies,
Tagged out runners twice our size,
Caught the pitcher's outs and drops,
Made those great one-handed stops,
Didn't seem to miss a thing,
Never heard a critic sing,
"Butter fingers."

But, I might as well confess,
We didn't know and couldn't guess,
Never really understood,
Why our game was bad or good--
Why we played our best today,
Yet tomorrow heard them say,
"Butter fingers."

That's the reason, in the game
Men call life, I'm slow to blame
Those who fumble this or that,
Be it life or one old cat.
Just remember, when they fall,
Days that you yourself were all
"Butter fingers."

(Bob's note: "One Old Cat" was one of the forerunners to modern baseball)

If you have followed me this far I want to wish you health and happiness in the new year and even though there maybe times when you are all "butter fingers" just remember to take it in stride and keep peace in your heart.

19 December 2010

Navidad 2010

Every year I write a bit about the Christmas activities here in Central Mexico and especially about the Posadas and Pastorellas. This is not only to inform those who may be newcomers to Mexico or others who may be interested but also to refresh my own memory. Each year I learn more and more about the traditions of the Mexican Christmas and I have the opportunity to add a little more information to my blog and to make corrections.

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.)

Note: The word "colación" (koh-lah-SEEOHN) can mean several things. It can mean a convocation of religious monks or it can refer to an ancient legal term pertaining to the rights of inheritance. It can mean an "aperitif" (appetizer) or it can also mean "sweetmeats" given to servants on Christmas Eve. In Mexico it usually means "refrigerios" (rey-free-HAIR-eeohs) or "treats" that are generally little pieces of hard sugar candy. They come in a variety of shapes and colors and sizes. When sugar syrup is heated it passes through various stages or taste and texture and can be made into different types of candies depending upon the highest temperature that is reached. The temperature range is from about 235 degrees Fahrenheit up to about 350 degrees. In the old days people didn't have thermometers so they judged the candy by heating the syrup and then dropping a spoonful into cold water and judging by the form it took as to whether or not it had reached the right temperature. Then they added flavors like "hinojo" (fennel), "hierbabuena" (peppermint), and "anis" (anise). They also colored the candy by adding vegetable dyes and they might put nuts like peanuts or almonds at the center. There are about three hundred different examples of Mexican hard candies in the historical records. Many of them were invented and produced by nuns in the convent kitchens. Kids don't care for them much anymore and end up throwing them at each other but the old folks always like to have some around at Christmas just for old time sake.

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; hit with a stick 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 [or she] hit it, and it didn't give

Take away his blindfold

Because it's now my turn!

It’s over!

I'm next!)

Note: There are several versions and the last part of one version goes like this:

Ya le diste uno,
Ya le diste dos,
Ya le diste tres,
Y tu tiempo se acabo!

(You already gave it one hit,
You already gave it two hits,

You already gave it three hits

And your time is up!)

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 cut me some slack if you don't agree and let me hear from you.

¡ Feliz Navidad !

01 December 2010

¡Feliz Janucá!

Hanukkah begins at sundown today. For all of my friends out there who are 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 on December 1st, and ends at sundown on December 9th. It celebrates the victory of a group of Jews called 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 traditional foods fried in oil. These 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. There is another menorah with seven branches that has been a symbol of Judaism since ancient times and the emblem of the modern state of Israel.

In Mexico Hanukkah is written "Janucá,". The Mexican 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!!!

שמח חנוכה

Blog Archive

About Me

My photo
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.