31 December 2008

Do you want to be a Frugalista?

Okay, we're getting down to the wire and I still haven't made my new year's resolutions. I have to do something fast. I decided to look at last years resolutions to see how I did? Wow! What a disaster that was. I think I need to “borrar y cuenta nueva” (erase and start over). I thought perhaps I would look for something futuristic to go along with Barak Obama's theme of “time for a change”. I noticed that the New Oxford Dictionary had among its new words for 2009, the word “frugalista”. A “frugalista” is a person who leads a frugal lifestyle, but stays fashionable and healthy by swapping clothes, buying second-hand items, and growing his (or her) own food. Let me see...that conjures up phrases like:

Waste not, want not.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
A stitch in time saves nine.
Penny wise and pound foolish.
Always hoe to the end of the row.
Take up a notch in your belt.

I just don't think I want to be that frugal. I want to be careful, yes, but not overly frugal. In Mexico they just come right out and call a really frugal person “cheap”. They say that a person is “codo” which means “stingy”. I believe it is related to the word “codicioso” (coh-dee-see-OH-soh) which means “greedy”. To say to another person that they are cheap or stingy all you have to do is point at your elbow which is also called a “codo” in Spanish. Hey, I want to be careful with my pesos but I also want to keep them in circulation so that nobody gives me the elbow. “Frugalista” is just too futuristic and politically correct for me to adopt as a resolution.

After thinking about it for awhile the future just didn't seem to be working out so I decided to look to the past. After all, January is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces, one looking to the future and one looking to the past. I decided to think of some words that I hadn't heard in a long, long time and I came up with two of them. One of them is “stoopnagle” and the other one is “goolsticker”. My mother used to use the word “stoopnagle” when I was a kid as in “Bobby, don't be such a stoopnagle”. The way she pronounced it I thought that she was saying “stoopnaygo” and I thought perhaps that it was a Polish word that meant “jerk”. It turns out that it came from a popular radio program in the 1930's called “Stoopnagle and Budd”. A man named Frederick Chase Taylor played a character named Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagel who was always doing goofy things and the word “stoopnagle” came to be synonymous with “goof ball” or “dim wit”. The word “goolsticker” comes from a children's game that we used to play in the 1950's. The “gool” part was actually an earlier form of the word for “goal” and thus a “goolsticker” was someone who never ventured out and left the safety of the goal and tended to stay put all the time, refusing to risk the status quo in search of fame and glory.

There you have it folks. I am hereby resolved to be neither a stoopnagle nor a goolsticker in 2009 and you have my word on that. If you find my actions to the contrary then you are authorized to give me either a verbal lashing or a good swift kick in the pants. I am sure that Mother would approve. See you next year...oh, and one more thing...

I send these words and an “abrazo” (hug) across time and space to each and every one of you:

Happy New Year and may the Dear Lord bless you and keep you healthy, happy, and solvent.

30 December 2008

Kielbasa, Jalapeño, and the Essence of Life

I love living in Mexico. This country is now my home and I have no desire to live anywhere else. There are very few things that I miss about living in the United States except for things like Kielbasa (Polish sausage), sour kraut, and kosher dill pickles. The other day I found all three in a supermarket in León. Thanks to Almighty God and Globalization my life is now almost complete. “What?”, I hear you say. “What do you mean by 'almost' complete?”. Well, if I could just find a loaf of that nice Chicago Augusta rye bread with the shiny hard crust and the caraway seeds then my life would be truly complete...I think. Hmmm, just now thinking about it perhaps there are also a few other things but in any case the first three items will do for now. I am going to eat Polish sausage and sour kraut on New Years Eve in memory of "Auld Lang Syne" or as we say in modern English, in memory of “days gone by". There is only one catch. As you can see in the photo below the label on the Kielbasa says:

“Salchicha Ahumada Tipo Polaca Con Chile Jalapeño”
Polish Style Smoked Sausage With Chili Jalapeño

That's okay. Bring it on. There is poetic justice in that. Kielbasa and Jalapeño are the boiled down essence of my life. After all...I'm a Chicago boy of Polish heritage living in Mexico.

Click on photo to enlarge.

29 December 2008

Going to Dreamland with Elvis

I read in the news that the oldest man in the United States has died in California at the age of 112. His name was George Rene Francis (may he rest in peace). That paves the way for the next oldest man, Walter Breuning of Montana to take his place as the oldest man. Walter is also 112 but is a few days shy of Francis. America's oldest woman is 114-year-old Gertrude Baines of Los Angeles. There is one thing that I don't think that I am going to have to worry about and that is being the oldest man. Besides, that would be too much pressure for me. I would probably die of anxiety just thinking about it. I can just imagine sitting there at number two position and hoping that I didn't die before number one kicked the pail. That sure is a tough way to get your fifteen minutes of fame. I guess you really have to be patient.

At lunch time today I decided to take a walk to shake down some of that Christmas turkey that I ate too much of. It was a nice warm sunny day and I walked along the railroad tracks near where I work. I was thinking about George and Walter and Gertrude when I passed a boxcar that had both doors open and on the other side I saw another boxcar that carried the following stencil (in Spanish) which you can also see in the photograph below:



R 90

Translated that means “Last trip to its owners Rule 90”. This means that according to Rule 90 of the railroad interchange rules this boxcar has come to the end of its useful life of forty years and is being sent home to be cut up for scrap. The scrap metal will be sent to the steel mill to be turned into new steel and the boxcar will eventually be resurrected as a bunch of new toasters, or a city bus, or even part of the cruise ship that you take your next vacation on. If a boxcar can be resurrected and receive a new life then it is reasonable to assume that we can too. I am thinking that maybe when I get to Heaven I can be a movie actor or even a rock and roll singer like Elvis. Hey, I wonder how he is doing up there. Do you suppose he is only singing Gospel music or do you suppose that God lets him cut loose every once in awhile to shake things up a bit? I think that with a little adjustment the sign on the boxcar would make a good epitaph. Instead of “Ultimo viaje a sus dueños” it should read “Ultimo viaje a sus sueños” or “Last trip to his dreams”. That is my prayer for George Rene Francis...that he is now in the land of his dreams. I'll see you in dreamland, George.

Click on photo to enlarge.

27 December 2008

December Fool's Day

December 28th is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is the day that commemorates the death of the little boys who were slain by King Herod in an attempt to assassinate the Christ Child. This event is described in the Gospel of Matthew in Mathew 2:13-16. It talks about King Herod ordering the execution of all young male children under the age of two in the village of Bethlehem, after the Magi or “Three Kings” announced to him the impending birth of the "King of the Jews." The Magi were supposed to return to Herod and tell him where they found this newborn king so that supposedly he could go and worship Him also. However , God warned the Magi in a dream and they tricked Herod and did not return home through Jerusalem. That is when an Angel also warned Joseph and he took Mary and the little baby an fled to Egypt to avoid Herod's clutches.

On this day in Mexico and many other Spanish speaking countries people pull practical jokes on each other. It is equivalent to the U.S. version of April Fools Day. You must not believe anything that other people say, nor let them borrow any amount of money. The tradition is that money borrowed on this day doesn't have to be repaid. If you fall victim of the joke, the person pulling the joke will say, “Inocente palomita que te dejaste engañar” or “Innocent little dove how you've let yourself be fooled”. This is the short version of a little verse that goes:

“Inocente Palomita
Que te dejaste engañar
Sabiendo que en este día
Nada se debe prestar.”

Innocent little dove
How you've let yourself be fooled
Knowing that on this day
You should lend nothing.

26 December 2008

Señor Jordan

I just discovered a blog for people who want to learn Spanish that is one of the best that I have seen so far. It is called “Señor Jordan’s Spanish Video Blog”. It utilizes a series of YouTube type videos in which a very talented young man present some very well thought out and well executed Spanish lessons. It is completely free and there are no strings attached. I strongly suggest that those of you out there who feel the need to learn Spanish take advantage of this opportunity because this material is equal to or better than anything you might find in a formal class. It might even be of help those of us who already think we know it all (Ahem!). The videos cover the basics and proceed to intermediate levels with more lessons being added all the time. I really applaud this young man and his efforts to help English speakers communicate in Spanish. Of course, he can't do everything for us. We still have to study vocabulary, common phrases, and idiomatic expressions but this guy can really help us over some of the rough spots. Now let's get going!


25 December 2008

El Pavo de Navidad

Christmas in México is full of surprises and this Christmas was no exception. This year I ate the most fabulous turkey dinner that I have ever eaten in my life (with apologies to my mother and my grandmother). When I first came to México it was fairly rare to find a turkey for roasting in the markets or the supermarkets. Every year it seems like more and more things are becoming readily available. My wife Gina found a fifteen and a half pound frozen “pavo ahumado” or “smoked turkey” at the Soriana supermarket for 378 pesos. She had heard about injecting a smoked turkey with wine so she went to the pharmacy and told the pharmacist that she wanted to buy a “jeringa” (hair-EENG-ah) or “syringe”. The pharmacist asked her what size she wanted and she told him that she didn't know. He then asked her what she was going to do with it and she told him that she was going to “inyectar un pavo” or “inject a turkey”. In Mexico that's all there is to it. No other questions asked. He sold her a 10 milliliter syringe with a .8 millimeter diameter needle. After she defrosted the turkey she took the syringe and injected the turkey with about a half liter of white wine until every bit of turkey flesh was soused. She put the turkey in a big roasting pan with a lid that she had borrowed from her mother, rubbed it with olive oil, and put it in the oven at 400 degrees for about three and a half hours. Then she just shut off the oven and let the turkey cool down very slowly until it was time to serve it. Wow! It was so good that it exceeded everyone's expectations, even those of my mother-in-law Carmelita. I am very proud of Gina and I am already looking for my next drunken turkey...burp. ¡Perdón!

24 December 2008

Señora Santa Claus

Every year on December 24th my wife Gina thinks that she is Señora Santa Claus. Below is a picture of the trunk of her car.

And I heard her exclaim as she drove out of sight,

Feliz Navidad y buenas noches a todos...
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

23 December 2008

Through the eye of a needle...

If you spend much time in Mexico you will see some wonderful things...things that you can hardly believe are possible. I am always amazed by some of the miniature dioramas like those of the Nativity Scene that are so small that they are contained in a nut shell. However, after seeing the video below I think there is no limit to what people can do no matter where they are. There is a man named Willard Wigan in England who makes tiny dioramas so small that they fit into the eye of a needle. I am truly humbled. You will be too!

21 December 2008

Orange Cookies and Fruit Flies

My friend and fellow blogger Bliss recently wrote about baking cookies for Christmas. For some reason or other this triggered a memory of my mother and one of her cookie baking experiences. My mother was always a positive thinking, forward looking, happy-go-lucky person with a perpetual twinkle in her eye and she was fond of playing practical jokes every now and then. One time my father was explaining to us how they used to play practical jokes in the military and about how one of the most popular jokes was "short sheeting" each others beds. To "short sheet" a bed you tuck the top sheet under the mattress at the top of the bed and then double it over so that when a person tries to get into bed their feet are stopped halfway down the bed by the fold in the doubled over sheet. Yes, you guessed it. When my father tried to get into bed that night he found that it was short sheeted. Poor Dad, he was often the target of Ma's jokes and of course all of us kids thought it was hysterical. One time Ma put some over ripe fruit on the back porch and then waited until it had fruit flies. She then captured the fruit flies in a little net and put the fruit flies in my Dad's lunch box just as she was closing the lid. At lunch time Dad would open the lunch box and fruit flies would fly out and the other workers began to joke about it. Finally after three or four days of this my Dad brought up the subject at the supper table and all of us kids burst out laughing because we were all in on it. He knew right then that he had been the victim of another of Ma's tricks. Fortunately our Dad was a good natured sort who was fond of pulling his own pranks once in awhile.

One day my sister Suzy decided she would try playing a trick on our mother. She noticed that she had the same style of handwriting that Ma did and with a little practice she was able to duplicate Ma's handwriting. Ma loved to cook and bake and she had a file box full of recipes that she had collected over the years. Suzy decided to make up some recipes and sneak them into the recipe box to see Ma's reaction. The problem is that the plan backfired. One of the fake recipes was an imaginary recipe for "Mexican Orange Cookies". My sister tried to make it as realistic as possible by copying parts of other cookie recipes but she also threw in some odd ingredients. Our mother was always trying to make something new and different so one day she stumbled upon this recipe and tried to make it. She was just taking the cookies out of the oven as we came home from school and I tried one of them. It was terrible. Seeing the face that I had made Ma tried one herself and became very quiet and obviously very frustrated that the cookies had turned out so bad. My sister Suzy seeing how sad the ruined cookies made our mother started to cry from remorse and the story came out. She confessed to the Mexican Orange Cookies and to several other fake recipes. Our mother quickly forgave Suzy for telling the truth but I was not so ready to forgive her. After all, I had been cheated out of a nice batch of cookies. Just for the sake of curiosity I typed in "Mexican Orange Cookies" on Google and found out that there are oodles of recipes for cookies under this name. Too bad Suzy didn't get it right. I'll bet that Ma's cookies would have been the best!


20 December 2008

Erase and start over...

This time of year when the days grow shorter and shorter I always seem to get a little depressed. I suspect it has something to do with the fading of the light but I sometimes think it has something to do with Christmas. Somehow Christmas never matches up to the story book dreams of my youth and it turns into a mad dash from store to store trying to divine what someone else would like to have and usually getting it wrong. It also means taking a bunch of people who don't really get along all that well much of the time and putting them all together in one place once every year in the hopes that there will be “Peace on Earth”, or at least peace around the dinner table. In any case this is usually the season when I get a bit melancholy and start philosophizing. There is a phrase often used in Mexico that goes “borrar y cuenta nueva” which basically means, "to erase and start over". That is what I would like to do with my life, erase and start over. You will see below the best picture that was ever taken of me. It was taken about sixty years ago. When I realize that today is the first day of the rest of my life and I see my reflection in the mirror I think to myself, “Who is that guy in the mirror and whatever became of that little boy in the photograph?”. I guess my mother was right when she used to tell me not to spend much time looking in the mirror or the Devil might jump out at me. On the inside I am still like that innocent little boy in the photo but on the outside I am afraid that I am in a heap of trouble.

19 December 2008

Mount January

In México at this time of year you will often hear the phrase "La Cuesta de Enero" which is a play on words meaning "The Hill of January" or "The Burden of January" or perhaps even "The Cost of January". It refers to the time after all of the Christmas celebrations are over and the bills must be paid. It is a time when after having paid for the Las Posadas, Las Piñatas, La Fiesta de Nochebuena (Dec 24th), and Los Regalos de Los Reyes Magos (Jan 6th) a lot of people are looking for "préstamos" (loans) and the pawn shops here do a very good business. During the three week period beginning with the posadas and ending with the three kings the expense can't be spared and all too often, and with the help of a little tequila, the expense gets quite out of control. After all the partying is over, however, the rent and the light bill must still be paid and people have to eat. All of the party fever of December turns into the long drawn out hangover of January and a tough upward climb to solvency. No wonder that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of pawnbrokers!

During the last few weeks I have taken some weekend tours of the cities surrounding Irapuato where I live and I don't remember seeing the level of economic activity so low as I have this year. I am thinking that the long upward climb is going to continue past January and well into the next year. It may even turn out that we eventually refer to the coming year as "La Cuesta de 2009. In the U.S. the banks and the mortgage companies have already received their Christmas presents and the auto companies will soon be receiving theirs…all paid for out of the retirement savings of the baby boom generation. Not much else for many of us boomers to do except turn and face the future, lean into the harness once again, take up the slack, and start climbing.

¡Adelante compañeros! ¡Pónganse a jalar!
Forward companions! Get to work! (Put yourselves to pulling!)

17 December 2008

Equal Opportunity for Devils

We are just now entering the season of posadas and pastorelas. My suegra Carmelita runs a “jardín para niños” which we call a “kindergarden” in English and what Mexicans commonly call a “kinder” (pronounced “KEEN-der”). Every year Carmelita and her teachers and students put on a pastorela pageant for the parents, relatives and friends of the children. I was tickled to see that this year all of the devils were female. I remember reading some posts by my fellow bloggers that mentioned little boys playing the part of the devils who would lead the poor shepherds astray in their quest to find the baby Jesus. Well, I am pleased to report that apparently in Irapuato at least, the females are judged to be just as capable of devilish acts as the males and I have the pictures to prove it.

12 December 2008

Company Christmas Party 2008

I work for a company called “Talleres de Equipo Rodante del Bajío, S.A.”. This is a hard name for people to remember so we call it “TERBSA” for short. The full name means “Rolling Stock Shops of the Bajío Region, Inc.” We repair and maintain railroad freight cars and in particular we are specialists in servicing tank cars. My title is “Gerente de Aseguramiento de Calidad” or “Manager of Quality Assurance”. I have been working there for nine years and my job is to make sure that we meet all of the international railroad interchange requirements and also to train the workers. Every year on December 11th, the day before the feast of the “Virgen de Guadalupe”, the company holds a Christmas luncheon for all of the employees. We first gather in the late morning at eleven to attend a Catholic mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe. The priest comes from Irapuato and the mass is held in the outdoor classroom just outside my office. Then we sit down for a nice catered lunch at tables placed on the front lawn. It is a very special gesture on the part of our employer who treats us more like like family than employees. In fact, TERBSA is a family business that was started thirty eight years ago by our Director, Ingeniero Salvador Lee Chavez. His son, José Luis Lee Zavala, is our General Manager. I took some photos of the event and you can see them below. All of the people in the pictures are my Spanish teachers.

07 December 2008

Got goat?

I am curious about everything. I have an insatiable urge to know “who” and “why” and “where” and “when” and “what” and “how” and the most important one, “why not”. The other day I was poking around on the Internet to see what else is new and I stumbled upon yet another thing that I didn't know. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I read that goat meat is the most widely consumed meat in the world. That's right, goat meat! Approximately sixty-three percent of the world’s total meat consumption can be credited to goat meat and it is estimated that eighty percent of the world’s population eats goat as a staple in their diet. How about that? When I read about this it really humbled me. How come I didn't know this? It is probably because like many Americans I have lived the majority of my life in a bubble. I always thought that beef was king and that “Where's the beef?” was the cry of the masses. Now I find out that worldwide, more people eat the meat and drink the milk of goats than any other type of animal and that three-fourths of all the goats in the world are located in developing countries. I have seen estimates that the total world population of goats is now around 765 million animals and that less than ten percent of that number are in North America. I really don't know how they come by that number though. I wasn't aware that there is a goat census and I would think that goats move around a lot making them hard to count. Nevertheless, the fact is that there are a lot of goats.

I knew from experience that goat is eaten quite a bit in Mexico in a number of forms. We have “cabrito al pastor” in which the whole carcass is opened flat and impaled on a metal spit and set over a fire. Then we have "cabrito al horno" or oven-roasted cabrito. Then there is "cabrito en salsa" in which the animal is cut into portions, browned in oil and braised in a tomato-based sauce with onions, garlic and green chilies, and other seasonings. We also have "cabrito en sangre" or cabrito in blood sauce where the blood of the animal is collected when it is slaughtered and it becomes the basis for the sauce that the goat is braised in. Another thing we have is “birria de cabrito” which is the meat from a young goat that is steamed. Last, but not least we have “barbacoa de cabrito” where the goat is wrapped in leaves and cooked in a pit barbecue. I didn't really know much about how goats are used in other countries but I am quickly learning that eating goat meat is a pretty big deal. Goats were one of the very first animals to be domesticated by humans, some 10,000 years ago and goats are mentioned many times in the Bible and they are also mentioned in the Quran and there are few, if any, religious taboos that prohibit people from eating goats.

There are many reasons why goats have become such an important source of meat. First of all, goats thrive in poor conditions where cattle and other types of livestock would likely starve. Goats are good foragers and cost about half as much to feed as other livestock. This is because goats prefer plants that are undesirable to other livestock. Goats prefer shrubs and broad leaf weeds over grass. The result is more grass for the other livestock. Goats can also be raised on land that is unsuitable for other purposes. It takes seven or eight goats to eat as much as one cow. The goat pregnancy period is fairly short. A female goat normally gives birth between 145 - 155 days after mommy goat and daddy goat rub noses (or whatever it is that they do). Goats usually give birth to twins but on rare occasions can give birth to four or five. Goats are very prolific. A female goat reaches puberty early, usually at about twelve months for her first mating and can give birth after subsequent matings at least three times every two years. Finally, there is one other good reason why goats are popular for meat. A single small goat will feed a large family unit without the need for subsequent refrigeration, or in other words the whole goat is consumed at one meal. This is in contrast for the need to preserve the meat from larger animals after they are slaughtered. For the diet conscious, a three ounce serving of goat meat represents about 122 calories and provides three grams of fat while the same size portion of beef represents about 245 calories and provides 16 grams of fat. Goat has about the same caloric content as chicken but has lower cholesterol content than chicken, beef, pork, or lamb.

I found it very interesting that the goat market is very diverse and that it has a lot to do with ethnic and religious preferences. For example, the Muslim people observe a day called Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice ) which this year is celebrated on Monday, December 8th. 2008 in conjunction with the mass assembly of Hajj pilgrims around Mount Arafat, just outside Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The festival commemorates the willingness of Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. Muslims who can afford it, sacrifice an animal (usually a goat or a sheep) as a reminder of Abraham's obedience to God. According to Muslim law, the animal must be at least a year old. You can tell this by looking at a goat's teeth because goats get their adult teeth at about one year of age. The sacrificed animal has to be a male also. The animal must be humanely treated prior to slaughter, have its head turned to the east, toward Mecca, and a prayer spoken while a very sharp knife is used to cut its throat. The slaughtering ritual is somewhat similar to that used by the Jewish people.When a Jewish rabbi says a prayer called the “bracha” (or “brachot” ) over the “shechita” (slaughter) right before killing the animal The intention is the same as when you say a blessing before you eat to acknowledge that God is the source of all life. I remember reading that the American Indian does the same thing before killing wild game. I wonder why Christians don't do the same before killing things. Hmmm, perhaps McDonalds and Burger King do that for us. There is one other thing that I wonder about. Although goat is the most consumed meat throughout the world, the USDA only lists milk, broilers, cattle, hogs, calves, eggs and turkeys on its agricultural commodities roster. Maybe if the U.S. Government learned a bit more about goats it would learn a bit more about Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Mexicans, Indonesians, Filipinos, Chinese, and the people of India and South America, etcetera, and the world might be a better place. It's just an idea...

05 December 2008

Pop Culture 003 - Pancho Pantera

On the 29th of May of this year I posted an item to this blog entitled "Chocomíl de Fresas" which involved the use of a product named “Choco-Milk”. In 1928 the Proctor & Gamble Company (of Mexico) developed the first milk modifier to add supplemental vitamins and minerals to milk for Mexican children. The supplement came in the form of chocolate powder and the result was the product was called “Choco-Milk”. However, the Mexican people find it awkward to pronounce the letter “k” in the word “milk” and so they just don’t bother. “Choco-Milk” is pronounced “choko-MEEL” and is written everywhere except on the Choco-Milk package as “chocomíl”. An animated character named Pancho Pantera was created in the 1950's to promote nutritional needs and awareness and to advertise Choco Milk. Over the years Pancho Pantera has evolved from a simple country boy in a straw hat to a sporty modern youth. The word "pantera" means "panther" and you can see the emblem of a black panther on Pancho Pantera's chest. Sometime you may hear someone refer to Pancho Pantera and before now you would have wondered what that was all about but...now you know.

02 December 2008

Sweets & Deserts 001 - Muéganos

The other day my mother-in-law Carmelita came over on her way home from the market and handed me a couple of clear plastic packets of something that looked a bit like the old Kellogs Sugar Corn Pops from my youth (“knock, knock sugar pops are tops!”). They appeared to be little balls covered with sugar syrup and they were about double the size of sugar pops. They had a crunchy texture when I tried them and they reminded me of eating “Cracker Jacks”. I asked her what they were and she said “muéganos” (MWAY-gah-nohs). She said that they are an old traditional sweet snack that she doesn't see much anymore in Irapuato. She bought them for me so that I would know what “muéganos” are. She told me that they are made by mixing a little bit of flour and tiny bit of salt with some water and forming the dough into little balls. The little balls are then fried in hot oil which makes them sort of hollow and crunchy. After that they are coated with syrup made from piloncillo (raw sugar) and separated to cool. The next day I happened to come across another type that were square and that came from the relatively nearby town of Celaya. I was intrigued by the name “muéganos” and even more intrigued when I couldn't find the word in any dictionary. I did what I always do when I encounter a word like this and I start tugging at little threads of information until I get the whole story.

The reason that I couldn't find the word “muéganos” is that it is a New World version of the Old World “nuégados” which means “nougat” or in other words, a mixture of ground roasted almonds or other nuts mixed into a paste made from egg whites and honey or sugar. The conquistadors from the Extremadura Region of Spain brought the nuégados idea with them when the came to Mexico. In Spain, they would mix sugar and ground almonds or other nuts into a paste and then mix the paste with “cañamones” which are seeds from the hemp plant and make them into little bars or biscuits. They were the original of what we call a “candy bar” today. The hemp seeds were Cannabis sativa L. which is industrial cannabis and not the kind you might be thinking about. Hemp has been cultivated around the world for centuries. It is still being cultivated just about everywhere except the United States even though George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both cultivated hemp on their farms and the Declaration of Independence was drafted on paper made from hemp fibers. Industrial hemp is an important fiber resource that I am sure that we will soon be hearing more about. Don't worry. You don't smoke this variety.

Okay, so now we are over here in the New World so how did the name get changed from “nuégados” to “muéganos”. Well, nobody seems to know but there is a consensus that it happened in the Mexican States of Puebla, Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, and México. The four states are each famous for their own type of muéganos. In Tlaxcala, in the municipality of Huamantla, the muéganos are called “Muéganos Huamantlecos”. In Hidalgo the town of Huasca is famous for “Muéganos de Huasca”, and in the State of México the municipality of Teotihuacán is famous for “Muéganos El Águila” which is also a well known brand name. The City of Puebla is famous for all types of sweets and in Puebla you will find muéganos like “Muéganos Poblanos” and “Muéganos de Vino” and the recipes for some of these can be quite exotic. It is my understanding that a lot of the development regarding muéganos in this region was done by convent nuns. These muéganos are generally of the true nougat type and come in many forms and some of them, like the Muéganos El Águila look like fairly large candy bars. The muéganos are often sandwiched in between a top and bottom layer of what is called “wafer paper” or “rice paper”. It is not actually paper but it is thin and white and edible. It is made from white rice flour, tapioca flour, salt, and water or from potato starch, water, and vegetable oil. In Spain there is something similar to the Muégano El Águila called a “turrón” which comes in various shapes and styles and is traditionally eaten during the Christmas season. The muéganos in the Bajío region of Mexico where I live seem to be more like “poor man's muéganos” and are made with just flour, salt, pilloncillo, and perhaps a bit of canela (cinnamon). They really have nothing to do with nougat.

Now that we have the basics covered there is something else that I should mention about the word “muéganos”. You may sometime hear the phrase “familia muéganos” and this refers to a family including mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, and grandchildren, etcetera, that is very united and stuck together just like the flour ball and syrup type múeganos stick together. This can be a good thing but it can also be detrimental because a family like this is not open to change or compromise. It thinks, moves, feels, and reacts as a unit and to move or influence one member you have to move them all and this can only happen very slowly. Some Mexican anthropologists and sociologists have likened the whole country to muéganos in that the people are subject to strong family ties, political alliances, patronage, nepotism, religious traditions and many other things that are so entwined that it makes governing through laws difficult because for several hundred years all of these things took precedence over the law.

So, am I done with muéganos? I don't think so. There are still some loose ends that I need to tie up. I would still like to know how the word “nuégados” changed to “muéganos” or if it even did. Perhaps the word “muéganos” actually came from somewhere else. Not only that but in El Salvador and Guatemala they have a dish called “chilate con nuégados”. The “chilate” is a simple corn beverage, slightly spicy due to the peppercorns and ginger used to prepare it. The “nuégados” are made of yucca, toasted cornmeal or plantain in syrup and don't have anything to do with nougat either. In any case, for now at least, if anyone mentions the words “méganos” or “nuégados” you will have a pretty fair idea of what they might be talking about. If I learn anything more I will give you an update.

29 November 2008

La Corona de Adviento

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us we look forward to the Christmas season. In Mexico, “Navidad” begins with “El Adviento” (Advent) and the season runs all the way to February 2nd , “La Fiesta de Candelaria”. In English we call this day at various times, Candlemas Day, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The February 2nd date is also known in the U.S. as “Groundhog Day”. In any case, it is a long stretch from the beginning of December to the beginning of February when the “Navidad” decorations are finally taken down and the Christ child is removed from the manger, given new clothing, and put away until the next year. The Mexican people, like people everywhere, enjoy “Navidad” more than any other time of the year. My wife Gina has already prepared her “Corona de Adviento” or “Advent Wreath” and you can see it in the picture below. She and my sister Suzy definitely have one thing in common. They both go nuts over Christmas traditions.

The English word "advent", or in Spanish, "adviento", comes from the Latin word "adventus", which in itself is a translation of the Greek word "parousia", which is a reference to the Second Coming. Christians believe that the season of Advent serves a dual reminder of the original waiting that was done by the Hebrews for the birth of their Messiah as well as the waiting that Christians currently do in expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. For that reason and because of the ritual of lighting the advent candles there is something tugging at my heart that says perhaps we should also celebrate Hanukkah (Chanukah ), the Jewish festival of lights, in tandem with our Jewish brethren. The Jewish festival tradition incorporates a nine branched candelabra called a "menorah" and commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and the miracle of the lamps burning for eight nights with very little oil. The Hanukkah festival lasts for eight nights and a new candle on the menorah is lit on each successive night. The ninth candle on the menorah, is called the “shamash” candle and it is used for the lighting of the other eight candles.

Now, before anyone from either side accuses me of blasphemy I can assure you that this is just a fanciful dream of mine and as we witness so many religious conflicts unfold around the world I realize more and more that it seems to be the purpose of organized religion to drive people apart and not bring them together. I just thought that it would be "cool" if Hanukkah would start on December 16th or 17th at the same time as the Mexican Posada season gets under way and both celebrations would conclude on December 24th. Okay, okay, I know that it could never happen and besides it would be too complicated. The Jewish festivals are based upon the lunar calendar and Hanukkah moves around quite a bit. The first night of Hanukkah won't fall on December 17th until the year 2014 and after that it will be quite a long spell before it repeats. This year Hanukkah doesn't begin until December 21st but that's okay too. After all, there is an old tradition that says Jesus was born during the Jewish festival of lights.

Technically Advent begins with the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle which is November 30th and covers four Sundays, lasting until midnight on Christmas Eve. The first Sunday may be as early as November 27th, and in that case Advent has twenty-eight days. In some years the first Sunday may be as late as December 3rd giving the season only twenty-one days. This year, 2008, Advent begins on Sunday, November 30th. Gina's “Corona de Adviento” has the traditional five candles, three violet, one rose, and one white. The first two violet candles are lit in succession on the first and second Sunday and on the third Sunday they are joined by the rose candle and this Sunday is called “Gaudete Sunday” and marks more or less the halfway point of Advent. The word “Gaudete” comes from Latin and means to rejoice. On this Sunday the joy of expectation is emphasized. The nine days of the Mexican Posadas begin around this time. On the fourth Sunday the last violet candle is lit and the white candle in the center is lit on Christmas Eve after sundown. Ooops, by now some of you may have realized that the three candles on Gina's wreath that are supposed to be violet are red and not violet. That is because I couldn't find any violet candles at Walmart. I don't think using red Advent candles instead of violet ones will add to my time in Purgatory but I am not sure. Maybe I better write to the Vatican about that one just in case. However, if I made an error I will just do what I always do and just throw myself at the mercy of the God through His son, Jesus.

We invite you to join us in celebrating Advent. Here are the scripture versus that we will concentrate on for each of the four Sundays and Christmas Eve:

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10
Luke: 1:26-38
Isaiah 7:10-14
Matthew 1:18-24

Second Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2
Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11
Isaiah 2:1-5
Matthew 3:1-6

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 9:6-7
John 1:19-34
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Philippians 2:1-11

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Malachi 3:1-5
Romans 8:18-25
Isaiah 52:7-10
Revelation 21:1-4

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:1-6
Luke 2:1-20
John 1:1-18
Titus 2:11-14

You can find plenty of scripts and fancy prayers to go along with the scripture reading and the lighting of the candles but I suggest that you do what I do and just “wing it”. God will understand and anyway, I don't think He is impressed with our words. He is looking to see what we have in our hearts. Say Amen!

25 November 2008

Pop Culture 003 - Armando Fuentes Aguirre - Catón

I would be remiss in my task of introducing my readers to Mexican popular culture without mentioning my friend and mentor Armando Fuentes Aguirre who is otherwise known as Catón. He is a writer and journalist who was born on July 8, 1938 in Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico. However, he is more than just a Mexican writer and journalist. He is more like the conscience of the “La Republica Mexicana” which he knows and loves so much. Not only is he an expert in Spanish language and History but he is also very fluent in the English language, very knowledgeable in Latin, and is considered an expert in classical music as well. He writes several daily syndicated columns that appear in 156 national and international newspapers. The three principal syndicated pieces are “Mirador” (Observer), “De Política y Cosas Peores” (Of Politics and Worse Things) and “Manganitas” (literally “little shirt sleeves” but it is a fanciful play on words). He has written a number of books including an excellent book on Benito Juárez and Maximilian entitled “La Otra Historia de Mexico - Juarez y Maximiliano: La Roca y el Ensueno” (The Other History of Mexico – Juárez and Maximilian: The Rock and the Dream).

My introduction to Catón was very simple. I had arrived in Mexico in January 1999 to work on a project for a company located in a small town near Monterrey, Nuevo León. I had prepared myself by studying Spanish for about three months before I came but I soon found out that my Spanish was woefully inadequate and most of my daily communication was by grunting and pointing. I resolved to do something about my vocabulary and started to go through the local newspaper every day and pick out what words that I knew and look up others to add to my repertoire. For my fist year I did this a lot, up to several hours a day. In fact, I spent most of my Sunday afternoons with the Monterrey Sunday edition of “El Norte” which I needed to “special order” on Saturday night at the local “farmacia” (drug store). I will write more about this in another post. Not long after I began doing this word search I found my eye always going back to Catón's column “De Política y Cosas Peores” (Of Politics and Worse Things) in the editorial pages. It was very hard to decipher at first but it was also very rewarding because it included dialogs in the form of some very funny jokes. I went through this column every day and used it as the basis for building my vocabulary.

After about a year of study and as I gained more confidence I began to memorize the best of Catón's jokes and when I was with a group of people with whom I felt comfortable I would retell the jokes. I was very clumsy at first and people laughed at me more than they did the jokes but after awhile I got much better at it. This was a real confidence builder and it also helped me learn the patterns and timing of the language. After I had about three years of experience with the language I began giving weekly training sessions in Spanish and I always ended them with a joke which I called “La Historia de la Semana” or “The Story of the Week”. This became very popular with the people whom I was training and it helped me to develop a comfortable relationship with them. About this time I began talking on the telephone regularly in Spanish and that was a new challenge because talking on the telephone in a language that is not your own can be very intimidating. You cannot see the faces of the people that you are talking to and you cannot read their body language. However, the practice that I had with the jokes really helped me to speak with confidence and for all of this I thank my friend Armando Fuentes Aguirre. In fact, I got the chance to thank him in person a few years ago when he came to Irapuato and I must say that he is one of the nicest people that I have ever met. I will always be grateful to him.

If you live in Mexico you will probably find Catón in the editorial section of your local daily newspaper and if you live outside of Mexico you can get online subscriptions to a number of Mexican newspapers at a nominal cost. I suggest that“El Norte” of Monterrey or "Reforma" of Mexico City or "Mural" of Guadalajara, or "Palabra" of Saltillo would all be good choices.

Correction (February 15, 2010):

I was alerted by a kind reader who shares the name Armando with Catón that I made a mistake in this blog post regarding my translation of the word "manganitas". I said that it means "little shirt sleeves" but it turns out that this is incorrect, and now that I understand why I feel quite embarrassed. The "manga" in manganitas does not refer to a "manga" or sleeve. It refers to several events in the Mexican rodeo which is called a "charreada" and which is held in a place called a "lienzo charro". Two of the events that are part of the competitive rounds called "suertes" are the "Manganas a Pie" and "Manganas a Caballo". In both events a "charro" or "cowboy" tries to catch the front legs of a mare by using a lariat and cause it to tumble down. In one event he is on horseback and in the other event he is on foot. A "mangana" therefore is a lasso or lariat the verb "manganear" means to lasso something with a lariat. What Catón apparently means by using the word "manganitas" is a play on words meaning "a little something to trip you up". Let me say that I am sorry to both Armandos. I will try not to let it happen again :)

23 November 2008

Vegetables & Fruits 001 – Camotes (Sweet Potatoes)

Now that we are getting close to Thanksgiving a lot of people are blogging about traditional holiday food and some of those food items are yams and sweet potatoes. However, most of us have never really seen a yam and what we sometimes call yams are actually just a different form of sweet potato. In a recent article in “Weekend America” I learned that yams originally came from Africa where they were a diet staple. During the slave trade when thousands upon thousands of African natives were kidnapped and thrown into slavery on the shores of North America they did not find the yams that they were used to eating but they did find sweet potaotes. They adoped the sweet potatoes as a substitute and called them “yams” after the tuber from their native homeland. That is how the name “yam” entered the American marketplace and where it remains today even though real “yams” may be hard or impossible to find.

In Mexico we have a sweet potato that is long and purple. It is called a “camote” (kah-MOH-teh). The principal meaning of the Mexican Spanish word “camote” is “sweet potato” but it can have several other meanings depending upon the particular region where it is used and also upon the context in which it is used. When I first came to Mexico I heard a man say something like “Es un gran camote”. I asked him what “camote” meant and from what I could understand of his explanation it seemed that there was a “problema” or “problem” but looking back on it I think he was saying that there was some lie, or trick, or other foolishness that had occurred. In any case I moved to a different part of the country soon after and I was talking with a group of workers one day and thinking that it would be “cool” to use some slang I said “Tengo un gran camote” which is what I thought meant “I have a big problem”. They all stared at me in shock with their eyes wide open like they couldn't believe that I had actually said what I said. Later on I found out that in this region the word “camote” is often used as a euphemism for the male sexual organ. In my ignorance I had just casually announced to them that I had a great big penis. You can imagine my embarrassment. It is just another good example of how you should always make sure of the meaning of a newly acquired Spanish vocabulary word before you actually use it.

In addition to the word “camote” we have the word “camotero” (kah-moh-TEHR-oh). A “camotero” is a street vendor who pushes a cart with a wood fired oven. In this oven he roasts camotes and “platanos machos” (plantain). Both are sprinkled with sugar before roasting and a sweetened condensed milk called “lechera” is poured on before serving. The word “lechera” means “milkmaid” but it is also a brand of condensed milk sold by Nestle in Mexico since 1921. Every so often the camotero opens a valve which releases some water into a pipe running through the hot coals to create steam. It has a whistle on the end where the steam escapes. It sounds like the whistle from an old steam engine way off in the distance. When I first came to Irapuato there were several camoteros and they would appear at dusk. You could hear them coming down the street by the sound of the lonely wail made by their steam whistles. The camotero's cart looks like a little steam locomotive with a chimney that carries off the smoke. The people run out to buy a roasted sweet potato or a plantain for about ten pesos and then they return home to eat it accompanied by a glass of milk. Today Irapuato has only one camotero left and I hope he keeps going for a long, long time because I don't think I want to live in a world without camoteros.

21 November 2008

Pop Culture 002 – Chespirito, Chapulín Colorado, & Chavo del Ocho

In a recent post about entitled “Cri-Crí, El El Grillo Cantor” I wrote about a talented contributor to Mexican culture named Francisco Gobilando Soler. There is another very talented man whom I'd like to introduce to you named Roberto Gomez Bolaños. He is popularly known as “Chespirito” and he has also found a secure place in the hearts of the Mexican people. He was the star of two very popular children's shows, one called “El Chapulín Colorado” (The Red Grasshopper) and another called “El Chavo del Ocho” (The Kid of Number Eight). Both shows ran concurrently in Mexico as well as other Latin American countries (and Spain) from about 1970 until 1979. El Chavo del Ocho continued on intermittently in various forms until about 1992. It is in reruns all over the world and there is now an animated version. At one time it had approximately 350 million viewers.

Roberto Gómez Bolaños was born on February 21, 1929 in Mexico City and has had multiple careers as a writer, actor, director, comedian, humorist, and songwriter. Before beginning his writing and acting career he was an amateur boxer. He also studied Engineering at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. He wrote a number of plays, and contributed dialogs for the scripts of Mexican films and television shows, and also did some character acting work before he became really famous. His stage name of Chespirito was given to him by a producer during his first years as a writer and comes from the diminutive form of the Spanish pronunciation of the name of William Shakespeare or Shakespiercito, meaning "Little Shakespeare". He is quite an all around guy and as “Chespirito” he is very funny.

El Chapulín Colorado was a television series, both created and played by Chespirito, that was a parody of superhero shows like Superman and Batman. A typical episode would have some person get in some kind of trouble and then say out loud, "Oh! And who can help me now?" and the Chapulin Colorado would burst in through the nearest door or window. He would be dressed in red tights and yellow shorts and he had a big yellow heart on his chest with the letters “CH” in red which stood for “Chapulin” (or perhaps Chespirito?). He had two red and yellow antennae that beeped whenever something dangerous approached. He always carried a red plastic hammer as his weapon and could swallow some of his famous "pastillas de chiquitolina" (pills of smallness) which would shrink him down to the size of a mouse so he could squeeze through small openings. He also had a "chicharra paralizadora" (paralyzing buzzer) which was a bicycle horn that would would freeze a person in their tracks when he pointed it at them and honked.

The Chapulín Colorado was usually introduced with the words:

Más ágil que una tortuga, más fuerte que un ratón, más noble que una lechuga, su escudo es un corazón... ¡Es el Chapulín Colorado!
More agile than a tortoise, stronger than a mouse, nobler than a head of lettuce, and his shield (emblem) is a heart... It's the Red Grasshopper!

The Chapulín Colorado always bumbled along making one mistake after another but somehow, mostly by odd luck, he ended up saving the day. He had a lot of one line phrases that were injected into the dialog and you always knew when they were coming. He was a consummate Laurel and Hardy type bumbler and everyone loved him.

The other character that Chespirito created and in fact the one he is most famous for is “El Chavo del Ocho”. The character El Chavo del Ocho is an eight-year-old orphan. The word “chavo” means “kid” and generally Chavo is enthusiastic, creative, and good-natured but on the other hand he is also rather naive and very gullible. He is not particularly bright and is rather clumsy which sets the tone for many of the scripts. Chavo arrived at the neighborhood at the age of four and lives in apartment number eight with a mysterious elderly woman who is never seen. In any case, Chavo spends most of his time inside an abandoned barrel that he calls his "secret hideout" and he is constantly craving ham sandwiches. Some of his supporting cast members are:

Quico [Kiko] (Actor Carlos Villagrán) is a nine year old boy who wears a sailor top and a multicolored beanie. He is a friend of Chavo

Don Ramón (Actor Ramón Valdés) is an unemployed widower who never seems to pay his rent.

Doña Florinda (Actress Florinda Meza) is the widowed mother of Quico.

Profesor Jirafales (Actor Rubén Aguirre) is the school teacher.

Doña Cleotilde (Actress Angelines Fernández) is an ugly woman who despeartely seeks to be loved and lives in apartment 71. The kids think she is a witch, and refer to her as "The Witch of 71".

Señor Barriga (Actor Edgar Vivar) is the landlord. He does not get much respect.

La Chilindrina (Actress María Antonieta de las Nieves) is the street smart daughter of Don Ramón who is always playing tricks on the other kids.

The show "El Chavo del Ocho" follows El Chavo and the other inhabitants of the vecindad, as they go about in their everyday lives. The word "vecindad" means "neighborhood" in Spanish but in Mexico City a "vecindad" is often a big old estate house with a central courtyard that has been divided into smaller apartments of one or two rooms. El Chavo lives in this type of "vecindad" and spends most of his time in the courtyard. The show relies heavily upon physical comedy and running gags in order to amuse the audience. The dialog is a bit difficult for non native Spanish speakers to understand because it uses so many idiomatic expressions and words with double meanings. In addition, Roberto Gomez Bolaños created several words and phrases that nowadays are widely used as part of the Spanish language, at least in Mexico. For this reason less it would be well worth your while to obtain a video of this program and learn a little bit about it. Needless to say, if you really want to learn the language well you need to dig down and become familiar with this type of cultural material.

20 November 2008

Happy Birthday Mickey

The other day I heard one of the political pundits on television say that by 2016 the "Baby Boom" generation will start fading from the political scene and become more or less irrelevant. Hey wait a minute! I am a Baby Boomer and I am still a young man...sort of. How could I fade from the picture and become irrelevant so soon? Then I realized that by then I would be approaching my allotted relevancy period of "three score years and ten". I also read that Mickey Mouse just had his 80th birthday this past November 18th. Oh, no Mickey. Not you! Hey, if Mickey can still be going strong at 80 then there is hope for me and you too. I like that word "hope".

Here is Mickey in "Steam Boat Willie", his first animation with sound in 1928 and here is hoping for many happy returns for all of us...you, me, and Mickey.

18 November 2008

Stories 001 - Mamá Cuervo

Some time you may hear someone being referred to as a “mamá cuervo” or “mother crow”. A person might say for example:

Ayyy...allí viene Lucía. Ella es una mamá cuervo y sin duda ella está llevando fotos de sus hijos preciosos.
Oh, no...here comes Lucy. She is a mama crow and no doubt she is carrying photos of her precious children.

You may have already guessed what the phrase “mamá cuervo” means but perhaps don't know why. A “mamá cuervo” is someone who is always bragging about their children (or grandchildren) and since this includes most of us I thought it would be a good idea to explain where this phrase comes from. If you have ever seen a baby crow they are truly awkward and ugly things. They are so ugly, in fact, that only a mama crow could love them. However, to the mama crow they are very beautiful indeed because they are her offspring. The story of the mama crow is told in several Spanish speaking countries and there are a number of minor variations of the story. The following version is more or less the general theme of all of the mama crow stories with the exception that some of the characters may be presented differently in different regions. Anyway, this is my version of the story and I am sticking to it:

Once upon a time in a big forest there lived a mama crow in a nest with her baby crows. Every morning mama crow would go out looking for food for the little crows and she would return about mid-day. One day she arrived back at her nest at the usual time but did not hear the welcoming calls of her little ones and she did not find them in the nest. All that she could hear was silence. Needless to say she was very worried and she went out looking for them. She soon encountered a mama squirrel with her baby squirrels and said, “Pardon me Mrs. Squirrel but have you seen my children?”. The squirrel replied, “Tell me what your children look like, Mrs. Crow", because just a few moments ago she had seen some pitiful and scraggly looking little birds that appeared to be lost. The mama crow said, “Oh, my three precious children have very soft little feathers that are as smooth as cotton and their little voices are so sweet that the sound of them will tug at your soul”. “Oh, well”, said the squirrel, “then I certainly haven't seen your children. I am so sorry”.

The mama crow continued looking for her children and encountered a mama rabbit with her baby rabbits. She said, “Hello Mrs. Rabbit. Have you seen my children?”. The mama rabbit said, “I don't know Mrs. Crow. Could you please tell me what they look like?” The mama crow replied, “Oh, my children are so precious and good looking that they will bring tears to your eyes”. The mama rabbit thought for a minute and although she had seen some ugly little baby birds wandering around lost they certainly didn't match the description that mama crow had given her so without any more hesitation she said, “No, I'm sorry, but I haven't seen your children”. The mama crow kept on looking and she met various other animals of the forest during her search and her conversations with them went pretty much along the same lines as the conversations that she had previously with Mrs. Squirrel and Mrs. Rabbit.

Finally the mama crow became very distraught and sick with worry about her children. She came upon a mama fox and normally her fear would have made her fly away from the fox but the mama crow's love for her children was so strong that she confronted the fox and said, “Excuse me Mrs. Fox but I have lost my children. Have you seen them?”. Now, the fox seeing the worry on the face of the mama crow and being a mother herself understood the situation and she felt a shiver of tragedy and foreboding run up and down her spine and she said, “Oh, Mrs. Crow, what do your children look like?”. The mama crow then began to describe her children, “They are precious little things, with soft and smooth feathers and they make sounds so sweet and they are so innocent looking that they must certainly be the most beautiful baby birds in the forest.” The fox let out a deep sigh of relief and said, “No, then I haven't seen your children. I just finished eating three little lost birds but they didn't look anything like your children. In fact the little birds that I ate were horrible looking things with bulging eyes and rough feathers and they made a terrible squawking sound that they didn't stop making until I gobbled them down. The mama crow cried out “Oh, no, those were my children” and she flew off in a terrible state, crying and crying. To this very day when you are in the forest, at times you can still hear her the echo of her cry... “caw, caw, caw”.

Do you know a mamá cuervo (mama crow)? Do you think that you might be a mamá cuervo or “abuela” (grandma) cuervo”? It doesn't matter one bit. There is no doubt that all of our children are beautiful despite what other people might think. That is why we must have patience with every mamá cuervo...because they are us!

15 November 2008

Pop Culture 001 - La Familia Telerín

One of these days you may hear someone refer to the “Familia Telerín” (teh-leh-REEN) as in “Ahí viene la Familia Telerín” (Here comes the Telerín family). The name “Familia Telerín” is an affectionate term for any family with small children. It refers to a time in Mexico (and several other countries) when there was an animated cartoon notice broadcast on the television to remind small children that it was time to go to bed. In Mexico in particular it was broadcast by Televisa (channel two) every night at eight o'clock. This occurred in the 1970's and all the way up throgh the 80's. It started out in black and white and eventually it went to color. La Familia Telerín was an early animation created in Spain in 1964 by two brothers named Santiago and José Moro and it was such a great success that it eventually spread to other Spanish speaking countries.

There were six little children in La Familia Telerín. There names were Cleo, Teté, Maripí, Pelusín, Coletas y Cuquín. The leader was the little girl named “Cleo” which is short for “Cleotilde”. The next was the little boy named Teté whom I believe was named after a famous blind Spanish Jazz pianist named Tete Montoliu. His full name was Vicente Montoliu Massana. He was very popular about the time when the Moro brothers created their animation. The next in line was a little girl named “Maripí” (mah-ree-PEE) which is short for “María Pilar”. Next came the little boy “Pelusín” (pay-loo-SEEN). The name comes from a combination of the words “pelusa” (fluff), “peluca” (wig), and peluquín (toupee). In English we would probably call him “Mopsy” or "Topsy" or something similar. After Pelusín came the little girl, “Coletas” (koh-LAY-tahs). She is named “Coletas” because the word “coleta” means “pigtail” and she has two of them. Last but not least comes the baby “Cuquín” (koo-KEEN). The word “cuco” means “pretty” and the suffix “quín” makes it a diminutive and so in English we would probably say “Cutie Pie”.

When the animated notice would appear on the television screen at eight o'clock there would first be a little speech by Cleo who would say:

Un recado de parte de la tele. Ya va siendo hora de que los peques nos vayamos a la cama. A television reminder. Now it is getting to be the time that us little ones should go to bed.

Then Cleo would shout ¡Ale! (“Come on!”) and they would all march off to bed singing:

Vamos a la cama
We are going to bed
que hay que descansar
because we need to rest
para que mañana
so that in the morning
podamos madrugar
we can be earlybirds.

Here is a little experiment for you to try. Ask any of your Mexican freinds over the age of forty to tell you about the Family Telerín. I'll be that they start singing:

“Vamos a la cama que hay que descansar, para que mañana podamos madrugar.”

12 November 2008

Songs 001 Cri-Crí - El Grillo Cantor

It would be impossible to have a good working knowledge of Mexican Spanish without knowing something about the songs. In case you haven't noticed, Mexican people like music and especially singing. I would like to include music in these blog lessons in the form of old time favorite popular songs and I could think of no better way than to start out with the songs created by a wonderful man named Francisco Gabilondo Soler who is better known as Cri-Crí (cree-CREE). In 1934 while broadcasting his own radio show on Mexico's most popular station XEW he created a character named “Cri-Crí, El Grillo Cantor”. In English, “El Grillo Cantor” means “the singing cricket”. He was created by Francisco Gabilondo Soler when he was a child and Cri-Crí remained his lifelong imaginary companion. Eventually Cri-Crí became so famous that people began calling Señor Gabilondo himself “Cri-Crí” and in the 1930's, 40's, and 50's he became the most famous singer of childrens' songs in Español.

A nice man named Gabriel Orozco has created a very nice website where you can download and play the songs of Cri-Crí, El Grillo Cantor.

I have some particular suggestions for songs to start out with. You can sing right along because the words are provided and the songs are clear and simple and are a nice way to practice your Spanish.

The fist song is “Campanita-Juan Pestañas”. It is a song about the Mexican version of Mr. Sandman. The word “pestaña” means “eyelash”. The word “campanita” means “little bell”. I guarantee that you will like this song, especially the way that Francisco Gabilondo sings it.

The second song is “La Patita” which is about a mother duck and her ducklings. Very cute.

The third song is “Negrito Sandía” which is a bit saucy.

There are over a hundred songs with both words and MP3 music recordings so I'm sure that you will find something that you like. The main thing is that you are introduced to the songs of Cri-Crí so that when this name comes up in conversation you will not only know what the people are talking about but you will be able to show how smart you are and rattle off the names of your own favorite Cri-Crí songs.

And now, I will end this post in the same manner that Francisco Gabilondo Soler ended each program:

¿Quién es el que anduvo aquí?
Who is it that was just here?
¡Fue Cri-Crí! ¡Fue Cri-Crí!
It was Cri-Crí! It was Cri-Crí!
¿Y quién es ese señor?
And who is that gentleman?
¡El Grillo Cantor!
The Singing Cricket!

09 November 2008

Vocab Builder 002 - Carmelita's Mole Sauce

Recently, I received a question about mole sauce from Michele and Peter who live in the Mission District of San Francisco, California. Peter's grandparents were born near Irapuato and he is trying to find a mole recipe like the kind that his grandmother used to make. I turned to my Mexican food expert who just happens to be my wife's mother, “Carmelita”, and asked for her help. Carmelita is from nearby Silao and she learned how to make mole from her mother who learned from her mother and so on down the line. The first person to make mole, according to popular tradition, was Sister Andrea de la Asunción of the Convent of Santa Rosa in Puebla. She created it for the first time in honor of a visit by the archbishop sometime during the late sixteen hundreds. She served it over turkey (Guajalote) and the dish is popularly known as “Mole Poblano de Guajalote” (MOH- lay pohb-LAHN-oh day gwah-hah-LOH-tay). It is a very traditional Mexican dish and it is served on special occasions. I have received several other questions about mole after writing about the “Mole Festival of Guanajuato” and I thought it might be nice to include Carmelita's recipe here in case anyone would like to try it with their Thanksgiving turkey. First, however, we had to get it out of Carmelita's head and write it down. It came out of her head in Spanish of course and so I made a translation. I wrote down both the original Spanish and the colloquial English translation in order to make it into a little Spanish lesson related to cooking a recipe or “receta” (reh-SAY-tah) as a recipe is called here. Okay, so let's get right to it:

Receta: Mole Poblano

Se cuece un guajolote grande y tierno o bien un pollo grande, cortándolo en piezas con, ajo, sal, cebolla, una rama de apio, para obtener un buen consomé. Ya una vez cocido se saca el pollo en un recipiente se tapa y se reserva el consomé colado.


9 chiles anchos
3 chiles mulatos
3 chiles pasilla
20 gramos de semilla de calabaza peladas
2 jitomates grandes asados de preferencia jitomate bola
50 gramos de almendras
50 gramos de cacahuates
50 gramos de ajonjolí
1 tablilla (85 gramos) de chocolate (de marca Abuelita o Ibarra)
2 tortillas de maíz doradas en fuego directo sin aceite y cortado en pedazos
1 bolillo mediano
3 dientes de ajo
1 cebolla grande
½ cucharadita de clavos de especia
10 pimientas negras
1 raja de canela
Una pizca de jengibre
200 gramos de manteca de cerdo ó 1/4 litro de aceite

Manera de hacerse:

Se asan un poco, los chiles, se limpian, y se doran en manteca o aceite. También se asan, las semillas de calabaza, las almendras, los cacahuates, el bolillo (rebanado), y una cucharadita y media de ajonjolí. Se frien el ajo, y la cebolla grande rebanada. Todos estos ingredientes se muelen en la licuadora con los jitomates asados, las tortillas doradas, canela, pimiento, clavos, jengibre, y el consomé (tibio) y se forma una pasta. Se pone el resto de manteca o aceite en una cazuela y se vacía la pasta y se le agrega más consomé y se espera a que hierva y tome consistencia ligeramente líquida, poniéndole consomé hasta que termine de cocinarse por espacio de dos horas a fuego muy suave. Agregue el chocolate y añade sal al gusto si se requiere, no dejando de mover constantemente para evitar que se pegue y queme.

Se sirve en un platón las piezas de pavo o pollo y poner encima el Mole Poblano, y se espolvorea con ajonjolí tostado. Se acompaña con arroz rojo (un paltillo muy Mexicano) o con frijoles refritos y tortillas de maíz calientitas y chile jalapeño en vinagre. Una sugerencia infalible de Mamá Carmelita, cuando vayas de invitado a un lugar y te sirvan mole, pide que te sirvan un poco de cebolla blanca cruda en rodajas y lo pones encima de tu mole y si quieres comer la cebolla muy bien y si no la comes no hay problema. De esta manera el Mole poblano nunca de causara indigestión. Otra sugerencia, el mole puedes prepararlo un día antes de tu fiesta y será mucho más rico que el día que lo preparas. Cuando te sobre mole, lo puedes congelar y otro día prepara enmoladas de pollo o pavo servidas con chiles toreados (chile serrano y cebolla en ruedas ligeramente fritos con aceite y con salsa Jugo Maggi de Nestle). ¡Qué rico!

En México es muy tradicional preparar mole, para los cumpleaños, días de santos, el doce de Diciembre (Virgen de Guadalupe), y alguna fecha que conmemorar o especial o sencillamente cuando tu quieras.

¡Buen provecho....Mmmmmmmmm¡ ¡Se me hizo agua la boca!


Recipe: Mole Poblano

A big tender turkey or even a big chicken is cut into pieces and cooked with garlic, salt, onion, and a stick of celery to to obtain a good broth. Remove the chicken once it is cooked and strain the broth obtained.


9 ancho chilis
3 mulato chilis
3 pasilla chilis
20 grams (¾ oz) pumpkin or squash seeds with shells removed
2 Large round tomatoes
50 grams (1-3/4 oz) almonds (shelled)
50 grams (1-3/4 oz) Peanuts (shelled)
50 grams (1-3/4 oz) Sesame seeds
1 tablet (3 oz) of chocolate (Abuelita or Ibarra brands)
2 corn tortillas roasted directly over flame without oil and cut in pieces
1 medium size bread roll
3 cloves garlic
1 large onion
½ teaspoon cloves
10 black pepper corns
1 stick of cinnamon
1 pinch of ginger
200 grams (7 oz) lard or 1/4 liter (about one cup) of vegetable oil.

Method of preparation:

Roast the chilis a little and clean them out and fry them in lard or oil. Also toast the pumpkin seeds, the almonds, the peanuts, the bread roll (sliced), and one and a half teaspoons of the sesame seeds. Lightly fry the garlic, and large onion (sliced). Mix all of these ingredients together in a blender with the roasted tomatoes, roasted tortilla pieces, cinnamon, pepper corns, cloves, ginger, and enough chicken broth (lukewarm) to form a paste. Put the remaining lard or oil in a pot, add the paste, and add more chicken broth until it takes the consistency of a light sauce, cooking it slowly over a low heat for two hours and adding more broth as necessary. Add the chocolate and add salt to taste as required. Don't forget to stir constantly to avoid sticking and burning.

Serve the Mole Poblano on a platter over pieces of turkey or chicken and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds. Acompany with red rice (a very Mexican dish) or with refried beans, warm corn tortillas, and pickled jalapeño chilli peppers. Mama Carmelita has a tried and true suggestion regarding mole. When you are invited to a place where mole is served ask that they serve some sliced raw onion on top of the mole whether you end up eating the onion or not. In this way the mole will never cause indigestion. Another suggestion is that you prepare your mole one day before your party and it will be much tastier than on the day that you prepared it. When you have mole left over you can freeze it and another day you can prpare chicken or turkey with mole and serve it with chilis toreados (lightly rolled, crushed and fried fried chillis serranos and fried sliced onions with Nestle's Jugo Maggi sauce). Very tasty!

In Mexico it is very traditional to prepare mole for birthdays, saint's days, the 12th of December (Virgen de Guadalupe), or some other special day of commemoration or simply whenever you want to.

Bon apetít!...Mmmmmm! It makes my mouth water!

Additional notes:

Don't add hot broth to the blender. Let it cool down to room temperature or it will affect the mix.

It is better to use pure “manteca” or pig lard but vegetable oil will do.

The chocolate sold under the brand names Abuelita (Nestle) and Ibarra comes in three ounce discs that contain sugar and cinnamon. You can substitute dark chocolate but then you have to adjust by adding sugar and cinamon. Abuelita and /or Ibarra can be found in most supermarkets in North America.

Most traditional moles except for “Mole Verde” or “Green Mole” of Oaxaca use chocolate. However, there is another similar sauce called “Pipian” that doesn't use chocolate. Instead of chocolate it uses about a half pound of roasted pumpkin or squash seeds after you remove the shells. By the way, it takes a LOT of pumpkin seeds to make that many "pepitas" which is what the inner seeds are called without the shell. Good luck!

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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.