28 March 2008

Art is where you find it.

In Mexico as well as in many other Latin American countries folk art is wherever you happen to find folks. Sometimes when traveling through little out of the way places I turn a corner and am pleasantly surprised and delighted at what I see. Such is the case when traveling though a pleasant little town named “Valle de Santiago” not far from where I live in Irapuato, Guanajuato. My gal Gina and I like to stop in “Valle” (VAHL-yeh), as the town is referred to locally, and buy deep fried charales which are little tiny fish that the region is noted for. Then we sit on the curb next to our friendly street vendor and eat our charales and watch the world go by. The last time we went there we were delighted that some folk artist had painted a picture on an old wooden door on an ancient dilapidated adobe building. In fact, the building was so old and dilapidated that there were weeds growing out of the roof. I’ll bet you could take that door off of that building though, and put it in any art gallery. However, the door is not for sale. It is for making folks happy. That is what folk art is really for. I took a few photos and you can see them below.

23 March 2008

El Señor Resucitó

Easter Sunday

When I was a young boy living in a Polish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago we would greet each other on Easter Sunday morning with the words “Chrystus Zmartwychwstał! Wesołego Alleluja!”. Here where I live in Mexico we greet each other with the words “¡El Señor Resucitó, Alleluja!”. The meaning is the same in any language…“Rejoice for He has risen!”. My friend and mentor Armando Fuentes Aguirre (better known as Catón), who writes a popular syndicated column that can be found on the editorial pages of newspapers all over Mexico, put it this way, “Si no creemos en la Resurrección, perdimos somos. Si no existió la Resurrección, la muerte existe, y así quedamos condenados a la nada”, or, “If we don’t believe in the Resurrection we are lost. If the Resurrection did not exist, then death exists, and we end up being condemned to nothingness”. He goes on to say that if the Resurrection doesn’t exist then there is no difference between good and bad, love and hate, or lies and the truth. What makes us human is the hope, even if it is only a faint intuition, that our life doesn’t truly end with our death. We don’t know, nor can we know what lies beyond this Earthly life but neither can a fetus know what life is like outside of the womb. Like the unborn fetus we are ignorant about what our existence will be like after we die. In any case, most of us totally reject the notion that death is the complete end to our existence. God is Life. Today, the day of Jesus Christ’s Resurrection, we celebrate the hope of our own resurrection and our eternal life. May God bless my friends and family and anyone who reads these words and this message of hope. In the words of poet Eliza E. Hewitt who wrote the words to one of my favorite hymns;

When we all get to Heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!”

22 March 2008

Sábado de Gloria

Today is Holy Saturday. In Mexico it is called “Sábado Santo” but many people still call it “Sábado de Gloria” which is what it was called in the old days. There are a lot of things that I could write about today like the burning of Judas in effigy or the throwing of water on passers by but these things are slowly fading out of the picture and so I thought that I would mention a steadfast religious custom that is particular to the city of Irapuato, Guanajuato where I live. Every city in Mexico has a “Santo Patrono” or a “Santa Patrona”. Both terms mean “patron saint” depending upon the gender. The Santa Patrona of Irapuato is “Nuestra Señora de Soledad” or “Our Lady of Solitude”. She was crowned the “Queen of Irapuato” by order of Pope Benedict 15th on the 30th of April 1922 and today is housed in “El Templo de Nuestra Señora de Soledad” which the local people commonly refer to as “El Templo”.

In my opinion the name “Our Lady of Solitude” would be better translated as “Our Lady of Loneliness” for that is the meaning that the Spanish name really conveys. She stands forlorn at the foot of the cross while her beloved Son hangs dying before her and is later taken down and put into her arms. Only a mother can imagine how lonely that could be. Her beautiful statue came from Spain several hundred years ago and is dressed in black for Holy Week. On Good Friday and Holy Saturday the lifelike statue is taken down from its place high above the main altar and placed in the center aisle of the church. Her long black cape is then lifted high and held out behind her on stanchions. The people of Irapuato including yours truly line up and slowly make their way into the church and up the aisle to the statue. Upon reaching the statue, five to ten people at a time take shelter under her cape and pray for her intercession and protection. It is a humbling and comforting experience and participating in this tradition always makes me feel one with the people of Irapuato.

Note the second photo below where the woman is reaching up to touch the Virgin. What she is doing is rubbing a photo of the Virgin on the Virgin’s skirt. This will then be given to the person who requested it to be taken home and shared with someone who may be too old or infirm to come to the church in person. In this way all of the people can feel that they made the effort to honor Her and are under Her protection. The third picture below is the picture that they rub on the Virgin's skirt. We requested one and brought it home and gave it to my gal Gina's father who is very old and very sick. The faith of the people here is very touching. I have to keep an open heart and an open mind and constantly remind myself that “Through grace ye are saved through faith and not that of yourself”. It is a comforting thing to feel that you have been blessed by the Mother of Jesus. Amen!

21 March 2008

The Silent March

Every year in Irapuato, as well as in most cities and towns in Mexico, on “Viernes Santo”, Good Friday, there is a silent march. It consists of volunteers who walk the streets in complete silence and solemnity either carrying a platform on their collective shoulders or shepherding a religious float that is propelled by some form of motor vehicle. The platforms and floats support religious statues of Jesus Christ and His crucifixion and Mary, the Mother of Sorrows. The marchers can be identified by their costumes. Some are dressed very realistically as Roman soldiers (often on horseback) and others as penitents who wear long flowing robes and tall, pointed, conical caps. They belong to religious fraternities who are dedicated to preserving the traditional customs of Holy Week. The practice goes back to the year 1478 when the Inquisition was established in Spain by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella as a countermeasure to the Protestant Reformation. Penitence and the renewal of faith were encouraged by the Spanish Monarchy and brotherhoods called “cofradías” were formed to strengthen and encourage the traditions of the church, especially in regard to Holy Week observances. In Spain there were about 57 original cofradías and many of these same cofradías were carried over to New Spain.

The outfits worn by the cofradía penitents are reminiscent of the uniform that in the United States is generally associated with the Ku Klux Klan. This may somewhat confusing and disconcerting to the first time visitor. I must admit that the very first time I witnessed this event I was startled by these costumes and was taken aback until I learned that the origin of the robes and “capirotes” (as the caps are called) goes back to religious fraternities that had their beginnings in medieval Spain. The use of this costume by the Ku Klux Klan just illustrates the degree to which the participants in the Klan are misled . The word “capirote” is a long pointed hood that medieval penitents wore, similar to the caps worn by prisoners put on display for public humiliation. In the United States it might be referred to as the “dunce cap” that the teachers of years gone by made students wear if they acted badly or didn’t know their lessons. A “capirote” is also the name for the little hood that falconers put on the heads of their birds to keep them quiet. A “capirote” can mean a cow or other livestock that has a head that is a different color that the body. Many bird names in Spanish exhibit a variation of the word “capirote” if the bird has some type of different colored “cap” of feathers on its head. Below you can see a picture of a penitent wearing a capirote as well as some other examples of capirotes.

20 March 2008

Cristo Negro

Today, Holy Thursday, there is a famous pilgrimage from Irapuato, Guanajuato to Salamanca, Guanajuato to the church of "La Parroquia de Nuestro Señor del Hospital (ohs-pee-TAHL) to pay homage to "El Cristo Negro". The Cristo Negro is an image of Christ on the cross that was made in the year 1543 out of a paste consisting of the pith of corn stalks and the ground up bulb of a certain orchid. The image shows Christ with his head hanging way down on his right side with his chin touching his chest. The body is very thin and the ribs are quite prominent. In addition, the body is completely black. The actual figure of Christ is about five foot ten inches and weighs only about 30 pounds. It was made in a town called Pátzcuaro, Michoacán and was brought to Salamanca, Guanajuato in the year 1560 when Salamanca was still called by the Indian name "Xidoo". There is a legend that during the time of the "Cristero War", when the Church was being persecuted in parts of Mexico in the 1920’s, the figure of Christ was taken down and hidden in a mine shaft. When the persecutors went to look for it the figure turned the same shade of black as the walls of the mine so they couldn't find it. That is one of the reasons why it is considered miraculous. Every year on Holy Thursday thousands of people from all over the region walk the ten miles from Irapuato to Salamanca to visit the Cristo Negro. The people from Salamanca take the bus to Irapuato so they can walk back to Salamanca to make the pilgrimage. The highway is lined with thousands and thousands of people and get this...they march in complete silence. Some of them even walk barefoot. The first time I saw people walking barefoot in the gravel and bits of broken glass and other detritus along the side of the highway it gave me the shivers. I never cease to wonder about the faith of these people. I too have faith but I have more faith in my automobile than my own two legs so I drive to Salamanca and carefully pass the thousands of pilgrims who line the way.

I park my car in a parking lot in Salamanca about as close as I can to the church and then it generally takes me about a half an hour to work my way along with a river of people to get to the entrance of the church and then about another hour to get through the church and back out. Most of these people have already walked ten miles (or more) to get there and some of them are pretty weak. One time, a girl about five feet in front of me fainted dead away and they dragged her over to the side. Fortunately we were not yet in the thick part of the throng and there was a little space to revive her. The people who faint in the really thick press of the crowd can't fall down and have to be carried along with the crowd in an upright position until they can be rescued. After many baby steps and much patience you come within four feet of the Cristo Negro and I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. It is one of the most lifelike and beautiful crucifixes that I have ever seen. Most crucifixes are fairly stylized along the same pattern but with the Cristo Negro the body of Jesus hangs off the cross like a piece of dead meat and is probably more realistic that most people are ready for.

I was able to piece the story of the Cristo Negro together from several sources, all of which were in Spanish of course. Here is my condensed English version:

La Parroquia del Señor del Hospital
Cristo Negro
Salamanca, Guanajuato, Mexico

Today, Holy Thursday, March 20th in the year of Our Lord 2008 is the 445th anniversary of the Cristo Negro of Salamanca. According to Juan José Rodríguez Chávez, the City Historian of Salamanca, the history of the Cristo Negro goes back to the year 1563. At that time the figure of Christ on the cross had white skin and was already acclaimed for its representation of the agony suffered by Our lord on the cross. It was located in a town called Jilotepec in the State of Mexico not far from Mexico City. It was under the care of the chief usher or "elder" of the church there whose name was Juan Cardona.

One night Juan Cardona had a dream that he should take the "Cristo" underground and keep it hidden until he received a sign telling him where he should take it to be cared for in perpetuity. He thereafter sold all of his possessions to raise some money, gathered his family and a few friends around him and absconded with the Cristo. The local political boss, whose name was Jitzin, was very upset when he found out that Juan Cardona and the Cristo were both missing at the same time. He put two and two together and set out looking for them. When Juan Cardona and his flock learned that Jitzin was hot on their trail they hid the Cristo in a corn field near Querétaro and spent the night in some nearby caves crying and praying for the safety of the Cristo. In the morning Juan Cardona and company went back to look for the Cristo to see if it had been discovered by Jitzin and his men and behold, not only was the Cristo still there but its skin had miraculously turned from white to jet black so that it couldn't be seen by Jitzin's men against the dark earth.

Finally Juan Cardona and his followers arrived at village of Otomí Indians called "Xidoo". When they entered the village Juan Cardona met a man named Juan Lopez de Ledezma who convinced him that the Cristo, which was now the "Cristo Negro", should be placed in a chapel there which had recently been constructed and dedicated to the Holy Assumption. Jitzin was still running around looking for his "Cristo Blanco" so the sacristan of the aforementioned Capilla de la Santa Asunción came up with a contingency plan. He made a replica of the Cristo Negro but with white skin and the plan was to pull a "switcheroo" if Jitzin ever showed up again to claim his "Cristo" but the record is not clear about whether or not he ever did.

Anyway, as the story goes, Juan Cardona died about a year later and they buried his remains in the chapel at the feet of the Cristo Negro. The next morning, however, they found the Cristo Negro on the floor beneath its niche covered with dirt and the head was deeply inclined to ward the right side with the chin touching the chest and the eyes closed as we see it today. The Capilla de la Santa Asunción was the first place in the area where the priests gave medical assistance to the Otomí Indians and thus the name of the place became the Capilla del Señor del Hospital (ohs-pee-TAHL). The present day church which was built between 1888 and 1924 is called la Parroquia del Señor del Hospital. The same man who established the hospital for Otomí Indians in the 1560's at Xidoo (later called Estancia de Barahona and now Salamanca), was don Vasco de Quiroga, the same person who established "El Hospitalito" for the Tarasco Indians in Irapuato. He must have been a pretty nice guy because the people still talk about him with fondness. Getting back to the story...about three years after its arrival at Xidoo the tale of the Cristo Negro had spread far and wide enough that people began to visit the Cristo Negro when they came to the spring fair at what eventually became the Village of Salamanca and it became a tradition to pay homage to the Cristo Negro. Holy Thursday was adopted as the special day for visitation and thousands of people have been making annual pilgrimages to pray at the foot of the Cristo Negro every Holy Thursday for over 400 years.

19 March 2008


One of the Lenten traditions that we enjoy here in Mexico is a desert called “capirotada”. It is a bread pudding made with stale bread, brown sugar (called piloncillo), cheese, butter, nuts, and raisins and several other ingredients depending upon who makes it. If you have one hundred people making capirotada you will probably have at least twenty variations depending upon regional and ethnic considerations. I noticed that capirotada is often mentioned in cook books as a Lenten-Passover dish and I wondered about the connection. Why do two religious cultures share a particular traditional dish tradition at the same season? It is quite apparent that Hispanic People and Sephardic Jewish people share a fondness for capirotada but the fact they both eat it as a traditional seasonal food made me curious. I decided to delve into the history of capirotada but I soon found myself aimlessly wandering around the attic of history until I stumbled upon some clues.

First of all, let’s examine the word capirotada itself. In Spanish, the word “capa” can mean various things but they all have a common theme. A “capa” generally means a covering or a layer. It can mean a “cape”, a “coating” or a “layer” of something as in a “coating of paint” or a “layer of chocolate”, or it can be a “cap”. A “capirote” can mean a cow or other livestock that has a head that is a different color that the body. Many bird names in Spanish have the word “capirotada” appended to them if the bird has some type of different colored “cap” of feathers on its head. The word “capirote” also signifies a long pointed hood that medieval penitents wore or the cap worn by prisoners put on display for public humiliation or the traditional penitent’s garb worn by cofradía participants during the silent march on Good Friday in Spain, Mexico, and other Hispanic countries. In the United States it might be referred to as the “dunce cap” that the teachers of years gone by made students wear if they acted badly or didn’t know their lessons. A “capirote” is also the name for the little hood that falconers put on the heads of their birds to keep them quiet. Lastly, a “capirotada” can also be a mix of something like a stew, or a hash, or a mincemeat or a layered casserole. Aha! Now we are getting somewhere.

There is a French word, “capilotade” that lends credence to the idea of a layered casserole. There are a multitude of recipes for French capilotade and some involve poultry, some involve red meat, and some involve fish such as “Capilotade de Morue” which is a dish made from salt cod, capers, and wine. If we go back in time, however, and we go as far back as ancient Rome, we come across several dishes that lend themselves to the idea of “capirotada” or “capilotade”. The most prominent of these Roman cuisines is a dish called “Sala Cattabia”. The Romans used a bread for this casserole dish that was little more than flour, water, and salt. After the bread was baked it was broken up and put in a pot, covered with a layer of goat cheese, and then layers of cucumbers, boiled chicken, onions, and pine nuts. The whole thing was cooked with some kind of dressing that contained vinegar, raisins, honey, pepper, and various herbs.

Okay, now it is time to “fast forward” quite a bit to around the year 1500. It appears to me from my wanderings through time that the various evolving forms of the Roman dish divided into two branches, one with meat or poultry or fish and the other meatless but still utilizing cheese. During this casserole evolution there were all types of breads evolving as well and the bread used could make a distinct difference in the dish. In Spain at that time there was a strong Arab Islamic presence and so no doubt some of the ingredients came from North Africa. In 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was established in by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Until 1492 the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Catholics. However, in 1492 the Jews were banished from Spain and in 1502 the Muslim Moors were also given the boot. The only way that a Jew or Muslim could remain under the jurisdiction and protection of the Spanish Crown was to adopt Catholicism. One of the main tasks of the Inquisition was to make sure that the so called converts or “conversos” had really converted and were not just faking it to avoid being burned at the stake.

I found several garbled references on the Internet that referred to the Inquisition and the year 1640 and Inquisition archives containing recipes for capirotada. Most of the references seemed to be nothing more that people copying each other’s errors which is something that the Internet is famous for. The date 1640 intrigued me though and upon checking further I learned that in 1640 there was a book printed called the Regimento de Inquisitor General that gave detailed instructions on how to search for fake converts from Judaism to Catholicism. By this time the Inquisition had learned how to ferret out the Crypto Jews (as they later came to be called) fairly well. Knowing this, many of the Jewish “conversos” emigrated to New Spain, and in Mexico in particular they tried to distance themselves from the mainstream of the Inquisition by moving to the northern frontier. Being supposedly “good” Catholics they would have been expected to eat traditional Lenten foods such as capirotada prepared in the traditional way.

In Northern Mexico and Southern Texas there is a bread called “pan de semita” which some people call “Jewish bread” because they claim the word “semita” means “semite”. Jewish people are sometimes referred to as “semites” along with Arab people because both groups are said to have evolved from Shem, the oldest son of Noah (if one is to give credence to the Biblical account in the Book of Genesis). The exact details are not crystal clear in the Genesis account but Shem being the father of both the Arabs and the Jews was taken by many as historical fact in the days when anthropology was still bound by the Bible. The actual word “semite” didn’t even emerge until the early 1830’s. The linking of “pan de semita” strictly to Jews is probably an error. No doubt “pan de semita” was a flat, course bread linked to both Jewish and Arab cultures. What may have set the pan de semita apart is that it can be baked as a type of nomad’s bread without the use of yeast. Some people speculate that pan de semita was a substitute for the traditional matzo unleavened bread at Passover and it may have been camouflaged by the Catholic capirotada. Another thing, and even more important, most bread made in those days was made using lard. The pan de semita of Northern Mexico is made using vegetable oil instead of lard. In the Inquisition days vegetable oil or olive oil was hard to come by on the frontier and so the inquisitors were no doubt on the lookout for anyone making unleavened pan de semita using oil instead of lard.

I am satisfied that I have a general idea about why capirotada is linked to both Lent and Passover but I reached this point by tugging at little random historical threads and my theory may not be entirely correct. If I find out that I am all wrong I will print a retraction and if I find some new and interesting information I will edit it in. We can never be certain about History because we are only seeing shadows of it. My great grandmother from Poland had a way of dealing with this uncertainty. Whenever she heard someone speaking with great authority about what happened long ago she would say, “And how do you know? Vas you dere Charlie?”. Tomorrow, Gina and I are going to make capirotada and to put out own personal stamp on it we are going to use English walnuts instead of peanuts or almonds and instead of using raisins we will use dried blueberries. Perhaps one hundred years from now someone will be searching the internet to learn about capirotada and after stumbling upon a remnant of my blog they will infer that the people of Irapuato were unique in the ingredients that they used in capirotada. Good grief! I certainly hope not.

Here is the traditional recipe for Irapuato, Guanajuato style Capirotada:


1 kilo piloncillo. These are the little cones of raw brown sugar. One kilo sounds like a lot but believe me it isn’t. There are about twenty little cones to the kilo.

2 cups water

3 sticks of Mexican cinnamon

1 laurel leaf

4 black pepper corns

4 cloves

1 to 2 cups of raisins

1 to 2 cups of unsalted shelled and halved peanuts

1 dozen or more fine dinner rolls. Here they are called “bolillo amasijo”. They are pointed at both ends and about the size of your fist. You can use other kinds of bread but fine dinner rolls with a light crust work the best.


Slice the bolillos on an angle into pieces about one half inch thick. Put the slices on a cookie sheet out in the sun or into a warm oven until they are hard. Fry the slices in hot oil on both sides until golden brown. You can also deep fry them in a fryer in very hot light vegetable oil. Drain the bread slices on a paper towel. Place the piloncillo sugar cones into a pot with two cups of water, the cinnamon sticks, the laurel leaf, the pepper corns, and the cloves. Melt the piloncillos over low heat stirring frequently until you get a nice light semi-thick syrup. Dip each piece of bread into the syrup and put them into a big pot until the bottom of the pot is covered. Then sprinkle in some raisins and some peanuts. Put in another layer of bread slices and then more raisins and peanuts etcetera until the pot is full or you run out of slices. There should be enough for a four quart pot. Pour the remaining syrup over the top layer, put on a lid and cook over very low heat for five to ten minutes. Turn off the heat and let the whole thing cool down. You now have some wonderful Capirotada. Serve it in small bowls. Don’t even ask about the calories though. I can’t even count that high.

The above recipe was used by Gina’s mother and her grandmother and her great grandmother going back for many generations. The only difference is that now we use vegetable oil and years ago they used “manteca” which is very fine lard. This dish was served on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent and of course, Good Friday. It was eaten as a desert to compensate for not eating meat on those days. On Saturday mornings, the leftover Capirotada was eaten for breakfast with a cup of “atole blanco” which is a hot drink made from finely ground corn meal. Some people would also eat “platano macho” that was sliced and fried in butter along with the Capirotada. The “platano macho” looks like a large hard banana and is generally referred to in English as “plantain”. Capirotada was a very expensive dish to make in the old days and for that reason it was reserved only for Lent when people ate less regular food and could afford to spend a little more for the ingredients. I only eat it at Lent because if I ate it all the time I would look like the Goodyear Blimp. I can tell you one thing though. It really is delicious!

For more about "pan de semita" and other interesting things regarding Mexican cuisine you can check out the blog of my friend and food expert Rachel Laudan.

17 March 2008

Los San Patricios

Saint Patrick’s Day is not a widely celebrated holiday in Mexico except perhaps in Mexico City where the members of the Saint Patrick’s Brigade deserters of the U.S. Army during the war between the United States and Mexico in 1846 –1847 will be given a tip of the hat and a raise of the glass in honor of their service to Mexico. The brigade was composed of about 600-800 men who shortly after fleeing a famine in Ireland and emigrating to the United States were recruited for service in the U.S. Army and shipped off to Mexico. They found themselves betwixt two worlds. The Patricios were badly treated by the U.S. Army officers (who were Protestants) because they were lowly Irish Catholic immigrants. Being Catholics, they had no stomach for shooting at their Mexican Catholic counterparts so they deserted and joined the Mexican Army to fight against the U.S. forces. Their leader was a man named Captain John Riley.

The San Patricios fought valiantly for Mexico but in the end defeat was inevitable. General Winfield Scott, the U.S. commanding general, gave the order that at the precise moment that the flag of the United States was raised above Mexico City, those who had entered the Army following the declaration of war were to be hanged en masse as traitors. At least 30 San Patricios were hanged simultaneously, precisely at the moment that the American flag was raised over the city so that “they could take that sight to hell with them" or so the story goes. Those who had entered the Army before the official declaration of war on Mexico were branded on their face with the letter “D” for “deserter” and sentenced to prison for a spell of hard labor. Afterwards they just disappeared into history.

The former monastery of Churubusco, where the San Patricios were finally defeated and captured by the U.S. Army, is now a national museum dedicated to the various invasions Mexico has suffered. The bullet holes are still in the walls, and the cannons commanded by John Riley stand outside. Every first Sunday of the month, the St. Patrick’s Battalion Bagpipe Marching Band plays in honor of the San Patricios. On special ocasions, an actor portraying Riley gives talks to schoolchildren and tourists. To commemorate the support of those Irish-American renegades in the Mexican army, the street in front of the Santa María de Churubusco convent was named Mártires Irlandeses (Irish martyrs). As a token of high esteem, the battalion's name is written in gold letters in the chamber of Mexico's House of Representatives. There was a movie made about the San Patricios in 1999 starring Tom Berenger, Joaquim De Almeida, Daniela Romo, Patrick Bergin and Don Wycherley. It was directed by Lance Hool.

12 March 2008

Tau, Tav, Ansata, & Ta

I have been rummaging around in the attic of history and I have come across some interesting things which may (or may not) shine some light on how the world really works (or doesn’t work). Hang with me for a moment as I take you through it.

This is the sign of Saint Francis which is called TAU:

The arm with the sleeve represents that of St. Francis. The arm without the sleeve represents that of Christ. St. Francis manifested the wounds of Christ in his hands and his feet and this is referred to as the “Stigmata” of Christ. Note that the background is a cross without the top upright piece. This is very realistic.

The letter "T" is the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet and it makes the "T" sound just like in English or Spanish. However, the letter that makes the "T" sound in Hebrew is called TAV and it looks like this:

It is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet and in the Book of the old Testament in Ezekiel is referred to as a sign of renewal. Saint Francis read the Bible in Greek and so he used the Greek form of the letter "T". Besides that, he was an admirer of Saint Anthony the Hermit who was one of the first Monks. Saint Anthony lived in the Egyptian desert and cared for Lepers. Saint Anthony used the Coptic Cross called the "Crux Ansata". It came from the Egyptian "Ankh" which is the Egyptian symbol for life. The Crux Ansata looks like this:

St. Francis was fond of throwing his arms straight out to the side to show his followers that the Franciscan robe made the sign of the “Tau” and with the hood up it formed the “Crux Ansata” which St. Anthony wore on his tunic. St. Anthony the Hermit, by the way lived in the time of the early church and is considered to be one of the first if not THE first monk. He was a kind of later day John the Baptist.

St. Francis emphasized that Christ is flesh and blood and lived on the earth and lived an exemplary life and he encouraged his followers to lead a Christ-like life. St. Francis formed three orders. The First Order of St. Francis is comprised of the regular priests and monks. The Second Order of St. Francis is comprised of Nuns under the banner of St. Claire who was a friend of St. Francis and one of his most ardent followers. The Third order of St. Francis or “Tercer Orden” as it is called here in Mexico is made up of lay people who have not taken religious vows but who wish to follow the rules of St. Francis. It is the Third Order of St. Francis that is most closely identified with the “Tau”.

Now…get this. The sixteenth letter of the Arab Islamic alphabet is the letter “Ta” and it makes the sound of our letter “T” just like the Tau and the Tav do. It looks like this:

Not only that but in the esoteric texts of the Muslims this letter symbolizes “Divine Holiness”.

Don’t you find it as strange as I do that all three religions, i.e. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all use the sound of the letter “T” to represent a special quality of God. I am beginning to wonder if we are making a mistake with God’s Name and it really is something like TOG, or even Timothy, Tommy, or Terrence.

I have read that before the fourth century the cross symbol that we use today to represent Christ was unknown as a religious symbol and it was actually hated as a sign of persecution. Emperor Constantine wanted to consolidate his empire under a sign and he chose the cross because he said at the Battle of Milvain about noon he saw a cross in the sky with the words “Conquer under this sign”. The only trouble is that he didn’t tell anybody about this at the time or start using the cross until about 13 years later. Somehow I smell a politician at work here. Maybe God wanted us to use the symbol of a dove or something to represent Christianity and instead we chose an object of hatred. Maybe he is up there right now saying, “No, no, people you’ve got it all wrong!”

I am finding out also that Hebrew and Arabic are very similar in their forms, alphabets, grammars and complexity. That makes sense because both Hebrews and Arabs are descended from Noah’s son Shem and both peoples are what we call Semites on account of that. Their forms or writing are much, much older than ours and they are really wrapped up in the written word. The Islamic “Ta” also has a numerical meaning which is the number 9 and it represents the element of fire. The Hebrew “Tav”, on the other hand, represents the number 400. Believe me, they read a lot more into the meanings of words than we do. For example, the word Torah (Tav-Vav-Resh-He) has the numerical value 611 (400+6+200+5). There is an entire discipline of Jewish mysticism known as Gematria that is devoted to finding hidden meanings in the numerical values of words. Take the number eighteen. The number 18 is very significant, because it is the numerical value of the word Chai, meaning life. Donations to Jewish charities are routinely made in denominations of 18 for that reason. It is hard for me to explain how deep this all gets in both Hebrew and Arabic. I really don’t think that most of the higher ups in our government even have a clue.

Some people have asked me why the heck I want to learn Arabic. I counter that with “Why the heck do people want to climb Mount Everest or even play Golf, anyway?” I am going to go even one step further. If God lets me hang around long enough to pin down this Arabic thing then I am going to go ahead and tackle Hebrew as well. Who knows? Maybe Greek too!

A couple weeks ago I visited and old Augustinian Monastery that was built in 1540 which is before Michelangelo completed St. Peter’s in Rome. The thresholds in the doorways were made of stone but they were all worn down by three centuries of monks stepping on them with their leather sandals. Each monk’s room has a little stone seat near the window where they could catch the last rays of the sun in order to read and the corner edges of the stone seats are worn down where hundreds of years of fannies rubbed against them. The threshold that was the most worn, however, was the threshold to their library. The stone threshold was worn almost 4 inches deep from their sandals. The minute I stepped into that room I felt at home. I don’t know if the place is haunted or not but a feeling of deep peace settled over me and I didn’t want to leave. I wish that there were still monasteries like that because I would go there and apply to be admitted. I would happily spend the rest of my life searching out God and the nature of time and space.

All this goes back even further. Look at the “Crux Ansata” at the base of the Egyptian Statue of their god Isis [below] that was found in one of the Egyptian tombs.

It seems like with every day that goes by, life is getting curiouser and curioser. My father used to say; "Too old too soon to smart too late". All that I can add to that is "AMEN!"

11 March 2008

El Viernes de Dolores

The sixth Friday of Lent which is the Friday preceding Palm Sunday is known in Mexico as El Viernes de Dolores, or “The Friday of Sorrows” in honor of “Nuestra Señora de los Dolores” or simply “La Virgen de los Dolores”. We know her in English as “Our Lady of Sorrows”. On this day, altars are erected in streets, homes, and churches all over Mexico in honor of the Blessed Virgin. The general devotion to the Virgin Mary had its beginnings around the year 1200 with St. Francis of Assisi and his Franciscan brothers. A council in Cologne Germany, in the year 1413, established the sixth Friday of Lent as a day of devotion to Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, to commemorate her seven sorrows which are:

1.) The prophecy of Simeon at the temple that her Son would bring redemption to the people of Israel and that her soul would be pierced by a dagger.

2.) The flight into Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod and his attempt to have the Baby Jesus killed.

3.) The loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple while He talked with the elders and priests.

4.) The meeting of Jesus and his Mother on the Way of the Cross.

5.) The crucifixion and death of Jesus.

6.) The taking down of the body of Jesus from the cross.

7.) The burial of Jesus

The practice of building altars in honor of the suffering of Mary for the passion and death of her son, began around the year 1500 Spain and from there it was moved to Mexico in the first years after the Spanish conquest. Friar Bartolome de Olmedo built the first altar of Dolores in San Juan de Ulúa (Veracruz) in 1519. The altars are sometimes called called “incendios” which means “conflagration” or “passion”. They are created by placing the image or statue of Our Lady of Sorrows in the center of the selected space, and often accompanied by a Cross. Around her are arranged large candles in white or purple, decorated in crepe, and as many flowers as possible. Traditional colors of the flowers vary to include shades of purple, symbolizing grief; all white representing purity; or white and red for the blood shed by Jesus. They also contain bottles of colored water which represent the tears at the foot of the cross. There are traditional bitter oranges symbolizing the bitterness of tears with little flags of gold paper that symbolize purity and little clay pots or jars sprouting wheat grass that symbolize the resurrection and renewal.

One of the quaint old practices that still survives in little tucked away corners of Mexico is a cool drink that is offered to neighbors and passers by on the Friday of Sorrows. It is made from oranges, bananas, apples, beets, finely chopped lettuce, cold water, sugar, and ground cinnamon. People are also given a form of sherbet called “nieve” which means “snow”. One of the best places to experience the “Viernes de Dolores” in the central region of Mexico where I live is in the city of Guanajuato in the state of the same name. That is where I took the pictures below in 2007.

09 March 2008

La Danza del Torito

In Mexico,“La Danza” refers to a form of ethnic dance which may also called “Baile Folclórico” or “Folklore Dance” which is popular and varied according to regions throughout the country. These dances evolved from several sources over the last four hundred years or so and the origins of many are clouded by antiquity and can only be speculated upon. Some no doubt originated with the Aztec and Mayan cultures, some were introduced by the Spanish missionaries as religious morality plays, some were a form of social satire aimed at authority figures, and many have some of all of these elements. The dance that is indigenous to the local region in the state of Guanajuato where I live is called “La Danza del Torito” or “The Dance of the Little Bull”. It is centered around the towns of Silao, Romita, Manual Doblado, Purisma, and Guanajuato but there are variations of it that are performed throughout Mexico. The origins of this particular dance can be approximated to around the year 1830 and the theme is supposedly a result of an actual event that occurred on one of the big ranches in the general area. The dance is accompanied by simple musical instruments and is traditionally performed at the time of the feast day honoring a local patron saint or at the time of some other important even like a successful harvest.

The theme of the dance of “El Torito” is centered around a fiesta at a big “rancho” where a saint is being honored on their feast day. The people are having such a good time at the fiesta that they fail to watch the farm animals and somehow the bull gets out of his pen and is attracted by the festival. The story progresses as one by one the various characters of the dance, who are represented by costumes and masks, try to capture the bull and lead him away from the festival and back to his pen. All fail and becoming enraged by the Devil the bull kills one and all and in the end bull also dies proving that death is inevitable. There are several variations even within this region. In one variation there are eight characters; El Torito, El Hacendado, El Caporal, La Maringuia, La Borracha, El Jorobante, El Ermitaño, and El Diablo. In the another variation there are ten characters with the addition of El Apache, and La Muerte but the result is the same…in the end death always triumphs.

The cast of characters:

El Hacendado is the landowner. He is sometimes referred to as El Charro or El Cabalito. He is the first one to try and catch the bull. He is represented in costume by an actor dressed as a Mexican vaquero or “cowboy” who has the head and forelegs of a wooden horse strapped to his front and the tail end of a horse strapped to his backside. He goes after the bull with his lariat in his right hand and the reins of his horse in his left hand. He represents greed, nepotism, and corruption and all of the evil that the love of money can generate. His movements are very elegant but firm. Nevertheless he fails to capture the bull.

El Caporal is the ranch foreman. He is sometimes referred to as La Mulita or “the mule”. He is the second in command at the ranch and is in charge of daily ranch operations. He is very crude, macho, and without formal education or morals. The wife of the Hacendado is his surreptitious lover. He tries to dominate the bull with tricky movements that are more aggressive than those of the Hacendado and constantly whips his horse without mercy. He represents the people of the rancho. He too fails to dominate the bull.

La Maringuia in one version of the dance is the wife of the Hacendado and the lover of the caporal but in another version she is the daughter of the hacendado and is engaged to be married to a captain who is a “criollo” which means that he is a full blooded Spaniard. With a red apron she tries to mimic the movements of a bull fighter. In some versions she is very gaudily dressed in tight clothes and wears high heels. She is usually played by a male who is dressed like a transvestite. She fails to captivate the bull. A little side note: There are several variations in spelling of the word “maringuia”. Some times it is spelled “maringuilla” and also “maringuea”. In various regions in Mexico and certain Latin American countries “la maringuia” can also represent the Blessed Virgin. In other words the word is not necessarily associated with a tart or tease or tramp but in general it represents the quintessential feminine.

La Borracha is the “criada” or servant of the hacienda. She observes the actions of La Maringuia and tries to imitate them so that the bull will leave La Marinquia alone but in her state of drunkenness she fails. She is sometimes characterized by carrying a doll on her back which represents a child.

El Jorobante is the hunchback and is the husband of La Borracha. He is also sometimes called “El Jorobado” and also “El Moco”. The word “moco” in Spanish is associated with mucous or nasal snot but a “moco” is also the protuberance that hangs down between the eyes of a turkey. That is why the mask of “El Moco” is a long triangular shape with what looks like an elephant’s trunk hanging down from between the eyes. In any case “El Moco” is very ugly. He represents a sinner who is being punished by God. He is the lackey or “stirrup holder” of the hacendado. He sees what his wife is doing and tries to distract the bull away from her by jumping around, whistling, shouting, but he only makes the bull angrier and the situation gets worse.

El Ermitaño is the old man. He is also sometimes called “El Viejo”. He carries a cane, a crucifix and a rosary and represents the religious people who believe that with prayers and supplications they can tame the beast. He sees what is happening to “El Moco” and tries to help. He succeeds in calming the bull but is unable to lead him back to the corral.

The Devil represents evil in person. With a whip he infuriates the bull but he falls victim to his own evil and is defeated by the bull.

The Apache appears in some versions. He represents the indigenous past of the Mexican people. He faces the bull with his rudimentary weapons but is also defeated.

La Muerte or “Death” also appears in some versions. Death represents the truth, that in the matter of life and death, it doesn’t matter if one is poor or rich, or good or bad, or beautiful or ugly, all have to die. The bull kills everyone and then Death kills the bull. The dance ends with everyone dancing in front of the bull between Death and the Devil.

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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.