Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Pause That Refreshes: Peeing With Cuco

Cuco Sanchez was one of Mexico's greatest "cantantes" (singer/songwriter). I had the privilege of seeing him in person some years ago in Mexico City. In was an intimate venue at one of the historical hotels near the Zocalo (central square). He began the concert on the button, but it was soon evident there was a problem with the sound system, feedback and squelching. He would frown, toss frustrated glances backstage, but never missed a beat. After a few songs, and increasing frustration, he simply turned off the mic, and sang a' capella! El Maestro simply did not need the damned thing! That night, dressed in his Charro outfit, he belted out all his classics like "Cama de Piedra" (A Bed of Stone), "Gritenme Piedras del Campo" (Cry To Me Rocks From The Fields), and "Anillo de Compromiso" (The Engagement Ring), and "Guitarras, Lloren Guitarras" (Cry Guitars, Cry). He eminated machismo, confidence, power and his delivery was flawless despite the crappy sound system. When the intermission came, I excused myself and went into the men's room to pee. And there, there in the urinal next to me was The Man, El Maestro de la Cancion Mexicana, Cuco Sanchez, peeing alongside me! I told him how much I was enjoying his performance, despite the cursed sound system; he just smiled and thanked me. It was indeed a most memorable night, especially being granted the privelege to have peed with Cuco Sanchez. Aye, aye, aye.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mexican Dogs: Feast or Famine?

When I was a kid we always had dogs. However, it was unheard of in the barrio to keep a dog inside the house. Usually, the dog slept out in the yard in a shelter made of wood by some member of the house. We fed them scraps from the table, old tortillas, frijoles, papas (potatoes), and an occasional bone. Whenever a dog turned his nose at the food, my mom would say "Andale fregado, vas a ver. Conque no tienes hambre? Manana te lo comeras! Vas a ver" (Ok damn you. So you're not hungry now? We'll see how hungy you are tomorrow). Then, she would put the dog's plate in the refrigerator and place it out again the next day. It was fun to watch the dog scarf it up the next day with no complaints! There was no such thing as "dog food" at the store. Doggie baths? Unheard of. Vets? Unheard of. When one of our dogs got rabies, one of my older brothers would take an old 22. cal pump rifle and shoot him. Not unusual in the barrio. Once, my mom told me to shoot one of our rabid dogs, but as I stood over him in the front yard, and aimed the rifle, I just could not pull the trigger. My older brother, Jess, had to do it for me.
On another day, one of my cats came home with a mangled front leg; it was shredded. My mom bandaged it as best she could with rags soaked in some smelly ointment, and we put him out. However, he failed to return for about 4 days and when he did, the leg was worse and had begun to decay. I begged my mom to take him to the Vet and the prognosis was to put down the cat or amputate the leg at the shoulder. It would cost $17.00 and believe me, that was big time money in the 40's. After I pleaded for my cat's life, my mom conceded and afterwards I would continue to happily play and romp around the yard with my 3-legged cat. He could even climb trees!
However, my mom broke all the rules one day, when my brother Ed gave her a Pekinese puppy for Mother's Day. "Tiny" was king. He slept inside the house and my mom pampered him like one of her own kids. She would even buy him those little circus animal cookies in a box!
Pictured above is our "in house" Chihuahua "Princess" getting a bath in our kitchen sink, would you believe it? Spoiled, pampered thus, we would have been ostracized in the barrio for such treatment of a dog. Today, I bought a doggie bed at Gottschalk's for little Princess. She sleeps in front of our gas insert. Pobrecita, huh?

Friday, November 21, 2008

A Mother's Faith: Santos & Milagros

My mother was named Guadalupe, after her patron saint, The Virgen of Guadalupe and she had an abiding love and faith in the virgen. This print had a prominent place on the family altar which she had formed atop a mint-green dresser in her bedroom. Always, votive candles burned before the images of saints (santos) she had brought with her from Mexico. She loved to tell the story of the virgen's apparaition to the indian, Juan Diego and of how miraculous she was. "She appeared to an indian", she would stress, "not to the Europeans or the priests, but to an indian." She seemed especially proud of that.
Another image that was dear to her was San Martin de Porres, the black South American saint, pictured with his broom to emphasize his humble status. He was especially kind to the poor and to animals. One of her favorite stories of Martin was of a miracle he performed in a church that was infested by mice. "Look", he told the mice, "you must move out of the church because the priest if getting ready to exterminate all of you." The mice obeyed Martin, exited the church, and were saved.
One of my favorite prints was one of San Antonio (Saint Anthony) holding a Christ child. It is a beautifully colored print and seemed almost holy to me. I knew little about him but in the print he lovingly holds the child and looks heavenward, bathed in a glow of golden light, the child with a halo around its head, peers benevolently at the viewer. He wears the traditional brown Fransican robe tied at the waist with a rope, and a rosary tied to it.
The print depicting Mary was, I felt unique. It is softly colored and her expression is one of peace, tranquility and tenderness. One hand is pointing to her sacred heart (burning with the fire of Her love) and the other holds a branch of white lilies. No wonder my mother prayed to the mother of all mothers, who understands our human suffering, especially those of a mother.
El Santo Nino de Atocha (The Christ Child of Atocha), was yet another of her favorite "santos". The print, a delicate black and white lithograph on old, yellowed paper, she kept in a simple wooden frame, depicts a Christ Child sitting in a chair, wearing a strange plumed hat, holding a staff in his left hand and a small basket in his right. He wears sandals on his feet. I recall thinking how the artist had failed to capture the face of a child, and how he looks too grown up in it. At the time, I had no idea about the stories of a mysterious child who magically appeared to the sick and needy, in the far off Atocha, Spain, bringing them food and water.
The Virgen of San Juan de Los Lagos was yet another of her favorites. She was especially miraculous my mother said. She is pictured in a triangular shaped, elegant and fluffy blue gown, rich with gold brocade. Long and wavy locks of hair tumble down her shoulders, and an over sized crown graces her head, bordered by two cherubims holding a banner which reads: "Immaculate Mother Pray For Us", in Latin, and crescent shaped moon at her feet. I will never forget visitng the church in San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco in Mexico with my mom about 1965. The entrance to the beautiful old colonial church is lined from floor to ceiling with retablos (miracle boards), documenting the hundreds of miracles attributed to her. Painted by amateur artists, the child like images on tin depict the suffering of mankind, and the lettering on each one tells of the specific event, with names and dates, and the divine intervention of La Virgen in their lives. I was stunned. As I wandered around outside the church I found a large open room and stepped inside. Piled to the cielings and along its walls were stacked, dozens of old dusty wheelchairs, crutches, and old arm, leg and body casts. When I asked my mom what it all meant, she said "These are things left behind by people who came here in them and left, no longer needing them." I felt humbled, and embarrased by my stupid question.
I often scoffed her faith: "Mom, you don't really believe this stuff about miracles and Santos, do you? Shaking her head she would say "You are an incredulo! Se te ha metido El Diablo." On occasion, I would find one of the statues on its head, or a print facing the wall. When I asked about it she would say "I am punishing him. I am tired of praying and praying for your older brothers and he fails to answer me! He will stay that way until he answer my prayers!"
Today, a small, abandoned altar graces an upstairs bedroom in my home, and some of her statues and prints of her santos still grace it. While I never could acquire the faith of my mother in the santos and milagros (miracles), I did learn to respect it. Maybe it was El Diablo that prevented it, just like she always said?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dining Out Mexican Style

There is an old Mexican addage: "Como Mexico no hay dos", meaning like Mexico, there is no other and I agree 100%. When you visit, get ready for a trip (journey) but also a mind trip. We arrived in Oaxaca, Mexico after an grueling bus trip, tired and hungry. As we entered the hotel I noticed a taco stand outside and once we were given our room, my wife opted for a nap while I went outside to get me some tacos. Mexicans have never heard of waiting your turn or of standing in line, so getting served was a matter of survival of the fittest. There was the usual jousting, pushing and elbowing and the hand gestures, or whistling to catch the eye of one of the servers, who were racing around filling orders. It must have been arounnd lunchtime since there was a large crowd. After about 12 minutes I was no closer to getting my order in. In an act of desperation I cliked my fingers and finally made eye contact with one of the girls. I shouted in my order and she nodded. After another 10 minutes I caught her eye again and she assured me my tacos were on their way. When my order was finally done, she raced by and slid my plate of tacos accross the counter and disappeared into the chaos. However, there was no salsa anywhere nearby and everybody knows you can't eat tacos without salsa! Again, I tried to make contact with one of the servers so one of them would bring me some salsa. After another 5 minutes, I made contact with the young lady who had served me and shouted out "Salsa! Aqui!" Pointing to my plate of tacos. She looked at me contemptously, grabbed a molcajete filled with salsa and deftly slid it towards me, spilling some of the contents all over the counter. By this time my blood began to steam. To make matters worse, one of the legs of the molcajete was shorter than the other two and the salsa continued to spill. Once again I glared at the girl's back hoping she could feel my growing rage and when our eyes met, I shouted "Look, one of the legs on the molcajete is too short and the salsa is spilling all over the place!" She paused, scowled at me and in an almost acrobatic movement, grabbed a tomato and stuck it under the short leg! I was dumfounded. I ate my tacos quietly, my ego totally burst, and accepted my defeat "como un hombre" (like a man). It is true: Como Mexico no hay dos!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Yesterday's Train: "Mexican Time" Revisited

My mother was a fanatic for being on time. Each time she had an appointment with the doctor, for instance, she would drag me with her and we would arrive 30 minutes early. To this day, I have friends who said "I'm coming right over. I'm on my way now", and 10 years later I am still waiting for them! Many of us have joked about "Chicano Time", which holds that Chicanos are never on time for anything! The same holds true for our brothers on the other side of the border.
Some years ago, my wife and I went to Oaxaca on the bus. We had a splendid time there visiting galleries, buying handcrafts and enjoying the Mercados. When it was time to leave we decided to make the trip back to Mexico City by train. Knowing the ropes, I went early to the train station to purchase the tickets for departure that afternoon. However, when I made my way to the ticket booth, the agent told me he could not sell me the tickets at that time and that I would have to come back to purchase them that afternoon. I went back to the hotel, and my wife and I packed our bags and sat out in the plaza to enjoy the last of our stay watching people, kids playing and the vendors. An hour before departure, we took a cab to the station, I bought our tickets, and settled in to wait for the train. When the train did not arrive on time, I inquired and was told it would be about two hours late, so we opted to drag our bags back to the hotel and kill some more time. About an hour and a half later we headed for the station again, and when we arrived, we saw the train slowly pulling out of station! We ran after it, hoping to jump on, but a conductor yelled out that the train was just pulling forward, and that it would back up to the loading dock. Exhausted, we lugged our bags back to the loading dock and waited and sure enough the train returned. When we approached the conductor, I gave him our tickets and he stared at them for an unreasonable amount of time. "Oh, shit", I thought to myself, "now what?" He began to shake his head and finally said: "There was an accident on the tracks a few miles back, and your train is about two hours late. You will have to wait for it. You cannot get on this one." Dejected, we took our baggage and waited. A couple of hours later we saw our train approaching. As it slowed to the loading gate, we picked up our luggage and prepared to board. Again, we approached the conductor showed him our tickets and again he scoured them for a long time. "O.K. go ahead and board", he said. We took our seats and were anxious to get on the road. A few minutes later, another ticket taker approached and asked to see our tickets. To this point I had been a relatively polite American but now I was starting to get pissed. He shook his head, looked at the conductor and they both shook their heads! "I am sorry Senor, but these tickets are no good for this train. Because of the accident, your train has been delayed and it is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. This is yesterday's train, so you must get off and wait for yours." Yesterday's train? I could not believe my ears. Worse, the train was half-empty! At this point my face reddened and I looked him in the eye and told him I refused to get off. He glared at me for a moment, then walked away. The trip back to Mexico City was otherwise uneventful.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chicanos: Cultural Identity In Flux

Growing up in the early 40's, I remember my older brothers calling themselves "Chicanos".
I had no idea then as to the origens of the word and I assumed it was a word to describe those of us born of Mexican ancestry. However, I never really used it to refer to myself and again assuming that the term "Mexican" sufficed, since my parents had immigrated from Mexico and I still spoke what I believed to be Spanish. One day, someone (from Mexico) called me a "Pocho". Though I didn't really know what the word meant, it sounded nasty. I came to understand that it had a contemptuous tone to it and meant "wanna be, used to be Mexican", not the real thing. Nonetheless, for years I believed that calling myself "American" was the correct thing , until one of my teachers said: "You are not 'American', you are Mexican." It wasn't until I started teaching Chicano Studies in 1972, that I again encountered the word Chicano, but this time it was being used in a different context, despite the negative connotations the word held. "I don't understand", we were told by fellow Mexicans, "Why you call yourself 'Chicano'? Don't you know that the word means "Chingado?!!" (One Fucked over) But the dilemma was this: If we called ourself Mexican, and were being told "You are not Mexican because you were born in the U.S. and no longer speak Spanish, and on the other hand, being told by Americans that we were not Americans because our parents came from Mexico, we were in cultural Limbo!
However, the Nuevos Chicanos of the late 60's were determined to take the old term and give it new meaning describing those of us born between two cultures, Mexican and American, who spoke a new language, half Spanish and half English, later dubbed Spanglish or Pochismo. It went something like this: "Mom, voy ir a la store pa' comprar un funny book y un pack of gum, 'orita vengo." Linguists on both sides were outraged. "Speak one or the other!" They demanded. My good friend and colleague, artist, poet Jose Montoya, one of the founders of the R.C.A.F. (Royal Chicano Air Force), offered a unique argument: "What we speak is Pochismo, a natrual language of the Barrio, and it demands that we possess TWO languages in order to speak and understand it." Jose turned this hodge podge of language into Poetry! So Chicano now became a word charged with cultrual pride, positivism, activism, self-determination, and like our "Negro" brothers who struggled to convince America (and their own people) that "Black is Beautiful", so we had to convince America, and ourselves that "Brown is Beautiful" too.
However, the media began to write about the new "Chicanos" and to show them on TV protesting the Viet Nam War, demanding college and high school courses relevant to their culture, speaking out against racism, discrimination, dressed in the long hair and the garb of the 1960's. Thus, was born the Chicano Movement. Yet, our very own people began to say "Why are you 'Chicanos' , making waves, rocking the boat? We should be grateful to be in America. You're nothing but a bunch of troublemakers, Marijuanos, greniudos, and comunistas!" In the midst of all this came Cesar Chavez and the farmworker struggle, giving the movement the validity it seemed to need. It gave us a righteous cause to fight for (La Causa), because many of us had worked in the fields as children. Theories abounded as to the origins of the word and one of the most popular was that it came from "Mexicano" a derivative of "Mexica", pronounced "Meshica", the term the Aztecs called themselves, and that it was later refined to "Meshicano", or "Mexicano", and hence, shortened to the term "Chicano." Thus, to align oneself to a great culture of Mexico's past was optimal for the Chicanos. At the same, to complicate matters came other cultural labels for us to choose from (see my post on "Cho & Lo" called ("Always Read The Label First"), like Mexican-American, which we quickly rejected as being too Americanized, and later terms like Latino, Hispanic etc. each having to be weighed in. We lost a lot of loyalists to these labels. Author/Historian Rudy Acuna who visited our campus one day warned "Never give up the word 'Chicano' because it defines a very small group of us who have special needs in this society. We fought too hard for the word."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Pretending To be Mexican: The New Tio Tacos?

Today I read where Central and South Americans in Los Angeles have been pretending to be Mexicans in order to get jobs. First, they need to acquire a Mexican accent, then learn some new words (especially swear words) and last eat Mexican food. They live in fear of being uncovered and potentially losing their jobs. Wow, in my day Mexicans worked hard to pretend they were anglos, but this?? Who would've thunk it? We called them "coconuts" (brown on the outside, but white on the inside), or Tio Tacos. They went so far as to change their names, especially their last names. The classic example is Victoria Carranza, who renamed herself Vicky Carr! One of the best stories I ever heard was from one of my students years back by the name of Ronnie Lopstain. He called himself a Chicano but I had my doubts. One day I confronted him about it, inquiring how he came to get the name, instead of say, Lopez or something. He told me that in fact his father's name was Lopez, but the family moved into a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in San Francisco and opened a corner grocery store calling it "Lopez Groceries". When few clients frequented his business, his father decided to change the store's name to "Lopestain Groceries", but in time refined it to Lopstain! Needless to say his business increased tenfold! When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right?

Monday, November 3, 2008

El CuCui/Latin Bogey Man

Many of us hispanics grew up with the terror of being devoured by El Cucui at night. Although no one ever claimed to have actually seen it, we knew he was horrific, and voracious for young children to eat. We loved to play at dark, especially in the orchard across the road from my mother's house, or alongside the railroad tracks, or down at the nearby Tuolumne River, but all it took for us to race home, was someone saying "Did you hear that!? It's the cucui!!" Laying in bed at night, with the lights out, any sound of the wind or branches scraping against the walls of the house was "El Cucui!" And we would snuggle deeper under our blankets. Moms would scold us saying: "Portate bien o te va llevar El Cucui!" The thought of being carted off by a monstrous Cucui, just for being disobedient was terrifying. I tried it on my own kids but it didn't seem to work as well as it did for us. Somehow, they could not quite conjure up the horrific images of some child-eating monster like our imaginations could. Maybe they have seen too many horror films?