Saturday, December 8, 2012

Los Aleluiahs

When I was kid, nothing panicked my mom more than a knock on the door, and a peek through the window to see that "Los Aleluiahs" were outside with a Bible tucked under their arm.

Being Catholic, didn't seem to matter to them and when she inadvertently opened the door, she would fidget and fret while they rattled off their spiel that mercifully ended when she took religious printed matter from them that she never intended to read. In fact, telling them we were "Catholic" only served to inspire them.

We were used to the protestant condemnations of our Catholic rituals, our "worship of graven images" and our misplaced love of Mary. We were going to hell unless we were "saved", we were often told.

I was reminded of all this when my normal, quiet Saturday morning was interrupted this morning by a small cadre of door-to-door, immaculately dressed, servants of the Lord. A few years ago, in our previous house, we were regularly accosted by these well intentioned beings, especially on Saturdays. Most often, we would not open the door and just wait till they went away.

One such group was two Mexican kids, one about 19 and the other about 15, who never said a word. To be nice, I invited them in once and after patiently hearing out their obviously rehearsed pitch, I told them I was "Catholic", had my own beliefs and thanked him for the visit.

I thought that would do it, but no, again the following Saturday there the duo was! I knew I had to be more emphatic but I just couldn't muster up the nerve to tell them I had no interest in their church or their beliefs. About the fourth visit, it became apparent to me that the older one did not seem to know much about the Bible outside of his rehearsed outline. So I began to ask him questions and point out scriptures I knew about that had interested me. Turns out, I knew more about the Bible than he did!

On the last visit, I had the poor guy squirming as I challenged him with his own medicine. In a burst of bravado I told him that I for one would never go to his house, knock on his door, and try to convert him to Catholicism! "How would you feel if I did that to you?" I told him that I knew that underneath it all, all his group wanted was for me to start going to his church which would probably send me too, off to knock on people's doors and interrupt their Saturday mornings. He shook his head in defeat. The two never returned.

Either way you look at it, it's an exhausting task. If you don't open the door, your feel guilty. If you do, you are forced to politely listen to their spiel. The sooner you accept their booklets, the sooner they go away. Or you could be rude and tell them to please not bother you. Aye, aye, aye.

I recall seeing a cardboard sign people used to pin on their front doors: This is a Catholic Home. It seemed to work. Seemed to save a lot of time. Wonder if they still sell those things?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

My New Book is Available!

My new book, "Songs From the Barrio" is now available at  It is the culmination and distillation of an idea that festered in me for many years. I started writing when I was a young soldier in Germany in 1963. I had no idea then where it would take me. But I knew I wanted to write!

And here it is at last! Here I am at 74 and publishing my first book, proving that you are never to old to realize your dreams! But it is well that it all worked out the way it did, but I almost missed the boat; I have finally aquired all the the tools to do it with: experience, writing skill, a good memory, and the inherited gift of story-telling passed to me by my ancestors.

The stories in my book tell of a people, a time and place of which only remnants remain. They began as a series of disjointed stories I wrote about my childhood, growing up in a Mexican barrio in Central California in the middle of 20th Century, stories and poems of escapades and the amazing people I grew up around, Mexican immigrants who had so much to teach, to give. After reading my stories to audiences for years, and hearing them react: laugh, cry and applaud in approval, I began to toy with the idea of putting them all into a book.

Above all, it is a story about the beauty of culture, language and tradition. Much of the book tells of my mother, who married at 15 and emigrated to the US with my dad in the early 1920s and her detemination to single-handedly raise a family of 7. It is a story of triumph, my own and of a people estranged from their language and culture, finding their rightful place in an alien world.

If you read and enjoy it, share it with friends and family, and take a precious moment to share comments on this blog. If you read and enjoy it, take a moment to post a short "review" by clicking on my book at

It is NOW available on, Barnes & and Kindle. Teachers: please look at it for a possible reader in your class. I believe the reading level to be 7-college. I can be contacted at I have a discount code for orders of 20 or more copies.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

It Ain’t Easy Being Mexican


            Some years ago my mother-in-law, and brother- in-law visited us here in Stockton from Mexico City. In the midst of the usual small talk, I said something to the effect that I considered myself “Mexican.”  “No, tu no eres Mexicano”, she said. “Yes, I am,” I countered. “No, you are not.  You are an American,” she insisted. “But both of my parents were Mexican!”  “That doesn’t make any difference. To be Mexican, you would have had to be born in Mexico.” Worse, I expected my cuñado to come to my defense, but he just acquiesced. “She’s right, Richard. You were born here, so you are not Mexican.”

            I was deeply hurt. Angry. Yes, I was born “ here”, but I had always considered myself Mexican. The idea that an arbitrary line in the sand, nay a cyclone fence, could designate my ethnicity infuriated me! In my day, we had no designations like Mexican-American, Latino, Hispanic. The word Chicano was bantered about, but it was a cautionary term, loaded with a enchilada-full of negative connotations: “Don’t you know that Chicano means "Chingádo? Mexicans would ask incredulously. Having learned my lesson, I wouldn’t dare use it to call myself around my suegrita, and cuñado, or any Mexican. Later on, of course, the label took on some measure of respect.

          I mean, what did these people want from me? My parents were both from Mexico. I speak Spanish (though minced), I eat tortillas and frijoles, I love chíle, and Menudo; I listen to Pedro Infánte, Jorge Negréte, and laugh at the caustic lines of Cantínflas. I too go bananas when I hear a Mariachi strike up, and savor a shot of tequila con limon y sal. I can play a guitar, sing corridos and rancheras, and even a bolero or two? I listen to Ignacio Lopez Tárzo and totally get him. One time, I even peed alongside Cuco Sanchez in the men’s room during a concert in Mexico City, for Pete’s sake! So what if I happen to speak English, too, through no fault of my own? Don’t hold that against me.

       To me, being Mexican ought to be a thing of the heart, El Corazón. Or something in one’s blood, sangre. Strangely,  Americans had no problem calling me “Mexican”, including some of my teachers when I was a kid. During the 40s, when some of us were ashamed or too embarrassed to call ourselves Mexican, we opted for being “Spanish”, a word we deemed had more class.

       Oddly, I wound up becoming a Chicano/Mexican Studies teacher in college and my job was to teach about culture, in our case, Mexican culture and history and how it impacted who and what we immigrants of that culture have become, and how that fits into our amazing Melting Pot.  Luckily, I knew about it first hand, not just from a book. Even students from Mexico or Latin America were amazed with what they learned about “their culture” in my classes.

        As if in a final, sweet twist of irony, Marina, one of my Mexican students, an immigrant, raised her hand in class one day saying, “You know, Mr. Rios, I find it ironic that I was born and raised in Mexico and had to come to the United States to learn about my culture!” Asi es.


Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Price of Good Service: Columbus Would Have Loved This

Some months ago, a PG&E service guy noted a small gas leak in one of the pipes leading to an insert I had installed into a fireplace in our living room. "You should get this fixed", he said, "it's costing you money."

I dismissed the seriousness of the the warning, yet on the porch leading to the front door, in the months that followed, we would get a waft of the smell of gas.

Last Saturday, as another serviceman was doing routine inspections on our street, he again noted the leak, but as I spoke to him, he added "There's something else going on here and I've called another guy with more sophisticated equipment who can verify exactly where more gas is leaking from." About 45 minutes later, a second service guy appeared and aiming some kind of "clicking" device at the wall said, "You have a serious leak in the pipe leading through your foundation. This is a hazardous situation and we have to shut off your gas immediately. Call a reputable licenced plumber to fix it. When it's done, call us back and we'll turn the gas on immediately."

"Shit. Big bucks", I thought and cursed my fate. I scrambled through the Yellow Pages, and found a plumber with a proven reputation, but when I called, I got a message telling me they were "out for lunch." It was Saturday, and I thought "They're  probably out till Monday", so I plotted how we would manage without gas and hot water till then, and thanked God for the microwave.

Meanwhile, I spoke to my neighbor, Steve, who often has contractors of all types working on his house if he knew a guy who could replace the leaking pipe. "I know a guy, Braulio. He can do it for you. I'll call him right now. It was Sunday. When Braulio called me he mumbled some stuff, barely audible, about coming out to see the problem. Hours passed. Nothing. So about 6PM, he again called and said he was lost and something about his brother. I was pissed. "This guy is probably another of these unreliable dudes, not too interested in making money." I decided to wait for the guy from the Yellow Pages to call on Monday. He did, bright and early (7:45 a.m.), assuring he an estimator would call me "Soon." About 11:00 no call. So I called the outift again. "Oh, we'll call him again. He should get a hold of you soon." Well, he did. Five minutes later he called. "I'm on my way."

Meanwhile, I see this Mexican guy in a pickup pull up next door, with two other guys, who walked to Steve's house. "Oh, no", I mumbled, "This is probaby Braulio!" It was. Now, I would have two plumbers there at the same time! Luckily, the other guy took about 15 minutes to get to my place, giving time for Braulio to size up the situation." As the other guy arrived, Braulio walked past him saying "I gotta' make un delivery. I call ju soon." When the Yellow Page guy finished his inspection he announced, "It'll cost you about $500." I was broken. "I'll think about it", I said, "and call you back later." He left.

10 minutes later, Braulio called. "Can you fix the pipe? How much?" "How mush di oder guy wan'?" I hesitated. "500." "Thas' mucho dinero", he said. "How much will you charge me? " A pause. "Hunder fifti." I contracted him on the spot! "When?" "Ahorita." And 15 minutes later, Braulio was there with his two helpers and promptly got to work. Thank God for Mexicans! A couple of hours later, the job was done, and I threw in an extra fifty bucks for his helpers. Braulio was grateful.

Now, came the easy stuff: call PG&E and they'd send a guy right away to turn on my gas. When I called the 800 number, I got a recording, of course, that prompted me to Press 1 for English and 2 for Spanish, 3 for that, 4 for something else, and "If this is correct Press 8", after each one etc. etc. etc. I was finally told to "wait" while a representative spoke to me. When he got on the line, he promptly asked me to repeat all the information I had just finished punching into the recorded prompts!!! "This is just to verify that what you entered is correct", he said in an appeasing tone. "How long is the pipe you replaced?" He asked. "About 4 ft. long." "Oh, you will need to call the CITY and get them to do an INSPECTION on it, before our serviceman can turn on you gas." "But I was told nothing about any CITY inspection!", I complained. "I'm sorry, sir." "I'll give you the number?"

So after reaching another recording at CITY HALL, telling me to Press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, and to press 3 for this, and 4 for that, and 5 for something else, the voice finally "asked" me to enter my Building Permit Number on my claim! I only wanted an INSPECTION, but no, evidently I had to get a Building Permit, BEFORE they could even do an inspection. But the job was already done!? Being still early, I decided to drive downtown to CITY HALL and speak to LIVE PERSON and get all this shit straightened out.

But when I got there, the parking lot and all the spaces were empty. Then, I remembered. "OH SHIT IT'S GOD DAMMNED COLUMBUS DAY!!

In a fury, I called PG&E again when I got home, determined to speak to the president if necessary. I figured out a way to get a REAL PERSON right away and I related my plight to her, trying my best to win her pity and compassion. It worked! "Mr. Rios, I don't see why you need a CITY inspection at all. I will put in a request to have your gas turned on, but let me see... ummm, looks like we don't have a service man available until next... Monday?" I exploded! "Next Monday???" She must have sensed my desperation, so she put me on hold while she checked further. When she came on the line again after about three minutes, she uttered, "We'll send someone out today. He'll be there no later than 8pm is that OK?"

Two hours later, the service man knocked on my door, ran some pressure checks, and announced "Look's good, Mr. Rios", and promptly turned on my gas!

Now, that's what I call "service." Now, I'm really looking forward to a good, HOT shower but I just wanted to finish this, first.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Sneak Preview to the Cover of My New Book

No wonder I'm 70 something and still haven't published a book! It's a lot of work. When I started this project I had little idea what I was getting into. Some years back I began writing stories about my childhood, growing up in a small Barrio in Modesto, California during the 40s and 50s with no real direction. I began reading them for audiences and got enthusiastic responses from them.

In a few years, I had some 15 or so stories and a large collection of poems but still no real order to them all. When my E-Buddy, William Snyder, recently published his book "The Eight-Fingered Criminal's Son", I bought and read a copy and laughed all the way through it! His stories of a childhood growing up in Los Angeles sounded so much like mine! If he could do it, so could I!

Bill, by the way, has been one of my most ardent Chican-izmo fans and has constantly urged me to publish a book, so in part, I owe the effort to him. Putting the stories into some kind of cohesive order was the first step. They were not in chronological order, but on a closer look, I began to see that they kind of were. So that took a lot of time. As that began to happen, I noted gaps in the stories, holes that need to be filled in so I wrote new stories to fill them. Now a definite chronology began to emerge.

But the real killer has been the editing! I began ambitiously attacking the grammar, punctuation and sentence structures and soon got caught up in the style, the tone, adding a detail here and there, deleting wordy and repititious structures, again and again, and soon I became mired! When does it end? When is a story finished?

I am self-publishing through an online company Bill referred to me. So far, they have been quite easy to work with. Evidently, Indie books are the coming thing. Self-publishing is a bit like paying someone to tell you they love you, shameless, and a little self serving but what the hell.

I can't tell you how many times I have told someone "I want to write a book, some day." To the point where I was saying it just so people wouldn't think I was just another lazy artist. It appears that soon I will be able to actually say "Oh, by the way, I'm an author." Sounds good, huh?

My book attempts to capture the life of Mexican immigrants finding their way in a foreign world, their hopes, their dreams, their tragedies and and especially, their triumphs. I am hoping it will be available in November, and I will keep you abreast of that in future posts.

By the way, the image on the cover of the book is a from an old black and white photo of me when I was a about five, with my dog, Skippy, the grinning dog. There is a complimentary story of him in the book.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Read, Mis Amigos, Read

It's been years since I have read one of Castaneda's books and I picked this up a few weeks ago, one I had never really read, and began. It didn't take me long to get "hooked" again as I first was when I picked up "The Teachings of Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowlege", sometime in the early 70's.

Like so many at the time, I was completely and forever blown away by the stories of magic and the possiblity of other worlds, other existences, other ways of seeing the world, "a separate reality" as Carlos often puts it.

But in this one I miss the appearance of the Brujos (sorcerers) Don Juan, and his magical sidekick, Genaro. I'm not sure how many books there are in total, but some eight or nine? All telling of the amazing encounters Carlos had with the other world, in the deserts of central Mexico. He was a graduate student doing his thesis on the use of medicinal herbs among the Yaqui Indians of the Southwest, and in a Greyhound bus depot he meets an old Yaqui man he called "Don Juan", asking him if he might know someone who can tell him about medicinal plants. Don Juan says no, but he himself has "a little knowledge"
of their use, the qunitessential understatement of modern times!

The books are somewhat chronological, and I suggest reading them in order if possible, because they document Carlos first encounters with the magical world of sorcerers, his initiation into to it, and his clumsy and frightening journey to becoming what Don Juan and Genaro call a "man of knowledge." The power and beauty of their "teachings" compares to any of the ideas of the modern Western world of philosophy and psychology.

By the time this book is written, Carlos finally realizes that he was not alone in his intitiation, but part of a group of apprentices, 4 women and 3 men, although he had met them before briefly. What a movie this would make, putting modern psychological thrillers to shame! Carlos is a master at detailing the supreme fears and terrors he experiences, his stupidity and his debililitating clinging to his reason in the face of the inexplicable.

Anyway, I am glad to be reading again. I was an avid reader in my youth and years have passed since I have picked a book, and actually read it, so it feels good, a sense of accomplishment. I also just finished reading "Letters to a Young Poet", by Rainer Maria Rilke, a book I had been introduced to by my college philosophy instructor. Rilke's message seems simple: Find courage in your solitude, embrace it because from it you grow stronger.

It is tragic that today there seems to be fewer and fewer readers. I had to labor ceaselessly to get my students to read an essay or even a short story! And I was dismayed when they would confess, with a measure of glee, "This is the first book I have read in my whole life", or "This is the first book I read all the way through, "Mr. Rivers."

I hope this reawakening to the pleasures of reading in me, is not a passing fancy but hangs around for a while longer.

Friday, July 6, 2012

My New Book

Me an my dog, Skippy CA.1934

Pictured here is my grinning dog, Skippy and I when I was about 5 in the front yard of my home in a small barrio in Modesto, California. It will be used on the cover of my new book, "Songs From The Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, CA."

The book will be composed of stories and poems that document my experiences growing up during the 40's, 50's and 60's, in "Juarez", as we jokingly called our barrio in South Modesto, a one-city-square block of a dozen or so, houses of Mexican immigrant familys

The people who lived there were all Mexican immigrants, poor and uneducated, who left Mexico in the 1920's after its devastating Mexican Revolution (1910-20), and came here legally and illegally to better their lives and those of their children.

But they brought with them a vibrant language and culture and they kept it alive the best they could in competition with the powerful pull of Americanization. Slowly, their kids assimilated, forgot most of their culture and moved to the Northside,or out of town in search of jobs and the American Dream.

We grew up poor though the old timers felt rich, when compared to what little they left behind in Mexico. Our barrio's streets were unpaved, unlit and unmarked but we played in them nonetheless. Everyone knew everyone by name, being related or comadres or compadres of one another, having baptized one anothers kids. The houses were divided by wire fences and they could see and gossip with neighbors on both sides, in contrast to the 6' tall wooden fences we use today, sheltering our lives from those of our neighbor's.

We underwent our own form of discrimination covert, and often overt, to the point that some of us were ashamed to call ourselves "Mexican", preferring the title "Spanish" instead. College never entered our vocabulary. Most of us quit school, got a job, had kids, and a handful graduated from high school.

It was another time and another world then and I felt the need to document it now, before it's completely gone, for my kids, my grandkids and my family and for any reader hungry to learn how America became the Melting Pot that it is, though some of us refused to melt, completely. The barrio needs to be assigned its rightful place in the history of California and the United States. Not only that, but I'm an old fart now, and time is passing. I can't screw around. It's now or never.

While I have been writing since the mid-1960's, I have toyed with the idea of some time publishing a book. Many of the book's stories were already written, but as I began to edit and organize them into the idea of a book, I saw holes and gaps and set out to write those stories.

Keep tuned in and I will try to update you on the book's progress. I will be uploading the manuscript to the publisher in a few weeks, I hope. Wish me luck and I hope you'll buy a book when its ready. You owe it to me for all the hard work.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Book is Being Born

I've not posted for a while as my energy has been going into the organization, planning and writing of what I hope will turn out to be a book about my life growing up in a small Mexican Barrio in South Modesto (CA), during the 40's, 50's and 60's. Inspired by, and on the heels of my Blogger Buddy's Bill Snyder's recent book "The Eight-Fingered Criminal's Son", (read it, it's a riot), and with his encouragement, I am looking to getting my own book published soon.

Most of the stories have already been written over the past half-dozen years and at first the book was going to be a random collection of recollections, but now I see that it needs some kind of chronology establishing a beginning, a middle, and an end. I have read many of them in public and gotten enthusiastic responses to them.

I'm feeling a sense of urgency because as you might have guessed, I am no Spring Chicken and life is quickly passing me by and the things I write about need to preserve what life was like during this time period and what part Mexicans, and these barrios had in forming the diversity of American Culture. I want to document this for my reader, for myself and for my children and grandchildren.

"Don't ever forget where you come from", my mom used to say. Mom, I haven't.

Updates will follow. Meanwhile, any encouragement would be appreciated. If not "I will understand", like hell. It kills me when people write crap on Facebook, and then ask you to repost on your own status adding that if you don't, they will understand. Yeah, you're a jerk if you don't repost.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I am 1/4 Indian, 1/8 Spanish, 1/5 Black, & The Rest Eskimo.

I remember somewhere back when I was a kid my mom telling me "Mexicans are part Indian and part Spanish." "How much of each?" I asked. "Half and half". And so I went on to tell people I was a Mexican. I had no particular pride then in being Indian. Indians were killed in the old cowboy movies. "Don't stand in the sun too long", my mom said "Or you get black like and Indian."

Only later when I began to learn about Mexico's history did I begin to get a sense of the great significance of blood lines to people. Indian was bad. Spanish, or European was good. It meant to be "white skinned", not "prieto" or "dark-skinned", and that was good.

When I learned the word "Meztizo", my world changed. It was the term the Spanish Conquerors of the New World called those born of a Spanish Father and an Indian mother (Spanish women did not play  around, I suppose). It was synonymous with "half breed", a person despised by the indigenous for having European blood, and hated by the Europeans for having Indian blood.

More amazing was to learn of all the terms the Spanish invented for the incredible mixing of blood lines which were to come in the New World and they had a word for each and every one:

Peninsular = Spaniard born on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain)
Meztizo = One born of a Spanish father and Indian mother
Creole (Criollo) = Child of a Peninsular but born in Mexico (New World)
Caztizo = A Meztizo + a Creole
Cholo = An Indian + a Meztizo
Mulatto = A Peninsular + a Black
Zambo = A Black + an Indian
Euromeztizo = Indian with Spanish characteristics dominating
Indomeztizo = A Spaniard with Indian characteristics dominating.

In Henry Parkes' A History of Mexico he adds one final absurd footnote to this unholy mixture of bloods: a saltapatras' or "throwback", all the way to the start! How in the world, at the end of this stew of bloodlines, could one return to being a Peninsular?!

But even more incredulous is how the term Meztizo came to mean Mexican; this word that for 300 years of Spanish domination in Mexico was uttered with indignation. But it did.

Its origins are fodder for debate but a prevailing theory is that the people we currently refer to as Aztecs, never called themselves by that term, but called themselves the Mexica (Meshica) or the Mexicans (Meshicans)

After Mexico's War of Independence (1810-1821), the word Mexican would be proudly used for the first time to define the Meztizo, a person born of the bloods of two great civilizations, the European and the Native American.

Strange bedfellow, que no?

Monday, April 16, 2012

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me: The First Mexican Martyrs

(Painting showing Aztec fathers putting newly Christianized sons to death)

    Many years ago, I came across a poignant dialogue that describes a first encounter between a group of Spanish Conquistadors, a Captain and a Catholic priest, backed by a host of soldiers, and a group of Maya warriors, led by a chief and a woman who serves as a translator. The Spanish Captain tells the Maya woman, "Tell your chief we have come here in search of gold and silver." Immediately, the Catholic priest interrupts saying "No, no! Tell your chief we have come here so that they may come to know The One And Only True God'!"

    After a lengthy translation by the woman interpreter, the Maya chief says, "Tell this powerful men here (addressing the Captain), that in the Sun which is our gold, and the Moon which is our silver, lies our everlasting hope, but in order for him to reach them, first he must kiss the earth."

    This dichotomy between the acquisition of power and the saving of souls, was the hapless burden of the European conquerors and the Catholic church in Mexico. In her book, "Idols Behind Altars", Anita Brenner tells, among other things, of the church's struggle to convert Indians to Christianity during the early years of the Spanish conquest in 1521. 

    Suspicious and fearful of the new religion, the Indians reluctantly embraced a new Christian pantheon, but often, at the risk of grave danger, covertly clung to their own deities. Brenner describes how the Indians, who comprised the labor force building the numerous Catholic churches across Mexico, sometimes hid idols representing their own gods deep inside the altars as they built them, then quickly covered them up!  Thus, as they reverently knelt and prayed before the altars during mass, they were actually praying to their ancient gods hidden inside them.

    For the first decade after the Spanish Conquest in 1521, the Catholic Church was relatively unsuccessful in convincing the stubborn Indians to convert to Christianity, and despite openly condemning their beliefs, destroying their temples, paintings and idols representing their old gods, only a few brave souls dared be baptized into the strange new faith, some paying with their lives as the image above shows.  I cannot imagine putting my own son to death for his conversion to another faith.

    Ironically, with the apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the Indian, Juan Diego in 1531, everything changed and thousands of Indians flocked into the churches to be baptized. Now, they had a new heavenly woman they could believe in, Mary, one like them, dark skinned ("La Virgen Morena"), not like the pale, white gods they had heretofore seen adorning the insides of the cathedrals they had helped build.

    Nonetheless, for years, indigenous beliefs flourished underground in secret, in caves, hidden from the eyes of the Europeans; for it was no easy matter to let go of the gods they had worshipped for centuries, in time forcing the church to find other ways to attract converts, not by pointing out differences in the native and european beliefs, but the similarities.

    Thus, in Mexico today we see this bizarre mix of Indian and Christian beliefs. Where one belief ends, and another begins is a supreme mystery, as Aztec dancers dance before the Virgin of Guadalupe at the hill of Tepeyac in Mexico City, at the very same place where they had once worshipped a female diety, Tonantzin.

     In fact, "La Catedral", the main cathedral in the heart of the "Zocalo" (central square) in downtown Mexico City, is built at the  very same spot, with the same stones that once made up the main pyramid of "Tenochtitlan", the Aztec capital, that Cortez himself had once characterized as the "Constantinople of the New World".

It was leveled by the Spaniards to build the city we know today.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Peonage: Mexico's Legacy of Shame

"The Liberation of the Peon" by Diego Rivera

I never fully understood the real meaning of the word "peon" until I began to read and teach about about the history of Mexico. To me, it had simply meant "a poor, uneducated Mexican."

When Mexico was conquered by Spain in 1521, its people suffered 300 years of domination by its often cruel and greedy hosts. In 1542, new laws were established concerning the "propriatory rights" of natives, indians. They were to be "free people" and slavery as such, was prohibited, except for the use of Black slaves which had been brought into New Spain from the mother country.

Under the new law, the "Encomienda" system was established, in essence a "payment" of land to the Conquisatdores for their "service" to Spain, and the right to Indian labor "for the state" one-quarter of the year. The rest of the year, they were allowed work on a small plot of land given to them for their own sustenance, though these laws were commonly abused. To skirt the law outlawing slavery, they were paid a measly wage, though working for wages was unknown to the native peoples.

After the War of Independence in 1821, the system continued but with a new sinister twist, "debt peonage". Indian workers were given "advances" in their wages with the distinct purpose of getting them in debt. In addition, they were paid in "script", a sort of coupon or promisary note, reedemable only at the company store owned by the "Encomendero", much like sharecroppers of the deep South, in the United States.  

Prices for basic necessities were greatly inflated but the Indians were generously extended credit, plunging them deeper into debt, eventually forcing them to turn over their land and possessions to the master.

If they ran or tried escape, they were mercilessly hunted down, dragged back to the encomienda, or killed.

When the worker, who could never hope to pay off his death in his own lifetime died, his debt was automatically transferred to his first born. The child at birth, assumed the debt of his father and began to acrue his own debt as soon as he was able to work, and so on and so on, generation to generation! This practice continued until 1915, when a decree was passed by President, Porfirio Diaz, outlawing the use of peonage in Mexico.

Despite this law, forms of peonage continued until 1936, when Lazaro Cardenas created the "Ejido" system, agricultural land which had been expropriated from the encomiendas and haciendas, turned into communal farms, allowing natives to earn wages according to the amount of work performed.

Much of the rudimentary rationale behind Mexico's Revolution (1910-1920) was to take the land from the rich and give it back to the poor, as espoused by its leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. For them, the "quaint" Hacienda was a an excess of wealth and land purchased by the sweat and blood of the "los pobres" (the poor). During the Revolution, Villa often rounded up the Hacendados (owners of Haciendas), and executed them, venting the rage of the poor for 400 years of abuse. 

While this practice was obviously and inherently evil in its concept, for me there is a greater evil: the creation of a race of people who came to believe that their sole purpose on earth was to serve a "master", and which endures among many of Mexico's poor today.  

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Saint of Ansul Avenue

Ansul Avenue was the name of the unpaved, dirt road in our Barrio in South Modesto where my uncles, Quirino and Juana Mendoza used to live when I was a kid. After they died, the house remained vacant for some time, and just after I married and asked my cousin Sally if we could rent it and she conceded to let us have it for $50. a month which was cheap even for the 1960's.

It was a simple wooden structure which my uncle had built, with 4 small bedrooms, one bath, a rickety old garage and out buildings where we lived for about two years, memorable ones being that it was our first home which we relished in making our own.

Goodwill and second-hand stores obliged us with many bargains on used tables and furniture, and the rest I myself built from bricks and wood, and my wife's wifely artistic touches for decor.

After a time, I ran into an old high school friend-of-a-friend, Bill Briggs who rented a room from us and shared in the expenses, while my wife cooked for the three of us. It was an idyllic setting, one we cherished for a time to come. Bill learned to love Mexican food, especially the hot salsa my wife made from scratch.

He and I had much in common, our love for books, jazz, philosophy (bullshitting), and cheap red wine. We prided ourselves in finding cheap wine at the local liquor stores, but our major find was when we discovered "Vino Americano", a Burgundy wine, at 99 cents a gallon! Much deep philosophy emanated from this find.

It was during this time, probably well into the depths of that gallon of Vino Americano, and deep into some pseudo religious philosophical debate that he said to me one day, "Richard, you are the Saint of Ansul Avenue."  I was flattered but somewhat embarrassed being compared to a saint. Being the sinner that I was, I had hardly considered myself a saint. A devil maybe, but not a saint!

I had, of course seen the plaster and wooden statues of saints at church and watched people light candles before them and my mother lighting candles and praying to them on her home altar. But me, a saint? Maybe, if I stretched it little, or redefined the word some, I might, on a long shot, qualify. I had always pictured the saints as people who suffered much, denied themselves the pleasures of life, and prayed incessantly, and certainly not ones who indulged on worldly lusts and Vino Americano.

Anyway, I have mostly forgotten that moniker, until my wife's recent illnesses and life in chronic pain when a friend visited us and after sharing our struggles and suffering with her, she said "Ay, Don Ricardo, es usted un santo." (Oh, Richard you are a saint.) "Si", I said jokingly, "un santo con cuernos!" I responded, making the sign of two "horns" on my head. She laughed inconsolably. "No, usted es un santo", she repeated.

Now, that makes two people who have endowed me with the title. How many more votes do I need to be canonized, 10? 12? But I'm kidding, of course, and may the real saints forgive me.

Nonetheless, I will continue in the hope that my good deeds blot out my sins, or at least some of them. Please light a candle for me (not to me), the Saint of Ansul Avenue.

Monday, February 27, 2012

When Housewife Was Not a Dirty Word

In my day, it was a young man's ideal to marry, get a decent job to support his wife who would stay home, clean, cook and raise the kids. When I asked my wife to marry me, I promised to support her for life, a promise which I have kept.

She, on the other hand, readily and proudly accepted her role as wife, mother, and housewife. It is how she had been raised in a Mexican family of five girls and one boy.

Her mother was the ultimate Matriarch. Strong, moralistic, and hard working who instilled into her daughters the traditional role of women. The woman's place was in the home.

However, these roles came in conflict when my wife joined me in the United States and she came in contact with American women. My mother warned in reference to Mexican girls and this cutural clash: "Cuando llegan a Los Estados Unidos llegan muy 'songuitas', pero con el tiempo sacan las uñas "(when a girl arrives in the U.S. she is very docile, but soon begins to show her claws). The word "songuito/a" was and idiom conjuring the image of a pliant, innocent, obedient and docile creature.

In the 60's as the Women's Liberation Movement took wing, my wife and I were caught up in the changes. On one hand, I welcomed the idea of women moving out of the house to embrace new gender roles and careers, but I feared there would be a cost, a price to pay in the home and family.

For years, she suffered guilt as a result of my intellectual and sexually liberated female friends. Most were educated, and worldly and she a mere "housewife." She loved her home and prided herself in keeping it spotless. She adored cooking for her husband and children. She was a model mother. But she had to spar and deflect the overt and covert contempt of her newly liberated American peers. The effort to change the negatively charged moniker from "Housewife" to "Homemaker" did little to comfort her. They viewed her as "quaint."

To counter this I told her one day, "The next time an American woman asks 'Oh, and what do you do?' Tell them you hold a Master's Degree in Home Making!" She did, and it worked. They usually backed off.

Once, while living in Oakland we met some distant friends on her family's side, a young Chicano couple who loved to socialize. However, after attending a few parties at their house we noticed a sharp division between the men and the women. The men, sat at the kitchen table, smoking, playing cards and drinking beer. The women, retired to a bedroom where they talked about babies, cooking and shopping. We joined in on the rigid order, until one day I told my wife "Why don't we really shake up the place next time we are invited to a party, with you sitting with the men at the kitchen table, and me joing the women in the bedroom?"

It took and immense amount of courage, but we did it. The place was never the same.

One day, when my Mother-in-law visited us from Mexico City, as she sat on our couch knitting, my son's girlfried came over with a pair of trousers that needed to be hemmed. She frantically beseeched my wife to sew them up for her. My wife readily took the trousers and in her mother's presence, hemmed them with a needle and thread.

Not one minute after the front door closed and the frantic girlfriend left, my mother-in-law launched into a tirade! "What is it with these American girls? My God, they don't even know how to sew!!" Not to mention the fact that the girl had not even acknowledged my "suegra", or even offered her hand to greet her when she arrived, or when she left. Such manners.

What's prompted my writing all of this, I suppose, is that recently one of my wife's sisters from Mexico visited us. She had just turned 60 and when her husband asked her what she wanted for her birthday, she told him she wanted to visit her sister in the U.S. Joining us, was another sister who lives in town, and I relished watching and listening to them share childhood stories and memories in our living room. On one occasion, the sisters were sharing knitting "secrets", probably taught to them by their mother, as the three knitted together on the couch.

What a sight! What a pleasant hike into the past, into what is being lost, into what has already disappeared. When I shared the insight with my wife later that night in bed, I asked her "Do all your sisters knit?" "Yes, they all do. But the master knitter is my sister, Marta. She is so fast, she knits a sweater in a day. You can hardly see her hands move." I marveled at the image.

"But Marta does not sell any of her work for personal profit. All of it is donated to the parish and sold and the profits from her knitting has paid for nearly all of the pews in her church."

To this day, my wife and her four sisters, are proud housewives, with the exception of one who is divorced and now works for an outfit that buys used auto batteries, and sells refurbished ones, an odd resume, don't you agree?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Caution: Some Of My Best Friends Are Illegals II

I am referencing this entry "II" since I have a sneaking suspicion I have already written about it in a previous entry a couple of years ago (just in case).

I grew up around illegals, so my feelings about them are probably biased (if you had, yours would be too). In the barrio, some were our neighbors, friends, even relatives.  In the 40's and 50's we called them "Mojados", (Wets), referencing their having crossed the Rio Grande illegally.

They were regularly "rounded up" and deported to Mexico by the dreaded "Migra", the Immigration Department, and most would be back in a few weeks. It was no big deal. Most just wanted to work, send some money to their loved ones in Mexico and had no intention of staying.

Their presence was usually seasonal, usually during the summers when cannery or farmwork was abundant. And they went back to Mexico in winter. Things have changed now and many come with the intention of staying, especially after they have kids who are born here.

In the Woody Guthrie song, "The Deportees", he sings of the tragic death of a planeload of "Deportees" that crashes in the "Los Gatos Canyon" in Central California, killing all on board and of the how "the radio said they was just 'deportees'." Yet, Woody seeks to humanize them by giving them names: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalia, adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria. You won't have a name when you ride that big airplane; all they will call you is just 'deportees.' "

To compound the tragedy, Guthrie begins by writing, "The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting; the oranges are packed in their creosote dump", noting the grower's illogical insistence on deporting his workers, at the cost of plowing under his ready-to-harvest crop. "They're flying em' back to the Mexican border, to spend all their money to wade back again", writes Guthrie, questioning the logic of deporting people who will just "wade back again".

Cesar Chavez uncovered many cases of ranchers knowingly hiring illegals, then calling the Immigration Department on the night before "payday" to have them deported!

Today's immigration debate is highly complex, divisive, contentuous, heated, and appears to have no easy solution. One of the most complex issues of the debate concerns the status of U.S. born children of illegals. The Obama policy of mass deportation has split families in two, sending parents back to Mexico, often leaving their U.S. born offspring behind to fend for themselves.

Yesterday, I read in the paper how Republicans, who would simply like to round up all 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. , some who have lived all their lives here, with U.S. born children and grandchildren and ship them all back to Mexico, now are going after tax loopholes allowing illegals to file for a $1000. per child refund credit on their income taxes, for each U.S. born child, costing the country millions. They are able to do this, probably by obtaining a Tax ID number, using falsified SSN numbers. I am not codoning this, just pointing to the absurdity of the issue.

By law, of course, children born of parents illegally in the U.S. automatically become U.S. citizens, though some Republicans want to change the Constitution to deny this right, complicating matters even more. To begin, illegals in the U.S. pay taxes too. U.S. employers often deduct Social Security and payroll taxes from their paychecks. Moreover, every time an illegal buys food, clothing, or a used car, he pays taxes like the rest of us. Oh, the irony, the irony.

Seems to me if we are going to begrudge these tax refunds to people who are in our country illegally, when the children they are claiming the credit for are U.S. citizens, then in good conscience, it should also be "illegal" to accept sales taxes from any person living in the country illegally. A sign posted at the entrance to all retail outlets should read: "Notice: Illegal aliens are NOT required pay taxes on goods." That would only be fair, que no?

Meanwhile, it is perfectly fine to just keep on taxing the U.S. born children of illegals, right?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Adios, adios, adios: Pedro Infante.

The Master Pedro Infante

If I had to choose the greatest Mexican singer of the 20th century, I   would have to pick El Maestro (The Master), Jose Pedro Infante Cruz, Pedro Infante.

As a child, we had four or five, 75rpm records of his songs, like "La Que Se Fue", "Ella", "El Tenampa", all scratchy, in dog-eared sleeves, the discs would often get stuck on the record player, or skip a lyric due to wear and tear. He would have been my mother's favorite, too (with the excpetion of Jorge Negrete).

He took the "people's music", the "Ranchera", and made it into a national genre, crossing all social classes, one all Mexicans could relate to and understand as he sang about cantinas, mariachis, bravado, love, jealousy, tragedy, and unrequited love, popularizing these "cantina" and "borracho" songs with his inimitable voice, and brilliant interpretation.

Like so many musicians, he became an actor in his own right, usually playing the roles of personas in his songs, a hero for the common, the poor and the downtrodden.

I loved his "gritos" so full of passion, pain and longing. Nobody can do gritos like Pedro. In some songs as in this song "Que Me Toquen Las Golondrinas", (Let Them Play For Me "Las Golondrinas"), about a man who has lost the love of his life, in a cantina drinking to "forget", he asks the house Mariachi to play for him the popular Mexican song "Las Golondrinas" (The Doves), the quintessential song about farewells, saying goodbye and letting go of something we love dearly. He even begs the bartender to "keep them coming" offering to contribute to the tab.

But note how he conveys that he is already "half drunk" with the opening grito! And listen to how at ending, he is so drunk he can hardly finish the song. Now, that's interpretation.

Makes you want to pour yourself a shot of Tequila, que no?!

He died in a planed crash in Merida, Yucatan on April 15, 1957 and as the ending of this songs says, "Adios, adios... adios", Pedro.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Cheer Up: Things Could Be Worse

There's an old Mexican folk tale about a man who was in the midst of lamenting his misfortune of being born with one leg, when he saw a man without any legs at all.

And it is a tragic truth about life, that no matter how bad things seem to go, with a little keen observation, they could be worse. Yet, sometimes this is little consolation.

Broke a leg? You coulda' broke both. Broke both? You coulda broke an arm too. Lost your house? You coulda' lost your job too, and you car. And your wife! Your dog?

My wife is fond of saying "Nadie sabe lo que trae el costal de otros" (no one knows what others carry in their knapsack.) But there is something so human, so bonding in acknowledging the shared suffering of humanity. The metaphor, "everyone carries his own cross", is strangely consoling. At least, we're not in this alone.

No one escapes suffering. We are all "in the same boat." when it comes to pain and suffering, and it is prudent not too complain too much, and try to endure what is "given" (though we may well be resonsible for much of our suffering by the stupid choices we make). Walk a mile in my shoes. I'll walk a mile in yours.

 But the human condition is to be trapped inside our own bodies. At best we experience the emotions of "sympathy" and "empathy" that can only minimally suggest what another fellow being is going through. It is imprecise, incomplete.

"I know what you're going through", we console one another with. But do we? How can I know what you feel? How can you know what I feel? We can only guess. I hear people talk about having a "pain threshold", for example, suggesting that one's endurance to pain, may be different from another's, whether it be physical or emotional.

In the end, there is no tool with which to measure human suffering. Yet, in an imperfect human scale, there are plenty of people that appear to have it far worse than me, so I will try not to complain too much. Some suffer because they have too much, others because they don't have enough.

Does it suffice to say then, that in the end, we all suffer a lot and we all suffer "equally" when tallied by some perfect, universal, and cosmic scale? The saints might disagee.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

On The Burden of Tradition: Making Tamales For Christmas

Christmas was not Christmas, when we were kids, without tamales. They were synonymous. It was a family tradition, a family event that took all of us to prepare them.

It was a whole day event. The grinding in the "molino" of the dried chilis, and the corn, the making of the "masa" (corn meal), the washing of the leaves, the cuttting of the pork meat, the cooking of the chili sauce.

And finally, the communal "emarrar las ojas", spreading the corn meal on the leaves, scooping a spoonful of sauce, placing a black olive inside each, wrapping it, one by one, and arranging them in huge pots, to steam cook. Their making, was as important as the actual eating of them.

"Why don't we just go down to Solorio's Market this year and buy them already cooked?" I asked my wife the other day. It was out of the question for her. So I texted my two sons: "Making Tamales Sat. Come and help?" I expected them to make excuses as to why they could not make it. They are notorious for just showing up to eat. But they came, even a couple of grand kids.

Of course it's easier today to make them since you can just buy the "masa preparada", already prepared corn meal and instead of grinding the dried chiles, there is the blender. Nonetheless, it took all day. The recipe comes from my mother who got it from her mother ad infinitum. Where the black olive came from I'm not sure, but a tamal without a black olive to this day, is simply not a tamal for me.

Her sacrifice that day had been extreme. Despite her insidious pain, my wife put on a brave face as she led us once again through the tedious process of making tamales this year for Christmas, just as it has always been. "This might be the last time", she joked, but no one heard her words except me. The last time. No one else in our family knows how to make them.

This tradition dies with us, my wife and I, the last branch of our family tree who knows the recipe and the steps. My two sisters are as they say "too old" or that it's "too much work" to make tamales, and my two brothers, well what can I say? We lay it to rest. It served us well.

As she moaned in bed that night after more than 6 hours at the stove, I wanted to scold her. Though her body was racked with pain, and she knew she would have to "pay" for it several days thereafter, there was a look on her face, a faint look of satisfaction barely noticeable: she had made tamales for and with her family once more.

But all things die. All things must pass. And we can just buy our tamales already made in Mexican delicatessens from now on. But what will be missed, unnoticeably missed, will be the community, the communion, the gathering of family immersed in the joyous and beautiful mystery of tradition.