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.