Saturday, January 19, 2019

into life a little spice must fall


I miss having my brother Darrel here in Mexico this year.

There are a lot of reasons for that. But food tops the list.

Darrel and I love experimenting with food. If it is new, we will try it. If it is extremely spicy, we will be glad we tried it.

I sent him an email yesterday letting him know he was missing a monumental moment in Mexican culinary history at the house with no name.

Last Sunday, a local restaurant sponsored a chili-eating contest. And I do not mean the Tex-Mex concoction. This contest involved foods cooked with the spiciest chili peppers in the world.

You may not know their names, but we pepper-heads live for the opportunity to eat them. Bhut Jolokia (better known by its nickname ghost pepper; the same pepper the Indian police use to disperse rioters). The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the one-time world-wide heat champion. And my favorite, the Carolina Reaper, whose name gives ample warning of its current reign as the world's spiciest pepper with a Scoville rating of 1.5 million.

People who will not eat a jalapeño, take heed. A jalapeño is rated only at 8500 on the Scoville scale.

I had planned on attending and enjoying the contest, but other circumstances intervened. Instead, yesterday I wandered over to Bare Essentials, a charmingly-funky shop three blocks from my house, and bought a jar of Carolina Reaper from Gio Vanni. He had helped with the chili contest preparations.

He had six choices of salsas -- from a mild Serrano to the king of the volcano, Carolina Reaper. I, of course, opted for the Carolina Reaper.

The world is now filled with a wide variety of chili peppers. And regional cooking is often defined by its chilies.  It is hard to imagine Angolan or Indian or Thai food without thinking of the chilies grown in their countries.

It is easy to forget that just over 500 years ago, none of those countries had chili peppers. Every chili grown in the world came from Mexican plants. Columbus took some to Europe, where they became a rage. The Portuguese then spread them throughout the world. The rest, as they say, is dinner.

Let me add a disclaimer. When it comes to chili peppers, spice is not the sole, or even the best, criteria for cooking. Every chili has a different personality that will add umami to a meal -- if properly chosen. The Carolina Reaper is a good food choice because of its pungency and its subtle fruitiness.

Gio Vanni's salsa works because he has found that proper balance between adding spice and fruitiness. I know because I scurried home with my acquisition to put it to good use.

My first experiment was to let the salsa be the star. I fried some rice paper, added a bit of salt, and then a dab of Gio Vanni's salsa. My first response was this is a pepper to be respected.

I use a lot of ghost pepper powder in my cooking. But the Carolina Reaper is noticeably spicier. And, as advertised, fruitier. I was soon dipping out large globs.

For me, spicy is not spicy if I can still breath or see after eating the chili. This chili is spicy.

So, I decided to use the salsa in a more complex dish. I had already decided to make a tortilla Española for supper -- and the salsa sounded like a good addition.

My tortilla is a bit eccentric. It certainly is not the classic Basque dish. I fry sliced potatoes in olive oil and butter just until they are on the verge of crisping. I set them aside while I stir-fry a combination of sliced onions, garlic, red bell pepper, a couple of Serranos, and a habanero, along with sliced ham.

I then line the bottom of the frying pan with the sliced potatoes forming the equivalent of a pie crust. The ham-vegetable mixture is layered over the top of that.

Of course, there are eggs. Last night, I whisked them them together with some fresh chopped tarragon. I poured the egg mixture over the vegetables trying to keep that layer as even as possible.

The salsa would be a new addition to this ever-evolving fusion dish. I decided to put a discernible layer over the top of the vegetable mixture before I added the eggs. If I do this again, I will spread it over the potato layer. The moisture in the layer between the eggs and the vegetables diluted the salsa. I was after a layered effect. Instead, the salsa was diluted through the dish.

But it was a fantastic eating experience. Omar, who wants everything to be spicy had to concede that the Carolina Reaper is a chili to be savored, but to be given its due.

I am sorry I missed the chili-eating contest. Darrel undoubtedly would have loved it.

He certainly would have enjoyed the 
tortilla Española.
There are two pieces sitting in my refrigerator. I would offer you a sample, but I am certain they will be gone by this afternoon.

   

Friday, January 18, 2019

comparing roles with prince frederick


"Amazing what one is, really."

It is one of those seemingly throw away lines in The Madness of King George. A film that walks us through the universal question of "Who am I?"

Once a month a group of us "grumpy, old white guys" convene at some unlucky restaurant where we hassle the staff and ramble on about a list of topics that inevitably include medications and the cheapest way to get things done locally.

Yesterday we met at Papa Gallo's on the beach in San Patricio. Because I had not yet managed to do my early morning walk, I decided to hoof the four miles to the restaurant. It is an easy amble.

Last year my friends Nancy and Roy bought me a Prince Edward Island t-shirt on their cruise to eastern Canada. It is quite spiffy -- as you can see in the mirror image.

Several people commented on the shirt on my walk. Most were compliments. But there were two questions that confounded me.

The first came from a Canadian woman with whom I am acquainted. She stopped me to chat and asked: "I thought you were American. Are you from Prince Edward Island?"

I chuckled and asked her if I had been wearing Che Guevara t-shirt if she would ask me: "How is Fidel doing?"

My analogy was too arcane.

She said she could not figure out why someone would wear a place-oriented piece of clothing without being from that place. She felt that type of clothing is designed to show pride of place.

I understood her point. But, I see national or regional emblems emblazoned in the most unlikely places, making people look like the equivalent of those "see-where-I've-been" maps on the sides of Air Streams and Winnebagos. I am guilty of that particular bit of one-upsmanship myself.

In this instance, though, I told her I have not even visited Prince Edward Island. The shirt was a beloved gift from friends.

Because I can never let one explanation stand when I can come up with five, I told tell her, in one sense, I am from Prince Edward Island. My mother's father's family lived there about a century in the 1800s; about the same time my mother's mother's family lived in Quebec. So, in a manner of speaking, I am from there. Give or take a generation or three.

So, off I went trying to make up walking time. Only to be stopped by another Canadian friend. "Hey, you can't wear that shirt. You're an American." We laughed.

Then, he got a bit more serious. "Are you trying to disguise the fact that you're American?"

I have been asked that before when people ask where I am from originally. My natural response is "Oregon." Several people have commented that that sounds as if if I am hiding my American roots. And I know exactly what they are saying.

I am not someone who has trouble confusing myself with the government in The States. And I cannot understand people who conflate their personality with their national governments. It makes no sense to me.

A reader once complained that she was getting tired of people trying to politicize everything. I agree with her. And I hope we do not waste a lot of time today fixating on politics. Because all of this is leading to a far more interesting point. At least, I find it interesting.

The breakfast conversation went along the lines I would have anticipated. Medical conditions. Brexit. The attempted coup in Gabon. Why Beethoven is considered great.

I do enjoy those joustings. But yesterday turned out to be quite different because we had a new member amongst us. John.

He had fallen into a coma for four years. When he awoke, his memory was a shambles. He could remember events in his early youth and infancy that he is not certain he could access before the coma.

He described his memory of recent years as too often containing pictures in his mind that have combined with a soundtrack from a different year. As if a mischievous film editor had been at work. Both memories are accurate, but they combine in an odd fashion.

His description started an interesting conversation. Scientists know a lot about our bodies -- and next to nothing about our minds. They do know enough, though, that the video analogy used by most people to describe their memory is not an accurate description of memories.

Memories are deconstructed in the mind and require re-assembly. As John's experience would verify. It is why we can remember a person's face, but we cannot locate their name card in our memory file. The two pieces are simply stored in different portions of our memory.

One of my favorite Umberto Eco novels is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The conceit of the story is that an antiquarian book dealer loses his large portions of his memory because of a stroke.

His personal past has been obliterated. He has no memory of his wife, his name, or even his face. But external stimulae cause him to remember historical names and dates, and substantial chunks of Dante, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot.

Then, in an attic, he discovers a treasure trove of cultural items he has collected over his life. He hopes that reviewing the items will help him recover his memory.

His project fails. He concludes all he has done is to re-discover the memory of a generation, not his personal memory. A jumble of cultural texts, high and low, simply does not add up to who we are. It is an exercise John has been going through.

That brings me back to that Prince Edward Island t-shirt. It does not reflect who I am, other than the fact that we all use clothing in our attempts to display to the world how we would like to be seen. Similar to Prince Frederick's Bishop of Osnabruck medallion, our costumes certainly do not reflect who we are.

That little t-shirt has a far more important meaning, though, than simply being a prop in The Steve Show. My friends invested a bit of their love in that purchase and then handed it along to me. And I am now the custodian of that piece of our relationship.

Prince Frederick may have been amazed at "what one is." I try to focus more on enjoying people for who they are.


Wednesday, January 16, 2019

steve, get back to the center


In yesterday's essay (sticking a log in my eye), I was heading in another direction when I distracted myself with my orange crate sermon.

Every January, I gather up a fistful of pesos and sally forth to pay my dues for the privilege of being a member of the I-live-in-Mexico Club.

No matter where you primarily live, you will be required to fork over money periodically to keep the gears of society operating around you. At least that is the view of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and his ilk: "I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization."

Of course, Holmes lived in a far less intrusive time. Most modern taxpayers find at least a theoretical cousin in Robert Heinlein's observation that: "There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”


A number of us have noted previously that structurally Mexico is about where The States or Canada were fifty or sixty years ago, leaving my small town Powers comparisons to Melaque with a sense of vague familiarity. In a macro sense, Mexico may be an economic first world country (with its membership in the OECD and the world's fourteenth largest economy), but it still has the feel of a bygone but not-forgotten past.

And that is exactly how I felt on Monday when I stopped to pay the bills that make me feel like a contributing member of my community. And, though I have written about the experience over the past few years, each time I get my receipts, I realize one of the joys of living here (low costs) that was never a draw for me to move here. And, to be truthful, still is not.

So, here are the numbers from the least expensive to the most:

The annual fee for my postal box in San Patricio is $300 (Mx) -- less than $16 (US).

My car registration for the year is $582 (Mx) -- about $30 (US).


I pay for a full year of water, sewer and, garbage at our local government office in Barra de Navidad. This year, it was $1,738 (Mx) -- $91 (US).

And the largest item on the list, the property taxes for my 4000 square foot house is the pleasingly affordable $2,171 (Mx). About $114 (US). In Salem, that would be less than a month's payment on my property taxes there.

But that is the danger of comparison. My life is far better here than it was up north. The fact that I get all of my annual services for the bargain price of less than $252 (US) is simply cream cheese in my sushi.

Now, as happens every year, I will hear from some readers that "I get what I pay for." And that has a slight echo of truth about it.

If you inclined to so comment, I will let you know my response now.

Refer back to the Heinlein quote. I am more than happy to pay this list of services because they are actually items I would go out and buy on my own without any government coercion. Well, maybe with the exception of the car registration. But, at least, that tax helps to defer some of the government's costs related to transportation.

So, I do not write today in the spirit of smugness. I am simply thankful that, like the words of my favorite Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts":

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.
That is exactly how I feel on this fine morning in Mexico where I continue to find that peace at the center.

And that goes far beyond the alms and tribute I passed along to the Mexican government on Monday.


Note 1 -- I offer one caveat to my little piece of tax heaven. My property taxes are low. But I do have an additional tax, as do all of us foreigners who live in the forbidden zone. I pay a local bank tax $522 (US) each year for the privilege of pretending I have some legal right to my house.
Note 2-- One of my favorite version of "Simple Gifts" is Aaron Copland's orchestral treatment. It may not be quite Mexican -- but it is universal.






Tuesday, January 15, 2019

sticking a log in my eye


"Why do you white people complain about everything?"

It was my friend Julio, who I have known for almost as long as I have lived here. Our conversations have matured to the point where we can indulge in otherwise-forbidden stereotypes, and still understand the other person's point.

"You don't like the food. Service is too slow. The music is too loud. Are you happy when you are unhappy?"

His comment was primarily directed at me. I had just told him why I was not happy with my lunch. But, he then went into a list of complaints he had heard during the past week. "Are you people never happy with anything?"

I tried to put his experience into context -- that complainers are a minority and we tend to give way too much attention to the whingers -- but I instinctively knew he was correct. If you listen to a random sampling of northern conversations in our little villages, we sound as if we were auditioning to play extras at a British weekend shooting party.

One of my favorite lines from Gosford Park is Maggie Smith's response to Kristin Scott Thomas
's greeting upon arrival at the house:

"Did you have a horrid journey?"

"Yes. Fairly horrid."


Julian Fellowes could have cribbed the lines from one of our local restaurants -- or message boards.

Yesterday was dedicated to the proposition that I could pay my annual dues for living in Mexico within the confines of the day. To avoid any unnecessary suspense, I will tell you right up front, it was a good day. Almost.

I needed to make four stops in three towns. Renewing my auto registration and paying my property taxes in the county seat. Paying for my postal box rental in San Patricio. And taking care of my combined sewer, water, and garbage in Barra de Navidad.

Three of the four were as easy as guessing what eating utensil will arrive with dessert in a Mexican restaurant. I was the only person at the post office and the Barra de Navidad local government office. And I had to stand in line for only a couple of minutes to pay my property taxes. Over the past couple years, the replacement of ledger books with computers has greatly improved the efficiency of turning my pesos into the government's.

The only mosca in the michelada was the payment of my car registration. It was my first stop.

I had read on the local Facebook page that the waiting time in the office was unusually long, so I arrived early in the morning. Not early enough.

In years past, there have been five to eight people sitting in the waiting area patiently awaiting their turn. There is no number system. Everyone pays attention to who was there before them. Just like Henslowe's recurring response in Shakespeare in Love: "Strangely enough, it all works out well. . . . I don't know. It's a mystery."

Yesterday I was not welcomed by that sight of Panglossian order. The entire room was packed with people standing up in enough regimentation that it resembled a queue. There must have been close to thirty people there.

I saw my friend Arlie. There was no missing him. He is at least half again as tall as I am.

I asked why everyone was standing. He said something about there having been a brouhaha earlier. I thought that odd. In all of my years waiting at Mexican offices, I have been amazed at how my neighbors stoically wait for their turn with no obvious irritation. Of course, Octavio Paz would have something to say about what was going on behind the mask.

Rather than wait, I decided to go pay my property taxes in the delusional belief the line would shorten as the day went on.

When I returned, there were more people in the room. So I went to the drug store and a department store to pick up some items.

When I returned, Arlie had finally made it to the cashier, but there must have been forty people in the room by that time. Arlie paid and I wished him farewell. He wished me patience.

I was not concerned. I had brought my Kindle along to catch up on the news. I knew it would be a long wait, and I have learned a modicum of patience living in Mexico.

And then it happened. It was almost as if Julio's observations had conjured up a golem.

An elderly northerner tried to open the door. By this time, the crowd made that difficult. But, as is always true in Mexico, the people near the door politely gave way to welcome another soul to share the wait.

The new arrival scowled, looked around, and, to no one in particular asked, in that irritated tone of an angry dad: "Where's the end of the **** line?" No one responded. He was speaking English, and what most of them rightfully heard was blah blah blah.

I chimed in with: "I don't know. I have been here for about ten minutes, but more people came in after me."

That seemed to make a vein over his left eye start throbbing. When he asked again where the end of the line was and received no response, he turned his volume up to 11, and launched into "****ing Mexicans. **** Mexico." And slammed the door as he left.

Now, he may have been having the worst day of his life and that small bump in the road was just too much for him to assimilate. I am not going to judge why he did what he did.

Amazingly, it did not seem to bother in the least the people waiting for their registration.

It dd bother me. As the sole northerner standing in line, I felt as if I should apologize for what just happened. But, that event was about to be exacerbated in a very personal way.

A clerk behind the cashier windows came out into the waiting room and motioned in my direction. I looked around before I realized he was motioning to me to go with him. He was pulling me out of line to process my registration.

I almost panicked after the earlier incident because I knew exactly what it looked like. I was getting preferential treatment for only one reason. And it wasn't because it was my birthday.

I looked around at my fellow line-waiters. They told me: "Go." It was not until that moment that I realized several of them spoke perfect Englsh -- making the Mad Man's performance that much more embarrassing.

I would like to tell you that I told the clerk that I would wait in line just like everyone else. That would have been exercising my moral agency. Instead, I took the preferential treatment road.

Within a minute, I had paid my money and had a new decal for my car window. But, I felt almost as if I was walking an Iroquois gauntlet when I walked through the waiting room.

I told my friend Ozzie this story last night. When I told him about the Mad Man, he said: "You act just like that. All of you do."

And I realized, in his eyes, it is true. Even though my anger is seldom that extreme, I still get irritated at circumstances over which I have no control or power. The only control is of my temper. And, apparently, I lose it far more often than I care to admit.

That was my birthday gift from both Julio and Ozzie -- to make me realize I too often point at the bad behavior of others when mine may be worse. Jesus said something about that.

We all love quoting Jesus when we feel as if someone has caught us out: "Don't judge, so that you won't be judged."  We often forget his reasoning:

For the way you judge others is how you will be judged -- the measure with which you measure out will be used to measure to you. Why do you see the splinter in your brother's eye but not notice the log in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, "Let me take the splinter out of your eye," when you have the log in your own eye? You hypocrite! First, take the log out of your own eye; then you will see clearly, so that you can remove the splinter from your brother's eye!   
A little bit of grace will do us a lot of good. Whether we live in Timbuktu or Abbottsford or Springfield -- or even Mexico.

Monday, January 14, 2019

happy birthday to me


If I were a Hobbit, and there are those who see me as being quite Hobbitish, today would be nothing special.

Hobbits consider "rhyming birthdays" to be most important. Like Bilbo's 111th (his "eleventy first") and Frodo's 33rd (when he came of age) celebrated on the same day.

I have certain Hobbitish features, but I live in a culture where the Big Days end in "0," (with the odd "8," "1," and "5" thrown in to spice the stew's monotony).

Today I enter my eighth decade. That should be something to celebrate because it has been a fun run.

But my biggest celebration for the day will be finally getting around to paying my annual Mexican living dues -- for the privilege of living in this intoxicating beautiful land. There are fees to pay for car registration, property tax, postal box rental, and garbage, water, and sewer. None will set me back anywhere near what they would cost up north.

And I enjoy paying them. Rather, I enjoy the journey to pay them. I need to drive to Cihuatlán, our county seat, to take care of the car registration and property tax. Then to San Patricio for the postal box. The sewer, water, and garbage I can pay in one place at the local government office in Barra de Navidad.

I look forward to this each year because I get to talk with some familiar faces behind the respective desks and to meet new people waiting in line for their turns. It brings back a lot of those feelings of civic pride that accompanied voting before the days of mail-in ballots where the only relational moment is sticking a stamp on the envelope.


What could be better than my tasks to celebrate a landmark birthday?

But there is more. At the end of the day, I will walk down the street to the home of my friends Lou and Wynn. We will then take an evening stroll to one of the restaurants on Barra de Navidad's laguna.

Friends and food. A Hobbit could appreciate such an evening. 


Sunday, January 13, 2019

get me to the church on time


There is something about Mexico.

I have spent the vast majority of my life surrounded by calendars, Day-Timers, and pocket assistants gently reminding me my time is not my own. Cronos was my master.

Punctuality is not a personality trait that is easily doffed. In the Old Country (as Jennifer Rose so aptly calls our abandoned lands) being tardy was the height of rudeness. Worse, it was seen as stealing the time of others. For an Air Force officer and trial attorney, it was professional suicide.

When I moved to Mexico ten years ago, I brought all of my northern ways with me. I indulged in the same mistake made by centuries of expatriates. I tried to recreate my old homeland in my new one.

I would rise at 7 in the morning to read The Oregonian while listening to the news on NPR (what a leftist friend calls Nazi Peoples' Radio). At 10 I would open a three-week old issue of The Economist (speed is not the byword of the Mexican postal service).

All of that could have occurred in Salem. And it did before I headed south. The only difference was that instead of doing all of that in my hot tub, I did it on the balcony of the beach house while watching the ebb and flow of the ocean -- always aware time was ebbing and flowing along with the tide.

Over the last ten years, I would slough off one routine or another. NPR was the first to go -- and I immediately felt the relief of being freed from the hysteria of the American news cycle.

This morning I realized I had lost another. My sense of time. I have lost track of the days of the week.

Today I slept in -- after staying up until 2:15 in the morning. When I woke up, I started reviewing my Spanish lesson and decided a pot of tea would be a perfect companion for it.

The day was speeding along, but it did not matter. It was Saturday. I have no Saturday appointments. And it was not a Dora day. The day was mine.

Somewhere between Manuel bragging about his new suit and Juanita informing everyone her new dress was pretty, but expensive, I looked at the date on my telephone.

I panicked. It was Sunday, not Saturday. I do have a commitment on each Sunday. Church. And it was beginning in 35 minutes.

I rushed to clean up, and headed off on my three-mile walk to church, arriving in the midst of the prayer of the people. I thought that apt.

Currently church is the only regular appointment on my calendar. And it is the only way I know which day of the week it is. When I attend church, I know it is the last day of the week, and the next morning will start another week. It is my chronological anchor. Without it, each day would slip by unnoticed, one fading into the similarity of the next.

Time is not as important in Mexico as it is up north. Relations trump being enslaved to a watch.

My once-obsessive mania of punctuality has slowly been eroded. If I am 15-minutes late meeting people for dinner, I apologize to the people who waited. They are usually northerners. If I am meeting Mexican friends for dinner,and I show up 15 minutes later than the appointed time, I will be the first person at the restaurant.

I actually would have made it to church today on time had not two of my neighbors stopped me to talk. I could have ignored them and headed off on my appointed rounds. But that is not how things are done in my neighborhood. Relationships trump time.

As it turned out, I learned some interesting things about our neighborhood and I still made it to church. Matters temporal and spiritual were served simultaneously.

Five years ago when we started our cultural awareness classes at the church, Tom led us through a book based on the difference between hot and cold cultures. He had been a missionary in Mexico for decades and had an instinct for teaching the subject.

He gave a great example. In a cold culture (like Oregon or British Columbia) if Steve arrived late for church, people would turn in disgust to see who was disrupting the service. In a hot culture (like Mexico), people would turn and greet the person who was just arriving. Relationships trump time. And it strikes me as being the far more Christian attitude.

I will note that when I slipped into the back of the church this morning, I was obviously entering a cold-culture institution.

It was a good reminder that we have a lot to learn from our neighbors. Instead of getting tied to our clocks, we should spend a little more time tying ourselves to one another.

Relationships trump time.


Saturday, January 12, 2019

dipping in the pool with jean-jacques


"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are."

Old Jean-Jacques was on to something, but I am not certain he had the correct target.

We can all recite that Rousseauean bromide, and then we go on living it every day -- allowing circumstances to control how we react to the world around us. You know the syndrome. People who live in a everything-is-a-crisis world, controlled far more by the day's news cycle than the far more benevolent cycle of the sun and moon.

That apparatus at the top of this essay is a perfect example.

For a couple of months, my swimming pool has started looking more like than beach than a Moroccan-inspired patio accouterment. With all of the sand in the water rather than on the shore.

That was bothersome. But, it got worse. Because my well water is very hard, the sand picked up enough iron that when the sand collected on the pool's tiles, it left a tea-colored stain. My tiles were rusting.

My pool guy tried several conservative fixes. None worked.

So, while I was in the midst of preparing for my history presentation, he showed up with a crew of three to do some major re-work in the pool room that also serves as my bodega.

I would like to say the idea of receiving a free break from my work came as a relief. I did not see it that way. I reacted as if Chris Matthews had just told me that Putin had invaded another part of the world where the residents were not properly conducting Orthodox rites.

Refreshments would need to be made. I would have long conversations in Spanish about what was going to be done, why options were limited, and how my family was doing and would they be visiting this year. And, of course, there would be the innumerable trips to the local pool stores to purchase one piece of new equipment on each venture.

Attempting to do any work on my research project was going to be placed on hold for the unknown hours it would take to stick a finger in the sand dike.

The origin of the problem was the original positioning of the pool filter. The Canadian-Mexican builder placed it under the staircase leading to the upper terrace. It was beautifully tucked away from the rest of the storage room.

It looked great, but it presented a functional problem. The ceiling over the filter was too low.

The last time Lupe changed the sand, he had trouble extracting and re-installing the lateral assembly, that odd-looking piece of plastic in the photograph. In theory, the water passes through the extended arms in the filtering process. It is designed to send the water to the pool and leave the sand in the filter.

At some point, the assembly was torqued enough that spaces developed at the junction of the arms and the pipe back to the pool. Sand escaped faster than liberty-loving Venezuelans. It needed to be replaced.

And to prevent another breach of the assembly's prophylactic duties, Lupe suggested moving the filter from under the stairwell. That would mean losing more storage space, but it was truly a Hobson's choice.

After five hours of sawing, pouring, pounding, and grunting, the filter was located in a far more utilitarian location. It certainly is not a work of art like the original position. A strap and a brick hold up PVC pipes to keep them from breaking. But, at least, this version will work. I hope.

I still suffer from a northern mentality in some of my transactions -- especially financial -- here in Mexico. Five hours of labor and pool parts made my wallet start twitching.

I needn't have worried. The sand turned out to be the most expensive item at $1,250 pesos (about $65 (US)). The lateral assembly was $1,200 pesos ($63 (US)). It looks as if it would cost around $80 (US) in The States. Despite local lore, pool and car parts are not universally more expensive in Mexico.

The PVC pipe, glue, and other assorted material was $520 pesos ($27 (US)). And for five hours labor for four guys, the labor costs was $1,000 ($52 (US)). For a grand total of $3,970. My pool was up and running for the equivalent of just over $200 (US).

Knowing Lupe, I suspect he was going to give the full $1,000 in labor to his crew -- even though he did the lion's share of the work. Or maybe he knew me well enough that I would top up the wage. And I did.

When Lupe and his crew came through my gate, I had the option of seeing their arrival as an opportunity for me to learn something about my pool -- and as a gift in the form of essay material. I didn't. Even though I hid my annoyance behind the Mexican mask I have learned to develop, I went about my hosting tasks begrudgingly.

I would like to say that going through the experience, and now confessing to my failure, have guaranteed the next time I am faced with a choice as a moral agent that I will choose to take the more enlightened approach and welcome the gift the day has given.

Of course, I know myself well enough that my transmission does not shift that smoothly. I will still act as if I am one of those people who relies on cable news to tell them how to react to the world's vagaries.

But I will eventually get to where I should be. Up north, I am not certain I could say that.

So, here's to Mexico. It may not have made me a good person. But I think it is doing its best to help me let myself be a better person.

And Rousseau? He spouted a lot of nonsense -- accompanied by a few kernels of wisdom. On one thing he was spot on. We do need to take responsibility for breaking our own chains.       


Friday, January 11, 2019

when will my 20-peso note be worthless?


My presentation is done.

Yesterday afternoon, our Cultural Awareness classes, which will continue for the next five Thursdays at 5 PM at the Costalegre Community Church, began with my talk on Mexican history through its banknotes.

Several people have asked if I would post my notes. Notes are not too helpful -- other than to the presenter. So, here is a fleshed-out version of my presentation.

I will warn you that it is much longer than one of my usual essays.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Who is that guy in my pocket?

Who wants to be a millionaire?

Well, if you do, you came to the wrong show.

The best I can offer is: Who is ready for a good story?

One of the joys of living in Mexico is being surrounded by tales of valor, love, and, inevitably, tragedy. Mexico is a land of stories.

It is no coincidence that the Spanish word “historia” has two meanings in English. The first meaning is exactly what it looks like. “History.”

But “historia” also means “story.” And that is what I would like to do today – tell you a bit of the history of Mexico through the stories of the men and women on Mexico’s banknotes.

I call it “Who is that guy in my pocket?”

So, imagine we are at your home on a blustery winter night. The fire is blazing. You have a mug of hot chocolate. And we are ready to share our favorite stories.

But, a narrator cannot tell tales in front of a blazing fire without a sweater. Give me a Mr. Rogers moment and I will slip into my role.

There, that’s better. [Editor's note: Yup. I really wore a sweater for an hour on a tropical Mexican afternoon. We all suffer for our art.]

Now, do me a favor. Dig into your wallet and pull out one of each denomination of Mexican banknote. The possibilities are 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, and 1000 (if you are unlucky enough to be stuck with a bill that large).

And if you look carefully, you might find three different versions of the 100, 200, and 500 notes. You are going to find them useful in a few minutes.

Together, they are a textbook of every era in Mexican history.

First, let me tell you a tale of the two men associated with Mexico whose names are known by almost everyone around the world. Neither one is on a Mexican banknote – and probably never will be.

This is their story.

The year is 1519. The Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortes, fresh from Havana, lands on the gulf shore of what will become Mexico. He is searching for fame and glory, for land and treasure, and for souls to save for their Catholic Majesties, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.


He marches his tiny army of 500 Spanish soldiers with 13 horses, and a handful of cannon into the interior of Mexico, where he lays siege to one of the then-greatest empires in the world – the Aztec, led by the second character in our story, the plumed emperor-god
Moctezuma II. 200,000 people live in Moctezuma’s capital city (four times larger than London), and he has thousands of battle-hardened warriors under his command.


With his tiny army, Cortes captures the Aztec capital city, and completely destroys it. Moctezuma is dead, and the sun sets on the Aztec Empire.  Within one year, the Spanish are on the Pacific coast. And Cortes is the undisputed ruler of Mexico.

A version of that tale appears in a lot of school history textbooks. The problem is that most of it is simply false because it leaves out a few very important details.

As is true of most things in life, the facts are far more complex. And more interesting.

1. Pre-Hispanic Mexico (18,000 BC – 1519)
Most of those same textbooks about Mexican history start with the Spanish conquest in 1519 – just as I did today. That cuts Mexican history short by about 20,000 years. The Spanish did not invade an unpeopled land. Tribes had settled in Mexico for millennia before Cortes showed up.

Over those twenty thousand years, several civilizations grew up and were either abandoned or destroyed by other tribes. Some were far older and more magnificent than anything in Europe. They existed at the same time as other great civilizations. Ancient Egypt. Babylon. The Roman Empire.

We know that these earlier civilizations existed because we can still visit their impressive monumental cities.

Their scientific accomplishments were as admirable as their architecture. The Maya developed the concept of “zero” in mathematics. All of the tribal civilizations learned to use astronomical sightings to help tame the vagaries of seasons to assist in growing their greatest development – corn.

Corn. And chilies. And tomatoes. All were developed amongst the civilizations of Mexico. Every ear of corn, every chili pepper, every tomato grown in the world came from plants that grew only in Mexico. The story of how the Portuguese spread them around the world is a tale for another day. 

Let me mention just one civilization because it once surrounded us here on the Costalegre.

The Western Mexico Shaft Tomb tradition, arising when the young pharaoh Tutankhamen was on the Egyptian throne. If you have visitors who want to see some of Mexico’s ancient ruins, you do not need to head off to Yucatan. We are surrounded by the remains of a civilization that was primarily nomadic, but which built monuments that can still be seen in Colima and just outside Guadalajara. The Colima state museum houses an interesting exhibit.

And so the cycle went millennia after millennia, century after century. Civilizations rose. Civilizations fell.

When Cortes arrived, there were about 150 tribes in what we now know as Mexico. Approximately
25 million people were living here in 1519. About the same number of people who live in modern Texas or three times the size of Quebec.

The most powerful tribe in 1519 were the Aztecs, who had built their capital city Tenochtitlan in the middle of a complex of five lakes in the Mexican highlands.

They did not call themselves Aztecs. Their tribal name was Mexica – the word survives as the name of the modern country. Through a series of alliances with other city-states around the lake, they had conquered or intimidated a large number of tribes, making them part of the Aztec Empire. And, as is true everywhere, building alliances also creates enemies.

OK. Someone show me the picture of an historical figure who lived before the Spanish conquest. His names is Nezahualcoyotl. And though he was part of the Aztec Empire, he was not a Mexica.


One thing I really like about Mexican banknotes is the wide diversity of personalities portrayed on them. Nezahualcoyotl is on the 100-peso note because he represents the pre-Hispanic era of Mexican history – living in the early 1400s during the golden age of the Aztec Empire. He never saw Cortes arrive.

He is on the note because he was a political leader. He was the Chief of the city-state Texcoco, the second most powerful city in the Aztec alliance. But he is also there because he was an artist. A poet.

One of his poems, translated to Spanish, is in small print under “Banco de Mexico” near the top of the 100-peso note. In English, it reads:

“I love the song of the mockingbird,
Bird of four hundred voices,
I love the color of jade
And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man.”

That is not exactly the type of sentiment we popularly associate with the Aztec Empire.

When the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs were at the top of their game. The Maya were fading. And the Purepecha were waiting to see what would happen.

2. The Conquest (1519-1521)

“What would happen” was worse than any of them could have imagined.

Cortes allied himself with one of the tribes, the Tlaxcala
, who hated the Aztecs enough to see that Cortes was the way to destroy their oppressors. The Tlaxcalans provided Cortes with thousands of warriors because the Tlaxacalans were a prime source of victims to use as human sacrifices to the Aztec gods. We might say their heart was in the fight.  

Cortes, with his Indian army, Moctezuma’s belief that Cortes was a returning god, and the unpredicted secret and natural ally of smallpox defeated the Aztec – and then tribe after tribe, using the same divide and conquer tactic, until Cotes had nominal control over most of what we now know as southern Mexico and much of Central America.

As a result of warfare, disease, and slave labor, more than 95% of the 25 million tribe members living in Mexico when Cortes arrived were dead within two decades of the Conquest. Only 1 million Indians survived the transition.

3. Colonial Period (1520-1810)

That brings us to the period where Mexico was part of Spain’s colonial empire in the New World – the Viceroyalty of Nueva España.

Like many immigrants, the Spanish families that migrated from Spain tried to re-create a society that reflected the best of their homeland.

The colonial Mexican towns had a distinct Spanish feel. If you have been to San Miguel de Allende or Patzcuaro, you have seen it most clearly in the architecture. Town plazas. Churches. Private homes. Government buildings. You could be standing in a small town outside of Madrid.

Who can show me the face of an historical figure who lived during Mexico’s years as a Spanish colony?


Take a look at the front of the note. What do you know by simply looking at the portrait?

She is a woman, a nun, a writer.

Her name is Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

If any of you have taken a Spanish literature course, you will have read works written by Juana Inés. Especially, her poetry. She is acclaimed as one of the great writers of the Spanish Golden Age of Literature.

But she is an interesting choice to represent the Spanish colonial period in Mexico. First of all, she is a woman. In the 1600s being a woman gave a person very few social rights. Worse than that, she was born illegitimate.

She did have one leg up, though. Her mother’s family was very wealthy. Juana Inés grew up in the hacienda of her grandfather. And, in that hacienda, there was a library that would change Juana Inés’s life – and Spanish literature.

She learned to read and write Latin by the age of three. She composed music. By eight, she was writing poetry. In her teens, she was known as a philosopher. She even learned to speak and write Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs).

The chief road for a colonial woman to get ahead in life was to marry well. But an illegitimate young woman who was far better-educated and more intelligent than most of the men who would court her, was not prime marriage material.

She briefly served as a lady-in-waiting to the wife of the Viceroy of New Spain. But she found it stultifying. When courtiers would propose marriage, she turned them down. She showed absolutely no interest in becoming a man’s wife.

Instead, she became the bride of Jesus by taking the only other social road open to her. The church.

She became a nun. In her convent outside of Mexico City, she acquired a library and set up a salon where the intellectual elite of Mexico City could meet.

Her writings could be very biting.

If you have not read any of her poetry, you can do it right now. A couplet from her “Philosophical Satire” is on the 200-peso note. In the same place as the poetry on the 100-peso note.

“Hombres necios que acusáis
a la mujer sin razón,
sin ver que sois la occasion
de lo mismo que culpáis.”

In English:

“O foolish men who accuse
women with so little cause,
not seeing you are the reason
for the very thing you blame.”

You can feel the acid dripping off of the couplet.

The church did not mind that this very intelligent nun was willing to write about feminism and controversial theology – even writing some rather explicit lesbian poetry. But the Bishop of Puebla was not going to allow her to attack the patriarchy – especially to call it incompetent and hypocritical.

He ordered her to get rid of her library, her compositions, and her musical and scientific instruments. She complied. Within a year, Juana Inés was dead – from the plague, contracted while attending her fellow stricken nuns.

Juana Inés is a noble figure. She seems almost modern. But she was an exception in the colonial period. There were other social tensions growing of which she was not a part.

Juana Inés’s sex and illegitimacy may have been a social handicap for her, but there was another that infected colonial life in Mexico

Spanish society was notoriously hierarchical. Being near the top of the pyramid mattered a lot to people who wanted to be successful.

The big social distinction in Mexico between people of European blood was whether they were born in Spain or whether they were born in Mexico. Men born in Spain had won the social lottery. All positions were potentially open to them.

That was not true of men born in Mexico of Spanish blood. The Spanish considered these criollos to be inferior to them. The criollos could serve in the church, but they could not be bishops. They could serve in the army, but they would never be generals. They could serve in government, but they would not reach the top of the greasy pole.

During the 300 years Spain ruled Mexico. Mexico was merely a Spanish possession, with the Spanish born in Spain riding herd on the rest of society. It was just a matter of time before the tension broke the order.

It happened when a group of criollos, who called themselves Americans (to distinguish themselves from Spanish-born Spaniards), decided enough was enough. In 1810, Mexico declared its independence from Spain.


4. War of Independence (1810-1821)

Ironically (considering the role the French would eventually play in Mexico’s history), it was the French who gave the Americans their excuse to break away from Spain.

When the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, put his brother on the Spanish throne in 1810, the Americans rose in revolt, joined by Indians and peons who had been abused by the Spanish system. It gave the criollos cover from charges of treason by providing plausible deniability to pretend they wanted independence to defend the deposed king.

It was a bloody affair where most of the Independence leaders died in battle or were executed as traitors.

Who can show me a hero of independence? Actually, there are two heroes on the currency. You have three possible notes.

Miguel Hidalgo on the 200- and 1000-peso notes, and Jose Maria Morelos on the 50.


Let’s take Miguel Hidalgo first.

He is portrayed on the 1000-peso note (that we fortunately do not see often here) and on the 200-peso note commemorating the bicentennial of Mexican Independence. I rather like that 200-peso note because its format is different than the other notes. It is printed in portrait rather than landscape.


But, let’s talk about Miguel Hidalgo – the man.

He is an improbable political hero. A criollo, he decided to take the church road to success. And things seemed to be going well for him. He became dean of the law school in Morelia. But, this seemingly traditionally-successful scholar priest had a rebellious side.

He was ousted when he revised the traditional teaching materials at the law school, scandalizing the rest of the teaching clergy. And there was a charge that often accompanies those who tend to be a bit edgy – allegedly, some funds went missing.

He also ran afoul of the Inquisition by having relationships with at least four women resulting in a brood of illegitimate Hidalgo babies. Rather than defrocking him for his deflowering behavior, the church sent him off to a remote parish church in Dolores, Guanajuato hoping they were rid of this bothersome priest.

In Dolores, he seemed to find his purpose by attempting to provide a better life for his Indian parishioners. He developed a scheme for his parishioners to plant grapes and olives. But both enterprises were a monopoly of the Spanish homeland. The government put an end to his plans along with other of his poverty-relieving  schemes.

In 1810 he became involved in a plot to seek independence from Spain. At first, the idea was to create a more liberal regime within the Spanish Empire. But, the conspirators were forced to act early when their plan was discovered by the Spanish authorities.

On the morning of 16 September 1810, he rang the village church bell to assemble his congregants.  He stood before them and called for independence -- the famous Grito of Dolores that is still re-enacted by governors and presidents across Mexico at midnight on 15 September. You can see the bell on the 1000-peso note.  

Events started out well. Hidalgo’s mob of rural farmers joined up with a regular army commanded by Ignacio Allende of San Miguel. But Hidalgo was clearly in charge. He still hoped that the empire could be reformed.

Town after town around Dolores joined the conspirators. Inevitably, a series of massacres followed including the deaths of Spanish men, women, and children who had taken refuge in a granary in Guanajuato. The mob had taken Hidalgo’s cry of “Death to the Spanish” quite literally.

It was now obvious that this could not be a reform movement. Full independence was the only option left to them. It was victory or death.

Then the whole enterprise fell apart. Hidalgo was scandalized by the slaughter he had initiated. And he lacked any sense of strategy or tactics as a military leader.

While marching toward Mexico City, Hidalgo faltered. He decided instead to set up an insurgent government in Guadalajara. Within four months of declaring independence, his army was defeated and scattered by the government forces. The leaders went on the run.

The four leaders of independence were captured and executed. The heads of Hidalgo, Allende, and two other leaders were hung on the four corners of the granary in Guanajuato where one of the worst massacres occurred. They would remain there until the war ended -- 10 years later.



The man on the 50-peso note, Jose Maria Morelos, took over the leadership of the independence insurgency. Like Hidalgo, Morelos was a priest. But he was not a criollo. He was a mestizo – of mixed Indian and Spanish blood. He was also a distant relative of Hidalgo. Both were descendants of Cortes the Conqueror.

And he was another of those fecund priests who managed to father children despite his vow of chastity.

Unlike Hidalgo, Morelos proved to be an effective warrior-priest. For five years, he fought campaigns that wrong-footed the Spanish. He was finally captured in combat, and executed before a firing squad in 1815.

Not only is he on the 50-peso note. But if you go to Patzcuaro, you can see a monumental statue of him topping an island in the middle of the lake. You can even climb to the top of the statue for a great view of the land once ruled by the Purepecha empire.

Other American leaders took up the cause of Mexican independence. But the war simply dragged on – as wars of insurgency do.

It was not until one of the unlikeliest figures of Mexican history showed up that Mexico would gain its independence – not from an American leader, but from the commander of a Spanish army.


Agustin Iturbide was a criollo who fought for Spain in the war. He fought so cruelly against the insurgents that he was temporarily relieved of his command.

Events in Europe changed the course of his career. A liberal government had taken control of Spain and there was concern the king, Ferdinand VII, would not only be reduced to a constitutional monarch, but that he would be deposed.

Ever a loyal monarchist, Iturbide and many of the leaders loyal to the king, decided to declare for independence, and to invite Ferdinand to become king of Mexico.

Iturbide met with the leader of the American forces, and struck a deal that Mexico would be independent and Mexico would have a monarch.

Iturbide was a hero. Had he retired to his farm, he would be remembered as the George Washington of Mexican Independence.

Instead, he stuck around Mexico City and had himself named as regent for the king across the water. When Ferdinand, having beat back the liberal assault on his royal privilege, showed no interest in accepting the crown, Iturbide took the fatal step of having himself named as the first Mexican emperor.

But, like Hidalgo and Morelos, he ended his life in front of a firing squad.

He does not appear on a banknote.

5. Post-Independence (1821-1857)      
 
Mexico had independence, but it did not have peace. Mexico would be torn by internal and external wars for another six decades.

Part of that dispute centered on how Mexicans would identify themselves.

There was a major political split between conservatives (who looked to Spain and Europe for political inspiration and favored a strong central government) and liberals (who looked north to the United States and to a mythical Aztec past for social and political ideals; they also favored de-centralized power – at least when they were not in power). Each group argued their position was the true Mexican identity.

These battles were not merely intellectual. They were also physical fights for political control.

6. War of Reforma (1857-1861)

And that brings us to one of the least-known events in Mexican history, but one of the most important: the War of Reforma. If you were ever curious about where the street on the corner got its name, it is from this period of Mexican history.

One of the goals of the conquest was to convert the native Mexican tribes to Catholicism. In the process, like other Spaniards, the church acquired property – property that had formerly belonged to the tribes. By the 1850s, the church owned 25 to 40% of Mexican land. Churches, convents, and schools, of course. But also a tremendous amount of income-producing land.

Between 1857 and 1861 Mexico’s liberals and conservatives went to war with one another over the question of what type of nation Mexico would be. One of the big issues was church property and land reform – thus, the name "reforma." The conservatives defended the church. The liberals wanted land reform based on confiscated church property.

And this is when a very unusual man comes on stage. Perhaps, Mexico’s most-loved historical figure. The leader of the liberals. Mexico’s first and only full-blooded Indian president.  Benito Juarez.

OK. Someone. Quick. Show me Benito Juarez. You have two possibilities. The 20-peso note and the new 500-peso note.


(Juat as a reminder, the 20-peso note is currently being withdrawn from circulation, and the new 500-peso note is replacing the Diego and Frida banknote. I have had several questions concerning how long the 20-peso note will be valid. There has been no official word. But local business owners say they are planning for one or two years. The Bank of Mexico will give due notice before they become little more than interesting souvenirs. At least, we hope the Bank will do that.)


Juarez is one of Mexico’s Horatio Alger stories. Born into poverty as a Zapotec, he got a boost from a Franciscan priest who saw the young man had great intellectual possibilities, and sponsored his schooling.

Rather than choosing the traditional route to success, the church, Juarez chose the law.  He married well, and became active in the liberal cause in his home state. That eventually led to his appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

When President Comonfort was forced to resign in 1858, the constitution designated the chief justice as interim president. An office Juarez would be elected to three times.

His terms as president were responsible for much of what we know as Mexico today. The church was stripped of its income-producing lands and some of its church buildings. The land was then distributed to the Indians from whom the church had taken the land.

Unfortunately, the reform did not last long. The new landholders eventually sold, or were forced to sell, their land to large landholders. When the next great land reform happened after the Revolution, the law entailed the Ejido holdings to prevent a similar failure.

Juarez also survived the years when another French emperor (Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew) put an Austrian archduke on the Mexican throne as Maximilio I.

Before we skip past the war of French Incursion, does anyone have a 500-peso note that pre-dates the Diego Rivera bill? We do not see them much anymore. They were last printed in 2005, but they still show up in change.

Do you have any idea who this man is? 


The note honors the man responsible for one of Mexico’s greatest military victories. His name is Ignacio Zaragoza, a liberal general who had served in Benito Juarez’s cabinet.

The year was 1862. General Zaragoza fought a defensive battle against a much larger French force at the first Battle of Puebla. And won decisively.

And I am willing to bet you know a few facts about that battle. In English, can anyone tell me the date of that victory? 5 May. And what is that date in Spanish? Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo is not merely an invention of Corona beer to sell more bottles. It is a celebrated day in Mexican history. At least, in Puebla.

What it is not is Mexico’s Fourth of July. And we know that because we just learned about the day of Mexican Independence when Hidalgo sounded his grito. And it is? 16 September.

Like one of those tragic characters in a Greek play, the hero Zaragoza never had to make way for a more-diminished version of himself. Soon after his victory, he died of typhoid. At the age of 33.

Events in Europe forced the French emperor to withdraw his troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilio to defend his throne with the support of Mexican conservatives. Juarez’s liberal Mexicans prevailed, Maximilio was executed, and Juarez resumed his position as president and continued the liberal reform movement.

He probably stayed in office too long. Eventually, a young liberal general by the name of Porfirio Diaz revolted against him when Juarez declared he would once again seek reelection.

Juarez put down the revolt, but he died soon after. The next 40 years of power would belong to Porfirio Diaz.

7. Porfiriano (1876-1910)
  
At the time of Juarez’s death, Mexico was economically poorer than it had been on the day it gained independence, and Mexicans had been killing one another for over 60 years. The people were tired of it. And that is one reason they tolerated the longest period of one-man rule Mexico has ever experienced.

The man who ruled Mexico for that period was the same general who rose in revolt against President Juarez’s authoritarianism. Porfirio Diaz. 


And though he was a liberal who opposed reelection, he was elected president for seven terms. I suspect Juana 
Inés would have had something to say about that level of male hypocrisy.
  
He was initially exactly what Mexico wanted -- summed up in the three words of his first political campaign: 
Peace
Order
Prosperity

The last was the most obvious. Prosperity. Foreign investors moved in. Canadian-run mines. British-owned oil. American-constructed railroads. It was Mexico’s industrial revolution. Mexico started to become a wealthy country on foreign money and debt.

But Porfirio Diaz eventually abandoned his liberal instincts to preserve his dictatorship. Industrial growth came at the cost of a loss of Mexican political liberty. What had started as a liberal economy soon froze out competition and created very concentrated wealth.

You will not find Porfirio Diaz’s portrait on a banknote. But he did provide the reason for Mexico’s most violent war. What historians consider to be “the most important event in Mexican history” – the Mexican Revolution.
 
8. Mexican Revolution (1910-1929)


In 1910, almost exactly 100 years after Mexico declared its independence, northern Mexico rose in revolt against Porfirio Diaz. The immediate cause seems almost trivial.

Porfirio Diaz said he would not seek reelection. When Francisco Madero, a wealthy northerner, believed him and ran for president, Porfirio Diaz changed his mind, had Madero arrested, and ran for another term – winning a transparently fraudulent election.

The Mexican people had had enough of him, and rose in revolution. Porfirio Diaz fled when the revolution began.

Madero was elected president and was then assassinated by one of his generals, who, in turn, became president and ended up in exile. A series of revolutionary leaders suffered the same fates – death or exile -- over the next ten years.

By the end of the revolution, 1,000,000 Mexicans were dead. Out of a total population of
15 million.

Note that number. 15 million people constituted the entire Mexican population in 1920. There were 25 million tribe members living in Mexico in 1519 when Cortes arrived. 400 years later Mexico’s population was only 60% of what it had been 300 years earlier. That is how cruel Mexico’s history had been to its citizens.

Who can show me a picture of a revolutionary leader? The man with the beard is President Venustiano Carranza.



This is a commemorative note issued in 2017 to honor the centennial of the Mexican constitution.

In many ways, President Carranza typifies both the virtues and failings of the Revolution. After President Madero was assassinated, Carranza was a wealthy rancher who led the northern Mexican army to overthrow the general who had seized the government. He was successful, and became president.

Probably his greatest accomplishment was the ratification of the Constitution of 1917. That is the event commemorated on the 100-peso note. That constitution (with a few amendments) is still in effect.

There was not total agreement amongst the leaders of the Revolution of what the war was meant to accomplish. That is one of the great accomplishments of 1917. It gave the leaders an opportunity to re-create the political structure of the country -- and to agree on some very important points. Even though two major factions, those supporting the views of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, were excluded from the convention.

The 1917 constitution radically altered the way Mexicans thought about governance, the Catholic church, and the activity of foreigners within its borders. Among other things, the constitution --
  • Established a system of free, mandatory, and secular education, thus restricting another traditional role performed by the Catholic church
  • Set up the foundations for land reform through the ejido system
  • Declared all mineral resources in the subsoil belonged to the state
  • Provided for liberal labor rights
  • Placed ownership of all property in the hands of the government and restricted foreign ownership of property near borders or on the coast
  • Increased the restrictions on the Catholic church beyond those of Juarez's constitution
  • Empowered the government to expropriate property -- land from the hacienda owners, and particularly property owned by foreigners
  • Prohibited the reelection of any official -- especially, the president

Carranza was responsible for the death of several revolution leaders – including Emiliano Zapata. It is with some justice, then, that he was assassinated for attempting to maintain power beyond his single term in office.

There is one last note that we have not yet discussed. Who has a brown 500-peso note? The 500-peso note that will soon be withdrawn from circulation.


This 500-peso note features the artists Diego Rivera on the front and Frida Kahlo on the reverse. Both were noted artists during their lifetimes – especially, after the Revolution. Frida, who some believe was the better artist, living in the shadow of her more-famous muralist husband.

If you have not been to the Frida museum in 
Coyoacán or have not seen Rivera’s murals in Mexico City, I strongly recommend that you go. In their work, you will find some of the Mexican soul. 

So, there they are. The people the Bank of Mexico believes embody the soul of Mexico’s history and what Mexico wants to be.

But new banknotes are on the way. During the next three years, the Bank of Mexico will be issuing notes featuring the stories of some new and some old Mexican heroes.

The first has already occurred. The Bank is withdrawing the 20-peso note featuring Benito Juarez. But he is not forgotten. His portrait now graces the new 500-peso note.

Be very careful about confusing the two notes. I have seen people try to hand over a 500-peso note thinking it is a 20. The 500-peso note featuring Diego and Frida will be slipping into banknote oblivion at some point. But, probably not soon. After all the Zaragoza note is still in circulation and is legal tender.

This year will see a new 200-peso note honoring Mexican Independence featuring both Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Maria Morelos on the same note.

In 2020 a new 1000-peso note will honor heroes of the Mexican Revolution, and the Miguel Hidalgo 1000-peso note will be withdrawn -- eventually.

In 2021, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz will move house to the 100-peso note.

And in 2022, the new 50-peso note will feature pre-Hispanic Mexico.

Somewhere along the line, the Bank will determine whether Mexico needs a 2000-peso note (featuring one of my favorite writers, Octavio Paz). If the note is issued, it will be a sure sign all is not well with the Mexican economy.

But new notes are always welcomed by me. Because it will be a good opportunity for me to update this talk in – say – another 10 years.

And we can gather again around the fireplace to sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings. Could someone throw another log on that fire?

Thank you for your attention.


Wednesday, January 09, 2019

who is that guy in my pocket


I apologize for not posting any essays lately. I have been busy researching, writing, and tracking down props for my contribution to our church's Cultural Awareness classes.

Or, at least, for the one I am presenting tomorrow (Thursday) at 5 PM at the Costalegre Community Church in Villa Obregon. .

Any of you who are in town on Thursday are certainly invited. It would be nice to meet some of you. Meeting readers is always a pleasure for me.

My topic this year is the men and women that the Bank of Mexico has chosen to put on its banknotes. And. because they are representative of each era of Mexican history, we will have an opportunity to discuss Mexico's history and how it has formed the country where we live.

That is why I have entitled my presentation: "Who is that guy in my pocket?"

If you plan to attend, I suggest a bit of easy homework. Take a look at the Mexican banknotes you have at home, and bring one note of each denomination with you. The possibilities are:

  • $50
  • $100 -- 3 versions (we will only discuss two)
  • $200 -- 2 versions
  • $500 -- 3 versions
  • $1000
And bring your questions. I will do my best to answer them. If I do not know the answer, I will try to find an answer for you.

I look forward to seeing you there.