26 April 2008

A serendipitous find.

Today my gal Gina and I went looking for Calle Allende #21 which is the address in Irapuato where the famous Mexican cigarette brand “Faros” was begun in 1918 by a man named Emetrio Padilla. We were disappointed to find that the original building had long since been replaced but as we were walking away I literally bumped into an old telephone post that was made from trolley rail and it apparently had been partially knocked over by some wayward vehicle. I took a closer look and found that the rail had been made in 1890 by the West Cumberland Steel Company. It just so happens that this telephone post is located only about twenty five feet from Calle Guerero (in other words, Guererro Street) and I remembered that a long time ago there was a tranvía (horse drawn trolley) running along the edge of Guererro. I checked it out in an old book and I found out that the trolley was built in 1913 and the rails were removed about 1935 after autos and buses made the horse drawn trolley obsolete. It is now obvious to me that when the rails were torn up they didn’t go away but were pressed into service to accommodate the needs of the growing telephone company.

The trolley rail itself has an interesting history. It came from the old West Cumberland steel mill in the town of Workington on the northwest coast of England. Workington was at that time the very center of English iron and steel production The West Cumberland mill produced rail from 1860 until 1901. Rail was shipped from the town of Workington to all parts of the globe and the people in England had a saying that "Workington rails held the world together". When I saw the rail and I made the connection I gave a shout and began snapping photos. The people around me on the street no doubt thought that I was a nut case but whenever I identify something that connects me with the past I guess I do get a little crazy. Anyway, the experience made my day and left me quite happy so what could be wrong with that?

21 April 2008

Faros ya chupó Faros

There is a famous saying in México that is used in reference to someone who has died. It goes, “Ya chupó faros y se fue al cielo”. In English it roughly means “He smoked his last Faro and went to Heaven” leaving no doubt that the poor guy met his final destiny and passed on to a new horizon. The name “Faro” means “Lighthouse” and it is the name of one of the oldest and best known brands of cigarettes in Mexico. In days gone by it was an “economical” unfiltered cigarette that was favored by the common worker, not so much because it was a good smoke, but mainly because it was strong and cheap. In fact, Faros were so strong that they were wrapped in rice paper that had been sweetened with sugar to make them more palatable and they were associated with a hoarse voice and an inevitable cough. Needless to say that the people who smoked Faros were not planning to live a particularly long life. Many people attribute the phrase “Ya chupó Faros” to the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1917. During this period a lot of revolutionaries were executed by firing squad and it was the custom to offer the condemned man a cigarette before the execution in order to calm his nerves. Since Faros was a popular brand the remark is associated with the last cigarette of the condemned prisoner. The thing is that Faros didn’t originate until 1918 which was a year after the Revolution ended. Nevertheless the Cristero War soon followed and in those days there were no shortages of executions by firing squad. These days the phrase “Ya chupó Faros” is so widely ingrained in the language and culture that it can also be applied to anything that has “died” such as a car, a television set, or a computer, etc.

The history of the tobacco industry in Mexico is old and colorful. Cigars and cigarettes were made individually by hand up until the 1880’s and sometimes women in the market place used corn husks to wrap the cigarettes and sold them in little bundles. The first man to really mechanize the cigarette making process was a Frenchman named Ernesto Pugibet. He was quite an enthusiastic character and a true entrepreneur. He came to Mexico after a short stay in Cuba where he learned a bit about the Tobacco Industry. He may have been attracted to Mexico by President Porfirio Díaz who at that time was urging foreign investors to participate in the development of Mexico and offered them guarantees and security. Señor Pugibet started out with a small shop in the center of Mexico City and later formed a company called “El Buen Tono”. The phrase “buen tono” can mean “good tone” as in “good tone of voice” or the “good tone” of a musical instrument but it can also mean “stylish” or “elegant”. After a few years of overseeing his workers make cigarettes by hand Señor Pugibet bought the exclusive use and distribution rights to a machine that would make cigarette paper tubes without gluing the seam from an associate named Anatolio Eduardo Decouflé. Up until that time making the seam in the cigarette paper was done individually by hand using various types of glue. The new machine stitched the edges of the paper seam together using tiny perforations and thus eliminated the need for the noxious glue an thus improving the taste of the cigarette while at the same time speeding up the fabrication process. From about 1890 on, the making of cigarettes individually by hand in small shops ended and the era of cigarette factories began.

By the year 1900 there were 743 companies in Mexico making cigarettes. By 1975 all of the cigarette manufacturers in Mexico had been consolidated into six companies;

La Moderna

El Águila

Tabacalera Mexicana

Fábrica de Cigarrillos Baloyán

Fábrica de Cigarrillos La Libertad

Cigarrera Nacional

The history surrounding the consolidations of Mexican cigarette manufacturers over the years is very complicated and difficult to follow. Sometimes events were mandated by economic difficulties and sometimes by nefarious circumstances and political intrigue. By the year 2000 all of the cigarette brands had consolidated under just three manufacturers;

Cigarrera La Moderna (Cigamod)

Cigarrera La Tabacalera Mexicana (Cigatam)

La Libertad (LL)

In 1918 a man named Emetrio Padilla established a company called “La Tabacalera Nacional” in Irapuato, Guanajuato (where I live) and he began producing the famous “Faros” brand. The Faros brand eventually ended up with Cigarrera la Tabacalera Mexicana (Cigatam). Cigatam was founded in 1907. By 1919 this company and its associate, El Buen Tono (with whom it merged in 1960) produced more than half of the national consumption of tobacco. Today, Cigatam and Cigamod (British American Tobacco) comprise 99% of the Mexican market for cigarettes. Cigatam is part of Grupo Carso which also owns Sanborns, Sears of Mexico, Condumex, and a host of other companies. The word “Carso” in “Grupo Carso” stands for Carlos Slim and Soumaya Domit de Slim (the deceased wife of Slim). Yes, that’s right folks…Faros, the one time favorite brand of the poor Mexican peon, is now owned by one of the world’s richest men. Not only that, but Cigatam is in partnership with Phillip Morris International who handles the cigarette marketing under a number of traditional popular brand names.

In 2005 Phillip Morris took Faros, one of the oldest and cheapest cigarette brands, and reintroduced in the market with a new presentation as a cult brand. The apparent intent is for Faros to be adopted by a young elite clientele with a taste for exclusive and authentic Mexican things that are retro and cool. The marketing people want to reposition Faros as underground and trendy in a youth market where cigarette brands communicate status. The only other time a change was made to the Faros brand was in the 50's, when a designer approached José María Basagoiti, the grandson of the Spanish immigrant who founded Tabacalera Mexicana and bought Faros from Emetrio Padilla . The designer pointed to a tiny detail in the picture on the Faros pack. The flags on the masts of the boat were flying in one direction and the smoke from the boat’s chimney was going in the other direction. Basagoiti decided to correct the picture but the shopkeepers began returning the cigarettes with the new packages as soon as they arrived. Their customers noticed the change right away and thought that the cigarettes were contraband or fakes. The picture on the pack had to be restored to the original version. Right then and there it became apparent how ingrained the Faros image was in the Mexican psyche. Phillip Morris wants to build on that image and transform it from a soft pack product of sixteen non filtered cigarettes that sold for three pesos per pack into an upscale product packaged in a tin of twenty oval shaped filtered cigarettes with one third less tobacco content that sells for twenty-five pesos per tin.

The new upscale Faros come in five presentations or “flavors”;


Morena de Fuego

Furia Tropical

Suspiro Esmerelda

Terciopelo Amarillo

I was able to find three of the five at my local Sanborns and you can see the pictures below. Since I don’t smoke I can’t really tell you how they taste. The “Clasica” is just a regular filtered cigarette, oval in shape (sorry, no rice paper) and it is supposed to taste something like a Marlboro. The “Morena de Fuego” supposedly tastes a bit like chocolate. The “Furia Tropical is reported to taste like tuti-fruti. The “Suspiro Esmerelda” is a menthol cigarette. As yet I don’t have a clue as to what the “Terciopelo Amarillo” tastes like. I have heard, however, that “Furia Tropical” and “Suspiro Esmerelda” are big sellers. I can only imagine what the poor bastards who smoked their last Faro before standing in front of a firing squad would think if they knew that their great, great grandchildren would be smoking tuti-fruti flavored cigarettes. I think that if they could still talk to us they would say, “¡Ah caray! ¿Cómo ves? Faros ya chupó Faros.

17 April 2008

The Pope & I

Pope Benedict and I are not personally acquainted even though we are both Catholics and have a mutual best friend in the form of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. I should even go a bit further and say that I have been quite wary of the Pope ever since he got the job. After all, it is kind of hard to cozy up to someone who has the nickname “God’s Rottweiler”. I am thinking that if he knew me personally he might even accuse me of being a “Cafeteria Catholic” (ouch!), picking and choosing the parts of Catholicism that I find most appealing to my personal lifestyle. Nevertheless, I find myself in total agreement with the Pope on several things. First of all I feel that both capital punishment and torture by “waterboarding” are wrong and they diminish us as a God fearing and civilized society. I also believe in the sanctity of all life and that includes the life of the unborn human fetus no matter what the argument is as to when the fetus actually receives a soul. Having said that, however, I must say that I believe in a woman’s right to choose just as Eve exercised her free will to choose to eat of the forbidden fruit and led Adam to do the same. To remove the free will choice of a woman or a man would be to make them less than human. The Lord said “Judge not lest ye be judged” and so I leave the consequences of free will decisions up to Him and to Him alone.

Here in Mexico the death penalty has not been applied since 1929, when the assassin of president elect Álvaro Obregón was executed. This was a pretty bizarre affair all in itself. Up until this time Mexico was no stranger to executions. It had just gone through the Mexican Revolution when death by firing squad was fairly common. After the constitution of 1917 was adopted there were many restrictive government policies imposed on the Catholic Church and this eventually prompted a widespread violent insurrection from 1926 to 1929 by Roman Catholics in a war known as the Cristero War. In 1928 Álvaro Obregón won a second term as president and after a bitterly contested election he returned to Mexico City to celebrate his victory. He was assassinated in a restaurant on July 17, 1928 by a guy named José de León Toral, a Roman Catholic who was vehemently opposed to the government policies on religious matters. In 1927 two of his friends, Humberto and Miguel Pro, had been executed after having been convicted of plotting to assassinate president Obregón. Because of this, and because of supposedly having been incited by a Catholic nun, Sister Concepción Acevedo de la Llata (who the press nicknamed La Madre Conchita), León Toral decided he should murder Obregón.

Two weeks after Obregón had been elected president, León Toral entered La Bombilla, a restaurant in San Ángel (a Mexico City suburb) during a banquet organized to honor president elect Obregón. León Toral was disguised as a caricaturist and he made a caricature of Obregón and showed it to Obregón, who told him the drawing had good likeness and suggested he continue. After Obregón turned around to sit down, León Toral suddenly drew a gun and shot Obregón five or six times in the back. Needless to say Obregón was definitely a “goner”. León Toral was arrested immediately and pleaded guilty, claiming he killed Obregón in order to hasten the establishment of the Kingdom of Christ on Earth. Madre Conchita was also arrested and received a 30 year prison sentence. León Toral was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad in February of 1929. His last words were ¡Viva Cristo Rey! (Long Live Christ the King!).

The guy named Miguel Pro whose death Leon Toral was avenging when he killed Obregón was none other than Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez, S.J., a Mexican Roman Catholic Jesuit priest. He had been executed during the presidency of Plutarco Elías Calles after trumped up charges of involvement in an assassination attempt against former President Álvaro Obregón. Father Pro was beatified by John Paul II as a martyr on September 25, 1988. I know, I know…it really gets complicated. That’s one of the reasons that the death penalty is wrong. The Mexican federal death penalty was abolished under the Mexican Federal Penal Code of 1930, and by 1975 all state codes also had eliminated the death penalty. It is said that sixty percent of the American people favor the death penalty and yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States voted to pave the way to make lethal injection an acceptable practice. Personally I don’t see how people can claim to be a Christian nation on one hand and on the other hand ignore our Lord’s admonition that “He who is without sin should throw the first stone”. I think that pro death penalty people are generally either vengeful or fearful. As far as vengeance is concerned, God has told us that vengeance belongs to him. So be it. Regarding fear, I remember the last words of Pope John Paul II. He said “Don’t be afraid” and I intend to take that advice with me all the way to the grave.

13 April 2008

El Gansito

There is a favorite icon in Mexico that is about as Mexican and as favorite as an icon can get. It is the “gansito” or “little goose” that appears on a single serving snack cake of the same name. It is also referred to as “El Gansito Marinela”, the “Marinela” being the name of the company that makes the snack cake. Marinela is a division of the giant Mexican bread maker Grupo Bimbo. Way back in 1954 Grupo Bimbo began experimenting with little snack cakes after the American style. In 1956 they formed a company called “Pasteleria y Bizcochos, S.A. The word “pastelería” means “bakery” in English and “bizcocho” means “sponge cake”. They called the company “Pabisa” for short. At first Pabisa sold little round orange, strawberry and chocolate “pastelitos” or “little cakes” under the brand name “Keik” which is a transliteration of the English word “cake”. The Spanish word for cake is actually “pastel”. At that time the little “cakes” didn’t sell very well. In those days Mexican only ate cakes at special occasions like birthday parties and weddings and they preferred to buy full size fancy cakes made in a bakery. After about a year of the “Keik” brand the brand name was changed to “Marinela” and the company began marketing full size bakery style cakes in boxes complete with candles and the matches to light them.

So, where did the name “Marinela” come from? It came from Marinela Servitje Montull who is the daughter of the founder of Grupo Industrial Bimbo, Lorenzo Servitje Sendra. He was born in Mexico City in 1918, the son of immigrants from Spain's Catalonian region. When his father died in 1936 he had to abandon his studies and become patron of "El Molino," his father's cake shop. In 1938 he opened his own bakery with his cousin, Jaime Jorba, and Jose T. Mata. Seven years later he started Panificadora Bimbo with Jorba, Jose Torrallardona and Alfonso Velasco, his brother Roberto, and his uncle Jaime Sendra. On July 4th, 1945 they formed the company Panificación Bimbo S.A. and on December 2nd of the same year they opened the doors of the first production plant in Mexico City. They adopted “Osito”, a little white bear as their logo and the whiteness of Osito stood for the purity of their products. Osita was created by Ana Mata, the wife of one of the original partners. In Spanish, the word “oso” means “bear” and “osito” is the diminutive.

In 1957 the Marinela Division gave birth to El Gansito Marinela. It is a snack cake that contains strawberry jelly as well as a creamy filling and it is covered with chocolate and topped with little chocolate “sprinkles”. The picture of “El Gansito” on the wrapper looked like a tall and rather slender goose wearing a scholar’s cap. It was designed by Alfonso Velasco, one of the founders of Bimbo. Over the years El Gansito went through a number of evolutions and today he looks more like a duck than a goose. He reminds me of the three nephews of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck named Huey, Duey, and Louie. In fact there is an interesting nickname for the snack cake. It is “pato al orange escolar”. The word “pato” means “duck” in Spanish and the phrase is a play on the famous high class restaurant menu item “Pato a la Naranja” which means “duck glazed with orange”. A “pato al orange escolar” or simply “Pato al orange” means the schoolboy version of the famous menu item which is a Gansito snack cake accompanied by an orange soft drink like “Orange Crush” or “Fanta”.

With the advent of television the “Gansito” commercial became quite popular and successful and at the end of the commercial the goose always said, “Recuérdame” which means “Remember me”. In the beginning, the Gansito snack cakes were delivered to the stores in little three wheeled motorized scooter conveyances called “Ganseras” and the men who drove them and delivered the Gansitos were called “Ganseros”. There is a nostalgia and a sub culture surrounding Gansitos just like there is for “Twinkies” in the United States. In fact, most of what we now collectively call “junk food” in English or “comida chatarra” in Mexican Spanish has roots and counterparts in both countries and they all got started about the same time. In Mexico, the equivalent of Twinkies are called “Marinela Submarinos” and the equivalent of Hostess Cupcakes are called “Marinela Pingüinos” The word pingüinos (pin-GWEE-nos) means “penguins”. They even have an equivalent for the famous American Moon Pie in Mexico. It is called the Gamesa Mamut. The word “mamut” means “mammoth”.

Just like everywhere else the people here are very particular about their snack foods. Many people keep Gansitos in their freezer and like to eat them very cold and would NEVER eat one after it had been warm and mashed flat. My gal Gina tells me that when she was a little girl her parents would buy Gansitos for her and her sister on Sundays if they had been good and it was always their favorite treat. They are a very rich treat indeed. Each Gansito bar weighs 50 grams which is only 1.76 ounces and yet it contains about 200 calories. If you are a little kid, however, and you have been good all week, and you are given one on Sunday, I am thinking that eating and enjoying a Gansito cannot possibly be sinful. In my case, however, after eating several Gansitos while writing this blog entry, I think I may be guilty of gluttony. I just couldn’t help it. The Devil made me do it.

06 April 2008

Muñecas de Cartón

Every spring around the time of Holy Week in Irapuato, Guanajuato, México where I live, there appear in the local market some peculiar dolls made of papier mâché. They are commonly called “muñecas de carton” in Mexican Spanish. The word “muñeca” (moon-YEA-kah) can mean either “doll” or it can mean “wrist”, as in the wrist that connects your hand with your arm, depending upon the context in which the word “muñeca” is used. The word “cartón” (kar-TOHN), however, can be misleading because the word “cartón” is generally associated with the English word “cardboard”. The phrase “muñeca de carton” is actually a short form of the phrase “muñeca de cartón de piedra” or “doll made of rock paper”. The phrase “papier mâché” is of French origin meaning “chewed” or “masticated” paper but it translates into Spanish as “cartón de piedra”. I have also heard these dolls referred to at various times as “muñecas de Salamanca”, “muñecas de carnival”, “Las Lupitas”, “muñecas de cabaret”, and unfortunately “muñecas de puta”. I say unfortunately because the phrase “muñeca de puta” means “whore doll” or “prostitute doll”. I have never actually heard anyone refer to them this way in Mexico but there are people from the United States who buy them for five dollars or less in México and sell them on E-bay for twenty-five dollars or more and refer to them by that disparaging name. How sad!

I used the word “peculiar” to describe these dolls for several reasons. For one thing, they only seem to be available in the spring of the year around Easter time. There are several sizes but no matter what the size they all seem to have come from the same general mold or they were all modeled after the same person. Most have dark painted hair but some have light brown or blonde hair and they have moveable arms and legs. They all seem to have the same face which is painted to look like a woman wearing a lot of makeup. They appear to be wearing an old style one piece bathing suit which is usually either green or lavender or blue with a bright circular design painted on the chest and incorporating a lot of shiny glitter. They usually have a necklace made of glitter and painted-on earrings. Sometimes there is also a woman’s name painted on the chest. Many of the ladies that I talk to who are fifty and older look at these dolls with great nostalgia and fondness because they remember receiving one almost every year at Easter when they were little girls. Being made out of papier mâché they were fairly bedraggled by the end of a year and so they were replaced annually by a kind mother and father. They didn’t cost very much so it was no great burden to the family. The boys would receive a broomstick horse with the horse’s head made out of the same material as the dolls were. In each and every case the people can describe to me how good a new doll or hobby horse smelled. They were made with a certain kind of carpenter’s glue called “goma de cola” which has a distinctive aroma that can evoke vivid memories. I have included below a photo of a muñeca that I bought recently and a photo of some muñecas that were made around 1930 or 1940.

I have not been able to come up with a complete history yet but that is part of the joy of being alive. Life is a journey and not a destination and I know that “poco a poco” little by little, I will learn more. I have been able to piece together a little bit about them. First of all, the papier mâché industry began to emerge and prosper in France and Spain in the mid 1700’s. In Spain there were two cities in particular, Valencia and Salamanca, where the making of figures from papier mâché became quite popular and still is. Eventually this practice spread to México and was particularly used for the making of effigies of Judas Iscariot that were blown up with fireworks and burned on Holy Saturday. I don’t know for sure, but I am guessing that the making of papier mâché dolls in the spring was associated with the making of these Judas figures since they used the same material and process in making them. One of the things that I have yet to learn is why these dolls are associated so much with the City of Celaya in the State of Guanajuato, not far from where I live. There are several families in Celaya who have been making these dolls for over one hundred years. The reason that the dolls look like they are wearing old fashioned, one piece bathing suits is because they are supposedly modeled after female circus trapeze performers. The circus became popular in México about the same time as it did in the rest of North America at the beginning of the last century and the appearance and costumes of the European style circus performers apparently took everyone by storm. These days there doesn’t seem to be much of a market for the dolls among little girls who would rather play with something more modern. The decline started in the 1950’s especially after the Mexican government put a halt in 1957 to the practice of blowing up Judas on Holy Saturday because the proliferation of fireworks was becoming too dangerous. I think there will always be a small market for the dolls however, as long as the women who remember them from childhood are still around…oh, yes, and probably as long as there is an eBay.

01 April 2008

Spring Flowers

When I was a kid in Chicago we used to say “April showers bring May flowers” and we even had a joke about it that went:

Question: If April showers bring May flowers then what do May flowers bring?

Answer: Pilgrims!!!

The thing is that here in Central Mexico the rains generally don’t come much before the feast day of Saint John the Baptist which is June 24th. That really is no problem however, because many flowers bloom here all year around (especially if you water them) because it NEVER freezes. In the upper half of the United States most people have to wait quite a bit longer for their flowers and it usually isn’t until Mother’s Day that the flower gardens really get going. You can watch Spring creep northward at the rate of about twenty to thirty miles a day and by the time the Cherry trees bloom in Washington D.C. everyone gets anxious for Spring. Some folks even get to pushing the season. That’s why opening day at Wrigley Field in Chicago is usually cold and dreary (and even more so when the Cubs lose). The average date of the last frost in Northern Illinois is about April 15th…at least it was until “Global Warming” came into vogue. I used to wait for it every year and I took note that in Chicago it was around April 12th when the leaves started to appear on the tees. It seemed like one day there weren’t any leaves at all and the next day everything started turning green.

I recall that when I lived in Topeka, Kansas it began to get warmer a little earlier than Chicago but not by more than about a week or ten days. We knew it was definitely Springtime in Kansas when the Redbud trees began to flower and the sight of a Redbud tree in bloom against the drab gray brown of the surrounding countryside would take your breath away. I was a beekeeper in those days and I was always delighted when I opened a hive in the Spring to see if my bees made it through the winter and I found bees filling the beeswax cells with yellow and red pollen. The yellow pollen was from dandelion flowers and red pollen was from the Redbud trees. The Redbud and the Dandelion are definitely God's gift to the honeybee. I also remember that there was a local legend about the Redbud tree. People said that originally the Redbud was a rather large tree with white flowers and that the cross used by the Roman soldiers to crucify Jesus was made from a Redbud tree. After the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ the Redbud never again grew large enough to be made into a cross and the flowers changed from white to red. From that day on, the Redbud was, and still is, the first tree to bloom in the Spring as a reminder the Resurrection and Eternal Life.

Here in Irapuato, Guanajuato where I live we have our own harbinger of spring called the Jacarnda tree (ha-ka-RAHN-dah). It is one of the first trees to bloom in the Spring and it has beautiful purplish blue flowers. It’s formal name is “Jacaranda mimosifolia” and I believe it is a native of Northern Argentina or Southern Brazil but now it can be found all over the world. There is another tree that blooms here about the same time or shortly after and it looks somewhat similar to the Jacaranda but it has orange flowers instead of blue. At first I was confused because most people here refer to both trees as “Jacarandas” but I found out that the orange variety is actually another species called “Caesalpinia pulcherrima”. Many people call it “Tabachín” but it is also referred to as “Framboyán” or “Flamboyán” or even “Flamboyant”. In any case I guess it doesn’t really matter much what you call the trees as long as you can enjoy them every year at Easter time and be reminded of the promise of another life that awaits us in the great beyond.

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.